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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 01 November 2016

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, UK Referendum on EU Membership: Justice and Security, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, Cub Scouts 100th Anniversary


Topical Question Time

Colleges (Financial Deficit)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to address the financial deficit that is reported to be facing 16 out of 20 colleges in the current financial year. (S5T-00150)

The recent Audit Scotland report “Scotland’s colleges 2016” highlighted that the financial health of the sector remains relatively stable. The Scottish Further and Higher Funding Council works closely with colleges to ensure that deficits are kept to a minimum; that operational activity is not adversely affected and that, where required, special measures are put in place.

The minister attempted to give a reassuring answer, but there is no escaping the fact that the financial picture is worrying and that it comes at a time when the Scottish Government has cut college funding in real terms since 2010. Budgets have been pushed to breaking point. From the latest returns reported to the Scottish funding council, we know that more than three quarters of Scotland’s colleges are expected to be in the red by the end of the year. Will the minister take responsibility for the situation that the college sector finds itself in—which her Government has created—and rule out any further cuts to this year’s college budgets?

Scottish Government funding levels for 2015-16 remained steady at 2014-15 levels and, in these hugely tight financial times, our 2016-17 budget protected college resource funding at £530 million, despite a cut to the Scottish Government’s overall budget due to the Westminster austerity agenda.

As I said, Audit Scotland’s recent report concluded that the college sector is financially stable overall. The funding council is working closely with the colleges to analyse the latest returns, for example to determine how the figures relate to technical accounting adjustments, such as property asset valuation reductions or net depreciation charges. The member can be reassured that the funding council is working with, and will continue to work with, colleges through a range of specific measures where that is needed.

The minister is correct that funding for the sector remains broadly static for 2015-16, but that is a real-terms cut since 2010-11 of 18 per cent. I am disappointed about the lack of assurances about college funding for the next year, and I am sure that my disappointment will be shared by those in the sector who are facing the uncertainty over further cuts.

The Scottish Government has failed to deliver on the promises that it made to the further education sector; it promised national pay scales without providing the resources to deliver them, and it brought colleges on to the public sector balance sheet but failed to deliver an adequate solution.

Only last month, the Auditor General for Scotland told the Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee that it is difficult to assess whether the college merger programme has saved the sector money.

As a result of those factors, colleges have lost staff and the number of part-time courses and students has reduced. Does the minister accept the recommendations in the Audit Scotland report on colleges? What steps will she take to ensure the long-term financial stability of the sector?

I hope that Monica Lennon will appreciate that I am not going to write Derek Mackay’s budget for next year for colleges or for any other part of my remit. [Interruption.] Labour members can indeed have a go, but I am not going to go down that path today. We will be looking at funding for colleges, universities and the rest of the education system through the budget process.

I hear Monica Lennon’s demands for colleges and I hear the Labour Party’s demands on many other aspects. As we go through the budget process, it will be for the Opposition parties to come together to deal with the budget realistically and to work out where their priorities are, just as we do as a Government. The financial situation that we are working in is tight. I am sorry, but it is simply not acceptable to continue to demand money for education, the national health service, transport and every other section of the Scottish Government budget without a dose of realism about where that money is going to come from and the difficult decisions that we in the Government have to make in order to balance the books.

As a member of the Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee, I have heard a great deal about arm’s-length foundations. Is it not the case that ALFs allow colleges to protect revenue that would otherwise have been lost following the Office for National Statistics reclassification? How much of the funds that were transferred into ALFs have been returned to the colleges?

The member makes an important point. Monica Lennon also discussed ONS reclassification, which she seemed to assume was something that the Scottish Government wanted or brought upon itself when, of course, it was not. Arm’s-length foundations were a way of allowing colleges to keep the reserves that they had before reclassification. ALFs are separate from the Scottish Government and they are independent of it. They have been set up with a charitable purpose with the colleges, and it is for the colleges to have determined in the articles of association how the money will be spent. It is for colleges to look at the money that is in the ALFs and to make sure that they spend it correctly.

Audit Scotland said that the Scottish funding council’s 2016 estimate of the total cost of the mergers would

“not include the costs of harmonising terms and conditions, which could be significant.”

Is the Scottish Government carrying out urgent and thorough work to estimate what that will involve?

The funding council looked at the costs and benefits that have accrued from the regionalisation process in colleges, of which Liz Smith mentioned one aspect.

The Government has set up national bargaining for colleges. Many of the issues to which Liz Smith referred will be dealt with through national bargaining, the conclusions of which will be dealt with in the spending review process.

Drug Users Injecting Facility (Glasgow)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the introduction of an injecting facility for drug users in Glasgow. (S5T-00143)

Glasgow city integration joint board agreed yesterday that a business case should be developed for a pilot safer drug-consumption facility and heroin-assisted treatment in Glasgow. The Scottish Government sees value in the proposal and supports it, subject to the business case, which will be presented to the board in February 2017, being acceptable.

There is no question but that something must be done to tackle drug addiction, not only in Glasgow but across Scotland. There has been a significant increase in the number of drug-related deaths in Scotland, which is why the Scottish National Party’s decision to cut drug and alcohol funding in last year’s budget was so baffling and so misguided.

Professor Neil McKeganey of the Centre for Substance Use Research has cautioned:

“there is a real danger that we’re moving ... away from a commitment ... to get addicts off drugs.”

What can the minister say to reassure members that getting people off illegal drugs and preventing drug use remain key priorities of the Government’s drugs policy?

The Government has invested heavily and significantly since 2008 in treating drug and alcohol dependency issues. We continue to do so and we continue to work with alcohol and drug partnerships and stakeholders across the country that have an interest in ensuring that people can get the support that they need, when they require it.

Of course, there will be a mixture of solutions to people’s dependency issues. There might be issues that are to do with trauma that people have experienced and with homelessness, poverty and isolation. A holistic approach needs to be taken to ensure that we can help people when they need help. Help must be timely. There is also a job for us to do to tackle the stigma that is associated with drug dependency.

As is evidenced by the significant funding that we have put in and by our commitment to help people to help themselves to become more stable in life and tackle associated risky behaviours, the Government has a clear commitment to doing all that we can to help Scotland to become a much healthier nation and ensure that people live their lives without being dependent on illegal drugs.

The minister talked about significant and sustained funding, but the fact is that the Government cut drug and alcohol partnership funding by 20 per cent in last year’s budget.

Possession of heroin is an offence. It is also an offence to permit premises to be used for the supply of heroin. What is the Scottish Government’s position on whether the criminal law should be enforced in the circumstances that we are talking about? What does the minister make of the suggestion by the United Nations International Narcotics Control Board that fix rooms could breach international drug control treaties?

As I said, the integration joint board agreed yesterday to develop a business case. We will look at the proposals and, subject to their being acceptable, the situation in Glasgow will move forward.

The member raised issues to do with drugs legislation. The Lord Advocate would have to authorise any proposal to establish a supervised injecting facility. I presume that someone with the member’s constitutional knowledge would realise and understand that.

I do not think that we want to get into a debate in which we look at things as right or wrong and black or white. We need to look much more holistically at the issues that people with drug dependency face. Poverty, homelessness and trauma that people have experienced might have led them down the path of drug dependency. We need to tackle the stigma and deal holistically with people’s behaviours. Members of all parties in the Parliament need to work to ensure that the country can respond appropriately and help people when they need help.

What lessons might be drawn from the medically supervised safe injecting rooms in Sydney in Australia and from other centres around the world that might add to the potential benefits of such a facility in Glasgow?

The member raises an interesting point. We should look at all the evidence from around the world to inform how we move forward as a country. That evidence indicates that drug consumption facilities are associated with a decrease in public injecting, and their effectiveness at reaching and maintaining contact with highly vulnerable and marginalised targeted populations has been widely documented. However, we must be mindful that we need to have a Scottish context, which is why the Glasgow pilot will be important to our knowledge and approaches going forward.

The 20 per cent cut to alcohol and drug partnership funding that Adam Tomkins discussed is one of the most retrograde steps to have been taken in tackling substance use in this country. It has led to a measurable outbreak of HIV in Glasgow and, according to Rob McCulloch-Graham, who is the chair of Edinburgh’s integration joint board, it will all told lead to a £1.3 million year-on-year cut to services in our nation’s capital. That is a fire sale.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that, given the weight of the international evidence that supports initiatives such as the injecting facility that is proposed for Glasgow, we should embrace such initiatives for Scotland? Will she commit to reversing the cut to alcohol and drug partnership funding, the cost of which is already measured out in human lives?

Since we came to power, we have invested significantly in tackling alcohol and drug dependency issues and in helping people to cope with them. In a letter to national health service boards earlier this year, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport asked them to use their resources to match the outcomes of previous years and to look at the fact that their budgets have had an uplift. The NHS has had record investment and it has support from the Government. We need to look at that wider context.

We also need to look at what works, and I accept the point that we need to be mindful of and open to other approaches, provided that there is robust evidence on them. That is why we will look with keen eyes at what is proposed in Glasgow, to see what the case is and what evidence comes forward. That will also inform the Lord Advocate if he needs to take a decision.

From the perspective of me and the Government, the encouraging signs that the amount of drug taking among our younger population is lower than it has been for some considerable time show that many of our approaches are working. However, we need to work across the Parliament, because this is a Scotland-wide issue that requires not just action from me in my portfolio but action under all portfolios—including housing, social security and a host of other areas—to give people back the opportunity to move forward with their lives with dignity and respect.

The Scottish Green Party supports community-based, supervised medical interventions such as the one that we are discussing. David Liddell of the Scottish Drugs Forum said that it is an additional provision to deal with long-term users for whom

“Abstinence recovery is not on their immediate horizon.”

Will the minister join me in applauding the aim of saving lives, as outlined by Mr Liddell? Will she acknowledge that there is an opportunity to save even more lives if the intervention is rolled out across Scotland?

I say again that we need to ensure that the evidence is robust, and Glasgow city IJB agreed yesterday that the case could be made. We need to look at the evidence and, if the pilot is given the go-ahead, to look at the evidence that it produces. We need to learn from the evidence in our country and around the world.

I met David Liddell from the Scottish Drugs Forum today and I was hugely impressed by the level of commitment that it shows and the diligence that it has applied to the issue for decades. We want to work collaboratively, and we do that with the funding that we give the forum.

We do not want to see the statistics on drug deaths that I was presented with when I was not long in post. The figure of 700 or so represents 700 lives and families being affected. We want that to be turned round, which will require us to work harder and to understand the situation much more readily.

I agree with John Finnie on many of the elements that he spoke about. We want to save lives and we want to work on community-based solutions to achieve that.

Borders Railway (Performance)

To ask the Scottish Government what measures it will take following the recent report on the performance of the Borders railway. (S5T-00146)

I recently made the Parliament aware that, in my view, ScotRail’s performance levels have not been to an acceptable standard, which is why I requested an improvement plan from ScotRail. Within that plan and the actions around it, there is a focus on the Borders route’s performance. I am closely monitoring and reviewing progress to ensure that better performance is delivered.

In the year from October 2015 to October 2016, trains were cancelled in 47 weeks out of 52. In September, the Government put in place the recovery plan for the Borders railway yet, on 20 October, three trains were cancelled. One from Tweedbank had to terminate at Newtongrange due to door problems, and even the next day there were two cancellations. Does the minister consider that the recovery plan is having any effect?

When an improvement plan is put in place, we have to give ScotRail the time to be able to enact it, and a serious amount of work is going into that. For example, £14 million is going into the refurbishment and improvement of the class 158 units. Unless I am misquoting the member—she can come back to me on this—in her members’ business debate last week, she said:

“to judge by my experience and my inbox, there has been an improvement in the service’s reliability in recent months ... It was a bit bumpy at the beginning but it is not now.”—[Official Report, 25 October 2016; c 84.]

I am sure from what the member said last week that she recognises that there is an improvement. However, I am not going to be satisfied until the Borders railway reaches its public performance measure target and some of the problems are resolved.

An improvement plan is in place, significant funding is going into that and we are going to give ScotRail the time to ensure that its performance improves. I will monitor that closely and if it does not improve, there will be consequences.

My comments were anecdotal, but the report from two long-time supporters of the line—Bill Jamieson and David Spaven—calls for an official Borders railway-specific survey to include the impact on repeat journeys, especially those made by commuters. Will the minister commission one?

I have met David Spaven regularly and have had conversations with him about the Borders railway. I am well aware of the campaigners’ criticisms about forecast methodology, rolling stock and track infrastructure, and I am happy to continue to discuss those matters with them, the Campaign for Borders Rail and elected members.

As I said, the PPM target for the Borders railway must be met and I will work to ensure that ScotRail meets it. In the past three days, the figures have improved—but that is only three days. We could look at a snapshot over three days, a week or a month, but until there is consistent improvement, I will not be happy.

An improvement plan is in place and some serious investment is going into ensuring that the Borders railway improves to meet its PPM target. I will monitor that closely and will keep the member and others, such as David Spaven and the Campaign for Borders Rail, up to date.

Campaigners have made six asks in calling for the Borders railway to provide a better service, notwithstanding the improvement plan that ScotRail has in place. Those asks are: improving the efficiency of door opening and closing; increasing the number of coaches on busier services; replacing defective radiators on class 158 units; improving the maintenance regime for the coaches; redeploying more reliable class 170 units; and replacing faulty signalling equipment on the route. How many of those asks will the Scottish Government help to see implemented, and when can we expect to see those vital changes made to improve the performance of the Borders railway?

I thank the member for her question. Those asks are very reasonable, and ScotRail is taking them forward and I can give some examples of the action that is being taken. The radiators on the 158s are going through an engineering check, and some of them have been replaced and some have been refurbished. An engineer will attend the 158s on their departure and arrival at stations. Also, the rolling stock is being upgraded and, due to cascading of rolling stock around the network, there will be more capacity on the network at peak times in 2017. Therefore, some of what Rachael Hamilton and the campaigners are asking for is being done. All those asks are very reasonable and ScotRail is acting on them. I have taken a note of all the asks that the member mentioned.

ScotRail must improve its performance across the network, but there must be a particular focus on the Borders railway. Let us not forget that the Borders railway has been a great success for the region. There have been over 1 million passengers and it is the longest new rail line in a century. There has been great success, which has been celebrated. Notwithstanding that, there are some issues that ScotRail is determined to get to the bottom of, and I will personally keep an eye on that.

The Borders rail monitor report makes it clear that Transport Scotland is directly responsible for many of the problems on the Borders railway, including the deployment of class 158 units and the cutting back of sections of double track. In addition, Transport Scotland massively underestimated passenger numbers on the line. Astonishingly, patronage at Tweedbank in the first six months of the line’s operation was 869 per cent above the level that was forecast.

It is clear that the minister agrees that there are serious questions about Transport Scotland’s forecasting abilities, and I welcome the much-needed review of its methodology. Once that review has been completed, will the minister commit to new appraisals of rail infrastructure projects? Will he commit specifically to a new appraisal of the Glasgow crossrail scheme, given that that important project was rejected using a methodology that he now accepts to be flawed?

In a spirit of trying to maintain the consensus on the success of the Borders railway, when I appeared before the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee last week, I said that the forecasts for some of the stations were way off. I therefore instructed a review of the forecasting methodology, the findings of which I will be more than happy to report. Some of the initial findings are extremely helpful. I instructed that review because I do not want other rail projects to be rejected on the basis of flawed forecasting methodology.

As far as reviewing projects retrospectively is concerned, I would be more than happy for people to come to me. I regularly meet rail campaigners from Levenmouth to the Borders. I will be very open minded in any such discussions, bearing in mind that we are entering discussions on the new control periods 6 and 7. In the interests of fairness and balance, I request that Mr Bibby acknowledges that the Borders railway has been a great success for the region and has brought some much-needed tourism and regeneration. I think that we can all agree on that. Notwithstanding that, I will make sure that Mr Bibby gets a copy of the findings of the review of the forecasting methodology.