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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Point of Order, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Made Affirmative Procedure, Nationality and Borders Bill, Decision Time, OVO Energy (Redundancies)


Topical Question Time

The next item of business is topical question time. To get in as many members as possible, I would appreciate short and succinct questions and answers.

Violent Crime

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking in response to the most recent recorded crime statistics showing a rise in violent crime. (S6T-00519)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans (Keith Brown)

Since 2006-07, violent crime in Scotland has fallen significantly, including a 15 per cent fall in homicide in 2020-21, to its lowest level since 1976. Surveys of the population show that adults in Scotland were less likely to experience crime in 2019-20 than those living in England and Wales.

Although that progress is encouraging, the stability in violent crime levels over recent years highlights that more needs to be done. The Scottish Government is clear that any act of violence is one too many, and in 2022-23 we are providing additional funding of 14 per cent to the violence reduction unit to support increased violence prevention activities. We continue to work with Police Scotland and other partners to prevent violent crime, including through the work of Medics Against Violence and delivery of the hospital navigator service.

Jamie Greene

The latest figures show that, since April last year, there have been 8,200 violent crime incidents. We are now on track to reach a record high. In fact, violent crime has risen in every single year since Nicola Sturgeon was made First Minister—I have it all here in black and white. That is not a record to be proud of. What substantive work has taken place to identify the root causes behind the rise in violent crime in Scotland? Given that many countries often look to us for our efforts against violence, why are things now going in the wrong direction?

Keith Brown

Jamie Greene completely disregards the point that I made about the reduction in homicides to their lowest level since 1976 and the reduction that we have seen since 2006-07. There have been huge reductions that have been substantially higher than those in England and Wales, such that people in Scotland are much less likely, and feel themselves to be much less likely, to become victims of violent crime. However, as I have acknowledged, violent crime is a serious issue. We have dealt with it, and we continue to deal with it through, for example, the No Knives, Better Lives initiative, which has been deemed to have been extremely successful and is now copied in other parts of the United Kingdom, including London, where people have engaged with it.

The annual crime statistics, which are the most accurate records, show that recorded crime remains at one of the lowest levels since 1974. Non-sexual crimes of violence fell by 4 per cent between 2019-20 and 2020-21. The most recent years have, of course, been affected by the pandemic, as they have been in all jurisdictions, and the falls in the levels of some crimes that we saw during the lockdown period have been followed by increases. We are very conscious of that, and we are taking forward a number of initiatives in relation to crimes of sexual violence and violent crimes more generally, such as No Knives, Better Lives, which I mentioned.

Jamie Greene

The cabinet secretary has failed to accept that there is a problem, which itself is a problem. The reality is that, in 2014-15, there were 6,200 recorded cases of violent crime and, in 2019-20, there were 9,316 cases of violent crime. That is a massive increase. Let us be clear about what we are talking about: we are talking about serious assaults, attempted murders, domestic abuse and robberies. Those are life-changing events for the victims of those crimes. The Government is considering proposals to release criminals in prison after serving just a third of their sentence. How can that be justified in light of those shocking statistics? If it cannot, will the cabinet secretary now rule out that absurd idea?

Keith Brown

Of course, Jamie Greene misses the fact that it was the Conservatives who brought in automatic early release and voted in the Parliament against ending automatic early release. We will therefore take no lessons from the Tories in relation to that.

We will, of course, look seriously at the issues that the Conservatives have raised. Jamie Greene has quite rightly raised the issue of remand and our prisons. That is what the initiatives that we are taking forward, which are subject to consultation, seek to address. I would have hoped that we would have received some support from the Conservatives—if not support for what we intend to do, at least some ideas from them about what they would do in relation to remand.

We have seen massive reductions in homicides and in the handling of offensive weapons. It is important to mention that the number of emergency admissions to hospitals due to assaults with a sharp object has fallen by 51 per cent from 2006-07 until now. It is also important that, as I mentioned previously, people in Scotland feel that they are less likely to be a victim of crime. We can bandy around the figures from here to eternity and mention different years or monthly statistics versus annual statistics, but the simple fact is that there is less crime in Scotland than there was when the Government came in, there is less crime in Scotland than there is in other parts of the UK and individuals feel that that is the case, there are more police officers who are better paid, and we have a very good track record on tackling crime across Scotland over the past 15 years.

Audrey Nicoll (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

The statistics that Mr Greene referred to show only half a picture. There are other forms of crime that are now at lower levels than they were in January 2020. According to the national statistics “Recorded Crime in Scotland, 2020-21” bulletin, recorded crime

“remains at one of the lowest levels seen since 1974.”

How is the Scottish Government ensuring the continued reduction in crimes of dishonesty, fire raising and vandalism, which have seen overall reductions since January 2020?

Keith Brown

Audrey Nicoll is, of course, right that Jamie Greene’s question raised only a very small and partial part of the picture. Crimes of dishonesty and vandalism decreased in the latest year to their lowest levels since the 1970s. Jamie Greene did not mention that, of course.

We are continuing to back that and other reductions in crime with our investment in front-line policing. We have increased police funding year on year since 2016-17, and we will invest £1.4 billion in 2022-23. Our investment amounts to more than £10 billion since the creation of Police Scotland in 2013 and has helped to ensure that officer numbers are 5.4 per cent higher than they were in 2007.

Of course, despite the weeks and months that we have had of the Tories saying that there should be massive increases to the police and justice budgets, when it came to it they offered no amendment to the budget that this Government proposed.

Ferry Services (Disruption)

2. Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is addressing the disruption to ferry services in the west of Scotland that has reportedly resulted in significant supply issues and interruptions to the lifeline service. (S6T-00513)

The Minister for Transport (Jenny Gilruth)

We have experienced a sustained and prolonged period of severe weather, which has caused disruption in ferry services for some island communities, not just in the west of Scotland but elsewhere in the ferry network, including on the commercially strategic routes to Northern Ireland. In addition, that disruption occurred during the annual dry-dock period and winter timetable, when fewer services run.

I know that that has resulted in challenges for some communities when it comes to supplies, which creates difficulties for people and businesses alike, but I assure Rhoda Grant and indeed all members of the Scottish Parliament that we have been monitoring the situation very closely throughout each storm, through regular Scottish Government resilience room meetings and transport resilience meetings. There has also been regular engagement with CalMac Ferries, island local authorities, food and drink retailers and community organisations, through our resilience arrangements. Although we are aware that, on some of our islands, there have been issues with regard to perishable goods, there have been no reported cases of essential supplies not being available.

That has partly been helped by CalMac seeking to exploit weather windows, where those have arisen, with the option of running amended or additional sailings, if needed. CalMac continues to engage with key stakeholders, including hauliers and suppliers, to ensure that essential goods are prioritised on those services, where possible.

We will continue to monitor the situation closely and make clear our expectation that all agencies should ensure that normal service, in terms of supplies, is resumed at the earliest opportunity.

Rhoda Grant

Last week, Angus Campbell, the chair of the ferries community board, said:

“While we are well used to living with the effects of weather on our ferry services and more recently Covid, the recent extent and duration of mechanical failures on multiple vessels has led to massive disruption right across the network.”

He went on to say that that represents a

“real threat to our islands’ ability to retain and attract people, ensure services are sufficiently reliable and at prices that permit viable communities and thereby avoid depopulation.”

This morning, Donald Joseph MacLean of Barratlantic, a fish exporter, said that it is now impossible to run a business on the islands, due to the unreliable ferry services.

This is not just about weather. Disruption has gone on for years and things are getting worse. Is the minister’s Government trying to create a situation in which communities who stood firm against privatisation would now willingly accept it?

Jenny Gilruth

The First Minister has made her view on privatisation very clear, and I share it: privatisation of our ferry services is not at all on this Government’s agenda.

Rhoda Grant raises some serious issues. She mentioned Mr Campbell, the community board chair. I am due to meet Mr Campbell in two weeks’ time. Ms Grant might appreciate that I am also due to meet CalMac directly this week, when I will raise issues to do with resilience, because it is hugely important that we get this right. I will also meet a number of island MSPs, and if Ms Grant wants to meet me to discuss the issue I will be more than happy to do so.

Ms Grant mentioned fares. I hope that the fair fares review will alleviate concerns in that regard, but—again—I will raise the issue directly with CalMac later this week.

Ms Grant talked about long-term investment. The Scottish Government has announced investment of £580 million in ports and vessels to support and improve Scotland’s ferry services.

On the member’s wider point about the sustainability of island communities, I have been keen to better understand the relationship in Government between the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands, Mairi Gougeon, and me. Ms Gougeon and I will sit down shortly to discuss that link. Particularly in relation to Ms Grant’s point about resilience, there is an opportunity, through the islands connectivity plan, which the member knows will replace the current ferries plan from next year, to get in place the policy that we need if we are to ensure a sustainable future for our island communities.

Rhoda Grant

Let me be clear: we cannot wait until next year. The fault for this chaos lies at the door of the SNP Government, which has shown itself to be incompetent. It should be protecting our island communities; instead, it is putting them at peril. It has failed to provide additional tonnage and it has refused to employ the additional crew that would be required due to Covid restrictions to allow CalMac to use the full capacity that it has available.

The minister is new in post, but she does not have a period of grace, because time has already run out for our island communities. Will she commit now to purchase additional tonnage, and to employ the additional crew required to use the ferries to their full capacity?

Jenny Gilruth

Rhoda Grant asked me to commit to additional tonnage. However, she will understand that I cannot give her that assurance in the chamber this afternoon, because I would need to look at the costings associated with that. That notwithstanding, I recognise that we have a challenge regarding the sustainability of the current fleet. It is important that I have the opportunity to speak to CalMac about that—she may say that I do not have a grace period, but she could at least offer me the opportunity to raise that with them directly. However, I am cognisant of the need for speed of delivery in relation to that point.

Rhoda Grant spoke about protecting island life. We need to reflect on what has been a very challenging period for our island communities. In the past week alone, we have had three named storms—Eunice, Dudley and Franklin—which has never happened since the introduction of the system of naming storms that we use. That is important. Climate change is having an impact on the way that our island communities experience their ferry services. It is my job as minister to ensure that those ferry services are up to scratch.

I recognise some of the challenges that Ms Grant spoke to. However, I hope that she understands that my job as minister is also to listen to communities. I am very keen to visit our island communities to speak to them directly, and to ensure that some of the challenges that Ms Grant highlighted today are dealt with adequately. I give her an assurance that I will raise a number of the points that she made—particularly the latter points on tonnage and staffing—with CalMac directly. I will also see what additional support we may be able to provide in Government.

Dr Alasdair Allan (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)

I know from her recent conversations with me that the minister appreciates the importance of these issues. The lack of resilience in the network exacerbates the serious problems that people experience as a result of weather. I could cite examples in my constituency of where food shops have had serious difficulties. Quite aside from the issue of new tonnage, can the minister provide the chamber with any update on the efforts that the Government has been making to seek to charter vessels to provide more resilience?

Jenny Gilruth

Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd and CalMac continue to look for suitable vessels for charter on a temporary basis, where that would be considered suitable and reliable. It also has to be affordable—I think that I made that point in my response to Ms Grant. That includes the consideration of freight vessels for use on both the CalMac and NorthLink services.

I know how frustrating it can be for local communities and individuals who have to face disruption because of not only weather but vessel breakdown. Although any breakdown is really unhelpful, thankfully, they are still relatively rare. However, that does not help a community that loses its ferry service unexpectedly and, sometimes, without assurance on how quickly normal service can be resumed.

We are committed to doing all that we can in relation to the resilience of the fleet, which Mr Allan spoke to. More importantly, it is at the forefront of CMAL and CalMac’s priorities. They continue to look for suitable vessels for charter on a temporary basis where that would be considered suitable, which includes the consideration of freight vessels that I spoke to.

Mr Allan and I have discussed the matter in some detail. He knows that I will meet CalMac later this week and raise with it the issue of replacement services and how Government might be able to better support replacement vessels in the future. He is absolutely right to raise the issue of the resilience of the fleet.

Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

The problem is that we do not have enough ferries and that those ferries that we have are too old and so keep breaking down. That lies at the door of CMAL. A report from a previous committee of this Parliament said that CMAL should be scrapped. When will the minister act on that?

Mr Simpson will appreciate that I have not yet had the opportunity to meet CMAL. I will meet CalMac this week. If he will let me first meet CMAL, I will respond to him in writing in due course.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

Bad weather and what should be preventable breakdowns are disruptive enough to our island communities, but Covid protocols, although necessary, have been, and are, also very unhelpful. One crew member testing positive grinds a lifeline ferry service to a halt. Now that the pandemic is receding, how soon will those increasingly unnecessary protocols be reviewed and—one hopes—discontinued?

Jenny Gilruth

It is important that we have in place measures to ensure the safety of crews and passengers. We need to remember that, although most restrictions have been lifted, the virus is still with us.

The issue also relates to the time that is taken to mobilise relief crew if an existing crew becomes ill or needs to self-isolate. I recognise some of the frustrations that that has brought, which Mr Gibson spoke to. It is important to note that the circumstances differ from other settings, because of the need to adhere to minimum legal crew requirements.

CalMac has aligned its protocols to the guidance that the Scottish Government has provided. As and when guidance is changed, CalMac will review its procedures to maximise its ability to maintain sailings. I recognise some of the frustrations that Mr Gibson raised and I give him the undertaking that I will raise the matter with CalMac when I meet it later this week.