Ministerial Statement: Auditor General Report into Prisons 2018-19

Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf, Scottish Parliament


Thank you Presiding Officer.

The Auditor General’s report on the 2018/19 audit of the Scottish Prison Service highlights the significant challenges facing the Scottish Government and the Scottish Prison Service including the rise in population numbers, budgetary pressures, the demands on prison officers and staff and the reform of the physical prison estate.

Those are challenges which I have acknowledged previously to this Parliament, for example most recently in my evidence to the Justice Committee for its pre-budget scrutiny.

It is worth noting that despite these challenges, in her most recent annual report the HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland’s indicates that she is reassured that despite a rising prison population, staff and prisoners reported feeling safe.

However, I recognise the absolute seriousness of the issues raised by the Auditor General and the pressures we face and I’m keen to work with Members from across this Parliament to address those concerns.

It may be helpful if I set out some of the actions that we have already taken.

I’ll begin with the budget, as noted by the Auditor General, the SPS revenue budget, as with other public bodies, has been constrained over recent years.  This was during a time that the prison population was falling and SPS were operating within or, on many occasions, below their annual allocation.

Going into 2019-20, we acknowledged that the SPS faced a number of uncertainties in its budget – these uncertainties included pay, pension costs and the costs associated with the rising numbers of the prisoners within their care. 

As a result, an additional £24 million has  been made available this year to help the SPS meet a range of cost pressures, I will continue to keep the budget position under review throughout the remainder of this year.

Budget allocations for next year are being considered as part of the current Budget process.  This includes consideration of the factors that gave rise to additional funding being provided to SPS this year.

Presiding Officer, many of the challenges raised in the Auditor General’s report are a consequence of the rapid increase in the prison population that began in 2018.

While crime, including violent crime, has fallen considerably in the last decade, we know that the nature of the offending being prosecuted through the courts has changed over that period, including more focus on serious organised crime and sexual offending, including historical cases and those committed online. 

This means that the average length of custodial sentence imposed is at its highest in the last ten years, increasing by 21% since 2008-09

This, along with other factors such as longer minimum punishment parts for life sentences, the ending of automatic early release for the most dangerous offenders, and a reduction in the use home detention curfew, have contributed to Scotland now locking up a greater proportion of its people than any other nation in western Europe.

I have been unequivocal, this is not a statistic to be proud of – far from it, it is a stain on our collective conscience as a nation.

While prison will always remain the best option for some of the most serious offenders, we know that these numbers are far too high and we have been working closely with Justice partners to take forward a range of progressive measures aimed at bringing these numbers down and easing the pressure on our prisons.

Firstly, we know from the evidence that short term sentences simply do not work in terms of rehabilitating an individual. Individuals released from a custodial sentence of 12 months or less are reconvicted nearly twice as often as those given a Community Payback Order so that is why we brought forward to this Parliament the Presumption Against Short Sentences to extend the current presumption against short periods of imprisonment from sentences of 3 months or less to sentences of 12 months or less.

Secondly, Presiding Officer, the Management of Offenders (Scotland) Act includes provisions to expand the availability of electronic monitoring alongside community sentences as alternatives to custody.

Thirdly, the Scottish Government, SPS, the Risk Management Authority and partners have worked to develop revised operational guidance and processes for the release of prisoners on Home Detention Curfew.

In addition, we have asked Community Justice Scotland to take forward work with local authorities to collect information on the local availability of community justice services that can be shared with sentencers to help inform sentencing decisions.

Finally, in our Programme for Government 2019, there is included a commitment to undertake work to “review the law on bail and remand”. The Scottish Government has issued a commission for research to better understand the factors driving the relative use of bail and remand.

These are just some examples of progressive reforms this Government is undertaking to address the challenges and reduce the numbers of people in our custody.

Moving on to the physical prison estate, since 2007, we have invested almost £600 million in the prison estate across Scotland.

This investment has delivered three new prisons - Low Moss, Addiewell and Grampian - and the significant refurbishment of existing prisons, including Polmont, Edinburgh, Glenochil, Shotts and Perth.

In terms of our current priorities, delivering the bold and progressive plans for the new women’s custodial estate is vital. Our plans to create Community Custody Units to sit alongside a smaller national facility reflect the recommendations made by the Commission on Women Offenders and will be more responsive to the specific needs of women in prison. Work is well underway and SPS aim to deliver the first of two local Community Custodial Units in Dundee and Glasgow by the end of 2021.

We know concerns have been raised about the physical condition in parts of HMP Barlinnie and the replacement of HMP Barlinnie is also one of our priorities. The preferred site at the former gas works at Provanmill for the replacement facility was confirmed by the SPS earlier this year and they are taking forward an application for an outline planning consent. 

In the meantime, we have committed to consider proposals for additional funding to help deal with immediate infrastructure issues at Barlinnie, ahead of the replacement prison being completed.

I appreciate Members are as keen as the Scottish Government and the SPS are to get these new facilities up and running but, as with any other significant infrastructure investment, there are many factors at play here that affect the timetabling for large and complex infrastructure projects including the commercial market place and due diligence factors but I can assure Members that we’re working at pace to deliver these new facilities.

Ongoing investment in our prison estate will ensure that it is fit for purpose for the future, with modern infrastructure enabling maintenance of the safe, stable and secure environment that we should be rightly proud of in Scotland’s prisons.

In terms of staffing, the Auditor General’s report discusses some of the pressures being faced by the hardworking prison officers and staff working in our prisons. I am sure the entire chamber will want to put on record their recognition of the hard work that our prison officers are doing.

Prison officers are dealing with the most vulnerable people in our society and facing an increasingly complex prison population on a daily basis. They do that job with great professionalism and I am greatly appreciative of their efforts.

One of the areas highlighted is an increase in sickness absence among prison officers. This rise is largely attributable to mental health related conditions.  There are multiple contributory factors which are triggering illness, both inside and outside the workplace and the SPS is taking forward a range of measures through its Employee Wellbeing policy to support officers in their challenging roles.

These measures include, to name just a few:

  • lifestyle screening with physical health checks
  • a Critical Incident Response and Support process
  • an Employee Assistance Programme which is a free 24 hour confidential support service providing telephone and face to face counselling
  • and an online health platform with multiple tools to monitor and improve wellbeing. 

Both HMP Inverness and HMP&YOI Grampian are showing a downward trend in the numbers of staff working days lost due to sickness and the SPS continue to work hard to maintain this trend.

I have seen first-hand some of the challenges our prison officers face on a day to day basis and that is why I am pleased that SPS management, Unions and staff reached agreement in relation to a recent pay offer. 

This was a significant offer which exceeded rises in previous years and pay deals across the public sector and in comparison to counterparts in England and Wales. It rightly reflects the hard work and dedication of our prison officers whose work is difficult, often dangerous and largely unseen by the wider public.

In closing, Presiding Officer, I would like to extend an invitation to every member in this Chamber.

Today I have set out some of the wide ranging measures this Government has undertaken to bring about reform to the justice system and to bring about the changes we want to see in a progressive society – but we are clear we have to go further. We want prisons to continue to be used to detain and rehabilitate those whose present the biggest threats to our communities alongside robust community alternatives and interventions to keep those for whom prison is not the best option out of our prisons.

But we know from the evidence and international comparisons that there is no silver bullet, there’s no magic wand that can help to solve the complex, multi-faceted and wider-societal challenges we see in our prisons.

I believe in the cross portfolio, multi-agency and collaborative approach that this Government is taking forward and, again, my invitation to those here in the Chamber today is to be part of the solutions and reform – my door always has been and will continue to be open to Members with ideas and resolutions to these challenges, but we must find a solution to these challenges, and I, as Cabinet Secretary for Justice, am determined that we do.






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