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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, October 5, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 05 October 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Air Departure Tax (Update), City Region Deals, Wild Animals in Travelling Circuses (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Decision Time


General Question Time

Geese (Highlands and Islands)

I refer members to my entry in the register of interests on crofting and farming. To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to control the number of geese in the Highlands and Islands. (S5O-01335)

The Scottish Government spends more than £1.2 million annually on goose management schemes that are designed to minimise economic losses experienced by farmers and crofters as a result of the presence of geese, to meet our nature conservation obligations for protected geese species and to maximise the value for money of public expenditure.

On Islay, there is a strategy to reduce crop damage by decreasing the number of Greenland barnacle geese, to improve habitat for rare Greenland white-fronted geese and to help farmers to manage their land more efficiently and effectively. In the Western Isles and in Orkney, Scottish Natural Heritage is evaluating a new adaptive management approach to deal with increasing numbers of resident greylag geese.

The cabinet secretary will know that geese damage to grazing continues to be a major issue across the region, particularly in the Uists and on Islay. The crofting committee of the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has said that it is hugely concerned about the apparent retreat in Scottish Government support for the existing scheme. Given the deep levels of concern from crofters and farmers about their livelihoods, will the cabinet secretary confirm today that the Scottish Government has plans to review the level of funding that is offered by the schemes?

The Government undertakes a review of goose policy every five years. In effect, therefore, there is a rolling programme of review. In 2015, the Scottish Government commissioned the latest review of goose policy, which included issues around the support that is offered to farmers to manage geese in Scotland through goose management schemes. That review is being considered by an external quality assurance panel and is due to be completed by November 2017. I am sure that the member will be interested in its results.

I should add that Scottish Natural Heritage spends a considerable portion of its budget on goose management and that that portion cannot just continue to grow exponentially, because that is not sustainable. We are looking to enable farmers to be the solution through their management.

Scottish Water (Meetings)

2. Mairi Gougeon (Angus North and Mearns) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met Scottish Water. (S5O-01336)

I am in regular contact with Scottish Water and receive regular updates on the delivery of the capital programme, which I am pleased to report is currently ahead of schedule. Further, I had the pleasure of visiting Thurso waste water treatment works and Gorthleck water treatment works in August.

I have several constituents who are experiencing problems with Scottish Water and Business Stream. One of them cannot take his case to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman because Scottish Water has failed to respond to him, which means that the case cannot be taken forward. Does the cabinet secretary agree that customer service should be a priority for Scottish Water and Business Stream, and that it is not good enough that people cannot resolve the issues that they are facing because of their failure to respond? Will the cabinet secretary write to Scottish Water on behalf of my constituents to try to resolve their issues?

Customer service should be a high priority for all agencies, including Scottish Water, which has good levels of customer satisfaction. If the member would care to give me details of the case that she is concerned with and the issues raised therein, I will be happy to investigate the matter and take it forward for her.

The cabinet secretary is aware of the long-term flooding issues in Prestwick and the pressing need for them to be addressed. I note from the written answer that I recently received that the allocation of funding is by priority. Can the cabinet secretary assure me that the flooding from sewers in Prestwick will be addressed as an absolute priority, and that a flood mitigation scheme will be drawn up as soon as possible?

John Scott has been in the Parliament long enough to have been involved in the flooding bill that we took through the Parliament some years ago, which became the Flood Risk Management (Scotland) Act 2009. We now have a carefully thought out priority programme, which is agreed with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, that informs the immediate priorities. It is a rolling programme that will constantly be under review.

Flood protection is an issue for local authorities to address but, if the member wishes to raise directly with me concerns about a specific programme, I will be very happy to speak to him about that. Flooding will be a constant and consistent problem as we move forward, but we have the best possible framework to manage that problem in Scotland.

Local Government (Remote and Rural Areas)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on reorganising local government to ensure that remote and rural areas have decision making and strategic planning located at the heart of their communities. (S5O-01337)

The Scottish Government is committed to community empowerment and to supporting strong local democracy. In the programme for government, we set out our plans to work with a wide range of organisations to deliver a comprehensive review of local governance ahead of a local democracy bill later in this parliamentary session. We will ensure that listening to the voices of remote, rural and island communities is central to the review.

Having had a lot of discussion with local stakeholders in my constituency, I am concerned that there appears to be a large disparity in the effectiveness and inclusiveness of community planning partnerships in different areas. Will the Scottish Government consider issuing specific guidance to make partnerships aware of their responsibilities to be open, inclusive and welcoming to all members of the community?

We have recently introduced important changes to strengthen community planning. Since last December, community planning partnerships have been subject to new statutory duties that were introduced by the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 and its supporting guidance. They give community planning a statutory purpose that is focused on local public services working together and with communities to improve outcomes and to tackle inequalities on what they agree are local priorities. The act and guidance place communities at the heart of community planning. For instance, they require CPP partner bodies to take all reasonable steps to enable any community body that can contribute to community planning to participate as far as that body wants.

I know that Gail Ross is passionate about the issue and about empowering communities, and I am more than willing to meet her to discuss that further.

The minister highlighted the importance of local government in planning decisions. Will he then explain the utter hypocrisy that is shown by the overturning of planning decisions that were taken at local level, such as those relating to unwanted wind farm developments and green-belt developments such as Park of Keir?

The question that Gail Ross posed was about community planning, but Mr Stewart has moved on to spatial planning. As Mr Stewart is well aware, there is a special part of the ministerial code for planning ministers, and he knows that I cannot talk about any specific case. I refer him to the letters that go out giving my decisions, so that he can see the reasoning for those decisions.

Fish Processing

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to support the fish processing industry. (S5O-01338)

We are taking a number of steps to support the fish processing industry. We continue to provide vital funding through our European fisheries funds to support processors to invest in their facilities. Since 2007, we have provided more than £30 million to support 146 businesses in Scotland. As the member will be aware, we have also published proposals for a Scottish landings target to increase landings of fish by Scottish vessels into Scotland, thus giving processors more raw material to market. Further, we are providing £250,000 a year to Seafood Scotland to enable it to promote the sector in Scotland and at international trade shows. In addition, we are working with the industry to develop a new sector-specific action plan to exploit further growth opportunities.

We expect increased tonnages of fish landings post-Brexit, so it is very concerning that, between 2008 and 2016 in Scotland, there was a 34 per cent decline in fish processing factories and a 12 per cent decline in people employed processing fish. Those fish are being driven to areas such as Grimsby where there are significantly lower business rates and running costs. There seems to be no Scottish Government support for driving down costs in the industry and processors in Scotland are struggling with high business rates, water charges and effluent charges. Will the Government commit to helping to build the industry and stop our fish being driven out of Scotland?

That was a remarkable question from Peter Chapman, for a number of reasons. Let me try to be constructive and helpful where I can, though. My colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution recently met the Grampian seafood alliance and wrote to Tory-led Aberdeen City Council and Aberdeenshire Council reminding them that community empowerment legislation gives them the powers to introduce specific rates relief for the fish processing industry.

It is quite incredible that Peter Chapman mentions the decline in employment in the industry. According to statistics for Grampian, 70 per cent of those employed in the fish processing industry there are European Union nationals. Will Peter Chapman join the Scottish Government in calling on the United Kingdom Government not to push for a hard Brexit and to say that EU citizens make a contribution, whether it is in fish processing, hospitality or many other sectors across Scotland?

Further to that, will the member join the Scottish Government in saying to the UK Government that any money for the European marine fisheries fund that comes back to the UK must come back to Scotland and be spent on our fishermen? I can guarantee that if Mr Chapman does that, he will not be receiving his P45.

North Coast 500 (Road Safety)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to improve road safety on the north coast 500 route, in light of a reported increase in accidents. (S5O-01339)

The Scottish Government welcomes the success of the north coast 500 and recognises the importance of the NC500 route to the Scottish economy.

On road safety, Scottish ministers are directly responsible for trunk road sections of the NC500, which comprise approximately 22 per cent of the route, through sections of the A835, A99 and A9. The safety performance of the trunk road elements of the NC500 is reviewed annually and the figures for 2016 are lower than the average for the three years before the route was promoted in 2015.

A partnership approach has been taken to improving safety across the whole NC500. The transport sub-group that has been set up by the NC500 working group includes officials from Highland Council, Police Scotland, Transport Scotland, BEAR Scotland, NC500 and visit Wester Ross. Options that are being considered include passing places on single-track roads, road-edge strengthening, improved tourist route signing and general road safety and driver behaviour education. Those discussions are at an early stage and I would welcome contributions and input from members.

The north coast 500 has been a tremendous boost to the Highlands. However, many people who live near it believe that accidents are caused by a combination of frustration and inexperienced driving on single-track roads. Given that Highland Council is finding it difficult financially to do so, will the Government help to take the lead in increasing signage on the route to mitigate those two problems?

I will look at any proposals, along with colleagues from Highland Council. The appropriate place to do that is at the transport sub-group and the working group that we have set up. Some of our recent interventions focus on signage, and on single-track roads and passing places. If a proposal comes from Highland Council, we will look at it.

We would expect local roads to be funded from the block grant that Highland Council receives, which amounts to more than £400 million. Nonetheless, I will keep an open mind on any suggestions and proposals that come forward.

Will the minister join me in congratulating the north of Scotland driver awareness team, which has produced a road safety leaflet about driving on single-track roads in the NC500 and beyond? Does the minister share my view that the NC500 route is a stellar success for tourism, but perhaps more work needs to be done to promote the specialist and technical skills that are needed for driving on single-track roads?

Yes, I agree with all of that. I thank Dave Stewart for giving me a copy of the leaflet, which is excellent—many of those who drive the NC500 route would do well to look at it. We should absolutely support such initiatives where we can. Transport Scotland and the Government, as part of the NC500 transport sub-group, will look to do what more we can.

Question 6 has not been lodged.

Babcock International (Stirling)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to Babcock International’s proposal to relocate the Defence Support Group site from Stirling. (S5O-01341)

I am very disappointed that Babcock International is considering closing the Stirling workshop, although I understand that a final decision has not yet been made. Along with Bruce Crawford, who has made many representations on the issue, I very much hope that the excellent work of the highly skilled workforce is recognised as a result of the consultation. In any event, we in the Scottish Government are standing by to provide what support we can.

Is the cabinet secretary aware that the Defence Support Group operation in Stirling is the central point for the maintenance of military equipment and the last of its kind in Scotland? Does he agree with Unite the union, which represents many of the 56 highly skilled workers at Forthside, that the proposals from Babcock represent a potential “logistics nightmare” for the armed forces in Scotland? Does he agree that if plans to move significant parts of the service, mainly to Yorkshire and Bovington, proceed, they will also be damaging to the local Stirling economy?

I certainly do not doubt the importance of the DSG site and the skills of the people employed there. The Ministry of Defence’s brutal basing cuts, which were announced last year, have left a number of outstanding questions on the operational and economic impact of its proposals.

The member might be interested to know that there have been many representations from Conservative MPs down south about closures in their areas but not one representation from Conservative MSPs or MPs about the basing cuts in Scotland, which is absolutely astonishing.

The proposals further underline the importance of MOD ministers coming to Scotland to engage strategically on the impact of decisions to close defence sites, including the one at Stirling, by 2022. They continue to refuse to do so, with one exception—Lord Duncan accepted my invitation, although we have still not managed to progress towards an actual meeting. I hope that one will take place.

I agree with Bruce Crawford that it is disappointing that Babcock is considering closing the facility at Stirling and I share his concerns, not just about that but about the footprint of the armed forces in Scotland.

Given that Stirling Council’s local development plan zones the Defence Support Group site for much-needed housing and regeneration, why is the Scottish Government once again undermining that plan and regeneration in Stirling with its stance?

We have just heard from the elected constituency MSP for Stirling the views about employment currently in the area. We take employment very seriously, which is why we have an unemployment level that is one of the lowest ever and an employment level that is the highest ever. Jobs are extremely important.

Of course we, and in this case, the MOD, can look at proposals that might be able to accommodate further housing, which Stirling needs, but we do not want that to come at the expense of good, well-paid jobs for highly skilled people in the Stirling area. I would have thought that the member would have been concerned about that, too.

Stirling does indeed have a highly skilled workforce and superb transport links that can well support this dedicated facility. Will the cabinet secretary meet me, and Bruce Crawford, to discuss options for how to address Babcock International’s proposals?

I am of course always willing to meet members. I have had discussions with my colleague Bruce Crawford already. It is important to meet anybody who is willing to help the campaign to make sure that we keep these jobs here. Perhaps, if Dean Lockhart is willing to do so, we could extend that conversation to future planned closures by the MOD in Stirling and the rest of Scotland, which would allow us to address a much wider problem. I am more than happy to meet Dean Lockhart—if he is willing—and Bruce Crawford to discuss that subject. It is important, and we can save jobs in Stirling if we make the right case.

Income Tax

To ask the Scottish Government on what date it will publish its proposals for setting the level of income tax. (S5O-01342)

The Scottish Government will publish its draft budget for 2018-19 on 14 December 2017. That will, of course, include proposals for setting the rates and bands for Scottish income tax.

The Scottish Government has written to all the Opposition parties asking us to set out our plans for income tax in advance of the budget. We are quite clear in the Conservative Party. We do not want Scottish taxes to be set at a higher rate than elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Given that we are showing the cabinet secretary what our plans are, why do we have to wait to hear what his are?

Murdo Fraser is right in as much as neither the Conservative Party nor the Labour Party has responded to the challenge to contribute to the debate on income tax. The only principle that the Tories have is to simultaneously cut taxes and spend more. That is the budget contribution from the Tories.

The Scottish Government has outlined our position and principles around taxation, which include certainty, collecting tax in a progressive fashion, supporting public services and not passing austerity on to those with the lowest incomes. In the budget process last year, the Opposition parties asked me to listen to them. I am listening, but they have to give a clear position in which the sums actually add up. The budget negotiations will be crucial in setting out our plans for Scotland, on which we will engage with the other parties.

I will put forward a discussion paper, and I hope that the other parties will engage in a mature and rational fashion to inform that debate. In that sense, the Scottish Government will show leadership, but also engage with other parties, as we should.