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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 8, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 08 March 2018

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Green-belt Land (Woodhall and Faskine Estates), Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time, International Women’s Day, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time

General Practice (Vacancies)

Many things divide the First Minister and me but, on this international women’s day, I am sure that we can agree that we will do everything we can to ensure that the next generation of women has fewer battles to fight.

Speaking of battles, I ask the First Minister why, after a decade of Scottish National Party Government, a quarter of general practices in Scotland are missing at least one doctor. (S5F-02110)

First, on a note of consensus that might not last long, I echo Ruth Davidson’s comments about international women’s day. Today is an opportunity for us to recognise countless women—not just those whose names we know, but those whose names we do not know—who have battled and continue to battle for change in their communities, their workplaces and across Scotland. It is an opportunity to salute them and to rededicate ourselves to continued progress for the next generation of women in Scotland and, indeed, globally.

On the question relating to general practitioners, Ruth Davidson will be aware that we are taking a range of actions on GP recruitment. They include actions to get more people into medical schools and into GP training and to encourage people into rural practices. Overall, the statistics that were published earlier this week show that the number of people in our primary care workforce is at its highest-ever level, thanks to increases in the numbers of nurses and healthcare support workers. Of course, the new GP contract will help us to ensure that the action that we are already taking is intensified in the period ahead.

According to the First Minister’s own statistics, just four years ago only one in 10 GP surgeries was missing a doctor; now, it is one in four. That is not progress. I will spell out the reason: it is because, under the SNP, GP services are in crisis.

We have known that for months. Last year, we wrote to every GP practice in Scotland asking to hear the GPs’ concerns. I will read some of the responses that we got back. A GP in the Highlands declared:

“I think the Scottish Government has forgotten that Scotland extends north of Perth”.

Another doctor added:

“the new Scottish GP contract is a disaster for GPs”.

The GPs in a practice in Aberdeen, both of whom are set to retire in the next few years, said that they cannot find anyone to replace them.

All that is against a backdrop of demand rising, GP numbers falling and surgeries closing. The First Minister has had 10 years to sort that out. Why has she not?

There are a number of points there. First, Ruth Davidson wants to suggest that it is all about the SNP and I suppose that the implication is that, if only the Tories were in government, it would all be much better. I suppose that that begs the question why, where the Tories are in power in the United Kingdom, the decline in the number of GPs is double what it is in Scotland.

To go back to the issue in Scotland, I hope that Ruth Davidson did not intend to scaremonger about the new GP contract, because—looking at the issues for rural general practice in particular—under the new contract, no GP practice in Scotland will lose funding. That is not just something that the Government is saying; it is something that the British Medical Association has been at pains to stress. In fact, all the measures in the new GP contract are about making sure that we can encourage more professionals into general practice. The contract is also about ensuring that we reduce the unnecessary workload on GPs—the provisions on multidisciplinary working are particularly important in that regard—and that the GPs who have the biggest workload get additional funding to recognise that.

The recent budget that was passed in the Parliament included new resources to support primary care and general practice. If Ruth Davidson is so concerned about the issue, perhaps she would like to explain to the general public across Scotland why she and her colleagues voted against that additional funding for primary care.

It is the same old story from the First Minister: judge me by my promises for tomorrow, not by my record today. The truth is that the SNP’s mismanagement of our national health service is making the situation far worse. For example, at First Minister’s question time just over a year ago, I asked the First Minister about the spiralling cost of locums—medical staff brought in at huge expense because there are not enough NHS staff to fill shifts. Last year, the First Minister was clear: health boards should minimise their use of agency staff. Using freedom of information legislation, we have looked at the cost of locum staff and seen that it has risen again, breaking the £300 million barrier for the first time. GPs are telling us that they are having to close their doors because of poor workforce planning and, because of a lack of staff across the NHS, taxpayers are shelling out a third of £1 billion on costly locums and private agency workers, despite assurances that numbers would go down and not up. Does that sound like good planning to the First Minister?

Let me look at the issue of agency spending in particular. The combined medical and nursing agency costs represent around 2 per cent of the overall staffing budget. Ruth Davidson might be interested to know that that is a third less, proportionately, than the figure south of the border, where of course the Conservatives are actually in government. [Interruption.] I know that Ruth Davidson does not like that. Let me be clear: we set our own standards and do not judge ourselves by standards elsewhere, but when Ruth Davidson or any other member of the Opposition stands in this Parliament and says, “It would all be better if only my party was in government”, it is legitimate to look at where their party is in government. I am afraid that, unfortunately for Ruth Davidson, that does not paint a very pretty picture.

This week, statistics were published that show that under this SNP Government, the NHS workforce has increased by more than 10 per cent—that is more than 13,000 additional people working in our NHS today than there were when we took office. We will continue to invest record sums in our NHS and support the record numbers of staff working in our NHS. It is because of that that we know that something else in Scotland is at a record high: patient satisfaction.

If the First Minister is so desperate to talk about the rest of the UK, perhaps she should explain to the chamber why, as a proportion of NHS funding, general practice gets a smaller share in Scotland than it does in any of the other home nations of the United Kingdom.

Here is the Government’s record: 160 fewer GPs; the number of vacancies trebling in the past five years; a third of GPs in post now nearing retirement; and an entire NHS propped up by expensive private agencies to fill the gaps left by poor workforce planning. This is a crisis of the First Minister’s making. The fact of the matter is that the share of funding to GPs has fallen since this SNP Government came into office; in fact it has fallen in eight out of the past 10 years. Is it any wonder that GP surgeries are in such a mess?

I, too, will talk about the record of this Government. There is record funding of our national health service and record numbers of people working in it—there has been a 10 per cent increase since this Government took office. Extra money is being committed to primary care and general practice; a target of 11 per cent of the overall NHS budget going to primary care. Money is going into the NHS generally and, within that, into primary care—money that the Tories voted against in the budget. It is simply not credible for the Tories to come to this chamber and say that they think that there should be more investment in the NHS, when they voted against the investment that we are already making. Why does Ruth Davidson not look the Scottish people in the eye and try to explain that?

Child Benefit

I offer greetings and solidarity from the Labour benches on this international women’s day.

Scottish Labour supports increasing child benefit as a way of helping with the rising cost of living and tackling the national shame of child poverty. It is a difference that this Parliament could start making with our new powers over social security. However, last week, the SNP and the Tories voted together against a Labour amendment to deliver that increase. Scottish Labour and the Scottish Greens support the policy, as do the Poverty Alliance and the Child Poverty Action Group, so why will the Scottish Government not support it?

This is a really important issue. Richard Leonard and I share the aspiration and the commitment to end child poverty in Scotland.

I have looked carefully at the campaign to top up child benefit, as has Angela Constance, and I respect many of the organisations that are making the case for that. However, one of the issues is that, if we go down that road, £7 out of every £10 that we would spend on the policy would go to families who do not live in poverty. As Richard Leonard knows, I am an advocate of universal benefits but, when we are looking at topping up an already universal benefit to specifically target families in poverty, the question is whether that would be the best way to do it.

As Richard Leonard knows, we asked the new poverty and inequality commission for advice to inform the delivery plan that we will publish by the end of this month. That advice, which was published last week, raises the question whether that is, in fact, the best way to tackle child poverty. We will publish our delivery plan by the end of March, and we will make very clear in it the steps that we intend to take, including using new powers.

Nevertheless, we are determined to make sure that the money that we spend to tackle child poverty is actually used to do that. I hope that we can continue to have a constructive discussion on that in this chamber as we take forward what I hope is our joint commitment to end child poverty in Scotland.

In the spirit of constructive debate, I point out that child benefit is usually paid directly to the mother. It gives a degree of financial independence and is more likely to be spent on the children. Labour wants to see that happen with all benefits, particularly universal credit, and we think that universal credit should be automatically split between the two partners in a relationship. Such split payments are supported by organisations such as Engender and Scottish Women’s Aid. This week, an SNP MP has published a private member’s bill to address that very issue in the Westminster Parliament, not just offering a choice but providing for split payments to be automatic. However, last week, SNP MSPs voted against split payments in the Social Security (Scotland) Bill. I want to see progressive change across the whole of the UK. Why is the Scottish Government currently blocking the delivery of benefit payments directly to women in Scotland?

As Richard Leonard knows, we have already made modifications, where we can, to how universal credit is paid. We are committed to working with women’s organisations and stakeholders more generally to look at additional changes that we can perhaps make, and the proposal to split payments is certainly worthy of further consideration, although we would require to discuss that with the UK Government. It has perhaps escaped Richard Leonard’s notice that we do not have full control over universal credit, so we cannot unilaterally make the changes that we want to make.

We are trying to use flexibilities around universal credit, and we are arguing against the roll-out of universal credit when it is penalising so many people. The Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill was passed by this Parliament, and we are committed to the delivery plan. We are also committed to using our new powers around the best start grant. Anybody looking at the range of actions that we are taking will see that there is a real commitment on the part of this Government to tackle child poverty effectively.

I really hope that, no matter all the other things that divide us, this is one issue on which we can get the support of Scottish Labour. If it wants us to go further and reform the welfare system more generally, it needs to advocate getting the powers over welfare out of the hands of Westminster and bringing them to this Parliament.

Let me be clear: the roll-out of universal credit has been a shambles, but the new powers that this Parliament has over social security give us a chance to build a fundamentally fairer society. I accept that the Scottish Government has already taken action on the flexibility of universal credit, paying the housing element directly to landlords and paying it fortnightly rather than monthly. Those moves establish the principle and the practice that payments can be delivered in a different way in Scotland.

Let us not forget why automatic split payments need to happen. Too many women experience domestic abuse when the abuser holds the purse strings. Automatically splitting those payments is a practical step that the Parliament could take. Will the First Minister ensure that split payments are, and become, a hallmark of Scotland’s first social security bill?

The issue is very close to my heart and is close to the hearts of Richard Leonard and his colleagues. In the interests of consensus, let me say that the very fact that we have exercised flexibility where we can—Richard Leonard recognises that—should tell everybody that we are not ideologically opposed to splitting payments. However, there are complexities that are associated with the issue—particularly with universal credit—because we have limited power while the main powers still lie with Westminster.

I recognise the rationale for split payments, which Richard Leonard has outlined. It is something that we are exploring and talking to others about, and we will continue to do so. If it is possible to split payments in a coherent way, we will commit to doing that. I say to Richard Leonard, in all sincerity, that the issues are important. I do not think that anyone on the Government benches could ever be accused of not treating the issues seriously. Let us try to work together to do that.

There is also a bigger issue here. Today is international women’s day, as has been recognised. The fact that the majority of welfare powers still lie in the hands of a Tory Government at Westminster means that, on international women’s day, we have in law the rape clause, which is an absolute obscenity. Let us look at using flexibility where we can, but we should also come together and say, once and for all, that we will not let Tories at Westminster run the welfare system. Let us do that for ourselves in Scotland. That would be a good way in which to celebrate international women’s day.

There are two constituency questions, the first of which is from Rhoda Grant.

Sewage Treatment (Gairloch)

I have been inundated with messages from constituents in Gairloch, in Wester Ross, who are incensed and anxious about a decision by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency to approve a new licence for sewage treatment. The licence is for a new ultraviolet system, which will be operational only during peak tourist and bathing seasons. That leaves the rest of the year with an inferior, downgraded system, which will allow bacteria and sewage into the sea. Does the First Minister think that it is acceptable for that to happen to some of our most beautiful coastline, or will the Government intervene to protect water quality in the area?

First, let me express a great degree of sympathy with that question and the sentiment behind it. However, as Rhoda Grant will be aware, a formal process occurs in such cases. As I understand it, ministers have now received a formal request to review Scottish Water’s application to SEPA. Given that fact, it would be inappropriate for me to comment in detail any further at this stage.

However, I will give some factual information. The request was received on 5 March. Ministers have 14 days from that date to determine whether the application should be given further consideration. Then, they have a further 14 days to decide whether the application should be formally called in. Although I absolutely understand why the question is being raised, I hope that members will appreciate that it would be in nobody’s interest, given the formal process, for me to say any more in substance about the matter at this time.

NHS Tayside (Budget)

Yesterday, it came to light that the director of finance at NHS Tayside has retired, after £5.3 million of national funds was carried forward into NHS Tayside’s budget. Two weeks ago, NHS Tayside asked the Scottish Government for brokerage for the fifth year in a row, but this morning it is back for more. The Scottish Government has ordered a swift forensic audit, but how much worse must this financial basket case get before the First Minister meets the board of NHS Tayside to ensure that the mess does not affect patients and staff in Dundee?

As Jenny Marra is aware, the Scottish Government provides brokerage to ensure that the financial position of NHS Tayside remains stable, because our overriding priority is the protection of patient care and services, and that will remain the priority.

The specific issue that Jenny Marra raised—rightly—is about the way in which NHS Tayside has recorded certain amounts of money in its accounts, which potentially gives an inaccurate picture of its overall financial position. As soon as the situation came to light, the Scottish Government commissioned an independent external review. That is now under way. It is being carried out by Grant Thornton and it will report back within two weeks.

When we know the outcome of that review, any further action that is required will, of course, be taken. In the meantime, we will provide additional brokerage to ensure that NHS Tayside’s financial position remains stable, because that is in the overriding interest of patients.

Scottish Youth Theatre

I echo the words of others on our commitment to international women’s day. I hope that all political parties will use this afternoon’s debate to recommit ourselves to progress on gender equality and justice.

I will read to the First Minister some words from a constituent of mine called Kirsty. She says:

“I went to Scottish Youth Theatre summer school when I was 14 and it completely changed my life. I made friends with some of the most wonderful people I have ever met there, I completely fell in love with Glasgow and I was inspired to eventually move here to study theatre.”

Kirsty says that she has never forgotten that amazing opportunity and that she just took it for granted that the Scottish Youth Theatre would always exist and that she would be able to encourage her little niece to go to the summer school when she was old enough.

Kirsty is by no means alone and I suspect that every member of this Parliament will have constituents whose lives have been enriched and even transformed in that way. This year is being billed as the year of young people. Are we really going to let Scottish Youth Theatre close?

I am glad that Patrick Harvie has raised that issue, because it gives me the opportunity to say a couple of things about it. The first—and Patrick Harvie and others will understand why this is the case—is that the decision about which organisations receive regular funding is for Creative Scotland. In law, the Scottish Government has no role in that process and is not able to intervene in it. That said, for the reasons that Patrick Harvie has outlined, the announcement by the Scottish Youth Theatre is of serious concern to many people across Scotland and, indeed, to me

I know that Creative Scotland has approved some funding to allow the organisation to continue to operate while, I hope, they work together to find alternative routes to support, and I encourage the Scottish Youth Theatre to continue those discussions. I have also asked the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs to offer to meet the Scottish Youth Theatre to see whether there is some action that the Scottish Government could be party to that would help to secure a future for it.

Yes, we are in the year of young people, but more generally than that, arts—and culture and theatre within that—are very important to the wellbeing of our country. There will always be difficult decisions to be made on funding. I think that Creative Scotland is sometimes unfairly criticised because it has to make those decisions. We want to make sure that theatre—youth theatre, in particular—can flourish not just this year but generally in Scotland.

Creative Scotland has indeed come in for serious criticism this year not just for its funding decisions but for the confused and damaging process that it has gone through. I accept that the Scottish Government cannot simply pick up the phone and instruct Creative Scotland on who it should or should not fund. However, I believe that the Scottish Government has a direct responsibility for a national asset such as the Scottish Youth Theatre. The people working there, who are still committed to delivering as much of the summer programme as they can, and the young people they work with deserve some good news—they deserve to have some confidence in the organisation’s future.

Presiding Officer, the Scottish Youth Theatre performed here at the opening of this session of the Scottish Parliament in 2016—a performance called “Open the doors”. I think that it would be appalling if we stood by and saw its doors close this year as a result of those decisions. I ask the First Minister to make sure that the Scottish Government, whether by working with Creative Scotland or through another route, ensures that we do not see that happen, and that Scottish Youth Theatre does not have to close its doors this year.

I have a great deal of sympathy with what Patrick Harvie just said. The Scottish Youth Theatre does fantastic work and I think that it is the desire of all members for it to be able to continue to do so.

I have given the position in relation to the Scottish Government’s inability to intervene in decisions that Creative Scotland makes about regular funding. As I understand it, the Scottish Youth Theatre was not previously in receipt of regular funding; I think that at the time when decisions were taken in the last round, my predecessor as First Minister was involved in exploring options.

We will continue to work with Creative Scotland and the Scottish Youth Theatre. I have asked Fiona Hyslop to offer to meet the parties and, although I cannot today give detail on what the options might be, I certainly give a commitment that we will do everything we can to fully explore all options to allow young people in future to benefit from the Scottish Youth Theatre in the way that young people have done in the past.

There are a few additional supplementary questions.

Scottish Youth Theatre

My question is on the same theme as Patrick Harvie’s question.

The Scottish Youth Theatre has been existence for more than 40 years and is world renowned. It is currently based in my constituency, in the merchant city in Glasgow. I hear what the First Minister is saying. However, it is a big slap in the face and kick in the teeth for the Scottish Youth Theatre that, in the year of young people, that world-renowned company will close its doors in July because Creative Scotland cannot find money for it.

The First Minister said that she would speak to the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs. Will she arrange a meeting between the cabinet secretary and other interested parties, including me, to ensure that that essential youth theatre company is allowed to continue?

I thank Sandra White for raising the issue. As I said, I have asked Fiona Hyslop to offer to meet the Scottish Youth Theatre, and I hope that that meeting will take place. I am sure that Fiona Hyslop would be happy to meet Sandra White and other interested members, as well.

There is not much more that I am able to say today in addition to what I have said. I think that anyone who is not only listening to what I say but is reading between the lines can hear that I have a lot of sympathy with the sentiments that are being expressed.

There are always difficult decisions to be taken about funding. Funding for Creative Scotland and for culture and the arts increased this year in the budget that we have just passed. Many organisations will be getting regular funding that previously did not get it, and we have managed to mitigate the impact of cuts in lottery funding. Difficult decisions cannot be completely escaped, but we are determined to look at all options to protect, if we can, the work that the Scottish Youth Theatre does, and to support, as far as we can, a healthy and vibrant culture sector across Scotland.

Balfour Beatty (Kintore)

The First Minister knows that Balfour Beatty holds many public sector contracts in Scotland—not the least of which is a contract on the Aberdeen western peripheral route. Does she share my concern about the company’s plans, which were announced this morning, to close its electricity substation design office at Kintore in Aberdeenshire, at the cost of the jobs there, and to bid for all future work on Scotland’s electricity network from outwith Scotland?

If the First Minister shares those concerns, will she raise them with Balfour Beatty and tell the company to drop its closure plans and, instead of making workers redundant, to sit down with staff in Kintore and plan a sustainable future for its Scottish business?

Such decisions and announcements are always of concern: this one is no different.

In direct response to Lewis Macdonald’s question, I say yes—we will engage with Balfour Beatty on the matter. I am sure that the Cabinet Secretary for the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work will be happy to meet or write to Lewis Macdonald after we have had the opportunity to do that.

Revenge Porn

The First Minister is aware of my successful campaign to make laws in this Parliament to protect victims of non-consensual sharing of intimate images—commonly known as revenge porn. Will she tell members how her Government will respond to reports this week that fewer than half of revenge porn cases are passed to prosecutors?

The impact of sharing intimate images can be hugely damaging, as we all know, and there is absolutely no place for it in our society. That is why we legislated for a specific offence of sharing, or threatening to share, intimate images without consent, which has a maximum penalty, on conviction, of five years’ imprisonment. A public awareness campaign, consisting of advertising and public relations work, ran to coincide with the offence provisions coming into effect.

I am, of course—as Christina McKelvie is—concerned about the statistics that we have seen this week. Investigation of offences is for Police Scotland, and prosecution is for the Crown Office. We know that there are often particular complexities where police are investigating offences that have been committed using internet services that are hosted in foreign jurisdictions. The rate of prosecution for such offences in Scotland is broadly similar to that in England and Wales.

However, the message that I took from the statistics this week—Christina McKelvie is absolutely right to raise them—is that, although putting laws in place is important, making sure that they can be used effectively is what matters most. I think that the statistics tell us that there is still work to be done on that important issue.

Modern Apprenticeships

To ask the First Minister what progress the Scottish Government is making on increasing the number of modern apprenticeships. (S5F-02124)

We are making very good progress on increasing modern apprenticeships in line with our commitment to deliver 30,000 new starts a year by 2020. Investing in skills development through apprenticeships makes a vital contribution to inclusive economic growth, and we have increased Skills Development Scotland’s funding by 7 per cent for the next year.

Next year’s target of 28,000 apprenticeship starts will, for the first time, include graduate apprenticeships, which provide the opportunity to study for a degree while in full-time paid employment.

This week, of course, we are celebrating Scottish apprenticeship week, which is a fantastic opportunity for apprentices and their employers across all sectors to promote the benefits of apprenticeships and the life-changing opportunities that they provide.

I thank the First Minister for that answer. There is a myth that apprenticeships are just for school leavers, but they can offer a pathway to more mature adults who, for whatever reason, find themselves getting further from the workforce. Can the First Minister give details on what is being done to make apprenticeships accessible to people later in life who might be in need of training to improve their employability, and can she also give some more detail on the graduate apprenticeship scheme?

Gillian Martin is absolutely correct to say that, while apprenticeships are an important option for school leavers, they also increasingly provide a diverse range of work-based learning opportunities for people of all ages and backgrounds. Indeed, last year saw an increase of more than 20 per cent in the number of over-25s who started apprenticeships, and during the course of this year we have already seen the figure grow even further. Diversifying as well as expanding our apprenticeships is another vital way of opening up access by creating new pathways into work.

The graduate apprenticeships offer the opportunity to develop high-level skills in emerging science, technology, engineering and mathematics related areas, and foundation apprenticeships are expanding the vocational options that are available in the senior phase of school.

There is a lot to be very positive about, but Gillian Martin is absolutely correct to point to the need not only to increase the numbers, but to ensure that we also have greater diversity, in all its respects.

I thank the First Minister for her answers. I agree with her about the life-changing opportunities that apprenticeships can provide. I am sure that many colleagues across the chamber have seen that this week, as they visited apprentices across Scotland.

However, will the First Minister recognise this month’s report from the Federation of Small Businesses Scotland on the particular barriers that small businesses in Scotland face in taking on apprentices? Will she consider how its recommendations could help to ensure that, in the future, small businesses get fairer access to support, and clearer information about taking on apprentices?

Yes, the Government will do that. The FSB has made important recommendations. We accept that often for smaller companies there are barriers that larger companies do not face or experience, so as we continue to increase and diversify the number of modern apprenticeships, it is really important that we give all companies that feel that their business would benefit from it the opportunity to take on an apprentice. That is an important part of the overall process that we are engaged in.

Internet Safety (Children)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government is doing to educate children regarding using the internet safely. (S5F-02118)

We all want children and young people to be aware of their rights online, to enjoy the internet, to show resilience and to take advantage of the opportunities on offer. It is the prerogative of children and young people to explore and enjoy the online world, but we have a collective responsibility to ensure that they do so safely.

Children and young people learn about safe and responsible use of different technologies as part of their broad general education under curriculum for excellence, and we are also working with others to continue to deliver briefing sessions to support professionals, parents and carers to keep children safe, as well as working with young people to identify and develop ways for them to support themselves and their peers.

I thank the First Minister for her response. I agree with her that everyone who is involved with young people, either professionally or simply as a parent, will have concerns about safe use of the internet by children.

This week, the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland called for three major changes to the relationship between children and the internet: digital citizenship lessons, a public ombudsman to mediate between under-18s and social media companies, and simplified terms and conditions for young people. I know that the Scottish Government published an action plan on that last year. Has the Government considered whether the action plan needs to be updated to take account of the new call for changes?

We will fully consider the recommendations that Murdo Fraser talked about in his question. In short, the answer to whether the action plan requires to be updated is yes, given what we are talking about. Because of the nature of the internet and digital technology, we must ensure that the actions we take keep pace with technological changes. We will continue to look at what more can be done.

The internet is a fantastic resource, and young people should feel confident about enjoying its benefits. However, we all know the risks that exist; therefore, it is important that we look carefully at the actions that need to be taken to keep children safe. I assure members that we will continue to do that.

Stop and Search (Black and Asian People)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to figures that show black and Asian people in Scotland are more likely to be stopped and searched. (S5F-02133)

Last month, the advisory group on stop and search, which is chaired by John Scott QC, produced a report that evaluates the first six months of the code of practice on stop and search. I understand that, yesterday, the group issued an amendment to some of the figures in its report, which Anas Sarwar has drawn on.

However, the group’s conclusions remain unchanged. The report clearly shows that the rate of searches declined across all ethnic groups and that the positive detection rate of searches increased across all ethnic groups, which suggests that the police are focusing searches more effectively. It is vital that people in Scotland can have confidence in policing, whatever their ethnicity, and the justice secretary commissioned the evaluation so that we can understand how well stop and search is operating. A fuller evaluation will be carried out later this year, which will look at all those issues in more detail.

I raised the issue of the original statistics in good faith, as they reflected the experiences that my constituents had raised with me. I recognise and accept that the author has since corrected an error and published an amendment to the report.

The First Minister will know from her own constituents that there is, at the very least, a perception of bias in stop and search among our diverse minority ethnic communities. A number of individuals and representative organisations, including the Muslim Council of Scotland, the Pakistan forum, the Scottish Afghan human rights foundation and Positive Action in Housing, as well as serving and retired officers, have repeated that concern in the past few days. The current stop and search statistics do not include vehicle stops, airport or port stops, or figures from the British Transport Police. As the First Minister has rightly said, building the trust and confidence of our communities is crucial. Will she commit to a review that covers all those areas and to meeting representatives of our diverse minority communities?

Finally, as members across the chamber have recognised, it is unfortunate that some senior figures have attempted to shut down the debate by accusing me of playing the race card or having a personal agenda. That attitude needs to be challenged, because this agenda is personal to me and it should be personal to anyone who believes in equality in all its forms.

Let me be very clear that I do not question Anas Sarwar’s good faith in raising the issue of the statistics, and I do not question the good faith of anybody who is involved in the debate. It is a really important issue, which I know from my constituents, as Anas Sarwar does from his.

However, it is important—I think that Anas Sarwar recognised this in his question—that we try to deal in realities, and to put on record that the report does not show that, if someone is black or Asian, there is an increased risk of being stopped and searched. Anas Sarwar is right that there is or can be a perception of that, which I know from my constituents. As we know, tackling the perception of something is often as important as tackling the reality. We will continue to take the issue seriously, and the further evaluation that I spoke about will be helpful to us in doing that.

On the remainder of Anas Sarwar’s question, he will know that all searches conducted by Police Scotland under the code of practice, including those that take place in airports, on the railways and on the roads are captured by Police Scotland and published quarterly. Information related to searches that are carried out under reserved powers is collated and reported by the United Kingdom Government, and searches that are carried out by the British Transport Police are recorded in its database and reported separately.

I certainly understand the concern that has been expressed by some in the Asian community, particularly about their experiences at airports, and the Cabinet Secretary for Justice is looking at the matter further and will write to Mr Sarwar. It is important that we recognise and seek to tackle any perception that our ethnic minority communities have but it is also important that we recognise the good work that is being done in good faith by police officers the length and breadth of the country.

Scottish Police Authority

To ask the First Minister what assessment the Scottish Government has made of the capacity of the Scottish Police Authority, and whether the organisation is fit for purpose. (S5F-02117)

The Scottish Police Authority has implemented a number of changes in relation to governance and accountability since its new chair, Susan Deacon, started her appointment last December, including taking steps to ensure greater simplification, transparency and clarity around the SPA’s governance and to ensure that decisions are underpinned by effective processes and enhanced professional advice. The current public appointments round, for which interviews are taking place this week, will bring in up to five new board members, enhancing the SPA’s capacity to scrutinise policing and to hold Police Scotland to account. I also note that, for the first time, Audit Scotland gave an unqualified and unmodified opinion on the SPA accounts for 2016-17.

Presiding Officer,

“the recommendations set out in this report will go a long way to resolving the issues and concerns raised.”

That was the last SPA chair, Andrew Flanagan, speaking nearly two years ago, after the Cabinet Secretary for Justice had asked him to conduct a review. What followed was a succession of failures leading to Mr Flanagan’s resignation and the SPA’s reputation being dragged through the mud again. The latest report was co-authored by the SPA’s deputy chair. Does the First Minister not recognise that, instead of members of the SPA marking their own homework, it is time that we had an independent expert-led commission that could examine the whole picture, including the roles of police bosses, Parliament, councils and the justice secretary?

It is for this Parliament to hold the justice secretary to account, but, on the broader issue, I think that it is important to recognise the changes that Susan Deacon has made since she came into office as the new chair of the SPA. For example, she has introduced single board meetings to discuss public and private issues while setting out how items of private business will be addressed; she has initiated an examination of board business, committee structures and the board’s governance framework; she has strengthened engagement and dialogue with Parliament, including with committee conveners; she has reinstated the complaints and conduct committee, with delegated decision-making powers; and she has moved to improve the performance management of board members with a continuous and accelerated one-to-one programme of improvement. I am sure that she will also consider the comments made by the Parliament’s Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee as part of that process.

The review that we are talking about now will, as Susan Deacon herself has said, help to inform the wider programme of improvement work that is being taken forward. It focuses specifically on executive support to the board and sits alongside the work that I have already mentioned that Ms Deacon has been undertaking. I hope that the member recognises the work that is being done and the determination on the part of the new chair to make sure that progress of that nature continues.

The review found that local communities, local police scrutiny conveners and local politicians were effectively shut out of inputting into policing decisions. Does the First Minister accept the review’s conclusion that the Scottish National Party’s structures have fundamentally undermined localism in policing?

Speaking as a local constituency MSP, I would have to say no. I regularly speak to local police about issues and priorities in my own constituency, and I assume that most members across the country do the same. However, it is, as we have always said, important that there is local accountability in policing and, as the member has rightly pointed out, it was one of the issues talked about in the review. The review’s recommendations will complement the work that Susan Deacon has already undertaken, and I expect her, in consultation with her colleagues, to take forward those recommendations as she considers appropriate.

Given the impending appointment of five new board members, what input has the SPA’s new chair Susan Deacon had in setting in that agenda, ensuring that the job descriptions are proper and getting a fully effective board?

Susan Deacon has had considerable input into that and, as I said, interviews for new board members are taking place this week. In my earlier answers, I outlined some of the steps that are being taken to better support board members and to ensure good performance management of them. That should be welcomed. I have also outlined a range of other measures that Susan Deacon has taken.

There is an openness around the fact that improvements required to be made in how the SPA was doing its business. Improvements have been made and I am sure that they will continue to be made, as the new chair considers appropriate.