Opponents line up to sink Labour’s flagship policy on criminal justice

The political landscape of Scotland underwent a subtle remoulding
on 1 May. Labour remains the dominant party in the parliament after
the election in which they won 50 seats. Last week they renewed
their coalition with the Liberal Democrats, which sustained them
through the previous four years. But the slender overall working
majority of five leaves the Scottish executive potentially exposed
to concerted opposition.

In some respects, the battle lines have already been drawn. The
major points of contention between Labour and Liberal Democrat
negotiators, who thrashed out the details of the coalition, were
the introduction of proportional representation for council
elections and tough new antisocial behaviour measures. These would
include the establishment of a national correctional agency and
prison sentences for parents of persistent young offenders.

Both sides made concessions to ensure the other’s policies made it
into the final coalition agreement. But the executive knows it will
face strong opposition to both the initiative on crime and
electoral reform.

The Scottish Green Party, which jumped from one seat in the 1999
election to seven this time, is clear that it will oppose what it
sees as Labour’s increasingly disciplinary approach to criminal

In their election manifesto, the Greens emphasised reform of the
prison system to “reduce the prison population by using community
sentences and bail services”. To achieve this, rehabilitation and
therapy facilities in local communities would be expanded and
adequate funding provided for agencies working for “restorative
justice and local mediation and dispute-resolution centres”.

Eleanor Scott, Green MSP for the Highlands and Islands, says it is
time to look at the “root causes” of crime. “Attitudes to crime and
punishment are spiralling to a more punitive approach,” she says.
“It’s no use just treating the symptoms, you have to eradicate the
disease. So our approach would involve restorative justice and
working with communities.” Such ideas are likely to find favour
among many staff at criminal social justice social work

As a result of gaining more than five seats, the Greens now also
have a seat on the parliamentary bureau, which decides what is
debated and when.

“In general terms, we’ll work on an issue-by-issue basis, promoting
an agenda of social justice and environmental responsibility any
way we can,” she says. “We also expect to have convenership of one
of the parliament’s committees.” However, this is unlikely to be of
the health and community care committee. The Greens believe the
minority party seat on that committee should go to Dr Jean Turner,
an independent MSP who fought his election campaign on the future
of Glasgow’s Stobhill Hospital.

If the Green Party is set to embrace the formal workings of the
parliament, how the Scottish Socialist Party will perform is less
predictable. With six seats in this parliament, leader Tommy
Sheridan is bolstered by five colleagues who promise to bring a bit
of “craziness and madness” to proceedings. The SSP will also have a
seat on the parliamentary bureau, but its manifesto commitments
suggest that the executive can expect vigorous opposition to a
range of issues.

For example, the SSP wants to reduce the prison population – the
largest in Europe in relative terms – by offering alternatives to
custodial sentences. These may include community support and
rehabilitation and the release of those jailed for non-payment of
fines. The party advocates a large expansion of rehabilitation
schemes, including education, training, psychiatric and
psychological support and drug and alcohol detox programmes.

The SSP, which also supports proportional representation for
elections, would reduce the voting age to 16 and allow homeless
people and prisoners to vote.

Rosie Kane, a single parent and youth worker in Glasgow, and one of
the winners of an SSP seat, said: “We’re going to completely change
the place [Scottish parliament]. We’re going to bring colour,
imagination and all sorts of diversity and attitude. People are
going to want to watch it to see what’s happening.”

The Confederation of Scottish Local Authorities may prove to be one
of the executive’s fiercest opponents over the next four years.

On proportional representation in local government elections, Cosla
says it is “astonished” that Labour has agreed to the Liberal
Democrats’ demands.

Cosla president Pat Watters says: “It would be more in the
interests of the people of Scotland if the manifesto pledges for a
single correctional agency or a single transport authority were
dropped with as much ease as the manifesto commitment to retaining
the first-past-the-post electoral system.”

He adds that Cosla was not consulted on the matter: “Instead of no
surprises, local government keeps getting more surprises. There has
been absolutely no contact between Cosla and those brokering the
deal on the issue.”

According to Cosla, the current system provides the best way to
make councillors responsible for representing their wards.

“We do not believe that the case for change in relation to
electoral reform has been made,” Watters says. “The
first-past-the-post system provides for strong leadership of a
council with a clear mandate to carry through the programme of
measures put to the electorate. It also provides a clear
member-ward link and gives a fairer opportunity for independent
councillors to be elected.”

Watters promises that Cosla will go “head to head” with the
Scottish executive on this issue, as well as on the proposed single
correctional agency. According to Cosla, the Association of
Directors of Social Work and the Society for Local Authority Chief
Executives (Scotland), the policy for a single correctional agency
“does not fit the stated objective”, which is to reduce

They argue that Labour has yet to produce evidence of how merging
criminal justice social work services with the prison service will
achieve this objective.

Equally, they say there is no evidence to suggest the current
structure is not working. They believe local authorities’ new
criminal justice partnerships, which have just come to the end of
their first full year, need more time before they can be

The three organisations say creating a national agency would break
the important link between criminal justice social work services
and other council services. They are willing to work with the
Scottish executive to explore different approaches to criminal

Dissatisfaction with the Scottish executive’s performance since
1999 was reflected in the poor turnout at the election – just over
50 per cent – with Labour and the Liberal Democrats scraping only
50 per cent of the vote between them. With 75 per cent of people in
Scotland turning their backs on those who are now in power, early
indications are that this will be a testing four years for the

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