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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, November 7, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 07 November 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Nuclear Test Veterans, Portfolio Question Time, Referendums (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Referendums (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Decision Time


General Question Time

Referendums (Scotland) Bill

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on whether the Referendums (Scotland) Bill adequately meets the objective stated by the constitutional relations secretary for “electronic means of communication to be subject to the same restrictions as print materials”. (S5O-03727)

I have seen the Finance and Constitution Committee’s recommendations on the topic and I plan to lodge amendments at stage 2 to strengthen the bill in that area as a result. There will be an opportunity to discuss the issue further in the stage 1 debate on the bill later today.

I lodged the question before realising that it would be asked on the same day as the stage 1 debate, so we will have more time to discuss the issue later today. For the time being, is it the Government’s position that, having considered everything that we have heard at stage 1 and recognising that it intends to make changes, there is a reason in principle why electronic publications by non-party campaigners, such as those that appear in social media, should not be subject to the same regulations as print media publications by non-party campaigners?

There are free speech implications, but if someone has a significant social media reach, it is entirely arguable that they should be subject to the same restrictions, however the material is published.

I would broadly agree with the member on that. The restrictions on electronic means of campaigning should have the same effect as restrictions on non-electronic means, in terms of identifying who is responsible.

We have seen a case this week where responsibility for an anonymous advertisement has been traced to a former close aide of the Prime Minister. That is unacceptable. However, there are freedom of speech implications in relation to social media because social media is different from print media. Therefore, we have to take care to ensure that our restrictions do not restrict freedom of speech. We are doing that work with the Electoral Commission, with which we work closely on all these matters. I hope that we will be able to find an effective way to introduce such measures.

HMP Barlinnie (Replacement)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its plans to replace HMP Barlinnie. (S5O-03728)

The Scottish Prison Service is in the final stage of the purchase negotiation process to acquire a site for the new prison that will replace HMP Barlinnie. The site is the former gas works in Provanmill, Glasgow, which is currently owned by National Grid.

It is the SPS’s intention to submit a planning application by the end of 2019 and to be able to conclude the site purchase by summer 2020. Obviously, that is subject to obtaining planning consent.

The Justice Committee visited Barlinnie this week and we were concerned by many things, not least the overcrowding. However, it is important to note the calibre and professionalism of the staff and officers.

Given the serious warnings about the state of Barlinnie and the repeated warnings about overcrowding in prisons, is the cabinet secretary able to confirm that his solution is not to open the gates to particular prisoners and to let prisoners out before their court-mandated release date?

I can confirm that we are not going to release prisoners en masse. That is almost a daft question to ask, I think. I also say to the member that shedding crocodile tears on overcrowding when his party’s regressive justice polices would add 3,000 additional prisoners to a system that is already overcrowded and when his party has not committed to building a single new prison is, I am afraid, just not a credible position for him to hold.

I entirely agree with the first part of the member’s question. Our prisons are overcrowded—Barlinnie in particular—and that is of huge concern to the Government. That is why we are putting in place progressive justice measures to reduce the prison population over the coming years. We will also look at interim measures for Barlinnie in particular to see how we can ensure that there is, for example, access to healthcare in the way that we would want and better reception facilities.

We will continue to do that work, and it would be nice if the Conservatives got behind our progressive justice policy, on which there is generally quite a strong consensus in the rest of the chamber, so that we can reduce the prison population over the years to come.

Financial Crime (Support for Victims)

I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of interests in relation to my holding shareholdings in a bank.

To ask the Scottish Government what support is available to victims of financial crime in circumstances where banks seem to have failed to observe their own lending criteria and “know your customer” protocols. (S5O-03729)

Victims of financial crime may now have their losses refunded, following the introduction of a voluntary code of practice that came into force in May of this year. Victims of financial crime should contact their bank for more information in the first instance.

The minister might be aware of the McLaren fraud case, which resulted in a criminal being sent to prison for an extremely long period. One of my constituents lost their house, the title to it and the prospect of recovering it. Party to that was one of the branches of the Royal Bank of Scotland, where the fraudster conducted most of his business.

Would it be possible for the Government to facilitate an investigation that might support the ability of victims to recover the millions of pounds of which they were defrauded through the capturing of ownership of houses across Scotland and in my constituency in particular?

I am really sorry to hear about the case that Stewart Stevenson has told the chamber about, and I would be happy to have further discussion on the circumstances and what the Government might be able to do.

There are already a number of bodies to which victims can go if they are not satisfied with the service that they have received from their bank or their legal representatives, such as the Law Society of Scotland and the Financial Ombudsman Service. In addition, as Stewart Stevenson might be aware, the Solicitors Regulation Authority sets rules to make sure that solicitors treat their clients fairly and professionally in such circumstances.

I am sure that Mr Stevenson will appreciate that all complaint procedures need to be exhausted and those concerned given the opportunity to resolve the situation before further action can be taken, but I suggest that we discuss the matter further.

A study carried out jointly by YouGov and the Bank of Scotland that was released earlier this year found that 400,000 people in Scotland had suffered financial scams at some point in their lives. What action is the minister taking in response to fraudsters’ increasing use of subtle and more advanced tactics, which are most commonly used in phone calls and fake emails, in targeting victims in Scotland?

As the member rightly says, it is dreadful news that 400,000 people have suffered scams. There is a new code of practice that has been developed in collaboration with the banks. I recognise that the code is voluntary, not mandatory, but all banks that have yet to sign up to it should do so. Victims of financial crime whose banks have yet to sign up to the voluntary code should follow the guidance of the Financial Ombudsman Service on how to deal with fraud once it has happened.

As far as prevention is concerned, we all have a duty to raise awareness and to support particularly vulnerable people who might be taken in by such scams.

Tourist Sites (Public Safety)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to improve public safety at popular tourist sites. (S5O-03730)

Provision of a safe and secure environment for visitors is a key factor in tourism destinations being able to offer a quality visitor experience. Responsibility lies with the organisations that run tourist sites, but Scottish Government agencies are certainly proactive in that regard. Historic Environment Scotland, Scottish Canals and Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park, for example, are members of the United Kingdom-wide Visitor Safety in the Countryside Group, the focus of which is to create safe access to the countryside and historic structures in ways that do not spoil the landscape and heritage or lessen the visitor’s sense of exploration, adventure and enjoyment.

The minister might be aware of the tragic death of a young woman and other recent safety incidents at Bracklinn falls near Callander. In response to those events, Stirling Council, the national park, landowners and other agencies have agreed additional safety measures at the site, which are designed to protect the public while not detracting from the natural beauty of the area. What action will the minister take to ensure that equivalent safety measures are in place at similar sites across Scotland?

I offer my condolences to the family of the person in the case that Dean Lockhart mentioned. Our thoughts are with them.

The points that were raised with regard to the site near Callander are important. Measures around safety and in relation to Transport Scotland’s remit need to be thought about in a wider sense. I encourage Mr Lockhart to write with more details on the case that he mentioned to both the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity and the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs.

Child Poverty

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to address child poverty. (S5O-03731)

Scotland is the only country in the United Kingdom to have statutory income targets to eradicate child poverty. Our tackling child poverty delivery plan sets out the actions that we will take to make progress on that ambition and is backed by a £50 million fund. In June 2019, we reported on the strong progress that was made in our first year, with 48 of the 58 actions being developed or delivered. Those include the Scottish child payment to low-income families—worth £10 per week—which is to be introduced by 2020, and the early introduction of that payment for eligible families with children under the age of six by Christmas next year.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer, and note that I appreciate the good work that is on-going. A recent study by Professor Morag Treanor of Heriot-Watt University on behalf of Aberlour identified that young people from Scotland’s poorest communities are three times more likely to die before they are 25 than those from more affluent areas.

Does the minister agree that working with families early is the key to mitigating and preventing many of the consequential problems and issues that are related to poverty and poverty-related toxic stress—which families experience—and that doing so can prevent problems for families from turning into crises?

In addition, does the Government agree with Aberlour’s campaign, “A bad start shouldn’t mean a bad end”, which asks for commitments to address both the consequences and causes of child poverty, including a national transitional fund to properly support a shift in spend away from costly crisis intervention and towards vital early support for families?

The Government is absolutely determined not only to mitigate what is happening at this moment, but to prevent problems from happening for communities and families in the first place. A key focus of the tackling child poverty delivery plan is to ensure that we lift children out of poverty and prevent that poverty in the first place. As I mentioned in my first answer, the Scottish child payment is one part of that. The new families and communities fund, which begins in April 2020 and is worth up to £16 million annually, will also be used for early intervention and prevention to improve outcomes for children, young people, families, adult learners and communities. I hope that that gives Ruth Maguire further reassurance that the Government takes the issue very seriously indeed and is acting on it.

Queen Elizabeth University Hospital (Infection Management)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on infection management at Queen Elizabeth university hospital. (S5O-03732)

The basis of infection management is Health Protection Scotland’s mandatory “National Infection Prevention and Control Manual”. The infection prevention and control team at Queen Elizabeth university hospital has responsibility for undertaking active surveillance of specific alert organisms and conditions based on risk. In most instances, two linked cases trigger an investigation; however, where the infection is exceptional, one case provides the trigger. The manual contains step-by-step information on escalation and de-escalation of risk based on epidemiological data and clinical assessment. The infection prevention and control team at the Queen Elizabeth works to that manual.

If necessary, a multidisciplinary incident management team is convened to support incident investigation, generate hypotheses and agree control measures. All those steps are in place at Queen Elizabeth university hospital.

In addition to surveillance, at the Queen Elizabeth as elsewhere, proactive admission screening is mandatory in NHS Scotland for some organisms, including MRSA. Admission screening by clinical risk assessment allows for early identification of patients who are colonised or at high risk of being colonised, which allows healthcare staff to pre-emptively manage any risk and put in place appropriate measures.

I thank the cabinet secretary for her very full answer. She will be aware that children who require cancer treatment in Glasgow have been sent as far away as NHS Grampian. I have already written to her about one particular case. It has been reported that this is, once again, due to infection problems at the QEUH. I understand the need for patient safety, but surely children with cancer deserve better than to be sent to the other end of the country for their treatment?

What children who are suffering from cancer and their families deserve is the safest possible treatment in whatever facilities we can provide that in. As Mr Tomkins knows, the unit at the Royal hospital for children in the Queen Elizabeth campus remains open for on-going treatment, but is currently closed to new admissions. It is the new admissions who are currently travelling elsewhere. Recognising the burden that that places on families simply in financial terms—I will come to the other burdens in a moment—we have made available the emergency family support fund.

A few weeks ago, I met many of the families involved—both those of in-patients and those who may have to come back to the Queen Elizabeth university hospital. I listened to all their concerns and arranged for every single one of those to be answered in full. The chair and chief executive of the health board have met some of those families and have other meetings planned. I visited the unit a few days ago in order to speak to staff.

This is where we are now on the matter: I—with the collective support of the board and the clinicians—asked an incident management team, with the help of Health Protection Scotland, to oversee the work that has been done to identify the source of the infections and the prevention measures and steps that have been put in place, with a view to reaching a collective decision, involving the clinicians that work in that area of the hospital as well as the infection prevention doctors and others, on whether the ward is safe to be opened to new admissions. I expect that IMT to reach a decision shortly. It held a meeting this week and I look forward to receiving its update on that.

Staff Bullying (NHS Highland)

To ask the Scottish Government what further progress has been made following the announcement by NHS Highland of an independent review into allegations of staff bullying in Argyll and Bute. (S5O-03733)

NHS Highland has published a timetable for that work, which includes the current procurement exercise for an independent specialist to lead the review. It is anticipated that the 12-week review will commence in January 2020 and will conclude in March or April 2020. The format and scope will be informed by extensive partnership discussions.

The cabinet secretary will acknowledge that the review is vital given some of the individual testimonies in the Sturrock report, one of which states:

“For staff on the frontline in Argyll and Bute defensive and intimidating behaviour is normal practice that we endure on a daily basis”.

How will the cabinet secretary ensure that the review delivers lasting change in the workplace culture of NHS Highland in Argyll and Bute?

I met NHS Highland on Monday as part of its mid-year review and discussed the matter. NHS Highland will conduct the review. I am satisfied that it has taken extensive consultation on the scope, format and length of the review. When the review has been concluded I will take an active interest in its recommendations and, more importantly, in the board’s action plan on how it is going to progress those recommendations—as I have done with the wider Sturrock report. Those actions will become part of the board’s annual operating plan, for the delivery of which they are accountable to me as cabinet secretary.

I, too, welcome the plans for an independent review of alleged bullying in Argyll and Bute. Does the cabinet secretary share my view that it is crucial that there is one point of contact for those who have been bullied or harassed in NHS Highland?

I do. That one point of contact might be two—if the member follows my meaning—in that matters in Argyll and Bute are in many ways different from those in the rest of NHS Highland. However, I agree with Mr Stewart that it is important that all front-line staff, whatever their role, know who their single point of contact is. In addition, to assist us in that process, we will shortly have the non-executive whistleblowing champions on boards, who I will appoint personally and who will be directly accountable to me.

Brexit (Impact in Areas of Multiple Deprivation)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on whether Brexit will disproportionately impact on people living in areas of multiple deprivation. (S5O-03734)

The risks presented by Brexit are anticipated to have significant social and economic consequences for all areas of Scotland, but we know that higher levels of deprivation make communities less resilient to large-scale socioeconomic shocks that are likely to lead to job losses or reduced incomes. After many years of austerity driven by the United Kingdom Government, deprived areas are already suffering, and they will do so even more under Brexit.

More than three in 10 people in my Glasgow Anniesland constituency live in what would be the first, second and third areas in Scotland worst affected by Brexit. Does the cabinet secretary agree that we need to do everything in our power to stop Brexit disadvantaging the most vulnerable and those who are living in deprivation?

The Scottish Government already invested last year £1.4 billion in supporting low-income households. We have also committed to initial emergency food provision for vulnerable communities, and our document, “Scottish Government Overview of ‘No Deal’ Preparations” outlines our commitment to a rapid poverty mitigation fund.

However, we cannot fully mitigate Brexit, and we cannot anticipate and prepare for every outcome. There is no such thing as a good Brexit, which is why it must be stopped, and people will have the opportunity to do just that in December.