28 September 2006

(S2O-10704) Drug Rehabilitation (North-east Scotland)

8. Mrs Nanette Milne (North East Scotland) (Con): To ask the Scottish Executive what the average waits are for drug rehabilitation and to enter a methadone programme in north-east Scotland. (S2O-10704)

The Deputy Minister for Justice (Hugh Henry): Average waiting times are not regarded as a particularly effective measure of the accessibility of drug treatment services. However, the most recent figures from the waiting times framework show that, in the north-east, more than 80 per cent of clients entered prescribed drug treatment within 14 days of being considered ready for that intervention. The figures for rehabilitation show that 79 per cent of those who entered rehabilitation did so within 14 days.

Mrs Milne: That is perhaps progress, but not enough. What action is being taken to improve the figures? Will the minister give a commitment to introduce an easily accessible online central directory of rehabilitation places like the one that is in use south of the border?

Hugh Henry: I suppose that grudging praise from the Tories is better than no praise at all. I am pleased that, despite her mean words, Nanette Milne admits that progress is being made. However, we have much more to do.

The issue of the central register has been raised on several occasions, and answers have been given on it. We are seeking to get as much information as we can about the facilities that are available throughout Scotland. Nonetheless, a much broader range of initiatives is required. We are trying to get behind the figures, and we need to ensure that there is better integration of services. Yesterday, along with Lewis Macdonald, I launched an initiative on improvements in quality standards. Better integration and understanding of services, better communication and better information all have a part to play.

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I know that the minister shares my deep concern about drug problems in Scotland. Will he give further consideration to ensuring that residential places that draw people out of addiction in the long term—methadone is generally merely a method of parking the problem—are stepped up as a key part of the strategy? Will he ensure that places are not left vacant in too many parts of Scotland, given that, according to Professor Neil McKeganey, more than half of addicts want to get off drugs rather than go through harm reduction?

Hugh Henry: Stewart Stevenson has raised a more complex issue. In fact, in suggesting that we expand the number of places while at the same time pointing out that some of the existing places are lying vacant, he has highlighted one of the contradictions at the heart of the matter. One problem is that the decision about when to send an addict to residential rehabilitation must lie with the professionals who are responsible for that individual. They assess the person's needs at the time and decide on the most appropriate course of action.

We must ensure that when someone is offered the opportunity of residential rehabilitation not only are they ready for it but the support facilities are available when they come back out. Some of the stories that my officials have heard on this matter are heartbreaking. For example, one individual had been in residential rehabilitation seven times, which clearly indicates that, in their case, it had failed. Indeed, it is a very expensive failure, and that use of resources probably means that other people were denied the opportunity of treatment. I have even spoken to people in Stewart Stevenson's constituency who have been in residential rehabilitation two or three times. It is clear that other aspects of this very complex problem need to be taken into consideration.

(S2F-2459) Scottish Prison Service (Budget)

5. Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Prison Service's budget represents good value for money. (S2F-2459)

The First Minister (Mr Jack McConnell): The budget allows the Scottish Prison Service to meet its performance targets and to invest some £1.5 million each week on the modernisation of the prison estate. The Prison Service also contributes to the Executive's efficient government programme and the cost per prisoner place has fallen from more than £32,000 in 2003-04 to just over £30,000 in 2005-06.

Stewart Stevenson: I welcome the slopping-out claims settlement offer that has recently been made, which will reduce the £80 million provision in the budget to a mere £40 million, which represents some 15 per cent of the operational budget.

I remind the First Minister that this disgraceful situation sprang from the £13.5 million budget cut that was made on 21 October 1999. When the convener of the Justice and Home Affairs Committee asked whether the cut would delay an end to slopping out, she was told by Jim Wallace:

"It is one of the results."—[Official Report, Justice and Home Affairs Committee, 14 December 1999; c 518.]

In Monday's edition of The Herald, Jim Wallace said:

"I cannot recall being advised ... that this ... would jeopardise the timetable for ending slopping out."
Was the Liberal minister wrong in 1999, was he wrong on Monday or was it the Minister for Finance—in other words, Jack McConnell—who was at the bottom of things?

The First Minister: I agreed with Jim Wallace when he said this week that that is a myth and that the position has been completely misrepresented since that time. The reality of course is that a positive choice was made back then to ensure that the money that was in the budget was spent on tackling drugs and drug crime in Scotland. The result of that is record levels of drug seizures; record numbers of drug criminals caught; more criminals having the proceeds of their crimes taken from them and reinvested in the community; and a drug enforcement agency that is the admiration of the rest of Britain. That is the proud record of the devolved Government. The Scottish National Party might have disagreed with the choice, but it was wrong and we were right.
Categories [Justice]

14 September 2006

(S2O-10506) Oral Question - Central Heating Programme

5. Cathy Peattie (Falkirk East) (Lab): To ask the Scottish Executive how many homes in the FK postcode area and in Scotland have had central heating installed in each year since the introduction of the central heating programme; whether more detailed information and monitoring of the programme will be undertaken, and whether, now that the programme is to be administered by Scottish Gas, any additional safeguards are to be introduced to protect the public. (S2O-10506)

The Deputy Minister for Communities (Johann Lamont): Since 2001, the central heating programme has installed 1,600 systems in the FK postcode area as part of a total Scottish figure of over 51,000 installations. In the interests of brevity and, if the member is content, I shall write to her with the detailed breakdown of the number of installations in each year since 2001 and place a copy of that information in the Scottish Parliament information centre.

As regards the new managing agency contract, performance will be monitored independently with monthly reports to Communities Scotland. The contract also sets improved standards for the level of service provided to applicants.

Cathy Peattie: I would welcome that written report. Will the minister tell me how many applicants will be prioritised to ensure that the greatest need is met first? We know that there is a long waiting list for the service. Will the minister assure me that assessments will cover all needs, and that people will not be subjected to demands for additional money before the work starts, as happened to one of my elderly constituents who was asked for £150 upfront because the contractor felt that she needed another radiator?

Johann Lamont: We should welcome the central heating programme as a good news story; £62.5 million is being spent from October 2006 to March 2008. It is a good example of the partnership working between a Labour Government and a Labour-led Scottish Executive that is committed to addressing fuel poverty.
There have been challenges as the programme has progressed. Written into the contract with Scottish Gas is an expectation of improvement in customer care. We are mindful of that and have drilled into its importance with the support of members from across the chamber who have raised the challenges experienced by vulnerable people. The purpose of the programme is to protect vulnerable people. That is the challenge to Scottish Gas, and I am confident that our targets will be met.

We are looking at targeting those with greater needs but, by definition, the whole group at whom the initiative is aimed is vulnerable. We must be careful that we do not prioritise inappropriately, as we recognise that the group as a whole is in great need.

John Scott (Ayr) (Con): The minister will be aware that funding has not been available to the central heating programme since the spring. Can she assure the chamber that sufficient funding is now in place to allow Scottish Gas to deal with the backlog and waiting lists that have built up since the spring, especially in my constituency, to allow those who are eligible for the scheme to have new central heating systems in place before the winter sets in?

Johann Lamont: It is entirely reasonable that we should seek to get the best benefit from the huge investment that has been made in the programme. There was not no money from March this year. A target was given to Eaga Group for 6,000 central heating systems to be installed, and the new managing agent is charged with the responsibility of installing an equivalent number in the next period. There has been no break, although we recognise that there is a backlog. We reckon that, when we go into the assessment, that will reduce by 30 per cent. We are on target to meet the overall target that we have set for the year. There have been some challenges in the interim, and we are addressing those. We want to ensure that we get the maximum benefit from this significant investment for the people who need it most.

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): The minister will be aware that, even at the current high prices, gas is one of the most cost-effective fuels with which people can heat their homes. In the light of the appointment of Scottish Gas as the managing agent, has the Executive encouraged that company to supply gas to the many rural towns and villages that currently have no access to it even though, in my constituency, they are within a few hundred metres of gas mains?

Johann Lamont: The contract that we have with Scottish Gas is to deliver our highly popular, hugely invested-in programme. We know what the challenges are around that, and those are issues that Stewart Stevenson can address with Scottish Gas. The core business between Scottish Gas and the Executive is the central heating programme, not addressing the other issues that exist. It is critical that Scottish Gas takes on the responsibility of delivering that huge benefit to people throughout Scotland.

John Swinburne (Central Scotland) (SSCUP): Is the minister aware that there has not been a smooth handover from Eaga Group to Scottish Gas and that the Executive's excellent free central heating scheme has been held back? If a person needs a repair, they are told to wait six months. Six months from now, they could be a statistic in the figures for winter-related deaths.

Johann Lamont: Let me make it clear that the purpose of the programme is to improve the central heating infrastructure of people's homes; it is not intended to be a substitute for measures to assist people in crisis with specific heating needs. Those problems are not addressed through the programme. It is a general programme, and members across the Parliament agreed that it should be a general programme rather than a targeted one, given the needs of the people whom we are talking about.

We have charged the managing agent to consider the particular issues of people with health needs to determine whether there are ways in which the programme can be accelerated. However, as I have said, there are challenges in that, given the nature of the group that we are discussing. We recognised that the transition would cause some problems, but we will meet our overall target as we have met it in the past. Indeed, in the past year, we overreached our target by 1,000 installations, with 14,000 systems installed. That is clearly a good news story despite the challenges that individual constituents face.

Cathie Craigie (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth) (Lab): I agree that it is a great programme. An awful lot of people in my constituency have benefited from it.

I am pleased that the Executive has taken on board some of the management issues that members have raised in the past. I visited a constituent earlier this week, and I was appalled to see the state of the central heating system that a company had installed. Can the minister assure me that, under the new contract, the managing agent will inspect work before it pays the contractors?

Johann Lamont: There is an inspection regime. People in my constituency have raised with me their experiences of central heating installations, which have not been what we would expect. We have to challenge that. The fact that the programme is free to the person who receives the system does not mean that it is free. It is an active political decision by the Executive to deliver funds to the programme, and those who install the systems should show those customers the same respect that they would show anyone else.

The fact is that the programme has given a boost not only to elderly people, but to the people who run businesses installing central heating. They should take this opportunity with both hands and prove that they can carry out quality work. I am glad that many have done so; however, I feel that individuals should not have to suffer the disappointment that Cathie Craigie has described. The critical point is that this is a good programme for individuals and the challenge for those who get the opportunity to carry out such work is to prove that they can deliver work of the highest quality.

7 September 2006

(S2O-10465) Bail Supervision

1. John Farquhar Munro (Ross, Skye and Inverness West) (LD): To ask the Scottish Executive whether there are any plans to extend bail supervision throughout Scotland. (S2O-10465)

The Minister for Justice (Cathy Jamieson): All local authorities are provided with Executive funding for bail information and supervision schemes. In order to improve the way in which such schemes work, we will undertake a short review of those who do not currently provide a full bail supervision service. That will be completed by the end of the year.

John Farquhar Munro: The minister will agree that bail supervision could play an increasingly valid role in providing courts with a robust and cost-effective alternative to remand, as well as reducing overcrowding in our prisons. Will the minister consider increasing the use of bail supervision throughout Scotland, in particular for those who are accused of minor offences?

Cathy Jamieson: It is important that we have a range of options. In the interests of public safety, it is important that some people who have committed serious offences are remanded. However, we have increased the funding that is available to local authorities for the provision of bail information and supervision schemes from just over £300,000 in 1999—when the schemes were first piloted—to around £1.1 million in this financial year. It is important that we look at how those schemes are working.

I want to ensure that we have a range of options in place. Of course, bail can never completely replace custody. As I have mentioned, there are some instances in which remand is necessary. Nonetheless, it is important that we consider how such schemes operate and that we have them in place across Scotland.

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): In advance of next week's debate on the Criminal Proceedings etc (Reform) (Scotland) Bill, will the minister tell us whether she is minded to ensure that people who breach bail are seen to be punished for breach of bail? She will recognise that there is widespread public concern about the current operation of the bail system.

Cathy Jamieson: It is important that anyone who is subject to bail conditions—whether the standard conditions or specific conditions that have been imposed by a court—recognises that they have been put in a position of trust by the court. They have a responsibility to stick to the conditions of the scheme. It is for the courts to decide what such conditions are and what would be an appropriate action to be taken if there was breach of bail. However, I am on record on several occasions as supporting strongly the notion that we cannot increase confidence in our justice system if people feel that they can break bail and flout the conditions of the court because nothing will happen to them. It is, nonetheless, for the court to make those decisions.

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