HENRY McLeish has called for SNP ministers to put a second independence referendum on the "back seat" while they tackle reducing the prison population.

The former Labour First Minister said if Scotland aspired to be like Nordic countries such as Finland and Denmark it needed to deliver radical justice reforms.

He believed such changes could be made under the current constitutional settlement and that ministers could do more to "push at the boundaries of devolution".

Mr McLeish spoke out after Justice Secretary Keith Brown unveiled an ambitious strategy earlier this month with a key aim to reduce the prison population.

Back in 2008 Mr McLeish headed a commission on prison reform, set up by a former SNP Government,  which recommended cutting the prison population from 8000 to 5000 in line with similar sized countries in western Europe. However, since then no real progress has been made.

Ahead of the pandemic in February 2020 it was 8027, while it currently stands at 7533 - of whom 7260 are men - after some prisoners were released during the Covid crisis. In comparison Finland and Denmark have 2,842 and 3,635 people in prison.

The former First Minister, who was also a justice minister in the UK Government before devolution, said he was sympathetic to the challenge facing Mr Brown but believed bringing down the prison population was achievable.

He also said it was important to ensure the policy was delivered as it would send out a message that Scotland was a progressive and enlightened country.

"We talk a lot in Scotland about creating the kind of social welfare conditions and outlook in the Nordic countries, but on this specific issue we are not achieving what they have achieved," he said.

"To me that should become one of our ambitions. No one is saying public safety or punishment of offenders shouldn't be taken seriously, but what we have got to address is the fact we still have far too many people in prison on shorter sentences and high rates of re offending. I suggest when re-offending rates are so high, that suggests a failure of the prison system to rehabilitate offenders with a revolving door system operating."

He added: "You cannot on the one hand look up to those Nordic countries as your model and then you've got something like prisons which you could be doing something about and you're not. On this issue of prisons it's about what kind of country do we want to be?"

Official figures have shown that the number of people being sent to prison for drug crimes have fallen, and the trend is likely to continue after Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain announced that anyone caught carrying Class A drugs would not face immediate prosecution, but could be issued a warning by police.

But Mr McLeish, who said last year he would vote for independence if the UK did not reform, said Scotland could be going further in pushing what could be achieved under devolution.

"The SNP position is we need to be free of England to do certain things but if certain policies are supported by the Scottish people why don't the government take it as far as they can? Why aren't they knocking on the door of Westminster to demand that reserved matter is changed or we want that to be devolved?"

He added: "Independence is not going anywhere at the present time, but what we have got is huge potential across party in Holyrood to do things differently.

"It's time that was the focus. Let's stop waiting for independence and let Scotland start with more radical thinking on things like reducing the prison population - and extending the potential of the Scottish Parliament.

"Scotland is bitterly divided on independence. What the government should be doing is doing what it can to improve quality of life in Scotland by using the full powers of the parliament and give less emphasis to independence."

He continued: "Focus on policies which matter to people and independence should take a back seat. No progress is being made on the SNP's campaign and my concern is Scotland is going to be left behind internationally unless the government concentrate on issues like reducing the prison population."

A SNP spokeswoman said: "Under the SNP, police recorded crime is at one of the lowest levels seen since 1974 and, despite constraints on Scotland’s public services through a decade of UK Tory austerity, the SNP in Government has increased the policing budget for 21/22 by £75 million which will deliver a sustainable budget position.

"People are increasingly seeing that Westminster control is failing Scotland - it is impacting every part of our society and that includes our Justice system which sees the effects of a growing Tory poverty crisis that is the worst levels of any country in north west Europe.

"The only way to protect Scotland from Westminster control is delivering on the manifesto commitment that returned an SNP Government last May, with an increased vote share, and offers the people of Scotland a better future as an independent country in an independence referendum."