GOVERNMENT U-turns are usually greeted with derision by political opponents, allegedly proving that the administration has lost its way and needs to be replaced by them.
But justice secretary Michael Matheson’s decision to scrap plans to build a new large women’s prison to replace the existing establishment at Cornton Vale has been simply welcomed by opposition parties as a sensible policy reversal.
That reaction is also to be welcomed as a mature response. In 2012, Dame Elish Angiolini, a former Lord Advocate, produced a report condemning Cornton Vale as “not fit for purpose”. The report was commissioned because of concern about the large number of suicides by inmates.
To her credit, Dame Elish did not simply concentrate on how the prison staff might prevent these suicides, but delved deeper to ask why so many inmates were so depressed as to take their own lives and regarded the problem as merely a symptom of a much bigger fault. She identified several issues. Among the most important was that many of the women sent to Cornton Vale posed no risk to the public and did not need to be in prison. A second big issue was that many inmates came in with histories of abuse, mental ill-health and drug- induced problems that were made worse, not ameliorated, by incarceration.
Among their few links to a more regular life were their families, often their children. But because poverty made it difficult for families to visit, those links would be broken and with that, any hopes of a better life after jail would disappear.
These hard and stark conclusions made the then justice secretary Kenny MacAskill’s decision to progress with a new 350-place women’s prison hard to understand. This was just moving the problem from one place to another, albeit probably better, place, but a solution it was not.
So Mr Matheson’s acceptance of Dame Elish’s recommendation replacing Cornton Vale with smaller regional women’s prisons is welcome. That alone would go a long way towards making it easier for prisoners and their families to remain in touch.
Smaller units are also more likely to be able to keep a closer and more sympathetic eye on prisoners’ mental health, to be able to deal with problems as they arise and prevent them turning out as they have done all too often at Cornton Vale.
When allied to the kind of support services such as group-based therapies and work programmes offered by the Glasgow 218 service which has impressed many, these centres can not just offer rehabilitative programmes to inmates, but also day care support to female offenders who do not merit custodial sentences.
Mr Matheson’s decision offers the prospect of genuinely progressive and effective treatment of women offenders. The only pity is that its arrival has been delayed three years by Mr Mac- Askill’s refusal to entertain it.
So far, so good for A9 speed cameras
CONFOUNDING the critics, the average-speed cameras introduced to curb speeding and accidents on the A9 between Perth and Inverness have so far done exactly what their proponents claimed they would.
Since the cameras started operating at the end of October last year, the number of people caught speeding is a fraction – 12 per cent – of the number caught breaking the speed limit in the same period last year.
And the number travelling at more than 10mph above the limit is an even smaller fraction – 3 per cent. Whereas, pre-cameras, one in three drivers broke the limit, now it is one in 20.
It may be too soon to judge whether this speed reduction has also cut the accident rate, but it is nonetheless a fact that there have been no fatalities on the single-carriageway sections where the cameras enforce the 60mph limit for cars. Since speed is a major cause of accidents, the number of bumps and shunts should be down.
Even the lorry drivers seem to be impressed. Allowed to drive at 50mph rather than the more normal single carriageway 40mph, they agree with the police that traffic flows are more even and that journeys can be quicker.
Some critics have not given up. They complain that frustration on the single-carriageway sections causes drivers to floor the accelerator on dual-carriageway sections. But many did that anyway pre-cameras, so it seems unlikely that this is an issue which has been more problematic.
The cameras are, of course, not a complete solution to the A9’s problems; dualling the whole length will be the answer. But meantime the decision to introduce the cameras seems to have been vindicated.