Graeme Pearson MSP, a police officer for 38 years before entering Parliament, is Shadow Cabinet Spokesperson for Justice. He pledges that Scottish Labour will continue to hold the government to account to ensure our justice system works for all.
The past four years in opposition have been particularly frustrating as a member of the opposition in the Scottish Parliament. This SNP Government has persisted in using their absolute majority in the Parliament to ignore amendments and motions from Scottish Labour.
As a result of their approach, the reform of policing in Scotland has degenerated into chaos. Our demand for a properly worked out business plan reflecting a commitment to local policing was refused, as was our attempt to ensure redundancy plans, office closures and control room closures were fully examined and assessed.
The high handed response from Kenny Macaskill during his time as Cabinet Secretary led to a series of controversies. Troubling issues arose around the use of firearms by police on routine patrol, the sheer excess of stop and searches across the country, and incidents such as the M9 road accident – all of which have had a detrimental effect on public confidence in the police.
From the outset, Scottish Labour sought to create a committee at the Parliament with a duty of oversight in respect of emergency services at the national level. After more than a year of resistance, the Government finally gave ground and supported the creation of a sub-committee of the Justice Committee with a role of scrutinising policing. In the past eighteen months this committee has opened up the facts around Police Scotland’s policies and revealed the extent of support staff redundancies, the resultant back office filling by police officers as well as the frustrations faced by officers struggling to adhere to a culture of targets.
In relation to the courts system, Scottish Labour has, in the time of this Parliament, challenged the Government over the cuts to Legal Aid that largely affect working people whilst allowing criminals who repeatedly appear in our courts unaffected.
We have also focused very heavily on the experiences of victims and witnesses as they play their part in the justice system. Scottish Labour has gathered an abundance of evidence to justify a radical change to our approach in this area. Although there has been significant changes to the way in which courts operate, those changes have not in fact enabled witnesses or victims’ families to access the courts in a way that leaves them without feeling further victimised. We need to address these issues in the next Parliament.
Prison reform in terms of what we expect from the Scottish Prison Service is long overdue. Our previous commitment to privatising prisons was in my view inappropriate. Scottish Labour would for the future seek the Prison Service to deliver more effectively in relation to re offending rates.
Too often ‘purposeful activity’ in prison parlance means merely football and access to the gym. We need to see a prison environment which ensures family relationships for prisoners are enabled, educational and skills related opportunities are promoted and the issues around substance abuse are effectively dealt with.
Finally, in the area of prisoner access, Scottish Labour wants to see a greater use of video conferencing to enable prisoner interviews with solicitors as well as court appearances around the country. Effective use of technology should not only assist in the effective administration of justice, it would also cut ongoing costs and benefit the environment by reducing the substantial traffic that comes and goes from prisons around the country each day.
There are many more subject areas that deserve our attention: the legislation dealing with sectarianism at football grounds, the threat to the principle of corroboration not to mention the use of covert surveillance by the police in regard to journalists. Time in the Parliament is surprisingly short when it comes to debating these issues but the public can be confident Scottish Labour will continue to focus on the real issues affecting working people with a view to making Scotland safe and fair for all of our citizens.