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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Wednesday, April 24, 2024


Portfolio Question Time

Constitution, External Affairs and Culture

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

Good afternoon, colleagues. The first item of business is portfolio questions, and the first portfolio is constitution, external affairs and culture. I remind members who wish to ask a supplementary question to press their request-to-speak button during the relevant question.

I call Rachael Hamilton to ask question 1.

Ms Hamilton does not appear to be in the chamber, which is more than regrettable. We will move on to question 2.

Support for Culture (North East Scotland)

2. Maurice Golden (North East Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is supporting culture in the North East Scotland region. (S6O-03325)

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

Since the previous external affairs questions, the United Nations has concluded its review of the report of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, which has delivered aid in Gaza for the Scottish Government. Germany is now resuming aid through UNRWA, joining the European Union and many others. We wish to put on record that we call on the United Kingdom Government to follow the lead of Germany and help the people of Gaza.

In answer to Maurice Golden’s question, our culture strategy sets out our ambition for culture to thrive across Scotland. We have supported a range of initiatives in the north-east of Scotland, including the North East Culture Collective. One of the projects in the programme has supported creative practitioners to work with young people who are experiencing homelessness to co-design a safe space to enable them to feel connected to their community.

In addition, through funding to Creative Scotland, we support organisations such as Hospitalfield in Angus, Creative Dundee, Deveron Projects and Scottish Sculpture Workshop in Aberdeenshire, to name but a few.

Maurice Golden

The Eden Project Dundee is potentially transformational for the city, and it will be funded by a mixture of private and public sources. However, it is not projected to open until the end of the decade due to a series of complicated actions being required. What actions will the Scottish Government take to support and maximise the value of that project?

Angus Robertson

I commend Maurice Golden for his long-standing advocacy and Dundee for the flexibility and innovation that it has shown throughout the transformation of the city. That is affirmed in the designation of Dundee as the first and only United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization city of design in the United Kingdom.

The Scottish Government has invested £38 million in the construction of the world-class V&A museum of design as a focal point for the regeneration of the city’s waterfront. We continue our support through annual funding, which helps Dundee to develop a sense of place and a culture of innovation. I have no doubt that that innovative approach will continue as Dundee looks to maximise the opportunities that arise as the Eden Project develops in the city.

Karen Adam (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

The launch of Scotland’s international culture strategy is very welcome, and it is important. I met the French ambassador recently in Aberdeen. Can the cabinet secretary say any more about the steps that the Scottish Government is taking to promote and develop Scotland’s international cultural connections and the opportunities that that can create for the sector, including in the north-east of Scotland?

Angus Robertson

First, I give a huge word of thanks to organisations across the north-east of Scotland for contributing to the public consultation for the international culture strategy. Contributions from organisations such as Scottish Sculpture Workshop, Deveron Projects and Peacock Visual Arts were vital to the strategy’s development.

The international culture strategy sets out a

“vision ... for the Scottish culture and creative sector to be globally connected with the means and opportunities to achieve its international ambitions and potential”.

The Scottish Government’s existing international infrastructure will be a key element in delivering on the aims of the strategy, and we will work with our international offices and other networks across Scotland, including those in the north-east, to build on their existing cultural activity in order to understand where opportunities exist and how to enhance them for the culture and creative sector.

Census Data

3. Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government how data from the most recent Scottish census is being used. (S6O-03326)

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

The first results from the 2022 census were published by National Records of Scotland on Thursday 14 September 2023. The first outputs included estimates of the total population of Scotland and the population sizes in every local authority area, including a breakdown by five-year age groups and sex. They also showed the change in population since the previous census in 2011.

The availability of up-to-date census population data has already facilitated the development of Scottish Government policies, such as developing more targeted interventions aimed at supporting communities that are experiencing population decline.

Those results were only the first step in publishing a wide range of unique data from the census. From May 2024, National Records of Scotland will publish a series of topic data from the 2022 census.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

The Highlands and Islands already faces many challenges, including the delivery of public services such as healthcare, housing and vital lifeline links. Failure to deliver those services properly risks the sustainability of some of our communities. As the cabinet secretary said, depopulation is a constant threat.

The Scottish Government’s “Supporting and enabling sustainable communities: An Action Plan to Address Depopulation” was published in February this year, but that was before some key data from the Scottish census was released. We know that the census was delayed and that it was millions of pounds over budget. What analysis has the Scottish Government undertaken, or is planning to undertake, of the impact of the delayed release of census data on its policy development and delivery and on the ability of other organisations, such as local councils, to deliver on their work?

Angus Robertson

Jamie Halcro Johnston is absolutely right to draw attention to the importance of census data to the delivery of public services throughout Scotland, including the north of Scotland and the northern isles, which I know are very close to his heart.

There was a change in the latest census through the inclusion of what is known as administrative data, which allows for greater granularity, using huge data sets that are held throughout Scotland’s public services. I know that that will be of great interest to Jamie Halcro Johnston and other colleagues.

I have said to National Records of Scotland that, when the next tranche of information is released, there should be a meeting for MSPs from across the chamber so that they can understand how that works and raise any needs, interests, concerns and expectations that they might have, so that everyone can have confidence that the census data is as useful as Jamie Halcro Johnston knows it to be and about what lessons need to be learned about the conduct of future censuses and the use of administrative data.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

Depopulation reversal and growth in the islands of Burra and Trondra correlate with the addition of bridges that connect them to the Shetland mainland. The next phase of transport infrastructure in the islands could be short subsea tunnels, which would help to boost Scotland’s aquaculture and space economy. Does the cabinet secretary agree that census data should be used to help to map depopulation and inform policy in areas such as transport connectivity?

Angus Robertson

As Beatrice Wishart knows, there is no quick fix for the challenges that lead to depopulation. However, the action plan to address depopulation sets out how we will work with regional, local and community partners to ensure that we collectively deliver a sustainable solution to those challenges.

Beatrice Wishart is absolutely right to point to the role that the census and census data can play in our understanding of differences in population and other important information that can steer local and national decision making. There is the possibility that the data might be updated not just every 10 years but in between.

I refer to what I said in response to Jamie Halcro Johnston’s question. I extend to Beatrice Wishart the opportunity to speak to those who compiled and worked on the most recent census to better understand what we can learn from it and the ways in which it is compiled now and will be going into the future. I am sure that it will be of significant benefit to her constituents in Shetland.

Festivals (Dumfries and Galloway)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to support festivals in Dumfries and Galloway. (S6O-03327)

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

Creative Scotland provides support for a number of festivals in Dumfries and Galloway including the Dumfries and Galloway arts festival and Wigtown book festival. In 2023-24, Creative Scotland provided £107,000 to Dumfries and Galloway Arts Festival from its open fund. Creative Scotland also supports Wigtown Festival Company, which delivers the Wigtown book festival and the Big DoG children’s book festival, with £86,000 per year. It also provides £100,000 per year in support for The Stove Network, which runs a programme of various festivals and events, including the Nithraid river festival.

Between April 2021 and March 2024, Creative Scotland invested more than £3 million in individuals and organisations with a Dumfries and Galloway postcode through its open and targeted funds.

Colin Smyth

In recent years, in particular, in Dumfries and Galloway, we have lost a number of major music festivals, such as the Wickerman festival, the Electric Fields festival and, most recently, the Doonhame festival and the Big Burns Supper, while others, such as the Eden festival, have had to scale back. However, when new events such as Music at the Multiverse come forward, they do not seem to receive support. Support for music festivals does not seem to be there.

At a time when Creative Scotland’s funding has been reduced by 10 per cent, what specific action can the Government take to stop a further erosion of music festivals in Dumfries and Galloway, which have incredibly tight margins, given the rural nature of the region?

Angus Robertson

As Colin Smyth knows, I am very committed to supporting festivals right across Scotland. We have such fantastic festivals—they one of the jewels of our creative sector. I have already outlined the significant support that has been extended to festivals in Dumfries and Galloway.

Colin Smyth raises some concerns, which I am sure that Creative Scotland will have heard. He is well aware that Creative Scotland is an arm’s-length organisation and that it is beyond governmental decisions whether to support one festival or project or another—that is for Creative Scotland to determine. I will make sure that, when I next meet Creative Scotland, I draw its attention to the specific questions that he has asked about festivals in Dumfries and Galloway.

Public Service Broadcasting

To ask the Scottish Government what its policy is for public service broadcasting in an independent Scotland. (S6O-03328)

The Minister for Independence (Jamie Hepburn)

In continuing to deliver on our commitment to give people the information that they need to make an informed choice about their future, we set out our policy for broadcasting in the “Culture in an independent Scotland” paper that we published in February.

With independence, we would build on the strengths of the current broadcasting model, including through the creation of a new Scottish public service broadcaster, to better reflect and prioritise the specific needs and interests of Scottish audiences and our creative economy. On-going engagement and consultation with the sector and the public would be part of that process.

Willie Coffey

I am sure that the minister will agree that Scotland is not served well on the international stage by the current broadcasting model. With our national broadcaster—unlike what happens with many other national broadcasters, some of which are for countries no bigger than Scotland—we neither see nor hear our voice represented on the world stage from a Scottish perspective. In my view, the Scottish people are losing out significantly. Will the minister share some thinking on how that will change for the better when Scotland becomes independent?

Jamie Hepburn

It is important that we recognise that there is still much good that comes from broadcasting that is based in Scotland. However, I agree that, with an independent public service broadcaster, which we would ensure was editorially independent of Government and adhered to the highest standards of impartiality, we would have a significant opportunity to ensure that we would see the world better reflected through a Scottish lens. Any charter for an independent Scottish broadcaster could help to ensure that. As I have set out, we have made a commitment to engage in consultation with the sector and with the public to ensure that we can reach that ambition for an independent Scottish public service broadcaster.

International Culture Strategy (Touring Artists)

To ask the Scottish Government how Scotland’s international culture strategy will support the aspirations of touring artists. (S6O-03329)

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

The Scottish Government recognises that the ability to tour and work internationally is vital to many creative professionals, and it is deeply regrettable that the United Kingdom Government’s decision to leave the European Union has made such activities significantly more difficult.

A key area of action of our international culture strategy will be to mitigate those impacts. As part of the strategy, we will work to push the UK Government and the EU to support visa-free arrangements for touring artists. In addition, we will work with the sector to explore new ways to support international mobility.

Touring is also a key element of cultural export and exchange activity in the sector. Therefore, we will also undertake a feasibility study on the development of a support service for cultural export and exchange that would help to support international touring and other international activity.

Clare Adamson

Last week, I attended a sobering round-table discussion with the face the music campaign, which is organised by the European Movement. A stark result of Brexit is that touring artists face visa barriers, as the cabinet secretary has mentioned, and in addition, the additional paperwork around carnets and cabotage and a host of bureaucracy means that touring is now prohibitively expensive for many, both in time and resource.

I know through my work with the Parliamentary Partnership Assembly that those discussions have taken place, but they are very much focused on youth movement in Europe. What is the cabinet secretary’s advice on the conversations that he has had about Scotland’s wider cultural activities and opportunities?

Angus Robertson

It is the view of the Scottish Government that creative professionals should be added to the list of visa-exempt business travellers that are already contained in the EU-UK trade and co-operation agreement. That could be easily done through the review clauses of the TCA.

Scottish Government ministers and officials have regular discussions with their UK Government counterparts to make the case for an agreement to minimise all those barriers and for that issue to be raised with the European Commission. As set out in our international culture strategy, we will continue to push the UK Government to negotiate such an agreement and, incidentally, to rejoin creative Europe.

Of course, the Scottish Government wishes to see an independent Scotland rejoin the European Union, allowing touring artists to benefit once again from freedom of movement. Our recent paper, “Culture in an independent Scotland”, sets out our priorities for that to come about.

Alexander Stewart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

Touring artists are being priced out of Edinburgh due to escalating accommodation costs. The chief executive of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society described the current level of Scottish Government support for what is the largest arts festival in the world as a “national embarrassment” and said that the fringe was becoming “almost impossible” to deliver. What is the Scottish Government doing to support that event and those touring artists?

Angus Robertson

First, conversations and discussions between the Scottish Government and important festivals, including the Edinburgh festival fringe, are on-going and constant. The fringe is a jewel in our cultural crown—I say that as cabinet secretary for culture, but also in my capacity as a member of the Scottish Parliament for Edinburgh Central. We need to work through the indubitable challenges across the creative and arts sectors; we will do that in partnership with the Edinburgh festival fringe and others.

Secondly, I observe that one of the particular challenges that we have with touring artists—that was the second part of the member’s question—is the difficulty, particularly for younger, less experienced people, of breaking through in the cultural and arts sector. Last week, we had a proposal from the European Commission that would have restored the ability of young people, including artists, to tour without any difficulty right across the European Union. Unfortunately, the first to decline that proposal was the UK Labour Party—incidentally, a party whose front-bench members are not even hearing culture questions today—and the second to decline it was the UK Government. That is extremely disappointing.

Cabinet Secretary for Constitution, External Affairs and Culture (Overseas Trips)

7. Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what the total cost has been of overseas trips undertaken by the Cabinet Secretary for Constitution, External Affairs and Culture, on behalf of the Scottish Government, since his appointment in 2021. (S6O-03330)

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

Details of all ministerial engagements are proactively published by the Scottish Government, as per section 9.17 of the ministerial code. Final cost details from the recent attendance at tartan week in the United States are still being finalised. I will write to the member with those details as soon as they are available.

Tartan week was a tremendous opportunity to promote Scotland as an excellent place to live, work, study, visit, invest and do business in. I am particularly grateful to the tartan week organisers in the United States and to the Scottish Government office in the United States, Scottish Development International, VisitScotland and all participants for ensuring that tartan week was such a success.

Edward Mountain

I am not sure that that was even an attempted answer to my questions and I am not sure why the cabinet secretary is being so evasive. Such trips are funded by taxpayers, who deserve to hear the answer right here in their Parliament about exactly what the costs have been.

As the cabinet secretary knows, the Scottish Government has come in for a lot of criticism for meddling in issues that are reserved to the UK Government. I would like to know, and I will give him one more opportunity to say, how much has been spent on all his trips since 2021. A figure would be useful.

It is disappointing that Edward Mountain just read out the supplementary that he had prepared before arriving in the chamber and listening to the answer that I gave him—

You did not answer my question.

Angus Robertson

I did answer the question—[Interruption.] As I said to Mr Mountain—if he will give me the opportunity to answer the question yet again—details of all international trips are, as he knows, published regularly by the Scottish Government.

As I have made clear—[Interruption.] Mr Mountain can huff and puff as much as he likes, but it is simply a statement of fact that, given that I returned from tartan week only recently, the latest travel information has not been finally compiled. As soon as it has been, it will be published, and I have said that we will forward it to the member. That is an entirely reasonable answer to an entirely reasonable question. I am sure that the member would not wish me to pluck numbers from the sky and answer questions without having the facts, which have not yet been compiled.

Edward Mountain

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. We come to the chamber as members to get answers to questions, which we submit more than a week in advance. How do we expect members to be treated with respect in the chamber if they do not get answers? We are not being treated with respect if we are not being given answers, Presiding Officer. I would be grateful if you could give a ruling on whether a member has a chance to get an answer, and whether the cabinet secretary should answer the question that has been put to him.

Mr Mountain, you will know that the content of both questions and answers is not the responsibility of the chair.

Historic Environment Scotland (Reopening of Sites)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the reopening of Historic Environment Scotland sites. (S6O-03331)

The Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development (Kaukab Stewart)

As we would all expect, Historic Environment Scotland must continue to prioritise the health and safety of visitors, staff and contractors. It continues to work hard to reopen sites as soon as it is safe to do so. In fact, Historic Environment Scotland has now completed 90 per cent of the priority high-level masonry inspections and, across its estate, there is full or partial access to 90 per cent of its year-round properties.

For further information on any specific site or to learn about the issues from technical experts at first hand, I would be happy to ask Historic Environment Scotland to arrange a visit for the member. I thank him for his continued interest in the issue.

Finlay Carson

Before the pandemic, Scotland’s historic environment contributed £4.2 billion to our national economy, and Historic Environment Scotland cares for more than 300 properties that are of national importance. However, to maintain its estate, HES needs to tackle a serious shortage of traditional skills such as stonemasonry and carpentry.

I know from experience, after visiting the reBUILD project in Whithorn, how vital it is to attract and retain fresh young talent to work in Scotland’s heritage sector while, crucially, creating jobs at the same time. I am sure that the minister agrees about the importance of the new five-year skills investment plan that was launched earlier this month, which will create a better-skilled workforce across Scotland. How does she envisage that HES will work with organisations such as Whithorn reBUILD to maintain our historic buildings and create jobs in rural areas?

Kaukab Stewart

I recognise the excellent work that the Whithorn Trust is undertaking with its trainees. I am pleased that Historic Environment Scotland is supporting the trust’s capacity to deliver accredited skills training.

As the member mentioned, a refreshed skills investment plan for the historic environment was launched recently at the Engine Shed in Stirling, and I was able to attend that launch. That plan was drafted collaboratively with the sector to reflect the changes that the sector has experienced since the plan was first published in 2019. Along with “Our Past, Our Future: The Strategy for Scotland’s Historic Environment”, that will help with the traditional skills that are needed for the sustainability of our heritage assets.

I highlight that the Minister for Higher and Further Education; and Minister for Veterans, in his response to Miles Briggs on 11 January 2024, recognised the need to ensure that stonemasonry and other traditional skills, including those in relation to stained glass windows, are prioritised in the apprenticeship and training offer.

Colin Beattie (Midlothian North and Musselburgh) (SNP)

The impact of climate change on our historic environment is clear. Will the minister provide an update on the Scottish Government’s latest engagement with HES regarding work that is under way to protect heritage from climate impact?

Kaukab Stewart

As the lead public body for heritage in Scotland, Historic Environment Scotland published “Our Past, Our Future: The Strategy for Scotland’s Historic Environment”. One of that strategy’s key priorities is delivering the transition to net zero. It sits alongside HES’s climate action plan, which spans until the end of 2025 and details how to tackle the causes and mitigate the impacts of climate change. Climate change does not only affect sites in Scotland, but Historic Environment Scotland is among the first to proactively tackle those issues.

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

Will the minister give an update on the long-running question of when further work will be progressed by Historic Environment Scotland to ensure that the iconic Kisimul castle in Barra can at least be partially reopened to the public?

Kaukab Stewart

I understand the member’s disappointment that Kisimul castle is not open because of public safety measures. However, the safety of visitors and Historic Environment Scotland staff must continue to be prioritised. Management of the estate is an operational matter for Historic Environment Scotland. I understand that HES continues to engage regularly with Alasdair Allan. The head of the north region at Historic Environment Scotland is due to meet him shortly to discuss sustainable options for reopening Kisimul castle. I pay tribute to the member’s long-standing and on-going campaigning on that.

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I extend my apologies to the chamber and to you for arriving to the chamber late and missing my question. It was entirely my fault; I had a diary malfunction.

The situation is regrettable, but I appreciate that apology to the chamber.

That concludes portfolio questions on constitution, external affairs and culture.

Justice and Home Affairs

The next portfolio is justice and home affairs. As ever, any member who wishes to ask a supplementary question should press their request-to-speak button during the relevant question.

Scottish Prison Service (Workforce)

1. Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to assist the Scottish Prison Service in the recruitment of new officers, in the light of reported concerns regarding an ageing prison officer workforce. (S6O-03332)

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

Prison officers play a vital role in our justice system, which is reflected in the increase in the Scottish Prison Service resource budget by 10 per cent to £436.5 million this year. That will support the effective operation of our prisons as well as the recent two-year pay award, which has enabled the SPS to advertise better recruitment terms, which is continuing to assist with attracting new prison officers.

Last year, 581 appointments were made to prison officer roles, with plans in place to recruit up to 780 new officers this year, and the SPS’s current prison officer vacancy rate is less than 1 per cent.

Emma Harper

Through discussions with prison staff in my South Scotland region and with constituents who have applied unsuccessfully to work for the service, it has become clear to me that the aptitude testing that is used for pre-interview screening is a barrier to recruitment. Prison staff told me that the best candidates for the position—those with life experience, strong interpersonal skills, empathy and understanding—are not always able to pass the numerical reasoning and spatial awareness online tests, which many feel are not relevant to the job. Given that, will the cabinet secretary outline whether that matter has been discussed with the SPS and whether consideration could be given to changing the aptitude testing for SPS recruitment?

Angela Constance

Scottish Prison Service recruitment practices are aligned with civil service recruitment standards and are underpinned by an assessment of the skills, values and behaviours of prospective employees. In 2019, the SPS removed minimum qualification requirements for prison officers. However, the aptitude test remains a critical mechanism to assure the organisation that those coming into it have the required literacy, numeracy and reasoning skills to operate effectively as front-line members of staff in an operational role.

Although I have not discussed the issue with the SPS directly, I know that it regularly reviews its recruitment practices to ensure compliance with relevant guidance and legislation and to ensure that recruitment requirements are applied fairly and consistently.

Sharon Dowey (South Scotland) (Con)

HMP Kilmarnock recently transitioned into public ownership, but the process of harmonising staff contracts with public sector terms and conditions is taking longer than expected. The Prison Officers Association Scotland has estimated that the SPS needs to recruit between 50 and 70 new staff for the prison. When will the harmonisation process be complete? Can the cabinet secretary update us on how many of the additional staff that are needed have been recruited so far?

Angela Constance

I assure Ms Dowey that there is no delay to the process, which was agreed and communicated well in advance of the very welcome move of HMP Kilmarnock into public ownership as part of the Scottish Prison Service.

As the SPS has said—and, indeed, as I have said on a number of occasions—the harmonisation process will take a year. That is because of the different—and, indeed, better—terms and conditions in the SPS, where there are two grades of prison officer. That is in contrast to the roles and grades in HMP Kilmarnock under its private owner. Harmonisation is an entirely normal and acceptable practice. It is excellent news that staff in HMP Kilmarnock will, in a short period of time, benefit from better terms and conditions.

Question 2 was not lodged.

Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act 2021 (Promotion)

To ask the Scottish Government for what reason it has reportedly spent nearly £400,000 of public money to promote Scotland’s new hate crime laws. (S6O-03334)

The Minister for Victims and Community Safety (Siobhian Brown)

Presiding Officer, £390,000 was invested in the hate hurts national hate crime marketing campaign, which ran from 11 March to 31 March 2024. It included a broadcast and print campaign.

The campaign aimed to raise public awareness of hate crime by showing the impact that it has on those affected, for example a disabled person or those affected by hate crime due to their race or religion, and to encourage those who are witnesses or victims of hate crime to report it. During the development of the hate crime strategy, we heard from people who felt unable to leave their home due to their fear of being targeted by hate crime. We want to have a society where everyone feels safe. No funding was spent to promote the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act 2021.

Sandesh Gulhane

We have heard what the minister has to say, but £60,000 of public money was squandered on the ludicrous hate monster campaign, which was patronising, embarrassing and offensive; it treated the Scottish public like children. Last Wednesday, during our debate on repealing the hate crime act, Stuart McMillan argued that the new law implements a higher threshold for criminality than the long-standing stirring up of racial hatred offence. Either the Scottish National Party’s own MSPs do not understand the act, or they are right and the act makes it harder to prosecute actual hate in the form of racism. Which is it, minister?

Siobhian Brown

First, the hate monster campaign had nothing to do with the Scottish Government; it was a Police Scotland decision. In relation to hate crime, we know that lots of incidents have been reported over the past three weeks. However, figures that were released yesterday show that 654 hate crime incidents have been recorded by Police Scotland, of which 51 per cent were on race.

Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

The 2021 act has been the subject of much misrepresentation and inaccurate commentary, some of which appears to have been deliberate, which has caused confusion about what the act actually does. Can the cabinet secretary say any more about the steps that are being taken to ensure that accurate information about the act is available to the public?

Siobhian Brown

I have noted the misinformation on and misrepresentation of the act, and that many commentators have ignored the people in our communities whom the act seeks to protect. Following the statement in the Parliament last week, the Scottish Government published a new fact sheet, which, alongside existing information on the act, provides further clarity and factual information on what it does and, importantly, what it does not do. We are also undertaking a series of engagements across communities in order to listen and to raise awareness of hate crime.

Non-crime Hate Incidents (Recording)

4. Michelle Thomson (Falkirk East) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority regarding plans to incorporate any precedent set by the Miller v College of Policing case into the recording of non-crime hate incidents. (S6O-03335)

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

The United Kingdom-wide practice of recording non-crime hate incidents dates back to recommendations in the 1999 Stephen Lawrence inquiry report. The College of Policing recently published updated guidance on the matter for England and Wales, and, although the guidance is not directly applicable to Police Scotland, it is currently reviewing it. If there are proposed changes, they will be subject to consultation.

How hate crime is investigated and recorded is an operational matter for Police Scotland. However, I have discussed the issue with the chair of the Scottish Police Authority and will do so again, and I will raise it with the chief constable when we next meet.

Michelle Thomson

The cabinet secretary is correct in saying that my concern relates to Police Scotland and the fact that, at the moment, we appear to have an unclear process—at least in the eyes of the public—as to what is termed a non-crime hate incident. My concern is that a number of people may have sought a subject access request notice and found themselves egregiously believing that their name has been recorded. Has the cabinet secretary explored that possibility with Police Scotland as part of her deliberations, or does she intend to do so?

Angela Constance

I have to be clear that this is an operational matter, but I would hope that my conversations with the SPA and Police Scotland will cover a range of matters, many of which have been raised directly with me in the chamber. I agree that clarity on these matters is important. My understanding is that Police Scotland considers the work to review the guidance and the code that was published by the College of Policing to be a priority. It is progressing matters and will come to a conclusion shortly. Thereafter, if there are any changes, it will consult with its officers, stakeholders and staff associations. I will endeavour to keep the member updated.

Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

In her response to Michelle Thomson, the cabinet secretary indicated that Police Scotland is still applying its pre-existing policy on recording non-crime hate incidents. Can she clarify that that policy is being applied on an even-handed basis? Evidence would suggest that that is no longer the case.

Angela Constance

I state unequivocally that I have faith in Police Scotland as an organisation that has human rights at its core and that will apply the law and its own procedures fairly and without fear or favour to any party. If Mr Fraser would like to further explore any issues, I would be more than happy to do that, notwithstanding that this is an operational matter.

Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

There is some confusion on the matter, and I am further confused by the cabinet secretary’s answer. She said that the police apply the law. Is hate incident reporting the law or is it a process? If it is a process, given that England and Wales dropped it last year, and given that I have already raised the matter, does the cabinet secretary share my concern about that? Is the Government content that putting something into someone’s record that is not required by law complies with human rights law—or am I confused? I think that we need to get the matter resolved as soon as possible.

Angela Constance

As I said in response to colleagues, the matter is being considered as a priority by Police Scotland. It is important to acknowledge that, although the original ruling and the information that has come from the College of Policing are not directly applicable to Scotland, it is imperative that we look at those in order to evaluate them and consider them.

With regard to what the ruling said, in brief, the judge held:

“That is not to say that perception-based recording of non-crime incidents is per se unlawful, but that some additional safeguards should be put in place”.

That is what those with operational responsibility are seeking to address, to ensure that we can have maximum clarity and confidence.

However, non-crime hate incidents are separate from the hate crime legislation, and Police Scotland has been clear that those incidents are predicated on the vulnerability of the complainer and are used primarily to determine what care and support can be provided to them. Those incidents are not recorded against the alleged perpetrator of the NHCI. They can be recorded on a vulnerable person database, but there is no direct link between the database and systems used for disclosure checks.

I appreciate the complexity of the responses, but they need to be briefer.

Question 5 was not lodged.

Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (Complaints Handling)

6. Michael Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of the reported situation facing former clients of McClure Solicitors, what discussions it has had regarding enabling the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission to consider groups of complaints, rather than considering complaints purely on an individual basis. (S6O-03337)

The Minister for Victims and Community Safety (Siobhian Brown)

As I have said before, my sympathies are with the former clients who have been affected by the collapse of McClure Solicitors.

The Scottish Government has discussed with the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission and the Law Society of Scotland whether a group proceedings complaint would be feasible, and their view is that it is important that individual complaints continue to be investigated on their own merits and that complaints are detailed and submitted by the individuals affected. That does not prevent specific staff who are familiar with the matter from being allocated those complaints to consider.

Michael Marra

A number of my constituents in the north-east were clients of McClure’s and were advised by solicitors to put their house into trust. Those constituents are now facing a very expensive and complex legal process to end the trust, and it would appear that clients in particular areas of the country were targeted and sold services that they did not need. The fear of care costs in the future was used to justify significant legal and financial decisions that are now costing my constituents dearly.

Enabling the SLCC and the Law Society to investigate groups of complaints could allow for early detection of such patterns of behaviour in the advent of such cases. Therefore, what more is the Scottish Government doing to understand the scale of the problem that former clients of McClure’s are facing and the geographical distribution of those clients across the country, and what further changes in legislation can be made to prevent similar situations from happening in the future?

Siobhian Brown

The Regulation of Legal Services (Scotland) Bill introduces the authorisation of legal businesses, bringing benefits such as greater consistency in regulating legal firms and enabling the Law Society as a regulator to identify and address deficiencies early. I will lodge amendments at stage 2 that are intended to deliver further improvements to the legal complaints system, and my officials have been working closely with the Law Society and the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission. I am very happy to meet Mr Marra if he wants to discuss any of those matters.

Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

I thank the minister for her comments. Can she speak to any further amendments that she is considering to the Regulation of Legal Services (Scotland) Bill that would relate to the situation with McClure’s Solicitors? As the minister knows, that situation has affected many of my constituents.

Siobhian Brown

I thank Mr McMillan for that question. I know that he has been doing a lot of work on the matter over previous months. As I said to Mr Marra, I am considering options for more amendments ahead of stage 2 and reflecting on the views of stakeholders and MSPs with the intention of building consensus around reform. I will lodge amendments at stage 2 to deliver further improvements to the legal complaints system. As I said, my officials are working closely with the Law Society and the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission on amendments to make significant improvements.

Damages for Personal Injury

To ask the Scottish Government within what timescale it plans to respond to the Scottish Law Commission’s findings and recommendations arising from its consultation on damages for personal injury. (S6O-03338)

The Minister for Victims and Community Safety (Siobhian Brown)

The Scottish Law Commission has not yet published a report following its damages for personal injury consultation. It is expected in the summer and I look forward to receiving it. When I have had time to consider any findings and recommendations, I will respond and ensure that the Parliament is aware of my response.

Marie McNair

Does the minister agree that the legal time bar for claims from those who are pursuing compensation because of exposure to asbestos is unjust and needs to be brought to an end? The Scottish Law Commission is likely to present recommendations on the issue in its forthcoming report, with draft legislation. Will the Scottish Government commit to urgent consideration of the commission’s work, including possible changes to the law, to allow claims to be made? Many have been denied justice at present, and that needs to be remedied as soon as possible.

Siobhian Brown

The law of limitation serves an important function to ensure that legal claims are advanced quickly. Where a claim is made outwith the relevant time limit, the court can exercise its discretion to override it and allow a claim to proceed.

I will be interested to hear what the SLC has to say on this important issue. As I mentioned, I expect its report to be published this summer. I will respond to its recommendations once I have had time to consider them fully, and I will make sure that the member and Parliament are kept aware.

Police (Mental Health Support)

8. Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to support the mental health of front-line police officers, in light of reports that reductions in the number of police officers is putting increasing pressure on the service. (S6O-03339)

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

We have provided an additional £75.7 million of resource funding for policing, which enables Police Scotland to retain police numbers of around 16,500 to 16,600. Scotland continues to have more police officers per capita than England and Wales and higher pay ranges for officers at all ranks. The number of new recruits stands at around 1,680 since 2022.

Although the mental health of police officers is a matter for the chief constable under the oversight of the Scottish Police Authority, I assure the member that the Scottish Government supports recent initiatives such as the development of a wellbeing action plan, which will be presented to the SPA this summer.

Mark Griffin

Figures that were obtained in response to a freedom of information request have shown that, between 2018-19 and 2022-23, the number of working days lost to mental health absences soared by 67 per cent among police officers and 165 per cent among police staff. Can the cabinet secretary give an update on the number of mental health absences among police officers and staff and say what impact that has had on the number of crimes that are being investigated?

Angela Constance

I will certainly request that the SPA provides that information directly to Mr Griffin.

The health and wellbeing of police officers and civilian staff is a matter of the utmost importance. I was pleased that the chief constable has ensured that the matter is very high on her agenda. Policing is, of course, a relentless job and it is a job like no other, but the issue of wellbeing, workload and reducing unreasonable demands on police officers is being taken very seriously indeed by Police Scotland, the Scottish Government and the SPA. We will endeavour to work together to take matters forward, particularly in the light of the recent “Frontline Focus—Wellbeing” report from His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland.

We have a number of supplementary questions.

Can the cabinet secretary provide any update regarding the steps that are being taken to ensure that the increased SPA resource budget specifically supports further police recruitment?

Angela Constance

Following the publication of the Scottish budget last December, the chief constable told Parliament’s Criminal Justice Committee that the policing budget settlement for 2024-25 would allow Police Scotland to restart officer recruitment for the year ahead and to retain officer numbers at around 16,600. I was very pleased to see that, last month, Police Scotland welcomed almost 200 new officers, with further intakes planned throughout this year. The SPA budget has increased by 5.6 per cent in revenue; that was certainly welcomed by the chief constable and puts policing in this country on a very strong footing.

Russell Findlay (West Scotland) (Con)

The national police wellbeing service supports officers across the United Kingdom with its blue light wellbeing framework. Police Scotland said that it intended to sign up but now appears to have gone cold. In its new report, His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland urges Police Scotland to revisit that. Does the cabinet secretary support that call?

Angela Constance

I very much welcomed the independent report from the independent inspectorate. It is a matter and a report that I have discussed on a number of occasions with His Majesty’s chief inspector of constabulary and the SPA. Although all the recommendations made by HMICS are for Police Scotland and the SPA, I assure Russell Findlay that the Government stands ready to support the implementation of those recommendations.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

Years of staff time is being lost because officers and supporting teams are struggling under the pressure. In 2022, 65 per cent of officers who left with less than two years’ service cited personal reasons for leaving. What more can the Scottish Government do to support Police Scotland’s new police officers with their mental health and to ensure that the investment in their training is backed up with investment in their wellbeing?

Angela Constance

Ms Wishart raises an important point. One of the central points of the HMICS “Frontline Focus—Wellbeing” report was that, although Police Scotland has excellent arrangements in place when there are catastrophes and incidents that are traumatic for serving police officers, further action is recommended around those organisational and day-to-day stressors. Ms Wishart’s point is well made that, particularly for new recruits, there needs to be an additional focus and endeavour.

That concludes portfolio question time on justice and home affairs. There will be a brief pause before we move to the next item of business to allow members on the front benches to change.