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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, May 3, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 03 May 2018

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Save the Hampden Roar, Digital Connectivity, Decision Time, Correction


General Question Time

Acting Chief Constable (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government when ministers last met the Acting Chief Constable of Police Scotland. (S5O-02047)

I meet regularly with the designated deputy chief constable of Police Scotland, who is currently leading the service while the post of chief constable is vacant. My last meeting with him was on 28 March 2018.

Scottish National Party policy on policing has meant that police staff numbers have been cut. Trained officers, who should be on the front line, are instead doing desk work that should be done by staff. That was confirmed in the Scottish Police Authority’s report yesterday. We now know that the 1,000 extra officers that the SNP promised were not doing what the public expected them to do. They were, in the SPA’s words, “backfilling” civilian roles.

Does the minister agree that we should help to relieve the pressure on our local forces by redeploying those officers to front-line duties, as defined by the acting chief constable yesterday? If not, how many officers is the minister prepared to lose from Police Scotland by the end of the current session of Parliament?

I am not clear whether Daniel Johnson welcomes the fact that there was a significant increase in police officer numbers under the SNP, which continues to be the case. He may or may not be aware that Police Scotland, in the “Policing 2026: Serving a Changing Scotland” strategy that it published last year—it is the first time that we have had a national strategy for policing in Scotland—set out the need to rebalance its workforce and to ensure that it is able to move forward with the correct level of staff and officers, given the changing nature of crime. At that time, if I recall correctly, the then justice spokesperson for the Labour Party supported that work and recognised the need to rebalance the workforce. The work is now moving forward under Police Scotland, with oversight from the Scottish Police Authority.

Alongside that work, independent assurance is being provided by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland, which is looking at the increasing operational capability that the force is focused on taking forward. That is the strategy that Police Scotland set out last year in “Policing 2026”, which is now being implemented. The focus is on ensuring that the service has the necessary operational capacity and that it increases its operational capacity in order to ensure that the correct capacity is in place.

In the past day or two, Daniel Johnson has had a lot to say on police numbers with regard to the three-year financial strategy. He may be aware that the issue was discussed just yesterday at the Scottish Police Authority board meeting. Police Scotland and the SPA made it clear that their focus is on building police capacity, and that the paper that was provided to the board was an illustration, to express how much capacity they could create by increasing operational capacity. The key fact for Daniel Johnson is that the figures do not equate to a reduction in officer numbers; the SPA made that clear during its board meeting yesterday.

In 2014, Michael Matheson told a parliamentary committee:

“There are no plans for us to change our position on the 1,000 extra officers.”

He said:

“The commitment remains and I intend to take it forward as the new cabinet secretary.”—[Official Report, Justice Committee, 25 November 2014; c 43.]

Given that that promise was broken, how does he expect British Transport Police officers to trust him when he says that he will protect their pensions?

As is often the case, Liam Kerr has got his facts mixed up and is not aware of subsequent events that have taken place. He will be aware that an election took place in 2016, during which we set out clearly the need for the police service to rebalance its workforce.

We are not, however, taking the same approach to policing that the Conservative Party has taken in England and Wales, which involves slashing almost 20,000 police officers. We have seen significant problems in the police service across England and Wales as a result of the sheer incompetence of home secretaries in managing policing over a number of years.

As far as I can tell, Labour has expressed four different positions on police numbers since 2007. Daniel Johnson, in a rather confused “Good Morning Scotland” interview yesterday, expressed another entirely different position. Labour’s previous justice spokesperson supported decisions regarding police numbers being the responsibility of the chief constable, and yet it now seems to be against that. Is the cabinet secretary as confused as I am about the position of the Labour Party?

I did hear Daniel Johnson on “Good Morning Scotland” the other day and I must confess that it was one of the most confusing interviews that I have ever heard in terms of Labour’s position on police officer numbers.


If Jackie Baillie thinks that that is rubbish, she should replay the interview on the iPlayer and hear for herself how confusing it was. It was a bit of a comedy exchange, to be perfectly frank. I am not clear about the Labour Party’s policy on this matter, or any other matter.

However, we as a Government are very clear about the need to make sure that we continue to support our police service. That is why we made a commitment—which neither Labour nor any other party made—to maintain police budgets and make sure that there was a real-terms increase, which allows us to invest an extra £100 million in our police service over the course of this parliamentary session. We are continuing with the reform fund, with another £31 million being invested in our police service this year. Alongside that, we have been able to secure the money that for years was being pinched from the police by the Tories, as the police could not reclaim VAT; they have been allowed to retain that, investing another £25 million in the police service. This Government is investing in our police service and we will continue to do that in the years ahead.

When the cabinet secretary last met the acting chief constable did he discuss the call that I have made repeatedly for an inquiry into the policing of the miners’ strike? It has been 17 months since we met the cabinet secretary, along with retired miners, their union reps and legal representatives, but we have still not had an official response. When will we get an official response to our call?

The answer to the first part of Neil Findlay’s question is no. As I have said to him on a number of occasions, this is a matter to which I am continuing to give due consideration.

Organ Donation (Opt-out System)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress it is making toward introducing an opt-out system for organ donation. (S5O-02048)

The Scottish Government is committed to introducing a workable soft opt-out system that will add to the improvements that have already been delivered, and legislation to provide for such a system will be introduced before the summer recess. It is important that we take the time to get the system right. It needs to be developed in a way that will do no harm to trust in the national health service or the safety of donation. We are working with stakeholders to achieve that.

Last week I hosted a round-table event for Kidney Research UK on renal regenerative medicine. We heard from a range of stakeholders how Scotland is leading the way on life sciences. Will the minister advise how the opt-out system can work in tandem with regenerative medicine to improve outcomes for kidney patients?

Opt out will of course work alongside the range of measures that we already have in place, including the work on regenerative medicine. We know that for opt out to be successful it has to work alongside other measures and would be part of the on-going work on improving outcomes for patients. We also recognise the potential for research in regenerative medicine to lead transformative new approaches to the treatment of renal disease. Officials from the chief scientist’s office are in discussions with Kidney Research UK on collaborative funding of research in that area.

Tourism (Rutherglen)

To ask the Scottish Government how it supports the promotion of tourism in Rutherglen constituency. (S5O-02049)

The Scottish Government fully recognises the importance of tourism to the economy and endeavours to promote tourism across the whole of Scotland. We appreciate that Rutherglen, like all constituencies, possesses its own unique attractions, including its magnificent town hall, a VisitScotland five-star-rated arts venue, which plays an important role as a visitor information partner in the iKnow Scotland scheme. VisitScotland will continue to work with local authorities, destination management organisations and businesses to ensure that each of Scotland’s destinations is well positioned to offer an exciting and enjoyable experience to tourists.

The minister will be aware of some of the fantastic tourist attractions in my constituency, ranging from the urban park of Cuningar Loop to the David Livingstone Centre, the historic buildings, parks and cycle trails and the place where William Wallace was betrayed, to name but a few. VisitLanarkshire and VisitScotland poorly serve my constituency, often misaddressing venues as being in Glasgow or not promoting local amenities and, instead, directing tourists elsewhere in the area. Will the minister give an assurance that the Scottish Government will liaise with those agencies, so that opportunities for tourism and attracting visitors to my constituency are not missed?

Although many of those are operational matters for VisitScotland, I recognise the points that the member is making.

VisitScotland is committed to serving the whole of Scotland and we want to ensure that its work is efficient and accurate. It should be said that the information that is available on the VisitScotland website is often provided by businesses, which may choose to self-identify as Glasgow businesses. However, I understand the member’s concerns and I will ask Scottish Government officials to raise those concerns as part of their regular engagement with VisitScotland.

I am sure that the minister recognises that culture is a driver of tourism. On that note, would the minister agree with me that we should do more to see regions appoint cultural ambassadors who can play key roles in supporting and promoting tourism throughout Scotland?

Certainly, communities and ambassadors for communities have a major role to play in supporting and promoting communities, as the member says. For instance, VisitScotland now has information partnerships throughout Scotland and I am sure that there are many in the constituency that the member represents. We are keen at all times to look at new ways of ensuring that these measures are successful.

Council-run Bus Services

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will remove any legal impediments to council-run bus services. (S5O-02050)

The Scottish Government will shortly introduce a transport bill that will give local authorities the flexibility to pursue partnership working or local franchising or indeed to run their own buses, allowing them to better respond to local needs.

I welcome that answer. I am sure that the minister will be aware that First continues to cut bus services in Aberdeen, most recently the X40, 25, 16 and 9 routes, and that Aberdeen City Council has stepped in to secure alternative services for the communities that are affected. Does the minister agree that the city council should be enabled to set up in business directly if its judgment is that that is the best way to secure frequent, reliable and affordable services in the future? If so—and I welcome the commitment that he has made to cover that option in the bill—will he ensure that the bill does not give commercial operators a veto over any such decision?

Once the bill is introduced, the devil will no doubt be in the detail, and I look forward to amendments through the bill process from right across the chamber.

However, I absolutely agree with the premise of what the member says. The entire purpose of the bus element of the transport bill is to give local authorities more powers than they have ever had over their transport services, including of course the bus services. I think that local franchising and enhanced partnership will be of interest, as will, potentially, municipally owned bus companies. I look forward to the member’s contributions once that transport bill is introduced.

Although broadly supportive of the principle of municipally owned services, my concern is that those services might prove disproportionately costly to councils in rural and island communities, as many of them are in effect lifeline services and may require quite substantial subsidies. Has the Scottish Government given any consideration to the concept of central funding support for such councils and, if so, what the cost implications of doing so might be?

The member will probably be aware of this but it is worth reiterating that we fund bus services to the tune of about a quarter of a billion pounds. An element of that is the bus service operators grant, which goes to the operators directly. Local authorities also have the ability to fund services that have been withdrawn and are perhaps not profitable but socially necessary, so some mechanisms already exist for them to do what the member describes.

Once the bill is introduced, it will be accompanied by a financial memorandum. There will be no doubt be a wide-ranging debate in this chamber on some of the provisions in that.

For municipally owned bus companies or local franchising, it will be important to get the checks and balances right. We all want to ensure that patronage increases on our bus services as opposed to the trajectory that we have seen over the past few decades. I will work with any member, including of course Jamie Greene, on any sensible measures.

NHS Tayside

To ask the Scottish Government how recent developments at NHS Tayside could affect the delivery of patient care. (S5O-02051)

The Scottish Government’s position on patient safety is clear—it is, and will remain, paramount. That is why we have committed to continuing to provide brokerage to NHS Tayside to protect and maintain the quality of patient services. There is no evidence of any impact on the quality of care being provided to patients in NHS Tayside. Since taking up post, John Brown and Malcolm Wright have made it a priority to engage with staff at all levels and to provide reassurance that day-to-day operations will be minimally affected.

NHS Tayside is now facing brokerage approaching £44 million, which will have to be repaid in due course. When I and other members met the new management team at NHS Tayside two weeks ago, they were not able to give us any assurances that the cost savings that need to be found would not have an impact on delivery of front-line services in Perth and Kinross, where there have been public concerns over a long period over services at Perth royal infirmary. Can the cabinet secretary give me an assurance today that, notwithstanding the problems at NHS Tayside, there will be no further reduction in the services available at Perth royal infirmary?

First, the priority is protecting patient services but, obviously, that does not mean that patient services will not evolve and change over time. Murdo Fraser will be aware of the shaping surgical services review. I am sure that he has had many meetings about it, as have other local members. The proposals constitute major service change and, as such, require ministerial approval. I will carefully consider all the available information and all representations before coming to a final decision in the best interests of patients.

It has been clear, and I am sure that Murdo Fraser has been told this on a number of occasions, that accident and emergency services at Perth royal infirmary will continue. That is important for local people. What is being talked about is where unscheduled surgical care is delivered. We have to make sure that the two things are not conflated.

Last month, it was reported that NHS Tayside is on the cusp of the eradication of hepatitis C in Tayside, having treated a higher proportion of people with hep C than in all other parts of Scotland. Does the cabinet secretary agree with me that this is an outstanding achievement by NHS Tayside, from which many other health boards can learn?

Yes, I am aware that NHS Tayside has been at the forefront of efforts to tackle hepatitis C for many years. I met the staff leading on this at the recent Tayside staff awards. They report excellent progress on their aim of elimination, in line with the Government’s aim of eliminating hepatitis as a public health concern across Scotland. I know that hepatitis C clinicians across Scotland meet regularly as part of a national network and are learning from one another’s approaches. NHS Tayside has a lot to offer other areas of Scotland. I am also aware that the Minister for Public Health and Sport is due to visit the hepatitis treatment centre in Tayside later this month and will, I am sure, learn more about the approach at that visit.

The cabinet secretary says that there is no evidence of impact on services. However, treatment waiting times are getting worse at NHS Tayside. NHS Tayside also tells us that it has to make £200 million savings over the next five years. The British Medical Association, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, and staff are telling us that the pressure is like nothing before and that it is impacting on services. Surely the cabinet secretary accepts that savings and cuts relate to more pressure being put on staff and on services and more patients being failed.

What is true is that NHS Tayside has to live within its means, as other boards do. Over the past few months, and indeed years, NHS Tayside has been found to be an outlier on many aspects of service delivery. That is why it needs to address such things as agency spend and prescribing costs, of which it has traditionally been a high user compared to other boards. There are areas in which it can make changes to make sure that the front-line services that patients receive are not impacted.

Road Repairs (A77 and M77)

To ask the Scottish Government when the A77/M77 main arterial route between Ayrshire and Glasgow is scheduled for repair. (S5O-02052)

Our trunk road maintenance contractors have a responsibility to inspect the A77 and the M77 frequently to identify defects and repair the most serious as quickly as possible.

Connect, which is the design, build, finance and operate company that maintains the M77 between junctions 5 and 8, has a resurfacing scheme under way that will resurface at least 7.5km of lane length. Those works are being carried out currently, having started on 16 April, with overnight carriageway closures between 8 pm and 6 am. It is anticipated that the works will take two to three weeks to complete. This follows the severe deterioration experienced as a result of a severe winter.

Our operating company Scotland TranServ, which maintains the A77 and the other parts of the M77, has a programme of structural maintenance and patching planned for throughout 2018. The programme is currently under development and will be shared once it is finalised.

The minister is correct; I met Transport Scotland last week to discuss the issue and—lo and behold!—the repair started the next day. Far be it from me to suggest that it was the meeting that instigated the action.

As the minister said, trunk roads are inspected every week. How can roads be allowed to deteriorate to such a bad state before action is taken? The road south of Kilmarnock is so bad that temporary road signs are appearing on the dual carriageway between Monkton and Kilmarnock, but there are no plans to do any work. Is the minister aware of that? What can the Scottish Government do to ensure that critical repairs are made to that arterial route?

Far be it from me to suggest that the power of Brian Whittle is limited only by the ego of Brian Whittle. [Laughter.] I say that only in jest.

In all seriousness, I say to Brian Whittle that we have maintained the M77—£50 million has been spent since 2007. On top of that, we have the south-west Scotland transport study, and if the member has concerns about specific parts of the route, he should feed them into the study.

I take exception to Brian Whittle’s characterisation of our trunk road network. In the 2016 report, “Maintaining Scotland’s roads”, Audit Scotland, which is never shy to criticise the Government, said that 87 per cent of trunk roads “are in acceptable condition”. There is still work to do, of course; we want the position to be better. That is why we increased the road maintenance budget by £65 million between 2017-18 and 2018-19.

If Brian Whittle has suggestions for further improvement, we will feed them back to the operating company.