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Parliamentary Report for the 22nd – 26th February, 2010

2010 March 2
tags: ,
by Mary Munro
Debating chamber Scottish Parliament Image © Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body - 2011

Image © Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body - 2011

Last week in Parliament, there was a Liberal Democrat led debate about the Strathclyde police Taser gun pilot, and there were questions to the Law and Justice Officers. The Health and Sports Committee continued hearing evidence as part of their consideration of the Alcohol etc (Scotland) Bill.

Justice Committee

The Committee spent their meeting in private, considering a draft Stage 1 report for the Legal Services (Scotland) Bill.

Health and Sports Committee

Alcohol etc. (Scotland) Bill

The Committee took oral evidence from the team leading this legislation in the Scottish Government; an economist from Centre for Economics and Business Research; a spokesperson from the British Heart Foundation; a Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine, and a Professor of Economics. The transcript of their evidence is not online at the time of posting, but you can access the Committee’s homepage where the Official Report will shortly be available.

The Chamber

Debate about Strathclyde Police Taser Gun Pilot

On Thursday there was a Liberal Democrat led debate about the recent announcement by Strathclyde police that they were to begin a pilot in which 30 beat police officers would carry Tasers. Strathclyde police have said that these officers will have three days training prior to deployment and that this decision has been taken in order to minimise the high number of assaults sustained on police officers. During questions to the First Minister and subsequent press releases, the Liberal Democrats have argued that this decision is too important for police forces to be allowed to take without Parliamentary debate and approval first. The Government have so far said that this should remain an operational decision for the Force.

Opening the debate, the Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Robert Brown argued that Scottish police forces have developed along the principle of an unarmed force that is in close touch with and accountable to local communities, and that when Tasers were introduced in 2004 it was on the basis that they were the less lethal alternative to firearms. He said that the decision to pilot the use of Tasers more widely in the Strathclyde region was made by Chief Constable House alone, not by the Police Board and certainly not by the Government or Parliament and that this ought to remain a policy decision taken by Government, which has been the case in England and Wales, rather than remain an operational decision. Mr Brown also reminded the Chamber that the SNP opposed the deployment of Tasers beyond trained firearm officers in 2008. He argued that the pilot will not ‘protect the public’, as Strathclyde police suggest it would, but would instead change the relationship between the public and the police, and erode the model of ‘policing by consent’ that the police currently work towards. He concluded by saying that three days training for officers with no prior experience of handling firearms was not sufficient, and he highlighted concerns raised by Amnesty International and others about extending the use of Tasers.

The Justice Secretary spoke next and he argued that the use of tasers was a “proportional method” of keeping officers and the public safe. However, he argued their use is an operational matter for each police force, and it would be inappropriate for the Government to comment further because of the tripartite agreement which means that policing is decided between Scottish ministers, the chief constable, and the relevant police authority. He added that the final decision on whether to proceed with the pilot would be taken by Strathclyde Police Board, which has councillors from all political parties on it. He reminded the Chamber that because firearms legislation (which includes the use of airguns and Tasers) is reserved to Westminster, the Parliament has no ability to intervene in what forces do within the legislative framework.

Bill Aitken spoke next for the Conservative party, and he reminded the Chamber that this is only an issue because around 4,000 police officers are assaulted in the Strathclyde region every year. When Patrick Harvie (Green) pointed out that the effects of Tasers are most dangerous when the individual who is stunned is under the effects of drugs or alcohol, Mr Aitken responded by saying that if individuals were concerned with their safety then they should not get violent with the police in the first place, and he argued that the “undoubtedly decent tendencies and sympathies” of the Liberal Democrats have gone to the wrong people.

Richard Baker for Labour argued that Strathclyde police are embarking on this pilot for good reasons, and that the important issue was that the right procedures are be followed when deciding whether to extend the policy to the whole of the force. Whether three days training was adequate would need to be evaluated, and that the possible adverse health effects are considered. He also pointed out the irony of the Cabinet Secretary calling for all firearms legislation to be devolved to the Parliament but not expressing a view on the matter while that is not the case.

Following the debate, there was a vote in which the Conservatives voted with the SNP against the Liberal Democrats, and the Labour party abstained.

You can read the full debate in the Official Report.

First Minister’s Questions

Knife Crime Sentencing Policy

Iain Gray used his question to the First Minister to argue in support of his party’s amendment to the Criminal Justice and Licensing Bill which seeks to introduce an automatic life sentence for anyone caught carrying a knife. He spoke about the recently released figures on homicides in Scotland which showed that a greater proportion of homicides were caused by a knife, and the petition that the Labour party has collected in support of their campaign. The First Minister replied that the average sentence for knife crime has increased since they came to power and that Scotland now has the lowest crime rate for a decade. And you can read this question in the Official Report

Questions for the Law and Justice Officers

Strathclyde pilot of Taser guns

The issue of Taser guns came up once again in questions to the Law and Justice Officers. Hugh O’Donnell (LD) wanted to know what the Government was doing to ensure that Strathclyde police remained compliant with ECHR in light of their decision to extend their use of Tasers. The Cabinet Secretary repeated what he said in the debate earlier, saying that firearm legislation is is reserved to Westminster, and that it was not the role of Governments “of any political colour” to interfere with the operational decisions of individual police forces. You can read this question in the Official Report.

Jury System Reform

In her question to the Cabinet Secretary, Elaine Murray (Lab) said that one of her constituents had been called to jury duty for a“minor case of affray” which she thought did not constitute efficient use of juries in trials. The Secretary replied that the use of juries was regulated by the Scottish Court Service and not by statue, and that he and the justice system were extremely grateful to citizens who gave their time to sit on juries. And you can read this question in the Official Report

Conditions in HMP Cornton Vale

Dr Richard Simpson (Lab) asked what the Government was doing in light of the most recent inspectorate report of Cornton Vale which highlighted that some prisoners have to wait for up to two hours to use a bathroom and in some instances even have to use a sink as a toilet. The Secretary replied that the SPS were currently drawing up their response to the report which would be available shortly. In supplementary questions, Bill Aitken argued that the SPS should not have spent £100,000 on an astroturf surface in Cornton Vale, and Malcolm Chisolm (Lab) argued that the rights of the child should be paramount in any decisions about withholding visits as a punishment for taking drugs in prison. You can read this question in the Official Report.

Serious and Organised Crime

Patricia Ferguson (Lab) asked what the Government was doing in light of recent events which have seen agencies unable to act against alleged serious and organised crime (see the CjScotland Newsblog for more details). In reply, the Secretary spoke about extra funding for the SDEA and the organised crime taskforce, and he also said that because legislation relating to procurement and consumer issues are reserved to Westminster, the Scottish Government are unable to take the action they would like. In a supplementary question, James Kelly (Lab) spoke about witness intimidation from organised crime. You can read this question in the Official Report.

Police arms policy

Police use of firearms arose yet again in the chamber, as Patrick Harvie (Green) pointed out that the Government’s arguments relating to tasers are inconsistent: why did the Scottish Government want firearm legislation handed back to Scottish legislative competence if it was then going to say that the police use of firearms is an operational decision for Forces? The Secretary replied that it was precisely because the legislation was reserved that he had no ability to comment on how they are used by police throughout Scotland, and that if the legislation could be returned to Holyrood then the Parliament could debate the issue fully. You can read this question in the Official Report.

Double Jeopardy Legislation

John Scott (Con) asked whether the Government supported a Conservative amendment to the Criminal Justice and Licensing Bill which would mean that a new trial of the same suspect for the same crime may take place at the discretion of the Lord Advocate and the Scottish Court of Criminal Appeal if new and compelling evidence is presented.The Cabinet Secretary said that the Government supported a change in the law and would work with the Conservatives to make this amendment correct, which would require some changes to its wording. You can read the question in the Official Report

Written Questions

There were written questions this week about the number of direct measures that have been subject to recall, what the Government is doing to address the increased cocaine use in Scotland, and about the number of those who first take drugs when they are under the age of 16. There was a question about the SPS’s policies on drugs in prison, about the number of Orders for Lifelong Restriction have been issued since 2006, and about the number of prosecutions for stalking and harassment in the last 3 years. There was a question in which when the Government expected to be able to reduce the number of prison places, about pilots in the SPS for the drug Naloxone which counters the effects of a heroin overdose, another question about the number of drug finds in Scottish prisons (this question subsequently turned up in the press, see the CJScotland Newsblog for more details), and finally, asking what the SPS is doing to help female prisoners.

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