Scotland politics

Call to scrap prison visiting committee change

The Scottish Government has been urged to scrap plans to replace independent prison visiting committees, which have been in place since the 19th Century.

They are allowed to turn up at Scottish jails unannounced to inspect inmates' facilities from cells to washrooms and even taste their food.

Opposition parties attacked plans to replace the volunteer committees with an advocacy service.

But ministers said the system needed to be modernised.

Visiting committees currently carry out about 1,500 unannounced visits to prisons each year, monitoring conditions and dealing with prisoner complaints.

Former Conservative leader Annabel Goldie, who led a debate on the issue at Holyrood, said the SNP plan was "manifestly flawed", and argued the committees, which cost £75,000-a-year to run, were useful to prisoners, could help identify suicide risks and offered a "unique" service.

She added: "I don't think the Scottish Prison Service likes independent prison visitors monitoring prisoners, establishing relationships that the Scottish Prison Service cannot emulate and investigating complaints, all of which is probably about as welcome to the Scottish Prison Service as a thistle in the backside.

"If I were the Scottish Prison Service, I probably wouldn't like it either.

"But this is not about the Scottish Prison Service. This is about prisoners."

Labour's community safety spokeswoman Jenny Marra said the SNP government's proposal was not a "like-for-like" replacement.

She said: "An advocacy service won by a company bidding for a government contract will never be able to perform the impartial scrutiny carried out by volunteers on the visiting committee who offer their time to do spot checks on prison conditions."

Green MSP Patrick Harvie, added: "The government's decision to end the important work of prison visiting committees is quite bizarre, and it's clear there's disquiet - even on the SNP backbenches.

"Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill seems to want to provide a poorer service at a higher cost, all for the aim of hitting arbitrary targets on the number of public bodies in Scotland."

The Liberal Democrats' Alison McInnes, said: "More than simply being an independent voice for prisoners, the committees play a far greater role in ensuring that standards in our prison estate are maintained - yet the cabinet secretary refuses to acknowledge this."

Mr MacAskill told MSPs a consultation on the issue failed to produce "decisive evidence" in favour of keeping the current set-up, but said no final decisions had been made.

He said: "Visiting committees were first created for Scottish penal establishments in 1877.

"Obviously, our prisons during the Victorian age were very different places from prisons in the 21st century.

"Times have changed and it's right that support for prisoners does also."

The justice secretary said more than 6,400 criminals were went to Barlinnie Prison in 2011, but only 14 prisoners asked to see a visiting committee member.

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