Speech on Home Detention Curfew Scottish Parliament 12 March 2008

We are debating a serious issue, so I was disappointed by the previous speaker's tone and by the intemperate approach of the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, who seems not to want to engage with hard issues and who was reluctant to accept the compromise that was proposed in the Justice Committee.

It does not help to suggest that there is a division between people who are for prison and people who are against prison, because that is false.

The issues are difficult.

The cabinet secretary's failure to understand the importance of building confidence is fundamental.

He claims that he wants to move to greater use of appropriate community sentences.

If he wants communities to sign up to that approach, it is ill advised for him to refuse to agree to a moderate proposal to keep a watch on the issue that we are debating.

It is argued that individual cases make bad law.

However, people's experiences can illuminate a situation and reveal flaws in a policy approach that seems logical in theory.

In that context, I mention my constituent Mr Armstrong, whose case illustrates why people do not have confidence in the system and why ministers should be willing to compromise on HDC.

In brief, Mr Armstrong was convicted of a serious assault and was sentenced to just less than four years in prison.

His family, friends and neighbours have campaigned for proper consideration of the circumstances of the assault for which he was convicted.

Mr Armstrong alleges that the person whom he was convicted of assaulting was threatening him with a 14in knife and smashing the windows of his vehicle, and that there was a history of reported disorder in the community.

The family asserts that Mr Armstrong was a repeat victim who acted in self-defence and who did not have confidence in the police's ability to respond to the circumstances.

Perhaps that is a mark of the failure of earlier intervention to deal with disorder.

The deepest irony is that Mr Armstrong's alleged assailant was tagged for other offences but was free to appear in the vicinity of Mr Armstrong's home and cause alarm while Mr Armstrong was in prison.

Mr MacAskill is fond of talking about keeping "flotsam and jetsam" out of prison.

In the case that I described, who is flotsam and jetsam and who deserves to be in prison?

The crude division that Mr MacAskill likes to present does not apply; the reality is that neither party is flotsam and jetsam.

We must address people's actions and deal with them seriously, but in so doing we must be careful to understand the context of offending, which might involve a person's being a repeat victim. Such matters must be properly taken into account.

I am delighted that Mr MacAskill has agreed to meet me to pursue the issues, and I hope that he will confirm his willingness to accept from the family the massive petition in support of Mr Armstrong.

The issue matters because community safety is paramount.

We need to know that home detention curfew works.

They cannot be used as a crude attempt artificially to keep prisoner numbers low.

We do not want huge prisoner numbers, but we need to know that risk assessments are done on the basis not of keeping numbers down but of ensuring that a person is safe to return to the community.

People do not have that confidence, because the cabinet secretary will not agree to a sunset clause so that there can be proper consideration of the issue when more prison spaces are available.

The cabinet secretary's reluctance to compromise stems from his predetermined view on prisoner numbers.

He cannot confront the challenges to do with funding new prisons, but that is what Governments must do.

He wants to relieve pressure on prisons, but he must not do so at the expense of putting greater pressure on our communities.

I am troubled by his reluctance to compromise and by his willingness to engage in a crude debate rather than accept that he can reduce prisoner numbers only if our communities feel safe and have confidence that the policy is about not reducing numbers but addressing what puts people in prison and keeps them there.

I urge the cabinet secretary to rethink his approach.