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Q&A: Justice secretary Humza Yousaf on developments in digital justice, court backlogs and better minority representation

Humza Yousaf - Image credit: David Anderson/Holyrood Magazine

Q&A: Justice secretary Humza Yousaf on developments in digital justice, court backlogs and better minority representation

Apart from coronavirus, what is the most significant thing that has happened within your portfolio over the last year?

I think it would be unfair to single out one thing as there have been a good number of positive policy developments and achievements – driven by frontline professionals and support staff across the justice system and in community safety over the last year. 

A few weeks ago, Police Scotland revealed that hundreds of thousands of hours of officer time had been freed up by the rollout of new mobile technology, which the Scottish Government was able to support with additional capital funding. Our investment in this innovative mobile technology has had a transformative effect on policing across the country, allowing officers to increase their focus on engaging with the public and keeping our communities safe. 

Over the last year police, prosecutors and the courts have been using Scotland’s ground-breaking domestic abuse laws to bring to justice those who torment others with controlling behaviour and psychological abuse. I am proud Scotland led the way with this law, which uniquely recognises the effect of domestic abuse on child victims as well as adults.

We also delivered on our policy aims to consider extending the presumption against short prison sentences – this led to parliament approving our policy of extending the statutory presumption to 12 months or less, once additional safeguards for victims in the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 were in force. The extension of the statutory presumption is crucial to encouraging full consideration of community-based alternatives to ineffective and often counterproductive short-term prison sentences.

 

There are fears about the backlog in court cases, which were already piling up before the virus, and will now be further delayed. What lessons can be learnt from the delays to address this in the future, and has the pandemic changed how courts will operate in the years to come?

Like all organisations, the courts have had to follow public health guidance to protect the safety of judiciary, staff and other court users, and I know the resultant delays to cases have had an impact on litigants, victims, witnesses and those accused.

These are challenges being faced by jurisdictions around the world and there are no easy answers. The Scottish justice system should be given great credit for the swift, collaborative and innovative way they responded to the pandemic, which I hope will result in lasting improvements for years to come.

The rapid adoption of new digital approaches has been the major significant feature I think will be a very positive legacy of the past few months. For example, remote hearings have begun in several courts and Scotland was recently one of the first jurisdictions in the world to run summary trials conducted entirely in virtual courts.

 

While prisoner numbers have a dropped a little recently due to the early release scheme and court cases being delayed, they have in general stayed stubbornly high, including people sentenced to less than a year, despite the presumption against short-term custodial sentences and the expansion of electronic monitoring. How are we going to make progress in reducing prisoner numbers?

There has been no single driver of the rise in the prison population in recent years and, equally, there is no single solution to this. The prison population has reduced significantly since March, largely as a result of the downturn in court business and the early release arrangements under the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020. However, in light of the continuing arrival of new remand prisoners and the gradual reopening of the courts, we must continue to monitor the population and ensure that its reduction is not short lived.

Prior to the pandemic, this government took a number of steps to help increase the use of community-based interventions, which are often a more effective and appropriate way of dealing with offending behaviour, and to reduce the use of imprisonment. These included both extending the presumption against short sentences last year – the effects of which will take some time to filter through the system – and legislating through the Management of Offenders (Scotland) Act 2019 to allow for the wider use of electronic monitoring. The latter will, once fully implemented, be an increasingly important part of community justice delivery. 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.  

We have also made a considerable investment in community justice services, with funding for community interventions rising to just over £104 million in 2020-21. And have encouraged a focus on expanding the use of diversion from prosecution, bail supervision and structured deferred sentences.

New changes to home detention curfew (HDC) were made in the spring to help ensure timeous consideration of those eligible for early release from prison with an electronic tag. Those built on changes to risk assessment processes that were improved over the last year. HDC continues to be a useful process, allowing appropriate individuals to be given the opportunity to serve the final part of their custodial sentence on a tag. This gives prisoners the opportunity to return to the community in a controlled way, as well as reducing the pressure on prison capacity. A number of prison processes including HDC were affected by lockdown, but recovery work means we can start to move closer to normal running and I expect HDC numbers to continue to rise.

Over the coming weeks and months, we will consider what further action may be required to both reduce the use of imprisonment and maintain a lower prison population. We need to enable a further shift from short custodial sentences in particular to more effective community-based interventions, which will help reduce re-offending and keep communities safe while freeing up capacity in our prisons to support the rehabilitation of those on longer-term sentences. This was a key aim of this government before the pandemic and is more important now than ever if we are to sustain an effective and safe prison system.  

 

In December 2019, Scottish Police Authority chair Susan Deacon resigned, citing “fundamentally flawed” accountability arrangements. How confident are you that the SPA is working effectively and any problems have now been resolved?

I am privileged to see close at hand how effectively the officers and staff of Police Scotland work to keep our communities safe. I also have the privilege of working closely with the Scottish Police Authority and am seeing the progress being made within the organisation under the strong and steadying leadership of both the vice chair and interim chief executive.

In January, the then auditor general for Scotland, Caroline Gardner, commented that we needed to look at the whole system of governance and accountability of policing in Scotland, how it is operating and that we do not continue to solely focus on the SPA. I am confident that current frameworks allow for good governance, but I also want to ensure that we are doing everything we can to be continually improving across the justice system.

In February I chaired a successful meeting bringing together key stakeholders who each have a role within the whole-system governance and I am pleased with the work that continues to be achieved to support Police Scotland to play such a critical part of keeping communities safe during the outbreak and lockdown.

 

Coronavirus has highlighted the case for the right to a home and the right to food to be incorporated into Scots law along with other human rights. Is this something the Scottish Government plans to take action on?

The Scottish Government is committed to finding ways to give further effect to internationally recognised human rights, particularly economic and social rights. The First Minister’s Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership recommended a new human rights framework for Scotland, with a wide range of human rights, one of which is the right to an adequate standard of living, including a right to adequate food and to adequate housing. The National Taskforce for Human Rights Leadership is undertaking a wide range of engagement with public bodies, civil society organisations and others to determine what will go into the framework in relation to specific rights.

On the critical issue of children’s rights, the Scottish Government is seeking to fully and directly incorporate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) into our domestic law to the maximum extent of the Scottish Parliament’s powers. A bill will be introduced to parliament this year. Article 27 of the UNCRC provides for the right to adequate standard of living

As cabinet secretary for justice I see directly the impact of homelessness. For example, despite efforts to prevent it, a disproportionately high number of people sent to our prisons are homeless or end up homeless again after they are released. One of the positive developments during the coronavirus was the swift work to complete information-sharing agreements which were being developed between the Scottish Prison Service and local authorities so all local authorities would receive weekly reports of the prisoners due to return to each area in the coming months. This will help local housing officers to plan ahead so they can ensure more people get access to appropriate accommodation after their release and prevent them from becoming homeless. These stronger arrangements were also a big help to the joined-up work that prisons and local services did to support people being released from prison early, under the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020, when swift action was needed to control the prison population so we could maintain the safe operation of our prisons during the pandemic. 

 

With calls for more diversity in the Scottish Parliament, what do you think needs to be done to elect more people from BAME communities, including women, before next year’s election?

It is a real collective failure on all of us that not a single woman of colour has been elected in over 20 years of devolution. This has to change come the next Holyrood elections. Very simply, there has to the political will from parties across the political spectrum to increase the diversity of our parliament. My own view is that this won’t be achieved without some element of positive action; we need concrete measures to change the status quo.

All political parties have work to do to encourage more diversity. Currently, the Scottish Government works with Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights to deliver a minority ethnic political shadowing scheme. It was established to address the severe under representation of BAME individuals in the Scottish political arena.

We have also worked with the Equal Representation Coalition to develop an online tool allowing any member of a political party to measure how well their party is doing in a range of areas. It will then produce an equality improvement plan for them. Examining all areas of party life, from the culture of meetings through to selection processes and manifesto writing, the tool recognises that improving representation has to happen at all levels of politics, not just elected office.

YWCA Scotland’s ‘Young Women Lead’ programme is another great initiative that the Scottish Government supports. It aims to increase young women’s political participation using model committee sessions as a way of engaging them in the work of the parliament. A really positive step that YWCA Scotland took was to make sure that one of the groups of young women to benefit from the programme were all from a minority ethnic background. I hope that among them there are some MSPs of the future.

 

Other than seeing friends and family, what did you miss most during lockdown or what did you most look forward to doing after lockdown was lifted?

I am a foodie! I don’t drink, so my social activity of choice is eating out. As soon as it was allowed, I went to my favourite steak restaurant. It was worth the wait…

 

If you had to spend lockdown with one other member of the cabinet, who would it be and why?

John Swinney. In lockdown I have put on weight from snacking too much while at home. If I was with John, he would have dragged me out of my bed to join him for his 5am run in the mornings! He is also a great source of advice, and I think we have all needed the advice of a colleague or two during these most unusual and hectic of times.

Read the most recent article written by Staff reporter - Q&A: Alex Cole-Hamilton on the health of the nation

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