A just way forward: Q&A with the justice spokesmen
Holyrood speaks to the justice spokesmen for the SNP, Conservatives, Labour, Greens and Liberal-Democrats about policy issues ahead of the Scottish Parliament election
Q: What do you think should be the key priorities for justice policy during the next session of the Scottish Parliament?
Humza Yousaf (SNP): One of the key priorities is how to tackle the high rate of imprisonment and reduce reoffending. The population has reduced recently, largely because of the downturn in court business and the early release arrangements introduced during lockdown. Prior to the pandemic, we took steps to help increase the use of community-based interventions and to reduce the use of imprisonment. These included both extending the presumption against short sentences and legislating to allow for the wider use of electronic monitoring. We will be exploring both the situations in which this service can be used and new technological capabilities, such as the potential use of GPS technology and alcohol monitoring.
Liam Kerr (Conservative): Our top priority would be victims of crime. The SNP have consistently been soft on crime and prioritised criminals over victims. In their latest budget, the SNP cut victim/witness support by £500,000 but increased support for offenders by £2.3m. The Scottish Conservatives would put victims and public safety first through our Victims Law which will strengthen victims’ rights during parole hearings and temporary release applications; empower judges to give whole-life custody to Scotland’s worst criminals; end automatic early release; implement Suzanne’s Law and Michelle’s Law principles.
Neil Bibby (Labour): Improving support for the victims of crime, tackling the backlog of court cases, strengthening local policing to respond to the needs of local communities, more resources going into the prevention of crime and anti-social behaviour locally and meaningful progress towards the eradication of violence against women and girls. Everyone should have confidence in the justice system and that means access to justice and action on the inequalities and attitudes that can drive offending.
John Finnie (Green): The huge backlog in criminal trials means that many victims will rightly feel aggrieved. The innovations brought into the court process must be made to appropriately prioritise cases and accelerate the overall process. We also want to see the ‘Barnahus’ model brought about to ensure that children’s interests are at the forefront of our justice system. If we are genuinely committed to access to justice, we must also ensure we get the issue of legal aid sorted, particularly for civil cases.
Liam McArthur (Liberal-Democrat): Too often, Scotland’s justice system can create more problems than it solves. Victims say that the experience of court can be worse than the experience of crime itself. Delays to court processes need to be urgently reigned in, and victims and families need to be at the centre of reform. The Fatal Accident Inquiry system needs reviewed and reformed, so that it can help provide more timely answers and ensure opportunities to learn lessons are not lost. With our prisons bursting at the seams, we also need urgent action to reduce a prison population that is amongst the highest anywhere. We must build more confidence in robust, properly funded community-based alternatives to prison.
Q: The pandemic has impacted all aspects of government and caused disruption to people’s lives. Do you expect COVID-19 to have a lasting legacy on crime and justice?
HY: Unfortunately, there is now a significant backlog of criminal cases and with the ongoing physical distancing restrictions, cases are taking longer to come to trial and the number of people held on remand has increased. This creates downstream impacts on community justice services and prisons. That’s why we have developed proposals to recover, renew and transform Scotland’s justice system in the wake of the extensive disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
LK: Yes. The pandemic has exposed the SNP’s under-resourcing across the justice system starting with the police. Furthermore, the backlog in court matters caused by endemic under-resourcing – already unaddressed and unsustainable prior to the pandemic – has become so bad that it could take years to clear. And the SNP’s disrespect and lack of understanding of the court staff and legal professionals has been writ large throughout and shows no sign of changing.
NB: There wasn’t sufficient investment in justice or policing before the crisis. For years, victims of crime have been let down by delays, largely due to the SNP government’s failure to properly resource the justice system. Those delays have been exacerbated by COVID-19. Scotland’s victims deserve better. Justice that leaves both victims and the accused hanging in the balance is no justice at all. Our justice system can’t run on a shoestring. It needs to be properly resourced and it needs to modernise, using new digital methods, to ensure swift access to justice.
JF: I think there may be a positive legacy that suggest that change and innovation don’t take years. Rather, properly assessed positive change can take place quickly. The biggest negative legacy is going to be a backlog of work for our court system.
LMc: Delays and repeat adjournments were already an entrenched part of court cases. Scottish Liberal Democrat research revealed that 50,311 cases breached the 26-week caution/charge to verdict target in the year before the pandemic struck. That’s around one in three cases. The pandemic undoubtedly made this worse, and now the backlog is forecast to last until 2025 at least. With problems of this scale to deal with, Scotland needs a government that will put recovery first, with a needle-sharp focus so victims aren’t further traumatised by systematic delays.
Q: Scotland has the highest rate of drug deaths in Europe. What measures can be taken in a justice sense to help tackle this crisis?
HY: Although justice has a role to play, particularly in taking enforcement action against those who supply and distribute drugs that blight our communities, the government’s approach to tackling drug deaths is a public health response. Our national mission will be backed by £250m over the next session of parliament. This will support investment in community-based interventions. Drug legislation is reserved to the UK Government and is now over 50 years old. My colleague Tommy Sheppard has published a private members’ bill to enact the recommendations of the Scottish Affairs Select Committee inquiry into problem drug use, a series of reforms including decriminalising possession of small amounts of restricted drugs for personal use and ensuring that overdose prevention facilities can operate legally. The passing of this bill would ensure excessive drug use is no longer treated as a criminal justice matter, but as a health emergency.
LK: We have the most impact by getting in early. Steps must be taken to help deal with first time drug offenders – to ensure that their first time is also their last time. We must help problem drug users off drugs and support them back to a functioning lifestyle. But to do this adequate rehabilitation is required. The Scottish Conservatives repeatedly called for £20m funding to go into residential rehabilitation and welcome the long overdue announcement of more funding. But we still need to see more focus on abstinence-based recovery programmes from the SNP.
NB: The rate of drug deaths in our country is a national mark of shame and it is a scandal that it has risen to these levels. We need to treat drug use as a public health issue and to fully utilise diversion programmes, ensuring vulnerable drug users are getting the treatment they need and aren’t exposed to unnecessary court action, allowing police resources to be directed fully at preventing the harmful dealing of drugs in our communities.
JF: We must start to view drug deaths from a health policy, rather than a justice perspective. Scotland must have control of all drug legislation to permit positive action to ensure a full suite of harm reduction and education, such as safe consumption rooms. I’m pleased by the recent additional monies to assist in reducing the death toll, however, there’s no one thing that will stop the deaths. Education needs enhanced; stigma needs to be addressed. Addiction is a health condition and early support is vital.
LMc: By hiding behind the constitution as an argument for not doing more, SNP ministers needlessly delayed taking the decisions necessary to begin turning around this shameful situation. The Scottish Liberal Democrats recognise with such a complex and deep-rooted problem, it will be important to bring to bear a range of measures, backed by appropriate funding and ongoing political support. This includes a Scotland-wide network of heroin assisted treatment, unambiguous support for the principle of diversion and to implement the pilots that have been shown to work in places like Thames Valley and Wales, diverting people away from counter-productive interactions with the criminal justice system. There is also clearly more that can be done with safe consumption facilities.
Q: We’ve seen violent confrontations in England recently amid claims there has been an erosion of trust between the police and public. Do you think there has been a similar problem in Scotland?
HY: No. Police Scotland’s approach to policing has been consistent and followed a common sense approach right throughout the pandemic. Given the importance in Scotland of policing by consent, Police Scotland recognises that the use of such exceptional powers should be the subject of full transparency. A survey of over 22,000 people published last year found that 63 per cent of people agree or strongly agree that they have confidence in their local police.
LK: No. During the pandemic, Police Scotland has largely stuck to its constructive ‘Four Es’ [Engage, Explain, Encourage and Enforce] approach which we support. The Scottish Conservatives have always been clear we need to back our police with the appropriate resources so that they can fulfil their duties. A disturbing trend in Scotland in recent years is the rise of assaults on officers, which more than doubled since 2015-16. As part of our Victims Law, we will double the maximum sentence for assaulting an emergency worker to two years and end the SNP’s presumption against prison sentences of 12 months or less to ensure that criminals are properly punished for committing such an appalling crime.
NB: Recent events in England have tested the relationship between the public and the police. Every police force across the UK has come under scrutiny and rightly so. Policing by consent is the cornerstone of policing in our country. There must be mutual trust between all parts of the community and the police. The police UK-wide still have a lot of work to do to build relations and trust and it would be foolish to imagine that we don’t have similar work to do here in Scotland.
JF: Recent surveys suggest increased trust in the police, and I don’t doubt this is the result of the manner in which they have engaged. It would be wrong to be complacent or to not recognise that there is a part of any nation’s population that simply don’t trust the police, regardless of what they do or how well they conduct themselves.
LMc: Policing during the pandemic has undoubtedly been a challenge, right across the UK. Incidents like the celebrations by Rangers fans in Glasgow clearly gave rise to tension between the police and the public. Overall, however, there has been broad public support for the approach taken by police officers in Scotland, which has generally been seen as proportionate.