Pressure on McConnell to re-open Airborne

Key points

• Criminal Justice experts call for re-opening of Airborne Initiative young offenders charity

• Scottish Executive withdrew 600,000 funding after critical documentary

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• First Minister 'furious' at public outcry and the way the closure was handled

Key quote: "The Executive has decided it can’t afford 600,000 to keep it open - that strikes me as mad when it costs at least 20,000 a year to keep someone in prison." Lord Forsyth, former Scottish Secretary

Story in full: THE Scottish Executive is facing mounting pressure to re-open a boot camp for persistent young offenders, following the launch of a national campaign by some of the country’s leading experts in the field of criminal justice.

In an open letter to The Scotsman, the group of 23 senior figures has appealed directly to Jack McConnell in a bid to save the Airborne Initiative. The First Minister is said to be "furious" at the way the closure was handled earlier this month - and shocked by the outcry.

Signatories of today’s letter include Lord Prosser, the retired High Court judge; the peer and retired businessman, Lord Macfarlane of Bearsden; Richard Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh; author Ian Rankin, and Sir David Ramsbotham, the former chief inspector of prisons in England and Wales.

Eleven of Scotland’s most dangerous young criminals are back on the streets after the Executive withdrew almost 600,000 of funding from the centre at Braidwood House, Lanarkshire, forcing it to close with the loss of 26 jobs.

Critics accused ministers of negligence, given the high risk of re-offending by inmates on their release. The last batch of 21 youths on the nine-week course had 250 convictions and 80 years in jail between them.

Executive insiders said Mr McConnell was furious with Hugh Henry, the deputy justice minister, over the handling of the affair. "Hugh Henry was the one that instigated the closure," said a source. "McConnell was told not to worry and there wouldn’t be much fuss, but they have completely misjudged the public mood. The First Minister is furious at the backlash."

The letter, aimed at reversing the decision, reads: "No other national probation project in Scotland deals with more persistent or higher-tariff young offenders than Airborne.

"As a result of this decision, which seems not to have been thought through by the justice minister [Cathy Jamieson] and her colleagues, a valuable experiment will be lost and its work is in danger of being wasted. At its most basic, Airborne refuses to accept that it is impossible to change the most negative aspects of human behaviour. In doing so, it brings out the best in young men who would otherwise be condemned to a lifetime in prison."

Critics believe the project was axed after ministers watched a fly-on-the-wall documentary, Chancers, which showed inmates taking drugs and absconding. Although the Executive insisted the centre "failed to perform", insiders believe the decision to close was political and linked to Mr McConnell’s get-tough policy on youth crime.

The Scotsman understands success rates for Airborne have improved. Although re-offending rates are high, graduates of the unit are significantly less likely to re-offend than young men sent to jail.

One of the letter’s signatories, Clive Fairweather, the former chief inspector of Scotland’s prisons, said: "I have been encouraged by the broad range of people who are supporting Airborne, and we have been inundated with letters and messages of goodwill. We haven’t even tested political support.

"We simply cannot afford to lose Airborne and we would say to ministers that it is never to late to reconsider."

Ministers claimed the project did not provide value for money, but supporters insist it has saved the taxpayer millions. Robin Harper, a Green Party MSP, has lodged a parliamentary motion claiming Airborne has saved 2.8-4.2 million by diverting offenders from prison.

Lord Forsyth, the former Scottish secretary, said on a radio programme this weekend: "The Executive has decided it can’t afford 600,000 to keep it open - that strikes me as mad when it costs at least 20,000 a year to keep someone in prison. It is time for us to stop mouthing platitudes about rehabilitation and start doing something."

Nicola Sturgeon, the justice spokeswoman for the SNP, said ministers should admit they had made a mistake. Airborne was set up ten years ago to handle persistent offenders, aged 18-25, who failed to respond to conventional punishment set by the courts. It combines physical activities with in-depth counselling.

A spokeswoman for the Executive said only about half the young offenders at Airborne completed the course successfully. "Fewer than 40 young people completed the course in 2003. The Executive is not going to be changing its mind."