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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Wednesday, March 1, 2023


Portfolio Question Time

Constitution, External Affairs and Culture

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

Good afternoon, colleagues. The first item of business is portfolio question time. The first portfolio is constitution, external affairs and culture. As ever, if members wish to ask a supplementary question, I invite them to press their request-to-speak button during the relevant question.

There is a fair bit of interest in the questions, so I make my usual plea for brevity in questions and responses.

Heritage Sites (Inspection)

1. Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government when the nationwide programme of inspection to assess the condition of, and the impact of climate change on, some of Scotland’s most significant heritage sites, being undertaken by Historic Environment Scotland, is expected to be completed. (S6O-01932)

The Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development and Minister with special responsibility for Refugees from Ukraine (Neil Gray)

The inspection programme continues to progress well. Tactile inspections have been carried out at 30 sites across Scotland since last May. Historic Environment Scotland has been able to reopen a number of sites in Claire Baker’s region, including Doune castle, Burleigh castle, and Inchcolm abbey. There is full or partial access to more than 80 per cent of the properties in care, and Historic Environment Scotland continues to assess the potential to reopen sites as soon as it is safe to do so. I will continue to urge it to do so as quickly as possible.

Claire Baker

Although the safety of sites is paramount, it is unfortunate that progress is not being made more quickly. The inspection programme has now moved on to level 2 sites, which include Aberdour castle, in my region. I was pleased to visit it recently, and I met HES when I was there.

In 2019, the castle had more than 20,000 visitors, and I know that the minister recognises the impact of that on local visitors. Aberdour has much to offer, but part of its attraction, particularly for international visitors, is the castle. Has the Government made any assessment of what additional support towns and villages such as Aberdour will need during such prolonged periods of closure?

Neil Gray

I can attest to my family’s relationship with Aberdour—my children love Aberdour beach.

The Aberdour castle site is partially open. The walled gardens and driveway were made accessible last October, the inspection was completed in November and work is going on to reopen the internal areas, with some restrictions—the date for that is yet to be confirmed.

I am happy to either meet Claire Baker or ensure that HES can meet her, because she is right to say that such sites are important anchors for local communities—that is well known—and I want to make sure that she is aware of the progress that has been made.

Fiona Hyslop (Linlithgow) (SNP)

Last week, Historic Environment Scotland’s chief executive informed a packed meeting that was organised by Linlithgow Civic Trust that Linlithgow palace is to partially reopen in May, following necessary works, which is welcome news. However, bearing in mind the damage to the north range of Linlithgow palace and, indeed, the many other properties that still face significant and continuing damage from the elements, will the minister consider a new and comprehensive ruins management strategy to ensure that our much-loved and valued ruined heritage can be managed into the future?

Neil Gray

I am pleased that Fiona Hyslop was able to have such a successful meeting with the local community and that HES was able to give good news. Like her, I welcome the partial reopening of Linlithgow palace in May and the work that is being undertaken by HES to inspect and repair other properties in care.

The properties in care include some of Scotland’s most iconic and culturally significant assets, including Linlithgow palace, and we recently consulted more broadly on a refreshed strategy for Scotland’s historic environment, which seeks to prioritise activity such as that suggested by Fiona Hyslop, which supports economic recovery and renewal. That strategy focuses on creating a more resilient and sustainable historic environment and helps to communicate the contribution that the historic environment makes to our nation.

Sharon Dowey (South Scotland) (Con)

The core conservation costs for properties in care in 2021-22 were £7.7 million. That represents a 14 per cent reduction from 2017-18. The decline in the provision has been a consistent trend over the past five years. Given the impact of closed heritage sites on tourism and the local economy, can the minister tell me what discussions he has had with HES to ensure that funding for conservation and maintenance is maintained, if not increased, so that no more sites close and those that are closed reopen as quickly as possible?

Neil Gray

Obviously, Historic Environment Scotland has its own decisions to make, but I have regular meetings with HES’s representatives about its strategic priorities, as I have outlined to previous questioners. The Scottish Government has substantially increased resource to Historic Environment Scotland in recognition of not just the impact of the pandemic on HES’s commercial income but the need to ensure that our properties in care are maintained. Over 2022-23, we will support Historic Environment Scotland with £60.6 million to maintain Scotland’s heritage and historic environment, which is an 80 per cent increase on pre-pandemic levels of funding. HES is working hard to reopen our heritage sites as soon as it is safe to do so, and we continue to support that endeavour.

Question 2 was withdrawn.

Northern Ireland Protocol Bill

3. Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on any engagement it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding the potential impact on Scotland of the on-going negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. (S6O-01934)

The Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture (Angus Robertson)

I welcome the progress, which was announced this week, on the Northern Ireland protocol. The Scottish Government consistently called for the UK Government to withdraw its irresponsible Northern Ireland Protocol Bill and to seek a sustainable, negotiated solution to that entirely avoidable and deeply damaging dispute with our European neighbours.

However, Scotland is still left with Brexit and all of the damage that comes with it. I urge the UK Government now to seize the opportunity to start the overdue work of repairing relations with our European Union partners more widely and rebuilding closer co-operation and partnership across the many areas in which Scotland’s interests have been harmed by Brexit.

In addition, the UK Government must now clarify the policy on Northern Ireland to Great Britain trade. That will be crucial to understanding the impact on devolved responsibilities, including physical checks on food safety and animal and plant health, as well as required associated infrastructure such as the border control post at Cairnryan.

Clare Adamson

If all is well and that goes through, we look forward to a return to horizon funding. However, can it be right that Scotland, which voted overwhelmingly to remain within the EU, has been ignored and is feeling the full force of a hard Brexit while Mr Sunak shamelessly boasts about the huge economic benefits that access to the EU single market will bring for Northern Ireland?

Angus Robertson

We have repeatedly called for the UK Government to find a negotiated solution to that entirely avoidable dispute with the European Union. The Scottish Government unequivocally supports the Good Friday agreement and we welcome the new agreement that has been announced on the Northern Ireland protocol. Scotland did not vote for Brexit, yet we continue to suffer from its consequences, including the exacerbation of the current cost of living crisis. While Northern Ireland has been given preferential access to the huge European single market, Scotland, which voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, has been ignored by the UK Government and subjected to the full damage of a disastrous hard Brexit. The Scottish Government is now carefully considering the deal and what it means for Scotland. Brexit has brought nothing but harm to people, communities and businesses in Scotland, and the Scottish Government remains committed to realising Scotland’s potential as an independent nation within the European Union.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

For decades, the troubles in Ireland have cost lives, ruined families and destroyed communities, and the situation has required delicate, pragmatic, exhausting engagement and diplomacy by great leaders over many years. Therefore, forgive me if I get a bit exasperated by politicians here who seek to exploit the developments in Northern Ireland in order to advance their own narrow agenda. Will the First Minister—and the minister here—think again about drawing parallels between Northern Ireland and Scotland?

Angus Robertson

I do not think that we have enough time to do that question justice. As we have learned from the developments this week, it would have been perfectly possible to reach an agreement in principle before now, but that was impossible given the confrontational approach of the previous UK Prime Minister—notwithstanding his claim that he had an oven-ready deal. It behoves all of us to understand that Northern Ireland remaining in the single European market means that Northern Ireland will have a competitive advantage relative to Scotland and Scottish businesses. [Interruption.] That is a statement of fact; I do not know whether Willie Rennie disagrees with that.

Regardless of where stand on the question of whether Scotland should be a sovereign member state of the European Union, it is going to become ever more apparent that Northern Ireland is in an exceptionally privileged position—the Prime Minister himself described it as such—and that Scotland is at a disadvantage.

I hope that the Liberal Democrats and their fellow parties that, at one stage, supported membership of the European Union but now support Brexit will think again and stand up for Scotland’s social, economic and political interests, at least for this.

Stephanie Callaghan (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

The cabinet secretary has mentioned harm. Does he agree that the renegotiated NI protocol could have a harmful impact on Scottish businesses that no longer have access to the EU market, as has been mentioned, while Northern Ireland businesses enjoy those benefits?

As briefly as possible, cabinet secretary.

Angus Robertson

I have already put on record that I think that it is a good thing that Northern Ireland is able to remain in the single European market. It is something that the Scottish Government has supported while, at the same time, saying that Scotland voted to remain in the European Union and that, if it is possible to find an arrangement for part of the United Kingdom to remain in the single European market, surely it must be possible to find that for another, namely Scotland.

Unfortunately, the UK Government chose to ignore that, although it would have been entirely possible. Therefore, we find ourselves in a situation in which, notwithstanding the fact that we think that it is a good thing that a solution has been found for Northern Ireland, we recognise that Scotland not having that status in the single European market puts Scotland at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to inward investment and our exporting industries. Surely, that should be obvious to everybody in the chamber.

No doubt, we will come back to the issue over the months and years ahead.

Sistema Scotland

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to support the work of Sistema Scotland. (S6O-01935)

The Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development and Minister with special responsibility for Refugees from Ukraine (Neil Gray)

Sistema Scotland is a brilliant example of how lives can be changed and enriched through culture. Its work contributes to many Scottish Government policy outcomes—in particular, our ambitions to tackle child poverty.

The Scottish Government has supported Sistema Scotland with annual funding since 2012, providing £1.1 million in 2022-23. In addition, we have established a cross-portfolio reference group for Sistema Scotland to understand where its excellent work aligns with priorities across Government. The group’s next meeting is due to take place in the spring.

Michael Marra

I thank the minister for that answer and for his support for this vital organisation.

Last week, the Scottish National Party councillors on Dundee City Council cut all financial support for Sistema Scotland’s Big Noise Douglas and, right now, the SNP council in Aberdeen city is cutting all funding. Vital and effective support—which is proven by research from the Glasgow Centre for Population Health—for 1,250 of the most disadvantaged children in Scotland has been swept away. Yesterday, the world-renowned Gustavo Dudamel of the Los Angeles Philharmonic said that those programmes in Scotland have been an

“inspiration to the world and planted seeds with millions of children everywhere.”

What will the Government do now? Will it be true to its own words or will culture be only for the privileged few? We know that the programme works. Will the minister step forward where other SNP members have failed?

Neil Gray

We are already engaging with Sistema Scotland. The Deputy First Minister met the organisation only a few weeks ago around how we can continue to support the work that it does. We are aware of the decisions that have been taken at a local authority level, which are concerning given the value of the work that Sistema Scotland does in local authorities across Scotland, and we are working closely with the organisation to showcase the impact of its work.

I must emphasise that local authorities are accountable to the public that elects them, and they have the financial freedom to operate independently, taking account of local needs. As a former councillor, I know that Michael Marra will understand and agree with that.

We will continue to work with Sistema and with our local authority partners, to which we are providing nearly £13.5 billion through the local government settlement in 2023-24. However, councils are autonomous and it is their responsibility to agree budgets, considering their statutory duties and local and national priorities.

Douglas Lumsden (North East Scotland) (Con)

I share the minister’s views on Sistema and the good work that it does in our communities, which is why I am absolutely disgusted with the SNP-Liberal Democrat administration at Aberdeen City Council for axing the budget for Big Noise Torry, which was a budget that I protected while I was council leader for four years.

Will the minister now intervene to find a way to save Big Noise Torry?

Neil Gray

This an issue for our local authorities to determine; it is not for MSPs or Government ministers to intervene in local government decisions. That is a general principle to which most of us normally subscribe.

We will continue to work with Sistema Scotland and our local government partners to provide services that allow people to carry on enjoying cultural experiences and to ensure that children, in particular, can enjoy the types of offerings that organisations such as Sistema Scotland provide to lift them out of poverty and to ensure that they have the aspiration to continue to contribute through culture.

I will ensure that those issues continue to be reported in the work that we do.

Question 5 was not lodged.

Gender-specific Risk and Safety Planning (Ukrainian Refugees)

6. Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what gender-specific risk and safety planning is carried out to support Ukrainian refugees at the point of their arrival in Scotland, as well as in the medium and long term. (S6O-01937)

The Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development and Minister with special responsibility for Refugees from Ukraine (Neil Gray)

Ruth Maguire can be assured that ensuring the wellbeing and safety of Ukrainian people through early identification of risk and need is central to our response, as it has been from the very outset of our programme.

Our welcome hubs conduct trauma-informed initial assessments to identify any immediate welfare or protection concerns. That includes gender-specific risks. On-going support is tailored on the basis of the needs of the individual and is delivered locally. The Scottish Government is working with various safeguarding partners to inform our approach. That is linked to equally safe, which is our strategy to prevent and eradicate violence against women and girls.

Ruth Maguire

We know that, once trafficking happens, it is very difficult to recover victims of trafficking. Last week, the cross-party group on human trafficking heard from experts that the risks that increase people’s vulnerability include insecure accommodation, relationship breakdown and complacency from authorities. In saying that, it was putting a challenge to all of us. Does the minister agree not only that there is the opportunity to be awake to the threat and to work together to prevent that heinous crime before it happens, but that it is imperative on us all to do so?

Neil Gray

I agree—100 per cent—with Ruth Maguire. Guidance for practitioners involved in safeguarding people arriving from Ukraine, to identify and respond to risk and need, has been published and is regularly reviewed. In 2022-23, we are providing £622,000 to the Trafficking Awareness Raising Alliance to support adult females trafficked for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation. That is in addition to more than £2.5 million that was provided to the Migrant Help charity during this financial year to support all the adult victims of human trafficking and exploitation in Scotland.

Given her clear interest and long-standing work in the area, I would be more than happy to meet Ruth Maguire to talk about the issue in more detail.

Foysol Choudhury has a brief supplementary.

Foysol Choudhury (Lothian) (Lab)

The SEREDA—sexual and gender-based violence against refugees: from displacement to arrival—project in Scotland recently launched its report on sexual and gender-based violence among refugees in Scotland. The report highlights the urgent need for services in Scotland to focus on forced migrant survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, including a dedicated working group to address the specific needs of survivors. Given the continued influx of refugees into Scotland from Ukraine, what action is the Scottish Government taking to consider the report’s recommendations?

Neil Gray

I would be more than happy to consider that. In addition to the £622,000 funding for trafficking awareness and more than £2.5 million provided to Migrant Help that I mentioned in response to Ruth Maguire’s question, we are also funding and working directly with the Scottish Refugee Council. It provides initial support and it is also helping us to ensure that, from a policy perspective, we are responding in the most effective way.

As I said, I would be more than happy to consider what Foysol Choudhury has raised, and I thank him for his support and work in this area.

European Policy Alignment

To ask the Scottish Government how it is ensuring that Scotland keeps as aligned as possible with European policy developments. (S6O-01938)

The Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture (Angus Robertson)

The Scottish Government is committed to remaining close to the European Union and to building the strongest possible relationship between the EU and Scotland. Our alignment policy protects the wellbeing of the people of Scotland by maintaining and advancing the standards that we share with the EU, wherever it is practical and possible to do that under the current constitutional settlement. That policy was approved by this Parliament in June 2022 and it is being delivered through evidence-based policy making and stakeholder engagement.

Our alignment policy helps to realise the vision that we share for the continent’s future and its part in the world, from ensuring our people’s prosperity to tackling the climate emergency and supporting the people Ukraine, and it helps to pave the way for an independent Scotland’s return to the EU in the future.

Fiona Hyslop

Can the cabinet secretary confirm that that work is properly resourced, in order that Scotland, given the opportunity, can join the European Union as seamlessly as possible? Can he also confirm that, with all the United Kingdom’s political parties—Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat—embracing Brexit and having no intention of rejoining the EU, the only road to Scotland joining the EU is through independence?

Angus Robertson

Yes, and the Scottish Government’s approach focuses on maintaining and advancing the high standards that we share with the European Union, where that is possible. Consideration of that is integral to our approach to evidence-based policy making across the full range of devolved policy areas. At the same time, the UK Government’s Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill threatens those high standards and undermines devolution, which is why this Parliament has agreed not to give consent to that bill.

The member also references other parties’ policies in relation to the EU. Labour, of course, does not just now support Brexit; it supports the hard Brexit that was negotiated by Boris Johnson, which keeps Scotland and the UK out of the huge European single market and customs union, despite all the economic damage that that is causing.

I will take a brief supplementary from Sarah Boyack, who joins us online.

Sarah Boyack (Lothian) (Lab)

It will come as no surprise to the cabinet secretary that I am going to raise the issue of transparency; I have raised it before. My question is about the ability of MSPs to scrutinise where the Scottish Government decides to keep pace with EU legislation and where it does not. That transparency is severely constrained due to a lack of information.

Will the cabinet secretary confirm whether the Scottish Government is still considering the Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee’s proposal for a memorandum of understanding between the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament, on providing information on and scrutiny of the Government’s approach to keeping pace with key pieces of EU legislation?

As briefly as possible, cabinet secretary.

Angus Robertson

I am happy to confirm to Sarah Boyack that our officials are continuing to work with parliamentary officials on the question of European Union alignment. That is about not just the historical issues, but the forthcoming challenge of the retained European Union law process that we will have to go through. I am absolutely seized of that matter. It will, no doubt, be a subject that Sarah Boyack and others in Parliament will wish to be reassured on. I am happy to give the commitment to her that I want us to have the best transparency in place as we go forward and to make sure that members understand the ways in which the Scottish Government intends for us to remain aligned with European Union law.

Malawi Development Programme

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of its contributions to development in Malawi through its Malawi development programme 2018-23. (S6O-01939)

The Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development and Minister with special responsibility for Refugees from Ukraine (Neil Gray)

The Scottish Government has committed £11.4 million to the current programme for projects that contribute to the achievement of the United Nations sustainable development goals. An example is our project that has established Malawi’s first dental school, which now has more students enrolled than there are registered dentists in Malawi, 50 per cent of whose latest intake is female.

We require six-monthly progress reports before any grant payments are made, which allows for on-going assessment of each project’s contribution to development in Malawi. Grant-holders are also required to provide an end-project report with details of the project’s achievements and any lessons learned.

Christine Grahame

I think that we would all agree that the partnership between Malawi and Scotland remains important—perhaps now more than ever, as both countries face immense global challenges. How is the Scottish Government ensuring continued support for Malawi and other partner countries such as Rwanda and Zambia beyond March 2023?

Neil Gray

Christine Grahame’s question allows me to re-emphasise the importance of, and how proud I am of, the incredible and durable relationship between Scotland and Malawi and the incredible work that is done by our partners, including the Scotland Malawi Partnership and the Malawi Scotland Partnership, to ensure that that relationship can be continued and sustained.

We are working on the design of our new programmes to implement the outcomes of our international development review. While that programming is under way, I have taken the decision to extend our existing cohort of projects until March 2024. The additional spend on those programmes will help to ensure that the Scottish Government continues to support our partner countries and that we utilise our international development fund in an efficient and effective manner.

Across our whole programme, the Scottish Government remains in close contact with our partners in Malawi, Rwanda and Zambia. We are aware of the immense challenges in those countries and continue to respond to them as we can.

We will have a very brief supplementary from Alexander Stewart.

NHS Tayside developed the Scottish emergency medicine-Malawi project, with the aim of delivering in Malawi a national emergency and trauma network. What progress has been made on that project to date?

Minister, briefly.

Neil Gray

I hope that the correspondence that I have sent to Mr Stewart will be of assistance in that regard. As I have said, we are in the process of reviewing and restarting some of our programmes, where there is an opportunity for groups and bids to be brought forward. I would be happy to continue to work with Mr Stewart and others who are looking to be part of that.

That concludes portfolio questions on constitution, external affairs and culture. There will be a brief pause before we move to the next portfolio.

Justice and Veterans

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The next portfolio is justice and veterans. Again, if members wish to ask a supplementary, I invite them to press their request-to-speak button during the relevant question. We again have quite a bit of interest, so I ask for brief questions and responses, please.

Domestic Abuse Legislation

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the progress being made to ensure that domestic abuse legislation better reflects victims’ experiences. (S6O-01940)

The Minister for Community Safety (Elena Whitham)

We must treat domestic abuse survivors with compassion and make available services that acknowledge the significant trauma that they have experienced. Our victim-centred approach fund has awarded £48 million to provide support to victims, including £18.5 million for specialist advocacy support for survivors of gender-based violence. Research on the operation of our groundbreaking domestic abuse legislation found that it better reflects victims’ experiences. However, I am acutely aware that more needs to be done, and I am committed to working with our partners across the justice system to do that, including through legislative reform and rolling out trauma-informed practice.

Jackie Dunbar

I, too, welcome the findings of the recent interim report on the groundbreaking domestic abuse legislation, which highlights the beneficial impact of including emotional and psychological abuse in that area of the law. Will the minister outline how the measures in the 2023-24 budget will support the on-going work to ensure that victims’ rights and needs are at the centre of Scotland’s criminal justice system?

Elena Whitham

We are strengthening how justice services and wider public services support victims through our budget. That includes continuation of support to more than 20 organisations through the victim-centred approach fund and support to victims of violent crime in Scotland through the criminal injuries compensation scheme.

As part of our vision for justice and the commitment to support victims on their journey to healing and recovery, we must offer approaches in justice that place victims at their heart. A victims advisory board has been established by the victims task force to ensure that victims’ experiences are directly informing our action and the actions of our justice partners. I know that Jackie Dunbar will welcome the establishment of the women’s justice leadership panel, which I chair, and which is looking at how we address gender inequality and improve women’s experiences in the justice system.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

One way that we can crack down on domestic abuse is to legislate to crack down on forced marriages involving young people. The minister will be aware of the steps taken in England and Wales to raise the age of consent for marriage to 18. Does the Scottish Government plan to do the same?

That is something that the Scottish Government is actively looking at.

Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

A report published by the Scottish Government this month looked into the experience of families who have fallen victim to domestic abuse. Female victims of domestic abuse told interviewers of their harrowing experiences in the courtroom, with their abusers exhibiting intimidating and threatening behaviour towards them before and during the trial. In one case that I know of, a complainer of rape alleges that her abuser’s solicitor turned to the galleries and pointed at her during sentencing. Does the minister believe that there should be clear protocols for behaviour in courtrooms that should be enforced, and clear ways to complain about any incidents?

Elena Whitham

In 2021, in consultation with the victims task force, we commissioned NHS Education for Scotland to create a knowledge and skills framework specifically to support the development of a trauma-informed workforce in the justice sector. The framework was endorsed by the victims task force at a meeting on 7 December 2022. We are acutely aware of that issue.

Fiona Hyslop (Linlithgow) (SNP)

A number of my constituents have advised me that their abusive ex-partners were able to continue to abuse them in ways that were difficult to evidence in court, despite the robust legislation that is in place. For example, ex-partners have used child contact arrangements to exert control. What action can be taken to increase understanding across the justice system of the often insidious nature of abuse—we have just heard an example of that—to ensure that even less obvious examples of abuse are recognised as such?

Elena Whitham

I fully appreciate the need to ensure that abuse is recognised across the justice system, in both criminal and civil cases. In relation to child contact cases, the legislation requires the court to have regard to abuse and the risk of abuse. The Scottish Government is committed to preparing a discussion paper on the interaction between criminal and civil cases. A key part of that will involve considering how all forms of abuse can be tackled in order to prevent the situations that were clearly narrated by Fiona Hyslop.


To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to tackle cybercrime. (S6O-01941)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans (Keith Brown)

The Scottish Government works closely with national and United Kingdom partners—including Police Scotland, the National Cyber Security Centre and the Cyber and Fraud Centre Scotland—to tackle fraud and cybercrime and to reduce the harm that they inflict on communities in Scotland.

A range of advice to help people to improve their online safety can be found at, as well as on the National Cyber Security Centre, Cyber Aware, Take Five and Get Safe Online websites. Victims of any crime should phone Police Scotland.

I highlight that it is currently cyber Scotland week, which I opened at the FutureScot cybersecurity conference on Monday. More than 100 events are taking place across the country to raise awareness of being safe and secure online, and to promote cybersecurity careers.

Kenneth Gibson

I thank the cabinet secretary for that full response.

In recent years, there has been a huge shift in small firms moving their business online. However, BT research shows that thousands of Scotland’s small firms could be open to cyberattack because they have little or no business-grade cybersecurity in place. Almost half of those businesses suffered cyberbreaches last year.

What specific measures are in place to help our small businesses? Are there plans to step up the share of police resources that are dedicated to tackling cybercrime?

Keith Brown

Kenny Gibson has raised a very important point, not least because it has been shown that smaller companies are now being attacked through cybercrimes—particularly ransomware and so on—whereas, in the past, it tended to be larger companies that were affected.

The Scottish Government has funded Cyber Scotland to partner ScotlandIS to engage with and support the information technology managed services sector, as many small businesses rely on it for their security. We also support another partner, the Cyber and Fraud Centre Scotland—which was previously the Scottish Business Resilience Centre—in hosting a cyberincident response helpline, which aims to offer first-line incident support to small businesses.

The allocation of other resources is a matter for Police Scotland. However, despite UK Government austerity, the Scottish Government has increased police funding year on year since 2016-17. In 2023-24, the service will receive additional resource funding of £80 million, which represents a 6.3 per cent increase.

Russell Findlay (West Scotland) (Con)

The National Crime Agency has estimated that up to 850,000 people in the UK pose a sexual threat to children. That is a truly horrifying and terrifying statistic. Two years ago, Police Scotland’s award-winning get help or get caught campaign targeted people who might seek to groom children online or in real life. Given the constant online threat to children, will the Government be introducing any similar measures or initiatives?

Keith Brown

We work very closely with the UK Government in that general area. We have done so in relation to its Online Safety Bill, a number of provisions of which relate to exactly the kind of crimes that Russell Findlay is talking about. It is best that we work together with the UK Government, as we do, on issues that have no borders—there are no borders online. If we did not do so, that would not be an effective mechanism to stop such crimes, so we work in conjunction with the UK Government and other partners.

The Scottish Police Authority, through the serious organised crime group, looks at a number of ways in which children can be victims through online activity. That includes human trafficking as well as sexual abuse.

A great deal of work is on-going. I am happy to provide Russell Findlay with further information on other initiatives in writing.

Question 3 was not lodged.

Question 4 is from Natalie Don, who joins us online.

Victim Surcharge Fund

To ask the Scottish Government how the victim surcharge fund is aiming to support women who are victims of domestic abuse. (S6O-01943)

The Minister for Community Safety (Elena Whitham)

The victim surcharge fund has opened three times to applications from organisations that provide support to victims of crime. So far, 11 organisations—including Victim Support Scotland, Dumbarton District Women’s Aid, Edinburgh Women’s Aid and Angus Women’s Aid—have shared more than £917,000 of grant funding to provide practical help directly to victims, including victims of domestic abuse.

Examples of support that has been provided by the fund include the meeting of clothing and other essential expenses for those escaping domestic abuse and the installation of alarm and video systems to help victims to feel safe.

Natalie Don

The trauma and fear that victims of domestic abuse suffer is incomprehensible for many people, and the support that is required can vary. A whole range of organisations in Scotland—a few of which the minister has named—play a vital role in supporting women through the most difficult of circumstances.

Renfrewshire Women’s Aid, which operates in my constituency, offers tailored support to women experiencing domestic abuse. However, I note that it did not receive funding from the victim surcharge fund. I ask the minister if and when there will be a fourth round of the funding. What other funding opportunities are there for organisations that provide support for victims of domestic abuse?

Elena Whitham

The victim surcharge fund will open to more applications once sufficient money has been collected, which we anticipate will be towards the end of this year. So far, all organisations that offer support to domestic abuse survivors which have applied have received funding. In the meantime, organisations that support victims of domestic abuse which have not applied to the victim surcharge fund can approach Victim Support Scotland for help on behalf of those whom they are supporting, as Victim Support Scotland manages an emergency assistance fund, which is partly funded through the victim support surcharge fund. I encourage Natalie Don—and, indeed, all MSPs—to ensure that that is well known.

Given the context of increasing anti-immigrant sentiment in some parts of Scotland, what signposting and support are available to women survivors of domestic abuse who have no recourse to public funds?

Elena Whitham

I know that, like me, Maggie Chapman has a keen interest in that area.

The Scottish Government is clear that women with no recourse to public funds should be offered the same level of support that other women in Scotland are and that they should not face disadvantage. We continue to urge the United Kingdom Government to ensure that all victims of domestic abuse are afforded the same protections and support. Our ending destitution together strategy presses the UK Government to extend the destitution domestic violence concession to make it available to anyone who is in the UK as a dependant on someone else’s visa or protection status, regardless of the timescales of that status. We will continue to make the case in the strongest of terms.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

To ensure that the fund is fully utilised, will the Scottish Government ensure that it is available and well communicated across rural Scotland and island areas for the benefit of all women who are victims of domestic abuse?

Absolutely. I can give Beatrice Wishart the assurance that we will seek to ensure that it is communicated effectively.

Victims of Crime (Notice of Court Cases)

To ask the Scottish Government whether all victims of crime are given notice in advance of their case going to court. (S6O-01944)

The Lord Advocate (Dorothy Bain KC)

The Victims and Witnesses (Scotland) Act 2014 provides all victims of crime with the right to request and obtain information about their case. That includes information on the stage that any criminal proceedings have reached.

In relation to victims in our most serious cases, including sexual, domestic abuse, stalking and hate crimes, and in relation to bereaved relatives who have lost a loved one through crime, the Crown provides notice without any request, so long as the individual victim or bereaved relative so wishes.

I should make the point that the provision of information to victims was considered by the Parliament during the passage of the Victims and Witnesses (Scotland) Bill, which became the 2014 act, and the enacted legislation reflects the decision of Parliament to enable victims to receive that information should they wish it.

Edward Mountain

I am aware of examples in the Highlands where victims have not been notified in advance of when the trial is going to court, and they have sometimes read the outcome in the press. Can the Lord Advocate confirm whether that issue is widespread throughout Scotland and, if so, how many victims have not received advance notification of trials in the past year?

The Lord Advocate

I should say to Mr Mountain that, before today, an inquiry was made of his office to ascertain whether the question was prompted by any specific prosecution or complaint, and I was advised that the question was simply a generic one.

I would request that Mr Mountain contact the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service with examples of the cases to which he has referred. I will look at them and follow up the specific cases that he wishes to raise. That is the response that I am able to give today, only as a follow-up to the question posed.

If there are specific cases where there has been no notification or where some difficulty has been communicated to Mr Mountain and his office, I am more than happy to hear about that and to respond in specific detail.

Court Buildings (Maintenance)

6. Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the potential impact of the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service capital budget for 2023-24 on the amount of maintenance work required in court buildings across the country. (S6O-01945)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans (Keith Brown)

Prioritisation of maintenance work in Scotland’s courts and tribunals is an operational matter for the SCTS. Essential capital works are carried out on a priority basis, informed by an on-going programme of condition surveys. The capital position is particularly challenging across a number of portfolios, including justice. Despite that, we have been able to increase the capital allocation to the SCTS in 2023-24 by £4.7 million towards known capital pressures, on top of the baseline £8 million annual capital allocation. Current levels of Scottish Government capital funding should ensure that the programme of maintenance will continue.

Liam Kerr

I think the cabinet secretary for the answer, but the last time that the SCTS faced such difficult financial circumstances, it closed 10 sheriff courts, including Arbroath and Stonehaven in my region. There is a £7.3 million maintenance backlog in our courts, and the spectre of 2013 is never far from the minds of those in local justice. Will the cabinet secretary provide them with the certainty that they need and say that there will be no more court closures in the lifetime of this session of Parliament?

Keith Brown

It is important to provide some context for what the member mentions with regard to the 10 sheriff courts that were closed in 2015. It is worth pointing out that that context necessarily includes what we receive from the United Kingdom Government and what it spends on justice. The two are inextricably linked, as I am sure that the member will acknowledge. In England and Wales, for example, there were 239 court—

Can you answer the question, Keith? Come on.

I do not know whether this is uncomfortable to hear, but please do me the courtesy of listening to the answer to the question that you asked, if that is possible—[Interruption.]

Cabinet secretary, please resume your seat. We have had a good session so far in which questions have been asked and responses have been provided. Can we continue in a similar vein, Mr Kerr?

Keith Brown

There have been 239 court closures in England and Wales since 2010. With reference to the courts, the following is a quotation from the Bar Council:

“Crumbling court buildings that are not fit-for-purpose, including leaks, infestations, and a lack of basic facilities”.

The obvious link is that what they spend on justice in England and Wales has a direct consequence for what is spent in Scotland. Despite that, and in response to Mr Kerr’s point, we have no current plans to initiate further court closures in Scotland—that is also despite the appalling funding from England and Wales and the UK Government.

Suicide Prevention (Prison Population)

7. Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking, in partnership with the Scottish Prison Service, national health service boards and others to support the health and wellbeing of people in prison and prevent deaths by suicide. (S6O-01946)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans (Keith Brown)

We recognise that people in prison often present with higher levels of risk and vulnerability than the general population as a whole. We are committed to ensuring that they can access healthcare that is, as a minimum, equal to that offered in the community. We are working with the Scottish Prison Service and national health service boards to improve health outcomes for people living in our prisons, including preventing deaths by suicide. The work is informed by the Scottish Government’s prison healthcare needs assessments, the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland’s report on prisoner mental health support and the “Independent Review of the Response to Deaths in Prison Custody”.

Across that work, we will embed the principles of “Time, Space, Compassion”, to ensure that people are able to access high-quality, compassionate, appropriate and timely support that supports wellbeing and recovery.

Mark Ruskell

I thank the cabinet secretary for that response. According to a University of Glasgow report, there has been a 42 per cent rise in lives lost to suicide in Scottish prisons since 2016. Last year’s progress report on the “Independent Review of the Response to Deaths in Prison Custody” showed that uptake of the review’s recommendations has been disappointingly slow. Therefore, can the cabinet secretary provide reassurances that progress is being accelerated towards implementing all the recommendations in the review?

Keith Brown

My thoughts are, first and foremost, with anyone who has lost a loved one to suicide in prison custody. Every death by suicide is a tragedy. We are committed to working with partners to implement the recommendations of the independent review of deaths in custody. Although the progress report in December recognised that some of the issues are complex and will take some time to resolve and implement, as the member suggests, greater pace is needed.

Following the publication of the progress report, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care and I jointly wrote to chief executive of the Scottish Prison Service and to all NHS Scotland chief executives and integration authority chief officers to request that greater priority be given to timely implementation of the recommendations.

Gillian Imery, the former chief inspector of constabulary for Scotland, will continue in her role as the external chair of the review into late 2023, providing support and leadership to implement the recommendations. A further update on progress will be published later this year.

Collette Stevenson (East Kilbride) (SNP)

I understand that the SPS suicide prevention in prison strategy is currently under review, and I welcome the commitment to improve provisions for people who live in our prisons, but will the cabinet secretary outline what steps are being taken ahead of the publication of the review to improve prisoner mental wellbeing?

Keith Brown

In partnership with its stakeholders, the Government commissioned a comprehensive needs assessment of the prison population in relation to social care, substance use, mental health and physical health. We are working with senior leaders from across the Scottish Government, the Prison Service and national health service boards to provide additional oversight and to drive forward priority improvements.

We are fully engaged with the SPS in the development of the Scottish Government’s new mental health and wellbeing strategy. The Scottish Government also sits on the SPS mental health and wellbeing steering group. That close working is informing our collective approach to improving wellbeing and suicide prevention in all our prisons.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

The minister will have heard deep concern from all sides of the chamber today about the high rates of suicide and also other deaths. Will he give us an indication of how quickly we are going to get the situation turned around? I have heard the detail of the answers that he has provided, but when will we see some returns on that investment?

As briefly as possible, cabinet secretary.

Keith Brown

I mentioned in my original substantive answer that we expect a further update from the chair of the review later this year, but a lot of the actions are already being implemented. For example, simply making sure that the family are told immediately was not done routinely previously, but is now being done by governors and their associates. Such actions are being implemented now, but, as I said, a further update will take place this year to give more information to Willie Rennie and the chamber.

Reconviction Statistics (2019-20 Cohort)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the outcome of its investigation into the provision of reconviction statistics for the 2019-20 offender cohort. (S6O-01947)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans (Keith Brown)

As noted in the response to a previous parliamentary question, S6W-13874, the heavy impact of the pandemic and subsequent court closures on reconvictions data means that user needs for information must be balanced against

“the provision of meaningful and informative statistics that carry minimal risk of misinterpretation.”

The investigation into what information we could helpfully provide to users in respect of reconvictions statistics is still on-going. We plan to communicate the outcome of that investigation by the end of March.

Brian Whittle

I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer, but I am sure that he will agree that third sector-run programmes offering pre and post-discharge support to prisoners can play a hugely important role in reducing reoffending and improving outcomes more generally. Given that the funding for such projects relies on their being able to demonstrate their effectiveness with empirical data, does he agree that it is vital that data such as reconviction statistics is gathered, validated and published in a reasonable timeframe?

Keith Brown

That is absolutely the case, as the member said. As he will appreciate, if we were to publish the data that we have, it would show a very substantial drop in the year after 2019-20, which saw the first of the lockdowns, for example. The data would probably show quite a dramatic reduction, but it would not be an accurate picture. There is more to it than that.

Furthermore, in order to give meaningful information, we have to do the investigation that I referred to, and we also have to make sure that the statistics provided meet a certain standard. They are gold standard. They are now accredited, vindicated and validated, and we want to make sure that that remains the case. There is no reason for not providing that information other than making sure that it is as accurate as possible, which is what we intend to do.

I will take a brief supplementary question from Audrey Nicoll.

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

I welcome the crime statistics that were released this week, which show a fall in the number of crimes recorded by police last year. The Scottish Government’s vision for justice aims to shift the balance from short-term sentences to community-based interventions, which we know are more effective in reducing reoffending. How will the Bail and Release from Custody (Scotland) Bill help to reduce reoffending, crime and future victimisation?

Keith Brown

That is a really important question. As convener of the Criminal Justice Committee, Audrey Nicoll will know that the bill will help to reduce reoffending and future victimisation by ensuring that public safety and victim protection are at the heart of bail decision making and by improving support for people leaving prison custody.

The bill recognises the negative impact that short periods of imprisonment can have, particularly on those who have not been convicted of a crime, and the evidence that community-based interventions can be more effective at supporting rehabilitation. The bill supports the principle that those who do not pose a risk to public safety or, in certain circumstances, a risk to the delivery of justice should be admitted to bail.

The provision of effective support for people who leave prison reduces their risk of reoffending, which is something that we all want to see. That is why the bill includes reforms to improve pre-release planning and the support that is provided to individuals on release. The bill should be seen alongside our on-going investment in community-based alternatives to custody, as well as our continuing investment in third sector voluntary throughcare services across Scotland.