Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]
Meeting date: Tuesday, September 19, 2023
Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Drug Law Reform, Decision Time, Council Tax (Consultation)
Topical Question Time
American XL Bully Dogs (Ban)
To ask the Scottish Government what consideration it has given to introducing a ban on American XL bully dogs, in light of a series of reported attacks involving such dogs. (S6T-01548)
We all share the horror at recent reported attacks and deaths due to XL bully dogs, and my thoughts are with all of those impacted.
We have noted the intention of the United Kingdom Government to take steps to introduce a ban on American XL bully dogs. Last Friday, Scottish Government officials met with Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs officials and officials from Wales and Northern Ireland to discuss and hear more about the UK Government’s proposed approach. The UK Government plans to convene an expert group to specify a legal definition of the American XL bully. The group will consist of a body of people concerned with animal welfare, veterinary science and practice and breeds of dogs, and it will include representatives from the police and the four nations. That work, when carried out, will inform our consideration of any ban moving forward.
I thank the minister for that update. Naturally, all our thoughts are with the families of those affected by the recent fatalities and attacks. In the light of the spate of attacks, urgent action must be taken, and I welcome the UK Government’s swift response to that end. However, there are many schools of thought out there about how we should deal with so-called dangerous dogs, ranging from an outright ban, as is the case in this scenario, to better enforcement of existing breeding and ownership laws.
In addition to the consultation and liaison with the UK Government stakeholders, what expert stakeholder advice will the Scottish Government take and what public consultation will it undertake before reaching its conclusions? Given the urgency and the public safety issues, when might we expect a firm decision on the matter?
I agree with the member that what matters is making a careful, evidence-based decision that is focused on protecting public safety in Scotland. We are committed to giving full consideration to the issue, to ensure that we arrive at the correct decision. It is clear from the UK Government’s announcement that there are a wide range of views in the area, from experts and members of the public, and it is imperative that the Scottish Government, in moving forward, considers all voices. I do not currently have a timescale for the consultation, but I will keep the member updated.
I am sure that Parliament would appreciate that, as would the general public. There are many responsible dog owners out there who may also have reservations about forthcoming legislation and what that means for their pet ownership.
Back in January this year, I raised with the former First Minister the serious issue of serious organised criminal gangs that use extreme breeding techniques to create fashionable hybrid breeds such as the American XL bully. Often, the dogs are maltreated and poorly bred and have severe health problems. They are treated as valuable commodities and are often sold to irresponsible owners. I know that it is a very difficult debate about whether there are bad dogs out there or simply bad owners and bad breeders.
I reiterate the questions that I asked the former First Minister earlier this year. What progress has the Scottish Government made since then on the potential toughening of, or even simple enforcement of, the many existing laws that govern extreme breeding, illegal breeding and irresponsible dog ownership in Scotland?
We have established an operational working group involving local authorities, Police Scotland, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and other key stakeholders to progress that important work, and we publish updated statutory guidance to help local authorities to carry out their functions under the control of dogs legislation.
I know that there is a lot of concern out there in the general public and among people who may have certain breeds of dogs, so it is important to get the message across and emphasise that, if a dog is a banned breed, that does not automatically mean that it will be put down. There are conditions that can be met, such as having the dog neutered or spayed or keeping the dog muzzled in public, and the dog can be placed on the index of exempted dogs by the court. That index is operated by DEFRA on a UK-wide basis.
I want to reiterate a point that Jamie Greene made. What are the minister’s conclusions on the argument about whether the issue is to do with bad dogs or bad owners whose mistreatment of dogs leads them to behave in a certain way? Where will the emphasis be?
The vast majority of dog owners are responsible people who take good care of their animals, but a small minority of owners fail to keep their dogs under proper control and do not have the same responsible attitude as the general public does. The Scottish Government is committed to ensuring that that is addressed.
School Support Staff (Planned Strike)
To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports of a planned strike by school support staff, including janitors, cleaners, caterers and school support assistants, over pay and conditions. (S6T-01551)
Local government pay negotiations are a matter for local authorities as employers and for unions. The Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities have committed to respecting that negotiating arrangement as part of the Verity house agreement.
However, strikes in our schools are in the interest of no one, including pupils, parents and carers, who have already had to deal with significant disruption over the past three years. We continue our engagement with COSLA on how staff and services are supported this year and next year, and we urge all parties to engage meaningfully in negotiations to avert strikes.
With more than three quarters of Scotland’s schools facing closure later this month, it is clear that support staff in our schools are rapidly losing confidence in the Scottish Government. The Government has for too long neglected the support staff who work tirelessly to keep schools running. It is time for the Government to take swift action and to meet union representatives to deliver a fair deal for our staff. Will the minister commit to meeting Unison to deliver such a deal?
The Government is committed to continuing to work in partnership with our local government colleagues and to respecting their role as employers. As I said in my first answer, the Government is engaging with local government and will continue to do so.
Striking would not be the first choice of our employees and staff across schools in Scotland. They know how important the work that they do is to children, parents and carers, so they have not come easily to the decision to get a strike mandate. We all need to respect the fact that they have it and ensure that we all get round the table and have meaningful discussions. However, we need to respect local government’s role as the employer and to respect local government colleagues’ mandates.
I am grateful for that answer from the minister, because Roz Foyer, the general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, has said that, if we want to stop workers feeling compelled to take strike action in the face of a cost of living crisis, the Government must present a fair offer. She said:
“The unions have been waiting for five months”
and inflation remains high. Workers need a decent pay rise.
Our parents, pupils, janitors, cleaners, caterers and school support assistants all deserve that, so will the minister confirm that the Verity house agreement is not a shield to protect the reputation of the Scottish Government but should be a vehicle for adequate sensible funding to support hard-working staff across the education sector?
The Verity house agreement is an important opportunity for us—not just the Government but the whole Parliament—to reset our relationship with local government. For too long, we have treated local government as if it was the deployment arm of the Parliament, whether for Government or members’ bills. We need to respect the democratic mandate of our local government colleagues.
The Government has intervened and taken action in relation to the local government settlement in order to support our local government colleagues. To allow for the initial meaningful pay rise, £155 million was added to the settlement. Last month, we gave reassurance to councils on an additional £94 million to increase recurring costs on the offer that they had made in order to allow them to make a further offer. We continue to have discussions with COSLA on how resources can be found to settle the dispute without the need for strike action, but we all need to be conscious of the very challenging financial position that not only the Scottish Government but local authorities face.
The right to strike is actively upheld and supported in Scotland, but our neighbours clearly do not always share the same values, as is demonstrated by the United Kingdom Government’s abhorrent anti-strike legislation. Will the minister commit to always upholding the right to strike in Scotland?
The Scottish Government strongly opposes any bill that undermines legitimate trade union activity and does not respect fair work principles. It is our long-standing position that a progressive approach to industrial relations—along with greater, not less, protection for workers—is at the heart of a fairer, more successful society.
The UK Government’s Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023 directly contradicts the Scottish Government’s position. The Scottish Government, alongside trade union and local authority partners, opposed the bill that became the Trade Union Act 2016, and we continue to call for its repeal.
Last year, £46 million was cut from college and university budgets to fund pay deals in schools. Pitting different parts of the education system against one another represents an egregious Government failure. Will the minister confirm that, if he grants any additionality, it will not come from the education budget and will not lead to cuts in other portfolios?
Conservative members—including Liam Kerr, in particular—fail to understand basic economics. It is not possible to continue coming here and asking for additional resources for X or Y without suggesting where the additional resources should come from. The Scottish budget is fully committed. If we are to make changes and further support our services, we will have to make adjustments across the budget.
It is lucky that we did not listen to the Conservatives about a year ago, when Liz Truss announced her disastrous budget, which has had implications for local authorities and public authorities, not only in Scotland but across the United Kingdom, as they have had to face unprecedented levels of inflation in year.
It is quite remarkable that our focus and attention are not on our children and young people. After what our country and young people have been through, there will now be more strikes. Setting aside the point that the Scottish National Party has been defunding local government for the past decade, what contingency plans are in place to support children and young people in their learning? Is there a plan in place for virtual and remote learning? Please tell us what the contingency plan is to support not those who will be striking but children and young people.
Stephen Kerr actually makes a very good point. The Government, our COSLA partners and our trade union colleagues are keen to settle the dispute without strike action because we want to avoid the damage that the action would cause to children. As members would imagine, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills is in discussions with our local government colleagues about the mitigations that would need to be put in place and how we can have a consistent approach to achieving those.
I go back to one of the other points that Stephen Kerr made. In spite of the swingeing cuts from the UK Government to this Government and Parliament, local government had a real-terms increase in funding of £793 million this year. That is a real-terms increase of 3 per cent, and the Accounts Commission confirmed that local government funding is 2.6 per cent higher in real terms than it was in 2013-14.