Dr Kath Murray of Edinburgh University takes a look at the Justice policies in the manifestos.
In the punitive camp, the Scottish Conservatives propose to end automatic early release for all prisoners (as introduced by the Conservatives). Retributive motives aside, it is difficult to see the logic in locking up people for longer. The policy will be costly and in all likelihood, counterproductive. The fact that Scotland’s imprisonment rate is one of the highest in Western Europe is not a badge of honour. Added to this, the Scottish Conservatives want to scrap the Human Rights Act, and limit the European Court of Human Rights.
In a similar hue, UKIP propose to criminalise the setting up of an unauthorised traveller sites, maintaining that ‘this will swiftly deal with the problem of illegal camps’. In practice, criminalization is only likely to displace and exacerbate the problem. This is divisive, dog-whistle politics that ignores the Public Sector Equality duty, as well as the shortage of sites that acts as a driver of discrimination and prejudice.
Most of the opposition parties want to repeal the much-maligned Offensive Behaviour at Football Act (there’s no mention of a review from the SNP). Only the Scottish Liberal Democrats commit to raising the age of criminal responsibility, which at eight years old, remains, inexplicably, one of the lowest in the world.
On policing, the SNP has a troubled record, principally due to the amalgamation of Scotland’s eight regional forces in 2013. Against a backdrop of recent controversy, including excessive stop and search, armed policing on routine duties, control room closures and breaching data rules on journalists sources, it is unsurprising that the opposition has honed in on the need for reform.
Strikingly, the SNP commit to implementing the recent Scottish Police Authority (SPA) review of governance, which as one commentator put it, pulled no punches. In theory, this should mean substantive change in terms of police governance, including a stronger strategic role for the Authority, greater distance between the Authority and the Government than we’ve seen to date, and less heavy handed Scottish Government involvement.
The Scottish Liberal Democrats were strong on policing in the last parliament, and the proposal to nail down the office of the Chief Constable is well-observed. In general, the opposition parties are vocal on local police accountability. Both the Scottish Greens and RISE flag up firearms and the proportionate use of force. The SNP state that Scotland’s police are not, and will not be routinely armed. On the other hand, deployment and numbers remain a matter for the Chief Constable. Both the Greens and Lib Dems want to strengthening police complaint mechanisms. RISE stands alone in supporting the decentralization of Police Scotland, but there’s no detail or costings.
On police strength, the Scottish Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and UKIP address the SNPs longstanding commitment to maintaining 1,000 extra officers (a target recently described by former SNP Cabinet Secretary for Justice, as ‘arbitrary’). Pledging an extra 20 million to support the frontline, the Scottish Liberal Democrats point out that the policy has hamstrung the single service, leading to backfilling by police officers in order to compensate for civilian staff cuts. With the overall police workforce now at its lowest since 2004/5 the policy is a sitting duck and it’s no surprise that the SNP have dropped it from their 2016 manifesto, pledging instead the ‘right mix’ of police, staff and specialists, including cyber-crime and counter-fraud experts. This is a welcome, if overdue nod towards what modern policing demand looks like, and how Police Scotland might deploy its resources more strategically. As ever, the devil will be in the detail.
The Scottish Liberal Democrats want to restore traditional Scottish policing, whilst the Scottish Conservatives and UKIP want to restore police accountability. Overall, there’s a fair bit of returning to a halcyon era that never really existed. In this, the opposition has perhaps missed a trick. Following the recent departure of Chief Constable Sir Stephen House, Scottish policing currently lacks a narrative. The enforcement-based style of policing promoted by Mr House appears to be on the way out and ‘traditional’ doesn’t quite cut it. As such, it’s still not clear what Scottish policing should look like in the next parliament and beyond.
To some extent, the Scottish Greens are an exception, insofar as Party has aligned itself with Scotland’s Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) which has championed a distinctive style of prevention and partnership over the last ten years. This is an astute move that marks a departure from the early years of Police Scotland and taps into the solid reputation and goodwill accorded to the VRU.
On other policing matters, the Scottish Conservatives propose to challenge the devolution of British Transport Police to Police Scotland. Conversely, the Scottish Liberal Democrats want to transfer control to Police Scotland, whilst ring-fencing officer expertise. Neither are vote winners, although it’s worth pointing out that the devolution of BTP has received limited attention, nor have the SNP have not adequately articulated its rationale for adding to the operational and administrative burden of Police Scotland, at least not publically.
There are also calls from the Greens, RISE and Scottish Liberal Democrats for the decriminalisation of cannabis for personal use, a view that is increasingly gaining traction on the back of international evidence.
Scotland has never embraced Law and Order politics with quite the same intensity as England, and the 2016 justice briefs are no exception. Tellingly, justice is missing from the headline SNP policies, aside from a proposal to create a new offence of domestic abuse. For the SNP, the 2016 manifesto is mostly tidying up and consolidation.