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Alison McInnes speech to Scottish Liberal Democrat Conference in Dundee

March 15, 2013 1:27 PM
Originally published by Scottish Liberal Democrats

Speech by Alison McInnes MSP, Scottish Liberal Democrat justiceAlison McInnesAlison McInnes spokesperson, to Scottish Liberal Democrat Spring conference in Dundee:

'Good morning conference. Let me add my own personal welcome to all of you to this great city- a city that I'm proud to have represented at Holyrood for the last six years.

'I've been lucky in that time to have had the chance to work with Fraser Macpherson. Fraser is one of our outstanding local councillors. He is an excellent campaigner, and I know how highly he's regarded by his constituents.

'Like you, I joined the Liberal Democrats because I believe in our vision of a fair society. A society where everybody, everywhere has the chance to get on.

'As a party, we champion the freedom, dignity and wellbeing of individuals.

'We grew out of a desire to fight for greater personal liberties; to fight for that free and fair society.

'Justice matters to us.

'But having the Justice portfolio at Parliament does have one downside. Well, two if you include the need to deal with Kenny MacAskill.

'That downside is that you often find yourself having to deal with depressing and distressing statistics. Crime rates, prison population, drug abuse.

'And those depressing statistics are some of the biggest hurdles between us and reaching our vision.

'The fact that crime rates are still a problem. That drug abuse is still a problem. That growing prison populations are still a problem can only mean one thing. Still not enough is being done to help those people in our society who are most at need.

'One in five children in Scotland live in poverty.

'The number of unemployed people under 25 in Scotland has doubled in the last five years.

'Which part of Scotland a child is born in can mean a difference of 14 years to their life expectancy.

'These are things we can make a difference on. The start a child gets in life is the most important thing in shaping their future.

'That is why the Liberal Democrats are proud to be the party of early intervention.

'In Government at Holyrood, we drove forward the Early Intervention Programme, aimed at improving literacy and numeracy in deprived areas. We extended free nursery education for all three and four year olds. The first generation of children to benefit from these changes is now growing up with the Scottish Parliament.

'In Government at Westminster, we have now extended nursery provision to disadvantaged two year olds. In opposition at Holyrood, Willie Rennie challenged the SNP to match that ambition. It's a challenge they couldn't live up to.

'Over the years we've won more money for colleges and made our schools better.

'We've laid out detailed plans that would help children looked after by the state - some of the most disadvantaged of all. We want to see more supported accommodation, better support for kids leaving care, and extra help for them at school.

'We want to put better tools in place to make sure that we spot the first warning signs. When a child starts skipping school, when they first get into trouble, that's the time they need our help the most.

'We're doing everything we can to give youngsters the best start in life, and we'll keep on trying to do more.

'But what about those who still slip through the net? What about the young people who still end up as one of those statistics?

'For them, I want us to champion an early intervention revolution in our justice system as well.

'I want to make sure that we give everyone - even those who end up on the wrong side of the law - that chance to get on and play a full part in our society.

'Too often at the moment, making a single mistake as a youngster shuts down that chance of getting on.

'Too often, a bad choice, an error of judgement, a moment of desperation, leads to a life of bouncing in and out of prison with an ever increasing toll on victims and communities.

'Reconviction rates in Scotland have barely changed in a decade. One in three offenders re-offend within a year of being convicted.

'Here in Dundee, we have the highest reconviction rate in Scotland.

'And the most likely of all to re-offend are young men.

'Over the past few weeks I've visited a few of our local community justice programs, as well as Polmont Young Offenders Institute - Britain's biggest prison for young people.

'Many of us at conference are parents. We know that some of the most intensive support children need is when they are teenagers and young adults.

'Peer pressure. Managing anger and disappointment. First loves, first jobs, choosing college courses or leaving home for the first time.

'But who gives that intensive support to young people leaving care? Who builds a young person's self-esteem if their parents are struggling to cope with drug addiction? If they can't even support themselves?

'You don't expect meeting offenders to be overwhelmingly positive, of course. But what shocked me the most was hearing over and over again the same story, the same attitudes.

'Disengagement. Resignation. Cynicism. No qualifications. A lack of self-worth.

'Youngsters - many of them 16 or 17 year olds- telling me that they had no hope for the future. Ambitions already extinguished. Or worse, perhaps, ambitions never ignited to begin with.

'The recent inspection at Polmont underlined the problem. We've got facilities in place to help those youngsters. But they're not being used. Our justice system also needs the will power to make the best of them. To inspire a transformation in those young offenders' lives.

'The visits made me sad. They made me angry. I want to know how can it still be this way in 21st century Scotland?

'Meeting those kids has made me more determined than ever to push for change.

'We need to give them the support that their parents or schools couldn't. That the state care systems didn't.

'To give those young offenders the chance they deserve to get on in our fair society, we need a fundamental rethink.

'We need to do better for them. And we need to do better for those communities damaged by crime.

'If our prisons fail to rehabilitate offenders, are they really serving victims of crime? When prisons cost us millions of pounds yet reoffending rates stay the same, are they really protecting our communities?

'It's time to demand more from our criminal justice service.

'And where better to start than by rethinking how we deal with young offenders.

'For prison to work, it needs to go far beyond keeping offenders locked up.

'It was put to the Justice Committee at Parliament recently that prison walls should be 'porous'. We can detain our young offenders away from the outside world, but we cannot, we must not, cut them off from it.

'Our Young Offenders Institutions should be the intensive care units of the prison service.

'Time in prison must be spent with good purpose. We must help offenders to find purposeful activities. Help give them the skills they need to get on once their sentence is over.

'We must make sure that relationships between support workers and offenders are based on respect and trust. That they're honest, open and non-judgemental.

'And we must make sure that those relationships are maintained after leaving prison.

'Ultimately, my belief is that every possible alternative should be considered before sending young offenders to prison.

'We need a justice system that works with offenders to understand their individual needs. That works with them to help them find jobs, to improve their relationships and to better manage their lives.

'We need to strengthen community justice measures, to make them meet the full range of problems that young offenders have.

'We need to put local communities at the heart of the justice system.

'We need to get offenders to take part in local restorative schemes and work placements.

'And most importantly, we need to understand that rehabilitation is a journey. If we're serious about tackling reoffending, we need to do better at helping offenders along the road back into society. We need to better track the progress they're making. If they falter along the way, we need to understand why. And we need to help get them back on their feet.

'A justice system that is simply a conveyor belt of arrests, court cases and sentences serves nobody.

'A justice system that takes young offenders, listens to them, helps them, and keeps on working with them is the justice system that Scotland deserves.

'Up the road in Inverurie, one of the small community justice programs I visited is based around a woodworking work shop. It helps offenders to develop skills while getting them to work on projects for local community groups. It stands out from the rest.

'Jim Middleton, the project's on-site supervisor, told me something I found very telling. He said that, on completing their sentences, some of the offenders there ask if they're allowed to stay on. He said that they tell him that the Harlaw project is the first time in their lives that they have been listened to. The first time that they have been worked with in a positive way. The first time that they have found value in doing something, and been found valuable in return.

'It's the first time I've ever heard that said about a justice program.

'I want it to be the norm.

'I want Scotland to commit to an early intervention revolution on justice.

'I want Scotland to commit to making sure that those who do offend don't reoffend.

'I want Scotland to commit to a justice system that works with our communities for the benefit of our communities.

'And I think that the Liberal Democrats can point to our record proudly and say we are the ones to lead the way.'