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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, February 8, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 08 February 2018

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, East Neuk First Responders, Islands (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Point of Order, Islands (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time

Scottish Police Authority (Process for Appointment of Chair)

We have had the resignation of two chief constables, we are on to our third head of the Scottish Police Authority, we have an investigations body that is overwhelmed by complaints, and we have a Cabinet Secretary for Justice pulling the strings when it suits him. Can the First Minister really say that the single police force has been well managed over the past five years?

Our police officers the length and breadth of the country do an exemplary job. It is because they are doing that exemplary job that we have rates of crime in Scotland that are at a more than 40-year low.

Of course there are issues in the leadership of Police Scotland; I have acknowledged that in Parliament, as has the justice secretary. The chief constable tendered his resignation yesterday. That is entirely a matter for him and I respect that decision. It allows for policing in Scotland to move forward with a clear focus on delivering the long-term strategy—which, of course, Phil Gormley helped to develop—and that is what will happen now. It is for the Scottish Police Authority to decide what further consideration is appropriate in terms of the timescale for appointing a new chief constable.

I hope that we can all continue to support our police officers as they do the important job across the country of keeping us all safe.

I take my hat off to the rank-and-file officers who do the exemplary job that they do, but I think that they deserve better than they have had in the past five years.

Parliament voted to create a single police force, but Parliament also has a duty to learn from mistakes, when they are exposed, and to put them right. There is an obvious flaw—the head of the SPA is supposed to be independent of Government, yet it is the justice secretary who appoints that person. As this affair has shown us, that same justice secretary can pull the head of the SPA into a room and make him change his mind. Does the First Minister think that that sounds like true independence?

First, as I have said on two previous occasions at First Minister’s question time, Ruth Davidson is simply wrong in her assertions about the actions of the justice secretary and has produced no evidence to substantiate the claims that she is making.

The justice secretary behaved entirely appropriately; he asked questions about the process that the SPA had followed and when those questions could not be answered, the SPA and the then chair of the SPA reconsidered the decision.

As I have said to Ruth Davidson before, if she continues to maintain that she thinks that the justice secretary acted inappropriately in doing what he did, logically her position must be that the justice secretary should not have asked those questions and the then chief constable should have been allowed to return to work the following day, without the senior command having been informed, without the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner having been consulted about the impact on the on-going investigation, and without any steps having been taken to ensure the welfare of officers who had made complaints. I do not think that that would have been the right course of action. I will leave Ruth Davidson to explain why, as it seems, she thinks that it would.

Of course, we now have a new chair of the SPA in place. We have to act within the law in making such appointments—the process is laid down in law. However, a member of the Scottish Parliament was nominated by the Justice Sub-Committee on Policing to take part in that process. The Government was happy to accommodate that and we are open to looking at how further changes can be made. We have to be frank in telling Parliament that substantial changes to that appointments process would require primary legislation, but we are open to discussing that. I am sure that the debate will be taken forward in the months ahead.

Let us look at the timeline for this appointment and at how other statutory watchdogs are appointed—for example, the Scottish Information Commissioner. That commissioner is selected by a cross-party panel that is approved by Parliament. As a result, in the words of the Minister for Parliamentary Business, Joe FitzPatrick,

“The commissioner is independent of the Government”

and is able to function

“without fear or favour.”—[Official Report, 21 June 2017; c 38.]

He is right. That is exactly what we need from a Scottish Police Authority chair, as well.

The First Minister is correct to say that, five months ago, every party in the chamber, bar the SNP, signed up for Parliament to be in charge of appointing the SPA chair, to take it out of the hands of ministers and—like the appointment of the information commissioner—to put it in the hands of the whole Parliament. Five months ago, she said that she would consider that. Today, she has said the same. What has happened in between?

What happened in between was that an MSP was appointed to take part in the process. Therefore, in that intervening period, the change that was made was one that could be made within the law that we are, frankly, bound by in making the appointment.

Ruth Davidson may think—she may well be right—that there are in place for other bodies different processes that would be preferable. The point is that the process that we have to abide by right now is laid down in statute. We cannot simply ignore it. If we want to make more substantive changes in the future, we will need to do so through primary legislation. It would be entirely appropriate for Parliament to consider that, but that is what would be required.

On the appointment that has just been made, we involved Parliament in a way that is consistent with the law by which we are bound. That was the right thing to do. We now have a new chair of the SPA in place: I hope that we will all support her in getting on with the job that she is doing. She has made an excellent start in that job.

The First Minister stands here saying again, five months after she previously stood here saying it, that she cannot go further because that would require a change in the law. Guess what, First Minister. This is a Parliament, and changing the law is what we do. If the First Minister is serious about strengthening the structure and oversight of the single police force, having the SPA’s chair appointed by Parliament and not at the grace of ministers—with or without a token person there from the Justice Sub-Committee on Policing—would be a good place to start.

The First Minister has said throughout the process that she is not unsympathetic. I tell the First Minister that if she brings forward a change in the law, she will have support from all Conservative members and we can pass that change in the law together. I make her that offer in good faith. Will she act on it?

First, I say to Ruth Davidson that Mary Fee is the chair of Parliament’s Justice Sub-Committee on Policing and was the MSP who took part in the process. Mary Fee and I are political opponents and we have many disagreements, but I do not think that she was a token appointment. She was there to do a job: she did it appropriately and she did it well. [Applause.]

Of course, we can consider whether legislative change would be appropriate. I suggest that it is proper to consider that fully and robustly. Why should we take time? It is because right now we have a new chair of the Scottish Police Authority, who is at the start of her term of office. She is doing an excellent job and we should get behind her in that. I think that we should consider, in the fullness of time, before we come to appoint a new chair, whether changes are necessary. That will be the right and proper way to do things—which is probably why it is not the way that is being proposed by the Scottish Conservatives.

Question 2 is from Richard Lochhead—sorry, I mean Richard Leonard.

Police Scotland

The merger of Scotland’s eight regional police forces into one national force is the biggest single public sector reform undertaken by this Government. So far, it has been nothing less than an abject failure, from the axing of more than 2,000 civilian jobs to pay restraint year upon year, and from the sheer incompetence that led to a VAT liability and an information technology disaster to the on-going crisis at the top. It has been gravely demoralising for all those rank-and-file officers across Scotland who turn out every shift regardless. Following the departure of yet another chief constable, what reassurance can the First Minister give to all those front-line officers and those remaining civilian police staff who serve our communities across Scotland today?

First, our police officers serving our communities across Scotland are doing a fantastic job—I am glad that Richard Leonard has recognised that. That is why crime is now at a 43-year low in Scotland. I do not think that it is fair for anybody in the chamber, notwithstanding the issues that we have been facing, to describe policing as being in any way, shape or form in crisis. Our police officers are keeping this country and the communities of this country safe, and they deserve our thanks for doing so.

In order to support our police officers, we are increasing investment in our police service and ensuring that the front-line resource spending of Police Scotland is increasing in real terms. It is right to do that and we will continue to support our police service in that way. Of course, we argued over many years that the position on VAT was indefensible. We were eventually backed on that by Scottish Labour, although it took a long time; rather than backing us from day 1, Labour backed the position of the Scottish Conservatives for a long time.

On the issue of a single police force, I still remember the days when Iain Gray was leader of Scottish Labour—if Labour eventually runs out of members from its own ranks to be leader of the Scottish Labour Party, I am sure that Richard Lochhead would be prepared to stand in temporarily—and I vividly remember watching him on a Saturday, I think, give a conference speech as leader of the Scottish Labour Party in which he announced that the policy of Scottish Labour was to have a single police force and he criticised the Scottish Government for dragging its feet in not committing to the same thing. It therefore used to be the case that Scottish Labour claimed the single police force as its idea.

Let us get behind our police service and the new chair of the Scottish Police Authority, and when the new chief constable is in place, which will be on a timetable to be determined by the SPA, let us get behind him or her as well. Let us support our police officers to continue to do the job that they are doing so exceptionally well right now in keeping this country safe from crime.

Scottish Labour did support the creation of a single police force, but not one that concentrated too much power in too few hands with too little accountability. In fact, in November 2015 we came up with constructive proposals and solutions to make the single force work, when Scottish Labour published a review of policing in Scotland that was led by Graeme Pearson, who is a former senior police officer. The review came up with 10 recommendations, from improved parliamentary oversight to staffing support and meaningful local accountability. We submitted it to Michael Matheson at the time. Can the First Minister tell me which, if any, of its recommendations were implemented? If they were not, why not?

As, I assume, Richard Leonard knows, a governance review is under way. Indeed, it is due to be published soon and it will no doubt make recommendations for change. I will be very happy at that stage to go into the detail of what those recommendations might be and how the Scottish Government might respond to them.

Richard Leonard mentioned parliamentary oversight. As I have just said in exchanges with Ruth Davidson, Mary Fee, as convener of the Justice Sub-Committee on Policing, was involved in the process around the appointment of the chair of the Scottish Police Authority. We will, of course, continue to listen when sensible proposals are made.

However, I come back to the fundamental point that nobody on the Scottish National Party benches is seeking to deny the challenges that we have faced around the leadership of Police Scotland. I say very seriously that they are deeply regrettable. However, the central point is that we have an excellent police force in this country that is working hard day in, day out to make sure that crime is at a 43-year low, and we should not lose sight of that fact; sometimes when I listen to the debates in the chamber, I think that some members do occasionally lose sight of it.

The problem is that, week after week, the First Minister stands up in the chamber and demands solutions from Opposition parties to problems that her Government has created in the first place. Labour offered 10, but her justice secretary ignored them. Since then, two chief constables have gone, morale among rank-and-file officers has sunk and public confidence has declined, and all the time the First Minister refuses to take responsibility. Will she take responsibility and look again at the recommendations of the Pearson review and will she find a new justice secretary to deliver them?

As I said in my previous answer, a governance review has been under way. That will report shortly, and all of us right across the Parliament will be able to consider any proposals and suggestions that come forward as part of that.

Richard Leonard talked about local engagement, for example. It is the responsibility of the Scottish Police Authority to make sure that local engagement arrangements are in place. Over the past few weeks, I have had members—to be fair to Richard Leonard, it has usually been the Scottish Conservatives, but some members of the Scottish Labour Party have done this, too—come to the chamber criticising the justice secretary, erroneously I may add, for inappropriately interfering in the work of the Scottish Police Authority. Today, they come here and stand up to demand that I, as First Minister, and the justice secretary intervene in the responsibilities of the Scottish Police Authority.

We have a new chair of the Scottish Police Authority in place, and she is doing a good job. I think that we should get behind her and support her in seeking to tackle the challenges that have been faced, and above all we should support the policemen and women across this country, who are doing such an excellent job on our behalf.

We have three constituency supplementaries. The first is from Jenny Gilruth.

Blueprint Recruitment Ltd

Blueprint Recruitment Ltd is a Glenrothes-based recruitment company that was subcontracted by Carillion to provide labour for the Aberdeen western peripheral route. It is owed over £360,000 for work that has already been completed and its future hangs in the balance. Given that the impact of Carillion’s collapse reaches far beyond the company’s own workforce, can the First Minister offer Blueprint any advice or support?

I thank Jenny Gilruth for raising that question. I advise her that I understand that Transport Scotland has written to the company this morning, and I hope that that letter will be helpful. Obviously, we are deeply concerned for all of Carillion’s employees and subcontractors. I should say that everyone will be paid for what they have been instructed to do since the company went into liquidation. For agency workers on the Aberdeen western peripheral route, the joint venture partners, Balfour Beattie and Galliford Try, are currently exploring ways to ensure that affected agency staff and operatives can remain on the project.

However, for work that was carried out before the company’s liquidation, all of Carillion’s creditors, including their subcontractors, must submit their claims to the United Kingdom official receiver. The official receiver is following a legally defined process for distributing money to creditors.

I fully appreciate that that still leaves many companies in a very difficult situation. That is deeply regrettable. The British Business Bank is offering support to subcontractors through Government-guaranteed loans, I understand, up to a total fund of £100 million. I hope that that will help to ease the pressure on firms that are owed money by Carillion.

I hope that that information, together with the information that Transport Scotland has provided to the company, will be useful. Keith Brown, the economy secretary, will be happy to continue to provide any advice that he is able to provide.

Coul Links (Golf Development)

The First Minister will be aware of the proposal for a golf development at Coul Links in Sutherland. In 2016, the planning minister rightly advised me that that is a matter for Highland Council as the planning authority. Since that time, I have put in a series of freedom of information requests and parliamentary questions, which have revealed that the developer has had many meetings with the Government, including the rural economy secretary.

When Donald Trump built his course in Aberdeenshire, we were told that it would improve the environment. The site there is now in danger of de-designation. Similar environmental improvement claims have been made about Coul Links. Does the First Minister not see that history is repeating itself? How can we have faith in a planning process when there is this level of interference?

This is a live planning case and the planning application is currently being considered by Highland Council. It is important to note that no meetings with Scottish Government ministers or officials have taken place since the planning application was made.

However, of course Government engages with companies that are proposing planning developments, and the suggestion that we should never do that before planning applications are made is a ridiculous one. We regularly engage to try to encourage companies to invest in Scotland, but I add that part of the reason for the engagement is to help people who are proposing major developments to understand the strict planning rules that they must then adhere to. There has been such engagement in a range of developments—from the Lochaber smelter to Aberdeen harbour and Inverness castle, for example—but I stress that it took place before the planning applications were lodged. Once such an application has been lodged, it becomes live and is entirely a matter for the planning authority. That is right and proper, and it completely follows due process.

Regional Performance Centre (Dundee)

I am sure that the First Minister’s intention cannot be to tax community sports facilities, with all the implications that that would have for public health. However, her budget looks as though it will land the planned regional performance centre in Dundee with an £800,000 tax bill, through the Barclay review. Will she take this opportunity to reassure the people of Dundee that the Barclay review will not tax community sports facilities, that she will deliver our regional performance centre—which she and Shona Robison promised—and that she will do so tax free?

Derek Mackay set out in the budget, and partly in advance of it, the Government’s response to the Barclay review of business rates. Recommendations were made in that regard. Of course we do not want to put burdens on community sports facilities, as Derek Mackay has made clear. I understand that there may have been—or may be about to be—discussions between the finance secretary and Dundee City Council in respect of the Dundee regional performance centre, and I will ask Derek Mackay to update the member on those discussions in due course.

Prestwick Airport

When I last asked the First Minister about the Scottish Government’s oversight of the publicly owned Prestwick airport, she told me, very clearly, that the Government had had no discussions about the relationship between the airport and the Trump Organization. Thanks to the work of The Guardian newspaper, we now know that such discussions took place, with the Government’s own transport agency lobbying ministers to meet Trump’s representatives and the airport being marketed as the staging post for Trump’s business.

We also know that concerns about that public asset go far deeper than that and concern the airport’s contractual relationship with the United States military, involving the servicing of aircraft on active missions at a time when the US was involved in air strikes in Syria that the First Minister vocally opposed. The Scottish Government must take responsibility for the use of its own property in that way. Can the First Minister tell us—and if she does not know, will she find out urgently and report back to Parliament—how many military strikes have been facilitated by Prestwick airport through its relationship with the US military?

What I said to Patrick Harvie the last time that he raised this question in Parliament was absolutely correct.

There are two key so-called revelations at the heart of the story. The first is that ministers somehow lobbied Trump on behalf of Prestwick airport. That is based on the fact that, back in early 2015—which, incidentally, was way before Mr Trump was even a candidate, let alone President—Transport Scotland passed on a request from Prestwick for ministers to meet the Trump Organization during Scotland week that year. Those meetings did not happen, so that part of the story is categorically untrue. There has been no contact whatsoever by the Scottish Government or Transport Scotland with the US military, the Trump Organization or Trump Turnberry in relation to Prestwick airport.

The second so-called revelation is that Prestwick airport handles military flights, including flights for the US. I have to say that the fact that it provides fixed-base operations and refuelling facilities for military flights is neither new nor a revelation. The airport’s strategic plan, which was published in April 2017, talks about that. Its annual accounts, which were published in, I think, December 2017, talk about it. Its website also actively promotes it. What is more, Prestwick airport has been doing such work for 80 years.

I am not old enough to remember this—and I do not think that Patrick Harvie is, either—but those who are old enough will remember the day that Elvis Presley touched down at Prestwick airport. He was there because he was on his way home from national service, on a military plane that landed at Prestwick to refuel. That is not new and it is not a revelation: it is a load of bunkum.

That dismissive response from the First Minister was extremely disappointing. She denies that meetings took place between ministers and the Trump Organization; no one has suggested that they did, but discussions most certainly did take place, and she should acknowledge that the Government was aware of those discussions at the time.

The First Minister also talks about Prestwick’s long 80-year history, but the airport is now Scottish ministers’ property, and that brings a new responsibility. The First Minister and her colleagues have quite rightly challenged the United Kingdom Government for refusing to step in when a business that it largely owns—the Royal Bank of Scotland—fails to work in the public interest. Public ownership carries the responsibility of ensuring the proper conduct of a business, but this public asset, which the First Minister has said should be looking to freight and retail development for its future, now appears to have based its business model on servicing military attacks that the Scottish Government claims to oppose and promoting the toxic Trump brand, which can only damage Scotland’s reputation.

Full disclosure is needed. Will the Scottish Government now release all the information that it holds on the situation, with nothing redacted or held back by ministers or special advisers simply because it is inconvenient or unhelpful to the Government? Will it publish?

We have published. As I understand it, it was a freedom of information request submitted by The Guardian that allowed the story that we are talking about to be published in the first place.

Let me make it absolutely clear—and I think that Patrick Harvie has to be careful to be clear here, too—that there have been no discussions on the part of the Scottish Government, whether through ministers, officials or Transport Scotland, with the US military, the Trump Organization or Trump Turnberry. That is what I said the last time in Parliament, it is what I said in my previous answer, and it is absolutely the case. Transport Scotland passed on a request from Prestwick airport that was never followed up—the meetings did not take place. When we first asked about that by The Guardian, I think that there was a suggestion that there had been a request for me to do those meetings during Scotland week in 2015—I did not even go to Scotland week in 2015. The meetings and discussions did not happen.

As for the work at the airport, Glasgow Prestwick offers refuelling and fixed-base operations for a wide range of private flights, scientific research flights and military flights. Those are not actually contracts; they are non-contractual agreements, and they are the same type of agreements that were in place well before the airport was in public ownership and have been in existence for decades.

This is not new, and it is not a revelation. This is the kind of work that happens at Prestwick. My mother is from Prestwick and my grandparents lived in Prestwick. We used to watch the flights on a Sunday afternoon. This is not new. [Interruption.] I had an exciting life as a child.

Was there nothing on the telly?

There were very few televisions in those days. [Laughter.]

I have to say that no grief that I get in this session of First Minister’s questions is going to equal the grief that I am going to get from my mother for what I have just said.

This is a serious issue, but it is work that Prestwick airport has been doing for 80 years. Let us come back to the fundamental point: the airport would not be open right now if this Government had not stepped in to save it. We want to get it back into private hands as soon as possible, but, because of the action taken by this Government, it is open and providing employment to lots of people in Prestwick and further afield in Ayrshire.

I have quite a lot of requests for supplementaries. I call Alex Cole-Hamilton.

Stagecoach (Rail Contracts)

Stagecoach has failed to meet a number of contractual obligations in respect of the operation of the east coast main line service, which goes through my constituency and the constituencies of many members in the chamber. It has walked away from millions and millions of pounds’ worth of taxpayer obligations. Will the First Minister take this opportunity to join cross-party calls, started by Lord Adonis, to finally strip Stagecoach of that franchise in its entirety and ensure that it is prohibited from bidding for any future rail contracts in this country?

I am delighted that Alex Cole-Hamilton seems to have just declared Scotland independent. Let me explain something to him. That franchise is not one that the Scottish Government is a party to. It is a United Kingdom Government franchise—it is clearly a franchise that it has made a mess of.

I agree that serious questions undoubtedly have to be asked of the operator, but also of the UK Government. Obviously, it is an issue that matters to many members of the Scottish travelling public, so we will continue to bring to bear whatever pressure we can to ensure that those questions are asked and answered. However, fundamentally, the franchise is a matter for the UK Government, so perhaps Alex Cole-Hamilton would like to put some pressure on it as well.

Freedom of Information Requests

The First Minister appears to be aware that her Government and its special advisers are holding back from freedom of information requests material that could cause the Government embarrassment. Does she therefore believe that sparing the Government’s blushes is more important than transparency and, indeed, the law?

The great irony here is that I have just been asked questions by Patrick Harvie that were based on information that was released under freedom of information legislation. If we were withholding that information in some way, Patrick Harvie could presumably not have asked me the questions that he has just asked me.

Freedom of information requests are handled by Scottish Government officials, who seek comments from relevant parts of the Scottish Government and consider whether ministerial clearance should be sought. That is entirely appropriate because the legal duty to comply with freedom of information legislation lies with Scottish ministers—I think that that is specified in paragraph 1 of part 1 in schedule 1 to the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002. At all times, freedom of information requests are handled in line with the legislation, including consideration of whether particular exemptions are applied.

Social Care Visits

Four years ago, the Scottish National Party Government promised to bring an end to the indignity of 15-minute social care visits. The report that was published this morning by Leonard Cheshire Disability reveals that 5,000 people in Scotland are still being subjected to 15-minute visits to support their free personal care needs. Can the First Minister explain why many vulnerable members of our society still continue to receive these vital care visits in arbitrary 15-minute slots? Why has the Government not kept its promise to end that practice? When will the practice of having 15-minute social care visits end in Scotland?

The member raises an issue that is important to many elderly people and their families across Scotland. As I know that he is aware, through our on-going reform of adult social care, we are working to shift to a model of care that focuses not on tasks but on outcomes. Where a person is assessed as needing a level of care, we expect that to be delivered, and the appropriate length of visit should be provided to ensure that the care is given to a high standard. Fifteen-minute visits are appropriate only in limited circumstances, for example, to check whether someone has taken the required medication. We continue to work towards that model of care.

Of course, we are investing significantly in social care. In the current financial year, almost £500 million of front-line national health service spending will be invested in social care services and integration. We will work to deliver that shift, which is important not only for the older people who are getting care right now but to the future sustainability of health and social care services.

Mortuary Standards

As the First Minister will be aware, yesterday ministers accepted the recommendations of the group that was set up to improve mortuary standards in Scotland. She might also be aware that that was the result of a campaign that was launched by a constituent of mine, Mrs Whyte, and her daughters, to improve standards after their horrific experience at the Moray mortuary. Does the First Minister agree that their achievement is truly exceptional, given that they campaigned at the same time as they were grieving the loss of a loved one, their husband and father, Frank Whyte? Will she join me in paying tribute to the family, whose efforts will ensure that other families do not go through what they went through, as there will now be improved standards to ensure that the needs of grieving families are taken into account; that there is dignity for the deceased; and that there are better working environments for the staff? Does she agree that the task now is to implement the recommendations as quickly as possible?

I thank Richard Lochhead for his question and acknowledge his involvement on behalf of his constituents on this issue.

We welcome the mortuary review group report recommendations, which aim to produce mortuary service standards across national health service boards. I think that it is correct to say that that would not have happened without the commitment of the Whyte family, who bravely shared their experiences with us and who continue to play a crucial role as part of the group. I take the opportunity today to thank them for that.

The information that was gathered from each of our NHS boards and other providers has helped to identify areas in which we need to focus our efforts in order to ensure that the appropriate standards of service are being provided. We want post-mortem examinations to be carried out exclusively in health board facilities, in the appropriate environment and with an agreed protocol.

Our focus now is very much on implementation, and I thank everyone, including the Whyte family, who has had an input into getting us to where we now are.

Bank Branches (Rural Scotland)

I remind members that I am a parliamentary liaison officer to the First Minister.

To ask the First Minister what engagement the Scottish Government is carrying out with the banking sector regarding the importance of maintaining branches across communities in rural Scotland. (S5F-02044)

We know that bank branch closures can have an adverse impact on the sustainability of communities, particularly those in rural areas. The Royal Bank of Scotland and Bank of Scotland closures that were announced at the end of last year are of particular concern. Since those announcements, ministers have engaged directly with the banking sector through the Financial Services Advisory Board. We welcome the news that RBS has decided to keep some branches open, for the time being at least. However, I know that many communities and staff will be concerned about the future.

The issue of rural bank closures concerns all banks and a sector-wide approach is needed to ensure that communities can access the services that they need. We will continue to work with all banks to ensure that essential services remain accessible to everyone.

I am pleased that the Tongue branch in my constituency has had a reprieve until the end of the year, thanks to a sustained campaign by the community and the Scottish National Party. However, Wick and Tain branches continue to face closure, as do a further 50 branches throughout Scotland. Will the First Minister join me in calling for RBS to listen to its biggest shareholder—the taxpayer—to stop the decimation of high-street banking across Scotland?

Yes, RBS should listen to the voice of the public on the issue. That said, I welcome RBS’s announcement on the reprieve given to 10 branches. That is welcome, although it leaves many other communities facing continued uncertainty. I pay tribute to members of Parliament, led by Ian Blackford, who persuaded RBS to make the decision that led to the announcement earlier in the week.

We all understand that the way in which people access banking services has changed and will continue to do so, with online services being used much more widely. We also know that, for many communities, banking facilities are a crucial part of the community’s sustainability. We have to find the right balance as we look to the future.

As I said, a sector-wide approach is needed and we are engaging with the banking sector through the Financial Services Advisory Board and will continue to do so. All banks, but particularly those such as RBS that have been given assistance from the taxpayer over recent years, should be very attuned to public opinion. I hope that they will continue to work hard on that.

Protection from Abuse (Politicians and Candidates)

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government will take to protect politicians and candidates from abuse. (S5F-02026)

First, it is important to say that freedom of speech is a crucial part of democracy. The public have a right to make their views known to politicians and they have a right to protest on occasions if they do not like the decisions that politicians are taking. That freedom of speech is an essential part of any healthy democracy.

That said, abuse of any nature, whether online or otherwise, against anyone, regardless of whether they are in public life, should not be tolerated. The Scottish Government fully supports the police, prosecutors and our courts in taking a robust approach when dealing with offending against anyone who suffers abuse. In 2010, the SNP Administration introduced the statutory offence of threatening and abusive behaviour, which provides legal protections for everyone, including politicians and candidates.

In the week in which we celebrated some women getting the right to vote, we should realise that encouraging women into politics is not just a matter of law but is also about culture. The Scottish Parliament has done good work in calling out sexual harassment and setting out a platform for reporting such incidences. To that end, does the First Minister believe that a healthy political culture starts with all current politicians calling out trolling, online abuse and misogyny and will she support setting up a platform to report such things?

I am happy to consider any suggestions about platforms for reporting. We all have responsibility for the matter. Many of us in the Scottish Parliament—the women in particular, although not exclusively—will have experienced the most horrendous abuse, particularly online. I have to say that I have experienced some of it from members of Rachael Hamilton’s party, some of whom have not been called to account or disciplined for that.

We all have to take responsibility and put across the message not just that it is justified, but that it is absolutely right and proper in a democracy that people can share their views with politicians. One of the great things about social media is that it brings all of us closer to those whom we represent, but it must be done in a proper, dignified and tolerant way and abuse should not be tolerated.

We have to start with our own behaviour, call out those within our own parties and lead by example in the standards that we set. If we all do that, perhaps we can play our part in contributing to a much healthier space for public discourse on social media. I believe very strongly as a fairly avid user of Twitter, if not of all other social media platforms, that social media should be a force for good in democracy. If we all lead by example in how we use it, perhaps we can contribute to making sure that it is such a force for good.

Does the First Minister accept that there is a balance to be struck in all this? On the one hand, we want to protect politicians and candidates and so on but, on the other hand, we must be prepared to take a certain amount of insults and robust challenge—I have certainly had a few insults along the way.

Yes—I agree with the point about balance. As I said in my previous answer, although the ability to challenge and to criticise politicians—and, on occasion, to insult politicians, if that is not done abusively—is not always comfortable for those of us who are politicians, it is an essential part of a healthy democracy in any country.

It is important that we all contribute to a public discourse that is respectful and encourages debate about what are often difficult and complex issues, and that that debate does not immediately get reduced to the hurling of insults in different directions. It is not always easy territory for any of us but, as I have said, if we start with our own behaviour and that of our parties, perhaps we will help to improve a matter that I know is of great concern to many in politics, but particularly to women.

Support for Mortgage Interest Scheme

To ask the First Minister how the United Kingdom’s proposed changes to the support for mortgage interest scheme could impact on householders in Scotland, and whether it has asked UK ministers to pause the introduction of these changes. (S5F-02035)

The Scottish Government estimates that changes to the support for mortgage interest scheme being introduced by the UK Government would affect between 10,000 and 20,000 households in Scotland, reducing social security spending by £20 million a year by 2020-21.

The changes are just another example of cost cutting, with no thought whatsoever for how they will impact on those who desperately need help. In Scotland, we are continuing to protect the most vulnerable and those on low incomes by investing more than £100 million a year to mitigate the worst impacts of the UK Government’s welfare cuts, as well as arguing against those cuts.

The sooner that comprehensive welfare powers are in the hands of this Parliament, the better, because we will then be able to make decisions that are in the best interests of the people we serve.

Like the bedroom tax, this is another Tory policy that will hit those on low incomes, put at risk their homes and drive those already out of work further into debt. Right now, 11,000 Scots who rely on the current scheme have little more than two months to decide whether to take out what would effectively be a second mortgage at the behest of Serco and the Department for Work and Pensions.

The First Minister will be aware that Royal London has published statistics showing that barely 7,000 people across the UK have moved over to the new scheme. Thousands of Scots without work, a disproportionate number of which are pensioners and the disabled, are at risk of having their home repossessed if they do not move over to the new scheme.

Like the First Minister, my colleagues at Westminster and I want to see the scheme changes reversed altogether. Will the First Minister confirm whether the Scottish Government is working with its partners in local government, the third sector and possibly lenders in order to be ready to step in to support anyone who could be at risk of losing their homes in a matter of months?

We will, of course, work with local authorities and other partners to provide whatever support we can to any individual facing that situation.

As Mark Griffin and members across the chamber know, we mitigate the impact of welfare changes as far as we possibly can but, with the best will in the world—members should believe me that we have the will—we cannot mitigate the impact of every UK Government welfare change. When the UK Government makes those cuts, it does not give us our share of the money; it keeps the money that it saves from the cuts that it makes, and every penny of mitigation that we invest has to come from the health service, education or other services that we are responsible for. We will mitigate where we can, but it comes back to the fundamental issue.

I am looking at the Tories. Not one of them can look up from their desk at the moment, because we are talking about the impact of the Tories’ dreadful welfare cuts on the most vulnerable people in our society.

I hope that Labour’s position is changing and that we can have consensus and a joint approach to the matter. The real answer is to get those powers completely out of the hands of Tory Governments at Westminster and into the hands of the Scottish Parliament, where we can exercise them in the best interests of the people we serve.

Saltire Prize for Marine Energy

To ask the First Minister on what date funds from the saltire prize for marine energy will be distributed. (S5F-02036)

The saltire prize has already helped to draw international attention to the potential of marine energy. It has sparked the interest of technology developers around the world and put Scotland—particularly Orkney—and its marine expertise on the map. However, the prize has not been awarded, as the independent competition judging panel’s view was that no competitor was in a position to meet the criteria for it.

The simple reality is that the industry has found it harder to meet the challenge than was perhaps expected back in 2008. That is why I asked officials to work with the saltire prize challenge committee to reshape the prize so that it can continue to drive innovation and incentivise investment in Scotland. Research has been commissioned on the current state of the industry, and a report will be published shortly, which should assist the committee with its deliberations.

As the First Minister said, the saltire prize was launched in 2008, after which it seemed that barely a month went by without Mr Salmond relaunching it. The value to the marine energy sector of having a statement of intent from the Scottish Government that might, as the First Minister says, stimulate interest in the world-leading work that is being done on marine energy in Scotland, including in my Orkney constituency, is not in question, but, a decade on, the saltire prize appears to have gone the way of the historic concordat.

Does the First Minister believe that the saltire prize will be won before the end of this parliamentary session? If so, does she recognise the need for it to better reflect where the marine energy sector is and will be over the next few years?

Yes, I recognise that. That is why I have asked officials to work with the challenge committee to reshape the prize so that it can continue to drive innovation and incentivise investment.

It is important to recognise that, notwithstanding the fact that the prize has not been awarded, the marine energy industry—I know that Liam McArthur knows this from his constituency interest—has taken major steps forward since the prize was established in 2008. There are a number of high-profile successes—Nova Innovation, Atlantis Resources and Scotrenewables Tidal Power, for example—but the hard reality is that the path to commercialisation is taking longer and is proving more difficult than was initially anticipated. The industry has faced a series of challenges—technological, financial and environmental challenges, and challenges to do with the availability of grid connections—and the investment climate has not been helped by the United Kingdom Government’s decision to remove the ring-fenced subsidy for marine energy.

Those are the reasons why no competitor was able to meet the deadline of June 2017. However, the challenge committee, which oversees the prize, has been keeping the criteria and competitive progress under review, and it asked for an up-to-date analysis of the industry before recommending a way forward for the prize. That was commissioned in 2017 and, as I said earlier, the report is due to be published shortly.

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. On Rhoda Grant’s question, yesterday the journalist James McEnaney exposed yet again the Government’s conduct in its handling of freedom of information requests, with special advisers routinely being copied into and politically interfering in replies. The Deputy First Minister was caught ordering key documents to be withdrawn. Presiding Officer, I hope that you agree that that is a very serious issue. Last year, the Parliament supported a fully independent review of the Government’s performance on freedom of information. Have you been informed when that review will take place? How can you assist us in ensuring that the will of Parliament prevails?

I thank Mr Findlay, but I do not regard that as a point of order at all. He has made a point, but he knows that when a motion is agreed to by Parliament, it is for the Government to choose how to respond, although we expect the will of Parliament to be responded to.