Analysis: the year in justice – policing issues overshadow the justice brief yet again
A court - Image credit: Pixabay
Try as it might, whatever positive work the Scottish Government is doing in the field of justice, it keeps being upstaged by something happening in Police Scotland. And this past year has been no different.
The trigger for the most recent controversy was the handling of allegations of gross misconduct that emerged last July against former Police Scotland chief constable Phil Gormley, with five different sets of complaints eventually under investigation by the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (PIRC).
Although Gormley was never suspended, he was granted leave after a second misconduct investigation was launched in September.
However, when he was recalled by the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) in January, it emerged that neither PIRC nor Gormley’s stand-in, then DCC, now chief constable, Iain Livingstone, had been informed of the return, nor had arrangements been put in place for staff who had made complaints.
Speaking exclusively to Holyrood, Livingstone said: “That is a draft press release that has not gone beyond Mr Gormley’s lawyers and the SPA, but it makes mention of me, and it makes mention that the SPA had made arrangements to support the welfare of all involved parties. That’s not true.”
The questions over return to work led then justice secretary Michael Matheson to intervene, something that he had to defend against criticism of political interference.
He told MSPs: “To those who wish to criticise my actions, let them consider this, had the chief constable returned to work on the 10 November, and had it then transpired that no consultation had taken place with any of the relevant interests, and further, that I had failed to ask any questions about that, I suspect the criticism would be harsher.”
While Nicola Sturgeon was entirely supportive, this probably influenced her decision to move him sideways into a new cabinet secretary post.
Along with the appointment of former Labour MSP Susan Deacon to chair the SPA, with a new chief executive announced and Iain Livingstone now appointed as the new chief constable, she will hope this draws a line under the whole affair.
But while issues with Police Scotland and the SPA seem to have died down – for the moment – railway policing remains something that Matheson may have been glad to hand over to his successor, Humza Yousaf.
Police Scotland was due to take over the functions of British Transport Police (BTP) in Scotland on 1 April 2019, but the timescale was first extended indefinitely, after Police Scotland warned the date could not be met without compromising public safety, and now Yousaf has announced that he will “re-examine all options” for devolution of railway policing.
Despite a bill being passed by parliament last year to approve the merger, there have been ongoing concerns about the plans over a number of issues, from merging pay and pensions, the loss of specialist skills, issues with cross-border working to the lack of the kind of specialist IT systems that British Transport Police has.
BTP officers have repeatedly complained about not being heard.
Nigel Goodband, chair of the BTP Federation, which represents BTP officers, told Holyrood: “We’ve heard a triple-lock guarantee on many occasions, but it is a statement without any substance and that, after two years, is quite frustrating, and it’s causing anxiety, it’s creating an element of anger amongst officers and there’s an element of distrust.”
But while much heat and headlines were generated by policing, there have been some positives, and changes were afoot in other areas of justice too.
Following years of campaigning, the UK Government decided to highlight the benefit of having Tory MPs for Scotland by lifting VAT from police and fire services in Scotland, although Nicola Sturgeon called the refusal to backdate the VAT rebate “disappointing”.
A broader definition of domestic abuse was accepted when MSPs passed the Domestic Abuse Act, which now includes psychological abuse and coercive control within the bounds of abuse.
Meanwhile, levels of domestic violence have remained at “unacceptable levels”, Michael Matheson said, with the latest figures recording 58,810 incidents, an increase of one per cent from 2015-16.
Drug deaths, too, have been at record highs and attempts by Glasgow to set up a drug injection room have not been supported by the Home Office.
At the beginning of 2018, the Scottish Government announced in the Programme for Government that the presumption against short-term sentences would be increased from three-months to a year and following this, the Management of Offenders Bill was introduced to parliament, heralding changes to the balance between prison and community sentencing.
The bill paves the way for increased use of electronic tagging, as well as drug and alcohol monitoring and reduced disclosure times for criminal convictions.
There are likely to be some changes as it progresses, with the Scottish Conservatives calling for breaches of tagging to be made a criminal offence after finding that one in five prisoners breaches a home-detention curfew.
In a first for the Scottish Parliament, opposition parties united to repeal the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, with Labour’s James Kelly leading the move that was also backed by the Conservatives, Greens and Lib Dems.
Then community safety minister Annabelle Ewing said: “While this is clearly disappointing, we must respect the will of parliament.
“It’s important now that all parties build consensus on the next steps required to mitigate the impact of this decision on vulnerable communities.”
But sectarianism clearly remains an issue. This came to the fore again in July when a priest was attacked outside his church in Glasgow as an Orange march passed by, and around half of recorded religious hate crime is committed against Catholics. The matter will be dealt with as part of wider legislative changes concerned with handling hate crime.
Lord Bracadale, who had been asked to conduct a review of hate crime legislation, published his final report in May. He recommended adding new statutory aggravations relating to gender and age.
However, the report said that no new legislation was required to deal specifically with online hate crime or with offensive behaviour at football matches, because they could be prosecuted under existing laws.
This is clearly going to be an area of work over the next year, with the Scottish Government promising to use it as the basis for further consultation and Nicola Sturgeon specifically mentioning it in relation to the appointment of Humza Yousaf.
And with reported disability hate crime increasing by 50 per cent in a year, and two-thirds of LGBTI people reporting that they have experienced some form of abuse, it remains an area that needs some work.