Michael Matheson interview: ‘This is a seven days a week job’

New Justice Secretary Michael Matheson in his office at the Scottish Parliament. Picture: Michael Gillen
New Justice Secretary Michael Matheson in his office at the Scottish Parliament. Picture: Michael Gillen
  • Matheson claims police reforms will prove a success
  • Scotland to be ‘world leader’ in dealing with female offending
  • Backs McNally to win Falkirk seat at General Election

Ministers can feel they are left between a rock and a hard place as they attempt to balance the interests of their constituents with their own governmental responsibilities.

Michael Matheson may be better equipped than most to deal with such pressures. As a member of the Ochils mountain rescue team for the past 17 years, he’s used to thinking on his feet.

Matheson speaks to The Falkirk Herald at his Holyrood office

Matheson speaks to The Falkirk Herald at his Holyrood office

And since the Falkirk West MSP was promoted to the role of Justice Secretary in November as part of Nicola Sturgeon’s new look cabinet team, he’s already faced several tough calls - with many more on the horizon, such as corroboration in trials and the rise in fixed-odds gambling machines.

In his first in-depth interview since taking the job, the father-of-three from Glasgow’s southside told The Falkirk Herald he’s ready for the demands of overseeing the nation’s police, justice and prison professions.

“Life is a balance. When you’ve got a young family, and you have a job that takes up a lot of your time, it can be challenging,” he said.

“To some degree it is a seven-day-a-week job.”

My predecessor took on a range of reforms which I think over time will demonstrate significant improvements

Michael Matheson MSP

Matheson (44), who formerly served as public health minister, was viewed by some as a surprise replacement for the departing Kenny MacAskill. His predecessor had endured a torrid final few months in the role - including calls to resign over his handling of key decisions regarding Police Scotland.

The debate on the new national police force has refused to die down, with many critics claiming it lacks effective oversight.

“There has been a whole range of changes that have taken place within the justice system and in the way it operates - which are all for the better,” he said.

“My predecessor took on a range of reforms which I think over time will demonstrate significant improvements.

“Having said that, there is still much more we can do, and I’m determined that while I’m in this position we build on our progress and look at other areas where further progress can be made.”

Matheson won plaudits from across the political spectrum for his decision to scrap plans to build a new prison for female offenders in Inverclyde.

He wants the existing Corton Vale facility near Stirling replaced with “smaller units, much more based in the community”, which are spread across the country.

Matheson talks of Scotland becoming a “world leader” in the way it deals with female offenders, and is passionate in his belief that community-based punishments can be much more effective than sending increasing numbers of people to jail.

“I am also very clear is that for those individuals that do need to go to prison, then prison will be there,” he continued.

“But where there are also those individuals that can be better dealt with in the community - male or female - we need to be sure we have the policies in place that allow us to do that far more effectively.

“You look at jurisdictions across Europe and you can see a number of countries that have already taken that approach and from that, they’ve also been able to reduce crime within their society as well. We need to have a much-more evidence based approach to our penal policy.

“To give you an example - if you have a woman who has committed an offence, and she ends up getting a one year sentence, and she has a child, very often what ends up happening is that child ends up being taken into care, or a relative has to take them. If they have a job they lose it, if they have a local authority house they are likely to lose that as well.

“When they come to the end of their sentence you have to piece all of these things back together, and, at the same time, we have a young vulnerable child who can’t be cared for by their mother.

“Part of the approach I want is that if we are going to take a custodial option against women, which in some cases we will, that we need to take an approach that recognises many of the complications that arise. Having smaller, more community-based units will allow us to do that much more effectively.”

Scotland’s justice system has been subject to widespread changes in recent years - not all of which have been welcomed by staff and the legal profession - and more appear to be on the agenda.

Matheson continued: “Another priority for me is to make sure our justice system is much more integrated - we make sure our police, our Crown Office and our court system and the way in which we deal with the prison service are much more integrated in their approach.

“An illustration would be if the police have a particular approach to targeting particular offences, that has an impact on the Crown Office which then has an impact on the courts and on the prisons.”

Matheson predicts SNP win in Falkirk at General Election

The Falkirk West MSP admits he could not have predicted the recent surge in SNP membership when he first won the constituency in 2007.

His local party now boasts more than 1200 members, most of whom joined in the wake of the referendum on Scottish independence last September.

“The party locally in Falkirk is in a stronger position now than it has ever been,” he said.

Matheson is backing John McNally, the party’s candidate for Falkirk at May’s General Election, to win the seat vacated by Eric Joyce.

“It will be a tough fight, but what you can be certain of is that the SNP locally will be putting in their strongest campaign ever to win the trust of people in Falkirk to get John elected - and to get an MP who will start to restore the good name of Falkirk in Westminister by representing it in a constructive and meaningful way.”