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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 01 March 2017

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Scottish Funding Council Board (Abolition), BBC Scotland Digital Channel, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Safe Drive, Stay Alive Project


Portfolio Question Time

European Commission (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met European Commission officials, and what was discussed. (S5O-00700)

Discussions between the European Commission and the Scottish Government take place regularly at ministerial and official level. Routine discussions have continued since the European Union referendum to ensure the effective continuation of EU-related business and to underline the Scottish Government’s commitment to working with the European Commission. Only yesterday, the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform attended the EU environment council in Brussels attended by the EU Commission.

The cabinet secretary will be well aware that the EU emissions trading scheme is the world’s largest scheme for trading emissions allowances and is a key weapon in fighting climate change. At her next meeting with the European Commission—and, indeed, her next meeting with UK officials—will she raise the issue of the ETS, which raises billions of euros to help industry to innovate and invest in clean technologies, as it is essential that it remains a key part of the Scottish climate change plan?

The investment opportunities on clean technologies that can be afforded by partnership with colleagues across the EU are a vital factor when it comes to making sure that we can continue to have some kind of positive relationship with the EU. In relation to standards, that is clearly important in terms of climate justice and tackling climate change.

As far as meetings with the European Commission are concerned, I attend meetings of the education and culture council, in particular, and meetings in relation to the EU referendum. My colleagues in other portfolios, such as the energy portfolio and the climate change portfolio, would take forward matters such as those that the member raises, but I will relay them to the relevant ministers.

When the cabinet secretary—or whichever minister it is—meets the European Commission, is there any confusion on the part of the Commission? Does it ask why we have so many Europe ministers in the Scottish Government?

Every minister in this Government has responsibility for our international profile and for the economy. Whenever one of our ministers engages with the European Commission, they advance the economic cause and interests of Scotland.

I focus on the bilateral discussions with the EU capitals and the institutions. It is extremely important that we do not descend into the parochial, inward-looking approach that some members would like us to adopt; I hope that Neil Findlay is not one of them.

Historic Environment (Culture in Towns and Cities)

To ask the Scottish Government how the historic environment can promote culture in towns and cities. (S5O-00701)

The historic environment promotes culture in our towns and cities in many ways. It is intrinsic to our sense of place and our strong cultural identity. It tells the story of our shared past and offers creative inspiration. As the physical embodiment of our cultural traditions, a well-managed historic environment helps to present a positive image of Scotland around the globe and to attract United Kingdom and international visitors and investors. As the backdrop to our daily lives, it supports all forms of cultural activity by providing venues for a wide range of cultural events and meeting places for the many clubs and societies that are such a feature of Scotland’s community life, from folk music to amateur dramatics and literary societies. In every way, the historic environment is at the heart of our flourishing and dynamic cultural life.

The cabinet secretary will know that Paisley has a very high number of listed buildings. Does she agree that they are an important asset for the promotion of culture and that, although they present a challenge, they are one of the many strengths that Paisley has in seeking to be named as UK city of culture in 2021?

George Adam continues his campaign for the city of Paisley.

I recognise that Paisley has among the highest numbers of listed buildings in the country. Paisley abbey is one of the finest examples of medieval churches in Scotland. It also has a rich heritage of Victorian buildings, and the textile and economic history, not to mention the cultural connections of our country are well illustrated by the built environment heritage that has passed on from Coats & Clark’s, for example. I think that building that into the bid is a very wise thing for the city of Paisley to do.

I declare an interest as the convener of the cross-party group on towns and town centres.

Given her roots, the cabinet secretary will be well aware of the significant and important cultural history of Ayr, which goes back to the 11th and 12th centuries and before. She will know the need to promote and raise awareness of the tourism potential that exists in Ayr, based on its cultural heritage. What contact has her office had with South Ayrshire Council about that in recent years, and is there help that she might be able to provide in future to support tourism, growth and cultural development in auld Ayr town centre?

I made a very important visit to South Ayrshire, about developing its cultural place partnership with Creative Scotland. A lot of that was about contemporary culture, but it then delved into the wider and deeper history of Ayr. I am very interested, in particular, in our most recent contact with Ayr, which was in relation to the archaeology that is being undertaken alongside the demolition of some of the buildings around the town centre. The story that that will tell of the medieval past of Ayr will be fascinating; it will help to enhance what is already a very strong story about Ayr’s history and will attract visitors from near and far.

I welcome the preservation and enhancement of our historic urban environment, but the true measure of success for such projects in promoting cultural enrichment must surely take account of both the public’s ability to access, share in and participate in cultural capital and also—and critically—a resulting and sustained long-tail dividend. What steps is the Scottish Government taking to ensure that that is the case?

I am very proud that, as part of the budget that was passed last week, and which was opposed by the Conservatives, we managed to maintain free access to our museums and galleries, which is very important. This week, we have received fantastic visitor attendance figures for our key attractions and, of the top six attractions, five had free access, which is very important—the other attraction being Edinburgh castle. A very important part of what we do is make sure that people have access to their story, their buildings and their places.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that both Historic Environment Scotland and Aberdeen City Council have recently pledged more than £1 million towards the revitalisation of landmark buildings in Union Street. Does she agree that that offers the potential for the transformation of Aberdeen city centre over the next five years, and that that is a model that other cities could follow?

I am very keen that, in some of the agreements that are being made, particularly in relation to city deals, heritage, tourism and culture are at the heart of them. The transformation of city centres—and, indeed, town centres—is very important indeed. The conservation area regeneration scheme, or CARS, projects and funding from Historic Environment Scotland have been very important and both Dalkeith and Kilmarnock have benefited from that.

On investment, I know that the music hall in Aberdeen, for example, which is something in which I have had a keen interest, has had support from Government agencies and that Creative Scotland and Historic Environment Scotland have been critical to providing some of that funding. We have worked very hard to deliver that, and I am delighted that there is also support from Aberdeen City Council.

Celtic Connections 2017

To ask the Scottish Government how successful it considers Celtic Connections 2017 has been for Glasgow and Scotland. (S5O-00702)

Celtic Connections has grown since 1994. It is the largest winter music festival of its kind in the United Kingdom. In 2017, it hosted 2,375 artists, 800 hours of music on 26 stages throughout Glasgow. It sold 110,000 tickets and 80 per cent of shows were sold out, breaking all previous records.

An independent impact study conducted on behalf of Celtic Connections found that it generated over £7 million from visitors in Scotland, providing a benefit of over £4 million across Scotland. Successes and cultural highlights of 2017 included La Banda Europa, an “inspiring women” theme, a celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary and a very successful Brazilian music showcase.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer and very much agree with the points that she makes.

Some people feel that the definition of “Celtic” has become wider and wider. Does the cabinet secretary think that that is a good thing—because it is very inclusive—or does the definition of Celtic music need to be narrower?

I am the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs. As far as decisions on the curatorial excellence of any cultural activity are concerned, I think that those are for the festivals, galleries and museums themselves. I will say that that internationalist outlook and particularly the fusion—whether it is of our own with Indian traditional music or, indeed, Brazilian music, as I have just mentioned—is very important. Next year will be the 25th anniversary of Celtic Connections and I am sure that John Mason and others will be delighted to know that the partner country for next year will be Ireland, which is about as Celtic as you can get.

It has been well documented in the media that a T in the Park sister festival will take place in Glasgow this summer. What discussions has the Scottish Government had with the organisers and Police Scotland about managing the potential impact of antisocial behaviour on local residents?

That matter is not my responsibility. For any major festival, the authority concerned, which in this case will be Glasgow City Council, will take forward discussions with Transport Scotland and Police Scotland. It is very much part and parcel of our events management across Scotland that those agencies work together to deliver a great experience for people, and I am sure that the festival will be of great economic benefit to the city.

Freedom of Movement (Agriculture and Horticulture Workers)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress is being made in negotiations with the United Kingdom Government regarding the freedom of movement of agriculture and horticulture workers post-Brexit. (S5O-00703)

We are aware that the UK’s forthcoming exit of the European Union has created significant uncertainty in the agriculture sector, and we need to ensure the continued protection of the rights of all workers who are employed in Scotland’s rural economy. Limiting free movement of people has the potential to seriously harm Scotland’s long-term economic future.

There have been discussions and exchanges with the UK Government on freedom of movement, including those in the joint ministerial committee on European Union negotiations, which I attend alongside representatives of the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive. Within those discussions, I have consistently raised the importance of freedom of movement to Scotland in contributing to sustainable economic growth, mitigating the effects of demographic change and enriching our culture and communities.

The First Minister has also repeatedly called on the Prime Minister to guarantee EU nationals’ right to remain in the UK. Unfortunately, despite our consistent representations to the UK Government on the issue, the Prime Minister still refuses to deliver that guarantee, despite having the power to do so. The Scottish Government appreciates the importance of obtaining a guaranteed right to remain for EU nationals and we will continue to strongly support it.

Why does this Tory Government seem so incapable of grasping the impact of that uncertainty on businesses, the economy and, just as important, the individuals concerned? Does it just not care?

I would hesitate to speculate about the motivations of the present Tory Government; they are a mystery to most people. The Tory obsession with immigration and the Scottish Tories’ determination to become born-again Brexiteers are working against the interests of the rural sector, our economy and fair treatment of citizens of Europe who are living here. Surely it is time to reflect on that, and, having done so, to act.

I refer members to my entry in the register of interests.

The minister will be aware that farmers north and south of the Tweed will be looking carefully at the issue of agriculture workers. Does he agree that the UK’s Brexit approach should be based on economic issues across sectors, and not geography?

Peter Chapman is right to say that the economic focus is of great importance. The economic importance of migration and freedom of movement in Scotland is very great indeed. Were he to travel westwards to my constituency, Mr Chapman would see a constituency that is losing population from the rural area and has a shortage of labour, which needs to be replaced through European migration. It is anticipated that 90 per cent of the growth in population in Scotland in the next 20 years will come from European migration.

I would hope that Mr Chapman would stand up for the people who elected him—the people of Scotland—and stand up for Scotland. I keep hoping for that from Scottish Tories, but I never see it.

Edinburgh International Festival (70th Anniversary)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to acknowledge and commemorate the role of the founding director of the Edinburgh International Festival, Rudolf Bing, in this its 70th anniversary year. (S5O-00704)

In recognition of the 70th anniversary of the founding of Edinburgh’s festivals, the Scottish Government is providing an additional £300,000 of funding through the Edinburgh festivals expo fund. Each festival will develop its own celebrations of the anniversary and its specific expo-funded projects. The Edinburgh International Festival announces its programme on 15 March, and it intends to mark the role of Rudolf Bing as the founding director in 1947.

Rudolph Bing was, of course, a Jew, and tonight in Edinburgh city chambers there will be a reception to commemorate and celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Jewish community in Edinburgh.

The cabinet secretary will be aware of the international shalom festival, which brings together Israelis of all religions for an evening of culture and performance at the Edinburgh festival. Because of the protest by a minority—but a vocal minority—last year, many venues are reluctant to host the shalom festival this year. In the light of that, what support can the Scottish Government give to ensure that the shalom festival is able to continue in the 70th anniversary year of the Edinburgh festival, which was founded by a Scottish Jew?

Every festival is responsible for how it supports those whom it invites. Some are curated and some are not. I am interested to see the details of the festival that the member is talking about and which of the festivals it is celebrated as part of. It is important that we send out a message to all communities that we are an inclusive and open society. In celebrating those who contribute today and have contributed in the past, we should be mindful that how we conduct ourselves will be understood across the world.

The director of the Edinburgh International Festival previously stated that the “poisonous rhetoric” of Brexit talks could seriously damage the festival. Unfortunately, Jackson Carlaw’s United Kingdom colleagues bear responsibility for that. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the interests of our cultural and creative industries will be best served by protecting Scotland’s strong relationship with the European Union?

Our festivals are testament to the importance of that international reach. Freedom of movement is vital to Scotland’s cultural and creative industries and economic interests. The culture and creativity of those connections are irreplaceable and, if disruption to those connections—or even the threat of such disruption—causes harm to our cultural and creative life, the manifestation of that will not just be experienced today; it will be experienced by people for generations to come. That is how serious freedom of movement is to this country.

BBC Alba (Funding)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress it is making in securing additional funding for BBC Alba. (S5O-00705)

The Scottish Government has made strong, clear and consistent representations to the BBC to secure additional funding for BBC Alba. On 22 February, the BBC announced that it will cover the £1.2 million cost of Gaelic programmes that BBC Alba has funded to date, which will release welcome funds for BBC Alba. Separately, the BBC will support weekend news coverage. We look forward to receiving further details from the BBC to understand more fully what the implications and benefits of the recent announcement will be. We will continue to press the BBC to deliver more for Gaelic broadcasting, so that we move towards parity with the resources that are afforded to S4C.

I join the cabinet secretary in welcoming the extra £1.2 million for BBC Alba. That said, the cabinet secretary might be aware of concerns in the Gaelic community following last week’s announcement that the creation of the new channel could have a detrimental impact on funding for BBC Alba. With the commitment that was given last week to up to 7.2 hours of fresh in-house programming for BBC Alba per week, the BBC investment that was announced falls well short of what BBC Alba needs to sustain its historic success and continue to be an effective contributor to the revitalisation of Gaelic.

The cabinet secretary has given a commitment to impress upon the BBC the need for an in-house contribution of 10 hours per week and I urge her to continue to do that.

The case for BBC Alba is well made. Indeed, it has been instructional in showing how BBC programme making can help to develop and support the creative industries. We will have a debate later today on that very matter. However, it is essential that an in-house contribution of 10 hours per week is secured for BBC Alba. That is not what has been secured to date and we will continue to support it and make the case for it.

International Engagement (Links with Qatar)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress it has made in developing links with Qatar. (S5O-00706)

The Scottish Government remains open to opportunities to engage with Qatar through diplomatic, economic, educational and cultural ties. In addition Scottish Development International’s middle east office, which is based at the British embassy in Dubai, works closely with companies from countries in the Gulf region, including Qatar, that are looking to invest, relocate, partner or expand in Scotland.

Scotland has a strong and enduring commitment to securing democracy, the rule of law and human rights around the world and, as a good global citizen, the Scottish Government takes that seriously when exploring links with any country. We expect all states to comply with international human rights law, and use our international engagement as an opportunity to promote respect for, and understanding of, human rights.

The Scottish Government previously dispatched the former First Minister and the current transport secretary to Qatar to build cultural links and to flog public service infrastructure to the Qatari sovereign wealth fund. What investments have been made in our public infrastructure and cultural sector by the Qataris while building workers lose their lives on world cup projects in Qatar?

I will directly address the points that were made about human rights, as that is, quite legitimately, what the question that was asked is about. It is important to note that my distinguished predecessor, Humza Yousaf, who was mentioned by Neil Findlay, raised the specific issue of migrant worker rights with the ambassador of Qatar on 10 March 2015. He also met Amnesty International regarding Qatari human rights and received a briefing on the issue. Further, he raised similar issues at the festival of literature that took place in the United Arab Emirates in 2015.

On the specific issue of construction, I know that Humza Yousaf also spoke with the Qatari authorities about human rights and the world cup. Indeed, that is something that the Scottish Government has continued to keep an eye on.

Police Scotland (Call Handling)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the recent update report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary in Scotland on call handling in Police Scotland. (S5O-00710)

The Scottish Government welcomes the publication of the HMICS update report on call handling and notes the considerable progress that has been made by Police Scotland since the November 2015 HMICS independent assurance review on the same subject. We expect the Scottish Police Authority and Police Scotland to give careful consideration to the findings of the update report and to continue to work closely with HMICS as it seeks to further strengthen its approach to police call handling.

Given that the report says that limited progress has been made in improving the functionality and accuracy of the gazetteer that is used by control room staff, and that nearly a quarter of all notable incidents arose because the wrong location was chosen by the service adviser, what further action will the cabinet secretary now take to address those issues? Will he, for example, reconsider at this stage his plans to close the control rooms in Aberdeen and Inverness, which can lead only to an increase in such incidents?

As the member will recognise, overall the report shows that good progress has been made by Police Scotland with regard to the way in which it is taking forward reforms around call handling. Only last week, when giving evidence to the Justice Sub-Committee on Policing, the chief inspector of HMICS praised the work that had been taken forward by police call-handling staff and the service in relation to this area of reform.

The chief inspector of HMICS has identified an issue around the stability of the gazetteer system. There is a practical issue, which is that we have three emergency services that have, historically, all used separate gazetteer systems for the same purpose—the Scottish Ambulance Service has one, the Fire and Rescue Service has one and Police Scotland has one. One of the pieces of work that is being considered is the development of a single gazetteer system that would be used for all of our emergency services, which would ensure that it was as up to date as possible. We expect progress to continue to be made on that area of work.

Overall, following the assurance review, we are now in a situation in which, of the 30 recommendations, 16 have been discharged, 12 have been partially discharged and only two remain open.

On the issue around the intended changes in Aberdeen and Inverness, progress is being made around those pieces of work. The assurance review group met only yesterday to consider the on-going changes at Aberdeen, and further work will be taken forward on that over the coming weeks. It has been demonstrated that good progress is being made regarding the change and transfer in Aberdeen, and the SPA will consider the issue further at its next board meeting on 22 March.

I do not have good news for the member in relation to his call regarding the call centre changes in Aberdeen and Inverness. Obviously, the Inverness call centre is changing to another purpose under Police Scotland. I give the member an assurance that good progress is being made and that the assurance review work that I directed and expect HMICS to continue to make progress on will continue to be monitored.

Community Payback Orders (Completion Rate)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to improve the completion rate of community payback orders. (S5O-00711)

Delivering community payback orders and ensuring their completion is the responsibility of the relevant local authority. The “National Outcomes and Standards for Social Work Services in the Criminal Justice System” contain guidance on the procedures involved, and the action that social work case managers can take, in cases where the individual is failing to complete their order. Those actions can include returning the case to court.

The Government is committed to supporting local authorities in delivering robust community sentences. Funding for criminal justice social work remains at record levels. We also invested an additional £4 million in community services in 2016-17, and that additional funding continues in the Scottish budget for the coming year.

From 1 April, our new model for community justice will come into effect. Statutory community justice partners will jointly plan and deliver services to prevent further offending and support people who have offended to reintegrate into communities. A new public body, community justice Scotland, will provide national leadership on that and report to ministers on performance across Scotland. It will promote improvement in the delivery, and impact of, community justice services, including prevention, early intervention and community sentences.

The fact is that nearly a third of orders were not completed in 2015-16 and completion rates have fallen for two years in a row. More needs to be done to reverse that worrying trend, especially as it has emerged that CPOs are being handed out for serious sex offences. Will the Government commit to an urgent review of the system of community payback orders to ensure that criminals do not start treating them with contempt?

Peter Chapman is clearly not aware that, in 2015, there was a full review of the way in which community payback orders were operating. That review, which was published, identified a broad degree of confidence about how community payback orders were being implemented. I will quote from it:

“Sheriffs appear to have broad confidence in CPOs in terms of monitoring of progress and appropriate use of breach.”

Therefore, there has already been a review of community payback orders.

Peter Chapman is obviously not aware that completion rates for community sentences have increased over recent years from around 62 per cent in 2006-07 to just over 68 per cent in the past year or so. We continue to consider what further measures can be taken to ensure that the benefits of CPOs are realised and we will always consider other measures that add value to them, including ensuring higher completion rates.

I welcome much of what the cabinet secretary said. As he will be aware, the latest statistics show that offenders on community payback orders have the lowest levels of reoffending. By contrast, offenders who are serving sentences of less than three months have the highest rates of reoffending. On that basis, will he update the Parliament on when we will move to raise the minimum sentence to 12 months to reduce the levels of reoffending?

Liam McArthur makes an important point. The evidence demonstrates that community payback orders and community sentencing are much more effective than short-term prison sentences. It shows that someone who receives a community disposal is much less likely to reoffend than someone who receives a short-term sentence of six months or less. Actually, someone who receives a sentence of six months or less is almost twice as likely to reoffend as someone who completes a CPO.

As Liam McArthur will be aware, I am clear that we need to use the evidence, which demonstrates not only the benefits of CPOs in relation to reducing reoffending but the benefits that they provide to local communities. The most recent annual report on CPO provision indicated that some 1.8 million hours of unpaid work were provided in local communities throughout Scotland through the scheme.

I know that Liam McArthur has considerable interest in the presumption against short sentences, as I have. I intend to update Parliament on the matter in due course following some further work that is being carried out.

Sheriff Courts (Caution and Charge to Verdict Target)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that 30 per cent of sheriff courts are failing to reach the 26-week target from caution and charge to verdict. (S5O-00712)

I remind members of my entry in the register of interests, wherein they will see that I am a member of the Law Society of Scotland and hold a current practice certificate, although I am not currently practising.

The 26-week indicator from caution and charge to verdict covers activity by not only the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service but Police Scotland and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. When we compare the period from December 2014 to November 2015 with December 2015 to November 2016, we see that national performance has increased from 64.2 per cent to 66.1 per cent.

In recent years, the reporting and detection of crimes—in particular, domestic abuse and sexual offences—has increased, which reflects proactive policing and prosecution, and greater victim confidence in reporting crimes. Those cases have not only increased in volume but are more complex and often require more court time. That has placed additional pressure on the Crown, the courts and the wider justice system. We have responded, and continue to respond, to those pressures, and additional resources have been made available.

I thank the minister for that answer, but the performance of almost half of Scotland’s 40 sheriff courts is worse now than it was a year ago. That includes Glasgow and Strathkelvin sheriff court , where only 53.3 per cent of cases were concluded within the target 26-week period.

Solicitors who are working at the sharp end of our criminal justice system cite court closures as leading to a backlog of cases and an increase in the number of adjournments. Can the minister tell my constituents who are seeking access to justice what action the Scottish Government is taking to remedy the situation?

The methodology that Adam Tomkins or his press office has applied in interpreting and analysing the actual statistics that have been collected by the independent Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service seems to be a wee bit less than robust, if I may say so. Rather than simply comparing a one-month static figure with another month in a different year, we should look at the figures year by year. If we do so, we see that there has been an overall improvement of 1.9 per cent between 2014-15 and 2015-16.

I do not agree with Adam Tomkins on adjournments and the possible effect of court closures. He should bear it in mind that the independent data that are collected by the SCTS show that, while there has been an increase in the overall number of cases, 5.6 per cent of cases were adjourned in 2015-16 and 6.3 per cent were adjourned in the previous year, which in fact represents a reduction.

The minister touched on the increased reporting and detection of crimes—in particular of domestic abuse and sexual offences. I welcome the funding that the First Minister announced through the violence against women funding stream, which will assist in the development of measures to tackle all forms of violence against women. Is that funding helping to improve domestic abuse court performance?

Ruth Maguire is right to highlight the additional funding that the Scottish Government has made available to deal specifically with the increased case load in domestic abuse. We have made available the sum of £2.4 million in 2015-16 and in 2016-17. That will be also be the case for 2017-18. We can see that the funding is having a significant impact on the timescale on which trials have been proceeding. There is currently an agreed period of 10 to 12 weeks, and the aim is to offer from April 2017 domestic abuse trials within eight to 10 weeks. We are, on the basis that 95 per cent of courts are already meeting that accelerated timescale, very optimistic that that will be achieved.

In the light of the Justice Committee’s inquiry into the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, including the many issues that we have heard about regarding performance and the serious concerns that have been raised, does the minister believe that a £4 million cut to the COPFS budget this year will improve and speed up access to justice?

I know that the Justice Committee has been looking into the operation of the Crown and Procurator Fiscal Service in great depth. We await the committee’s report coming in due course.

A number of figures have been bandied about at the committee; I say to members—Mary Fee knows this well—that the operation of the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service is ultimately a matter for the Lord President. The performance of the courts is monitored very carefully—I believe monthly—by the justice system planning group, which is a subgroup of the national justice board. We are seeing improvement, as I have indicated, in relation to domestic abuse and the general performance of summary criminal trials. That improvement is down to the great work that is being conducted by the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service.

Courts (Conclusion of Cases)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the time taken to conclude cases in the courts. (S5O-00713)

As I stated in my earlier response to Adam Tomkins, the Scottish Government recognises that reporting and prosecution of certain categories of crime have increased. Criminal investigations have also become more complex, and that is reflected in the number of court cases proceeding to evidence-led trials: over the last five years, there has been a 38 per cent increase in evidence-led trials.

However, even allowing for that, the evidence shows an improving picture. As at January 2017, 95 per cent of sheriff courts were offering trials within the optimum time of 16 weeks, compared with only 50 per cent in April 2014. With the help of additional funding from the Scottish Government, the percentage of cases fully disposed within 20 weeks has increased from 58 per cent in 2014-15 to 67 per cent in 2016-17.

It is quite clear that improvement has been made, but there is always more that can be done.

Pressure on Scotland’s courts is not a new issue. In 2015, Audit Scotland published a report highlighting the difficulties that they face, and the situation seems only to be getting worse. That is after the Scottish Government ignored warnings from Opposition parties and slashed the number of courts across the country, including closing Kirkcudbright sheriff court in my constituency.

Has the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service successfully implemented Audit Scotland’s recommendations to improve Scotland’s court system.

If Finlay Carson looks back at the Official Report of today’s question time, he will see the various statistics that I have referred to that come from Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service data, which it collects and reviews monthly. He will see the improvements that have been made.

The member mentioned Kirkcudbright sheriff court. It was closed some three years ago. It is important to remember that the court was, at that time, dealing with an average of two summary criminal trials per month. Dumfries is now the receiving court, and there has been no impact on Dumfries sheriff court following the transfer of that business.

I refer members to my register of interests; I am a registered mental health nurse.

I am very interested in the time that it takes to conclude cases in court. I have a particular interest in drug courts. Will the minister advise on what the position is?

We have seen in Glasgow a very successful dedicated drug court. Across Scotland, we have been setting up problem-solving courts in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and, recently, in Forfar, to look at the bigger picture. Those courts look at the particular position of the individual, which varies from case to case. In those courts, the outcome for the individual is the important key determinant, rather than the actual time that is taken for proceedings at court.

Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010 (Disabled Access)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress it is making with the implementation of section 179 of the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010 regarding disabled access. (S5O-00714)

Section 179 of the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010 requires individuals applying for a liquor premises licence to provide a disability access and facilities statement along with their application. The statement is to contain information about disabled access to the premises and facilities, and any other provision available to aid the use of the premises by disabled people. Failure to provide a statement is not a ground for refusing an application, but it means that the premises application would be incomplete and could not be considered by the licensing board.

The provision does not interfere with the existing duty under equality law to make reasonable adjustments to make sure that a disabled person can use a service as close as it is reasonably possible to get to the standard that is usually offered to non-disabled people.

Section 179 cannot be commenced in isolation; it is also necessary to update secondary legislation to provide the necessary statutory forms, alongside providing guidance to applicants. We intend to complete that work within the remainder of this year.

In 2010, an amendment to the legislation was passed, with cross-party support, following “Barred!”, which was a campaign run by Mark Cooper in association with Capability Scotland. The amendment was to ensure that licensed premises must provide the information that the cabinet secretary has outlined. Unfortunately, the Government has yet to commence the provision. It has stated that it would do so by the end of this session of Parliament, which would obviously mean a delay of more than a decade, so I welcome the cabinet secretary’s commitment today. Will he act without delay and ensure that the provision is commenced this year? Does he agree with me that, for many disabled people, a beer delayed is a beer denied?

It is important to recognise that, although there was cross-party support for the amendment, the provision does not require a licence holder to commit to any amendments or alterations to their premises; rather, the provision is about the factual information that must be provided at the time when an application for a liquor licence is being made.

As Daniel Johnson will recognise, a significant amount of new regulations on licensed premises have been introduced, including on licensing for scrap metal companies and air weapons. We have tried to take forward the legislation on a phased basis, in order to make sure that we manage the process for those who require to have a licence or to apply for a licence.

There are secondary legislation issues accompanying the provision; we will seek to make progress on it over this year. I will try to make sure that the work is taken forward as early as possible. At this stage, I cannot give the member a final date on when the process will be completed.