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Solicitor-General For Scotland

Volume 81: debated on Wednesday 19 June 1985

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Travelling People (Crown Office Attitude)

36.

asked the Solicitor-General for Scotland if he will undertake a review of the Crown Office attitude to complaints against travelling people, and invite representations from local authorities, the police and public

The policy in relation to complaints of unlawful encampment is reviewed from time to time and has recently been revised to link toleration to achievement by local authorities at district level of the provision of pitch targets. As I informed my hon. Friend on 31 October 1984, complaints against travelling people of other breaches of the law are normally dealt with by the police and procurators fiscal in the normal way.

Accepting that the Scottish Office as well as the Law Officers have an important responsibility in this matter, does my hon. and learned Friend agree that if all travelling people were well behaved and good neighbours there would be very little problem in their finding sites? Does he further agree that during the past year or so there have been examples of incidents and behaviour which entitle us to consider bringing to an end the quite extraordinary privileges which travelling people have in being able to settle anywhere in encampments regardless of planning considerations, environmental health and property ownership, and free of rent and rates?

As I have said before, and wish to emphasise again, the toleration policy extends only to unlawful encampment and does not in any way extend to other breaches of the law. The travelling people, as much as anyone else, are under the ordinary obligation to ensure that they observe the law of Scotland. My hon. Friend will also be aware that where there are large, random groups moving around the country in a nontraditional pattern the toleration policy observed in the past does not apply.

In this year of youth, is it not quite disgraceful that many youngsters are forced to be regarded as travelling people simply because they are looking for jobs? Is not the DHSS being encouraged to lean on them and to make it intolerable for them to exist as human beings? Is it not true that these youngsters—the new travelling people — deserve to be protected? They deserve basic rights, just like anyone else — just like tinkers, and I do not knock tinkers by any means. If this Government lead in anything, will they come forward—dare I ask?—with a youth charter to support and protect those youngsters who form a lost generation in Scotland today?

If the hon. Gentleman has a point, it is certainly nothing to do with the problem that we have in Scotland of trying to accommodate traditional travelling people, who have encampments in various areas. I would have thought that those of us who are aware of the problem would want to ensure that the provision of sites throughout Scotland for travelling people were established. What the hon. Gentleman raises has nothing to do with that very real difficulty.

Housing Benefit

37.

asked the Solicitor-General for Scotland how many prosecutions there have been in Scotland in the last year for fraud in relation to the housing benefit system.

Precise figures are not available, but inquiries with procurators fiscal indicate that there have been approximately 15 such cases.

I am interested to hear that reply. Is the Solicitor-General aware of the abuse of the housing benefit system by slum landlords in Glasgow? We understand that in some cases the abuse goes over the borderline into deliberate fraud. I do not expect the hon. and learned Gentleman to comment on individual cases, but will he give me an assurance that where evidence of fraud is obtained the full rigour of the law will be applied and the landlords concerned prosecuted?

I am aware both of the matters that the right hon. Gentleman has raised and of what was in the Glasgow Evening Times. He will appreciate that although the matter is not sub judice it would be inappropriate for me at this stage to comment specifically on the allegations that have been made. I confirm to him that although I am not in a position to make any comment immediately, he may take it that the matter is being carefully investigated.

Does the Solicitor-General know that since my days as a councillor in Glasgow there have been complaints about the company mentioned in the GlasgowEvening Times? The complaints are still continuing in my constituency. I have heard tales of people's belongings being thrown out on to tenement landings and of the locks being changed on the doors. Surely as a Minister of the Crown the Solicitor-General should investigate these matters. He should ensure that tenants are properly protected and that we do not go back to the Rachman landlord system.

Again, I have to say that it would not be appropriate to make comments on the particular company, nor do I know how long that company has been in existence. I emphasise that the reserve I place on my remarks is not idle. I am aware that serious allegations have been made, including those that involve harassment of tenants, which would be illegal under the Rent Acts.

Defence Policy

38.

asked the Solicitor-General for Scotland whether he will publish in the Official Report the full text of complaints lodged with procurators fiscal alleging the illegality of Her Majesty's Government's defence policy and the reason why no action was taken.

In view of the complaints lodged with the procurator fiscal at Stirling by students at Stirling university to the effect that, under the terms of the Geneva convention, it is a crime in international law to target the civilian population, and in view of the fact that the Government's nuclear arms policy presents a threat to the civilian population as well as to military personnel, is there not at least prima facie evidence for bringing a prosecution against the Prime Minister and her Government for conducting a defence policy that is criminal?

There is no general multilateral convention outlawing nuclear weapons, nor under international law is the use or possession of nuclear weapons prohibited. Indeed, the existence of such treaties as the one on non-proliferation would seem to indicate implicit acceptance of the legality of possession of nuclear weapons by some nuclear states. In any event, I would scarcely have thought that Stirling sheriff court was the appropriate forum to arraign before it every Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Defence since this country acquired a nuclear capability.

Does my hon. and learned Friend not regret these misplaced and misguided attempts to bring into the judicial sphere that which correctly belongs to the political sphere? Does he agree that the electorate of the United Kingdom wholeheartedly endorse the Government's defence policy?

My hon. Friend is right. What is being sought by the question and by the approach that was made to the procurator fiscal is the introduction of a political element into legal proceedings. In any event, as I have sought to emphasise, it is the view of the Government that the possession of nuclear weapons is not a breach of international law.

Procurator Fiscal (Staff Vacancies)

39.

asked the Solicitor-General for Scotland if he will list the vacancies in the Procurator Fiscal's Department.

As at 31 May 1985 there were vacancies for five legal assistants, one executive officer and nine typing posts.

Because of the worsening working conditions of the service of the Procurator Fiscal in Scotland, has the Solicitor-General had any indication from the staff that they intend to take some form of industrial action, which may culminate in strike action, to pursue their claims? If they put pickets on a Crown Office building, which police force will monitor their activities?

Unfortunately for the hon. Gentleman, he got the wrong answer. He was anticipating that the number of vacancies would be increasing rather than decreasing. In any event, such is my respect for the procurator fiscal service as a whole that I have no doubt that industrial action of the sort that he suggests would be considered wholly inappropriate.

Crime Statistics (Strathclyde Region)

40.

asked the Solicitor-General for Scotland how many prosecutions there were for crimes and offences in Strathclyde region in 1984; and how this compares with 1983.

Provisional figures for 1984 indicate that 103,150 persons were proceeded against in Strathclyde region for crimes and offences. This compares with a figure of 114,336 for 1983.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, if Strathclyde regional council brought the Strathclyde police force up to established strength, more police on the beat would do a great deal to detect crime and so increase the number of prosecutions? Does he further agree that Strathclyde regional council's refusal to increase the number of police is profoundly damaging and wholly unjustified?

Yes. Although I have said that there is a decline in the number of people proceeded against, I should have thought that there was nothing in that figure to justify the action being taken to withhold from the chief constable the funding that he needs to bring his force up to full strength. I understand that there is a shortfall of about 200 police officers and 704 civilian support staff in Strathclyde region.

Would not the statistics concerning those proceeded against in Strathclyde courts for drunkenness and related offences be improved considerably by the establishment of designated places?

The action that has been taken in Aberdeen has shown that the problem can be dealt with much more satisfactorily in that way. If the hon. Gentleman examines the figures that I have given, I believe he will appreciate that what my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Hirst) said was valid.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. My point of order concerns Question 15, which I had hoped to have the opportunity to ask, and a significant mistype. The mistyped word is "liability". I had no intention of asking about the liability of the Scottish salmon fishing industry, but wanted to raise the issue of its viability. You will be aware, Mr. Speaker, that good beats of Scottish salmon rivers have never seen fewer salmon—

Order. I am not aware of that and I am sorry that we did not reach the hon. Gentleman's question. We did not make very good progress today. However, I have done my best to call those hon. Members who tabled questions lower on the Order Paper. I shall ensure that the correction is made.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It has not escaped your notice that, in spite of your excellent efforts, we managed to get only as far as Question 9 today. So that we might proceed more quickly and ask more questions of Scottish Ministers, who represent the equivalent of seven United Kingdom Departments and a wide range of issues—we did not reach some important questions today, such as that on the salmon industry and one on Pratt and Whitney, in which I was especially interested—would you consider refraining from calling some Conservative Members again and again when there are only a handful of them and when some of them have not tabled questions at all? Would you also consider making representations through the usual channels to the effect that Scottish Question Time should take place more frequently than every four weeks? The Welsh are able to question their Secretary of State every three weeks and I think that we should be doing it at least every fortnight.

If the hon. Gentleman looks at the Order Paper, he will see that I gave preference, as is my practice, to those hon. Members with questions on the Order Paper. [Interruption.] Order. If the hon. Gentleman is referring to hon. Members from English constituencies, may I say that they have as much right to take part in Scottish Question Time as Scottish Members have to take part in English Question Time. I called some of them today, though I think not as frequently as I called Scottish Opposition Members. If the hon. Gentleman consults the Order Paper, he will see that I made a judgment on important issues in Scotland and that hon. Members with questions further down the Order Paper were called.

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I understand that the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) has just drawn attention to the fact that, unusually, I do not have a question on the Order Paper today. The reason is quite simple—

Order. I cannot think that that is a matter for me. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not dissatisfied with being called three—or was it four, times?