‘Improvements to Criminal Justice have been equally central to the ambitions of the SNP’.
Allan Dorans is a former Detective Inspector with the Metropolitan Police, an Area Manager with the Community Safety Charity Safeguarding Communities Reducing Offending (SACRO), currently the MP for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock and SNP spokesperson for Policing.
The SNP-led government in Scotland has taken major steps in developing a more progressive benefits and taxation system and, of course, in managing the pandemic with significantly lower loss of life than in England or Wales. These have, understandably, earned much media attention. However, improvements to Criminal Justice have been equally central to the ambitions of the SNP.
While the 10-13th September National Conference’s key policy themes were climate change, independence and the 2022 council elections, the Criminal Justice Committee has held round table evidence sessions on justice and policing priorities and on the impact of Covid 19 on the justice sector. With regard to the latter, the policing budget will be increased by £75.5 million to over £1.3 billion to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on police finances.
Support for the victims of crime will be strengthened with the appointment of a Victims’ Commissioner and a new fund to support victims’ organisations. There will be a Bail and Release from Custody Bill to improve how decisions on bail are reached and better support release from custody. Later in September, there will be sessions on the priorities for domestic abuse, gendered violence, on sexual offences and on reform of legal aid.
Particularly pleasing to those of us on the left and with long memories, there will be a bill to introduce a pardons scheme for miners convicted of certain offences relating to the strike by the National Union of Miners in 1984-85. Labour MP, Ian Lavery, who represents Wansbeck in Northumberland, has called for the UK Government to quash convictions in England but the Home Office said it had “no plans” to do so.
However, it is in the area of hate crime that Scotland’s justice system is proving to be most radical and progressive, and which will be most debated within the conference for a. The Hate Crime and Public Order bill passed by a vote of 82 for, 32 against and 4 abstentions, on the 23rd April this year, has prompted much debate. While there were already laws protecting people from hate crimes on the basis of disability, race, religion, sexual orientation and transgender identity, the bill updates these and brings them together in one. It also adds hate crime based on a person’s age to the list of protected groups.
Much of the updating centred on widely accepted perceptions of inadequacy in the extent to which the existing laws fully protected individuals from the potentially extremely damaging hate speech crimes which seem to be currently increasing more than other more physical forms.
This proved difficult with critics arguing that if implemented strictly it might deny freedom of speech to, for example, comedians, writers and artists. The wording was then changed to ensure that only those who can be proven to have intended to stir up hatred are prosecuted. Nevertheless, the bill still sends a strong message to all involved, that offences motivated by prejudice will be treated more seriously and will not be tolerated.
Within this, the Bill’s intent to protect one particular group has stirred the most debate. The rights of the Trans community have been characterised as extreme or divisive, potentially undermining hard-won women’s rights and risking the well-being of children. There is little basis for these views and the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, a lifelong feminist, has resisted considerable political pressure and a campaign of hateful online abuse to stand firm on the need to protect this group as firmly as we have previously done for women, for the LGBT community, for ethnic and for religious groups.
Her words in January 2021, remain clear and inspiring: “Trans people have as much right as any of us to be safe, secure and valued for who they are. Transphobia is wrong and we must treat it with the zero tolerance we treat racism or homophobia. Those are the principles I want to characterise the SNP and the country that I am privileged to lead.”
Finally, In the wake of the Sarah Everard murder, in March 2021, figures from across the political spectrum started to put forward proposals of how to tackle the ongoing problem of widespread violence against women. Making misogyny – prejudice against women – a hate crime emerged as the most popular solution. Debate within the conference groups and beyond will note that an amendment that would have included women as a protected group in the Hate Crime Bill was defeated in April this year but that the Scottish government has instead set up a working group to look at whether misogynistic abuse should be a separate crime. The group will report in February 2022.
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