Your thoughts on justice system safeguards are needed

Under the current legal system, evidence is required from at least two different and independent sources of evidence in support of each crucial fact before a defendant can be convicted of a crime. The Scottish Government wants to abolish this requirement.

I have written here before regarding the serious concerns that were raised by many in the legal establishment and politicians when the Scottish Government brought forward their bill to abolish corroboration without also proposing safeguards to insure that our justice system is a fair one.

As a result of these widespread concerns Kenny MacAskill, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, was forced to establish a review to analyse what additional safeguards would be required were corroboration to be abolished.

That Review, established in February 2014 and led by Lord Bonomy, has now made suggestions as to what safeguards could be put in place. These could involve changes to guidelines for police evidence gathering, confession evidence, jury size and verdicts. And now the Review is asking the public for their views, to help inform its thinking ahead of its final report to the Scottish Government, which is due next April.

It is incredibly important that we have the right checks and balances in place before consideration of a removal of corroboration is decided.

We rely on our justice system in many different ways, and interact with it for a variety of different reasons. And we need to have faith in the integrity of that system.

That is why this review is so important – and why the expert group needs to hear from people across South Scotland.  The thoughts, experiences and opinions that you share can only help the process, and help ensure that the recommendations made in April are the right ones.

The consultation period will run from 14 October to 28 November 2014. During the consultation period, the Review will also be holding public meetings in Inverness, Aberdeen, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Hamilton.

For more information on the review, the public meetings, and details on how to respond to the consultation click here.

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No more light…

Yesterday’s debate went – to some extent – as expected.

I had set the motion to use some of the limited time Scottish Labour has to debate issues in the Chamber to raise again issues surrounding accountability of the police. The motion focussed on the lack of leadership shown repeatedly by the Cabinet Secretary for Justice on issues surrounding policing. As a consequence of the numerous crises handled or caused by the Justice Secretary – particularly his recent demonstration that he either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about the issues of concern regarding the accountability and governance being exercised at Police Scotland – the motion did include a call for the Cabinet Secretary to leave the justice portfolio.

As a result, my colleagues and I were accused of trashing police officers, trying to undermine the police and trouble making. I reiterated the issues that I have raised consistently over the last two years in the Chamber, in Committees, in correspondence and in the press -that accountability and effective governance for the police service is crucial and at present is insufficient.

We flagged up these issues as the legislation which created the single police service and single fire service was working through Parliament. Colleagues and I proposed amendments to the legislation to improve local and national accountability, scrutiny and ensure effective governance. These were largely rebuffed or watered down by the Cabinet Secretary.

I can only imagine, therefore, that those accusing me of trouble making have extremely short memories.

Strong governance and effective accountability are essential for policing by consent – our model of policing – to work at its best. That is what has been missing during these last two years. To ignore it is a dereliction of duty and why I believe the Cabinet Secretary should have gone.

 

Posted in Armed Police on Routine Duties, Debates, Justice, Parliament, Scottish Labour, Shadow Justice Secretary, Single Police Force | Leave a comment

Flooding in New Cumnock

Last night I held a public meeting at the New Cumnock Community Centre about flooding.

This was the third in a serious of meetings which began after numerous and considerable concerns were raised after the severe flooding in New Cumnock on 30 December last year.

The first sought to hammer out exactly what had happened, what caused the flooding and what damage was done. The second was an interim meeting where relevant agencies told the community about their action plan to address the causes. And last night’s meeting was to be an update on progress and to outline what else has to be done to protect local people as we enter the rainier and colder months.

However, on Sunday night there was significant rain fall in New Cumnock, which led to more flooding. This fact gave an added impetus to our meeting. It also showed to what extent the works already carried out have worked – and more importantly what else is required to help this community moving forward.

It was a very productive meeting and I am grateful to all of the representatives from organisations like East Ayrshire Council, TranServe and SEPA who came to update us; and to all the people who came to the meeting, especially those who came despite being affected by Sunday night’s flooding.

I think that we are making real progress; and my office will do all it can to ensure that continues.

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Policing in Scotland

Today Police Scotland have announced that armed police officers will no longer be allocated to routine calls. Armed police officers will now only be deployed to calls where there is a threat to life or to firearms incidents.

I welcome this announcement.

Constituents in South Scotland, along with many other people across the country, have expressed their concerns about police officers – with guns on their hips – being seen dealing with everyday matters.

Last Friday COSLA, the local authority umbrella body, passed a motion opposing the policy of armed officers carrying out routine patrols. This motion was yet more evidence of the concern that exists across Scotland about armed officers on routine duties, and will surely have contributed to the timing of today’s announcement.

As a result of Cosla’s decision, I tabled a question to ask the First Minister at FMQs tomorrow. Although today’s announcement makes the First Minister’s response to my first question predictable, I hope – rather than expect – for a thoughtful response to my main concern about accountability.

There are many issues that need to be addressed:

  • How did we get to a situation where armed police officers were being sent on routine calls?
  • How did we get to a situation whereby armed officers, even in light of today’s announcement, have a standing firearms authorisation?
  • How has it come to pass that this fundamental change in policy has been made without the awareness, and therefore without the scrutiny, of the Scottish Police Authority, the body which was established to scrutinise and ensure good governance and accountability.

The Cabinet Secretary received a private briefing from the Chief Constable over 18 months ago but the Chair of the SPA didn’t have a conversation with the Chief Constable until 25 June this year. Who, if anyone, was holding the Chief Constable to account for this policy change?

There are still a great many questions and I would like at the very least an acknowledgement from the Scottish Government that they understand the seriousness of the issues involved here.

If not tomorrow, Scottish Labour has debating time next Wednesday and I would hope to use at least some of it to raise these issues and questions again.

Posted in Armed Police on Routine Duties, Justice, Single Police Force | Leave a comment

Public Meeting on Flooding in New Cumnock

On Monday 6 October, I will be holding a public meeting in New Cumnock Community Centre. The meeting is about local flooding and will be third meeting we have held.

We have representatives from East Ayrshire Council, SEPA and Transerve attending to talk about what has been done already and what is left to do to deal with local flooding.

The meeting will start at 7pm and I hope that we will have as good a turn out as at previous meetings.

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Call for evidence on armed police carrying out routine duties

Do you have a view on armed police officers carrying out routine duties?

If so, the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) wants to hear it. The SPA has launched a call for evidence on armed policing – they have invited a wide range of interested parties to submit views and provide evidence. However, they also want members of the public to give their views.

These views will inform the SPA’s recently announced scrutiny inquiry which will assess the public impact of Police Scotland’s decision to allow a number of specially trained armed response vehicle officers to carry visible firearms on routine patrols.

The SPA are seeking views on: 

  • what the level and nature of public concerns are over the current Police Scotland policy in relation to the standing firearms authority;
  • how effectively Police Scotland are engaging with the public and considering the impact on communities in implementing their approach;
  • how Police Scotland can best address any public concerns and provide necessary reassurance to communities, and;
  • what, if any, lessons might be learned around how operational decisions with wider strategic or community impact are communicated to national and local oversight bodies and other key interests.

I am aware of the strong feelings that many constituents have on this issue. I would encourage everyone who wants to express a view to do so. This is such an important issue – there has been a fundamental change the way police operate. Views should have been sought in advance of such a change, not after, but it is important that people have their say.

If you wish to participate, click here for more information. The consultation closes on 17 October 2014.

Posted in Armed Police on Routine Duties, Consultation, Shadow Justice Secretary | Leave a comment

The people have spoken

The campaign surrounding the independence referendum has been intense and energising. It has been at times fierce, but clearly engaging. Never before have we seen such figures of participation in an election or referendum. That participation, of so many millions of voters, has been as inspirational as it has been impressive.

And now the people have spoken, with over 3.6m votes cast, giving clear support for Scotland staying within the United Kingdom. It is important to recognise that a significant number – 1.6m people – voted for Scotland to leave the UK, and that those people will be profoundly disappointed by the result. However, it is also important that with this vote a decision has been made, and a clear one at that. We all need to come together now for the benefit of our country, and the people who live here.

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Childhood Cancer Awareness Month

While the referendum campaign builds to its climax, I wanted to draw attention to another issue.

In the UK 1,600 children aged 15 and under are diagnosed with cancer each year. Cancer is still the single largest cause of death from disease in children and young people in the UK.

Every day, 10 children and young people in the UK hear the shocking news that they have cancer. Treatment normally starts immediately, is often given many miles from home and can last for up to three years.

However, as if it wasn’t difficult enough to have to deal with the diagnosis and treatment – a third of children with cancer experience bullying when they return to school.

This month is Childhood Cancer Awareness month – CLIC Sargent are joining forces with many other charities to raise awareness of the impact that childhood cancer has on families across the UK, and is calling on the public to wear a gold ribbon to show their support for those families coping with childhood cancer.

Although many people do not realise just how difficult it can be, not only emotionally but also financially and logistically to be and to care for a child with cancer – there is overwhelming support that people affected should have access to all the different support that they might need.

CLIC Sargent provides vital emotional, financial and practical support to the thousands of children diagnosed with cancer each year – supporting children and families from diagnosis and through treatment.

The campaign is asking for your support – and to wear a gold ribbon to show that you support the work that is being done to help children with cancer and their families.

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Stranraer Academy Project

Last week I was at Stranraer Academy for the launch of an exciting project.

I have been working with Stranraer Academy for a number of years. In addition to visiting the school for meetings and Q&As, I have held school surgeries; encouraged distinguished guests - including the Chinese Consul General - to come to the school to speak to pupils; and I ran a year-long parliamentary project which, among other things, saw three pupils come to the Scottish Parliament to meet with parliamentarians and officials to discuss the work of the Parliament and how it related to them.

Building on this work, last week we helped to launch an initiative which will see interested school leavers gaining experience and possible employment with a construction company.

Dumfries & Galloway Housing Partnership (DGHP) currently has a significant development program to build new houses with Crudens in the west of the region including Stranraer, Monrieth, Newton Stewart and Wigton.

There has been a desire from politicians, Stranraer Academy and DGHP to connect this large scale building program to training and employment opportunities for school leavers coming out of Stranraer Academy.

18 school leavers have signed up for a training course with Dumfries & Galloway College. This course is a general taster course and will give some experience of a number of construction trades including joinery, plastering, plumbing and brickwork. The course runs for 23 weeks and the candidates will leave with a BTec qualification

During the course the College will provide some on-site training (on placement) and candidates will be targeted at their area of interest in the construction industry. Candidates will also be provided with 8 weeks on site experience with Crudens, giving them an insight into a real world working environment.

The school leavers have already been through an interview with the college. However, all the students will have an additional interview at the end of the course. This interview will be for a job with Crudens.

It is intended that 6 candidates will be recruited. Officials from the College will work with the other students to help to find other work or further training or courses.

As well as gaining construction experience and qualification the candidates will also gain some extra benefits and training including First Aid, Health and Safety and Customer Service

The College is funding the majority of this course from their own budgets (around £55k), however, an additional £16k is being provided by DGHP and the Scottish Government. Without this, the course would not be able to run. DGHP will also be helping to fund the travel expenses for those students who would otherwise struggle to participate in the course. And DGHP are also providing clothing and the candidates with a first set of tools to get them started.

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Scottish security

In the last few days, the issue of security and defence has come to the fore in the referendum campaign, and not before time.

Those who regularly read this blog will know that I have repeatedly tried to get details on the SNP Government’s plans for security and defence. This began well before publication of the White Paper in November last year and, even now, detailed information remains elusive.

When I asked parliamentary questions in May about the plans for the organisational structure of the new Scottish security and intelligence service; the ability of that new organisation to deliver on the crucial responsibility of keeping Scots secure from day one, as well as work with the other countries that we rely on; and crucially the costs involved, I was staggered by the responses.

Information is often tough to come by from this Government, but I can only conclude that in regard to the costs of setting up their proposed new security and intelligence agency, which is supposed to replace GCHQ, MI5, MI6 and apparently provide an improved service for Scots, the Scottish Government either have absolutely no idea how much it will cost to set up or they’re refusing to tell us.

Despite spending £1.3 million on the independence White Paper, the only thing that they will say about the cost of a new security service is that it will be a ‘small proportion of an independent Scotland’s total budget’. They also admit that they have no idea how many staff would need to be recruited and how long it would take to adequately train them.

Given this, it is unsurprising that Sir David Omand, a former head of GCHQ, has called plans for security arrangements in an independent Scotland “fundamentally flawed” and General Sir Richard Shirreff, the former deputy supreme allied commander in Europe, has said that he finds the white paper defence plans “amateurish, unrealistic and lacking any clear strategic purpose.”

The focus of much of the campaign so far has been the economy – both personal and national – and that is understandable. The money in our pockets; paying the mortgage/rent; and the levels of our pensions are all incredibly important and we need to know what will happen.

However, there are some things that we take for granted and because so much of the work to secure them is done in the background most people haven’t been talking about them during the campaign. Things like security. MI5, MI6 and GCHQ all work to protect our security and collaborate with police and others to help keep us safe. I do not believe that enough consideration has been given to what will happen – and needs to happen – in the event of Scottish independence to ensure that Scots are kept safe. I do not believe, given the lack of information provided in responses, that the Scottish Government have made appropriate and necessary contingencies for our safety. And I do believe that this is a fundamental dereliction of their duty.

Posted in Independence Referendum, Justice | Leave a comment