Scotish laws and the Mentally Ill - Parliamentary Debate

Mentally ill people in Scotland should be given special protection if they are called to give evidence in court, Labour demanded today. John McFall, for the Opposition, told the Commons that people with mental disorders needed the same safeguards presently given to children.
Scottish Office Minister of State Lord James Douglas-Hamilton said the Government wanted to extend witness protection to those with a mental handicap but insisted Labour's proposal was too wide. The exchange came during detailed report stage debate on the Crime and Punishment (Scotland) Bill, which aims to ensure that jail terms served by prisoners match more closely the sentences imposed by the courts. It also provides for supervision on release for "high risk" prisoners and places an obligation on courts to impose life sentences on those convicted for a second time of serious sexual or violent offences.
Mr McFall said people with mental disorders should have the same protection in court as children did.
This would include:
:: Video recording evidence in advance
:: Giving evidence by live television link
:: Using screens to ensure that the witness would not have to see the accused.
He told the House: "The Government have now accepted that vulnerable witnesses and vulnerable witness protection should be given to witnesses with a learning disability but we are very concerned that it has not seen fit to extend that to people with mental health problems. "We feel it should apply to all witnesses who could be vulnerable because of a mental disorder, including those with mental health problems."
Lord James argued that the definition for those offered witness protection should be those with a "significant impairment of intelligence and social functioning".
He said Labour's definition was too wide and a line should be drawn between those who had a mental handicap from birth, or from a subsequent injury, and those with a mental health problem.
Lord James said that the mentally handicapped could be classified as "at risk". "The same cannot necessarily be said of those in the wide category of witness who may be suffering from a mental illness," he said. He also voiced his concern about the extent of closed circuit TV protection for witnesses in courts.
He argued it would be "perfectly in order" to extend programmes now running to protect child witnesses to people suffering from schizophrenia and manic depression.
"If the Government accepts that some disabled people need some protection, why can't it accept that some mentally ill people may as well?"
For Liberal Democrats, Menzies Campbell said: "It does seem that the basis of the Government's opposition to the extension which is being proposed rests in that old hoary chestnut of the floodgates argument.
"That must in the end be the Government's anxiety -- that somehow if this provision would be enacted it would be the subject of abuse." There was very risk of this, he insisted. The SNP's Roseanna Cunningham (Perth and Kinross) said many witnesses requiring this sort of protection were themselves victims. She told MPs: "We ought to be of a mind to extend, where necessary, all the protections that we can in the law for people who are vulnerable."
Later, a Labour call to extend supervision on release to all prisoners serving sentences of four years or more was rejected by 281 votes to 233, Government majority 48.
Introducing the unsuccessful Opposition new clause, Mr McFall told the House: "Public safety in our opinion will be increased if long-term prisoners are supervised until their sentence expires." He asked why the Government was prepared to allow potentially dangerous criminals into the community without proper supervision.
"Surely they are putting public order at risk and it is a risk that they should not undertake."
But Lord James insisted it was better to target supervision on a smaller number of potentially dangerous criminals. The minister said: "We consider that attempting to supervise literally everyone, regardless of risk or need, as the amendment sets out to do, would deflect attention away from those offenders who pose a threat." He stressed supervision could only achieve its objective if it was "focused and targeted". In further debate, Labour called for measures to improve bail provision and tighten up the law to prevent further suicides at Scotland's only women's prison. Mr McFall told the House that, in the past 18 months, there were six suicides and a further six attempted suicides at Cornton Vale prison near Stirling. He said Opposition MPs had spent more than a year campaigning for better bail facilities and a change in the law to stop women being remanded in custody unnecessarily.
Mr McFall said they had been lobbying Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth, in whose constituency the prison is located. The Labour frontbencher welcomed recent announcements by Mr Forsyth to increase funding for bail facilities in Scotland.
But he stressed: "What we want to do is increase the bail provision in Scotland to ensure that only women who pose a danger to public safety, or where it is in the interests of justice, are remanded in custody prior to trial or sentence.
"Those who do not pose a danger should not be there."
According to the latest Scottish Office figures, said Mr McFall, 876 women were remanded in custody in Scotland in 1995, 739 prior to trial, 137 awaiting sentence. He said Chief Inspector of Prisons Clive Fairweather's report into the matter indicated "many of these women should not have been remanded".
Mr McFall also argued that no woman should be sentenced to a term of imprisonment unless an assessment had first been made of her background and, if any, her drug dependency. He said: "The numbers are not high. This is not a resource issue." Mr McFall said it would amount to 3,000 social work hours a year to prepare the reports, equivalent to two full-time social workers. Labour proposed that women should not be imprisoned on remand unless there was no other community penalty available to the court. For Liberal Democrats, Mr Campbell said that when faced with a series of suicides of the kind at Cornton Vale, MPs had to be prepared "to think the unthinkable".
He urged: "We need a root and branch approach to the whole question of how we deal with women who find themselves caught up in the criminal justice system of this country.
"And if as a result of such a review it becomes clear that the physical characteristics of Cornton Vale are inappropriate, then we need to be prepared to take the step of closing the facility and building something else which is much said there had been six suicides in Corton Vale in the past 18 months. "This is a completely unacceptable level and something that requires an inquiry at the highest level."  Too many people were in there for offences such as non-payment of fines. "Some of them are there not as the first option of the sentencing judge."
Commenting on Scotland's prison population level, he said: "I get the impression the Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth wants to make it even higher -- making the only growth industry in Scotland the construction of more prisons."
Labour's Irene Adams (Paisley N) said: "Someone once told me: `If there were no men in the world, it would be a crime-free place full of fat happy women.
"It is the case that women are not so orientated to committing crimes, but it appears from statistics there are treated much more harshly than their male counterparts for the same crimes committed."
"The Government should look at treating women differently in the prison system."
Lord James defended the Government's move to extend electronic tagging to offenders aged under 16. In some cases, young offenders would definitely warrant custodial sentences, said the minister. "In others, it may be preferable to confine them to their homes and use electronic monitoring to make sure they stay there." Roseanna Cunningham (SNP Perth and Kinross) warned the move would "brand children in a way which may make it much more difficult for them to change and learn from their mistakes".
Labour's Michael Connarty (Falkirk E) dubbed the Government's proposal "abhorrent", and protested: "The Government has gone over the top into a science fiction nightmare ..."
MPs were still debating the proposal at 10pm, when the Government whips decided not to press on to complete the Bill's remaining stages tonight.

Further debate was adjourned and the House rose early when Tory Michael Alison (Selby) was not present to launch a short debate on coal mining subsidence in North Yorkshire.

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