Public Petition ‘was dumped’ by Holyrood MSPs to give Scottish Govt anti-sectarian bill an easy ride
MSPs closed sectarianism-in-justice-system petition so Scottish Govt’s anti-sectarian-at-football-matches bill faced less questions. LEGAL INSIDERS have today alleged a public petition lodged at the Scottish
Parliament FOUR YEARS AGO by a retired businessmen, calling on Holyrood MSPs to “investigate and establish the reasons for the apparently disproportionate number of Catholics in Scottish prisons” may have been dumped on orders from the Scottish Government so the new anti-sectarian
legislation currently being considered by the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee would not have to face questions the Justice system itself and many elements within it including the Police may be subject to sectarian elements.
Sources close to the Scottish Government indicated the petition in question, Petition PE 1073 which had been considered at numerous meetings of the Scottish Parliament’s Petitions Committee since first being lodged on 14 September 2007, gaining 131 signatures and significant levels of written representations had become a thorn in the side of the latest version of the current anti-sectarian bill, the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill which is now going through the Justice Committee, principally being aimed at stopping sectarian behaviour at football matches in Scotland and online bigotry.
Scottish Law Reporter has already reported on the mess that is currently the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill, where at one stage, it looked like singing “God Save The Queen” would be criminalised, while others wanted the bill to focus on homophobic issues, reported HERE
Sources indicated there was concern “at the most senior levels of the Scottish Government’s Justice Directorate” that a research report which was commissioned for the petition, could put the new bill in a sticky position because evidence from the report appears to suggest the justice system and decisions taken within it, from criminal charges to verdicts, sentencing and imprisonment may have
evidence of sectarian bias.
A legal insider said earlier today : “Clearly the very fact the Justice system may itself be sectarian or have sectarian elements within it according to the report commissioned by MSPs, must be raised
during the passage of the new legislation, otherwise we are going to be piling a poorly drafted sectarian bill onto a sectarian justice system.”
During the four year term of Petition PE 1073 at the Petitions Committee, msps widened the scope of the petition to include other ethnic minorities, and commissioned research by Dr Susan Wiltshire of the University of Glasgow who produced a final report backing up the petition’s claims. However upon receiving Dr Wiltshire’s completed report, the Petitions Committee considered keeping its findings secret and withholding publication. However, after a private meeting, the Committee agreed to meet again and the report was finally published, four days before Christmas on 21 December 2010.
Dr Wiltshire’s report confirmed there are a disproportionate number of Catholics in Scottish jails, concluding : “There is certainly no available research on sentencers’ attitudes to sentencing faith
groups in Scotland, however, the statistics do confirm that there are a disproportionate number of Catholics in Scottish jails, which is especially pronounced in the west of Scotland, and further that this disproportionality is evident in long term sentence length.”
The research, undertaken by Dr Susan Wiltshire of Glasgow University for the Petitions Committee, can be downloaded from the Scottish Parliament’s website, here : Offender Demographics and Sentencing Patterns in Scotland and the UK: Research commissioned by the Public Petitions Committee in
consideration of PE1073 (203KB pdf)
Participants in the debate on the petition and legal observers had expected the Petitions Committee to send Petition 1073 onto the Justice Committee, particularly in the light of recent events where letter bombs were sent to figures associated with Celtic Football Club amid a rash of sectarian incidents across Scotland.
However, on 28 June 2011, instead of sending the petition onto the Justice Committee, the Petitions Committee bizarrely referred the petition to the Scottish Parliament’s “Equal Opportunities Committee”, who after a brief debate promptly closed the petition, stating : “The Committee noted the findings of recent research showing that more than one faith group was affected in this way and drawing a
link to deprivation. The Committee agreed to close the petition and to write to the Scottish Government inviting it to conduct further research on the link between deprivation and regional imbalances in the prison population.”
A legal source commenting on the ‘”well timed” closure of the controversial petition said : “Well how do
you think it will look if some people start asking the judiciary, the Police and the Crown Office why some people who are locked up appear to be there on account of anti-catholic, anti-muslim or some other form of prejudice in the justice system itself ?”
He continued : “It might start to look like people were being prosecuted and judges were locking them up just because they didn’t like their religion or race. It wouldn’t be much good giving the justice system new anti-sectarian laws to throw people in jail if the people in the justice system were already taking decisions on cases based on their own sectarian prejudices, would it. That’s why this petition was shut down.”
This past weekend, an interview in the Sunday Mail newspaper reported how a former Strathclyde Police detective was shocked by bigotry in the Police Force. An excerpt from the Sunday Mail article states : FORMER detective Gerry Gallacher yesterday described how he was sickened by a senior
officer’s casual bigotry after an Old Firm game. In his book, Gallacher, a Catholic, describes a Monday morning briefing at a Glasgow police station after Celtic had won the league in May 2001.
A Rangers-supporting detective inspector announced to the room that there were “a lot of Catholics locked up at the weekend”. Gallacher was disgusted because he worked and played football with the senior officer over many years and did not realise he was a bigot.
He added: “I was also disappointed that no one spoke out at the time. “I don’t care about someone’s religion or orientation, so long as they can do the job. That is the most important thing.”
After the incident, disillusioned Gallacher was granted a transfer to Coatbridge police station, in Lanarkshire. The dad-of-two had declined an offer to join the Masons earlier in his police career. He believes that other officers were promoted thanks to their membership of the secret organisation.
The Vatican has ruled that Catholics should not join the society, which the church regards as un-Christian. Gallacher said: “Some of the best officers I worked with were Masons. “But they do have the power to affect progression in the police.”
Speaking today to Scottish Law Reporter, the Petitioner, Mr Tom Minogue said : “Four years ago today I lodged my petition PE 1073 with the Scottish Parliament to investigate and establish the reasons for the apparently disproportionate number of Catholics in Scottish prisons.”
“I did so because over 6 years before this, in January 2001, Jim Wallace, then Justice Minister, had promised to investigate the anomaly raised by Pauline McNeill MSP that Catholics were twice
as likely to end up in prison as their Protestant peers; but Jim Wallace never kept his promise. In the 3+ years that the petition was with the PPC there was little more than an hour of public debate on the petition and it was obvious to see that the members were dealing with an issue they were not comfortable with. It was as if they were handling a parcel of rotten fish keen to pass it on to
“The obvious distaste that members of the PPC found in dealing with this topic was exacerbated when the PPC passed the parcel to an expert on the matter, Dr Susan Wiltshire of Leeds University. The good doctor’s diagnosis was that this imbalance might be caused by
anti-Irish racism or sectarianism in the justice system and further research was needed to establish the causes. This was too much for the PPC and as a last act in the previous session of parliament and with elections looming they passed the parcel on to the next session of parliament, referring it to the to the Equal Opportunities Committee (EO) instead of the Justice Committee where it should, as a justice matter have went.”
“The EO like their predecessors found this petition a distasteful matter and yesterday after 11.48 minutes (from 48min 15sec to 60.03 on this tape) closed the petition on the basis that the reasons for the petition had been fulfilled. Now perhaps I am stupid, but as the person who asked the question “why are there so many RCs in prison” I cannot see where or by whom this question has been answered. Perhaps the EO committee thinks that RCs have more than an equal opportunity to experience the inside of Scottish prisons?”
“Scotland and our justice system is under world-wide scrutiny because of the bombs sent to Neil Lennon and other irish or Irish descended RCs and the astonishing jury decision in the sectarian
attack on Neil Lennon yet the politicians choose not to examine apparent evidence of societal anti-Irish/RC bias. Instead our last two justice ministers and a host of MSPs keep repeating the mantra “there is no evidence of bias in our justice system” without having the guts to examine this anomaly that their own commissioned expert reported might exist and needed further research.”
“The research Dr Wiltshire suggested might have looked into the membership of organisations such as the Orange Order or Freemasons, groups hostile to RCs and Muslims, among members of our justice system that would explain—or go some way towards explaining—the disproportionate number of RCs in prison. Research might have found that juries are selected from the Old Boys network and this might have explained the Edinburgh jury’s verdict in the Neil Lennon assault case if research found they all belonged to the same lodge.”
“So where do I go from here? I will ask the Convenor of the EO to give me a clear answer to my question in one sentence. “What is the reason for the disproportionate number of RCs and Muslims in Scottish prisons?” I expect to get a long winded answer about criminality in socially deprived areas with large RC/Muslim populations. This will probably lead me on to my next petition; “why are RCs/Muslims disproportionately represented in Scottish slums.” Or “why, one and a half centuries after the potato famine are the Irish Scots still living in slums”
No msps offered comment on the claims in this article.The Scottish Government has also given no comment.
This article appears in the Scottish Law Reporter