23 September 2009

Independence on the agenda

With the Scottish Parliament well and truly back from its summer recess, the Scottish Government recently published its legislative programme for the coming twelve months. The thirteen planned new bills include changes to patients’ rights, debtor protection and new measures to tackle alcohol misuse.

Yet most significant of all is the Referendum Bill that seeks to pave the way for a vote on Scotland’s constitutional future. The SNP Government is determined to give people in Scotland a say on whether they wish to be independent for the first time.

With their characteristic negativity, opposition politicians have sought to play down Scotland’s prospects as an independent country. Yet the facts remain that Scotland has everything to gain from such a move.

With independence would come our own representation in Europe, where currently we have less of a voice than Malta or Luxembourg. Each EU country has a seat at the top-table of Europe, the European Council, but without independence Scotland is denied this. Where the rest of the UK’s needs differ to those of Scotland, we are forced to take a back seat and are not allowed to make our voice heard in negotiations.

On fishing, energy and many other policy areas, Scotland has distinct needs at a European level which we will only be able to pursue effectively with independence.

Economically, we would be able to use the financial levers that independence would make available to drive our recovery and ensure that we are well placed to encourage sustainable growth in Scotland. The current financial mechanisms are wholly inadequate, forcing the Scottish Government to rely upon an inflexible hand-out from the Treasury rather than accessing the taxes raised in Scotland directly.

With the powers of a normal country, Scotland would have the flexibility to make those decisions that are necessary to stimulate our economy and help protect jobs and services from the downturn. Independence is a starting point that can give Scotland the legislative power it needs to be a more successful, vibrant place. Scotland needs to be able to take the decisions that affect how we are governed in Scotland, and in the best interests of Scots. This is how every other country in the world operates and there is no reason why Scotland should be prevented from doing the same.

Whatever your view on the merits of independence, however, it is an inescapable fact that the majority of Scots insist upon being consulted on their future. People in Scotland know that it is their fundamental democratic right to decide our own future and they will have little tolerance for any party that seeks to block that right in coming months.

Flooding misery for local residents

Like many people in Banff & Buchan I was affected by the extremely heavy rain that caused so much disruption recently. It was an extremely worrying time for those across Scotland who were affected by flooding as a result of the extreme weather conditions, and my thoughts are of course with those whose property has been damaged in the floods.

There could scarcely be a clearer demonstration of the importance of fighting climate change, given the promise of extreme weather becoming more frequent that comes with it. Scotland is leading the world in this area having passed the exceptionally ambitious Climate Change Bill recently. It is now up to other countries to take up this challenge and adopt their own tough measures at the Copenhagen conference in December and the Scottish Government will be working hard to get this message across.

8 September 2009

Making our communities safer

We all want to live in safe communities where nobody has to fear that they may become a victim of crime. It is a sad fact that almost everybody knows somebody that has been the victim of a crime at some point. However, while completely eradicating crime may be all but impossible, there is real progress being made in efforts to tackle criminality and make our streets safer for ordinary people.

Before the 2007 election, the SNP promised that we would put 1,000 additional police officers on the streets over the course of the parliamentary term. Just past the half-way point of that term, this promise has now been met. There are now 17,278 police officers serving in Scotland, 1,044 more than at the end of the previous administration and a record high.

Although simply recruiting more police officers is not a silver bullet, the truth is that there is really no substitute for putting more Bobbies on the beat when it comes to protecting local communities. In the Grampian police area, there are now an additional 158 officers serving compared to March 2007. These officers are having a real effect, creating a more visible police presence and demonstrably driving down levels of crime.

Opposition politicians have made many statements predicting that the Scottish Government would fail to meet this target and many will feel that they owe the Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill an apology. Not only has the SNP Government fulfilled another of our manifesto commitments, we have done so well ahead of schedule.

Yet just as important as preventing or catching criminals is what action our justice system takes after somebody is found guilty. Recently published figures revealed that a staggering 74% of people, three out of every four who receive short-term custodial sentences go on to re-offend within two years of their release. For three quarters of short term prisoners to commit further crimes after their sentence is clearly unsustainable and indicates a clear problem with the status quo.

Given that the same set of statistics reveal that reconviction rates amongst those who receive sentences of four years or more is 27%, it is clear that short-term sentences do very little to change a pattern of repeat offending. The same set of statistics also reveals that of those given a community service order, the majority do not go on to re-offend.

There is little to be gained from the constant cycle of giving repeat offenders short-term sentences that do not give prison authorities time to change their behaviour, one of the key purposes of custodial sentences. Tough community sentences demonstrably have a greater chance of preventing offenders, who would otherwise receive a sentence of less than 6 months, from committing more crimes.

It is not a question of being hard or soft on criminals, but rather of being effective in changing their behaviour.

The Scottish Government intends to introduce Community Payback Orders to replace some existing community sentences. Prisons need to be able to focus their resources on the serious criminals for whom prison is the only option. Those guilty of less serious crimes should be made to repay the communities that they have offended against.

This is the only way that the cycle of re-offending amongst those currently receiving short-term sentences can be broken and the only way to improve rehabilitation rates. This kind of change is vital for the future of our prison estate and the proposals are being monitored with interest outside Scotland’s borders. It is imperative that we make the right choices.

Stewart Stevenson
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