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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 7, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 07 March 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, European Union Settlement Scheme, Portfolio Question Time, Local Government Finance (Scotland) Order 2019 [Draft], International Women’s Day 2019, Committee Announcement, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time

Scottish Independence (Currency)

Scotland does not want to be in a separate currency. Does the First Minister agree?

Scotland should have the ability to choose the arrangements on currency, and everything else, that best suit our needs and interests. That is the very essence of independence, and it is why I and an increasing number of people in Scotland support Scotland becoming an independent country.

I am always delighted to talk about independence, but there is a constitutional issue that is more immediately pressing right now. In just 22 days—three weeks tomorrow—Scotland is due to be taken out of the European Union against our will. There is still no sign of an agreement on withdrawal issues, no guarantee of a transitional phase and no clarity on our future relationship. I give Jackson Carlaw another chance to say something that people might want to hear. Will he join me today in demanding that the Prime Minister stops asking people to choose between catastrophe and disaster, and instead takes a no-deal Brexit off the table now?

It is the First Minister’s own deputy leader who has raised the issue of currency this week.

“Scotland doesn’t want to be in a separate currency.”

The First Minister said that just a few short years ago, when she and her predecessor were telling us that it was Scotland’s pound and nobody was going to take it. Who would have thought that, five years on, the only people who want to take away Scotland’s pound are the Scottish National Party? This week, we have learned from the SNP’s deputy leader that its new plan is to ditch the pound and set up a completely new and untried currency.

So, First Minister, for any home owner who has a mortgage in pounds and, overnight, a salary paid in a new, untried currency, are mortgage payments going to go up or down?

Until a democratically elected Scottish Parliament in an independent Scotland decided to change that, people would continue to use the pound, which of course is Scotland’s currency, just as it is the currency of anywhere else in the UK.

Jackson Carlaw confidently talks about what people in Scotland want. The way to determine what people in Scotland want is to allow them to choose in a referendum. The Tories are so scared that people would choose independence at the next time of asking that they want to block them having that choice. That is deeply anti-democratic.

I say to Jackson Carlaw that I am afraid that people watching this exchange today are thinking about what is due to happen three weeks tomorrow, so let me bring him back to the here and now. Three weeks tomorrow, this country is due to be taken out of the EU against our will. We still do not know whether there will be a transition phase and we do not know anything about the future relationship with the EU. That uncertainty could be removed today if the Prime Minister ruled out a no-deal Brexit. I will give Jackson Carlaw another opportunity. Will he join me today and call on the Prime Minister to end this uncertainty and rule out a no-deal Brexit at any time—yes or no?

The problem is that this First Minister just does not listen. There is no majority support for a second independence referendum. If the currency were changed, here is what would happen. The Fraser of Allander institute made it clear on ITV Border this week that people would still be tied into mortgages or car loans, but they would be paying them off in an untried, unknown and as yet unnamed new currency—a clear risk of people paying more. That is the plan that the First Minister’s deputy leader launched this week.

Worse still, today we read in the papers that the First Minister’s deputy is also plotting another referendum on independence, no matter whether it is legal or not. Another independence referendum is the last thing that Scotland needs. Irrespective of the views of her errant deputy, will the First Minister rule out that divisive plan?

The legal basis for the next independence referendum should be the same as the basis for the last independence referendum. We are talking about the issue only because of the disgracefully anti-democratic stance of the Conservatives, who refuse to recognise a mandate that was won at not just one but two elections and which was endorsed by this Parliament. We can always tell when the Tories are in trouble, because pantomime Jackson Carlaw makes a reappearance. The face gets red and the arms get waved about.

People in Scotland will have ample opportunity to talk about the many benefits of becoming an independent country, but we do not have too much longer to sort out the mess of Brexit. Therefore, I will give Jackson Carlaw another opportunity. In 22 days—three weeks tomorrow, at midnight—Scotland is due to be taken out of the EU and we still do not know what will follow. That uncertainty can be taken away if a no-deal Brexit is ruled out. For once in his life, will Jackson Carlaw stand up to his bosses at Westminster and join me in demanding that the Prime Minister rules out a no-deal Brexit and that she does it now, with no further delay?

The whole chamber knows that, in two short years, Ruth Davidson will be sitting where the First Minister sits today and a Scottish Conservative First Minister will be answering questions for a long time to come. [Interruption.]


However, for the moment, this First Minister remains in office. According to its deputy leader, the SNP is preparing to launch a new currency, which would throw people’s mortgages and Scotland’s economy into chaos. According to her deputy leader—with whom she is now disagreeing publicly—the SNP plans to launch an illegal referendum within a matter of weeks.

Another week of the SNP showing that there is only one priority for this Government, and that is satisfying Nicola Sturgeon’s obsession with a second independence referendum. Enough is enough. [Interruption.]


The First Minister should rule it out and let Scotland move on.

At the start of that latest chapter in the pantomime, Jackson Carlaw had the good grace to laugh at himself, because he was being so utterly ridiculous. I was going to say that he had lost the plot, but I am not sure that he ever had the plot in the first place.

I will tell Jackson Carlaw that my obsession right now is saving Scotland from the disaster of a Tory Brexit. I do not know how Jackson Carlaw plans to spend the rest of his day. Let me tell him how I will be spending the rest of my day.

Not answering questions.

Jackson Carlaw might want to listen to this. I will be chairing a meeting of the Scottish Government’s resilience committee. We will be looking at how—just three weeks from tomorrow—we can secure medicine supplies in Scotland and how we can secure food supplies, so that we can make sure that people in Scotland still have food on the table. We will be looking at how we can protect our economy from the risk of being plunged into recession. All that time, all that effort and all that expense because a Tory Prime Minister refuses to rule out a no-deal Brexit. It is shameful that the Scottish Conservatives have not demanded that she do so.

I have been wondering why the Scottish Tories—

First Minister, that is enough.

—are quite as supine as they are. Perhaps it is because they do not want to stand up for Scotland and never will stand up for Scotland.

Scottish Independence (Currency)

Presiding Officer,

“An independent Scotland will keep the pound because it is in everyone’s best interests, and to try and suggest otherwise flies in the face of the facts.”

That is what Nicola Sturgeon said in 2013. If it was true then, why is it not true now? [Interruption.]

Can we please have some quiet for the questions and the answers.

Let me share a quote with the chamber:

“People in Scotland need a strong party of labour that speaks for working-class people and working-class communities. And they are not doing that”.

Richard Leonard’s strategy is

“a recipe for failure.”

That was from Gary Smith of the GMB, on Scottish Labour. Perhaps it is about time that Scottish Labour stopped being a pale echo of the Scottish Conservatives and started standing up for Scotland as well.

I did not discern an answer in that, so let me ask another question. Last night, the Scottish National Party Minister for Public Finance and Digital Economy, Kate Forbes, told the BBC:

“The currency you use the day before independence will be the same currency you use the day after independence.”

However, under the First Minister’s plans, that is simply not true, is it? What Kate Forbes left out last night, and what the First Minister left out in her first answer, is that the SNP plans to use the pound without a central bank. It is the SNP’s very own no-deal exit, and it would mean building up substantial foreign exchange reserves. The Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work, Derek Mackay, could not tell this chamber yesterday afternoon how much that would cost, but the people of Scotland deserve an answer, so, this afternoon, can the First Minister provide us with an answer?

The position of Labour and the Tories on these questions is utterly ridiculous. Remember that in 2014 they told us that an independent Scotland could not use sterling in a currency union. Now they tell us that we cannot use sterling without a currency union, and they tell us that we cannot have our own currency either. Scotland must be the only country in the entire world that could not have any currency—that is ridiculous and the people of Scotland know it.

Let me tell Richard Leonard exactly what the position will be in an independent Scotland. Until a democratically elected Scottish Parliament decides otherwise, we will use the pound, which is our currency just as it is the currency of other parts of the United Kingdom.

Richard Leonard is again asking questions about independence. I am happy to talk about independence any day, but people across Scotland are worried right now about Brexit. Yesterday, a member of his back benches told us that Richard Leonard is so desperate that he is trying to stop his own party conference openly debating Brexit. Will Richard Leonard join me now in calling not just for no deal to be ruled out, but for people to have a chance again to reject Brexit? Will he do that today?

Yes, I will—I said that on Tuesday afternoon.

The answer to the question that I asked is that £40 billion of foreign exchange reserves would be required, and that is before we look at the reserves needed to ensure bank deposits and before Derek Mackay’s austerity programme to halve the deficit in five years. That is not just a programme for austerity; it is a programme for turbo-charged austerity, at the very time when the people are crying out for investment.

That is not about the best interests of the people of Scotland, is it? It is only about the best interests of the SNP.

If Scotland was independent right now, we would not be facing being taken out of the European Union against our will three weeks tomorrow. Right now, it is because Scotland is not independent that we have to put up with a Tory Government that we did not vote for. It is because Scotland is not independent that we face being ripped out of the EU against our will. Until Richard Leonard and Scottish Labour find it within themselves to stand up for Scotland instead of standing up for the continuation of Tory rule, the party will never recover in Scotland, and it will never deserve to recover in Scotland.

We have some constituency supplementary questions, the first of which is from Angus MacDonald.

Duncan Adams Ltd (Administration)

The First Minister will be aware that, yesterday, administrators were called in to Grangemouth haulage firm Duncan Adams Ltd, which has operated at the port for nearly 60 years. One hundred and thirty-two employees were made redundant yesterday, following the devastating news, with 12 employees having been retained in the short term to assist with the closure of the firm. The priority in the immediate term must clearly be focused on supporting the staff and their families through this difficult period.

Falkirk Council has been in touch with Skills Development Scotland regarding partnership action for continuing employment support and Unite the union has arranged an advice session for the workforce on Sunday. Will the First Minister help to ensure that everything possible is done to provide follow-up support to the families who are affected and also ensure that plans are in place to avoid a backlog of containers at the port of Grangemouth?

I thank Angus MacDonald for raising this important issue. I was very concerned to learn of the development at Duncan Adams haulage and the impact that it will have on the workers there, their families and, of course, the surrounding communities. I confirm that, through our PACE initiative, we have already been in contact with the administrators, who have agreed to issue PACE guides to all 144 employees. PACE representatives will also attend a meeting on 10 March at the Leapark hotel in Grangemouth, which has been organised by Unite the union and which is open to all redundant employees.

The local PACE team is considering what further support can be provided and I confirm that we are in touch with the port authority to assess the impact on port operations. I would be very happy to ask the minister who is involved to keep Angus MacDonald fully updated.

Edinburgh Tram Network

To ask the First Minister whether she agrees that no decision should be made by the City of Edinburgh Council to extend the Edinburgh tram network until the findings of the Edinburgh tram inquiry are published and all lessons learned?

I think that decisions of the City of Edinburgh Council are for the City of Edinburgh Council to take and I am sure that it will take account of all relevant factors. It is important that the inquiry concludes and it is important that any lessons that come from the inquiry are learned. The Scottish Conservatives used to be in favour of localism and they used to demand that the Scottish Government did more to support localism, so I am going to do that today—even if they have changed their minds—and say that matters for the City of Edinburgh Council are for the City of Edinburgh Council to determine.

Air Traffic Controller Strike (Highlands and Islands Airports)

Air traffic controllers who are employed by a company that is owned by the Government and who operate across the Highlands and Islands plan to strike next month. I am sure that the First Minister will recognise that that would stop air travel and create tremendous disruption for passengers across the network, including those who are potentially flying to hospitals for appointments. Will the First Minister set out to the Parliament what her Government has done on this matter and what it now plans to do to make sure that the strike does not happen?

It is of course disappointing to hear about planned strike action. Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd is covered by our public sector pay policy and it has implemented a pay rise for all staff that is a significant improvement on previous years. It has also significantly increased its contribution to the pension scheme in order to maintain the benefit for employees. In addition, ministers have authorised HIAL to develop a retention allowance as part of the “Air Traffic Management 2030 Strategy” programme. I hope that we will see strikes avoided and I encourage the union and HIAL to continue to work together to resolve the outstanding issues.

Gemini Rail Services (Springburn Closure)

The announcement of 120 redundancies and the looming closure of the Gemini Rail Services works in my constituency is a devastating blow for a skilled and dedicated workforce. Gemini Rail has been inflexible, unimaginative and slow to engage meaningfully in our efforts to retain jobs and operations. Will the First Minister commit to continuing to explore all options to support workers to retain jobs and operations at the site? I stress that, if the Springburn works was to win the ScotRail 170 class train tender—work that Gemini Rail has staggeringly still failed to bid for—30 jobs would be provided for three years and it would potentially kick-start the railway hub model that the Scottish Government is exploring.

I pay tribute to Bob Doris for the way in which he is representing the interests of his constituents and I agree with the latter point that he made.

I was extremely disappointed to receive a letter from Gemini Rail yesterday that confirmed the closure of the workshops at Springburn and I know that it will be a very concerning time for workers there and their families. I stress that consideration needs to be given to potential options for keeping the site open. There will be a further meeting of stakeholders at the end of this month to discuss the way forward. The workshops have work to complete on vehicles that are leased to ScotRail until July this year and Gemini Rail has retained the lease until March next year. That means that there is time to work with industry with a view to repurposing the site for future rail use. To that end, Scottish Enterprise has already engaged independent financial advice in reviewing Gemini Rail’s model for the site. We will keep members fully updated on any progress.

Burntisland Fabrications Ltd

The BBC reported this morning that Burntisland Fabrications Ltd—BiFab—has lost out on an order for offshore platforms to yards in Belgium, Spain and the United Arab Emirates. The Unite and GMB unions are calling for a committee inquiry in this Parliament. They say that billions of pounds’ worth of contracts and thousands of direct and indirect jobs are now on the brink of being lost to state-sponsored companies and companies that hold an unfair commercial advantage, or to economies that do not apply labour standards that we would recognise. This is not a level playing field.

What further steps will the Scottish Government take to secure a long-term future for the Fife yards and does the First Minister accept that we need more direct state intervention to ensure a just transition in our economy?

I agree with that last point, which is why we have established a just transition commission in Scotland, on the recommendation of the Scottish Trades Union Congress.

It is important to recognise that, notwithstanding the real challenges that are being faced, BiFab would not even exist today had it not been for Scottish Government intervention. Although there are big challenges for the Fife yards, we had the good news about the Arnish yard earlier this week.

As I indicated last week, I absolutely share the concerns that have been expressed by Gary Smith of GMB and Pat Rafferty of Unite the union that BiFab may be facing unfair challenges in relation to securing other contracts. I want the Scottish Government to work with the unions to fully explore that. I intend to convene a summit in early course to do so. We have worked extremely well with the unions and we intend to continue doing so.

In the interim, we will continue to do everything that we can, with the unions and with the owners. The Scottish Government has a stake in BiFab and we will do everything that we can to help to secure work for not just Arnish but the two yards in Fife. I hope that we have the support of the whole chamber as we do so.

Road Safety (20mph Speed Limit)

Young people are twice as likely to be injured on our roads. Some parts of Scotland have made their streets safer, healthier places, including here in Edinburgh, where a 20mph speed limit has been rolled out across the city, and in Fife, where more lives are being saved and children protected from injury, particularly in low-income areas, as a result of 20mph speed limits. Does the First Minister share my concerns that too many communities are not benefiting from this small change, which would make a big difference to tackling the health inequality that continues to blight Scotland?

First, I welcome Alison Johnstone to First Minister’s question time. It is great to have her asking questions. [Applause.] I recognise and share her concern about the statistics that she has cited. Many local authorities already have 20mph speed limits in certain areas and I encourage local authorities to consider having 20mph speed limits where they think it is appropriate.

A member’s bill on the issue is currently being considered by this Parliament. Of course, the Parliament will debate that and the Scottish Government will continue to listen to all the arguments that are made.

I appreciate the First Minister’s response. The Scottish Government has made brave and important public health interventions in banning smoking in public places and introducing a minimum price for alcohol. Those policies are effective because they apply at a national level, with Government leadership. The piecemeal approach will not deliver what I know both I and the First Minister want, which is for all children to have safe streets.

The health and safety of our children cannot depend on which part of the country they live in, so will the First Minister join organisations such as NHS Health Scotland and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and back my colleague Mark Ruskell’s Restricted Roads (20 mph Speed Limit) (Scotland) Bill—a public health measure that will have the greatest impact where it is most needed?

I give an assurance that we will listen carefully to the arguments that are made as Mark Ruskell’s bill is discussed and I commend him for raising the issue.

An issue that we grapple with all the time in Government is getting the balance right between showing national leadership on an issue—which, as Alison Johnstone has said, we have done on a range of public health issues in particular—while respecting the autonomy of local councils, which is something that people across the chamber call for regularly.

It is important that we get the balance right, and paramount importance has to be attached to the safety of children. I commit to listening carefully to the arguments, as I am sure that members across the chamber will do. I hope that the Parliament reaches the right decision on this and gets that balance right.

Global (Local Radio Services)

Is the First Minister aware that Global, which operates Heart, Capital Scotland and Smooth Radio in Scotland, plans to create a virtual radio network to compete with BBC Radio 1 and Radio 2, using local licences to do so? Does the First Minister agree that Ofcom must become involved and keep local commercial radio in Scotland local?

I am a great supporter and fan of local radio. Its place in our broadcasting environment is very important. I hope that Ofcom would take into account all the reasonable points that George Adam has just made.

National Health Service (Waiting Times)

On Monday, my constituent Mr Phillips, an armed forces veteran, collapsed from a suspected stroke. He waited just under six hours for an ambulance to arrive at his home in Milngavie, after which he was taken to the Queen Elizabeth university hospital, where he waited a further five hours before he was seen by a doctor. He spent the night in the receiving unit, as no beds were available. Does the First Minister agree that that is an unacceptable amount of time for anyone to wait for an ambulance and an assessment from a doctor, let alone someone who has suffered a stroke? Will she look into the matter with the utmost urgency?

I agree that what the member has narrated is unacceptable. If he wants to provide greater detail of his constituent’s case, the health secretary will be happy to look into it.

What I am about to say does not take away from that case and the unacceptability of what has been described. Our Scottish Ambulance Service does a fantastic job day in and day out, and our accident and emergency services, though they face considerable challenges, remain the best-performing accident and emergency services anywhere in the UK. All the staff who work so hard to deliver that performance deserve our grateful thanks.

We will be happy to look into those individual circumstances.

Use of Statistics

This morning, the UK Statistics Authority reprimanded the First Minister for the misuse of statistics in response to my question on national health service waiting times at last week’s First Minister’s question time. The letter states:

“Waiting times are a major concern to patients and their families. The statistics informing debates about them must therefore be trustworthy, of suitable quality and useful. We are therefore extremely disappointed that it has been necessary for us to intervene in this way.”

This is the second time that this has happened recently. Will the First Minister take the opportunity to apologise to the chamber and to the country for misusing statistics in this way?

I will, as the Government always will, reflect carefully on anything that the Office for Statistics Regulation says. The statistics that I used were accurate and, as I understand it, are available to anybody on request and will be published by ISD Scotland. It is not the Scottish Government that decides what statistics ISD publish or do not publish; ISD decides that. I hope that we can have as much transparency and as many comprehensive statistics as possible, because that would demonstrate that the NHS is, on so many different measures, the best-performing NHS anywhere in the UK.

McGill & Co (Apprentices)

In Dundee, electrical apprentices from McGill, the firm that went into administration after failure of the Government to provide a modest loan, are still trying to salvage their apprenticeships. This country’s skills situation cannot afford to lose apprentices. From the representation I have had from constituents, I am not convinced that Skills Development Scotland is doing all that it can. Can the First Minister guarantee today that her minister will follow up every McGill apprentice to make sure that they secure another place to complete their apprenticeship?

We will do everything, as we always do in redundancy situations, to make sure that apprentices are placed and are able to continue their apprenticeships. Skills Development Scotland works extremely hard to do that. If Jenny Marra knows of anybody who needs further assistance, she should bring those people to us so that we can ensure that the assistance is there.

This is Scottish apprenticeship week, and right across the country people have been celebrating the success of Scotland’s apprenticeship programme. A few years ago, there were around 10,000 modern apprentices in Scotland and today the figure is 27,000, as we work towards the target of 30,000. That is a success story. When companies regrettably fail, we will continue to do everything that we can to ensure that apprentices do not pay the price of that. That is an absolute commitment that the Scottish Government will always honour.

Video Games (“Rape Day”)

Does the First Minister share my concern that, in the week when we celebrate international women’s day, we have seen the creation of a video game entitled “Rape Day”, which enables players to verbally harass, kill and rape women as they progress through the story? Although it is positive news that the gaming platform Steam has decided not to distribute and sell the game, does the First Minister agree that we should send a clear message to other game developers and platform providers that such games have no place in our society in this day and age? Does she think that it is time for the United Kingdom Government to review the regulations in the area?

Yes, I do, and I pay tribute to Shona Robison for highlighting the issue this week. The “Rape Day” video game is absolutely sickening and appalling. Violence against women, whether it is sexual or of any other form, is not a game and should never be treated in such a way. It is serious and must be treated in that way, so I hope that the game is not promoted. In my view, the matter should not be down to the individual decisions of companies. It is time for the regulations governing the area to be reviewed. Perhaps the whole Parliament can unite on the issue and call on the UK Government to do that without delay.

Stronger Towns Fund

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the United Kingdom Government’s stronger towns fund. (S5F-03121)

To be honest, it is hard to know what our response should be, because the UK Government has been unable to confirm any details of the funding implications of the announcement for Scotland. We will continue to press the UK Government to ensure that Scotland receives its fair share of any additional funding. As with so many things related to Brexit, the UK Government’s plans are, frankly, as clear as mud, but they suggest that Scotland is continually being short changed.

I acknowledge the First Minister’s point that much of the process is unclear. Does she share my concerns about the exclusion of Scotland and Wales from the Prime Minister’s Brexit bung? Does she agree that it is yet another example of the failing fiasco of Tory Brexit, which one of the Prime Minister’s Tory cabinet ministers said was like hitting an iceberg, and that it is surpassed only by the complete inadequacy of the 13 Tory MPs from Scotland, each of whom represents a constituency that voted to remain in the European Union, and their failure to stand up for Scotland?

Those points are important. Not only do we have no clarity on the stronger towns fund or whether Scotland will get any share of it, let alone a fair share, we still have no clarity regarding the future of structural funds or the so-called shared prosperity fund. We have also heard that the UK Government is to provide an additional £140 million to Northern Ireland, but there is no indication of equivalent consequential funding for Scotland or Wales. We welcome the additional funding for Northern Ireland, but there must be confirmation that Scotland and Wales will be treated fairly.

In sharp contrast to the Prime Minister’s Brexit bung, this morning, the Scottish Government has announced the projects that will benefit from our £20 million regeneration capital grant fund. That is not money to persuade anybody to vote for anybody; it is just money to ensure the regeneration of communities the length and breadth of Scotland. That shows a Government that is getting on with the day job, and the UK Government could learn lots of lessons from us.

Bipolar Disorder

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to help people who have bipolar disorder. (S5F-03124)

Bipolar disorder is a very serious mental illness. We want everyone in Scotland to have access to effective mental health services when they need them, which is why we set out in our programme for government a £250 million package of measures to do more to support positive mental health and to prevent ill health. That funding for a package of new measures is in addition to £150 million of investment over five years that is already under way to support the delivery of the mental health strategy. In addition, we are providing support to Bipolar Scotland, which provides information, support and advice for people who are affected by bipolar disorder and those who care for them.

According to Professor Daniel Smith from the University of Glasgow, bipolar disorder patients in Scotland are receiving treatments such as antidepressant monotherapy that are, at best, ineffective and, at worst, detrimental to long-term outcomes. Lithium, prescribed on its own, is the recommended first-line treatment for bipolar disorder because of its proven effectiveness in preventing episodes of depression and mania, but that treatment is prescribed to only one in 20 patients. What action is the First Minister’s Government taking to address this important issue? Does she agree with Alison Cairns, the chief executive of Bipolar Scotland, that we need more patient-clinician partnerships in Scotland?

Yes, I agree. The Scottish Government expects all patients with bipolar disorder to have access to appropriate and evidence-based treatments, with individual prescribing decisions, of course, being made by clinicians, but in partnership with their patients. We have set a national standard in Scotland that outlines the monitoring requirements for people who are treated with lithium. Details of that were sent to health and care services in June 2017. Using that benchmark, we can improve the quality of the care and treatment that we provide, improve patient safety and reduce what is an established health inequality. Individual health boards will, of course, determine how best to undertake the monitoring, but it is very important that it is done.

British Transport Police and Police Scotland (Merger)

To ask the First Minister whether the merger of Police Scotland and the British Transport Police has been permanently abandoned. (S5F-03140)

We remain committed to the devolution of railway policing, as agreed by all parties in the Parliament during the Smith commission. We have worked with stakeholders on options to improve the accountability of railway policing in Scotland. There is consensus that current legislation could be used to create an arrangement that facilitates a stronger role for the Scottish Police Authority. The SPA and the British Transport Police Authority are considering how that should be done, and they aim to present proposals to their respective boards in the coming months. It would be premature to rule out any option at this time, but any proposal must enhance the accountability of railway policing in Scotland, while ensuring the safety and security of the travelling public.

After almost two years and hundreds of thousands of taxpayers’ pounds having been spent on finding a way to achieve the integration of the BTP into Police Scotland, it is clear to everyone—if not the First Minister—that integration is simply not possible. The uncertainly that staff and officers have faced will not end until full integration is permanently ruled out. Will the First Minister take the opportunity to go further than the letter that was sent to staff and officers this week, which said that there will not be a transfer, and confirm that the plan for full integration has been permanently scrapped? Will she confirm when the fatally flawed Railway Policing (Scotland) Act 2017 will be repealed?

As Daniel Johnson recognised, this work is challenging and complex. Considerable work has been done to assess all the risks and challenges and we have engaged with stakeholders throughout the process. A stakeholder engagement event was held in November to explore all the options.

The option that is currently being developed will involve the establishment of a new committee to oversee railway policing in Scotland, which will comprise members of the Scottish Police Authority and the British Transport Police Authority. Those authorities have been working closely on the proposed terms of reference for the new committee. They are making good progress and it is hoped that they will be in a position to present proposals to their respective boards in the coming months. I give an undertaking today that the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity will update Parliament once the negotiations are included. That is the right way to proceed to ensure that arrangements are in place to enhance the accountability of railway policing in Scotland—which, I hope, all members want—and to ensure the safety and security of the travelling public and those who work in our transport police.

I thank all the officers, staff, experts, academics and colleagues from across the chamber for forcing the Scottish National Party to concede that erecting a border on Britain’s railways is a dreadful idea. How much taxpayers’ money has been wasted in the pursuit of full integration thus far? Will the First Minister admit that control room infrastructure cannot be replaced on the cheap?

At least we know that we have trains, whereas the United Kingdom Tory Government does not check that its ferry contractors have ferries. This is a serious issue. I, too, pay tribute to those who work in our transport police. The Tories here do not exactly have a consistent position. In their 2016 Scottish election manifesto, they advocated for merger, saying:

“We will create a national infrastructure police force, bringing together the Civil Nuclear Constabulary, the Ministry of Defence Police and the British Transport Police to improve the protection of critical infrastructure”.

The idea that the Tories have always supported retaining the British Transport Police as a stand-alone entity is not supported by the evidence or the facts.

We will continue to progress the merger in a proper way. The work that is being done now is extremely solid. When it is concluded, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice will come back to Parliament to update members in the usual way.

A recent academic paper by Dr Kath Murray and Dr Colin Atkinson concluded:

“While cutting losses at this stage will carry short-term political and reputational consequences, such a decision would stem the escalating financial, professional and personal costs”.

Years have been wasted on the full integration model. Why will the First Minister not take the opportunity now to rule out that option for good?

I have already set out to the chamber, as the Cabinet Secretary for Justice has done previously, the work that is being done to get the right solution. It is important that that work continues.

In the interests of balance, I will quote the 2016 Liberal Democrat manifesto. The party said that it would

“Transfer control of the British Transport Police to Police Scotland but seek to retain the ring-fenced expertise of officers on transport related matters”.

Members: Oh!

I have read out the full extract. The fact of the matter is that parties are not necessarily taking the same position now as they did previously.

That, of course, is history. What is important now is that we get it right and we will continue to support the work that is being done to ensure that that happens.

Does the First Minister accept that ordinary constituents in my constituency do not understand why there should be one police force for the street outside the railway station and a separate police force for the railway station itself? My ordinary constituents want a much more joined-up approach than we have had in the past.

John Mason makes an important point because, whatever our individual views on the best arrangements, most members of the public, I suspect, simply want politicians to sort out the structures and arrangements so that they can have confidence in their police, wherever they need their services. If there are, for example, terrorist incidents on our transport network, Police Scotland resources are often brought to bear to help with resilience in those cases.

It is important that we have greater accountability for the British Transport Police, that we have as much integration on the use of resources as possible and that we put in place the right structures to support that. That is what we are working towards, and we are determined to get it right in the interests of everybody—those who work in the service and those who use the service.

Does the First Minister share my concern that there are hundreds of police officers here in Scotland who can exercise the power of arrest on our citizens and enter and search our premises but who have no political accountability in Scotland?

I have made the point about accountability on several occasions already today. It is important to improve the accountability of the British Transport Police’s Scottish arrangements. That is one of the motivations behind the work that is under way and why it is important that we allow that work to reach a conclusion.

That concludes First Minister’s questions. Before moving on to members’ business, we will take a short suspension, to allow members, ministers and those in the gallery to change seats.

12:43 Meeting suspended.  

12:46 On resuming—