CATHY Jamieson appears remarkably unshaken by the latest in a long line of media storms that have buffeted her political career. A fortnight ago, a skeleton in her family closet was being rattled excitedly by a press that seemed determined to uncover some whiff of scandal in the dealings of the justice minister with her nephew, Derek Hyslop, while he was on the run for manslaughter.

But today, she sits calmly, arms tightly folded, as though she were shrink-wrapped around the table of her ministerial office. If there is any hint of unease - paranoia, even - it's in the fact that throughout our interview, the minister is chaperoned not only by a press officer, but by a prominently positioned recording machine.

Hyslop has committed dreadful crimes, Jamieson concedes, for the benefit of my tape recorder and hers.

At the same time, he is "a member of my family who I care for, despite everything he's done wrong. I think he's done some terrible things and I hope he will at some stage be able to put that right and have something of a decent life."

Jamieson, 48, is happy to talk about her nephew up to a point. This is a man, after all, who published his story in the Daily Mail (for which it was rumoured he was paid pounds-7000) and tried to blackmail her. She will discuss how she signed him into care when she was a social worker; how he lived in her home for a year. At the time, 1992, Hyslop was 16, and Jamieson's own son was six. The family even took him on holiday to Mallorca.

There is a limit, however. Hyslop is the son of Jamieson's sister, Linda, and clearly there are family issues she chooses not to discuss. Like most politicians, she can also be evasive, and at times her statements are confusing. Take the one she made two weeks ago. Hyslop had just told the Daily Mail that in 1999, while hiding out after killing a 58-year-old woman he'd mugged for her handbag, he had phoned his aunt, then an MSP, and asked for money.

Jamieson had given him pounds-100:

hardly enough to start a new life, but enough, now, to fuel public concern.

Was our justice minister the kind of person who would fund a criminal?

Not at all, it seemed: she'd intended the money for his new baby.

"I transferred the money into his bank account, " she said when the story broke. "If I had given him cash, he would just have spent it on drugs or alcohol. I thought it was the best way of making sure the money was spent on the baby."

The explanation seemed inadequate: why would placing money into a bank account guarantee it was spent on the child? In some people's eyes, it also seemed a little suspicious.

Perhaps she muddied the waters here. All she needed to say was what she makes clear now: that the money was transferred to his account very shortly after the child's birth. "Now I think, as a family member, that to give somebody money, for a child . . . that's the kind of thing you do. You wouldn't pay money into a bank account if you didn't want people to know you had given him the money." Other members of her family also gave cash.

In a way, Jamieson might actually have reason to thank Hyslop, for helping to transform her public image.

Before all this happened, she was a tough-looking, gabby justice minister, jolting her way through a series of minor controversies. There was the Buckfast affair, in which she was construed as having tried to ban the drink, and photographed being subjected to a 15-year-old schoolboy's rude gesture.

There were demands for her resignation after escapes followed the transfer of prisoner escort services to a private firm, Reliance. Then there were those embarrassing calls for her to apologise to parliament, following claims that a legal blunder over slopping out may cost taxpayers up to pounds-162 million.

Today, Jamieson is often the object of sympathy. She's "that poor woman whose nephew tried to blackmail her" and "don't we all have one of those in the family?" Jamieson admits to being astonished at the volume of supportive phone-calls, e-mails, letters and cards she's received. "I think, " she adds, "that it's meant people have been able to relate a bit more to some of the other work I've been doing and perhaps understand why I care so passionately about trying to make the changes."

In a way, the Hyslop-Jamieson story exemplifies a question at the heart of a justice minister's portfolio: why some people commit crime and others make good. Here are two individuals from the same family, one helping to run the country, the other a criminal who's served seven years for manslaughter.

They've lived in the same area, share the same gene-pool, they benefit from the same family support system, yet are poles apart. How do we make sense of this? Is crime a product of deprivation? Is it rooted in our genes? Or are its origins less tangibly related to the circumstances of a person's life?

Jamieson, who grew up in an impoverished Ayrshire neighbourhood and worked for several years with a charity that represents youngsters in care, doesn't have answers. But these are questions she often considers, particularly in relation to policies like the antisocial behaviour bill.

"That's the kind of thing that drives my interest in politics. It drove my early career, it's why I went into art therapy, social work, then working with young people. Because however much I might come from a so-called disadvantaged area, I believe that doesn't mean you are destined for a life of crime or disadvantage. There are opportunities for people to get out of that and I desperately would like to see every young person in the kind of area I grew up in have those life chances.

"You can try and provide education, you can provide all the support. You can provide opportunities for people to get into training and employment.

Some people choose not to take those and go down a different life path and you have to challenge that behaviour."

The daughter of a mechanic and an office administrator, Jamieson was raised in Shortlees, an area of Kilmarnock with high unemployment. A talented school student and gifted artist, she won a silver medal in the Glasgow Corporation art competition - a feat she says was "pretty unheard of in my part of the world" - then secured a Glasgow School of Art degree and a post-graduate qualification at Goldsmith's in London.

"I think, " she says, "that what probably made a difference for me was having family members around who hadn't themselves had the opportunity to go on into higher education, but who supported me - sometimes making financial sacrifices so I could stay on at school when a lot of my friends were leaving."

As a child, she didn't think much about politics. "I'd say that interest skipped a generation in my folks, " she says diplomatically. "That's probably the politest way to put it. I have heard that my maternal grandmother was something of a street-corner politician.

I never met her."

In fact, she died before Jamieson was born, from gall-bladder problems:

a condition for which Jamieson herself was successfully treated.

From an early age, Jamieson knew that she wanted to make a social impact on the world, to change things for the better, to make the big hard decisions. Though art college doesn't seem an obvious route for a politician, it helped shape her perspective.

During student holidays, she worked on an adventure playground and as a children's worker for Women's Aid. At Goldsmith's, she took a course in art therapy, then a relatively obscure subject. The young Jamieson was a punk and a vegetarian (she has since graduated to veganism). Her hair was cropped short in multi-coloured spikes and she wore drainpipe jeans.

Even today, she plays punk music and is educating her 19-year-old son in the family's extensive vinyl collection.

It was only when Margaret Thatcher power in 1979 that Jamieson joined the Labour Party. Partly, she was influenced by her husband Ian Sharpe: a mechanical engineer who'd been made redundant by British Leyland and became involved in trade unionism.

"That's when I got politically active, " recalls Jamieson. "But I suppose at that stage it would have seemed more likely that he would end up doing the politics because he had been active in the trade union movement."

THESE days Sharpe works as a lecturer in politics, while Jamieson gets her hands dirty at the party-face. "We have a bit of a joke about it in my house [in Kilmarnock] because not only does my husband lecture in politics but my son also studies politics. I have to get on with it on a day-to-day basis and take the hard decisions while they think about the ideology."

Jamieson is happy to be described as a pragmatic, rather than ideological, politician.

"If you want things to change there's a process of compromise, discussion and movement." Taking an all-or-nothing approach gets you - well, nothing. And during her time as education and now justice minister, Jamieson has already let go some of her ideological principles.

In presiding over PPP (public private partnership) school-renewals and employing Reliance as prison service security guards, she has embraced the privatisation that as a trade union activist she once railed against - and she is not at all embarrassed.

"I will always remember, " she says, "going into a Glasgow school where the art department couldn't function because water was dripping through the roof. They had all these musically talented kids with nowhere to perform. I couldn't condemn a generation of kids in that way."

Jamieson shows few flickers of selfdoubt. She refuses to be rattled by the latest furore to engulf her department:

claims that management of Kilmarnock's privatised prison was neglectful.

She won't comment until investigations are complete.

The minister is cheerfully determined, confident in her own position.

She is, she says, neither tough nor soft on crime. Everything is just a problem to be sorted out. Even when there were calls for her resignation over Reliance, she just thought: "Right, there's a problem, how do I sort it out?" It's an enviable confidence, and presumably, part of what makes her so valued by First Minister Jack McConnell. Not everyone revels in making those "hard decisions".

Contrast this with Derek Hyslop's story: drug problems, periodic unemployment, entanglements with the law. It would be easy to paint a picture of a man who simply had a bad start in life. But despite everything Hyslop didn't have on his side, he had a lot working for him: an aunt, for instance, who took him in for a year, had him signed into care when she saw there were problems, and was there with financial support. Yet Hyslop ended up killing someone, serving time in prison. He attempted to blackmail a minister and sell his story to the Daily Mail; why? "People will do desperate things at desperate times, " says Jamieson, who admits she doesn't understand his motivations.

Is there still hope for Hyslop? Clearly Jamieson thinks she has given her nephew as many chances as she personally can. It must be difficult, cutting herself off from a relative to whom she has clearly been close. "It's not so much a question of cutting off, " she says. "There's a point at which you have to say, 'As much as I care about you as a person, your behaviour is completely unacceptable and I won't do business with you until you stop that kind of behaviour.' And you do it because you care."

It's hard to see how any justice minister could ever make a world free of Derek Hyslops. Even the antisocial behaviour bill and her talk of the need for communities to support and guide young people, doesn't demonstrate a clear path out of crime.

To a mother, this issue is not academic. "Bringing up my son, " she says, "in an area where there are the same temptations as exist in many other communities, I was always very clear that I wanted him to have the opportunity to get involved in different things.

He did karate, a range of other things around school, but he also had to be out on the street and make the right choices. Now, that's hard as a parent.

"But I think, " adds the justice minister, "that it's about trying to instill in kids, right from day one, that there are some things you do, and some things you don't."