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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 07 May 2019

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Business Motion, Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Bill, Committee Announcement, Decision Time, Scottish Gigabit Cities


Topical Question Time

Police Scotland (Deployment of Firearms Officers)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on reports that firearms police were deployed to routine incidents that did not require a weapon more than 5,000 times in the last year. (S5T-01644)

The vast majority of officers in Police Scotland are not routinely armed. The changes to the deployment model that were considered by the Scottish Police Authority in December 2017 and introduced last May followed extensive consultation by Police Scotland with a wide range of organisations as well as members of the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee. Those changes have allowed armed officers to utilise their core policing skills and attend incidents where speed of response or vulnerability is a key factor. The incidents that are being referred to equate to around 0.3 per cent of the total number of incidents that Police Scotland officers attend each year.

The deployment of armed officers is an operational matter for the chief constable and is overseen by the Scottish Police Authority. When I spoke today to the chair of the SPA, she informed me that the SPA board had already planned to consider the first year of the revised deployment at its next board meeting, which is scheduled to take place later this month.

The minister mentioned the commitment to keep Parliament and the public updated, which is critical. We all recall Police Scotland adopting a fundamentally different policy in 2013—allowing firearms officers who were carrying weapons to do all routine duties—having deceived the SPA and not told anyone else.

In his evidence to the Justice Committee in January, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice said that the community impact of the deployment model continues to be assessed. At that point, Police Scotland was considering an independent evaluation by the Scottish institute for policing research. Has that been undertaken yet? When will it be published?

It has been undertaken and it is part of the substantive papers that will go before the SPA board for discussion at its next meeting, in May.

The decision to make the change was made in the interests of sensible use of police time to enable the police respond to incidents where speed of response and vulnerability are key issues. When I spoke to her this morning, the SPA chair, Susan Deacon, assured me that it is being done in a proportionate way.

It is important to keep in consideration that Police Scotland responds to about 1.8 million incidents per year and the responses to incidents that we are discussing represent just 0.3 per cent. A monitoring process is in place to consider the matter and Police Scotland reports to the board regularly—it does so quarterly. As I mentioned in my previous answer, the board had already planned to discuss the issue in more detail at the next board meeting.

It is important to restate that we are not routinely arming police officers. We have a proportionate approach that represents a measured use of police resource, and it is subject to the proper oversight.

I assume that the report that has been prepared will be published.

Five of the eight legacy forces had the policy of firearms officers storing weapons in the boots of their armed response vehicles and undertaking routine duties unarmed. Weapons were accessed only when firearms were necessary or when the public or police officers were at imminent risk. However, the SPA refused to include that option in its consultation back in 2014, including only visible carriage, covert carriage and threat-to-life deployment. Does the minister believe that the previous model is worthy of further consideration?

This is a matter for the Scottish Police Authority, which has informed me that it is keeping it under review. It is due to substantively look at the issue at its next board meeting. It would obviously be up to the SPA to decide whether it wanted to change the model at all.

I reassure the member that we are not routinely arming police officers. Armed response officers attend just 0.3 per cent of incidents, and there are criteria for that. Police officers are sent out by a tactical unit in cases where speed of response is important. I am sure the member appreciates that, at times, speed of response is of the essence in cases such as missing persons and domestic violence.

The SPA is keeping the issue under review and Police Scotland reports to it on the matter quarterly.

I have no objection to the nearest officers being able to attend incidents in order to speed up police response, but does the minister accept that some of those deployments would have been unnecessary if the Scottish National Party had not slashed front-line policing?

Liam Kerr will not be surprised to hear that I do not agree with that analysis. The change to the deployment model was a measured approach in order to use capacity appropriately. As I have already said, it is used in only a small number of cases in which speed of response is important. In his question, the member alluded to the fact that he does not have an issue with the nearest unit of police officers responding to an incident, and I think that everyone in the chamber would agree that that is at times appropriate in order to keep our communities safe.

In her earlier answer, the minister mentioned missing people. How many missing and vulnerable people have been traced or assisted by officers deployed in armed response vehicles since their roles were extended last year?

According to information that was provided by Police Scotland, more than 3,500 missing and vulnerable people have been traced or assisted by officers deployed in armed response vehicles since their roles were extended. Those officers have also provided medical assistance at more than 600 incidents and dealt with more than 1,000 road traffic matters, including collisions, speeding and drink-driving offences.

The minister will be aware that there is an obligation on Police Scotland to continually risk assess the situation and how it deploys officers. I am sure that she will join me in welcoming the reduction in firearms-related incidents, which we heard about recently. Will that reduction be reflected by a downturn in the number of officers who are being deployed? On the one hand, the Government says that it will not interfere in operational policing, but it is clearly giving the green light to more overt arming, including the use of Tasers.

To reassure Mr Finnie, and as I am sure he is aware, there are more than 17,000 police officers in Scotland and the number of armed response police officers is 524. That is only a small proportion, which I think equates to about 3 per cent of police officers. I am sure that the member will also welcome this morning’s police statistics that show that the number of police officers in Scotland is up by more than 1,000 since 2007. To further reassure the member, Police Scotland is keeping a close eye on the issue and reports on it to the Scottish Police Authority, which is reviewing the matter and will look at it in detail at its board meeting in May.

Clinical Waste Collection (Public Inquiry)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will agree to a public inquiry into issues relating to the collection of clinical waste and its impact on the national health service. (S5T-01640)

I do not consider a public inquiry necessary, given that the Government has taken a number of steps to ensure that clinical waste continues to be collected without a negative impact on our NHS. Robust contingency measures were activated on 7 December 2018, when Healthcare Environmental Services Ltd withdrew collection services from the majority of NHS boards. Those arrangements ensure that waste is appropriately stored, collected and disposed of in line with industry regulations and that there has been no disruption to NHS services.

It is disappointing that the Scottish Government is not supporting a full public inquiry. I agree with Professor Hugh Pennington, who is a leading expert in bacteriology, that a public inquiry should be held in the interests of patient and staff safety, taxpayers’ money and protecting our NHS from failed private contracts. Does the cabinet secretary believe that she has a duty to get to the bottom of the clinical waste scandal, so that it can never be repeated?

The nature of the clinical waste scandal, as Ms Lennon characterises it, is that a company breached its contractual obligations to our health service in Scotland. Having done so, and having failed to take up the opportunity of having an additional 20 days in which to meet those obligations, which it was afforded as part of the contract, our contingency measures—which we had planned for, given the difficulties that the company was experiencing with the NHS south of the border—were activated.

Those contingency measures continue. The framework agreement was in place and was out to tender, but that process had to be delayed because of the change in market circumstances. A new contract has now been awarded, which is effective from 1 April, with the usual transitionary period, and it will take full effect from a date in August. With all of that in mind, I do not believe that the scandal—if it is such a thing—is of either this Government’s or NHS Scotland’s making. All our attention should be focused on that company meeting its obligations not only to the health service in Scotland but to its employees. It is not right to make the Government the focus.

I have a great deal of respect for Professor Pennington’s expertise and knowledge, but what he said was from the perspective of “what I’ve been told”. I prefer to base my actions and decisions on proven evidence, and that is what I will continue to do.

Unfortunately, the Parliament has heard very little of the evidence. The cabinet secretary will recall that, at the start of the year, Scottish Labour asked her to pause the procurement process and bring the contract back into the NHS. She is correct in saying that the private sector has failed, and she has previously said that that has put the NHS at risk. Over the weekend, media reports said that contingency plans are costing double the amount that the original contract cost. Can the cabinet secretary confirm whether that is accurate? I hear what she says about the transition period, but we understand that Tradebe is a bit behind with the contract. Given those delays and the fact that it will cost £100 million over 10 years, will the cabinet secretary give further consideration to bringing the contract back into public hands?

The contract has been awarded. Changing that would risk the Government being held in breach of contract, and I am not prepared to put the Government at risk in that way. I do not know where Ms Lennon got the information that she has heard, but my understanding is that we are on track for Tradebe taking full responsibility for the contract from the date in August that has been agreed. Contingency arrangements continue, of course, and there will be a phased transition between the contingency and the new contractor.

As I said in my statement on 23 January, I will come back to the chamber to update members on the final cost of the contingency arrangements, either through an inspired question or by other means. As I also said in that statement, contingency arrangements, by their very nature, cost more. However, I suspect that the numbers that Ms Lennon is quoting do not take account of the necessary and sensible deduction from the cost of the contingency arrangements of the cost had HES met its contractual obligations in normal course, which it unfortunately did not.

I ask the cabinet secretary specifically about the 200 tonnes of waste that are still stored at HES’s site in Shotts. Will the liquidation of that company and its associated companies have an adverse impact on the timing of the disposal of that waste?

The recent Scottish Environment Protection Agency inspections have not identified any significant environmental risk and have identified no risk to the wellbeing of local communities. However, SEPA continues to monitor the situation on both sites—in Shotts and Dundee—weekly. I am awaiting further information as to whether the recent liquidation of the company allows SEPA to act differently from how it is currently acting. I will be happy to advise the member of that once I have the additional information.

There have been reports of waste piling up at health centres and not being collected from general practices. Can the cabinet secretary assure us that that is not continuing, and can she say where the waste will be taken when the new contract comes into effect?

A number of assertions and reports have been made, all of which are investigated when they come to my attention. When there were difficulties early in the contingency arrangements, in December and January, those difficulties were resolved. The cycle of collection under the contingency arrangements follows the cycle that was in the HES contract. Clinical waste that is of greater risk to the public is collected more frequently than clinical waste from, for example, dental surgeries. The collection rotation cycle remains exactly the same as it was under the HES contract.

When there are any media or other reports, they are always investigated by my officials and SEPA. So far, they have been found to be either false or out of date—or, when they have highlighted discrepancies and mistakes that have been made, those have been corrected. At this point, the monitoring continues, there is no risk to the public or the environment and we continue to keep a close eye on the situation. As I said to Mr Neil, when we have additional information about whether the company’s liquidation might affect SEPA’s actions, I will make sure that members are informed.

I would want to be absolutely accurate in my response to the member’s point about the transportation of the waste under the Tradebe contract. If he is content, I will write to him with that detail. I do not have it in front of me, but I will happily share it with him later today.