Time for honest blunders must surely be past

WITH memories of the Napier and Somerville, “slopping out” cases fading with the passage of time, Scottish ministers must have been hoping they had heard the last clink of a chamber pot.

No such luck, even though a time bar on such hugely controversial claims was rushed into law in 2009.

The latter was subject to a number of ongoing test cases during which a large number of similar petitions remained frozen or “sisted”.

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That time is now upon us and, in due course, it looks as though the Scottish Prison Service and Scottish taxpayers will once more be forking out further sums of money to former inmates.

When these are over – and with a few million more down the Swannee that should finally be an end to a matter which has caused huge embarrassment nationally and internationally, as well as eliciting considerable fury from an outraged public.

What’s more, it was all probably avoidable in the first place.

When the Scottish Parliament came into being in 1999, I warned Scottish ministers and the Scottish Prison Service (in writing), that as signatories to the European Convention of Human Rights they would become liable to claims of “inhuman and degrading” treatment if they did not get their act together over issues such as “slopping out” more particularly at Barlinnie, Scotland’s largest prison.

Instead, prison bosses and justice minister Jim Wallace became embroiled in a number of spats about money over the next couple of crucial years.

Halls at Barlinnie, which had been due for imminent refurbishment and the long overdue installation of proper lavatories languished in the doldrums, while much-needed funds were diverted to create the Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency.

During this time, remand prisoner Robert Napier was held in one such hall and claimed that his human rights had been infringed, his petition being registered in 2001.

Meanwhile, the wrangling between the chief executive officer of the Scottish Prison Service and the justice minister on this issue had finally ended and proper WCs had been installed.

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Nevertheless, in a seminal finding in Edinburgh (during which I gave evidence) Judge Bonomy ruled in Napier’s favour and the rest, as they say, is “history”.

There are those who will say that some daft bit of European legislation is to blame for all this wasted money and that the only real winners are the lawyers.

A bit of honest blundering by officials is probably nearer the mark, let’s hope their successors have been listening more intently.

l Clive Fairweather is former chief inspector of prisons for Scotland (1994-2002)

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