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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 09 November 2021

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Young Persons Guarantee and National Training Transition Fund, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Long Covid


Contents


Topical Question Time

The next item of business is topical question time. In order to get in as many people as possible, I would be grateful for short and succinct questions and responses.


COP26 Protests (Kettling)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the reported use of kettling during recent protests in Glasgow. (S6T-00268)

The right to peaceful protest is not only a crucial component of the success of the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26—but a right that is fully supported by the Scottish Government.

As we enter the second week of COP26, Glasgow has lived up to its proud tradition of activism and of peaceful protest. That is a source of pride for the whole of Scotland.

The policing of the summit is an operational matter for the chief constable, who has been clear from the start that the planning for and delivery of the event would comply with human rights legislation, facilitate peaceful and lawful protest and ensure public safety.

I appreciate that operational matters rest with the chief constable, but Parliament sets the limits within which the police can operate and it is important to understand the Government’s position on those limits.

Police officers declare that they will

“uphold fundamental human rights and accord equal respect to all people”.

I am concerned that some of the tactics deployed during the COP have not taken account of those important principles. The use of kettling tactics with peaceful protestors seems wholly disproportionate.

I have read reports of journalists being kettled for hours with no access to water or toilets, and of a young mother and her baby, who was in a pram, being trapped. It cannot be right that children are being kettled. Does the cabinet secretary think that kettling is a proportionate tactic to use when dealing with peaceful protestors?

I have had daily conversations with Police Scotland throughout COP26, as I did regularly beforehand. I am satisfied that the police have tried extremely hard to ensure that they have facilitated protest and that their response has been proportionate.

There have been 300 protests. The vast majority, as Maggie Chapman’s letter to Police Scotland rightly acknowledges, have been peaceful. Those protests have been accommodated by a flexible response from the police.

The independent review group met on 5 November to discuss some of the issues that have been raised by Ms Chapman and others. The group will meet again today to discuss those issues. It is right that that should happen. It is also right that Ms Chapman should write to Police Scotland if she has concerns. The Scottish Police Authority may also look at the issues in due course. I am satisfied by all the conversations that I have had with Police Scotland that the police have tried to act proportionately, to facilitate protest and to work within the bounds of the legislation set for them by Parliament.

At Saturday’s climate march, one particular group of marchers was, without clear cause, subjected to a police kettle from the moment that they arrived at Kelvingrove park. As the march passed through the city centre, those in the kettled group were halted by the police and prevented from moving any further. In turn, that prevented thousands of other marchers behind the group from continuing with the march. There were minors in that kettle, and the group just wanted to continue marching with everyone else.

Will the cabinet secretary confirm the legal status of kettling in such situations? Will he say whether he has any concerns about the conduct of the officers involved, many of whom—as colleagues in the chamber can confirm—did not seem to know what was happening or who was in control?

I repeat the point that I made about the independent review group, which includes John Scott QC and some of the organisations that made complaints of the kind that Maggie Chapman mentioned. I have been told that that was a constructive meeting.

The police would refer to the practice as “moving containment” and would also say that they have used that tactic because protestors sat down in front of the march, for example, and were stopping the rest of the march from taking place and thus presenting a danger to the public.

As I said, any member of the Parliament—indeed, anyone—can make a complaint to Police Scotland. It is for the police to address the points that have been raised. The independent review group, which includes groups that have raised concerns, such as Friends of the Earth, has had one discussion about the issue and is having a second discussion today. I hope that that is how such issues can be resolved.

Will the cabinet secretary join me in condemning those who tried to antagonise the police into confrontation, and will he commend brave officers for stepping in to stop disruptive protesters?

Mr Findlay raises a good point. There are examples of officers having had paint or liquid sprayed into their eyes but immediately returning to the front line, and of officers being hit over the head with banners. Many officers have been goaded.

Such actions were carried out by a very small minority of the thousands of people who have been involved in protests, but it is wrong. I condemn it and I praise the officers concerned.

What actions have the Scottish Government and delivery partners taken to support peaceful relations at COP26?

We fully recognise that there should be clear dialogue between the protesters, the police and others, and we should not underestimate the extent to which that happened long before COP26 started. The dialogue has included discussions at the marches, which can help to de-escalate tensions and allow protesters to exercise their right to protest while public order is maintained. That is why the Scottish Government has funded the keeping our cool initiative, which is ensuring that independent mediators are present at protests and marches throughout COP26 and can intervene when appropriate to facilitate dialogue between protesters, the police and others in order to achieve positive outcomes.


Emergency Service Workers (Bonfire Night Attacks)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports of numerous attacks on emergency service workers while on duty during bonfire weekend. (S6T-00270)

The Scottish Government is appalled that anyone should make such despicable attacks on emergency service workers, and our thoughts are with those who were injured. I am pleased to have been informed that all are expected to make a full recovery.

Both Police Scotland and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service have reported that numbers of calls were significantly down this year. The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has specifically advised that the number of attacks on crews fell by a third. However, there is still an unacceptable level of antisocial behaviour in our communities related to fireworks.

I am engaging with our emergency services as they debrief and analyse the data to ensure that we maintain the downward trend in call-outs and maximise the protection that is given to those who are called out. I am committed to bringing forward the bill that was announced in our programme for government to implement the remaining recommendations from the independent fireworks review group.

Members on the Government front bench are right to condemn the attacks on police both at COP26 and during bonfire night. It is a great shame that attacks happen year after year in our society, and although the numbers are going down, any attack is unacceptable. The attacks at the weekend were horrific. Police and fire crews were assaulted with fireworks and golf clubs and one person required hospitalisation.

This Parliament, too, must send a strong and simple message to the public that attacking our emergency service workers is simply not on. In that regard, I ask the minister why the Scottish Government will not support our proposals to double the maximum penalty for assault under the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005 from 12 months to two years’ imprisonment.

The misuse of fireworks in our communities is not acceptable, and I believe that that message has been sent out very clearly both from this Parliament and from all our partners including the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and Police Scotland. To anyone who misuses fireworks, the line from our prosecutors and our courts is very clear that people who offend will be dealt with robustly.

We condemn any attack on our emergency services. It is a relief that, as I was able to report to the Parliament, the personnel who were injured will be able to make full recoveries, and it is hoped that on-going police inquiries will identify the perpetrators.

Where we have powers, we have acted. That applies to fireworks and it applies to sentences for attacks on police officers and firefighters. We have the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005, which supplements the common law and contains specific offences that can be used, which carry sentences of up to 12 months in custody. We are always prepared to keep the law under review, as I am sure that the member is aware, but we have no real evidence that sentencing rules are encouraging criminality.

To help to bring the offenders to book, I encourage anyone who has any information about these senseless attacks on our emergency services or any wider disturbances that occurred to contact the police. They can do that either directly or anonymously through Crimestoppers.

The minister wants some evidence that the current common law and legislation are not enough. Let me give her some evidence. Last year, the number of assaults on emergency workers rose to an all-time high of more than 8,000 incidents. The number has gone up by 600 year on year. If that is not evidence, I do not know what is.

In 2018-19, 160 people were convicted under the 2005 act, which carries a maximum sentence of just 12 months. If we couple that with the presumption against short sentences, the end result is that fewer than a third actually went to jail for assaulting emergency service workers. Other parts of the United Kingdom have, rightly, doubled that ceiling from 12 months to two years. I therefore ask again: why can we not do the same in Scotland?

As I have said to the member, we are always prepared to keep the law under review, and I do not have evidence that sentencing rules are encouraging such criminality. A range of tools can be used by the police and prosecutors for such offences; for serious offences, that includes sentences of up to life imprisonment. I therefore believe that the courts have at their disposal the tools to be able to prosecute such offences appropriately.

I am sure that the member is aware that the Government is committed to curtail the misuse of fireworks and bring it under control through a number of short and longer-term legislative and non-legislative actions. We set up the fireworks review group to look at how Scotland’s regime for the sale and use of fireworks could be improved, and I am committed to progressing its recommendations. This year, we have changed the law, and the early signs from the gold commanders to whom I spoke last year are that has had a positive effect. We have also funded a number of public awareness campaigns and have funded trading standards officers for education and enforcement.

The Government is committed to curtailing the misuse of fireworks and to creating a regime, in sentencing and in legislation, that will improve Scotland’s relationship with fireworks.

I acknowledge that call-out numbers were down this year, but much work still needs to be done. What progress has the Scottish Government made in implementing the recommendations of the independent fireworks review group, to ensure that fireworks are used safely and appropriately?

The Scottish Government set up the independent fireworks review group, chaired by former chief fire officer Alasdair Hay, to undertake a thorough review of the evidence on the sale and use of fireworks, including data on the impact of firework use in Scotland and international case studies.

Last year, I welcomed the group’s recommendations and committed to progressing them as soon as possible. We have already legislated to implement a number of them, which means that, this year, the times of day at which fireworks can be supplied to the general public are restricted, as are their volume and the times of day at which they can be set off. Following a consultation this summer, we will shortly be introducing primary legislation to implement the group’s remaining recommendations. Taking that together with the non-legislative actions that we are progressing with our partners, we aim to deliver a fundamental change in the culture of Scotland’s relationship with fireworks, to better protect our communities and our emergency services.