Holyrood’s Justice Committee has backed plans to reduce by more than a third the number of unpaid work hours imposed as a punishment in most community payback orders.
Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf insisted the 35% cut was a “proportionate and necessary” response to the Covid-19 pandemic – adding that coronavirus restrictions could see the number of hours still be completed by criminals top one million by this summer.
Tories blasted the move, saying offenders would have part of their punishment “written off” and that “nothing will be put in its place as punishment for the crime”.
Mr Yousaf said the latest figures indicated there are currently 800,000 hours of unpaid work to be done as part of community payback orders – adding the “significant reduction in justice social work capacity” as a result of Covid-19 meant there was now a “high risk that these will not be deliverable within timescales expected by the courts”.
He told MSPs on the Justice Committee that Scottish Government analysis suggested that if court business was to return to pre-Covid levels at the same time as the capacity for unpaid work “remains very constrained, there could be in excess of one million hours outstanding by July if no other action is taken”.
With Social Work Scotland and other organisations having raised concerns about the “system becoming overwhelmed”, he said the Government was planning to cut the unpaid work element in most community payback orders by 35%.
The only exception to this would be orders imposed as punishment in cases involving domestic abuse, sexual offences and stalking, the Justice Secretary added.
He argued action was needed to try to prevent “what is already a challenging situation becoming significantly worse”.
The Justice Secretary said that even when coronavirus restrictions can start to be eased there will still be “significant barriers” in operating community sentences.
Mr Yousaf added: “Inevitably, some of these will remain in place until the vaccine rollout is complete.
“At the same time we expect the volume of unpaid work hours to rise significantly as court business resumes.”
He continued: “Under ordinary circumstances we would never propose altering sentences imposed by the courts and it’s a sign of just how much of an impact the pandemic has had that we are here today doing just that.”
However, he insisted the proposed reduction managed to “strike an appropriate balance between removing enough hours to assist justice social work services and ensuring that individuals complete the majority of their unpaid work requirement as imposed by the court”.
The Justice Secretary said: “This is a proportionate and necessary response to a global pandemic which helps ensure Scotland’s justice system can function effectively in extraordinary circumstances.”
The Justice Committee backed the move by seven votes to two, despite concerns from the Conservatives.
Tory justice spokesman Liam Kerr said: “In practical terms this means a criminal, part of whose punishment a court felt should be in the form of unpaid work, will have that punishment written off and nothing will be put in its place as punishment for the crime.”
He told the Justice Secretary: “I’m not sure if victims will see that as holding criminals to account.”