SNP’s ‘flagship’ Cornton Vale replacement £millions over budget and years behind schedule

By Bill Heaney

The SNP’s flagship replacement of Cornton Vale women’s prison is already more than two years behind schedule and millions over budget, the Scottish Conservatives can reveal.

Freedom of Information Requests from the party show that the bill for the prison at Stirling stands at over £81 million – £7 million above the SNP’s initial projected costs.

The facility was originally due to open at the end of 2020, but even with pandemic-related delays taken into account, the SNP missed their revised deadline for 2022. It is now due to open in the summer of this year.

The revelations come at the end of a week in which a transgender rapist – now going under the name of Isla Bryson – was initially housed beside female prisoners in Cornton Vale.

Shadow community safety minister Russell Findlay has told Nicola Sturgeon that the SNP must confirm that no rapists will ever be placed there.

Following pressure from the Scottish Conservatives and a public backlash, Nicola Sturgeon did a U-turn and ordered the double rapist to serve his sentence in a male prison.

Shadow community safety minister Russell Findlay says that ahead of the Stirling prison finally opening later this year, the SNP must confirm that no rapists will ever be housed in the facility.

Nicola Sturgeon refused to confirm her government would adopt this policy while being challenged by Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross at First Minister’s Questions on Thursday.

Russell Findlay MSP, said: “Nicola Sturgeon and her justice secretary Keith Brown are still refusing to confirm that any rapist will ever be housed in a women’s prison.

“That is a disgraceful dereliction of duty after what occurred this week. The First Minister’s belated intervention was entirely about protecting her political career – not protecting women in Cornton Vale.

“Nicola Sturgeon must now use the belated opening of the women’s prison to guarantee that no rapist will ever be housed in any women’s prison in Scotland.

“In typical SNP fashion, their plans for Stirling are years behind schedule and millions over budget.

“The debate in relation to a double rapist this week should never have had to happen. But if the SNP had managed the Stirling prison project in the right manner, then Cornton Vale would already been consigned to history.

“The SNP are not interested in prioritising matters of justice and it is taxpayers who will have to pick up the bill for their errors in relation to Stirling.

“Nicola Sturgeon and Keith Brown should urgently confirm that the timescales for a women’s prison opening in Stirling have not slipped any further and guarantee it will never house a rapist.”

Cornton Vale, which serves West Dunbartonshire and Argyll and Bute and was formerly Scotland’s only women’s prison, will close early in the new year.

The Scottish Prison Service (SPS) also confirmed HMP & YOI Stirling, which is being built on the same site, is due to open in the summer of 2023.

It will be the third new, purpose-built facility for women following the openings this year of the Bella unit in Dundee and the Lilias unit in Glasgow.

The move follows a report in 2012 by former Lord Advocate Elish Angiolini.

It recommended the demolition of Cornton Vale, which was built in 1975, and paved the way for its replacement with smaller Community Custody Units (CCUs).

The CCU’s, the first of their kind anywhere in the UK, are designed to recognise the needs of women in custody and the fact that their backgrounds often involve adversity and trauma.

HMP Cornton Vale
Meanwhile, in December 2022, The Democrat reported that a smaller national prison was being built at the Cornton Vale site with other smaller regional units.

SPS chief executive Teresa Medhurst described the new development as an “exciting moment”.

She added: “This facility, along with our CCUs, will help give women in our care the best possible chance of a successful rehabilitation and safe, eventual, return to our communities.

“There is a lot of hard work ahead, but we are determined to deliver for those in our care, for the communities we serve, and for wider Scotland.”

Justice Secretary Keith Brown, right,  said the Scottish government was committed to a “modern and fit-for-purpose prison estate with a focus on rehabilitation”.

He added that the plan to transform the approach to women in custody was part of a wider £600 million move to improve Scotland’s custodial estate.

Mr Brown said: “The new community custody units, which opened this year in Dundee and Glasgow represent a step change in how Scotland supports women in custody.

“I am pleased that SPS are now reaching this significant milestone.”

Cornton Vale prisoners were transferred to HMP Polmont, near Falkirk, before the beginning of demolition work at the site in 2017.

HMP Cornton Vale is being closed down and replaced with HMP Stirling. The Scottish Government confirmed in a FOI response ‘the new National Facility for Women, which has since publication of the Infrastructure Investment Plan been named HMP YOI Stirling, and will replace HMP YOI Cornton Vale.’ (Scottish Government freedom of information response 202200323596, 1 November 2022, available on request).

HMP Cornton Vale is millions over budget. The Scottish Government confirmed in an FOI response that £74 million was the total projected cost of HMP Stirling when the Scottish Government published its Investment Infrastructure plan, inclusive of VAT for all financial years. In a separate FOI response, the Scottish Prison Service confirmed that HMP Stirling’s ‘estimated total cost is £81.825m inclusive of VAT.’ That makes the prison at least £7 million over budget. (Scottish Prison Service freedom of information response HQ22147, 6 October 2022, available on request). 

The SNP failed to deliver Cornton Vale’s replacement, HMP Stirling, by the revised deadline of 2022 despite SNP promises. The Programme for Government promised in 2022 ‘In 2022, we will deliver a new model for female custody, with a new Women’s National Facility at HMP Cornton Vale’. However, Keith Brown has since confirmed ‘HMP Stirling, Scotland’s new Women’s National Facility, is due to open by Summer 2023.’ (Programme for Government 2021-22, 7 September 2021, linkWritten Parliamentary Question S6W-09728, 2 August 2022, link).

The SNP originally promised the new women’s prison would be open by the end of 2020, meaning it will be three years late. Their Programme for Government said ‘A progressive new model for the female custodial estate, with a smaller national women’s prison and local community-based custody units is being developed…The Scottish Prison Service will open the first two community custody units and the new national prison by the end of 2020.’ Given that the facility is not set to open in the summer of 2023, this makes the prison 2 ½ to 3 years late. (Programme for Government 2017-18, 5 September 2017, link).

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