Friday, October 12, 2007

Petition PE1073 - Petitions Committee Report on disproportionate levels of Catholics in Scottish prisons

Following is the report from the Scottish Parliament Petitions Committee on their consideration of Petition PE1073 by Tom Minogue, calling for the Scottish Parliament to investigate and establish the reasons for the apparently disproportionate number of Catholics in Scottish prisons & poor housing.

Scottish Prison Population (Catholics) (PE1073)

The Convener: The next petition for consideration is PE1073, from Tom Minogue, which calls on the Scottish Parliament to investigate and establish the reasons for the apparently disproportionate number of Catholics in Scottish prisons. Before the petition was formally lodged, it was hosted on the e-petition system between 28 November 2006 and 15 June 2007, where it gathered 131 signatures. Do members have views on how the petition should be taken forward?

Robin Harper: The figures that the petitioner cites seem anomalous, but they should inspire a piece of sophisticated social research. It does not strike me that the anomaly has anything to do with religious persecution. If the figures that have been cited are accurate, a sophisticated piece of social research should be commissioned.

The Convener: As someone of that persuasion I am nervous about dealing with the petition, on the basis that I might find myself in jail. There is concern about the fact that the number of Catholics in prison is disproportionate. Some would argue that there are powerful sociological, class and economic reasons for that, but the discussion on the e-petitions system indicates that

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some people are still strongly of the view that the figures should be investigated. It is obvious that there is not much information on the issue, so we should explore it further. How do members think we can get to the bottom of the matter, so that we can reassure people that the judicial process is fair and not discriminatory, as we would be concerned if there were evidence of discrimination? We should send out a strong message that we are tracking the phenomenon and that we will deal with it appropriately, where possible.

John Wilson: I suggest that we widen the discussion. The petition suggests that the number of Catholics in prison is out of kilter with the percentage of Catholics in the population, but the figures that are before us show clearly that the same is true of other ethnic groups. If we are to make approaches to anyone, we need to seek responses that address the wider issues that relate to those categories of prisoners and to investigate why the differences that have been identified exist. The Muslim population of Scotland is 0.8 per cent of the total, but Muslims make up 1.7 per cent of the prison population. Clearly, the number of Muslims in prison is out of kilter with the percentage of Muslims in the general population. Instead of confining the discussion to one religious group, we should widen it out and ask whether any research into the issue has been done, what its findings were and what impact the phenomenon has on society in general.

Rhoda Grant: I am happy with what has been suggested.

Robin Harper: When I proposed that there should be sophisticated research, I meant that it should be wide ranging—as John Wilson has suggested—and that there should be statistical analysis of the entire prison population to establish the commonalities that exist. Something else may be behind apparent commonalities that have been identified.

The Convener: As for how best to respond to the issues that have been raised in the petition and in the committee's discussion, one option is to write to ask the justice department what information it has. Some statistical research or academic work could be useful. I am wondering off the top of my head who would be best to call for that. We may well see a gap or an anomaly. Could we ask the Government whether, in its research models or its commissioning of research to influence policy frameworks and development, it has considered religious affiliation in examining where the numbers in the prison population are coming from? Much work is done on the social class and the economics of the prison population. Is religious affiliation considered in relation to the prison population and sentencing policy? Are like-for-like comparisons made between ethnic groups

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and religious groups in relation to sentencing policy?

The process has two stages. We will initially ask the justice department for its views. After we have that response, we need to determine whether it is adequate or whether we require further explanation.

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