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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, September 26, 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Motor Neurone Disease (Blue Badge Scheme), Portfolio Question Time, Scottish National Investment Bank Bill: Stage 1, Scottish National Investment Bank Bill: Financial Resolution, Decision Time


General Question Time

Independence Referendums (Two-thirds Majority Requirement)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on there being a requirement for a two-thirds majority in any future independence referendum. (S5O-03591)

The Cabinet Secretary for Government Business and Constitutional Relations (Michael Russell)

The Referendums (Scotland) Bill is intended to provide a legislative framework for the holding of referendums that are within the competence of the Scottish Parliament. The bill does not propose a supermajority for any future referendum in Scotland.

A fundamental tenet of democracy is that one person’s vote is worth as much as anyone else’s; the suggestion of a supermajority would leave that principle in tatters.

Sandra White

Does the cabinet secretary agree with the Venice commission—an advisory body to the Council of Europe—which advises against the use of vote thresholds? It states quite clearly in its guidance that if a vote threshold was used, it would be in the interests of those opposed to a proposal simply not to vote.

Michael Russell

I have noted the Venice commission’s recent “Code of Good Practice on Referendums”, which was issued last year. I know that Tory-supporting journalists and indeed Tory members of the Scottish Parliament are actively promoting a variety of issues in relation to holding referendums, including a variety of turnout requirements and quorums.

The Venice commission is entirely clear that having a turnout quorum—a threshold or minimum percentage—is wrong, because it assimilates voters who abstain with those who vote no. An approval quorum, which is approval by a minimum percentage of registered voters, risks creating a difficult political situation if, for example—as happened, of course, in 1979—there is a simple majority but what one might call an artificial cheat applied by other people.

Adam Tomkins (Glasgow) (Con)

Yesterday, in evidence to the Finance and Constitution Committee, the cabinet secretary said that he wanted referendums in Scotland to follow international best practice, and I welcomed that statement. However, he proposes that any second independence referendum should bypass the scrutiny of the Electoral Commission. How on earth would that be following best practice?

Michael Russell

The member is quite wrong. I do not suggest that any question in any referendum bypasses the Electoral Commission. The question in any future independence referendum should be capable of being fully understood, and the question has been approved by the Electoral Commission. Indeed, not only was it approved, but the wording was changed from the wording proposed by the Scottish Government. I quoted the Electoral Commission’s report on that question yesterday in evidence to the Finance and Constitution Committee. The question has been tested and it continues to be in use; it has been used virtually every month over the past four or five years. It is a current question, it has been tested, and any other views are indeed an attempt to muddy the waters.

Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

Although most of the experts in this field have welcomed the bill, they all, without any doubt, have said that any question should be tested, regardless whether there was a referendum three or four years before that used the same question. Has the cabinet secretary heard of a politician called Boris Johnson, who ignores the advice of experts? Will the cabinet secretary listen and will he allow us to work together to introduce a bill that we can have confidence in?

Michael Russell

I am grateful to the member for recognising that the bill has substantial support. That is better than what the Conservatives did: they misrepresented the bill, saying that it does not have that support.

I am not against testing. Every question should be tested. The question in an independence referendum has been tested, has been approved and is in current usage. That is inescapable. It has been used in hundreds of opinion polls. Anybody who is trying to stop that happening is trying to stop the Scottish people having a democratic say about their future.

Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

If a supermajority procedure had been in place for the past five years, there would have been a mandate neither for independence nor for staying in the United Kingdom, and for neither leaving nor remaining in the European Union. Politics would be in even more of a mess than the Conservatives have managed to make of it. Is all the talk of a two-thirds majority not just a tacit admission by those opposed to independence that they do not think that they can get much more than a third of the votes next time?

Michael Russell

I think the member is entirely right. The louder we hear Conservative MSPs and others talking about this, the more they are realising that they cannot win an independence referendum, which is because they cannot silence the legitimate voice of Scotland.

Mike Rumbles (North East Scotland) (LD)

Surely we need to learn from the experience of two divisive referendums in 2014 and 2016 that major constitutional change needs to show an overwhelming support for constitutional decisions. That used to be the view of the First Minister.

Michael Russell

The view of the Venice commission, on which we started this discussion, is entirely clear: there should not be an approval quorum. That is the best practice. If the member does not want best practice, he should say so clearly.

The Liberal Democrats are not in a position to talk about the issue; they are the people who championed a second referendum. Now they just want to ignore that, because they apparently think that Jo Swinson can be Prime Minister. There are many delusions in this place, but that is the worst I have heard.

Would it help the cabinet secretary if I confirmed that it is not the policy of Scottish Conservatives to require a supermajority in any future referendum on any subject?

Michael Russell

It would not only help; I am delighted to hear it. It is just a pity that Murdo Fraser is not in the chamber at present.

Sorry—he is here. It is just a pity that the self-effacing Murdo Fraser is not here, I was saying, but he is in fact here, he has heard that and I hope that he will now delete the tweet that demanded that and will go into a situation of accord with his acting leader.

I do not want a referendum, but will the minister ensure that any future referendum has the ability to have a third option on the ballot paper?

Michael Russell

We are always open to discussions about what referendums should look like, but the people of Scotland have to have the right to choose. That is the basic position. I am glad to say that it is one that Jeremy Corbyn accepts. Obviously Neil Findlay accepts it—nearly—but we need to get the rest of the Labour Party round to that, and Labour can then perhaps show an example to the other Opposition parties on listening to what a democratic system demands.

Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

What a sensitive soul the cabinet secretary is. He clearly cannot take a light-hearted comment on Twitter with a wink emoji as anything other than that. Is it not true, from the exchanges that we have just heard, that the Scottish Government is running scared of having a fair referendum and running scared of having the Electoral Commission decide on the terms of the question? We do not want another independence referendum and the people of Scotland do not want another independence referendum, but we cannot have the Scottish National Party gerrymander one if there is to be one.

Michael Russell

I heard the Prime Minister last night declaiming in the House of Commons about what the people want. I think he is as out of touch as Murdo Fraser is. What the people of Scotland want is to move forward from the extraordinary, Tory-created chaos of Brexit. The opportunity to do so exists if the people of Scotland choose their own constitutional future. Anybody who stands in the way of that is not a democrat.

We should be moving to question 2, but James Dornan is not in the chamber, so we will move to question 3.

Smart Meter Roll-out

3. Keith Brown (Clackmannanshire and Dunblane) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government how the recently announced four-year delay to and £2 billion cost increase of the United Kingdom Government-led smart meter roll-out will impact on consumers in Scotland. (S5O-03593)

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

It is important that all consumers, especially those who are struggling to pay their fuel bills, have the opportunity to use smart meters to better understand how to manage their energy usage and to allow them access to the best tariffs.

The smart meter programme is reserved to the UK Government. However, I will consider the implications of last week’s announcement and raise my concerns about the impact of the delay on consumers with the UK Government.

Keith Brown

Does the minister agree that this latest delay and the substantial and lengthy line of expensive delays to other UK Government infrastructure projects—including high speed 2, the Airwave communications system, crossrail and aircraft carriers—all have a substantial and direct impact on public services in Scotland, with the collective cost overruns exceeding £40 billion? The situation clearly illustrates the tale of two Governments: a Scottish Government that is delivering for the people of Scotland on time and on budget, and a Westminster Government that is yet again letting them down.

Paul Wheelhouse

Keith Brown is absolutely right to highlight the concerns about the cost overruns. We are taking about a potential £2.5 billion overrun on the smart meter roll-out programme, which will clearly have an impact on consumers. The additional cost of the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station will add significantly to consumers’ bills as well.

I will be raising those matters with my UK Government counterparts and will make the point that investing in renewables would be a significantly better way of spending consumers’ money. With today’s announcement by the UK Government Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, we have heard that 54.8 per cent of Scotland’s electricity needs are now met by wind energy alone, and 76.3 per cent of our overall needs are met by renewables. That is the way to invest. Getting the smart meter programme right and correctly balancing energy needs will save consumers money through investment in technologies that can deliver energy at lower prices. I agree that the smart meter programme is an example of how a contract has been managed terribly by the UK Government.

General Practitioner Contract

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on progress implementing the new GP contract. (S5O-03594)

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport (Jeane Freeman)

The new GP contract, which was negotiated with the British Medical Association, introduces multidisciplinary teams to practices to ensure that GPs are able to spend more time with patients.

Contract implementation is gathering pace, with most activity being flagged as being on track or partly on track. A number of challenges to implementation are emerging, including in relation to recruitment and infrastructure. Those challenges are being actively addressed both locally and nationally, including through our commitment to increase GP numbers by at least 800 in the next 10 years.

Pharmacotherapy appears to be the most progressed, with evidence across every GP practice of the positive impact that is being felt by GPs. Sixty per cent of the integration authorities report that their plans for mental health workers are fully on track and 65 per cent report that that is the case for musculoskeletal physiotherapists.

Emma Harper

I met with Dumfries and Galloway GP practice managers to hear their thoughts on the new contract. Although the contract was broadly welcomed, one of the concerns that was raised related to delivery of round 1 and round 2 premises payments, as outlined in the contract. Are those payments scheduled for delivery as planned, or are any delays anticipated?

Jeane Freeman

We are committed to making payments to all the practices that successfully applied in the first round. I appreciate that it has taken longer to finalise the details of the GP sustainability loan agreement, but both the Scottish Government and the BMA are keen that any implications of the loan are well understood and meet the needs of GPs. The loan scheme is an innovation in Scottish general practice and, along with the BMA, we want to be sure that we have got it right.

We are close to finalising the agreement, and following that, we will be able to begin making payments and scheduling the next round of applications.

Drug Deaths Task Force

To ask the Scottish Government what specific issues were discussed at the inaugural meeting of the drug deaths task force. (S5O-03595)

The Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing (Joe FitzPatrick)

The task force discussed a number of areas of work to take forward as a matter of priority. Our commitment to put the voices of lived and living experience, including those of families, at the centre of the task force’s work—and the way to best achieve that and to utilise those unique insights—formed a key part of discussions. I also announced that a further three people with lived experience had been added to the group.

The need for immediate action was emphasised to all members, as was the expectation that they should draw on their shared knowledge, expertise and influence to enact changes that will save the lives of those people who are most at risk.

Shona Robison

Will the minister say how the work of the task force will link to the work already undertaken by the Dundee drugs commission and how he will ensure that the people who are directly affected and their families are kept centre stage in that important work as it is taken forward?

Joe FitzPatrick

I thank Shona Robison for that important question. The Dundee drugs commission’s work has relevance not just to Dundee but to the whole of Scotland. That is why I asked the commission’s chair, Dr Robert Peat, to sit on the task force to ensure that he can feed in experience from the commission’s work. That will be key as the drug deaths task force takes its work forward. The task force will be represented at the stakeholder event that is being held in Dundee on 23 October, where there will be discussions about the commission’s recommendations and how they are being taken forward.

Shona Robison also asked how the task force is keeping the voices of people with lived experience to the fore. That is an important point and it was a major part of our discussion. We saw a video of people with living experience, and that experience is important to our thinking about how we can reach out using a number of engagement events. We are also looking at how we can hear about that lived and living experience and learn lessons from elsewhere. The Dundee drugs commission did a piece of work using lived experience and there are also good examples from Glasgow, where the alcohol and drug partnership is using lived and living experience reference groups as part of its commissioning of future work. That approach is absolutely crucial and it will be central to the work of the task force.

Will the minister advise the chamber when the drug deaths task force will next meet and what will be discussed?

Joe FitzPatrick

I have written to all the health spokespeople offering to give them a fuller update at a meeting. The next meeting of the task force will be towards the end of October and a number of work streams will be on-going between now and then.

Question 6 has not been lodged.

Doorstep Crime

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to protect the public from doorstep crime and bogus callers. (S5O-03597)

The Minister for Community Safety (Ash Denham)

The Scottish Government is committed to supporting the work of its partners, including Police Scotland, trading standards offices, neighbourhood watch groups and Crimestoppers, to raise awareness of doorstep crime and to provide practical advice on prevention. Initiatives such as the nominated neighbour scheme help to build the resilience of our communities to doorstep crime. Since 2017, the Scottish Government has also implemented a nuisance calls action plan to tackle the scourge of nuisance and scam telephone calls. That includes funding for call-blocking units for vulnerable consumers.

Neil Bibby

Over the past three years, pensioners across Renfrewshire have lost more than £120,000 in life savings to bogus callers. Local police are treating the situation as a priority, but there is still a great deal of preventative work to be done in the community to tackle doorstep crime. Will the minister therefore join me in welcoming the Paisley Daily Express’s protect our pensioners campaign, which aims to raise awareness of the issue, encourage members of the community to come forward to report suspicious activity and stop in their tracks the scammers who prey on older people?

Ash Denham

I will; scams and doorstep crimes can be very serious for the people affected. As it will not be possible to legislate or regulate to address the issue fully, the best defence against scams of any type is prevention through education, as Neil Bibby suggested. To that end, the Government supports a number of initiatives, such as the shut out scammers campaign. I commend the Paisley Daily Express for running its campaign and Neil Bibby for raising the issue.

Maurice Corry (West Scotland) (Con)

It has been estimated that every year more than a quarter of a million Scots are victims of scams, often through bogus calls. What scrutiny has the minister undertaken of the increasing scale and impact of financial scams in Scotland, and what action will she take to encourage more awareness-raising campaigns to prevent such crimes, in addition to those that she has already mentioned?

Ash Denham

Regulation on scams is reserved to the United Kingdom Government, but the Scottish Government runs a number of awareness-raising campaigns. I offer the member an opportunity to meet me to discuss the issue in more detail, if he would like to do so.