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SASW tells minister of concern at plans to abolish prison Visiting Committees

The Scottish Association of Social Work (SASW – part of BASW) has hit out at plans to abolish prison Visiting Committees, warning that “an essential part of the checks and balances for the care of prisoners will be lost” by the move, confirmed by minister for justice Kenny MacAskill late last year.

In a letter to the minister, SASW manager Ruth Stark said proposals for a replacement Independent Prisoner Advocacy Service would not fulfil the same function as Visiting Committees which offer “independent monitoring of the reality of the welfare and respect for human rights of people within our prison system”.

There are statutory Visiting Committees for each of Scotland’s prisons, comprised of unpaid but trained local authority appointed members who visit their respective facility every fortnight to assess conditions and hear complaints from prisoners.

The Scottish government first mooted plans to abolish the committees in a consultation exercise launched in late 2010. In December 2011 Mr MacAskill wrote to the visiting committees to confirm that they would be disbanded and replaced by the new advocacy service.

In her letter to the minister Ms Stark wrote: “We understand the primary role of the new Independent Prisoner Advocacy Service is to provide a co-ordinating service to encourage individual family links and links to support and service providing agencies. This is not the same as providing independent monitoring of the reality of the welfare and respect for human rights of people within our prison system.

“In moving to reduce the number of public bodies we must be sure that we do not erode people rights. We would suggest that the abolition of the Visiting Committees would erode a level of protection in Scottish prisons and this will mean that prisoners in Scotland will be without this protection which remains in place elsewhere in the UK.”

SASW also broadened the debate by highlighting the lack of progress in reducing prisoner numbers. Ms Stark urged the government so support more intensive efforts, putting social workers at the forefront of moves to reduce the prison population.

“While on one level there may be a need for the development of advocacy services in prisons it should not mask the failure to recognise the skills and expertise that are needed to help reduce our prisoner numbers by engaging with people to bring about change in their lives where their individual histories are huge hurdles for change.

“This should lead to a wider debate about investment in criminal justice social work, including a review of the CJA’s that have not had the intended impact on reducing prisoner numbers or in developing community payback orders that could significantly change the need for all those prison places.”

SASW’s letter to the minister