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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Wednesday, May 15, 2024


Portfolio Question Time

Constitution, External Affairs and Culture

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

Good afternoon. The first item of business is portfolio questions, and the first portfolio is constitution, external affairs and culture. I remind members that questions 4 and 8 are grouped together; therefore, I will take any supplementaries on those questions after both have been answered.

UK-EU Trade and Co-operation Agreement

1. Collette Stevenson (East Kilbride) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what discussions it has had with stakeholders in Scotland affected by Brexit in preparation for any input that it will provide to the review of the United Kingdom-European Union trade and co-operation agreement. (S6O-03420)

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

I begin by congratulating the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on marking its 50th anniversary. The SCO not only is a jewel in the Scottish cultural firmament but is outstanding in touring and performing throughout Scotland, supporting social inclusion and underlining the role of culture in education, health and wellbeing. I am sure that colleagues across the chamber will join me in congratulating Gavin Reid, SCO performers and conductors past and present and all SCO staff, volunteers, directors, donors and supporters.

In answer to Collette Stevenson’s question, the TCA review is due in 2026 but we are not waiting until then to seek changes, not least because recent research has found that Brexit cost the UK economy £69 billion last year.

I hear from stakeholders regularly about Brexit and did so most recently at a meeting of the Scottish advisory forum on Europe in April, which I attended alongside the European Union’s ambassador to the UK. The message from Scottish stakeholders was consistent: Brexit has increased costs and uncertainty for our businesses and diminished opportunities for our young people. I have repeatedly pressed the UK Government to address those self-inflicted harms.

Collette Stevenson

Has the cabinet secretary had dialogue with the UK Government regarding population policy following the enforcement of new post-Brexit immigration rule changes, in light of the potential consequences for social care, universities and Scottish society?

Angus Robertson

The simple answer is yes. Scottish ministers have written repeatedly to the UK Government raising serious concerns on immigration changes. For example, we invited the Home Office to work with us to deliver our positively received rural visa pilot proposal, which would seek to address labour market shortages and population challenges in rural and island communities. However, the UK Government rejected the proposal, despite its strong stakeholder support.

Immigration is a cross-cutting policy that has a significant impact on areas of devolved responsibility. Scotland should be able to attract talented and committed people from across the world to work and study here without excessive barriers.

Question 2 is from Clare Haughey, who joins us remotely.

Scottish Diaspora

To ask the Scottish Government how it is taking forward work to engage with the Scottish diaspora. (S6O-03421)

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

Scotland embraces opportunities to strengthen its international relationships by better engaging with our diaspora. We believe that it can benefit us economically and culturally and can improve Scotland’s influence and reputation.

In 2023, we published the “Scottish Connections Framework”, which sets out our cross-cutting approach to strengthening relationships with Scotland’s international groups and developing digital resources to help people join our Scottish connections community.

This year, we aim to establish an external advisory panel and launch the second round of the Scottish connections fund, as we continue building relationships globally through our international offices, Scottish Development International, GlobalScot’s trade and investment envoys, and public bodies.

Clare Haughey

The year 2026 will mark the 900th anniversary of the charter of Rutherglen as a royal burgh. A growing programme of community-led events and celebrations is already being planned to celebrate the town’s history and to look towards the future. Rutherglen has a strong local identity, of which its people are very proud, and many residents past and present have a keen interest in sharing their stories and memories. Can the cabinet secretary give further information about support that is available to local groups and organisations to strengthen those connections and reach out to the wider Ruglonian diaspora?

Angus Robertson

Our digital tools for the diaspora are available on the website to help people and organisations around the world, including in Rutherglen, to join our Scottish connections community. Through our online registration service, anyone can register as a member of Scotland’s international community to receive regular communications on news from Scotland or activity that is happening locally. Whether individuals are part of our heritage diaspora, want to connect with Scottish business or education, or want to hear more about our arts and culture, our community directory brings together Scottish organisations and groups into one handy list.

Young Musicians (Impact of Brexit)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the impact of Brexit on young musicians. (S6O-03422)

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

The Scottish Government recognises that the United Kingdom Government’s decision to leave the European Union has had profoundly negative consequences for musicians in Scotland. It is particularly regrettable that younger and less well-established musicians are likely to have been more severely affected. Touring in Europe is now far more difficult, given the need for costly visas and work permits, and the customs restrictions. Stakeholders have indicated that younger musicians who may be at the start of their career might find those barriers harder to overcome due to their being less well established and experienced, with fewer resources.

The loss of access to the creative Europe programme has also had a major impact. The programme played a vital role in facilitating international cultural collaboration, helping young artists to develop cross-border networks, share knowledge and learn from their peers. The Scottish Government continues to call on the UK Government to rejoin creative Europe.

Michelle Thomson

At a recent round table that I hosted with the European Movement, we heard compelling evidence of the impact of Brexit on young musicians. It was testimony from the singer Iona Fyfe that struck me the most. Still relatively early in her career, she anticipates that the loss of free movement into Europe will have a significant impact. If we do not keep young musicians in the profession who have opportunities to grow and learn and make contacts, we risk much of the social infrastructure and, indeed, the wider arts cluster. I am aware of the very good work that the Scottish Government has done to understand the immediate concerns of musicians generally, but is the Scottish Government collecting data from young musicians specifically over the longer term so that the wider impacts can be felt?

Angus Robertson

Michelle Thomson makes a very good point. We work with and support organisations that support young Scottish musicians. I was recently at the Scottish musical showcase Wide Days, which does tremendous work in helping young musicians at the beginning of their careers to springboard into European markets for the first time.

I also put on the record our appreciation of the announcement by the European Commission that it would welcome a youth mobility arrangement with the United Kingdom, which would obviate many of the problems that we have been discussing. It is extremely disappointing that the UK Government has already rejected that and, in some respects, it is even more disappointing that the Labour Party dismissed it even before the UK Government did.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

Shetland young fiddler of the year is an annual competition that is held in April and that demonstrates the talent in the islands. It is a great shame that our young musicians and touring artists are being stifled by Brexit red tape. What constructive engagement has the Scottish Government had with UK counterparts to help to resolve those constraints and discuss any future changes after a UK general election?

Angus Robertson

I would very much hope that, if there were to be a change of Government at the next UK general election, the incoming Government would look very quickly at U-turning on the rejection of the European Commission’s proposal for a mobility scheme. That would be very welcome. It would also be very welcome if the Liberal Democrats were to use their voice to speak in support of the European Commission’s proposal, which was eminently sensible.

In addition, anything that we can do to change people’s minds about schemes such as creative Europe and, for that matter, Erasmus+ would be key. Where parties can work together across the chamber to support youth mobility and to support the creative sector through the likes of creative Europe, we should all embrace that opportunity.

Culture (Funding)

4. Sarah Boyack (Lothian) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions the culture secretary has had with the finance secretary regarding future funding for culture, in light of its commitment to invest an additional £100 million in the sector. (S6O-03423)

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

We are increasing funding for the culture sector in this financial year by £15.8 million to £196.6 million, which is the first step on the route to investing at least £100 million more annually in culture and the arts by the financial year 2028-29. In 2025-26, we aim to provide an additional £25 million for the culture sector.

I have highlighted to the finance secretary on a number of occasions—and, more recently, to the new First Minister and Deputy First Minister—the importance of additional funding for the culture sector. As is the normal procedure, the Scottish budget for 2025-26 will be published later in the year.

Sarah Boyack

The former First Minister made the pledge seven months ago, so we would have liked to have received more detail today on how organisations can access that critical finance. In Edinburgh, our world-class culture sector is hanging by a thread. The Edinburgh Filmhouse’s open the doors campaign has, thankfully, done very well, but the King’s theatre urgently needs major investment and, just this week, the Summerhall events venue is set to be put on the market.

Our arts and culture sector is too important for government by press release. It needs urgent support, and people need to know how to access funding. Will the cabinet secretary outline what additional funding will be available, how people will be able to access it and how the Government will not only support but grow Edinburgh’s world-class culture sector?

Angus Robertson

Sarah Boyack has identified both the challenge and the opportunity as we ramp up culture spending. Cultural organisations know how to get in touch with Creative Scotland and the Scottish Government, and they do so regularly, including to deal with the financial distress that is experienced by the venues that Sarah Boyack has mentioned and others that are not in the public realm. I assure her that the Scottish Government and arm’s-length organisations such as Creative Scotland take such distress extremely seriously, and we are trying to ensure that there are the financial means to deal with that.

I know that Sarah Boyack is committed to the culture sector, and she can meet me at any stage to discuss at greater length any priorities that she has identified or to give early warning about venues or organisations to ensure that they can get through difficulties, because—I assure her—we are seized of the need to address such issues in Edinburgh and throughout the rest of Scotland.

Culture and the Arts (Funding)

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

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions the constitution secretary has had with ministerial colleagues regarding the delivery of its commitment to invest at least £100 million more in culture and the arts by the financial year 2028-29. (S6O-03427)

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

As I said a moment ago in response to Ms Boyack’s question, we are increasing funding to the culture sector in this financial year by £15.8 million to £196.6 million, which is the first step on the route to investing at least £100 million more annually in culture and the arts by the financial year 2028-29. I think that there is support for that across the chamber.

I will continue to hold discussions with ministerial colleagues about how best to support the culture sector to deliver on our programme for government and culture strategy commitments on engaging across the Government to harness the transformational power of culture.

As I have said repeatedly in the chamber, if any member has views on particular areas that need support and feels that the situation has not been well understood by the Government or funding organisations, I make the offer that I made to Sarah Boyack. I give that undertaking to Liam Kerr, too—perhaps he has an example that he wishes to share now.

Liam Kerr

I am grateful to the cabinet secretary for that answer, but I will press him on it, because I take his offer in the spirit in which it was made.

Certainty is key to allowing Scotland’s brilliant culture sector to continue to invest, innovate and deliver on the world stage. With reference to Sarah Boyack’s point about the pledged £100 million, how much will be available to sustain the Scottish culture sector right now, and how much of the total allocation will the sector receive in each year up to 2028-29?

Angus Robertson

Liam Kerr understands enough about the budget process to know that £15.8 million has already been identified and committed to in the current budget and that £25 million has been committed to in the next financial year. I see that he is taking notes, so he will probably be able to work out that that leaves about another £60 million. This is an aggregate increase, so there will be a rise and then the £100 million rise in culture funding will be sustained annually. It is a very considerable increase.

I appreciate that Liam Kerr and other colleagues wish the funding to ramp up as quickly as possible, and it is no secret that I do, too. If he and colleagues across the chamber want to highlight areas that need funding to help the sector to recover, especially from what has happened since Covid, I assure them that such issues are at the forefront of my mind. If he would like to raise with me the cases of particular venues, organisations or parts of the culture and arts sector, my door is open to him and to all other colleagues.

I have had four requests for supplementary questions. I would like to take them all, but I will need questions and answers to be succinct.

Meghan Gallacher (Central Scotland) (Con)

I am due to meet with the cabinet secretary shortly, but I want to bring his attention to the closure of Motherwell concert hall in my region, because it is a well-loved facility that has entertained many in Lanarkshire for decades. I want to emphasise the detrimental impact on local economies and the restriction of the growth of talent who rely on smaller venues to get their big break. How will the cabinet secretary work with local councils to save these much-loved music venues, which are of substantial cultural importance and represent a substantial cultural heritage, given the announcement of investment in the sector?

Angus Robertson

I thank Meghan Gallacher for asking that question, which is perhaps a preview of the conversation that we are going to have and that I very much look forward to. These challenges are issues that I discussed with the Music Venue Trust only a few weeks ago, and we are very aware of the fact that a significant number of venues have been suffering distress. It is also the case that, in some parts of the country, local authorities are no longer supporting local venues. Therefore, we will need to work together—parliamentarians, colleagues in local government, the Scottish Government and our arm’s-length funding organisations—to maintain the infrastructure of venues right across the country.

I undertake to look at the example that Meghan Gallacher has raised so that I have more information at my fingertips to discuss when we meet shortly. That is a very good example of areas where we can work constructively together.

Foysol Choudhury (Lothian) (Lab)

The cabinet secretary may claim today that the Scottish Government is acting to protect the arts and culture sector, but the situation on the ground tells a different story, with cancelled festivals and cultural organisations calling out for greater support from the Scottish Government. It is clear that our culture sector is under enormous pressure, so will the cabinet secretary heed Labour’s call for a crisis summit on festival funding?

Angus Robertson

As I have said already to Foysol Choudhury and other colleagues on the Labour benches, we are engaged in a dialogue with festivals. We are discussing their funding and how they can emerge from the current financial distress in the sector. I regularly—weekly—talk with colleagues in the festival sector. Across the chamber, we are all committed to ensuring that our major cultural events are sustainable. I am sure that he will join me in welcoming the record number of participants in the Edinburgh festival fringe this year.

There is a lot of good news that we should be highlighting. At the same time, we recognise that, where there is financial distress, we need to do everything that we can to ensure that our festivals, venues and cultural organisations are able not only to survive but to thrive in the years to come.

Clare Haughey (Rutherglen) (SNP)

The culture sector has had to endure the shock of the Brexit fallout, the pandemic, the energy crisis and mismanagement of the economy by the United Kingdom Government. How will this fund ensure vital support for the sector at this critical juncture and ensure that it can respond fully to those pressures?

Angus Robertson

That is exactly what the Scottish Government and Creative Scotland are trying to do. We are trying to ensure that, where there is financial distress, there are interventions in place to enable venues and organisations to continue to trade and to turn around their circumstances. A significant number of interventions have done just that, and I put on record my appreciation of colleagues in the culture directorate of the Scottish Government, in Creative Scotland and in Screen Scotland who have ensured that well-known and loved events will continue into the future.

However, we need to think in the medium and long term instead of dealing only with the immediate crisis. We need to make sure that multiyear funding—which I think everyone supports—is rolled out successfully and that the increase of funding that this Government has committed to and is delivering, in contrast to both the UK Government in England—

Thank you, cabinet secretary—

—and the Labour Government in Wales—

Thank you. I am keen to call Mark Ruskell to ask a supplementary question.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

Last week, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee at Westminster urged the UK Government to press ahead with a UK-wide arena ticket levy preceded by an interim voluntary scheme that is led by industry. That approach is essential if we are to prevent grass-roots music venues from closing. They absolutely need that investment. I know that the cabinet secretary has been supportive of a ticket levy in the past. When might a stadium tax be introduced in Scotland?

Angus Robertson

I have discussed that issue in detail with the Music Venue Trust. The member probably met delegates from MVT when they were here last week, when they were also attending the Wide Days music showcase in Edinburgh.

As the member knows, a number of models are being proposed. I raised the issue directly with the UK Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport because, as I think Mark Ruskell understands, not all of that falls within our devolved powers. As I have said to him, I am very interested in learning about deliverable and workable ways in which extra funding can be leveraged into the culture and arts sector.

In summary, it is a work in progress and I very much hope that the UK Government is listening to us and to the Music Venue Trust.

Arts and Culture Sector

To ask the Scottish Government how it can ensure that the public has confidence in the arts and culture sector. (S6O-03424)

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

The commitment to invest at least £100 million more annually in culture and the arts by the financial year 2028-29, despite the challenging budget situation, signals our confidence in the Scottish culture sector and is the starting point of a journey of three phases—first to sustain, then to develop, then to innovate.

Through that increased investment, we want to drive up opportunities for participation in creative pursuits, support the production of new works and ensure that Scotland’s cultural output has platforms at home and internationally.

Alexander Stewart

The new Deputy First Minister recently said:

“The economic choices we make now, this year, will determine whether Scotland reaps the benefits for decades to come or forever laments the missed opportunities.”

However, we are hearing no mention of arts and culture. Will the new Cabinet be one of continuity or will we finally see tangible support for an industry that is worth billions and supports tens of thousands of jobs?

Angus Robertson

Alexander Stewart has been here for the entirety of portfolio questions, so he will have heard me repeatedly underlining the Scottish Government’s commitment—it is held across Government, including by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister—to increasing culture funding, while it is being cut by the United Kingdom Government in England and by the Labour Government in Wales. We are absolutely committed to supporting our culture and arts sector.

At the same time—Alexander Stewart is highlighting economic success—we should not omit to mention awareness of some fantastic stories. For example, the screen sector has already reached the stage of providing to the Scottish economy annual gross value added of more than £600 million. By 2030, the figure will be £1 billion. There are some really good news stories about things that are having a major economic impact. We want to support the screen sector and the rest of the culture and arts sector to succeed, so I hope that the member will support us in those endeavours.

Neil Bibby (West Scotland) (Lab)

It is vital that the public have confidence in decisions that affect the arts and culture sector. According to the ministerial code, as a representative of the Edinburgh Central constituency the cabinet secretary must recuse himself from decisions that affect the area in order to avoid any conflict of interests. Concerns have been raised about that in recent days.

Given that Edinburgh Central is a hub of cultural activity and the home of the Edinburgh festivals, and given that the cabinet secretary no longer has a deputy culture minister, will he clarify which minister, in the interests of public confidence, will take on responsibility for those decisions and on what grounds, and what opportunity will there be for members to hold that minister to account?

Angus Robertson

Neil Bibby is absolutely right to ask about changes in Government and what they mean for the decision-making process. The good news is that major culture decisions, including decision on our festivals, which are national events, are still the responsibility of the cabinet secretary for culture—namely, me. If there are day-to-day issues or areas in which there might be grounds for recusal, the minister who will have responsibility in those cases is the Deputy First Minister, Kate Forbes.

Creative Scotland (Funding)

6. Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that over half of applications to Creative Scotland could be turned down as a result of “standstill funding” from the Scottish Government. (S6O-03425)

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

The Scottish Government provides significant funding to Creative Scotland each year. Creative Scotland received applications from 281 cultural organisations at stage 2 of their multiyear funding, with a total ask of £87.5 million per year. I expect that the ask will reduce as Creative Scotland undertakes its due diligence and assessment of applications.

Jamie Greene

I thank the cabinet secretary for that response, and I hope that he will join me in congratulating the Wyllieum, the new gallery that has recently opened in Greenock. I invite him, if he has not been down there already, to come and visit. I will happily treat him to a spot of lunch if he does.

There are wider concerns about some of the funding mechanisms that Creative Scotland is in charge of. One industry collective called Culture Counts estimates that more than half the applications might be turned down. The phrase “standstill funding” is a quotation directly from Creative Scotland. It is its belief that funding is not increasing at the rate that it would expect or hope for. Does the cabinet secretary share my concern that it is not just that the size of the pie is worryingly small but that the method by which it has been carved up might leave many people in our culture sector disappointed?

Angus Robertson

Jamie Greene knows that Creative Scotland operates as an arm’s-length organisation. It is not for culture secretaries to instruct how bits of culture funding that are disbursed through Creative Scotland should be disbursed. Creative Scotland regularly gives evidence to the Scottish Parliament, so members of the relevant committees can ask questions about that.

Culture Counts is not just any cultural organisation: it is an umbrella organisation. I listen closely to what it has to say about all such things. It also regularly gives evidence to Scottish Parliament committees and publishes excellent reports that I read very closely.

I agree with Jamie Greene that we have to give the maximum amount of money that we are able to give for disposal by Creative Scotland and to our national performing companies—we were talking earlier about the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. There has been an increase in Government funding to our national performing companies. We need to ensure that funding is apportioned fairly right across the sector—

Thank you, cabinet secretary.

—and that is exactly what we will do.

I will take a brief supplementary from Rhoda Grant.

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

Creative Scotland’s current funding model, which provides three-year funding, has resulted in the Hebridean Celtic festival—which is one of the most important events in my region—facing a catastrophic funding gap post-2024. That, combined with the removal of local authority funding, means that there is no prospect of any public funding until 2028 at the earliest. The cabinet secretary is aware that the loss of the festival would remove millions of pounds from the local economy, which desperately needs it. Will he look at the funding model and review how Creative Scotland provides funding and its processes and policies, to make sure that we do not lose jewels such as the HebCelt festival?

Angus Robertson

It is only fair to acknowledge that, when a new system of funding is introduced, the organisations and venues that receive funding are often delighted. One hears a lot less about that than one hears about venues or organisations that have not been successful in the bidding process.

I agree absolutely with Rhoda Grant that we need to understand how transitional arrangements can best be made to ensure that organisations do not face a cliff edge, as she has identified. That is very much part of my thinking. If she and her colleagues on her party’s front bench have ideas about the optimal mechanism for making sure that that happens—obviously we will learn about multiyear funding in the second phase, later this year—I would be really interested in hearing any specific suggestions.

Normandy Landings (80th Anniversary)

To ask the Scottish Government what events it has planned to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Normandy landings on 6 June. (S6O-03426)

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

The Scottish Government remembers and respects the service and sacrifice of the brave veterans who fought on D-day and in Normandy 80 years ago. As such, we are funding a Scottish national commemorative event in partnership with the Royal British Legion Scotland. That will consist of a concert at the Usher hall on 6 June, which will pay tribute to the heroism of our D-day veterans. In addition, Legion Scotland and Poppyscotland are working to develop educational materials that aim to raise awareness of D-day across the generations and communities in Scotland.

Liz Smith

I thank the cabinet secretary, and I am sure that we wish all those who participate in the events every success.

The cabinet secretary will know that MSPs recently received information from Historic Royal Palaces on its access fund for schools and how schools can apply for financial assistance for visits. It is a charitable organisation that is working with the Government. Can the cabinet secretary tell us what work is being done between the Scottish Government and charitable organisations to facilitate a greater number of school visits to historical sites such as the D-day Atlantic wall in Sheriffmuir, in my constituency?

Angus Robertson

On the generality of the point that Liz Smith has raised, it is excellent to highlight that there are ways in which school groups can take part in particular events. I did not have advance notice of the question, so Liz Smith will forgive me for not having a detailed answer to it. However, I agree with her in general terms and I undertake to look specifically at the point that she has raised and get back to her. If there is any way in which we can amplify awareness of funds that support schools and pupils to attend such important events, I wish the Scottish Government to be supportive of that.

Justice and Home Affairs

HMP Stirling (Noise Disturbance)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide a further update on the Scottish Prison Service’s work to address reported noise disturbance at HMP Stirling. (S6O-03428)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs (Angela Constance)

As the member will appreciate, that is largely an operational issue for the Scottish Prison Service, but noise complaints continue to be taken very seriously by both me and the SPS. The SPS continues to engage with residents and their elected officials regarding the operational and infrastructural actions that it is taking to reduce the noise coming from parts of the prison. Further substantial measures will require additional investment and time to ensure that they are effective, provide value for money and meet the needs of the women who live at HMP and YOI Stirling, many of whom are vulnerable.

I know that the member is to meet the SPS shortly at HMP and YOI Stirling to discuss his concerns directly.

Keith Brown

I appreciate that the matter is primarily for the SPS, but, at a public meeting more than six months ago, the SPS gave assurances that action would be taken and very little has happened. My constituents continually report that there has been little improvement to the disruption that they have suffered for nearly a year now. Indeed, they have been asked to be patient and to consider, as the cabinet secretary says, the wellbeing of the inmates, but there appears to be no appreciation of the impact of the situation on my constituents’ mental health and wellbeing. Recently, the police have been called and two-year-old children are repeating the profanities that they hear over the fence.

What further action can be taken by the SPS to immediately address the issues that my constituents have raised that will deliver a fast and effective solution to a deeply distressing situation that is impacting so negatively on the local community?

Angela Constance

I take very seriously the issues that Mr Brown raises on behalf of his constituents. I have seen some of the correspondence from his constituents and their personal testimony about the distress and disruption that they are experiencing.

I reassure Mr Brown that the Scottish Prison Service continues to work through this somewhat complex matter. Many of the women who are in the care of the Prison Service have significant needs and require intensive engagement to support them through periods of heightened state and crisis. I am informed that enhanced engagement by prison officers has resulted in a drop in the instances of excessive noise emitting from the prison, which shows that the approach is working, at least to some extent.

The SPS is also working to identify additional options that will further mitigate the noise. I assure the member that I will discuss that again with the chief executive when I next meet her.

Alexander Stewart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

The present situation needs to be urgently resolved for residents, staff and prisoners as we enter the 11th month of the disturbances. Residents’ children are unable to play in their gardens. Residents are subjected to swearing and abusive behaviour and language and they are suffering from sleep deprivation and stress, which results in residents having no option but to move, at a financial loss. What further pressure can we put on the Scottish Prison Service to end that misery and suffering and resolve the situation by relocating the prisoners to other parts of the prison estate?

Angela Constance

I assure Mr Stewart—as I assured Mr Brown—that I take his concerns extremely seriously. I hear the representation that Mr Stewart has made in a very considered manner over many months. We know that the noise comes primarily from the enhanced needs unit and the segregation and reintegration unit. There are three key areas of action for the Scottish Prison Service: operational interventions, which I have mentioned; work to improve the physical estate; and monitoring and communication with those who are affected, which is vital.

However, I will again raise the issue with the Scottish Prison Service and will get back to Mr Stewart and Mr Brown.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

I think that the cabinet secretary knows that the situation is utterly intolerable for people who live near the prison. The SPS has offered mitigations, but they are not working. The whole community—the community inside the prison and the community outside it—deserves a lot better.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that, as Mr Stewart has already said, the only real option that is left on the table is to move the living quarters within HMP Stirling to a different part of the site? I simply cannot see another way to solve the problem. If there is another way of solving it, we need to hear quickly from the SPS what that is, and we need action.

Angela Constance

I will not repeat what I have already said to other members in this exchange, but I will say to Mr Ruskell that I will discuss with the SPS what further actions can be timeously implemented to give respite to residents. I take on board his remarks and his considered view that the situation needs to be improved, both for those who live in the care of the Prison Service and for the residents.

Question 2 comes from Willie Coffey, who joins us remotely.

Antisocial Behaviour

To ask the Scottish Government how it is tackling antisocial behaviour. (S6O-03429)

The Minister for Victims and Community Safety (Siobhian Brown)

Police Scotland and local authorities have a wide range of powers to tackle antisocial behaviour. We support them in using those powers appropriately and we are investing in prevention and early intervention. Our cashback for communities programme and violence prevention framework take preventative approaches to antisocial behaviour and violence. The current three-year phase of cashback for communities commits £20 million to early intervention work and positive opportunities for young people in communities across Scotland. Our independent expert working group on antisocial behaviour is examining our strategic approach to antisocial behaviour and is considering how we can improve it. The group will report in late 2024.

Willie Coffey

As the minister knows, antisocial behaviour is a cause for concern in many constituencies. It is a particular concern around our bus stations, where the travelling public and transport staff are often affected by such behaviour. Can any further progress be made to address that? For example, could bus passes be removed from persistent offenders, if that is shown to be a cause, or could dispersal orders—which, I understand, are being used elsewhere in Scotland—be deployed to ensure that our bus stations are safe and welcoming for everyone?

Siobhian Brown

I thank the member for raising the issue. He will be aware that the vast majority of young people who travel by bus behave appropriately. The legislation that underpins the current schemes does not provide a clear mechanism for cards simply to be removed in cases of antisocial behaviour, and free bus travel is just one of several services that are provided through the card.

Transport Scotland is continuing to explore what deterrents and sanctions may be possible and appropriate in such cases. The member should note that the Antisocial Behaviour etc (Scotland) Act 2004 already provides a wide range of measures for dealing with all antisocial behaviour, including dispersal orders, which can be considered by the police, in consultation with the local authority, on an individual or temporary basis.

Craig Hoy (South Scotland) (Con)

One of the unintended consequences of free bus travel for under-22s is the rise in antisocial behaviour, which Mr Coffey identified. Communities from Dumfries to Dunbar have reported groups of youths who abuse the scheme to travel to towns away from their own to engage in vandalism and other ASB activities, often causing extreme distress to drivers and passengers along the route. A resident in Pencaitland recently raised that issue with me and reported that it is

“not just rowdy, but dangerous and threatening behaviour that ranges from arson to vandalism to verbal and physical assaults.”

Given that the next review of free bus travel will not take place until 2025, will the minister now agree to meet fellow ministers, particularly transport ministers, police, bus companies, trade unions and those communities affected, to address that unacceptable abuse of the scheme pragmatically but urgently?

Siobhian Brown

I make Mr Hoy aware that there has been on-going engagement with Police Scotland and bus companies in recent months involving both the Cabinet Secretary for Transport and me. As I said, Transport Scotland is looking at what to do with the card but not, at the moment, at such a clear mechanism as just taking the card away. We will continue to engage.

Question 3 is from James Dornan, who is joining us remotely.

“The Vision for Justice in Scotland” Delivery Plan

To ask the Scottish Government what progress is being made towards implementing its “The Vision for Justice in Scotland” delivery plan. (S6O-03430)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs (Angela Constance)

Good progress has been made across the justice sector to meet our vision of

“a just, safe resilient Scotland.”

Our delivery plan provides an overview of work that is being done across the sector to the end of this parliamentary term.

We have launched the violence prevention framework for Scotland, we are rolling out digital evidence-sharing capability following its successful pilot, and we have expanded summary case management for domestic abuse cases into Glasgow.

Progress continues to have tangible effects on the people of Scotland, with statistics showing recorded crime remaining at one of the lowest levels since 1974.

James Dornan

I welcome the substantial improvement in many areas across the justice system.

What further action could the Scottish Government take if it had the full range of policy and operational tools that are needed to keep the people of Scotland safe in order to build on its strong record of reducing crime and keeping people safe from harm?

Angela Constance

Although justice in Scotland is predominantly devolved, the recent “Justice in an independent Scotland” paper sets out opportunities that could be taken with independence. Having the full range of policy and operational tools would provide new choices and new chances for Scotland to take a different approach in areas such as serious organised crime, firearms and human trafficking. Independence would, for example, allow us to extend our public health approach to violence reduction, in which we focus on prevention, into currently reserved areas, such as drug policy reform and gambling.

Rejoining the European Union would, of course, ensure that Scotland could enjoy the benefits of access to the systems and networks that were lost following Brexit, including access to the European arrest warrant and the Schengen information system.

Russell Findlay (West Scotland) (Con)

Every single police officer across the United Kingdom, except in Scotland, has the protection of a body-worn camera as standard. That remains a shameful failing of the Scottish National Party Government. “The Vision for Justice in Scotland” delivery plan sets out a timeline for cameras. Is that on track? When will Scottish officers get the protection that they deserve?

I am very pleased to say that there will be some good news on that front imminently—within the next week. I would not like to spoil that experience for Mr Findlay at the start of next week.

Katy Clark (West Scotland) (Lab)

The delivery plan refers to the modernisation of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service but not to the state of the fire estate, although a national review of the service has been published. Nearly half of the fire estate has been assessed as being in either bad condition or poor condition. What priority is the Scottish Government giving to the lack of adequate decontamination facilities available to many firefighters, given the serious medical consequences of contact with toxins?

Angela Constance

Ms Clark has raised a crucial point with respect to the fire estate, some of which is somewhat aged and affected by reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete. That was one of the reasons why, despite the new age of austerity in which we are operating, the Scottish Government increased the resource and the capital budget available to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service.

I know that the minister, along with other partners—in particular, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service—is looking to progress the work around contamination, because the health of our firefighters must be of the utmost importance.

Question 4 was not lodged.

Police Officer Numbers

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that police officer numbers have fallen to their lowest level since the establishment of Police Scotland. (S6O-03432)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs (Angela Constance)

Despite the deeply challenging financial circumstances, our budget settlement for 2024-25 for Police Scotland includes an additional £75.7 million to protect front-line policing. As the chief constable confirmed to the Criminal Justice Committee, that investment will enable Police Scotland to bring officer numbers up to around 16,500 to 16,600.

This week, we expect another 120 officers to commence training, in addition to the almost 200 new officers joining in March. Further recruitment intakes are planned across the year.

Scotland continues to have more police officers per capita than England and Wales, with 30 officers per 10,000 of the population, compared with 24 officers per 10,000 of the population in England and Wales.

Colin Smyth

The cuts in police numbers are leaving our officers overwhelmed and overstretched. Many are leaving the service, and mental health absences are soaring. The Scottish Police Federation says that the service is becoming a “reactive service”, and it warns that the lack of community police gathering intelligence will lead to more organised crime.

Has the cut in police numbers on the cabinet secretary’s watch left Police Scotland in crisis? What action will she take to restore confidence with the Scottish Police Federation and officers, which has been broken as a result of the cuts in police numbers?

Angela Constance

I have already outlined to the member that, from the start of this financial year, we have reported additional recruitment. As the year progresses, there will be further recruitment, which will boost front-line police officer numbers.

I assure Mr Smyth that local policing is a central priority. The chief constable has been absolutely crystal clear about that and about ensuring that the service does not become a purely reactive service. That is why she very much welcomed the significant additional investment that the Government is making here and now.

On Mr Smyth’s remarks about the importance of the mental health of serving police officers and how they are at present expected to respond to the mental health needs of the community, I am happy to write to him further about the breadth and depth of work that is going on to ensure that police officers can be more focused on policing and that other partners play their part.

Sharon Dowey (South Scotland) (Con)

Our police force is underfunded and overstretched. It has been forced to no longer investigate thousands of crimes. There are not enough officers, and the force does not have enough resources to perform its duties. As a result, the public will be put at greater risk. Does the cabinet secretary accept that fewer officers could mean more victims of crime?

Angela Constance

I dispute that our police service is underfunded, because we have continued to increase investment in Police Scotland year on year since 2016. I have already outlined the significant work in and around recruitment that will progress this year.

It is a sorry state of affairs when people continue to misrepresent the current practice of Police Scotland and serving police officers when the information is available. In the interests of transparency, Police Scotland has rightly said that it will continue to investigate all crimes; it is only when there are no reasonable lines of inquiry that it will quickly provide information to members of the public. That new way of working is assisting in freeing up police officer hours—for example, the north-east pilot has freed up more than 2,600 police officer hours.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

We know that there are impacts on police officers’ mental wellbeing given their difficult role. The impact of attending incidents involving mental health cases is one factor in that. What additional support services can be put in place to support officers in order to help to retain and increase numbers of officers in Police Scotland?

Angela Constance

There is particular support available for police officers, who very often in their day-to-day work have to run towards danger as opposed to running away from it. It is imperative that we support their wellbeing if they have been exposed to traumatic incidents. However, it is also crucial that we support their wellbeing because of the day-to-day stresses of their job. I think that we would all acknowledge that policing is a demanding role that is done on behalf of all of us.

Post Office (Horizon System)

6. Gillian Mackay (Central Scotland) (Green)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update ahead of the introduction of the proposed Post Office (Horizon System) Offences (Scotland) Bill, including in relation to the potential overturning of any wrongful convictions of postmasters in Scotland that were based on evidence from the Post Office’s Horizon computer system. (S6O-03433)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs (Angela Constance)

As the member will be aware, the Scottish Government has introduced the Post Office (Horizon System) Offences (Scotland) Bill. Although we have always maintained that a United Kingdom-wide approach would be the best way to achieve parity for the sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses across the UK who were convicted on the basis of tainted evidence from the Post Office Horizon system, the UK Government has chosen to exclude Scotland from the scope of its bill. The Scottish bill will therefore seek to ensure that those who are affected by the Horizon scandal can receive justice by having their convictions quashed, and postmasters will have access to compensation via the UK scheme in the same way as their English and Welsh counterparts.

Gillian Mackay

Many of those who were prosecuted using Horizon evidence have already been seeking justice for wrongful prosecution, and all their lives have been monumentally affected by those failures. Given that the UK Government has so far declined to pursue the Post Office or its partner, Fujitsu, in respect of bonuses granted in relation to Horizon, has the Scottish Government considered addressing that corporate wrongdoing through the forthcoming bill or by other means?

Angela Constance

Due to the nature of devolved and reserved matters, it would be somewhat difficult for the Scottish Government to address issues of corporate culpability. The on-going public inquiry by Wyn Williams is of critical importance. We stand by to play our part, as necessary, on any of those recommendations when they come. In his previous post, my colleague Neil Gray made strenuous representations and expressed the Government’s view to Fujitsu on its involvement with respect to the Post Office.

Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

The UK-wide use of the tainted Horizon computer system evidence was the decision of the Post Office. As such, does the cabinet secretary share my concern that the recent coverage makes it clear that, during the past number of years, those at the top of the Post Office repeatedly obscured and provided misleading information?

Angela Constance

Following on from my reply to Gillian Mackay, I say to Rona Mackay that I have been following with interest the progress of the UK inquiry and I am, of course, concerned about the emerging information about the Post Office investigations and the prosecution of innocent postmasters. We must allow the inquiry to take its course. However, while the inquiry progresses, our focus firmly remains on addressing the grave miscarriages of justice through the Post Office (Horizon System) Offences (Scotland) Bill, which will bring parity of justice for postmasters in Scotland.

Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

Scottish Labour welcomes the Post Office (Horizon System) Offences (Scotland) Bill. Will the cabinet secretary consider that there might be related offences? I am aware of a case in which a sub-postmaster was accused of defrauding £35,000, but, to save his mother from jail, her son pled guilty to taking cash that we now know did not go missing at all, and he was subsequently convicted. Will the cabinet secretary be open minded that that man is as much a victim of the Horizon scandal as his mother was? Will she consider whether there is a way to fix that in the bill?

Angela Constance

We will be open minded as we progress. We need to take considerable care, though—I say that to be up front and in the interest of parity—because we want to ensure that the Scottish bill mirrors the English, Welsh and Northern Irish bills, as far as possible in Scots law, so that we have parity of access to justice and, crucially, to compensation.

Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs (Meetings with Lord Advocate)

To ask the Scottish Government when the justice secretary last met with the Lord Advocate. (S6O-03434)

I meet law officers, both formally and informally, on a regular basis to discuss a range of issues. I last met the Lord Advocate and Solicitor General formally on 18 April.

Alexander Burnett

For over five years, a constituent of mine who is a victim of domestic abuse has been failed by the Scottish National Party justice system. Across two criminal cases, there have been a total of 24 deferrals because the defendant has failed to turn up, refused to employ legal representation, refused court-appointed solicitors and failed to engage with court-appointed social workers.

I have written numerous times to the procurator fiscal, the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service and the Lord Advocate, and eight times to the cabinet secretary. None of them has achieved anything and all are referring me to one another. All this time, my constituent’s suffering has been prolonged.

Defendants should be taken into custody if they repeatedly fail to turn up, and courts should have more powers to appoint solicitors. What action will the cabinet secretary take to prevent such stalling tactics?

Angela Constance

I am, indeed, more than aware of Mr Burnett’s correspondence on behalf of his constituent. In previous correspondence, I have referred to the work that we are doing to ensure that additional investment in the courts system can assist in ensuring that our systems are more efficient and effective in holding people to account and getting quicker resolutions. I would be happy to meet Mr Burnett if that would be at all helpful.

As I have said to Mr Burnett previously, I have to be respectful of those independent players in terms of the judiciary, the Lord Advocate and other actors in the system, but I recognise the considerable trauma that his constituent has experienced.

Legal Aid (Stakeholder Engagement)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its engagement with stakeholders in the legal sector regarding the provision of legal aid. (S6O-03435)

The Minister for Victims and Community Safety (Siobhian Brown)

“The Vision for Justice in Scotland: Three Year Delivery Plan” contains an action to reform the legal aid system and to engage with key stakeholders to inform and shape future legislative proposals. Any future proposals will build on the Martyn Evans review recommendations and subsequent public consultation. Officials will engage in a series of stakeholder engagement sessions.

I jointly chair a working group with the Law Society of Scotland and the Faculty of Advocates that has been convened to consider the future of the legal profession in Scotland, and I regularly meet the Law Society and the Faculty of Advocates. I recently met the Scottish Solicitors Bar Association, and provision of legal aid was discussed.

Liam McArthur

Over recent years, there has been a marked drop in the availability of criminal legal aid. Figures published by the Scottish Legal Aid Board show that there are now no private solicitors taking part in either the court or the police station duty solicitor schemes in my Orkney constituency. That is obviously deeply concerning, yet the Law Society recently confirmed that it has withdrawn from talks with the Government, citing “no tangible progress” on reforming legal aid. What steps will the minister take to prevent rural and island areas from becoming, in effect, legal aid deserts?

Siobhian Brown

The legal aid system is a national one and it is flexible enough to allow services to be delivered by solicitors around the country to people all around the country. There are numerous ways in which access to solicitors can be facilitated remotely, and funding is available to allow solicitors to travel to rural and remote parts of the country to carry out work, meaning that individuals do not have to rely on local provision alone when seeking publicly funded legal assistance.

We will continue to hold discussions with the legal profession on the main areas of concern in relation to legal aid. Both the Law Society and the SSBA are aware that the offer to re-tender for research remains. Through successful engagement with the legal profession, the Scottish Government has delivered significant investment into the legal aid system over recent years. The most recent package of fee reforms and increases was delivered on 29 April last year and took the total additional funding for legal aid to £31 million since April 2021.

That concludes portfolio questions on justice and home affairs. There will be a short pause before we move on to the next item of business, to allow front-bench teams to change positions should they so wish.