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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Virtual)

Meeting date: Thursday, February 18, 2021


Portfolio Question Time

Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

Good afternoon, and welcome to this virtual meeting of the Scottish Parliament. The first item of business is portfolio questions. I ask members who wish to ask a supplementary question to put an R in the chat function, but only during the question, and not in advance.

Railways (Hydrogen-powered Trains)

To ask the Scottish Government what consideration it has given to the future use of hydrogen-powered trains on the Edinburgh-Dundee-Aberdeen main line. (S5O-05017)

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity (Michael Matheson)

Our “Rail Services Decarbonisation Action Plan” envisages an electrified railway between Edinburgh and Aberdeen. However, the optimum programme to achieve that remains under analysis, and a range of traction options—electric, battery and hydrogen fuel cell—are under consideration to expedite replacement of our diesel trains.

Through our hydrogen accelerator initiative at the University of St Andrews, we are building capability. The initiative’s zero-emissions train project at Bo’ness, which is managed by world-leading hydrogen technology company Arcola Energy, seeks to address the issues that are associated with creating then enabling a hydrogen fuel cell train to operate on the network later this year.

Tom Mason

The first hydrogen trains are due to be displayed at COP26—the 26th conference of the parties—later this year, to demonstrate the future of sustainable rail travel. My concern is that the main line to Aberdeen is due to be electrified by 2035. In addition, electrification gantries are visually unattractive and expensive and, in any event, half the energy is lost in transmission. It is possible that hydrogen trains could be introduced on the line, which would reduce the costs of electrification and could happen much sooner. We could face a situation in which electrification is finished, only for the line to face more long-term disruption in order to introduce hydrogen technology. Can the cabinet secretary set out whether the improvements can be undertaken concurrently, or should my constituents think of hydrogen trains as something that they might see in 25 years or more?

I thought that, by now, I did not need to say that supplementary questions should be short, as should answers, if possible. Mr Mason—you are a naughty person.

Michael Matheson

We are looking at a range of traction options. The only note of caution that I sound about the use of hydrogen fuel cell trains is that their ability to operate on long-distance networks at high speed is significantly less, and the technology is still developing. Scotland is one of the leading countries in progressing use of hydrogen in rail services, which is why we have the project at Bo’ness.

However, the member can be assured that hydrogen is one of the areas that we are looking at. If it is viewed as being the most appropriate traction type for improving services to Aberdeen, that will be the approach that will be taken. However, that analysis is still being carried out, and electrification and battery electric trains are also being considered.

Roads (Bad Weather)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to ensure that major road routes are kept open during bad weather. (S5O-05019)

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity (Michael Matheson)

Although we know that severe weather will cause disruption, the Government has taken a wide range of steps to improve our resilience to the challenges of winter, to mitigate its impacts and to recover our transport networks and businesses and get daily life back to normal as quickly as possible. That has been done in partnership with public, private and third sector partners, and has included new investment, development and innovation, all learning the lessons from recent winters. Plans are in place to cover the three concurrent risks for this winter: Covid-19, European Union exit and winter preparedness.

Richard Lyle

During the past week, Scotland has faced severe snowfalls in some parts of the country. I thank all the staff who have worked to keep the country moving. What part have local councils played in ensuring that there has been minimal disruption to the roads network?

Michael Matheson

While Scotland’s 32 local authorities are responsible for all winter service operations within their own jurisdictions, roads authorities often work in partnership. Following early forecasts of the severe weather that we have experienced in recent weeks, winter partners at the Society of Chief Officers of Transportation in Scotland, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers, along with Transport Scotland, have been holding extraordinary winter maintenance meetings to discuss preparations and to offer mutual aid, where appropriate. They have also been looking at salt supplies and maintenance of public access to our vaccination centres.

That goes to show the vital role that our local councils play in making sure that we minimise disruption to our roads during periods of adverse weather. I echo Richard Lyle’s thanks to all the roads crews, who have worked extremely hard in what have been very severe conditions over a prolonged period.

Borderlands Growth Deal (Funding and Priorities)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the funding progress and priorities for the Borderlands Growth Deal. (S5O-05020)

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity (Michael Matheson)

The Scottish Government’s significant investment in the Borderlands Growth Deal, which will amount to up to £85 million over 10 years, will support a range of projects that will drive economic growth across the area. The projects that are supported will focus on themes such as improving the quality of place, boosting tourism, delivering business infrastructure, driving innovation, improving connectivity and creating the skills that are needed by industry.

We hope to sign the full deal in the next few weeks, and we are working with local authority partners and the United Kingdom Government towards that milestone.

Emma Harper

Concerns have been raised by local authority members in the north of England that the £65 million of funding from the UK Government is not new money but is money that is being moved from other Government portfolios. We know that the Scottish Government has committed £20 million more than the UK Government to the deal. Can the cabinet secretary provide an assurance that all the money that the Scottish Government has pledged for the borderlands, including for the Stranraer waterfront, is new money, and can he comment on whether the UK Government is truly committed to the project?

Michael Matheson

We are fully committed to the Borderlands Growth Deal, in support of which we have pledged £85 million overall. All that funding is additional spend in the region that comes from my portfolio; it has not been taken from any other portfolio area.

I am aware of the concerns that Emma Harper mentioned, but I note that in the press release that it issued back in 2019, when it announced its support for the deal, the UK Government confirmed that the £65 million that had been allocated for the Scottish element of the deal was new money. I fully expect that commitment to remain in place and to be honoured.

The specific projects that will be supported as part of the Scottish aspect of the Borderlands Growth Deal cover a range of areas, a number of which I mentioned in my earlier response. I hope that we will be in a position to move on from signing heads of terms to the final deal in the weeks ahead. The £16 million that we have earmarked for supporting redevelopment of Stranraer marina is within the overall proposal at the moment, and I hope that the local authority will develop the full business case for that, to ensure that it can be included in the final deal and that the Scottish Government’s investment of £16 million can be used to deliver the redevelopment project.

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

Having been involved in the first borderlands initiative almost eight years ago, I welcome the fact that the deal will be signed in the next few weeks. Given the importance of the projects that have been brought together—thanks to the hard work of councils in South Scotland and the north of England—will the cabinet secretary consider providing early funding if any of the projects can be accelerated? Will he actively encourage the addition of new projects to the deal or, indeed, a borderlands 2 deal? We need to step up our investment if we are to kick-start the South Scotland economy following the pandemic.

Michael Matheson

The borderlands partners are working hard to finalise the business cases that they need to bring together for signing the full deal. I recognise that we need to invest in the borderlands in order to deliver the inclusive economic growth that all of us, including Colin Smyth, are looking for.

The Scottish Government has committed to investing £20 million in the fund, in addition to what has been provided by the UK Government, in order to take forward a range of projects that will make a real difference to local communities, whether through building capacity for the economy, or improving tourism or transport infrastructure. All that will play an important part in the success of the deal.

The funding that we can provide is dependent on the work that is done by local authorities in developing the business case for each project. We are working hard with them to ensure that that is progressed.

Rail Services (Renfrewshire South)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is supporting rail services in the Renfrewshire South constituency. (S5O-05021)

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity (Michael Matheson)

The Scottish Government has provided unprecedented financial support to maintain essential rail services throughout the pandemic. To secure a strong and green future, we are investing in rail electrification on the route between Glasgow and Barrhead, which will accommodate quieter and more environmentally friendly electric trains, increase the capacity of services and improve the resilience of the network.

Accessibility works at Johnstone station are due to commence later this year. Plans for electrification of the route between Busby junction and Barrhead are being developed. Network Rail’s initial estimate is that that will cost between £25 million and £35 million, but we continue to engage with Network Rail to find efficiencies in the programme.

Tom Arthur

I express my gratitude to those who work on our railways in Renfrewshire South and across Scotland.

In his answer to an earlier question, the cabinet secretary touched on the multifaceted benefits of Scotland decarbonising its railways. Will he expand on those benefits, particularly those relating to the project to electrify the line from Barrhead to Glasgow?

Michael Matheson

A number of significant benefits are gained from the electrification of our rail network. It provides quieter and faster trains, in terms of traction type, and it allows us to increase capacity on important lines, including the one from Tom Arthur’s constituency into the central belt. Electrification can play an important part in improving our overall delivery of rail services. Alongside that, it will support us in decarbonising our rail network, because electric trains are more environmentally friendly.

Electrification will provide significant benefits for Tom Arthur’s constituents, including increased capacity and faster and quieter trains. It will deliver a better overall service for passengers.

New Railway Infrastructure

To ask the Scottish Government what assistance it gives to the development of new railway infrastructure. (S5O-05022)

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity (Michael Matheson)

We have invested heavily in rail infrastructure and services, having spent more than £8 billion since 2007. We have provided significant investment of some £4.85 billion for the five-year period between 2019 and 2024. As part of our investment, the Scottish Government is committed to ensuring that the railways meet future growth needs for passengers and freight. An example of that is our commitment to deliver the new railway at Levenmouth, providing new fully accessible stations at Leven and Cameron Bridge.

David Torrance

In Levenmouth, a leadership group of community councillors, Levenmouth rail campaign representatives and residents has been established and is playing a key role in deciding how the £10 million that is being supplied by the Scottish Government and Fife Council for the Levenmouth blueprint is spent. Does the cabinet secretary agree that such groups, which are part of the wider programme of consultation with communities, are vital to ensuring that local community funding is of maximum benefit to local people?

Michael Matheson

I agree with my colleague on this matter. When we announced that we were reconnecting Levenmouth to the rail network, we set out that we would provide £5 million to support associated works and make sure that the maximum economic benefit could be gained from the reconnection. Fife Council has matched that, which means that £10 million is being provided, which will support the wider benefits that are associated with reconnecting Levenmouth to the rail network.

The Levenmouth reconnection work is being taken forward by a task force that is being led by Fife Council and which has on it a range of local stakeholders. Once the line has been reconnected, the task force will have an important part to play in maximising the local and regional benefits that will come from this significant investment in the area and the improvement in its transport connectivity.

Ferries Plan

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its latest ferries plan. (S5O-05023)

The Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands (Paul Wheelhouse)

The islands connectivity plan will replace the ferries plan by the end of 2022. It will be developed in the context of the recently published national transport strategy and our national islands plan, both of which align with the Scottish Government’s purpose and national outcomes. The plan will link to the emerging strategic transport projects review, and it will have regard to aviation, ferries and fixed links, as well as connecting and onward travel. It will include a long-term programme of investment in vessels and ports, which will be developed with the support of the £580 million of ferries investment over the next five years that was announced in the Scottish Government’s infrastructure and investment plan.

Will the Scottish Government give any more consideration to the idea that it might be more cost effective to replace some existing ferry routes with fixed links such as causeways, bridges or tunnels?

Paul Wheelhouse

Consideration will be given to replacing ferry routes with other forms of connectivity and connection, such as fixed links. That will be taken forward through the work under the strategic transport projects review which, as I indicated in my initial answer, will feed into the islands connectivity plan, which we will seek to implement by the end of 2022. I can engage with the member if he has specific proposals, but that is the structure and process that we will undertake.

How many new ferries does the minister think are needed in Scotland in the next five years and next 10 years?

Paul Wheelhouse

That is obviously a very important question, which follows on from the inquiry work of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee. We are already undertaking an analysis of the future pipeline of ferries, and there is a timescale for immediate projects such as the work that is under way on the Islay vessels and the discussions that are taking place with communities affected by the Gourock to Dunoon and Kilcreggan routes on the replacement vessels for them. We have a small vessel replacement programme under development, with a further eight vessels that are likely to be developed. There is a programme to decarbonise vessels and switch them to alternative propulsion systems.

Rather than give a long answer now, I can provide further details to Mr Simpson about the work that is under way, which is a core part of the islands connectivity plan and the vessel replacement and deployment plan.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

I thank the minister for that encouraging update.

The minister will be aware of the pressing and urgent need for the replacement of the ageing internal ferry fleet in Orkney. Can he confirm that that will be laid out in the plan? Does he share the view of some of his colleagues, who have suggested that the lack of progress so far on that issue is due to “a lack of vision” from the current and previous leadership of Orkney Islands Council?

Paul Wheelhouse

I would not want to comment on the leadership of Orkney Islands Council. Obviously, I have a good relationship with Councillor Stockan and his team, who have been working very closely with Transport Scotland to outline their investment needs. I had a very productive discussion recently with the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Kate Forbes, and the leaders of Orkney Islands Council and Shetland Islands Council on funding for internal ferry services. I assure Mr McArthur that we are very much aware of the need for investment in those areas, particularly in Orkney, where there is a substantial backlog of investment, as he may recall. However, we are actively taking forward those matters, and I do not want to prejudge the outcome of those discussions, although I can say that they have been very constructive so far.

Railways (Public Ownership)

To ask the Scottish Government when it plans to take Scotland’s railways back into public ownership. (S5O-05024)

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity (Michael Matheson)

Our view remains that an integrated, public sector-controlled railway that is fully accountable to the Scottish ministers and Parliament will best serve Scotland. Repeated calls for United Kingdom ministers to give Scotland the powers that are needed to secure the best future for Scotland’s railway and to remove the absurdities and anomalies of the current system have so far been denied. While we await the findings of the delayed UK rail review, we are considering all options available to us for the future operation of ScotRail services after the current contract, which is expected to end in March 2022.

Neil Findlay

The Abellio franchise has been an expensive disaster. The Labour Government in Wales has taken the railway there back into public ownership to protect essential services. Why has the Scottish Government not done that here?

Michael Matheson

My understanding of what has happened in Wales is that it has moved to an operator of last resort due to financial difficulties with the franchise agreement that was in place with the rail provider. I am also aware that Wales has some private sector involvement in its rail infrastructure. I am not in favour of that, because I prefer the rail infrastructure to remain in public sector control.

The critical element is what the best way is to deliver better passenger services. In my view, that is through a public sector-controlled railway. That is in respect of not just the rolling-stock element but the infrastructure element, and it is about better integrating those elements. We are giving significant consideration to that area for the future design of a publicly controlled rail network in Scotland in respect of not just the infrastructure element but the rolling-stock element.

Justice and the Law Officers

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Again, I ask for short questions and succinct answers. If members want to ask a supplementary question, they should put R in the chat function while the relevant question is being asked, please, and not before. I hope that that is clear.

Jury Trials (Mid Scotland and Fife)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress has been made in resuming jury trials in Mid Scotland and Fife. (S5O-05025)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Humza Yousaf)

That, of course, is an operational matter for the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service, but I understand that, within the sheriffdom of Tayside, Central and Fife, which covers the area in question, jury trials have resumed in the courts in Dundee, Perth, Falkirk and Kirkcaldy. Solemn business from other courts in the sheriffdom—namely, those in Alloa, Forfar, Dunfermline and Stirling—is being transferred to those four courts, and the SCTS anticipates that normal sheriff and jury trial capacity will be resumed across Scotland by the end of this month.

Claire Baker

The importance of resuming jury trials has been made clear by Victim Support Scotland, which has reported a significant rise in the number of people who are seeking support. I was going to ask about business in Dunfermline, but I understand that that comes under the business that is being restarted.

With a predicted backlog of some 2,000 cases expected by March and the majority of summary trials currently on hold, what further steps could the Scottish Government take to ensure that the backlog is reduced and timescales are shortened?

Humza Yousaf

That is a hugely important question. The impact of the suspension of trials during the first wave of the pandemic and now, after the Lord President’s most recent announcement, is significant. Claire Baker might know from the Scottish budget statement at the end of January that the Government has committed £50 million to the recover, renew and transform project, which will go directly into ensuring that we make a dent in the trials backlog. I can assure her that the criminal justice board is looking at how best to spend that £50 million so that we can reduce the impact of that increasing backlog.

Virtual Prison Visits

To ask the Scottish Government how many virtual prison visits have taken place since 29 June 2020. (S5O-05026)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Humza Yousaf)

We all recognise the value and importance of family contact and the impact of the necessary restrictions that the Scottish Prison Service has had to put in place on those in custody and their families. It has been challenging for all involved. Throughout the pandemic, the SPS and the Scottish Government have been working on ways to support those in custody and their families to maintain contact. Virtual visits are a key part of that.

To answer Mary Fee’s question directly, by 7 February 2021, more than 29,500 virtual prison visits had taken place.

Mary Fee

With restrictions on travel and on prison visits, digital visits will have been a lifeline for many, as they support both the welfare and mental health of prisoners. In light of the fact that more than 1,200 prisoners are currently self-isolating, what support is being given to prison activities, including digital visits? Can the cabinet secretary assure me that digital prison visits will continue after the pandemic? If so, will they be as available as they are currently, or will they be scaled back?

Humza Yousaf

There are a few questions in there, and I will attempt to answer them. First, I put on record Mary Fee’s long-standing interest in and championing of the rights of families that have a member who is, unfortunately, incarcerated in prison.

Virtual visits have been a lifeline, as Mary Fee rightly describes them, for many people in our care. To answer the final question directly, it is absolutely our desire in the Scottish Government to ensure that virtual visits can continue after the pandemic because of the success of their roll-out and the impact that they have had.

On the current situation, in which a number of prisoners are self-isolating—predominantly in HMP Kilmarnock, HMP Addiewell and HMP Dumfries—some virtual visits had to be suspended on public health grounds. I give an assurance to Mary Fee that mobile phones and in-cell telephony are still available to enable family contact. The SPS is looking at what more can be done to ensure that there is contact between those who are in prison and their families outside.

Covid-19 (Support for Court Services)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is supporting court services during the Covid-19 pandemic. (S5O-05027)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Humza Yousaf)

We have been supporting the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service in a number of different ways during the pandemic. We have progressed emergency legislation to allow business to operate virtually and remotely, and we have provided £15 million to strengthen court technology and establish the United Kingdom’s first remote jury centres, which enabled the safe resumption of jury trials.

Last week, I met the criminal justice board to discuss a range of our next steps. Next month, I will hold a round-table event with members of the Justice Committee and other stakeholders to discuss options to address the current caseload. They include, as I have already said to Claire Baker, maximising the opportunities that are presented by the additional £50 million for trials that was announced in the budget statement.

Finlay Carson

The Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service has announced further restrictions on court activity until the end of March, which is yet another blow to victims, who will now have to wait longer in their quest for justice. Why has the Scottish National Party Government not given courts, such as the one in Dumfries in my constituency, the appropriate resources to become Covid safe for business and allow more victims to gain justice?

Humza Yousaf

First and foremost, I recognise the impact that any suspension of courts can have on victims. However, the decision is not one for the Scottish Government to take—it is rightly taken independently by the Lord President. We have increased funding for victims organisations.

I know that Finlay Carson has a long-standing interest in the court in Dumfries. The Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service has confirmed that, when it comes to the plans for potentially increasing court capacity and using that £50 million, Dumfries will be part of the considerations.

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

Has any research been done into victims and complainants becoming disillusioned with the justice system because of late postponements? Has the Scottish Government looked at whether they are refusing to interact with the justice system or looking for recourse in other ways? That would be a real issue for the justice system and it could undermine public confidence.

Humza Yousaf

I meet representatives of victim support organisations regularly, and they express concern about any challenges and difficulties that victims can face if there are delays in trials coming to court.

I am happy to write to Rhoda Grant about the remote jury centre model. We and the SCTS are looking at evaluating that model and the impact that it can have on all those involved, including victims, the accused and witnesses. Rhoda Grant raises an important point and I assure her that I will continue my engagement with victim support organisations on the matter.

Covid-19 (Young People at Risk of Offending)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is working with Police Scotland to engage with young people who are at risk of offending during the Covid-19 pandemic. (S5O-05028)

The Minister for Community Safety (Ash Denham)

We work closely with Police Scotland to deliver the successful whole-system approach to preventing offending by young people. Police Scotland has confirmed its commitment to incorporation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law and to keeping the care review promise. It is also contributing to the development of a refreshed national youth justice action plan, and will ensure that its own approach reflects those commitments.

Police Scotland’s engagement with young people is an operational matter for the chief constable. Police Scotland has been clear throughout the current pandemic that it will continue to operate under the principle of policing by consent and will follow the 4 Es approach of engage, explain, encourage and only then enforce to protect public health.

I appreciate the hard work of the police throughout the pandemic and the professionalism they have shown.

Maureen Watt

I thank the minister for her answer, and I associate myself with her thanks to the police.

Torry, in my constituency, has recently seen an upsurge in small-scale youth vandalism. Prior to Covid and its restrictions, Police Scotland, along with partners such as streetsport Scotland, was able to nip those problems in the bud with diversionary activities. What actions are available at the moment to deal with such unnecessary vandalism?

Ash Denham

I appreciate that the current restrictions are putting a strain on the delivery of face-to-face diversionary activities provided by local partners. We also appreciate that boredom and a lack of activity are among the biggest issues affecting young people at the moment. A variety of creative initiatives has been developed by local authorities and key partners to keep in touch with young people and ensure that they have access to activities. I am grateful to those who continue to provide such support during this difficult time.

Budget (Community Safety)

To ask the Scottish Government how additional funding announced in its draft budget will be used to keep communities safe. (S5O-05029)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Humza Yousaf)

The 2021-22 justice portfolio budget will be more than £3 billion. It includes a £60 million increase for the Scottish Police Authority that will eliminate the police budget deficit and allow Police Scotland to deliver a sustainable budget position, while protecting the police workforce. We continue to be grateful to police officers and staff who put themselves in harm’s way to protect the public and keep communities safe, particularly during the current Covid-19 pandemic.

James Dornan

I note that David Crichton, the interim chair of the Scottish Police Authority, said that the budget represented a strong vote of confidence in the authority and Police Scotland, and that it particularly recognises the outstanding performance of the police service in protecting the country’s safety and wellbeing during the pandemic. What further actions is the Scottish Government taking to keep crime at its second lowest level since 1974?

Humza Yousaf

David Crichton was absolutely right in characterising that as a huge vote of confidence in the work that Police Scotland is doing. Both the staff and the police officers have done an incredible job in keeping us safe during the pandemic. We will continue to invest in the Scottish violence reduction unit, which has been recognised worldwide for the good work that it has done—the navigators programme, the mentors on violence prevention and the no knives, better lives programme.

Additional funding will be used to expand those programmes and to enable further support within our communities, schools and hospitals to prevent or tackle violence and knife crime. We will continue to support our national and local community safety partners to share resources and provide services to inform and reassure the public, giving them trusted and consistent information and advice on how to keep themselves and their communities safe from crime. We have provided annual grant funding to neighbourhood watch and Crimestoppers since 2014 to help support the prevention and reporting of crime.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

In the draft budget, the Scottish National Party intends to cut the capital budget for victims and witnesses support by £2 million while increasing the total budget for offender services by £2.3 million. Does the cabinet secretary agree with me that prioritising offenders at the expense of victims is surely the wrong way around and that victims will not feel safe or supported with that increasingly soft-touch approach to justice?

Humza Yousaf

I could not disagree more with that characterisation from Liam Kerr. Capital costs would have been for one-off projects, of course, but that binary approach of spending on offenders versus spending on victims is the wrong way to look at things. When we invest in offenders, that is with the hope and intention of ensuring that they do not go on to reoffend. If they do not reoffend, there are fewer victims of crime and everybody in society wins. Instead of looking at the issue through a paradigm of hard justice versus soft justice, I urge my colleague Liam Kerr to do what the Scottish Government does, which is to follow the evidence that will lead to a smart justice approach.

Police Officer Numbers (North-east Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans there are to increase the number of divisional police officers in the north-east. (S5O-05030)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Humza Yousaf)

I start by reiterating my appreciation for the hard work of the police and the professionalism that they have shown, particularly in the north-east, but right across Scotland, in keeping us safe during the pandemic. We currently have 17,234 police officers in Scotland, which is significantly above the level we inherited in 2007.

Following the recent publication of Police Scotland’s strategic workforce plan, the chief constable has made it clear that, given the continued response to Covid-19 and with Glasgow hosting the 26th conference of the parties—COP26—later this year, he does not believe that police officer numbers should be reduced at this time. I will not rehearse what I have just said about the budget, which, of course, eliminates Police Scotland’s structural deficit.

Also, although the operational deployment of police officers is a matter for the chief constable, I note that Police Scotland data shows that, on a like-for-like basis, there are now 40 more police officers in the north-east police division than there were in September 2013.

Alexander Burnett

Since 2013, Aberdeenshire has seen violent crime triple while five police stations have closed, including Kemnay in my constituency. Just a few days ago, Kemnay and District Rifle Club had its buildings burned to the ground in a deliberate fire. With fewer police officers and fewer police stations, is the justice secretary going to do anything to protect rural communities?

Humza Yousaf

Again, I disagree with Alexander Burnett’s characterisation. I am sorry to hear of the incident that he referred to, but crime has fallen under the Scottish National Party Government. In fact, it is at one of its lowest levels in four decades. We continue to invest in the police at record levels and to ensure that the number of police officers is significantly above the level that we inherited in 2007. There are 32 officers per 10,000 population in Scotland, which compares with around 22 officers per 10,000 population in England and Wales. Scotland is a safer place under this SNP-led Scottish Government. All the statistics from the past decade bear that out. If there are particular issues that Alexander Burnett feels need to be addressed, he should take those up operationally with the local divisional commander.

HMP Inverness

To ask the Scottish Government when the new HMP Inverness will be completed. (S5O-05031)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Humza Yousaf)

A site has been purchased on the east side of Inverness; early procurement activity is under way; the tendering process is due to commence later this spring; and we expect that enabling construction work will start this autumn. Our new infrastructure investment plan for Scotland, “A National Mission with Local Impact: Infrastructure Investment Plan for Scotland 2021-22 to 2025-26”, which we published on 4 February, sets out the operational date for HMP Highland, which is estimated as February 2024.

Edward Mountain

In 2011, the prison was due to cost £52 million; in 2016, the cost had gone up to £66 million; and in 2021, it has risen to £110 million. The cabinet secretary promised the delivery of the prison before the last election and promised it again in 2018, and it sounds like he is promising it now. What promise can he give—that can be believed—that it will be completed by 2024?

Humza Yousaf

Edward Mountain has done his best to cast doubt on the building of a new prison for Inverness but, despite his somewhat deliberate mischief, the naysayer has been proven wrong once again. I am delighted that the Scottish Government has confirmed our intention to fund and build HMP Highland, and its inclusion in the Scottish Government’s infrastructure investment plan is testament to our commitment.

I plead with Mr Mountain to take a more constructive approach—as, for example, the MSP for Inverness and Nairn, Fergus Ewing, has done. He has engaged constructively with the Scottish Government and the Scottish Prison Service, and in doing so he has made a persuasive case for HMP Highland’s inclusion in the infrastructure investment plan. I am pleased to see that progress is being made in replacing HMP Inverness. That progress will not only continue, but will be funded by this SNP-led Scottish Government.

What is the Scottish Government’s assessment of HMP Dumfries, which is Scotland’s oldest functional prison site?

Humza Yousaf

As the member may be aware, there is a current outbreak of Covid-19 in HMP Dumfries. To give her some confidence, I assure her that I am in regular contact with the SPS’s interim chief executive, Teresa Medhurst, in relation to the outbreaks in HMP Dumfries, HMP Kilmarnock and HMP Addiewell.

We are keeping a close eye on what more needs to be done in HMP Dumfries to ensure that the outbreak does not spread any further. I am confident that we have in place the appropriate health guidance to ensure that we can manage that outbreak, but if Emma Harper would like any further detailed information on the situation at HMP Dumfries, I can ensure that the SPS makes itself available to her.

Victims of Crime (Remote and Rural Communities)

To ask the Scottish Government how it supports victims of crime in remote and rural communities. (S5O-05032)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Humza Yousaf)

We are providing £18.7 million in 2020-21 to support victims of crime. We have also invested £12 million to tackle violence against women and girls, and provided an additional £5.75 million in-year in recognition of the impact of the on-going restrictions on those who are experiencing domestic abuse. That includes funding for organisations that provide front-line practical, emotional and financial support to victims and survivors across Scotland, including in remote and rural communities. Support can be accessed by telephone, live web chat or, when Covid restrictions allow, very much in person.

Beatrice Wishart

I declare an interest, as I am a board member of Shetland Women’s Aid.

People on the islands are getting a poor deal on legal aid assistance. I am told that legal aid does not cover the cost of travel to the islands. Domestic abuse survivors are forced to look to the mainland for legal aid solicitors because they cannot access that service locally. Other constituents tell me that they have given up important civil appeal opportunities because of those barriers to legal access. What will the cabinet secretary do to address that geographical inequality?

Humza Yousaf

I confirm to Beatrice Wishart that I will take a closer look at that issue. She may be aware that the Minister for Community Safety has previously said that we intend, pending the election, to introduce a legal aid bill. Those important issues, and many others, can be consulted on in our consideration of such a bill.

However, if we can do something in the more immediate term, I am happy to look at that. If Beatrice Wishart would allow me to do so, I will take a closer look at the issue and make sure that we respond to her in greater detail.

Rachael Hamilton (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

With rural areas often forgotten by the Scottish National Party, and fewer police officers now in the Borders, research shows that one in four people are not reporting a rural crime of which they were a victim. What efforts is the Scottish Government making to work with rural communities to ensure that crime is reported, and to address the reasons why the perception of police performance has declined?

Humza Yousaf

I disagree with Rachael Hamilton’s characterisation that police performance has somehow declined. Quite the opposite: we should be thanking our police officers for the incredible work that they and police staff have done throughout the pandemic to keep Scotland safe. Scotland has one of its lowest crime rates in the past 40 years. Not only that, there have been significant reductions in violent crime over the past decade, as well as reductions in many other categories of crime. That is replicated right across Scotland.

Of course, divisional numbers and local, sub-divisional numbers of police officers are important. Rachael Hamilton should recognise that national resources can also make a huge impact at a local level. For example, national funding and resource put into major investigations can have an impact on local divisions, too. If Rachael Hamilton has particular operational issues that she wishes to raise with her local divisional commander, she should do so.

Constitution, Europe and External Affairs

The Deputy Presiding Officer

As we move to the final portfolio, I remind members that questions 5 and 7 have been grouped together, and I will take any supplementaries to those questions once both of them have been answered. I also remind members that, when they want to ask a supplementary, they should put an R in the chat function when the question is being answered and not before—which is just confusing.

Brexit (Impact on European Union Workers)

To ask the Scottish Government what impact Brexit has had on workers coming to Scotland from the EU. (S5O-05033)

The Minister for Europe and International Development (Jenny Gilruth)

Given the extraordinary circumstances of the global pandemic, the full impact of Brexit on Scotland’s workforce is currently unclear. Ultimately, however, having fewer EU workers will damage public services, labour markets and communities.

The expert advisory group on migration and population estimates that a net migration reduction of between 30 and 50 per cent by 2040 would mean a decline of up to 5 per cent in our working-age population. Overall, we estimate that immigration changes could result in a reduction in gross domestic product of around £5 billion.

The United Kingdom Government’s immigration policy disregards sectors that are relied upon during the pandemic, including our valued social care workers. To date, the UK Government has refused to engage with the Scottish Government on those crucial issues. I urge it to see sense and to do so urgently.

Gail Ross

I thank the minister for that answer, deeply worrying as it is. I am getting reports locally of falling numbers of people working in hotels and other tourism businesses. If we are going to ask people to holiday in Scotland again this summer, what can be done to ensure that our tourism sector has enough staff to cope, given that a high percentage of them came from continental Europe?

Jenny Gilruth

Gail Ross raises a really important point. I do not want to prejudge where we will be come the summer, but I know where we were last year, and many of us of course chose to holiday at home in Scotland. That will only be possible with a sustainable tourism industry, so we will work hard to support communities such as Caithness, Sutherland and Ross to ensure that the infrastructure is there for visitors when the sector is deemed safe to reopen.

The Scottish Government has provided unprecedented support to businesses throughout the pandemic, but the end of freedom of movement in the middle of a global pandemic has created unnecessary uncertainty, which could have been avoided. Gaining further powers over our immigration system would give the Scottish Government the ability to further mitigate those issues in the interests of the people of Scotland.

Post-Brexit International Relations

To ask the Scottish Government how it will develop its international relations in the post-Brexit era. (S5O-05034)

The Minister for Europe and International Development (Jenny Gilruth)

The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union has undoubtedly posed challenges to Scotland’s ability to engage closely with international partners. Despite that, the Scottish Government stands firm in its outward-looking approach to international relations. We continue to work, from Scotland and through our network of eight international offices, to strengthen our international relationships and to increase trade and investment, with an overarching objective of sustainable economic growth in Scotland.

Willie Coffey

It is important that we continue to develop our strong business, economic and cultural links post-Brexit and that we do not allow Scotland’s ambitions to be thwarted by the actions of others. Can the minister provide any further details on how we can maintain and enhance those connections, for example through the digital single market, the Erasmus exchange programme and support for international artists in Europe and internationally?

Jenny Gilruth

We will continue to build international links through our international network, with partners such as Scottish Development International and Scottish Enterprise. As Willie Coffey touched on, cultural and education exchanges are also important to Scotland’s international role, which is why we are continuing to explore options following the UK Government’s decision to end our participation in the Erasmus programme.

The Scottish Government is working with stakeholders and others to explore how we can further support and enable cross-border work and collaboration in our culture and creative sectors. We continue to call on the UK Government to seek extensive reciprocal mobility arrangements with the EU for those sectors.

Trade Deals (Countries Linked to Genocide)

To ask the Scottish Government what recent representations it has made to the United Kingdom Government regarding trade deals with countries linked to genocide. (S5O-05035)

The Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans (Graeme Dey)

The Scottish Government condemns human rights abuses wherever they occur. We published “Scotland’s Vision for Trade” this past month, which sets clear principles that underpin how we trade, including the promotion of good governance, the rule of law and human rights internationally. We have made clear to the UK Government that any future trade agreements must respect those principles.

John Mason

I seek reassurance that the minister would do anything that he can to support those principles in any contact that the Scottish Government has with other countries, either through the UK or directly—considering, for example, the performance of China against the Uighur minority and that of Burma, now Myanmar, against the Rohingya, which have both been deplorable and decried worldwide.

Graeme Dey

It was extremely disappointing that the UK Government objected to an amendment to the Trade Bill that the House of Lords tabled, which would have allowed trade agreements to be revoked where the High Court judged one of the signatories to be a state that had committed genocide.

That was a missed opportunity to place a marker in legislation to establish that our trading relationship should reflect our national values and be based on ethical and principled decisions, not just financial ones. The Scottish Government will continue to raise human rights issues wherever and whenever that is appropriate.

European Union Funding Streams (Replacement)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding long-term replacements for European Union funding streams. (S5O-05036)

The Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs (Michael Russell)

The UK Government has failed to engage with us in a meaningful way across a number of EU programmes, including fisheries, structural funds and competitive programmes such as Erasmus+. We have been clear and consistent in our position that we expect full replacement of EU funds to ensure no detriments to Scotland’s finances, and we expect the UK Government to fully respect the devolution settlement in any such future arrangements.

Scotland’s uncertain outlook on the replacement of EU programme funding continues, and provisions in the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 and the decision to reduce the spending review to a single year only exacerbate it.

Colin Smyth

One of the most important EU funding streams for Scotland’s rural and coastal communities has been the LEADER programme. The current programme is ending and, sadly, there are no proposals for long-term support for the types of innovative community projects that LEADER has supported in the past three decades. Does the Scottish Government support a long-term replacement for LEADER, and how could that goal be achieved, now that those EU funding streams are coming to an end?

Michael Russell

The member is right to be concerned about LEADER, which, although it has had its critics, has been influential in rural Scotland—as he and I know. It is vital that there are such programmes, but the UK Government is simply not bringing them forward in any detail or at all. A consultation is taking place on funding, but it is not clear what will happen as a result of it.

Considerable misleading information is also being put out. The UK Government said yesterday, in response to a remark that I made about the Erasmus scheme, that it had

“worked very closely with devolved administrations ... to prepare an alternative programme, in the event the UK chose not to participate in Erasmus.”

That is simply not true. The reality of the situation is that not only has the UK Government deployed its replacement, the Turing scheme, via the Internal Market Act 2020, which removes all devolved competency and all involvement in the design or implementation of the replacement schemes, but it has set—and this should worry the member about LEADER—a budget that is far lower than that which the Erasmus scheme presently experiences; in addition, it has refused to release its assessment of why it will not take part in the programme.

That all bodes very ill for those in my constituency, and those who are represented by Mr Smyth and others, who are reliant on the LEADER scheme, because they do not have any friends in such matters in the UK Government.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

It has been suggested that the Department for Work and Pensions will be involved in the distribution of some of the funds that will replace the EU structural funds. That seems a bit surprising, given its lack of expertise in that area. What are the cabinet secretary’s thoughts on that issue?

Michael Russell

It is not only surprising, but wrong. The reality is that the Scottish Government, which has been involved in the distribution of social funding money, should be involved in, for example, the shared prosperity fund, and we have made proposals on that. However, ideologically, the UK Government is hidebound on the matter. The UK Government dislikes devolution and dealing with the devolved Administrations, and it wants to pretend that all the money comes from it. However, it does not even know what that money will look like, let alone how much it will be.

Independence Referendum (Draft Bill)

To ask the Scottish Government when it plans to publish the draft bill for an independence referendum announced in its programme for government for 2020-21. (S5O-05037)

The Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs (Michael Russell)

As we set out in the programme for government, we will publish a draft bill for an independence referendum before the end of this parliamentary session. That is still our intention, and I will update the Parliament on that in due course. I believe that there are five weeks still to go.

Jamie Greene

Given that the Scottish Parliament will dissolve, likely in five weeks’ time, and in the light of the on-going Covid pandemic, I will ask the cabinet secretary a simple question. I have made it multiple choice, if that is helpful. In the limited time that is available to the Parliament, should we debate: A, a draft bill on independence; B, Scotland’s drug death crisis; or C, the overdue Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report into Scottish education, the immediate release of which the Parliament voted for yesterday?

Michael Russell

The Parliament should debate the future of Scotland and how we make Scotland a better country. Scotland will become a better country if it is free to make its own decisions. If it follows the United Kingdom Government into the dangerous cul-de-sac of Brexit, it can only become a worse country. I would have thought that Jamie Greene would have realised that, and would want to argue in the interests of his constituents. Clearly, he does not—he wishes only to argue in the interests of the UK Government.

Was the answer A, B or C? Sorry, I missed that.

You had your answer. There is no second go at it, I am afraid.

Independence Referendum (Resourcing)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the financial and personnel resources required to conduct a second independence referendum. (S5O-05039)

The Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs (Michael Russell)

On 18 March 2020, I wrote to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to confirm that the Scottish Government has paused work to prepare for an independence referendum in order to focus on the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Aside from the publication of a draft bill for an independence referendum for introduction during the next parliamentary term, which will require a minimal amount of civil service resources and time, that continues to be the Scottish Government’s position, and all other work is currently paused.

We are clear that an independence referendum should only take place once the Covid-19 pandemic is over. If there is majority support for an independence referendum in the next parliamentary term, we will return to the issue when it is appropriate to do so.

Brian Whittle

Let me help the cabinet secretary out. The total cost of the independence referendum in 2014 was in excess of £16 million. The Cabinet Secretary for Finance is at pains to stress the financial pressures that the Scottish Government is under as it responds to the pandemic, with the First Minister making it clear that we have a long way to go before the pandemic is behind us. Given those facts, does the cabinet secretary seriously expect Scots to agree that a rerun of a once-in-a-generation referendum before the end of the year is a better and more urgent use of public funds than restoring and rebuilding the economy and our public services?

Michael Russell

I made that clear in my earlier answer. Clearly, Mr Whittle was not listening, so I will repeat it. An independence referendum should only take place once the Covid-19 pandemic is over. I ask Mr Whittle to reflect for a moment—although self-reflection is not a talent that he has—that the cost of Brexit is hundreds of billions of pounds. To be lectured by a Conservative on the cost of democracy is something that even I find hard to swallow.

James Dornan (Glasgow Cathcart) (SNP)

It has been reported that Downing Street is looking to hire up to 50 taxpayer-funded advisers for its anti-independence campaign unit. I suggest that that is quite an allocation of financial and personnel resources. Does the cabinet secretary agree that that looks like a panicked attempt by the UK Government to gear up for a referendum and suggests that the Tories may finally be coming to the realisation that standing in the way of democracy is unsustainable?

Michael Russell

It makes me reflect on the two questions that we have just had, which appear to have been desperate attempts to deflect attention not only from those sorts of facts but from, for example, the fact that, last night, someone who has never been elected, as far as I know, even to the presidency of a bowling club—David Frost, who is now a peer—became a minister in the Cabinet. That is utterly undemocratic.

I suggest that Mr Whittle and Mr Greene go and consider what democracy is, then come back and ask a question. Until they do, they are not in a position either to ask a question or to get an answer other than that.

Legislative Consent

6. Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it can take to prevent legislation in devolved areas being passed that is contrary to a resolution on a legislative consent motion by the Scottish Parliament. (S5O-05038)

The Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs (Michael Russell)

The only answer to that question is to say that Scotland must become independent, because an independent Parliament would not be subject to such restrictions.

We will of course always try to explore every option under devolution but, in practice, devolution is based on the doctrine of the unlimited sovereignty of Westminster, which means that it claims the right to legislate on whatever it wants, including devolved areas and, if it so wishes, the abolition of this Parliament. The Supreme Court has confirmed that the statutory protection of the Sewel convention in the Scotland Act 2016 is toothless. That undermines a key recommendation of the Smith commission, and provides in the end no protection from a Westminster Government that is determined, as the current United Kingdom Government is, to flout constitutional norms.

Recent events, from the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 to the outrage that is the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, have demonstrated that the UK Government is not only able but willing to ignore the views of this Parliament and to constrain and reduce our power unilaterally and without consent. The only answer to that is independence.

Patrick Harvie

Since the beginning of devolution, the courts have had the ability to strike down legislation from the Scottish Parliament if it strays beyond legislative competence, and I suspect that voters who endorsed that devolution settlement never imagined that a UK Government would be so willing to routinely pass major legislation in devolved areas.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that legislation that has been passed by the UK Parliament in that way—against the consent decisions of the Scottish Parliament—is fundamentally illegitimate, and does he agree that anyone who seeks to suggest that a solution other than independence can exist must, as a minimum, agree that courts should have the power to strike down legislation of the UK Parliament that is passed in devolved areas without the consent of the devolved legislature?

Michael Russell

Not only do I agree with the member; I find his contention utterly unremarkable. Anybody who believes in democracy would regard it to be true. It is therefore extraordinary that there is a body of people elected to the Scottish Parliament who do not accept that principle. I find that astonishing.

Thank you. That concludes questions on the constitution, Europe and external affairs. We are a little ahead of time, but the next item is follow-on business and so I will hand over to my colleague for that.