24 June 2004

(S2F-949) Scottish Prison Service (Senior Management)

5. Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Executive has confidence in the senior management of the Scottish Prison Service. (S2F-949)

The First Minister (Mr Jack McConnell): Ministers expect a high level of performance to meet our objectives of public safety and reduced reoffending. I am confident that the Scottish Prison Service can meet its responsibilities in contribution to those objectives.

Stewart Stevenson: Does the First Minister think that a higher level of performance is needed? It is intolerable that the SPS management has sat for four years on a proposal to address slopping out at HMP Peterhead. Is the First Minister aware that, in 2002, Richard Simpson was told by the SPS that permission to visit a French prison could not be obtained while simultaneously I—an Opposition back bencher—obtained such permission, including permission for the then Deputy Minister for Justice to visit that French prison? Does the First Minister agree that it is entirely unacceptable that the head of the Scottish Prison Service could not answer entirely predictable questions from the justice committees in 2002 and is learning nothing in 2004? Is he aware that my concerns are shared across Parliament and that progress cannot be made in the prison service without effective management?

The First Minister: Over recent months, we have made it perfectly clear that we expect improvements in, for example, the handling of the prisoner escort services contract, which has been the subject of much debate in the chamber and elsewhere. Responsibility for those improvements lies with SPS management just as much as it does with the company concerned. That is also true for other areas.

I am determined that we will have the highest levels of performance in the management of all our agencies and departments, and the Scottish Prison Service should be no different from the others.

Miss Annabel Goldie (West of Scotland) (Con): In relation to that prisoner escort contract, the First Minister will be aware that the chief executive of the Scottish Prison Service recently confirmed to the Justice 2 Committee that the contract between Scottish ministers and Reliance was not signed off by Scottish ministers, who we now know knew nothing whatever about what was going on. The contract was signed off not even by the chief executive of the Scottish Prison Service, but by an anonymous and unknown director of finance within the Scottish Prison Service. Presumably, if she had been around, the Scottish Prison Service tea lady might have signed the contract. Is the First Minister satisfied that that is an acceptable and responsible discharge of Scottish ministerial responsibility?

The First Minister: As the Minister for Justice made clear at the committee, the arrangements for decisions on contracts are being reviewed by the Executive. That is happening in response to this incident and to other concerns that have been expressed by ministers and Parliament during recent years. It is entirely appropriate that we should do that. Circumstances that might have seemed to be appropriate when the Scottish Government was run by Whitehall might not necessarily be appropriate for the post-devolution period. The Parliament and Executive operate in a much more transparent and accountable way than ever existed before. That is one of the primary reasons why the relationships and involvement of ministers in the agreement of contracts, the knowledge about contractual decisions, the negotiations that have taken place and the implementation and monitoring of contracts have to be reviewed, and that is being done.

Colin Fox (Lothians) (SSP): Mr Tony Cameron, the chief executive of the Scottish Prison Service, describes the SPS as

"an arm's length agency of the Scottish Executive".

Who is responsible—Tony Cameron or the First Minister—for the record numbers of prisoners in our overcrowded jails, for the fiasco that is the privatised prisoner escort service and, above all, for the wretched record on slopping out that has blackened Scotland's international name and record on human rights and which means that we might have to endure another decade of this procedure in our jails? Is it not the case that the First Minister's policy failures are at the root of the Scottish Prison Service's problems?

The First Minister: The management of the Scottish Prison Service is responsible for management and operational matters, but ministers are responsible for policy matters and the judiciary is responsible for sentencing. On Mr Fox's first point, the judiciary is responsible for the sentencing of those who become prisoners in our jails. Ministers are responsible for the prisoner escort contract, because we are determined to get more police officers out of the courtrooms, away from such duties and back out on the beat, working in communities. In relation to slopping out, past Governments of all colours in Scotland have to take some responsibility for where we are. It is worth recording that when the Conservative Government decided to end slopping out in England in the 1990s, and allocated the resources to do that, the Conservative Scottish Office did not do so. That is one of the reasons why we are where we are today.

Mr Keith Raffan (Mid Scotland and Fife) (LD): Is the First Minister aware that certain parliamentary committees have not had a happy experience in dealing with the Scottish Prison Service? That was particularly the case when the Social Inclusion, Housing and Voluntary Sector Committee in the previous parliamentary session, under the convenership of Ms Curran, undertook an inquiry into drug misuse and deprived communities. Will the First Minister ensure that the SPS is far more open and transparent in its dealings with parliamentarians?

Will the First Minister also ensure that drug treatment in prisons is stepped up? We need to learn far more about what prisons are up to, because such treatment is crucial in breaking the cycle of reoffending and in helping drug addicts into recovery.

The First Minister: I want to make it clear that I expect all Executive and agency officials who appear in front of parliamentary committees to be as helpful and informative as possible.

It is important that we have good and improving drug treatment facilities both in our prisons and in the community. Part of our problem is that, although drug treatment facilities in Scotland's prisons have improved, the improvements that have taken place in such facilities in the community have not happened fast enough to ensure that those who come out of prison and those who could perhaps avoid going to prison in the first place are able to receive treatment in the community and thereby avoid entering a cycle of crime and reoffending. Improving that must be our objective and we hope to make further announcements on that soon.

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab): As a member of the Justice 2 Committee, I, too, have had an interesting experience with the Scottish Prison Service. In the light of that, does the First Minister agree that the framework document covering the relationship between the Scottish Prison Service and the Executive needs to be the subject of a fundamental review, which must go beyond contractual arrangements and consider wider governance issues?

The First Minister: I am interested to hear that Jackie Baillie has had an interesting experience with the Scottish Prison Service—I hope that she was not detained for too long.

The framework document will be reviewed within the next 12 months. Parliament will be kept informed of progress.

Stewart Stevenson
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