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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, June 1, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 01 June 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Veterans (Deprivation), Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Decision Time


General Question Time

Scottish Prison Service (Pay)

To ask the Scottish Government for what reason the recent pay award to Scottish Prison Service operational staff has not been extended to non-operational staff in the same institutions. (S5O-01059)

The Scottish Prison Service is on a transformational journey not only to bring change to the lives of those in custody and their families, but to deliver a modernised prison service.

Every organisation depends on all its staff to contribute to its success. Non-operational staff play a vital role in the delivery of key SPS services, while front-line operational staff provide the essential and immediate services that are required to maintain health, safety and security, and play a key role in developing relationships with those who are in our custody, enabling them to transform their lives and therefore enabling us to achieve our vision of helping to build a safer Scotland.

The payments are being made in recognition of a specific set of circumstances that are unique to the front-line prison officer role. The reform that is under way within the SPS will require greater flexibility from prison officers, and a willingness to acquire new specialist skills and to undertake new training and qualifications.

The issue has been described to me by SPS staff as involving a fundamental misunderstanding of the various roles in our Prison Service, which has left many staff feeling undervalued and undermined. The definition of “non-operational” does not apply only to office and administration staff, who themselves play a vital role in the Prison Service, but extends to staff who deal with prisoners in front-line roles—for example, highly trained forensic psychologists who day in and day out deal with some of the most dangerous prisoners in the country.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that the pay award sets an unjust precedent by unfairly dividing staff? What will he personally do to ensure that all the valuable SPS staff are included in operational and pay reviews in the future?

I understand the concerns and the issues that Mark Ruskell has raised. However, he will accept that prison officers are disproportionately affected by the move that the SPS is making towards a new operating model. It is for that reason that the SPS sought to make the exceptional payment to its staff, recognising the unique circumstances that prison officer staff will be affected by because of the changes.

Although, as I mentioned, non-operational staff play a vital role, which is fully recognised, the SPS modernisation programme will have a significant impact on operational staff—primarily prison officer staff. It is for that reason that the SPS sought to make the additional payment.

Can the cabinet secretary give any more detail about the changing role of prison officers in Scottish prisons?

The Scottish Prison Service published a prison officer professionalisation programme last month. It sets out the programme of work that will take place over the course of the next two years. It will result in significant change in how prison officers operate, with a new operating model, and it will see prison officers being recognised as justice professionals. The document was published for prison officer staff and other SPS staff last month and it sets out the progress of change that the service intends to make over the course of the next two years.

The cabinet secretary will know that I have written to him about this issue. It is not the first time that a bonus payment has been made—in 2015, a similar payment was made. At the time, it was said that it would be a one-off offer. Is the bonus payment likely to be repeated? Is it possible for Parliament to have some scrutiny of such arrangements?

My understanding from the SPS is that it has no plans to make any such payment to prison officers beyond the spring of 2018, which relates to this particular payment.

On the issue of scrutiny, of course it is entirely a matter for parliamentary committees to consider these issues, but we have kept Parliament informed about the range of work that has been carried out within the SPS and the way that the service is taking forward its transformational programme.

The previous one-off payment was awarded in exchange for prison officers agreeing not to strike for two years. Can the cabinet secretary confirm whether any similar deals were agreed this time round?

I think that Dean Lockhart has misunderstood the way in which the exceptional payment has been taken forward by the Scottish Prison Service. It is linked specifically to the way in which the SPS is taking forward its transformational programme and the disproportionate impact that it will have on the operational duties of prison officers.

Terrorism Threat Level

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on discussions it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding the terrorism threat level. (S5O-01060)

As the First Minister indicated during her statement to Parliament on 24 May 2017, she received briefings from the national security adviser on the reason behind the decision of the joint terrorism analysis centre—JTAC—to raise the international terrorism threat level to critical. Similarly, the First Minister and I participated in meetings of COBR chaired by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary at which the threat level was discussed.

On Saturday morning, JTAC reduced the threat level to severe, which means that an attack is highly likely. The threat level was reduced in the light of the assessment that, although there was still an on-going and dynamic investigation, there was no intelligence to continue to support an assessment that an attack was imminent.

Although the threat level has been downgraded to severe, that still means that an attack is highly likely, and we need to continue to be vigilant, but there is no intelligence that links the recent attack to any threat to Scotland.

Following the Manchester atrocity, a review into MI5’s functions in relation to tracking terrorists was announced. Can I be assured that the Scottish Government and Police Scotland are involved in that review?

Given the importance of the European Union-wide Schengen information system, which is used by police forces across the United Kingdom, in tackling and tracking criminal and terrorist suspects across international borders, has the UK Government clarified in any way what will happen to our ability to tackle terrorist incidents if we are no longer part of that system, following Brexit?

I am conscious that a review of the way in which the security service has handled some of those issues is being taken forward. We continue to have good links with Police Scotland and the security services with regard to the way in which they operate in Scotland, and we will continue to feed into that process and support any review work.

In addition, once the review has been completed, we will—importantly—look at what further measures need to be taken in Scotland and at any learning that comes from the particular event to which Tavish Scott referred. I assure members that the Scottish Government, Police Scotland and other agencies will be fully debriefed on how we responded to the change in the threat level to critical.

Tavish Scott raises a very important issue in relation to the Schengen agreement. I add to what he said the benefits that we get from working with agencies such as Europol in tackling serious and organised crime and terrorism. Given that those types of incidents do not recognise any national borders, it is important that we collaborate across Europe and the wider international sector.

As a Government, we have made it clear to the UK Government that we value our current engagement and that we wish to preserve those links and the benefits that come from them. At this stage, it is unclear what the UK Government’s position on the matter will be when it comes to the Brexit negotiations, which is a matter of regret.

I welcome both the questions and the cabinet secretary’s answers on that very important issue. As the cabinet secretary knows, people of all faiths and none mourn the victims of terrorism and face the challenge of overcoming terrorism.

Given that, in the past year, recorded incidents of Islamophobic hate crime have doubled in Scotland, will the cabinet secretary consider publishing the trends for those crimes, as has been done for other parts of the UK, as a way of helping to bring communities together to challenge religious hate and tackle terrorism head on?

Anas Sarwar raises a very important issue. Security measures are only one part of the solution in tackling those issues. We also have a responsibility to ensure that we do everything possible to tackle any form of violent extremism and those who wish to peddle hate crimes in our communities.

We have well-established links with communities across the country that Police Scotland and other agencies use to tackle hate crime, including Islamophobia. I can give Anas Sarwar an assurance that we will look at whether we can put in place any further measures in order to make sure that we continue to tackle that. Alongside that, we will provide information in the public domain to give people an understanding of the extent and scale of it.

In my engagement with Police Scotland and other agencies over the past couple of days it has been encouraging to hear that there has been no particular increase in the reporting of hate crime in Scotland. However, I have sought assurances from Police Scotland and other agencies that they will continue to monitor that in the days and weeks ahead, and ensure that if there are any indications of an increase in hate crime appropriate measures are taken to address it quickly.

Local Authorities (Impact of Coalition Administrations)

3. Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on how the coalitions that have been recently formed across local authorities will impact on the provision of local services. (S5O-01061)

Local government elections use a form of proportional representation, which gives more choice and power to voters and offers a choice of representatives in each ward. Proportional representation makes coalitions more likely, as the numbers of representatives more closely reflect the distribution of votes cast.

Aberdeen Labour group was suspended for going into coalition with the same Tory group that it was in administration with for five years until a month ago. Meanwhile, no action has been taken against the North Ayrshire Labour group, which clung to power only with the support of four Tory councillors, or, indeed, against Labour’s candidate in Edinburgh South, Ian Murray, who called on Tories to back him to save his own skin but urged Labour voters in the rest of Scotland to back the Tories. What is the cabinet secretary’s opinion of the muddled inconsistency of Labour’s leadership on this issue?

The cabinet secretary should reply in her own brief.

If you vote Labour, you might just get the Tories. We have seen the complete humiliation of the Scottish Labour leadership by some of their councillors and council groups. Whether those Labour-Tory pacts are formal or informal working arrangements, we have seen a growing list of them, including in my area, West Lothian. What those formal or informal pacts show is a lack of respect for voters, a lack of leadership from the Scottish Labour Party and a lack of understanding of the risk of further Tory cuts and privatisation. [Interruption.] They are cheering at that—at the risk of further Tory cuts and privatisation. It is all because the Labour Party wishes to cling to power and to sup with the Tories. Labour councillors have betrayed voters the length and breadth of the country—in Aberdeen, North Lanarkshire, North Ayrshire, Midlothian and West Lothian—all to do sly deals with the Tories.

Loneliness and Social Isolation

I remind members that I am the parliamentary liaison officer to the Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities.

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the action it is taking to tackle loneliness and social isolation. (S5O-01062)

Social isolation and loneliness are an emerging issue of considerable concern, which impacts on wellbeing and health in communities across age ranges, gender and geography. We have started work on our commitment to develop a national strategy, and in April we held a discussion with a wide range of stakeholders. In the summer, we will launch a consultation with stakeholders on our draft strategy and with communities on what we should do next.

I recently had the privilege of meeting Brendan Cox to discuss the Jo Cox commission on loneliness. I agreed that we will work closely with the commission and others as we take forward our approach, and I will be taking part in the great get together in June.

Can the minister assure me that the issue of loneliness and isolation for older people who are being cared for after they have been discharged from hospital will be considered by the Care Inspectorate and Healthcare Improvement Scotland as part of their joint inspections of care services?

Yes, I can. The issue of loneliness and isolation for all older people is core to the principles of health and social care partnerships. All care services are required to deliver care that is consistent with the national care standards. The new standards make it clear that people should be supported to make and keep friendships and to participate in interests and activities.

The social and emotional needs of people are core to our health and care services. Throughout 2017, Healthcare Improvement Scotland and the Care Inspectorate will focus their joint scrutiny activity on partnerships, strategic planning, leadership and outcomes for people using those services, including paying attention to those matters.

Fife Council (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met Fife Council and what issues were discussed. (S5O-01063)

Ministers and officials regularly meet representatives of all Scottish local authorities, including Fife Council, to discuss a wide range of issues as part of our commitment to working in partnership with local government to improve outcomes for the people of Scotland.

Can the cabinet secretary advise why, when Fife Council submitted an updated transport appraisal of the Levenmouth area in early 2017, specifically with regard to the viability of the Levenmouth rail link, Transport Scotland has yet to provide an update? That is despite my being assured in the chamber on 12 January that

“Transport Scotland official will provide further comments once they have had the opportunity to consider”

the report

“in more detail.”—[Official Report, 12 January 2017; c 7.]

I cannot give the member further detail on that, because that question would be more appropriately addressed to Transport Scotland or, indeed, the Minister for Transport and the Islands. From my constituency’s perspective, I recollect how the reopening of the Bathgate to Airdrie line had a positive impact on our local economy and many other aspects of social life in West Lothian. I therefore understand the importance of the issue that the member raises, but I urge her to direct her comments and inquiries to Transport Scotland or the minister.

Prison Officers (Retirement Age)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the retirement age for prison officers, and what discussions it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding this. (S5O-01064)

Prison Officers in Scotland are members of the UK-wide civil service pension scheme, the terms of which are reserved. The Scottish Government has always been clear that it disagrees with the UK Government’s position that prison officers should work to state pension age while carrying out front-line operational duties.

In December 2016, the UK Government presented a proposal to reduce the retirement age from 68 to 65 for some prison officer grades in England and Wales. That proposal was not extended to Scottish prison officers. Scottish Government officials have since spoken with the UK Government. There has been no update on the pension position since the UK Government offer to reduce the retirement age in England and Wales was withdrawn in early 2017, following rejection by the Prison Officers Association.

Less than two weeks ago, I met members of the Prison Officers Association at HM Prison Shotts and witnessed at first hand the stress and high pressure that they work under. Will the cabinet secretary agree to keep pressing the UK Government before and after next Thursday to bring prison officers into line with the emergency services, with a retirement age of 60?

I join with others who are today calling on the cabinet secretary to make the same one-off payments that he has made this month to members of grades that are covered by the POA to other workers—predominantly women—who are employed in the prison service.

The member raises an important point in relation to the way in which the existing pension arrangements apply for prison officers across the whole of the UK, including those in the Scottish Prison Service. I fully recognise the valuable and important role that our prison officers play in the prison system. I have just returned from a visit this morning to Polmont young offenders institution, where I met a number of officers.

The Scottish Government has been consistent in its opposition to the changes that were made by the UK Government. We believe that operational prison officers should be treated in the same way that we treat police officers, firefighters and ambulance staff. I have made direct representation to the UK Government on this matter, and my predecessor did so as well. We will continue to make representations on this issue to try to make the UK Government see sense.

We recognise and value the important role that our prison officers play and will continue to take forward measures to support them in the difficult and important task that they carry out.

Accident and Emergency Waiting Times

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to reduce accident and emergency waiting times. (S5O-01065)

The Scottish Government national unscheduled care improvement programme aims to deliver safe, person-centred and effective care to every patient, every time, without unnecessary delays anywhere in the system. Since the launch of the six essential actions two years ago, we have delivered significant improvements. Scotland is leading the way in the United Kingdom in terms of performance against the four-hour accident and emergency target, and the numbers of patients who spend longer than eight and 12 hours in emergency departments have reduced by more than 81 per cent and 97 per cent respectively.

Many of my constituents would say that that is simply not good enough. In 2016, the Scottish Government’s weekly A and E target was met only seven times. More than 7,000 people waited for more than eight hours to be seen. Does the cabinet secretary agree that that is unacceptable, and will she take responsibility and do something about it?

Scotland continues to have the best performance figures in the United Kingdom, and core performance has been ahead of that in England for the 25 consecutive months to March 2017. In March, Scotland’s core performance was more than 7 percentage points higher than that of England and more than 16 points higher than that of Wales.

I say to Jeremy Balfour that he should perhaps look a little closer to home. Jeremy Hunt is a regular visitor to Scotland; he was up here just a few weeks ago to see how our emergency departments have been improving, through the work that we have been doing, and to take it back to England—perhaps to improve the emergency department performance down there.