Ladies and gentlemen, fellow delegates.
What a difference a year makes. Well, in some respects. You may remember last year, whilst expressing how privileged I was to serve as Justice Secretary I lamented that whilst Cabinet colleagues went to India and South East Asia I went to Belfast – and was very pleased to do so.
So much so that while my colleagues have been or are going back to China, India and America, I went back to Belfast once again.
This time highlights included visiting the Police Board Headquarters, followed by a visit to the Police Service of Northern Ireland HQ and a visit to PSNI station in loyalist East Belfast.
I know what you are thinking – why should I have all the fun? True. That’s why Roseanna is getting to go too!
There are considerable upsides to my privileged position. When I came back last week from visiting my son abroad, before I had even got through passport control I had been identified and acknowledged by the visible police presence. It wasn’t just the rest of the passengers, but me that began to wonder what I had done!
Delegates, last year I stood before you and stated the record upon which we sought re-election – 1,000 additional police officers into our communities and they in turn delivered a 33-year low in recorded crime. But it wasn’t just the outcome of the election that got better. Because ladies and gentlemen this year we have 1,100 additional officers and a 35-year low in recorded crime. We were returned as a majority Government because we are making Scotland stronger and safer. We are moving Scotland forward.
But it’s not just on recorded crime that we are moving forward. Violent crime is down by just under a fifth since we came to office and the possession of knives and other offensive weapons is down by almost 40% since we took office. But for those who transgress, there is no hiding place, because sentences are up for the fifth consecutive year.
We are not just making Scotland safer, but making Scottish communities feel safer. People are more positive about the crime rate in their local area than at any time in the last ten years and the risk of becoming a victim of crime continues to fall and is lower than south of the border. It’s a record upon which we were re-elected and it’s a record that we can be proud of.
But we are not complacent. We do know that there’s still far too many tragedies caused by knives in our country. We are taking action on the booze and blade culture that causes so much mayhem and too much misery in too many parts. The No Knives Better Lives scheme is making progress. In Inverclyde knife crime down by 35%. In Renfrewshire down by 29%.
We have extended it into Edinburgh, Glasgow and Clackmannan and, later this month, I will be announcing it’s extension still further. There’s a long way to go, but we are moving forward.
However, we recognise as a Government that it’s not just about dealing with the consequences of crime, but stopping crime occurring. That’s why since we came to office, over £44 million has been spent on the Cashback for Communities Scheme – providing opportunities for over 600,000 young people. Football, basketball, rugby, have all benefitted as well as arts, drama and other outlets for young folk’s energy. Earlier this week, I announced £360,000 to be invested into boxing in Scotland. It’s not my sport – I’m a football man – but I tell you this – because the police tell me it – it works for the some of the hard to handle kids as well as many others. Some may go on to be a Ken Buchanan or a Jim Watt, but for many others it simply keeps them out of trouble, on the straight and narrow, and fit and healthy.
But we do face challenges. None perhaps more so than the severe financial challenges wrecked upon us by Westminster. The cuts are deep and severe. Notwithstanding that, John Swinney has done a fantastic job in ensuring that we protect as much as possible the police budget. But, ladies and gentlemen, I can’t ask officers to do more with the same or even less. It is for that reason that there requires to be police and fire reform.
We will ensure the maintenance of the outstanding police service to Scotland’s communities through a single police service. The status quo is not an option. The alternative is what’s happening south of the border. According to their Inspector of Constabulary, up to 30,000 officers could be lost and in Greater Manchester alone between 2,000 and 4,000 are to go. We will not countenance. Nor will we countenance tearing up the terms and conditions of the police officers who do such a fantastic job for us, as is happening down south as a result of the Winsor review – not now, not ever.
Let me challenge some of the hypocrisy from those who opposed a single service. The Liberal Democrats criticised reform that was taken to protect the outstanding forensic science service we have in Scotland. We have consolidated, but protected it. Ensuring not just that there will be state of the art premises in Dundee and Gartcosh, but a continuing service in Edinburgh and Aberdeen. But what have the Liberal Democrats been doing in the coalition south of the border? They are privatising the service lock, stock and laboratory. Their claims on the police service were equally hypocritical and they got the election result that they deserved.
There have been some legitimate concerns raised but they are being addressed. We will ensure that there’s neither centralisation, lack of accountability or interference in governance. It has been suggested that a single service will see a reduction in officer numbers in our communities. Let’s look at the historic facts. In 1975, when we last saw police reform here in the north there was once 3 police services. After reform, there was just one. There were 2 Chief Constables less, but equally 300 additional officers more. As the First Minister said, bobbies before boundaries.
Our police force and prosecution service will continue to serve us both at home and abroad. The events in Libya in the last 24 hours may have brought one issue to a conclusion. But, as we have always made clear, the Lockerbie investigation remains a live inquiry. Our police and prosecutors - as they have done diligently for the 23 years since the atrocity - will take whatever action is necessary and follow any lines of inquiry in the interests of justice.
That will be one of the major pieces of legislation and it will lay the groundwork for a safer and stronger Scotland. But there’s much more work to do. As the First Minister has correctly said, not just Scotland’s national game, but parts of Scotland are tarnished by sectarianism.
My colleague Roseanna Cunningham is taking through what is a short, but very important Bill through parliament. And I can assure you ladies and gentlemen that neither Roseanna, the First Minister, nor myself will shirk from taking the necessary action.
When I was in Belfast at the Strandtown PSNI station, I saw footage from the riots that occurred in the summer in East Belfast, violent and hate-filled.
Back in Glasgow, a few weeks back, the First Minister and I attended the national police memorial day. We met Nuala Kerr, the mother of PC Ronan Kerr murdered by a terrorist bomb. A young man 4 months into his police service killed for being a Catholic in the PSNI.
When people say it’s just a bit of banter, it’s just a song that doesn’t hurt anyone.
These are songs of hate and there is no place for them in a modern Scotland.
When people say it’s just a political chant – tell that to Ronan Kerr’s mother.
It is for that reason that Roseanna will lead this Bill through Parliament. It’s not about the Boyne in 1690 or Dublin in Easter 1916 it’s about dragging a small minority of folk in our country into the 21st century.
There are other challenges we face. We need to protect the integrity of the High Court in Scotland. It is for that reason we welcome the report from Lord McCluskey and other eminent lawyers. Scotland has long cherished it’s distinctive criminal justice system and we will protect it.
Equally, until such time as there is further constitutional change, we have always recognised that civil matters are different. It’s for that reason that I am delighted that the UK Supreme Court vindicated the actions of our SNP Government and validated the Court of Appeal in Scotland by upholding justice for the victims of pleural plaques.
We have to embark upon legal reform, whether driven by Europe or by financial challenges. For that reason we will take action to make whatever changes are necessary once Lord Carloway returns with his report on criminal procedure. We will take action to protect the integrity of our legal aid system in a time of austerity. We will ensure protection for those who need it most. However, the days of the victim of domestic violence having to contribute to the cost of getting protective orders whilst the perpetrator got criminal legal aid with no contribution have to change. It can’t be afforded, but it’s also not right. Those who can afford to contribute to criminal legal aid must do so.
However, when we talk about Courts and procedures, lawyers and judges, we must never forget the victims of crime. For too long it seemed it was so. Thankfully the former Lord Advocate, now Dame Elish Angiolini, made considerable strides to address that. That good work is being continued by her successor as Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland, and Roseanna and I will deliver it in Parliament through a Victims Rights Bill.
So, ladies and gentlemen – a record upon which we sought re-election, a record that saw us re-elected, and a record that we can be proud of. It hasn’t been simple to date, and the journey ahead won’t be easy. There will be turbulence and there will be challenges. But we are making a Scotland a safer and stronger place. We can be proud of our record as a minority Government. Proud of the actions we are now taking as a majority Government. We are moving Scotland forward.