Wednesday, March 07, 2012

My speech to Conference: MacAskill should show compassion to all prisoners, not just one

There are few things in life that I'm angrier about than the SNP Government's shameful treatment of women in prison which I've written about several times. The issue of reducing crime through effective rehabilitation was debated at Conference. When the original motion, submitted by the then virtually all male Policy Committee was published, there was no specific mention of the needs of women in prison. That's the problem when we don't have proper gender balance. The Policy Committee even now is 82% male and while I might well catch such things in the future, it's something we need to address. It's not malicious - it's just that nobody thought. And somebody needs to think, particularly as we passed a motion last October that said that all policy had to be constructed under the principles of gender budgeting and gender mainstreaming.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, Scottish Women Liberal Democrats submitted an amendment highlighting SNP failure and calling for better conditions, support and development opportunities for women in prison. I proposed it on Saturday. It was my first policy speech in 8 years. And also, probably, the first time I'd worn a dress in as long.Even longer since I wore proper boots, too.

I had done loads of research before Conference but hadn't had the time in a manic week to put it together in a coherent speechified form. That meant a sleepless night for me on Friday and an early start, given that I had an 8:30 meeting and this was the first item on the agenda at 10.

The thing that annoyed me the most is that Kenny MacAskill had made a huge play of showing compassion to Megrahi. Now, I supported the decision to release him. It was the right thing to do. However, I don't see why MacAskill couldn't have shown the same sort of compassion to the hundreds of women prisoners who were forced into a miserable incarceration with some not even having the basics like beds and access to toilets.

So here is the speech I made. I'm glad to say that both motion and amendment were passed overwhelmingly by Conference.
This motion is very welcome – as Liberal Democrats we believe that the criminal justice system should be focused on helping people turn their lives around and contribute positively to society.
Scottish Women Liberal Democrats felt, however, that women prison have specific needs, and the SNP Government’s catastrophic failure to protect them merited our amendment. I am particularly proud of Alison McInnes and Willie Rennie for their persistence with the SNP on this over the past year and we can be sure that their strong, liberal voices will continue to stand up for vulnerable women in prison.
In mid 2009, Robert Brown, our justice spokesperson, highlighted the worrying increase in self harm amongst women prisoners. That same year, the Prisons Inspector published a damning report on conditions at Cornton Vale.
If any of us had been justice minister, we would have been absolutely mortified by such horrendous basic failures exacerbated by chronic overcrowding. We’d have made it our business to do something about it, set specific targets for improvement and followed through to make sure things got better.
What did Kenny MacAskill do? Well it looks like he just left the report on a shelf to gather dust. What else would you expect from a justice secretary who views a judgement that our legal system falls short of the European Convention of Human Rights as an excuse to pick a fight with Westminster.
Shockingly, in 2011, when the Inspector returned to Cornton Vale he found, if anything, that things had got worse with some women not even having proper beds, sleeping on mattresses on the floor.
The inspector said:“Conditions since 2009 have remained the same or failed to improve. The very poor access to toilets has continued and dignity, safety, infection control and health issues associated with this unacceptable situation is worse than in 2009.”
It’s not just about the fabric of the place – he talked about the regime where grim cells were used as a control measure for vulnerable women by staff insufficiently trained to meet their needs.
The problems were endemic, the inspector said, with relations between prisoners and staff having further deteriorated with an unacceptable culture and lack of trust.
Women in prison are far more likely to have poor mental health and the most vulnerable didn’t even have proper care plans.
So what did Kenny MacAskill do? He set up a commission on women offenders to be chaired by Eilish Angiolini which will report imminently. I can’t imagine she’ll have radically conclusions to that reached by the Scottish Parliament’s Equal Opportunities Committee in 2010, or the 2009 study which found that more women were being imprisoned despite there being no more crime committed by women.

What’s important is that Angiolini’s report is acted upon. MacAskill needs to show some political leadership on this to bring about change both in sentencing and prison conditions.
Shamefully, he said last year that conditions at the prison were an operational matter for the Scottish Prison Service. It’s so typical of the SNP’s responsibility to accept responsibility for anything. It’s never them. There’s always a local council, or Westminster, or a Government agency to blame.
Well, I looked up the Scottish Government website and, do you know what, next to Kenny MacAskill’s name was responsibility for prisons. Conference, the buck stops with him. He’s famously shown compassion to one specific prisoner. What about all the others he fails every single day?
Our amendment calls for things that should be an intrinsic part of any prison regime – meeting health needs, access to training and education, support for women to overcome the issues that lead to offending behaviour.
We also note the £20 million for capital improvements in the budget, although it’s a very small part of what’s needed. The only person, incidentally, I heard talking about this during the budget process was Willie Rennie.
By passing this amendment, we will be sending a message to Kenny McAskill and Alex Salmond that Scotland’s liberal voices will not tolerate their Government’s scandalous neglect of women prisoners.
Please support the motion and amendment.

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