Catastrophic SNP meddling with the justice system? Guilty as charged …
TAKE a look, if you dare, at the in-tray of the prospective new justice minister — and it could well be Humza Yousaf, judging by the polls.
Fraud is at stratospheric levels, courts are mired in enormous pandemic-induced backlogs, and violent crime is at an eight-year high.
These problems didn’t turn up overnight; yet, while they developed, Mr Yousaf had his mind on other things as the pandemic gathered pace — mainly the Orwellian mess of the Hate Crime Bill.
Extensively revised after a tidal wave of opposition, it still threatens to criminalise comments you make inside your own home as hate speech.
Now the SNP is poised to take a fresh look at axing the Not Proven verdict, a perennial bugbear of successive administrations.
But there’s only one available verdict on whether the SNP is capable of carrying out the kind of radical change the justice system badly needs.
It’s guilty of pathological incompetence, with no mitigating circumstances, and the sentence is clear — a lifelong restriction order banning any further attempts at ‘reform’.
Perhaps the alarm bells should have rung when Mr Yousaf, who as the minister in charge of transport admitted he was not a ‘transport expert’, took over the justice brief from Michael Matheson — who presided over the virtual meltdown of the hierarchy of the troubled single police force — an SNP creation.
In 2017, Mr Yousaf was fined £300 for driving a friend’s car without insurance — no obstacle, of course, to his elevation to the post of Justice Secretary the following year — at least he had first-hand experience of the courts.
His predecessors included a long run of duds, but even so Mr Yousaf has done his best to reach dizzying new lows.
In 2019, he gave a foam-flecked, rabble-rousing speech to independence activists in George Square, Glasgow — almost snarling with rage at Scotland’s alleged oppression by the UK Government — flanked by his boss, Nicola Sturgeon.
It’s all very well, but it’s not necessarily what you might expect from the occupant of one of the great offices of state.
Mr Yousaf’s most memorable contribution during the pandemic (apart from the Hate Crime Bill) was the rubber-stamping of a move to release hundreds of criminals to free up space in jails, as Covid ran riot.
Some 142 of these prisoners were later returned to custody for an alarming list of suspected offences involving attempted murder, serious assault, robbery and sex offences.
Public safety was an afterthought, but why change the well-established practice of valuing the rights of criminals over those of the their long-suffering victims?
The number of prisoners freed after serving ‘life’ sentences has nearly doubled in two years — with some in jail for only a decade.
Meanwhile, reconvictions of sex offenders have risen to a three-year high.
The proportion of sex crimes solved by police is at its lowest level since 1979 — and the police watchdog revealed recently that about one in seven of them are miscategorised in official crime figures (the ones that the SNP uses to proclaim that Scotland is safer under its watch).
Police Scotland has been in financial turmoil since its creation in April 2013.
In January this year, the Scottish Government gave the force an extra £60million to plug the black hole in the force budget .
But that belated intervention came only after intense lobbying by police chiefs — and after Auditor General Stephen Boyle warned that the single force was not ‘financially sustainable’.
As we reported yesterday, police have apologised to the mother of murder victim Louise Aitchison, who died at the hands of her partner and lay undiscovered at her flat for two days, despite six visits from officers.
Eighteen failures surrounding the way the case was handled were identified.
With this rap sheet, you might be forgiven for having some qualms about more SNP tinkering with justice.
You may dimly recall that under Kenny MacAskill, ministers once tried to get rid of the historic legal principle of corroboration.
The notion of requiring two sources for evidence was deemed a barrier to convictions, particularly in hard-to-prove sex crime prosecutions — but the reform was shelved after a fierce backlash spearheaded by lawyers.
The bitterly divisive plan had been opposed by all but one of the country’s judges — Lord Carloway, who had devised it, and is now Lord President, the most senior judge in Scotland.
In 2014, the late Lord McCluskey attacked the move to end corroboration, and wrote in the Mail that all criticism of the SNP was ‘strategically ignored by the present government when it is deemed incompatible with its overall agenda’.
Mr MacAskill was sacked weeks later, the SNP staged a U-turn — and corroboration was saved.
In 2019, Mr Yousaf talked in vague terms about dropping the not proven verdict after a major research exercise on jury behaviour, but — perhaps mindful of the corroboration row — he backed off, and focused instead on hate crime.
Senior lawyers are understandably voicing concern about the damage the SNP could do if re-elected.
At the top of that groaning in-tray in the office of the new Justice Secretary, however, will be the small matter of the Rangers fraud fiasco.
The malicious prosecution of two insolvency experts is only the tip of the iceberg — more cases are in the pipeline that could leave taxpayers with a damages bill of up to £100million.
It’s a huge scandal, and — barring all the usual redactions and frenzied buck-passing — we might even get to find out who was to blame one day.
We’re told there will be an inquiry, though it will have to take its place among all other costly inquests into SNP blunders.
If you’re looking for heads to roll, don’t hold your breath — as we saw during the Salmond affair, accountability is a bit old-fashioned in our vibrant, 21st-century democracy.
Mr Yousaf, unusually, hasn’t said much about the Rangers controversy — he’s kept his head down, and if he does walk back into his old job in May he will probably maintain his monastic silence, for as long as he can.
Perhaps he saves his most animated public statements for those separatist rallies — and maybe he’s no ‘justice expert’ either.
All the more reason for Mr Yousaf, a minister far out of his depth, to keep his hands off one of our most cherished public services.
And if you think things couldn’t much get much worse, the possibility of a formal SNP/Green coalition raises an even more disturbing prospect — step forward, Justice Secretary Patrick Harvie…
*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on April 13, 2021.