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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 02 November 2021

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Sustainable Procurement and Fair Work Practices, Point of Order, Business Motion, Decision Time, Menopause


Contents


Topical Question Time

On a point of order, Presiding Officer.

I seek your guidance in relation to rules 3.1.3 and 7.2.1 of the standing orders, in light of the fact that I lodged a very similar question to that which is due to be raised during the next item of business. This is not the first time that I, as a constituency member, have seen that a question that relates to the communities that I am very proud to represent has been allocated to another member.

I understand the need for all members to be treated fairly, and I have a great deal of personal respect for Colin Smyth, who is, rightly, championing an issue that affects the whole of the South Scotland region. However, the choice to select another member limits my ability to scrutinise the Government as fully as I might have wished.

I would welcome your clarification, without reference to the particular instance, of whether there has been a departure from the previously established convention—if not a rule—whereby constituency members are, when balancing many relevant considerations, seen as having a direct locus and interest in matters relating to their constituency.

I thank Mr Mundell for his point of order. Selection of questions is entirely a matter for me. I assure Mr Mundell that there is no “rule” such as the one that he described. Mr Mundell will, of course, have the opportunity to put a supplementary question to Mr Smyth’s question


Flooding

To ask the Scottish Government what support it is providing to businesses and residents affected by recent flooding. (S6T-00241)

I express my sympathy to those who have been affected by the recent severe weather, and I pay tribute to the first-class response by local authorities, emergency responders and the public, in dealing with the significant impact. The increasing frequency and severity of those events provides stark evidence of the impacts of climate change and the pressing need for a positive outcome from the 26th United Nations climate conference of the parties—COP26.

Reducing flood risk is a priority for the Government, so we will continue to support authorities to deliver actions that protect our communities. We continue to fund the Scottish Flood Forum, which works with communities to build resilience and support those who are affected by flooding. The forum is currently helping individuals and businesses who have been affected by the recent flooding in Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders.

In addition, we are working in co-operation with the United Kingdom Government to ensure that flood insurance remains widely available and affordable through the Flood Re scheme, which was launched in 2016.

Since 2008, we have made available funding of £42 million each year to local authorities to invest in flood protection measures to help to reduce the risk of flooding to households and businesses. We are also investing an additional £150 million in flood risk management and £12 million in coastal-change adaptation over the next five years, as part of the green recovery from Covid-19.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that hardly a community across my South Scotland region was untouched by the flooding last week. Hawick declared a major incident, the river at Whitesands in Dumfries burst its banks yet again, and two footbridges across the river in Annan were washed away.

Given the scale of the devastation, I had hoped that we would hear about more direct support from the Government at this time. Surely, as a minimum, the Government should be activating the Bellwin scheme? In addition, we should be going further, given that the scheme simply reimburses local councils for some costs above a threshold for what is incurred in clean-ups.

In 2016, the cabinet secretary announced support for flooding, which included provision for payments of £1,500 to affected households and businesses, as well as support for infrastructure repairs. Will he consider support that is similar to that which he has announced in the past, and will he consider funding for reinstatement of infrastructure, such as replacement of the two bridges that were lost in Annan?

The Bellwin scheme was activated by the Government on Friday. The point that Mr Smyth raised with me is clarified by the announcements that were made by ministers. He is correct that the provisions of the Bellwin scheme compensate local authorities for additional costs that could not have been foreseen.

Discretionary scheme funding of the type that we had in 2016 is an issue that the Government can consider. I will visit the area in Annan tomorrow, where I will see for myself some of the issues that Mr Smyth has raised with me. I will have the opportunity to discuss with local stakeholders any issues that arise in relation to specific discretionary support of the type that Mr Smyth mentioned.

I hope that the cabinet secretary will go beyond the Bellwin scheme when he visits, because the threshold is £750,000 in Dumfries and Galloway and £260,000 in the Borders. We therefore need more support.

In relation to last week’s flooding, it is particularly heartbreaking that some of the communities that were hit had either started flood protection schemes, such as Hawick, or had schemes that were not yet under way, such as Dumfries. Unfortunately, we know that the allocated capital funding for flood protection schemes is already oversubscribed for the next five years. In the case of Dumfries, there is no funding available, even although that is a priority scheme.

Will the Government therefore urgently review the funding that is available for flood protection schemes? We simply cannot go on like this, with residents and businesses being devastated by flooding time after time.

I acknowledge the seriousness of the point that Mr Smyth has raised. As his question highlighted, the nature of flood prevention scheme funding is such that it inevitably involves significant investment in certain local authority areas that is not required to be sustained. Therefore, the way in which we have agreed flood funding with local government is that, in essence, we combine the funding to support individual projects. A prioritisation exercise is undertaken, which includes the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, on the schemes that merit the strongest action.

Mr Smyth is correct to say that the Hawick scheme is at an advanced stage of development. I am thankful that the existing arrangements there were able to withstand the enormous pressures of the flood incident last week.

We will consider the resources that are available for flooding. That is a material issue as we wrestle with the challenges that climate change is throwing at us. The Government will engage constructively on such questions.

I call Christine Grahame.

Presiding Officer, I am afraid that I have had to move seats because my microphone did not appear to be working.

The River Tweed and its tributaries that flow through my constituency lead to Tweed Green, in Peebles, which is always vulnerable to flooding. Will the Deputy First Minister advise Parliament of the effectiveness of existing flood protection measures upstream to reduce the flow, such as on the Eddleston Water project?

In the work that is undertaken on schemes of that type—I do not want to make a sweeping generalisation although, having said that, I am about to do so—the more water that can be retained in the upland environment, the better it is for lower-lying areas such as Tweed Green, in Peebles, which Christine Grahame mentioned. I am thankful that the flood banks in Peebles were able to withstand the pressures on them last week.

The measures that are taken further up water courses are essential in holding back waters in a flood incident, so that they can be dispersed in a more leisurely fashion, over a longer period. It is the intensity of water flow that can cause the problems that we see in places such as Peebles, Hawick and places that Mr Smyth mentioned. The design of such schemes is intended to address some of those questions.

When I visited Annan on Friday morning, I met a community that was in shock. The bridges there served as vital links and memorials, and were part of people’s lives. Another bridge, between Irvington and Kirkpatrick Fleming, is at risk. As the Deputy First Minister knows, Dumfries and Galloway Council is a small rural authority. Will the Scottish Government commit to providing emergency funds to allow those vital crossings to open as soon as possible?

One of the purposes of my visit to Annan tomorrow is to hear at first hand about the challenges that the local authority and the community in Annan are facing. I entirely understand the sense of shock that will be prevalent in the community as a consequence of the incidents. I also acknowledge the importance of the crossings to which Mr Mundell referred.

We will discuss the issues with the local authority tomorrow. Mr Mundell understands that there are complex issues with which we must wrestle; I give him the undertaking that the Government will engage constructively.

Will the cabinet secretary join me in thanking Dumfries and Galloway Council, including the D and G virtual operations support team and the emergency services, for their response in addressing the more than 80 reported incidents across D and G?

I welcome the Deputy First Minister’s visit to Annan tomorrow. Will he commit to continuing to engage with the community to hear what it wants, and to working with the local authority to ensure that flood defence schemes across the whole of Dumfries and Galloway are fit for purpose and can protect communities from severe impacts of flooding in the future?

I associate myself with the remarks about the local resilience partnership not just in Dumfries and Galloway but in the Scottish Borders, both of which, based on the Scottish Environment Protection Agency’s forward intelligence from forecasting, were stood up, notwithstanding the significant pressures on emergency services just now because of preparations for and operation of the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26. Full operations were put in place by the local resilience commanders in Dumfries and Galloway and the Borders. A lot of support was in place. I am thankful that the very significant precautionary activities that were stood up were not required in Hawick, on that occasion.

We will engage further with the relevant local authorities and communities about the steps that will be taken. I look forward to discussing some of the questions with the community in Annan tomorrow.

I also say to Emma Harper that any work to prioritise schemes is informed by the best advice that SEPA can provide for us. There will be an exercise to determine which schemes will progress. Those matters are always complex. I assure her that we will continue to engage with the issues that she has raised about Dumfries and Galloway.

The cabinet secretary is underplaying the situation. The water level in Hawick reached 2.9m, just short of the 3m defence, and water came precariously close to the village of Newcastleton. I agree with Colin Smyth about the need for future funding. Having spoken to the community in Newcastleton in the aftermath of the horrendous rainfall, I was alerted to the fact that SEPA’s tracking of water levels lagged one hour behind. That is unworkable in a rapidly changing flood event.

Given the complications that were caused by the recent cyberattack on SEPA, what action is the Scottish Government taking to ensure that SEPA has the necessary tools to monitor disastrous flood events effectively, and to ensure that places such as Newcastleton are prioritised during future flooding?

I am trying to be as helpful as possible, but I take exception to Rachael Hamilton’s point; not a single word that I have said today is “underplaying” the significance of the situation.

Several assessments were made of the situation in Hawick. During the course of a couple of days last week, I saw the available running data about the expected height of the River Teviot. It did not reach the predicted level. If it had, there would have been significant incursions into properties, which is why 500 homes were evacuated. Thankfully, that situation did not arise.

SEPA’s forecasting work is full and comprehensive. The impact of the cyberattack on SEPA has been well documented. SEPA has been completely open about how the issue was handled, and responders were informed about the challenges.

There will be a continuing need for us to look at all the available data. Tributaries must be observed as well as main rivers, so that we have the best and most accurate information to enable us to make plans to evacuate properties and protect human lives such as were put in place in Hawick. SEPA and the Scottish Borders Council made those judgments with the best of intentions; I congratulate them on the way in which they engaged with their local communities.


Prisons (Drug Use)

2. Russell Findlay (West Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that six prisoners overdosed on drugs in two days at HMP Shotts. (S6T-00245)

I am aware of the concerns raised by recent incidents at Shotts prison and am receiving daily updates from the Scottish Prison Service to monitor the situation. I have had lengthy discussions with officials and with the SPS, including the interim chief executive.

The use of illegal drugs in prisons cannot be tolerated and the Prison Service has a comprehensive range of robust security measures in place to prevent contraband entering our prisons.

I am pleased to confirm that, in addition to that and after the necessary detailed operational consideration, a decision has been taken to implement the photocopying of general correspondence. That change requires a prison rule change, which will allow members of the Criminal Justice Committee—including Mr Findlay—to consider the statutory instrument. I hope that the amendments required to the prison rules will be laid later this month. They will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny.

The SPS continues to seek innovative technological solutions to detect, deter and reduce the availability of contraband entering our prisons to ensure the safety of staff and those within its care. I am sure that Mr Findlay will want to commend the SPS for that action and will welcome the intention to bring forward amendments to the prison rules.

The decision to finally agree to our repeated calls to stop prison drugs mail is welcome, but long overdue.

Prison officers are deeply disturbed about another aspect of drug-soaked mail. When detector machines return a positive result for drugs contamination, Police Scotland is informed. However, Scottish Prison Service staff say that the police rarely collect those items. I have a letter from the SPS explaining its policy: the drug-soaked items are stored, then handed to prisoners upon their release from custody. Officers are angry and worried; they feel complicit in what they describe as “state-sponsored drug dealing”. Can the cabinet secretary explain that extraordinary policy and take steps to bring that, too, to an immediate end?

As with the photocopying of prisoners’ mail, legal and other factors have to be taken into account before measures can be taken. Prisoners have rights—regardless of whether Mr Findlay likes it—and certain processes have to be gone through in relation to prisoners’ mail.

On the point that Mr Findlay raises, I do not believe that it is right to call prison officers drug dealers, even to make a political point. However, it is a serious issue. As I am sure that he knows, given that he has had correspondence with the interim chief executive, it is being taken very seriously and has been discussed with the police.

I think that I am right in saying that the interim chief executive has offered to meet Mr Findlay to discuss these matters so that he can get a better understanding of them. I encourage Mr Findlay to do that. As always, I am happy to meet him to discuss the issue further.

I will take the cabinet secretary up on the offer of a meeting. I hope that he also agrees to meet prison officers at Shotts who have extended an invitation to him to meet them.

The drugs crisis in our prisons is also hitting the national health service hard. Two weeks ago, NHS Lanarkshire declared a code black due to critical occupancy levels in hospitals and some cancer treatments have been postponed. However, those same hospitals are treating at least 10 Shotts prisoners, some—if not all—of whom are in intensive care. All of those prisoners needed an ambulance at a time when our ambulance service is also under extreme pressure. Will the cabinet secretary apologise to the NHS workers for his part in contributing to that wholly avoidable crisis?

Once again, it is a very serious issue and we take it seriously, as does the Scottish Prison Service. However, it is worth pointing out that when Mr Findlay, like his colleagues, continually uses words such as “chaos” and “crisis” to make a political point, he is undermining the work of the SPS and the prisoner officers who are looking after large numbers of serious organised crime inmates, especially in the institution to which he refers. Those prison officers do a very difficult job.

Of course, we do not want to see drugs getting into the prison system. However, like any jurisdiction in the world, we struggle, because as soon as we close one loophole, some criminals will be able to find another one. We have to try to stay ahead of that. Unlike Mr Findlay, I commend the Scottish Prison Service and the prison officers who have committed to redoubling their efforts to ensure that we keep drugs out of prisons.

When someone undergoes a drug overdose, it is vital that every effort is made to engage them in treatment and support. What is the cabinet secretary doing to ensure that all those who have been affected are being provided with effective follow-up care after they have been discharged from hospital?

The member will be aware that a substantial amount of work is being carried out, including a new process that has been set up by the Scottish Prison Service to try to treat people who have issues with drugs in prison. That is helped by not having drugs in prison, which is where some of the effort is focused. We have established a strategic risk and threat group, which looks at the on-going threat of drugs entering the prison system.

The Scottish Prison Service has a duty of care to the prisoners, some of whom will have had a pre-existing addiction to drugs before they came into prison. We have to ensure that we deal with that. There is engagement with the health service right across the prison estate to ensure that people receive the treatment that they need during their prison sentence.

If the member seeks any further information I would be more than happy to provide it to her.