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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 06 June 2017

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, Decision Time, Green Deal (Consumer Protection)


Contents


Topical Question Time


Terrorist Attack on London (Response)

To ask the Scottish Government what action is being taken in Scotland following the recent terrorist attack in London. (S5T-00583)

I offer my heartfelt condolences to all those who have been affected by the dreadful incident in London on the evening of 3 June.

Following the incident in London, the First Minister chaired a meeting of the Scottish Government’s resilience committee, which included Police Scotland, to consider the impact of the incident and the required response here in Scotland. The First Minister has also received a briefing from the deputy national security adviser. Scottish Government officials are engaged with United Kingdom Government officials to keep the implications for Scotland under review.

As in response to the incident in Manchester, Police Scotland increased the visibility of armed and unarmed officers on the streets in Scotland over the course of the weekend. Events taking place in Scotland over the next 14 days have also been reviewed to ensure that the right level of policing is in place to meet operational requirements and to provide public reassurance. Planning for the general election is included in that review.

However, security measures are only one part of the solution. The responsibility to tackle violent extremism is one that we all share; the most important challenge for us all is to work towards creating cohesive and resilient communities within which the terrorist message will not resonate. In times of adversity, our communities in Scotland have shown that they will stand side by side to send a shared message of tolerance and of unity.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer. I am sure that, like his, all our thoughts and condolences are with the London victims, their families and their communities at this time.

Following the terror attack in Manchester on 22 May and the terror attack in London on Saturday 3 June, can the cabinet secretary confirm that the Scottish Government and Police Scotland will continue to work closely and to engage with communities across Scotland to provide reassurance and to ensure that no communities feel marginalised, isolated or vulnerable?

Yes, I can. In the wake of the terrorist attack in Manchester on 22 May and the attack in London on Saturday evening, the Scottish Government and Police Scotland have continued to engage with communities across Scotland to provide reassurance and to ensure that no communities feel marginalised, isolated or vulnerable.

Police Scotland continues to monitor hate crime incidents daily and reviews them regularly to identify any significant rise in tensions within communities. I give the member an assurance that the Scottish Government, Police Scotland and other partners will continue to work to ensure that those who might wish to peddle a message of hate or to exploit these situations are not able to do so in our communities here in Scotland.

In the cabinet secretary’s first answer, he talked about community cohesion, which is clearly extremely important in ensuring that there is one Scotland, where people live in peace. What action is the Scottish Government taking to ensure that Scotland is a welcoming place for all those who have chosen to make it their home?

As a nation, we have a long and proud history of welcoming people to our country—people of various nationalities and faiths—and, as a Government, we continue to be committed to supporting integration into our communities here in Scotland.

It is vital that, as a country, we continue to send out a very strong welcoming message—that Scotland is a place where people are welcome and are particularly welcome if they have chosen to make their home here.

Over a number of years, we have invested in a range of measures to make Scotland a welcoming place, including investing more than £100 million since 2012 in promoting equality and tackling discrimination. We published “Race Equality Framework for Scotland 2016-2030”, which is about promoting race equality and tackling racism, and the new Scots refugee integration strategy—the first such strategy in Scotland—ran from 2014 to March 2017.

We have taken those measures to make Scotland a welcoming place, where hate crime has no place. The Government will continue to work with agencies to ensure that that message is taken forward.

I add the thoughts of the Scottish Conservatives to the condolences that the cabinet secretary and Mr Macpherson expressed to those who are affected by the most recent atrocity, and I place on record our grateful thanks for the reaction of the emergency services in London and Manchester.

Earlier in this parliamentary session, there was an uplift in the number of armed officers in Scotland. Although no one wants a further increase in armed officers, what assistance and support will Police Scotland require if such an increase is required?

As I set out to the Parliament last June, following an assessment of Police Scotland’s firearms capability after the terrible attacks that took place in Paris in 2015, it was identified that there should be a further uplift in firearms capability. Since I made that statement to the Parliament, Police Scotland has been undertaking an extensive training programme to increase its firearms capability, and that work is now at an advanced level.

As the member will have noticed, in the past 10 days, Police Scotland has stepped up its firearms capability to the level that was necessary when the threat level was critical. That demonstrates the capacity that Police Scotland now has, as it was able to step up its firearms capability without requiring any military support to meet the demand.

From the information that Police Scotland has provided to us, I am confident that Police Scotland thinks that its firearms capability is sufficient to meet existing need. However, as with all such things, the matter is kept under constant review. Should Police Scotland think that there is a requirement for change in future, the matter will require to be considered by not just this Parliament but the public of Scotland and stakeholders across the country.

We were all shocked by the attack at the weekend. Our thoughts are with the victims and their families. This is the third terror incident that we have experienced in three months, and it is right that the focus is on the capacity and deployment of our police officers and intelligence services.

What advice can the Scottish Government give to people who might be feeling vulnerable after witnessing the terrible events on Saturday night, who might also have taken strength from watching the concert in Manchester on Sunday evening?

An early action that Police Scotland undertook following the terrible incidents in Manchester and London was to deploy specialist officers at our transport hubs, to meet individuals who had travelled from Manchester who had witnessed the events there, or who had travelled from London after witnessing the events on Saturday night, to provide those people with advice and information and to take from them any information that might help to support the investigation. Such information is shared with the lead agency that is responsible for investigating the incidents—in Manchester that is Greater Manchester Police, and in London it is the Metropolitan Police.

Alongside that, advice is provided on where people can get support from the national health service, through their general practitioner or specialist support, as a result of anything that they might have witnessed. Support is also there for people who have witnessed scenes on social media—I am particularly conscious of that in the context of the incident in Manchester, given the number of young people who were involved and who would have been particularly interested in the concert. Advice has been provided to our local authorities, through our education departments and schools, and to our NHS health services, to ensure that there is an avenue whereby a young person can get the advice or support that they seek. That information was disseminated as widely as possible through our schools and health service.


Freedom of Information (Compliance)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it takes to comply with freedom of information requests. (S5T-00578)

Scotland has the most open and far-reaching freedom of information laws in the United Kingdom. We take our responsibility for FOI seriously, and in the large majority of cases we respond on time and in full. The Scottish Government is open and transparent about how it deals with FOI requests. All our guidance is in the public domain.

In April, the former Scottish Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew ordered ministers to improve their performance following a number of “totally unacceptable failures” to respond to requests. She added that she was “dissatisfied” with their performance and would respond with the full force of the law. She launched a formal intervention to force improvements, and responses will be closely monitored until September. What will the Scottish Government do to raise its game while the situation is being monitored?

The Scottish Government’s performance over recent years is consistently better than the 61 per cent that was achieved under the last full year of the previous Administration. The volume of requests has increased steadily over the years. In 2015, the Scottish Government received 2,155 requests, which represented an increase of 173 per cent since 2007. Even so, a record 1,674 responses were issued on time in 2015, and 1,557 were issued on time in 2016, whereas just 684 responses were issued on time in 2006.

In recent months, the number of FOI requests has spiked dramatically. We received 777 requests in the first quarter of 2017, whereas we received 524 requests in the first quarter of 2016. By April this year, we had received more requests in 2017 than were received in the whole of 2007. That said, we are committed to improving our response times, and we are working with the Scottish Information Commissioner’s office to that end.

I appreciate that long list of statistics, but how telling it is that, just 48 hours before we exercise our biggest manifestation of democracy, we have to bring this matter to the Scottish Parliament to question the transparency of a Scottish National Party-led Government.

Last week, journalists from across the political spectrum—from The Guardian, CommonSpace, The Times, The Courier, the Daily Mail, The Herald, The Telegraph; I could go on—signed a letter to the Scottish Parliament’s selection panel for the next Scottish Information Commissioner in which they outlined a number of concerns about the Scottish Government’s use of legislation that undermines openness and accountability. It is clear that that practice is not sustainable in a mature democracy. Does the minister understand the need for transparency? Will the Government commit to addressing all six of the concerns that are outlined in the letter?

As I said, Scotland has the most open and far-reaching freedom of information laws in the UK, but we are determined to continue to improve our performance and to make more information available.

Let us compare the amount of information that we release with the amount that is released in the rest of the UK. In the most recent full year—2016—in Scotland, information was provided either in part or completely in response to 85 per cent of valid requests, where the relevant information was held, whereas in the rest of the UK, UK Government departments provided information in response to only 63 per cent of requests. Our regime is widely recognised as being the most robust FOI regime in these islands. The Information Commissioner noted that in her special report, in which she made the point that Scotland is ahead of the international field in this area.

We are determined to continue to work to improve response times, but we release more information than anywhere else in the UK.

Does the minister accept that there is suspicion that the Scottish Government is trying to circumvent the freedom of information legislation by failing to record meetings that it previously recorded, and that such secrecy is not conducive to good government?

I think that a question is to be asked tomorrow on that topic, but I can confirm that the Scottish Government proactively publishes lots of information on ministerial engagements—it publishes information on the date, the purpose, the subject and the attendees. That did not use to happen; it was brought in by this Government.

Formal minutes are taken at meeting at which there are discussions on substantive Government business, at which policy decisions arise or at which there are significant action points. That is all in line with the ministerial code.


Police Control Room (Closure)

To ask the Scottish Government what the impact will be of the planned closure of the police control room in Inverness and its move to Dundee. (S5T-00577)

Decisions on the operation of individual police control rooms are the responsibility of the Scottish Police Authority. Scottish ministers are clear that any such decision must be subject to appropriate assurance, including external scrutiny, to ensure that the impact of any change is fully understood. I understand that a decision on the transfer of control room functions from Inverness to Dundee is now expected to be made on 24 August 2017.

In 2015, when the Inverness police control room was last threatened with closure, Her Majesty’s chief inspector of constabulary said that diverting calls away from the control room was creating additional risk. Given the recent failings in control at Police Scotland, I am not convinced that the risks have been eradicated. How will the Scottish Government convince the people who live in the Highlands and Islands that the risks have been eradicated?

Edward Mountain highlights a particular issue that was highlighted in the assurance review that was carried out, as I directed, by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary in Scotland and published in 2015. He may also be aware that an updated report was published in January this year; it highlighted significant progress and improvements that had been made by Police Scotland in its call-handling arrangements and noted that a significant number of HMICS’s recommendations have been discharged as a result: 16 have been discharged, 12 have been partially discharged and only two are outstanding. The report also confirmed that the model that was proposed and is being taken forward by Police Scotland is still appropriate. HMICS continues to be part of the assurance process before any further change is undertaken. It is important to keep in mind that, although these issues were originally highlighted in the 2015 report that the member refers to, a significant amount of work has been undertaken since then and the updated report by HMICS confirms the significant improvements that have been made.

History has taught me that, in an emergency, command and control should be as close to an incident as possible. Why does the Scottish Government think that it would be sensible for incidents in Caithness and Sutherland to be dealt with, in the first instance, by a control room in Dundee? That is 240 miles away—it is hardly local. I do not think that the cabinet secretary has dealt with the other problems that were brought up in the report.

I can only presume that Edward Mountain was not aware of the content of the report that was published in January, which highlighted the very significant progress that has been made in all these areas. It was undertaken independently by HMICS to look at what is the best and most appropriate model and whether Police Scotland has addressed the issues that were highlighted in the original review report to which the member has just referred. Alongside that, the Scottish Police Authority has its external review of the changes, which reports to the Scottish Police Authority and which has to be agreed on and considered before any final decisions can be made on these issues. The very reason why Police Scotland has moved to the contact, command and control—C3—model is to provide a more comprehensive contact, command and control system than what there was previously with the eight legacy forces. I encourage Edward Mountain to consider the updated report that was published by HMICS in January, which demonstrates the very significant progress that the member seems to have chosen to ignore.

The issue of local knowledge is often played up quite a bit, but I share the view that this is a backward step for communications. I take considerable reassurance from the role of the inspectorate.

The facility in Inverness remains, and we have been given assurances previously about its role in relation to criminal convictions and vehicle records. Will the cabinet secretary confirm that that is still the position?

I am aware that the cabinet secretary does not wish to intrude on operational police matters, but does he believe, as a general principle, that when opportunities and technologies exist, public bodies, including Police Scotland, should take the opportunity to disperse jobs to areas such as Inverness and Dumfries?

On the member’s latter point, I agree that, where there is the technology and the ability to do so, that should be done, as long as there is operational reassurance about the deployment of resources and responding to incidents as and when required.

As the member will be aware, in moving towards the C3 model, Police Scotland was considering establishing the national database inquiry unit in Inverness. My understanding is that it is still Police Scotland’s intention that the national database inquiry unit will be largely based in Inverness. However, Police Scotland is also looking at its existing arrangements for national database inquiries at Govan to see whether a partnership arrangement should be in place. My understanding is that that will be considered by the Scottish Police Authority and that in due course it will be decided whether there will be a single national database inquiry unit or two. In either case, some of that provision will be delivered in Inverness.

Although I share many of Edward Mountain’s concerns, they are just some of the reasons why the Scottish Liberal Democrats did not support the creation of a single, centralised police force, a centralisation proposed by the Conservatives in their manifesto for the 2011 election. Will the cabinet secretary confirm whether, in supporting the creation of Police Scotland, the Conservatives lodged any amendments to the legislation calling for or demanding the retention of the control room in Inverness or control rooms in other parts of the country?

I was not the Cabinet Secretary for Justice who dealt with that particular piece of legislation but, off the top of my head, I do not recall any such amendments. However, I think that the member makes a good point because, although the Conservative Party is often keen to criticise the single police force, the proposal was in the Conservatives’ manifesto for the 2011 election.