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Minister responds to SASW’s prison reform concerns

The Scottish government has written to the Scottish Association of Social Work (SASW – part of BASW) to indicate that it will press on with plans to abolish prison visiting committees but will undertake a new consultation next month on the functions of the system that will replace them.

In February SASW wrote to the justice minister Kenny MacAskill warning of the risks posed by abolishing ‘an essential part of the checks and balances for the care of prisoners’. SASW manager Ruth Stark said proposals for a replacement body, an Independent Prisoner Advocacy Service, would not fulfil the same function as visiting committees – statutory bodies comprised of unpaid but trained members who visit each prison every fortnight to assess conditions.

The written response from the government’s Justice Directorate said the move would help in efforts to reduce reoffending rates but did accept that the issue of independent monitoring needed more work.

The letter stated: ‘Mr MacAskill accepts that monitoring is an issue and will address this by continuing to work in collaboration with CoSLA (the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities) and other partners to help shape the thinking about how we ensure there is effective independent monitoring of prisons.’

The Directorate said that a new public consultation on ‘what a new service for the 21st century might look like’ would commence in May. Setting out the broad vision for the proposed Independent Prisoner Advocacy Service, the letter outlined a plan for it to comprise a ‘consortium of third sector organisations across the whole prison estate’.

The correspondence added: ‘It will place great emphasis on supporting prisoners to address their offending behaviour and contribute to reducing reoffending. The skills-set for the advocacy service will require the provider to have a local knowledge of working with offenders and will require them to support prisoners in improving communication with families; literacy issues; referrals in and out of prison; establish links with the local community and prisoners returning to communities.’

The Justice Directorate letter also stated that a previous consultation exercise on the original abolition plans offered insufficient reasons for retaining the committees, explaining that much of the support for keeping the system came from members of visiting committees themselves.

SASW’s Ruth Stark welcomed the minister’s commitment to further consultation on the shape of the new service but said her concerns remained about the experience and support that would be lost through abolishing the visiting committees.