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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) [Draft]

Meeting date: Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Energy Prices Bill, Moray Maternity Services, Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Decision Time, The BIG Project (20th Anniversary)


Topical Question Time

Arts Funding

1. Sarah Boyack (Lothian) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to address the reported “perfect storm” that the arts and culture sector is facing, in light of reports that organisations such as the Falkirk Town Hall, the Filmhouse in Edinburgh, the Belmont in Aberdeen and the Edinburgh International Film Festival recently entered into administration and the Modern Two art gallery in Edinburgh was forced to close for winter. (S6T-00915)

I would like to clarify that the word “closure” should have applied to the Falkirk Town Hall—it has not gone into administration.

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

I thank Sarah Boyack for raising the issue. I understand that this is an incredibly difficult and worrying time for the sector, particularly for staff of the venues that she mentions. We are engaging with Creative Scotland, as well as with Aberdeen and Edinburgh councils, to provide support where possible for those organisations facing immediate challenges.

With regard to the Centre for the Moving Image, which includes the Filmhouse, the Belmont and the EIFF, it would not be appropriate for the Scottish Government to comment on on-going legal proceedings. However, I assure the member that the Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture and I have been engaged with key partners over the past few weeks, and Creative Scotland continues to explore alternative options for cultural programming. I will provide the member with an update as soon as I am able to do so.

We continue to work with the culture sector to identify barriers to immediate and long-term recovery, and we will continue to do everything within our powers and resources to help those who are most affected by current economic challenges.

Sarah Boyack

I thank the minister for that response, particularly in relation to the cinemas and the film festival. The sector is important not only in terms of our culture; it is a huge part of our economy and identity. So, I would very much appreciate an update when there is—I hope—good news to be shared with us.

Over the recess, I hosted a round-table meeting on the impact of the cost of living crisis on the arts and culture sector. Almost 30 organisations attended, and they all painted a very grim picture. Their consensus was that they need support and that the rhetoric does not match the support that they need now. Do you agree that, as many cultural services are provided through local councils, the cut to local spending on museums and galleries by a fifth and the reduction of spend on culture and related services by 23 per cent is detrimental for arts and culture organisations across our communities?

Neil Gray

I agree with Sarah Boyack on the point that she raises about the cultural significance of the organisations that we are talking about, in relation to not only the cultural and wellbeing significance that they have, but the significance that they hold in the local economies in which they sit. I absolutely agree with that point.

I commend Sarah Boyack for the work that she has done in having round-table sessions with stakeholders across the sector. We have been doing that, and we are looking to continue to advance that work with key stakeholders. I also agree with her about the grim picture that she describes. Our culture stakeholders face a very challenging situation, which highlights the folly of withdrawing the Covid recovery funding, as the United Kingdom Government did, before a meaningful recovery has actually taken place.

I remark on the topicality of that because it was the then chancellor and current Prime Minister who took that decision and because many of those venues face pressures because of the energy cost crisis. That is not the only reason why some of the venues face pressures, but it is part of the reason. That highlights not only the challenges that are faced when decisions—some of them incredibly reckless—are taken that make the situation much worse, but also what happens when you do not get to grips with a cost of living and energy cost crisis.

Sarah Boyack

Yes, there are huge challenges, which is why I asked the question. The message from the culture sector is that it needs that support now, as the costs of electricity and gas are rocketing, and its staff need support, too. We know, from evidence that the Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee has taken on the budget, that staff have left the sector. We cannot afford that to keep happening.

What will the Scottish Government do now? Does the minister agree that winter is the critical time to make the best use of our cultural spaces, whether they are national organisations or local authority spaces, to give multiple benefits for local communities? For example, the City of Edinburgh Council is looking at warm spaces with our libraries. Will the Scottish Government sit down with the sector, through the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, and consider the ideas that are being suggested by the sector for small procurement hubs like the Birmingham anchor network to make life easier for the sector by taking away some of the bureaucracy that makes life tough for it?

Neil Gray

I thank Sarah Boyack for the constructive way in which she approaches the matter and the constructive suggestions that she has followed up on. I have received correspondence from Adam McVey, who makes similar suggestions for such a round-table session, and I intend to reply to him in positive terms about bringing together a round table to consider the challenges that the sector faces.

I am sure that Sarah Boyack will agree that it is a sad indictment, in energy-rich Scotland, which is part of the UK, that we are in the situation of having public buildings being used for warmth sharing during winter. People are facing a terrible situation, and it is a terrible indictment on the Tory Government and its predecessors for austerity, its lack of action and its recklessness that has wrecked the economy.

We are, of course, looking to do everything that we can for our cultural venues. Sarah Boyack referred to the particular pressures on staff, and we appreciate those. Pay deal negotiations are on-going, and I hope that they can be resolved, to ensure that we properly reward and remunerate our hard-working staff in those organisations. However, she will also appreciate that we operate within a fixed budget. We do not have the necessary borrowing powers to make a significant difference when such a difficult situation arises, and we do not have the ability to vary tax rates in-year. Our ability to respond to the situation is therefore incredibly challenging, especially when we, without any grudge or grievance, need to resolve inflation and higher than predicted public sector pay deals, which are putting an additional burden of £700 million on to the Scottish Government’s budget this year, before they are realised.

We will continue to do all that we can with the resources and powers that we have to respond to the situation as well as possible. I look forward to working with Sarah Boyack and others to ensure that we do that in a meaningful way.

Gordon MacDonald (Edinburgh Pentlands) (SNP)

It is of great concern that Scotland’s highly regarded cultural venues are struggling to stay afloat during the Tory cost of living crisis, which is doing irreparable damage to our economy and our reputation as a global centre for the arts. We have heard about the temporary closure of the Modern Two art gallery, but it is also true that the wider gallery and museum sector faces significant financial challenges. What action has the Government taken in response to the immediate concerns of the museum and gallery sector?

Neil Gray

Gordon MacDonald is absolutely right. I remind members that it was the then chancellor, who is now the Prime Minister, who took the decision to cut Covid recovery funding before a meaningful recovery was taking place. We are now seeing in the feedback that we are getting—this is not the full picture, but it is certainly part of it—that energy costs and the UK Government’s lack of willingness to take meaningful action quickly enough are part of the reason why we are facing the challenges that we are facing across the culture sector in Scotland.

Obviously, the Scottish Government is in regular contact with Museums Galleries Scotland and others across the sector to understand the challenges that they face. We have agreed with Museums Galleries Scotland that it will be able to repurpose the grants that it receives from the Scottish Government into a new resilience fund in order to support museums to build their resilience through activity that will reduce costs, increase income and support communities. The new fund was announced on 12 October. I hope that it goes some way towards supporting the sector with the challenges that it faces.

Sue Webber (Lothian) (Con)

National Galleries of Scotland has said that the crisis is bigger than the pandemic and that the roots of the issue go much further back—as far back as 2008. Budgets have been reduced and have never fully recovered. Museums and galleries in Scotland have done everything possible to address the current challenges. They have reduced their operating costs by 67 per cent while increasing activity to help to achieve net zero, but budgets continue to shrink. What steps is the Scottish Government taking to accelerate and support our culture sector’s recovery? What additional financial resources is it currently considering? After all, the sector is critical to the city’s economy and the country’s reputation.

Neil Gray

With all due respect to the member, it is brave of her to talk about recovery when I have said on a number of occasions that the situation is partly down to the UK Government—of which she is, I presume, still a supporter—cutting back on Covid recovery funding before a meaningful recovery had taken place.

Of course, we are working with stakeholders across the sector to do everything possible through our support and through the flexibilities that we are able to offer, such as the repurposing of funding to create the new resilience fund. We are doing everything that we can to respond as appropriately as possible. Nevertheless, Sue Webber and her colleagues need to take responsibility for the fact that we are facing a cost of living crisis, an energy cost crisis and diminishing budgets in Scotland. I will take no lessons from her or her colleagues on how to run the culture sector in Scotland.

Legal Aid Fees

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

I remind members that I am a practising solicitor.

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that, due to legal aid fees agreed in 1999 only increasing by 10 per cent, there is a lack of legal provision across Scotland. (S6T-00914)

The Minister for Community Safety (Ash Regan)

I do not recognise the figure that Liam Kerr just used. I wrote to the Criminal Justice Committee in June 2022 setting out in detail the history of fee reforms since devolution. If Liam Kerr has not had a chance to read that letter, I encourage him to do so.

Since 2019, all legal aid fees have been increased by 13.6 per cent and we have offered to the profession a further enhanced package of reforms and increases that are worth £11 million a year, which the Law Society of Scotland has accepted. I hope that boycott action will cease as a result of that further funding.

Officials engage closely with the Scottish Legal Aid Board to keep under review the availability of publicly funded legal services. The Scottish Government also provides funding to law centres as well as to local advice providers. Legal services are also provided through the Civil Legal Assistance Office and the Public Defence Solicitors Office. All those services can operate across a wide geographical area.

Liam Kerr

I thank the minister for the answer, but it is a completely tone-deaf response that betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the profession. Many people have warned for years that legal aid funding is at a level that means that new talent is reluctant to enter the discipline, that partners retire and that solicitors suffer burnout and mental health challenges, as they try to balance one of the most difficult disciplines with appalling compensation. The decline has been going on for years and the Government has done nothing meaningful to arrest it.

I assume that the minister is confirming that she will not increase legal aid to an appropriate level, so what is the Government doing now to increase the number of firms that offer criminal and civil legal aid? Will she provide us with the research that suggests that it will work?

Ash Regan

The issues that Liam Kerr raises are important. I am sympathetic to some of them, but we need to engage in the debate in a way that takes account of evidence and engages with the detail and the data.

Scotland is one of the leading jurisdictions in Europe in terms of the scope of legal aid. The Scottish National Party Government has invested in legal aid. In Scotland, more than 70 per cent of citizens are eligible for some form of legal aid. I remind members that that is not the case in England under the Conservatives, where its scope has been drastically cut.

I agree with Liam Kerr that access to justice is a fundamental issue. That is why the Government has listened to the profession. I engage regularly with representatives of the profession and have introduced the latest package of fee reforms, which, as I laid out in my earlier answer, is worth £11 million. It is a credible and substantial offer, which the Law Society of Scotland has accepted. It is, of course, in addition to the 13.6 per cent uplift that is already in place. Therefore, it is not accurate to characterise the Government as not listening or responding to the legal profession’s concerns.

Liam Kerr

The Government is clearly not responding.

I was interested to hear that the minister is sympathetic only to some of the issues and not, clearly, to all of them. The impact falls on victims of crime, too, because they are involved in cases that are already being delayed by huge court backlogs. That, combined with the fact that 40,000 of the poorest people in Aberdeen do not have direct access to a single legal aid firm, should cause the Government to hang its head in shame at what is happening in some of the most vulnerable areas in our justice system in places such as Scotland’s silver city.

Yesterday, the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service responded to the proposed justice budget freeze by suggesting that the current backlog will grow by 2025 and that summary cases in particular might suffer. Does the minister recognise those appalling consequences of her Government’s actions? We did not hear an answer to my first question, so I ask what she is doing right now to ensure adequate access to legal aid firms, in Aberdeen in particular.

Ash Regan

I am always working on actions to improve the situation in relation to legal aid provision.

I make it clear to members that the Scottish Government cannot compel private firms or solicitors to provide legal aid services. We provide civil solicitors through the Civil Legal Assistance Office. They have always—I say this in response to the member’s point about geography—covered a wide geographical area and have largely been based in city centres near to the courts.

Currently, we face a challenging public finances environment that is due not least to choices that the UK Government has made and which are, as we know, resulting in a reduced budget in Scotland. [Interruption.]

As I have laid out, it is imperative that we have access to justice, and I have made a commitment in that regard. This Government has made a recent offer of £11 million of funding, which is a substantial amount in the current context in which we find ourselves. [Interruption.]

Mr Kerr!

Ash Regan

We also fund law centres, the Public Defence Solicitors Office and, as I mentioned, the Civil Legal Assistance Office. It might be the case that our current model will not be sustainable over the long term. We are looking at substantively reimagining legal aid; work is on-going on that. I hope that the member will support that work as it progresses.

Katy Clark (West Scotland) (Lab)

Legal aid budgets were cut by almost half a billion pounds between 2007 and 2019. The Scottish Parliament information centre estimates that the Scottish Government’s framework will mean that, over the next four years, another £12 million of real-terms cuts will be made to legal aid budgets.

The Law Society of Scotland says that the sector is already in crisis. What analysis has the Scottish Government carried out on the impact of cuts to the civil legal aid budget on the most deprived communities? Does the minister accept that access to justice is increasingly available only to the rich?

Ash Regan

No—I do not accept that at all.

I have set out some of the actions that this Government has taken, including the 3 per cent overall rise in fees in 2019, which was followed by the 5 per cent overall rise in fees in 2021, another overall rise in fees in 2022 and—as I set out in my previous answer—an additional fee package of £11 million this year on top of the investment that has already been made. That demonstrates that the Government is listening and that it is investing money in both civil and criminal legal aid.

I am always looking at what more I can do. I will give members examples of some of the things that have been done recently. We have provided £9 million of Covid resilience funding, we have put £1 million into traineeships—which the profession raised with me—we have made new payments for holiday courts and we have increased payments for appropriate early resolution. I am constantly working to see what more I can do.

In response to the member’s question about how we will go forward, we have the legal aid payment review panel. The member asked about our analysis. We need the approach to be evidence based: we want to get to a position in which everyone is working together to provide that evidence base. We will endeavour to set increases on that basis in the future.

Sue Webber (Lothian) (Con)

The minister must be concerned about the impact that her Government’s shocking funding is having on equalities in the profession. Will she highlight for members the percentage split between male and female practitioners generally, and the split in legal aid criminal work specifically? Will she set out in detail what steps her Government is taking right now to address that difference?

Ash Regan

I do not have that data in front of me at the moment, but I would be happy to follow that up in writing to Sue Webber.

The member might be aware that I have undertaken a programme of work in equalities in order to encourage more diversity in the profession. I would be happy to follow up with the member on my work in that area, too.