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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 9, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 09 March 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Community Jobs Scotland, Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time, Local Government Finance (Scotland) Order 2017 [Draft], Biodiversity, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


General Question Time

Oil Prices (Assistance)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to assist businesses in the north-east that have been affected by changes in global oil prices. (S5O-00752)

The Scottish Government continues to support both businesses and individuals affected by the downturn in the oil and gas sector. The energy jobs task force is developing long-term solutions to the structural challenges that affect the sector, and our enterprise agencies have engaged with more than 700 companies in the oil and gas industry.

In addition to support for individuals through the transition training fund, we have provided a further £12.5 million to support innovation and business resilience, informed by the work of the energy jobs task force. That included £10 million of Scottish Enterprise funding to help firms to reduce risks associated with carrying out research and development. To date, around 78 innovation projects with a total project value of around £16 million have benefited from around £7 million of Scottish Government support. Some £2.5 million was set aside for business resilience reviews and for providing targeted support from industry experts, and there has been over £2.5 million of investment committed, so far.

Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise are providing practical assistance to the supply chain. They have run six resilience in oil and gas events, and welcomed 217 delegates from 144 companies to hear from experts on strategy, operations, finance and market resilience.

In addition, our competitive business rates package targets support where it is most needed, and rates increases are capped for around 1,000 offices in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire, which is the local area that is most adversely affected by changes in the oil and gas sector. Councils are able to apply further rates reductions, and we continue to work with Aberdeen City Council and Aberdeenshire Council to inform that consideration.

Will the minister outline what he believes to be the industry’s key asks of the United Kingdom Government at this time, to support the considerable work that has been done within the Scottish Government’s limited powers, and which might also allow companies and the oil and gas workforce to plan for the future?

I certainly recognise the balance between devolved and reserved powers. It is encouraging that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has finally listened to the calls that I, my predecessors and the industry have been making repeatedly for some time, to ensure that the right assets are in the right hands. We have seen recently deals of that nature in asset transfers from Shell to Chrysaor and from BP to EnQuest. However, it is crucial that the UK Government turns talk into action rather than simply forming more talking shops.

Although a panel has been established, we really need it to come forward with concrete proposals that can help the industry. This week’s Oil & Gas UK bulletin highlighted the urgent need for fresh capital investment to stimulate activity and maximise economic recovery. We believe that steps must now be taken to incentivise investment and exploration. That would be of particular help to the supply chain, which is likely to continue to experience some tough times ahead.

As I outlined in my original answer, we are doing everything that we can within our devolved powers, but we really need the UK Government to step up, stop talking and do something to help the industry.

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution and the Minister for Business, Innovation and Energy have said that business rates that are raised locally and collected locally stay local, but Aberdeenshire Council councillors were advised this morning that, of the £116 million that they expect from business rates next year, they will get only £93 million from the Scottish Government. Can the Scottish Government tell us where that £23 million has gone?

Ross Thomson raises an important issue. However, as I stressed to tenants at an event in Inverurie—I think that Mr Thomson was present—revenue is retained by councils, but on a multiyear basis. I will ask my colleague Derek Mackay to provide further details on that mechanism so that Ross Thomson and other members understand it.

The minister will know that 8,000 of the 10,000 businesses in the north-east that have been hit by the recent rates revaluation have had no benefit from the selective cap that was announced on 21 February. Will the Scottish Government now offer some support to businesses such as that which is owned by my constituents Graham and Linda Dawson, who have faced not only a 50 per cent increase in their rates liability, but have been taken out of any access whatsoever to the small business rates relief scheme as a result? Is Stewart Spence of the Marcliffe hotel and spa right? He told this morning’s edition of The Press and Journal:

“I just don’t think they have grasped the problem in Aberdeen”.

As I hope Lewis Macdonald knows, and as has been explained in Parliament on several occasions, individual rates valuations are set by assessors; Scottish Government ministers do not have any role in such valuations. Any business, including the one that is run by Graham and Linda Dawson in Lewis Macdonald’s constituency, can appeal. I have spoken to the assessor for Aberdeenshire, who is very keen to engage with businesses informally to see whether there have been mistakes in valuations, and to take forward any changes that would arise from that. If the Dawsons were to be unhappy with the outcome of that, they could still make a formal appeal: they have up to six months to do so. I encourage them to engage with the assessor—who seems to be willing to have detailed discussions about individual businesses on an open-book basis—to see whether there has been unfairness in the valuation.

We continue to support businesses as best we can with national reliefs, and local authorities continue to provide local reliefs.

Prisoners (Privileges)

To ask the Scottish Government for what reason prisoners contesting their convictions are reportedly denied privileges afforded to the wider prison population. (S5O-00753)

Prisoners contesting their convictions are not denied privileges afforded to the wider prison population. A system of privileges is in place in every prison in Scotland. Although the system may contain different provisions, dependent on the security category of prisoners, or for prisoners detained in specific parts of the prison, it does not restrict privileges for those contesting their conviction.

My constituents Steven Green and Alan D’Ambrosio are both serving seven years in HMP Edinburgh. They both maintain their innocence and I find their grounds for appeal most compelling. They have already suffered unacceptable delays in the appeals process and have been told that while they contest their verdicts they cannot progress to HMP Castle Huntly and the significant privileges that that would afford. Does the cabinet secretary agree that denying prisoners progression in such a way puts unfair pressure on people who might be innocent to abandon their appeals? What steps does he plan to take to address that?

It would not be appropriate for me to comment on an individual case relating to two of Mr Cole-Hamilton’s constituents. If an appeal is being pursued, it is a matter for the courts to determine.

Denying the index offence does not automatically exclude an individual from progressing to less-secure conditions. However, the Scottish Prison Service must consider the risk posed by an individual before considering whether they should move to less-secure conditions. The process in the Scottish Prison Service is that such work goes through an establishment’s risk management team, which is responsible for considering whether a prisoner should move to less-secure conditions. When an individual denies all or even part of their index offence, and that restricts their access to participation in any behaviour programmes that the SPS operates, the risk management team can also consider the findings in the context of a psychological risk assessment. Denying the index offence is not a provision that completely prevents a prisoner from being able to progress to less-secure conditions, but such matters are considered and decided upon by the risk management team within the establishment.

Aquaculture (Environment)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to address environmental concerns regarding aquaculture industry production targets. (S5O-00754)

Aquaculture in Scotland provides world-class products, namely farmed salmon and trout, that have the potential to contribute £3.6 billion annually to the Scottish economy, supporting 18,000 jobs across the supply chain by 2030.

The sector, supported by the Scottish Government, must strive to be a world leader in innovation and demonstrate a global model for sustainable growth. At the same time we need to ensure that there are appropriate measures in place to protect Scotland’s water environment from any adverse impacts.

The industry is significant for employment in fragile coastal communities. As the industry develops and the Scottish Government consultation goes live—I understand that it is about to open—it is important to consider environmental and welfare issues, too. Will the Scottish Government and the cabinet secretary consider welfare assessments of delousing treatments and the success or otherwise of cleaner fish, which are a more environmentally friendly way of dealing with an intractable problem?

Will the cabinet secretary also consider the approach that I proposed in an amendment that I lodged to the Aquaculture and Fisheries (Scotland) Bill, which the Scottish Government rejected, on farm-level assessment and reporting, with a delay, to give companies an opportunity to sort out problems and protect their reputations?

In principle, the member makes reasonable points and takes a view that we all share; as I said, we need appropriate measures in place to protect our water environment. The member is quite correct to say that there is a forthcoming consultation on the new licensing framework. The new framework will seek to help aquaculture to expand, within sustainable limits.

I am pleased to inform members who might not follow the issue as avidly as I do that the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation published figures on 13 February that showed that reported sea lice levels during quarter 4 were the lowest since 2013. That is welcome news. However, we need to do a lot more work, including the thorough assessment of all planning applications—I assure members that that is the approach that we take.

I hope that the cabinet secretary accepts that fish farming is one of the most regulated industries in Scotland and that it needs to be supported through that regulation.

On Claudia Beamish’s point, does the cabinet secretary acknowledge that the North Atlantic Fisheries College marine centre in Scalloway is undertaking field trials into the use of lumpsucker fish as a mechanism for dealing with sea lice, which are a grave problem for the industry? Is that the way forward that he foresees for the industry? Will he ensure that his research funds support such initiatives?

I am happy to agree with the member. I was in Shetland not long ago and—more recently—in Fort William last week, where I was able to speak to people about the success that fish farming in Scotland is generating for our most rural communities, where there are not many obvious employment alternatives. I think that Tavish Scott would agree that salmon is the most climate-friendly food, with—as far as I know—the lowest carbon footprint of any food in the world. It is a great Scottish success story and we are determined to write new chapters thereanent.

British Transport Police (Integration)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the proposed integration of the British Transport Police in Scotland into Police Scotland. (S5O-00755)

The Scottish Government’s Railway Policing (Scotland) Bill was introduced on 8 December, with the objective of paving the way for the integration of the British Transport Police in Scotland into Police Scotland. The bill is currently subject to parliamentary scrutiny.

It is the opinion of, among others, the rail operators, the rail unions, the travelling public, the British Transport Police Federation, the BTP itself and now even Police Scotland that the merger is unnecessary and threatens passenger safety. Deputy Chief Constable Hanstock has said that the BTP has not been able to identify any operational or economic benefits, and the BTP Federation has said that the force

“is an established and successful model”,

and has highlighted a recent inspection, which was so successful that no recommendations were made.

The British Transport Police is not broken. What is the Scottish Government trying to fix?

Let me make a couple of observations on the member’s remarks.

First, I remind the member that the devolution of the British Transport Police was the result of the Smith commission agreement that all parties reached by coming together in consensus. [Interruption.] Ah, the Conservatives do not like that very much, and they will not like my second point, either.

I was looking through the consultation responses to the bill that we have introduced, desperately looking for the alternative that the Conservatives are proposing, and I could not find any consultation response whatever from the Conservatives.

We are ensuring that the British Transport Police has the same level of accountability to this Parliament as Police Scotland has—previously, the BTP has not had that. In the interests of being constructive, I say to Mr Kerr that if he would like to join in my next meeting with rail operators—yesterday I met Assistant Chief Constable Higgins of Police Scotland, and the British Transport Police—he will be more than welcome to do so. He will very soon find that his characterisation of their view on the British Transport Police integration is not their view at all.

I ask Liam Kerr to be constructive, to come forward with alternative proposals and to have a conversation with rail operators, when he will find that the way in which he characterised their view is not how they view integration at all.

Will the minister confirm that integration of the British Transport Police will mean a more efficient and effective service and that rather than people occasionally having to wait for a considerable time for BTP colleagues, local police officers will be able to be drafted in much more quickly to deal with crimes on our railway network?

Also, the minister touched on this in his earlier answer, but is he not surprised at the Tories? If the Tories in this place are so opposed to the measure, why were their Westminster colleagues so keen to devolve it?

The UK Government is looking at the integration of the British Transport Police with other infrastructure authorities south of the border. An announcement has not been made on that yet, but I assume that the Conservatives in this chamber will be as vocal in their opposition to that as they seem to be to our plans.

At the Justice Committee on Tuesday, ACC Higgins gave an absolute assurance that the expertise that we know the British Transport Police has will be maintained in the railway policing division in Police Scotland. The expertise that has been gained over many years will be protected, as will the funding that goes to the British Transport Police, and there is a triple-lock guarantee on jobs, pensions and pay. As Kenneth Gibson says, the safety of the commuters and passengers who use our railways is paramount in the Government’s mind and in the minds of Police Scotland and the British Transport Police.

General Practitioner Out-of-hours Services (NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde’s review of GP out-of-hours services. (S5O-00756)

The out-of-hours primary care system has been facing increasing challenges, with pressure of work rising due to significant numbers of people seeking help and a lack of available general practitioners who are willing to participate in the out-of-hours service.

It was with that in mind that we published the report “Pulling together: transforming urgent care for the people of Scotland” in November 2015. The report was led by Professor Sir Lewis Ritchie and it followed extensive consultation with stakeholders. It highlighted the need to think anew about what is best for urgent care for the people of Scotland and the requirement for transformational change across many sectors.

The review by NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde is being undertaken to ensure a safe and sustainable out-of-hours service. We have been assured that the board will undertake meaningful engagement with the public to shape its future provision of out-of-hours services.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that, over the past three weekends, no GPs have been available to cover the out-of-hours service at the Vale of Leven hospital. Although I understand that the health board is reviewing the service, it has given no guarantee about operating hours continuing. Will the cabinet secretary guarantee today that current evening and weekend services will be fully retained after the review, or will there be cuts at my local hospital?

NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde has advised that the closure of the out-of-hours service at the Vale of Leven on the dates to which Jackie Baillie refers was a temporary measure that was taken to protect patient care because of a staff shortage. The hospital continued to have medical and nursing staff on site in the minor injuries service, and patients who required emergency medical attention were treated by that service. For those who needed a primary care service but were deemed not to be in an emergency, transport was offered so that they could be transferred to an alternative out-of-hours service.

The review will be getting under way and we need to wait until we see its outcome. However, it is clear that we need a robust, safe and sustainable out-of-hours service to be available to people, whether they are in Jackie Baillie’s constituency or elsewhere in the NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde area. We should allow the review to take its course, then I will make sure, in discussion with NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, that that aspiration is delivered.

Ambulances (Moray)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of ambulance provision in the Moray area. (S5O-00757)

The deployment of ambulance resources is an operational matter for the Scottish Ambulance Service. The service reviews demand and resourcing throughout the country to ensure that it is delivering a safe and effective service that meets the needs of people and their communities across Scotland.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that, last week, 95 per cent of ambulance staff who are Unite members supported the call to start official dispute talks with management. Staff have said that bosses are clueless and more interested in spin than in sorting the service.

In Moray, we have a new ambulance that has not been used for months because of a lack of driver training and administrative errors that meant that the stock of oxygen in Elgin was so depleted that it had to be rationed by ambulance staff because their tanks were in the red. What is the cabinet secretary’s response to the catalogue of problems in the area, and will she agree to meet me and members of the Scottish Ambulance Service to urgently discuss these issues to ensure that local ambulance staff are properly equipped to do the job and that the public in Moray get the service that they expect and deserve?

I am aware of the issues that have been raised in the north of Scotland and I have been in contact with the Scottish Ambulance Service to discuss the matter. In fact, I discussed it with the chair of the service, David Garbutt, just this week. I am reassured that work is on-going to address the concerns that have been raised. It is very important that the concerns are addressed and I have asked to be kept informed of any development.

The Scottish Government has invested an extra £11.4 million in the Scottish Ambulance Service, which has helped with the recruitment of 200 additional paramedics this year, 30 of whom will be working in the Grampian area. I hope that the member welcomes that, because those are important resources that his constituents will benefit from.