Speech on Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Bill 26th. November 2009

My comments reflect the concerns of many of my constituents about some aspects of the bill. I regret that, this morning, the cabinet secretary seemed simply to dismiss those concerns rather than take them seriously.

Before I get to the substance of my speech, I will flag up a few issues that I trust will be revisited at stage 2. They include the issues that Sandra White flagged up in relation to trafficked women; prostitution and men who abuse women and prostitute them; and lap dancing. A further question that I hope we will revisit is how we make a connection between communities that suffer under the cosh of serious organised crime and the money that is secured as a consequence of that under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. There should be a direct link, with funding going back to the communities that have suffered the most.

On the broader debate, it seems that nothing is easy. It is unhelpful to try, as I think Dr McKee rather complacently did, to create the impression that somehow only those who are wilfully stupid wish to ignore the policy that the Scottish Government is taking forward. It is most unfortunate to demonise those in our communities who are demanding action and those of us who wish to highlight how victims often feel let down by the system. To do that is to deny a voice to those who, because of their day-to-day experience, feel that the justice system is unfair, irrational and out of touch with the way in which they have to live their lives.

Yes, we have to try to understand what causes people to commit offences, but we also have to stop infantilising people who choose to terrorise their partners, their families and their neighbours. We owe it to the young men who carry a knife, as much as to their potential victims, to do everything in our power to stop them doing that. I have worked with young men who, in later life, ended up either in prison on a murder charge or dead. If we take steps to address the needs of such young men as well as those of their victims, we will be doing something important.

Robert Brown: I do not think that anyone would disagree with that. The issue is what makes the difference. What is the tough sentence that turns such people around? That is the nub of the debate, which some people on my side of the chamber would say the Labour Party has not engaged with as it might.

Johann Lamont: I recognise that, but I do not think that there is recognition on the other side of the importance of deterring young people who are outside the core group that carry knives, who see that nothing happens to those people and who then carry knives themselves. We owe it to those young people to say, "This is serious," in the same way that we punish people who drink drive to prevent others from doing that.

I am always struck by the degree to which people who come to me to ask for help because of disorder, crime and violence in their communities do so not simply because they want us to put people in jail and throw away the key but out of desperation about their circumstances. It is unjust and contemptuous to sneer at those who want tougher action on knife crime because of their direct experience of those who use violence to silence people, harm them and intimidate them to the point where they phone the police in a whisper. We owe it to those people to empower rather than disempower them and to listen to them. In that context, I urge the minister to reflect further on the action that he is taking and to test it against people's need to have certainty that their communities will not be more dangerous and that the measures will not put them at further risk.

The scrapping of six-month sentences raises a number of issues. At First Minister's question time, I highlighted the implication of the policy for the victims of domestic abuse and the fears of many people that it might increase risk. Following the First Minister's response, I seek clarification on what the Scottish Government's policy actually is. The First Minister said that serious offences should attract longer sentences. Is it the Government's view that all domestic abuse cases that currently attract sentences of less than six months should attract longer sentences? If that is the case, how would that be enforced?

Kenny MacAskill: Will the member give way?

Johann Lamont: I am sorry, but I have only a minute left—the minister can answer the point when he sums up. Would that policy apply to other serious offences?

There is an issue around resources. It is not enough simply to say that the resources are available. We could end up with an experiment with no safety net, the costs of which will be borne by individuals and communities. The obvious fear is not just that there could be an increase in offending behaviour, but that there could be an increased lack of confidence in the justice system's ability to serve people's needs.

At the heart of the matter there is a puzzle. It is illogical to say that the only way to encourage community sentences is to end short sentences now—it could be done the other way round. It is also illogical to say that people can be rehabilitated in their communities working with them only five or 10 hours a week, yet absolutely nothing can be done with them over six months when they are in prison. I have never understood the logic in assuming that the Scottish Prison Service has no responsibility towards those who are in prison serving shorter sentences. I would have more confidence in the minister if we were not hearing that Sacro, Apex Scotland and other organisations that work with prisoners who come out of prison are being told that their funding is being cut.

In those circumstances, the lack of confidence in our communities must be addressed, not dismissed.