The Sunday Times (London)

November 5, 2006

Crime findings 'watered down'

BYLINE: Mark Macaskill

SECTION: HOME NEWS; Scotland News; Pg. 10

LENGTH: 451 words


A FORMER adviser to the Scottish executive has accused ministers of "watering down" his research because it was critical of a flagship policy.

Professor Reece Walters, a criminologist at Stirling University, was part of an expert group commissioned to evaluate a pilot scheme for youth courts.

The courts, in Hamilton and Airdrie, and a key plank in Jack McConnell's efforts to tackle anti-social behaviour, aim to fast-track the country's worst young criminals and prevent reoffending.

Walters claims his report, to be published shortly, was heavily sanitised by senior civil servants, who insisted on removing critical comment.

This included a section where one sheriff expressed "surprise" that a legal challenge had not yet been mounted against youth courts on the grounds that details of an individual's previous offences were revealed. In adult courts, previous convictions cannot be introduced.

Concerns expressed by Walters that the courts "unfairly criminalised" youngsters and breached human rights were also allegedly removed.

According to Walters, interviews with young offenders who described the courts as "a joke", and a section that highlighted the executive's failure to fund extra counsellors -thus increasing chances of reoffending -were altered.

His allegations are in an academic paper to be published by the Crime and Society Foundation in January. "I am very worried about the way the Scottish executive controls, censures and manipulates so-called independent research. If the findings do not conform, then reports are neutralised and emptied of any critical comment," he said.

"This distortion denies the public access to the truth and as such is both undemocratic and, arguably, corrupt."

The first youth court was set up in Hamilton in 2003 to target persistent offenders aged 16 and 17. Almost 130 youths were dealt with in the first six months. Initial findings by Stirling University concluded with "almost universal agreement" that it was effective.

In 2004 the court in Airdrie was hailed by Cathy Jamieson, the justice minister, as a success: "If the evidence from Hamilton, and from the second pilot in Airdrie, continues to build a clear and strong case then we will not hesitate to consider extending the benefits of the scheme across Scotland."

David Miller, professor of sociology at Strathclyde University and founder of Spinwatch, which monitors corporate and government spin, said ministers should not be allowed to interfere with academic research: "This is happening to academics across Scotland."

The Scottish executive said: "It is absolutely right that when we commission research funded with taxpayers' money, this is conducted ... to rigorous standards of academic practice."