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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 10 January 2018

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Chief Constable (Leave of Absence), Glasgow 2018 European Championships, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Holocaust Memorial Day 2018


Portfolio Question Time

Cornton Vale Prison

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the future of Cornton Vale prison. (S5O-01644)

In 2015, I announced that Scotland would adopt a new approach to supporting women in custody. That approach includes plans for a new, small national prison for women to be located on the current site of HMP and YOI Cornton Vale.

On 11 July 2017, the demolition of Bruce house commenced, signalling the continued commitment to replace Cornton Vale with a smaller national facility for 80 women on the site. A separate assessment centre will also be included on the site to cater for up to 25 women. Initial preparatory work has already been completed with further work continuing in 2018 and beyond.

The first public consultation event was held as part of the proposal of application notice on 6 December 2017 and a second will be held on 16 January 2018. Following the conclusion of the planning process, it is anticipated that the procurement process to identify a contractor will conclude in August 2018, with construction commencing thereafter in winter 2018. Plans remain on track for the national facility to be operational by the end of 2020.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that traditional prisons have not always achieved the outcomes for female prisoner offenders that we would want? Is it not, therefore, crucial that we continue to look at alternative custodial arrangements such as the community-based custodial units that he has mentioned? Can he provide any details of the likely implications for future staffing at Cornton Vale? If he cannot do that today, will he provide me with that information at the earliest possible juncture?

Yes, I agree. That is why the proposal that is being taken forward for Scotland’s new female custodial estate includes the design of the initial two community custodial units. The first of the CCUs will be located in Maryhill in Glasgow and at a site in Dundee. The purpose behind the units is to allow women to be held closer to their families and to provide them with the opportunity to engage with community-based services in those localities.

The CCUs will focus on helping women to develop the strategies that can support them in successfully reintegrating into the community and moving away from a lifestyle that involves offending.

On staffing, the approach that we are taking for the new facilities, especially the national facility, is still in the process of development, so I am not able at this stage to determine the exact staffing profile, because the model is still being fully defined.

I am happy to provide the member with more detailed information when it becomes available. Meantime, I assure him that the fullest consultation will take place with staff at Cornton Vale and their trade union representatives.

The Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland recently visited Cornton Vale prison. Its report highlighted concerns relating to the availability of mental health specialists and suitable medication and suggested an audit of prison officer training to improve mental health awareness. What assurances can the cabinet secretary give that the proposed restructuring of Cornton Vale prison will not affect the mental welfare of prisoners with complex mental health conditions?

One of the purposes behind moving to the new model is to ensure that there is better engagement with community-based services within the locality, particularly for women who might have an underlying mental health issue, so that when they leave the community custodial unit and go back into the community, the services that have been supporting them are still there—rather than having a situation whereby once women leave a single national facility, they have to engage with mental health services in another part of the country if they require them.

The recommendations and findings in the Mental Welfare Commission report are being considered by the Scottish Prison Service in partnership with NHS Forth Valley, which is responsible for providing healthcare services at Cornton Vale.

I assure the member that mental health issues, particularly support for women, are a key factor behind the new model for dealing with women who come into custody that we are moving to.

Sexual Offence Cases (Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service Working Practices)

To ask the Scottish Government whether the Lord Advocate will provide an update regarding how the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service’s reform of its working practices in dealing with sexual offence cases will help ensure that victims feel supported during the justice process. (S5O-01645)

Sexual offences now make up 75 per cent of the service’s High Court case load, and the number of cases of sexual crime reported to the service continues to increase. That means that victims of crime are coming forward and that, when the evidence is available, the Crown can bring perpetrators to justice.

Sexual offence cases are dealt with by specialist prosecutors. The way in which that work is undertaken has been reorganised in response to the increased caseload, with a view to speeding up case preparation and reducing the time that it takes to bring cases to trial.

Since September 2017, the service’s victim information and advice staff working on High Court sexual offence cases have had specific geographic responsibility. That means that the complainer should now, generally, have a single individual who will be responsible for providing her with information. All complainers in High Court sexual offence cases should be contacted within 24 hours of the accused first appearing in court, and the service has now introduced commitments to make further contact within a short period thereafter. In November, HM inspectorate of prisons for Scotland made 12 recommendations for further improving the way in which the service handles sexual offences. I accepted all those recommendations and work is in hand towards their implementation.

I thank the Lord Advocate for his response and welcome the commitment to make progress on the review recommendations, particularly since one area that was highlighted is the most recent conviction rate for rape and attempted rape, which is 48 per cent compared with 72 per cent for all sexual crimes.

Does the Lord Advocate agree that maintaining public confidence in the whole system for dealing with sexual offences is crucial? Will he outline the rationale for the decision not to take action against the two footballers, Goodwillie and Robertson, who were accused of rape by Denise Clair and subsequently found guilty of rape in a civil action? Will the Crown Office’s decision not to prosecute be revisited in light of the successful civil action and the failure of the appeal against it in November?

I entirely agree that maintaining public confidence in the system of investigation and prosecution of crime is of the highest importance. It would not be appropriate for me to discuss the details of any individual prosecutorial decision.

The approach that requires to be taken when considering a prosecution is different from that which applies in a civil case. The standard of proof is, for good reason, different. The prosecutor has to prove the case beyond reasonable doubt and a series of evidential rules apply in criminal cases that do not apply in civil cases.

Through the work of the specialist prosecutors who undertake High Court sexual offences work, the Crown considers carefully all cases of this sort, and decisions are based on the evidence that is available and a careful analysis and application of the law to that evidence.

Fatal Accident Inquiries (Sheku Bayoh, Lamara Bell and John Yuill)

To ask the Scottish Government when fatal accident inquiries into the M9 crash and the death of Sheku Bayoh will be held. (S5O-01646)

The separate investigations by the Crown into each of the two incidents are continuing under the direction of a senior advocate depute. Although considerable progress has been made, further work requires to be completed before a fully informed decision can be made about potential criminal proceedings in each case. That decision has to be taken before the timing of a fatal accident inquiry can be considered. Officials continue to keep the families of the deceased advised. Indeed, meetings with those affected by the M9 incident took place as recently as December 2017.

It has been two and a half years since the deaths of Sheku Bayoh, John Yuill and Lamara Bell. That is two and a half years in which the families and the police officers have been waiting for an inquiry and answers, and I am genuinely concerned for their welfare. Has the Lord Advocate made an assessment of the impact on the families and the police officers of that wait? What can be done to speed up the process?

I am acutely conscious of the impact that the passage of time has on all of those who are affected by these cases and, indeed, by any case. Each of these cases is the subject of a substantial investigation that involves complex factual and legal questions. Those who are involved are entitled to expect the investigation to be undertaken with the utmost thoroughness. Although I recognise the effect that the passage of time has on those concerned, my fundamental commitment, in the public interest, is to ensure that investigations of this sort are undertaken thoroughly, fully and with a view to ensuring that the answers that are produced at the end of the day are soundly based.

As I said in my previous answer, the Crown is in contact with the families of the deceased and keeps them advised of the state of play. As I said, in the M9 case, there was a meeting with members of the family of the deceased as recently as December.

Nicholas Randall was found dead in 2008, three years after he disappeared. Despite a whistleblower identifying multiple items of evidence that suggest that his death was suspicious, the police ruled otherwise. Will the Government ensure that Police Scotland properly explains that decision and, in the name of transparency, releases the case review report and any related documentation?

I am not sure that that particular case directly relates to the question, which is about two specific fatal accident inquiries. The Lord Advocate may add a comment if he wishes.

I see that he does not.

Families, victims and witnesses have waited five years for the fatal accident inquiry into the Clutha helicopter tragedy, which begins this autumn. What reassurances can the Government give that we will not wait five years for the incidents that have been mentioned in this question to be resolved? How frequently are the communications that he mentioned being held with the families in the M9 and Bayoh cases?

Mr Johnson is absolutely right to note that in the Clutha case we have passed an important milestone, because a decision has been able to be taken that, on the evidence currently available, criminal proceedings are not anticipated, therefore we can proceed to a fatal accident inquiry.

In the two cases that Mr Rennie has raised, a decision on the question of whether or not—and I stress those words, “whether or not”—criminal proceedings should be brought still requires to be made. It requires to be made on the basis of the fullest and most thorough investigation of what are, in each case, circumstances that raise complex questions, both of fact and of law. Once that decision has been made, we will be able to move to the next stage of proceedings.

Emergency Services (Festive Period)

To ask the Scottish Government how many calls the emergency services responded to over the festive period. (S5O-01647)

Strictly comparable figures for emergency call volumes across the police, fire and ambulance services are not available.

However, I can advise that between 7 am on 15 December and 7 am on 3 January the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service received a total of 6,160 emergency calls. Police Scotland received a total of 27,876 calls via 999 between 15 December and 2 January, as well as 83,146 calls to the 101 non-emergency number. The Scottish Ambulance Service received a total of 73,049 calls in the same period.

Will the cabinet secretary join me in expressing sincere thanks to all the emergency services staff, who continue to work over the Christmas and new year period to keep us safe?

Yes. The festive period is always a very demanding time for our emergency services. However, due to the dedication and hard work of the people who work in those services, they again rose to the challenges that were presented by the Christmas and new year period. I know that I speak for all members when I say how much we value the enormous contribution that they make to keeping our people safe in their communities over the festive period and throughout the course of the year.

I would like to associate myself with the words of praise for the people on the front line, the people in our emergency control centres, the support staff and the volunteers who do such a great job.

What is the cabinet secretary going to do to support the staff in our emergency control centres in tackling the problem of hoax calls, following publication of figures that show that hoax calls have taken up 28,107 minutes—more than 20 days—of their time since 2012?

We have taken a range of actions over an extended period to tackle hoax calls to our emergency services—ambulance, fire and police. I visited Bilston Glen call centre just before Christmas to meet the staff there, and hoax calls continue to be a problem that they experience. There are not only hoax calls, but individuals calling 101, or even the 999 emergency number, for inappropriate reasons.

Part of the work that has been taken forward by Police Scotland and other emergency services is to educate people to make sure that when they utilise the emergency and non-emergency numbers, they do so appropriately. The services are, alongside that, tackling issues that relate to hoax calls.

I do not think that there is any single solution to the problem of hoax calls, other than to continue to remind people of the potential adverse impact that they can have on services. When resources are diverted to a hoax incident, the services are deprived of their use for legitimate incidents to which they should be responding.

European Arrest Warrant

To ask the Scottish Government what recent discussions it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding the European arrest warrant. (S5O-01648)

The European arrest warrant is a significant component of the extradition process. It is a part of the package of justice measures that work together to form the toolkit that supports collaboration on matters of internal security, law enforcement and criminal justice across the European Union. Those measures have proved to be vital to rapid information sharing and effective co-operation between the police and prosecutors across the EU, yet we stand to lose them as a result of Brexit.

Despite continued requests, to date there have been no substantive discussions with the UK Government on the European arrest warrant or any of the other measures that ensure the safety and security of our citizens.

I thank the minister for that answer.

Just this week, prosecutors were granted a European arrest warrant to track the suspect in an armed robbery at the Gleneagles hotel to Spain, which illustrates the on-going importance of the system.

Julian King, the UK’s European commissioner who is responsible for security, has stated that

“the jurisprudence relating to the European arrest warrant is”

European Court of Justice “jurisprudence”. Does the minister agree that it is high time that the UK Government dropped its foolish red line that will prevent any future role for the European Court of Justice, and started to negotiate seriously with the EU27 to keep as many of the advantages of the European arrest warrant as possible?

Joan McAlpine has raised two important and separate but linked issues. The European arrest warrant is a vital tool to allow law enforcement agencies to bring to justice perpetrators of serious crimes—for example, crimes of the very nature of that in Gleneagles, to which the member made reference.

The justice and home affairs cross-border measures, which include the European arrest warrant, are EU wide and fall under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, which is the ultimate interpreter of EU law. Member states are required to give its judgments primacy.

The UK Government’s paper “Security, law enforcement and criminal justice—a future partnership” sets out a proposal for a new security treaty to maintain continued security, law enforcement and criminal justice co-operation after Brexit. However, it reiterates the UK Government’s position that a new model will not involve the UK being subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Therefore, any new treaty will have to be underpinned by a new legal agreement on an alternative means of dispute resolution.

The arrangements that are currently in place are essential to ensuring the security and safety of our people and to saving vital time. They need to be maintained. Although we support the aim of agreeing a deep and special relationship with the EU to ensure that co-operation can continue, we expect—and we would accept—the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice on those matters, because refusal to do so would significantly damage any chance of attaining access to important law enforcement and security measures.

Creative Industries and the Arts

1. Ash Denham (Edinburgh Eastern) (SNP)

I am the parliamentary liaison officer for the culture portfolio.

To ask the Scottish Government what support it is giving to creative industries and the arts. (S5O-01654)

This Government recognises the value of the creative industries and the arts. That is why the draft budget for 2018-19 includes an additional £6.6 million to allow Creative Scotland to maintain the level of its regular funding programme as well as doubling the investment in screen.

As we begin the year of young people, we are also protecting the £9 million for the youth music initiative, and we are increasing the funding for Sistema Scotland.

We continue to support the creative industries and the arts by providing opportunities for collaboration and partnership, including on-going work with the creative industries advisory group, which I co-chair.

In the light of the United Kingdom Government’s failure to create a UK-wide lottery cuts handling plan, will the cabinet secretary outline what the Scottish Government’s increase in funding will mean for the sector?

The serious concern for the culture sector was the projected reduction in lottery funding. Clearly, decisions by the UK Government on deregulation and other matters relating to the lottery have led to a reduced income.

We have managed to secure funding in the draft budget to help to mitigate that. The stability and the grant-in-aid that we are also providing for Creative Scotland mean that the final decisions about regularly funded organisations that it will make in January can be made with a much more positive outlook than was initially expected.

The budget is still a draft budget, however, and that funding will be provided only if the Parliament votes for it.

What work is being done by the Scottish Government to ensure that the screen sector has the correct infrastructure to strengthen Scotland’s film and television sector?

The screen unit blueprint that was published by Creative Scotland at the end of December was put together with input from all the agencies. Clearly, additional investment is important not just for the infrastructure but for the ability to invest in the film and TV sector.

There are two aspects to that. Additional funding of £10 million will double the available funding and will make a big difference to what is available. There is also the opportunity to provide new relationships—for example, with the BBC. We provide opportunities to ensure that the investments that are available more broadly for film and TV can be maximised to grow the industry.

The cabinet secretary may be aware of the growing culture gap between the poorest and the richest in our society. Recent figures from the Scottish household survey show that there is now a 22 point gap when it comes to participation in cultural activity, which is 2 points more than in 2015. Although the investment that the cabinet secretary mentions is welcome, how will it specifically target inclusiveness and focus on closing the gap for all generations?

As the member may be aware, some of the most powerful research evidence that we have shows that people who participate in musical activity or, indeed, wider arts activity when they are younger are more likely to be audiences in the future, regardless of parental income.

Our activity in providing funding for the youth music initiative and sustaining that funding in the face of Conservative UK Government austerity plays an important part. For example, the expansion of Sistema Scotland with £2.5 million of investment is benefiting targeted young people in a number of our cities, and free access to our museum and gallery collections is also important.

In my letters of guidance to all our organisations, I make it clear that I place particular importance on tackling inclusion issues and opportunities for young people in areas of deprivation. Everything that we do allows us to contribute to that, and protecting the culture budget will be an extremely important part of ensuring that we close the gap.

Dallas Dhu Historic Distillery

To ask the Scottish Government what its plans are for the Dallas Dhu Historic Distillery. (S5O-01655)

As the property is in the care of the Scottish ministers, the conservation and management of the Dallas Dhu distillery are handled by Historic Environment Scotland under a scheme of delegation.

I have had meetings with Richard Lochhead and Historic Environment Scotland about bringing the distillery back into action, and Richard Lochhead raised with me in 2015 the potential to bring the distillery back into activity. The distillery is in the ownership of Diageo, which agreed a guardianship arrangement with Historic Scotland in 1998. Richard Lochhead will be aware that, as there are commercial sensitivities to the issue, there are limits to what can be discussed.

As the cabinet secretary has noted, for a number of years I have been pushing for new ideas to develop the fantastic potential of the historic distillery for the local economy, for tourism and for bringing other benefits. In recent months, a number of individuals and organisations have brought creative and exciting ideas to me that could make a difference and bring new investment to the distillery. Is the cabinet secretary willing to speak to Historic Environment Scotland, with which I have shared those ideas, to push things forward so that, in 2018, we can open a new chapter in the fantastic story of this historic distillery and bring massive benefits to tourism and to the local community and economy?

I recognise Richard Lochhead’s work as the constituency MSP in driving forward that new and creative idea. There are limits to what I can say publicly, but I take an interest in the matter and there is an initiative to bring different parties together to make it happen. It is quite complex to balance some of the issues, but I agree to speak to Historic Environment Scotland to ascertain the latest progress and to see what we can do to facilitate that innovative way of ensuring that our heritage is demonstrated not just in the wider area of culture but in our industrial heritage, of which whisky is certainly one part.

China (Engagement Strategy)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the publication of its new strategy for engagement with China. (S5O-01656)

The refresh of Scotland’s China engagement strategy is currently under development. We expect to publish the revised strategy in spring 2018.

The Scottish China engagement strategy is a positive development, but its benefits are known only to the niche groups that are involved in the specifics of the strategy, whether those are small businesses, educational institutions, local government or the close-knit Scottish Chinese community. What work is the Scottish Government doing to encourage links between local Scottish community groups and Chinese groups to promote the strategy and Chinese culture and to ensure that wider society can maximise the benefits of the Scottish China engagement strategy?

With the new strategy to be published in spring 2018, I extend an invitation to the cabinet secretary to come to a meeting of the cross-party group on China to discuss the strategy with its members.

I thank the member. I have attended previous meetings of the cross-party group.

People-to-people engagement is vital. It is interesting that, in the China people-to-people engagement that took place recently in the United Kingdom, the cultural focus was on Scotland. A lot of that engagement is institutional and we facilitate the institutional relationships.

Mary Fee touched on some of the wider aspects of community-to-community engagement. The Confucius institutes, which are now extensive—I think that we have far more per head in Scotland than elsewhere in the United Kingdom—are a good way to engage, as they are about culture and not just language. That is their benefit.

Further, 18 out of 19 of Scotland’s higher education institutions have academic and research links with China. Members might say that that is institutional rather than community to community, but we can use those links and local authority relationships to build more people-to-people relationships and have more dialogue.

Diary permitting, I will be happy to attend a cross-party group meeting.

I am aware of two businesses that are involved in Scottish culture and music that are keen to export their goods and services to China. Can the cabinet secretary provide any information to assist their efforts?

We are keen to support small and medium-sized enterprises to raise their international ambitions and overcome some of the barriers that they might face to international exporting. Scottish Development International is working to tackle some of those issues. If the member gives me the details of those businesses’ particular interests, I will ensure that SDI makes some kind of contact to provide the relevant advice.

As the UK Government’s Department for Transport has negotiated increases in the number of passenger flights between UK airports and China, has the cabinet secretary met representatives of Scottish airports to help them to bid and prepare for the increased number of tourists from China?

I have had a number of meetings with the industry to discuss the opportunities relating to Chinese tourists. I have personally been on delegations to China when the issue of direct flights has been raised with the Chinese Government, and the Minister for Transport and the Islands is actively involved in that area. I know that everybody is anxious about the issue and that there is a great deal of anticipation about the opportunities that can be provided, but at this stage I cannot give you any particular detail or make any announcements. However, I can say that our airports and Government are actively involved in the area.

Aberdeen International Youth Festival (Funding)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the potential withdrawal of funding by Aberdeen City Council to the Aberdeen international youth festival. (S5O-01657)

I understand that Aberdeen City Council’s urgent business committee met on 21 December and made a final decision not to provide funding for the Aberdeen international youth festival. That outcome is incredibly disappointing, although I hope that it provides an opportunity for the organisers to pursue other options and find a new way forward for the festival in 2018, which is Scotland’s year of young people. My officials stand ready to offer advice on alternative sources of funding and to help facilitate networking or new connections to support the festival, if approached.

The cabinet secretary of course acknowledges the fact that a majority of Aberdeen City Council’s councillors—former Labour councillors and Conservative councillors—on the finance, policy and resources committee have voted to withdraw funding from the festival. Can the cabinet secretary give any indication to the organisers of the festival and to the disappointed young people and community organisations in the area who have benefited hugely from the festival’s activities that, even if certain individuals in Aberdeen town house do not recognise the huge negative implications of their decision, the Scottish Government and other cultural agencies do? Will she commit to holding conversations with the organisers of the festival to give them assistance and advice that will allow them to find a way forward for the good of the young people of the north-east and our local economy?

As I said in my original answer, my officials and Scottish Government agencies stand ready to offer advice on possible alternative sources of funding to help Aberdeen international youth festival, should the organisers make such an approach. The impacts and benefits of the festival are well known throughout the north-east. We should acknowledge that Aberdeen City Council has established a £100,000 cultural award programme for 2018-19. We have yet to see the full details of that, but I hope that it will give an opportunity for youth-led cultural projects and events in Aberdeen to take place to celebrate the year of young people in 2018. It is incumbent on all of us, whether at local or national level, to ensure that we provide opportunities for young people to participate in arts in Aberdeen, particularly in this year of young people.

As members well know, I am a member of Aberdeen City Council and I was a party to the decision to withdraw the funding from the Aberdeen international youth festival. In recent years, the festival has experienced declining audiences and a lack of participation, along with lacklustre management and a governance structure that left much to be desired. I am very supportive of the general principles of the arts festival, so the most disappointing thing for me was that the forward plan was inadequate to address the matters that should concern the festival. Does the cabinet secretary agree that it would be inappropriate to award funding to the youth festival at this stage, and does she look forward to an alternative business plan, possibly involving ad hoc funding from the city council, being presented by the youth festival?

It is inappropriate for any member to attack the management of local volunteers and those involved in trying to deliver festivals throughout our country. The member may or may not still be a councillor—I do not know whether he has resigned or not—but this is the national Parliament of Scotland and our job is to create the conditions and provide the strategic leadership, and to ensure that there is funding for our organisations to drive forward such projects. We have to respect the fact that there are many volunteers who are involved in our festivals, and providing a bit of leadership and support to them is important. I do not know the details of the papers that went to the council, because this is not a council chamber; this is a Parliament. It is important to support the people who support our local festivals, and I hope that, however the council and the local volunteers take the festival forward, they do so in a positive and constructive way and we do not use this chamber to attack the management and volunteers of local organisations.

Tourism (Galloway)

5. Finlay Carson (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to promote Galloway’s natural features to attract tourists. (S5O-01658)

In our programme for government, we committed to promoting the south of Scotland, including Galloway, as a destination for coastal and forest tourism activities. That will continue our work with partners in developing Galloway’s existing tourism assets, including its heritage, culture and creative arts, wildlife, nature and green tourism, and local food and drink, and will build on the success of the Galloway dark sky park and the south-west Scotland biosphere.

To enhance VisitScotland’s existing work in the area, the Scottish Government’s draft budget proposes an extra £0.5 million in 2018-19 for additional marketing support specifically for the south of Scotland. That will help to highlight those natural features that make Galloway a hidden gem among Scotland’s many world-class attractions. The draft budget also proposes a further £0.5 million for capital investment in forest tourism across the south of Scotland, including trail development and signage.

I certainly agree that Galloway is a hidden gem. I also welcome the airing of the new BBC documentary “The Forest”, which was filmed in the Galloway forest and which raises awareness of all aspects of life in and around the UK’s largest forest park, recognising the fantastic work of district forest manager Colin Hossack and his team. As well as producing more than 600,000 tonnes of timber, the Galloway forest contributes much to the environmental, cultural, tourism and recreational offering that the kingdom of Galloway has to offer. Does the cabinet secretary agree that that programme highlights and strengthens the argument in support of a Galloway national park?

I held a forest tourism summit recently precisely to look at the advantages of forest tourism. I also had the opportunity to watch “The Forest” at the start of this week. I was particularly impressed by the singing, but the education that it offered about the work of the forest and its importance economically and for tourists was evident in the first episode, and I look forward to watching the others. National parks are the responsibility of another cabinet secretary, but I recognise the opportunities that we have with the biosphere and all the different areas that we have in Galloway to ensure that our natural environment is key to what we are doing. I cannot give a commitment on national parks, and I understand that there are tensions and issues there, not least on cost, but I appreciate the sentiment that the member has expressed.

I agree that bonnie Gallowa’ is a hidden gem. Does the cabinet secretary agree that biospheres provide a sustainable model that encourages tourism and allows local communities use of and access to land while preserving important natural ecosystems?

I do. Scotland has two United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization bisopheres, the other one being in Wester Ross. They are involved in programmes funded by the United Nations with Greenland, Canada and Europe. If we can take forward initiatives in collaboration internationally, it is important to learn from the best, and the sustainable model of tourism is something that, as the cabinet secretary with responsibility for tourism, I am delighted to take forward.

Tourist Information Centres (South Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government what the reason was for the recent closures of tourist information centres across the South Scotland region, and what alternative arrangements it is considering putting in place. (S5O-01659)

The deployment of VisitScotland’s resources is an operational issue for the organisation and its board, although we maintain regular contact on a wide range of matters.

VisitScotland’s new two-year strategy, which was announced last October, was developed following a 58 per cent reduction in footfall to information centres across Scotland in the past decade. It will provide greater choice by offering digital products and access to local knowledge through industry partners as well as 26 iCentres in its busiest locations. VisitScotland has already established 1,604 new local partnerships throughout the country, and 256 local partnerships are signed up across the Scottish Borders, Dumfries and Galloway and the Ayrshires. Those partnerships will ensure that information provision is available in innovative and adaptable formats, which we know that visitors are looking for.

I recognise the issue around the 58 per cent drop in footfall at the iCentres, despite the positive information about a rise in tourism that I received in VisitScotland’s reply to my letter highlighting the issue.

Will the cabinet secretary highlight a concern that I have? I appreciate that these are operational matters, but they link closely with the issue of access to information technology if we are going to move into the digital age with tourism. That will complement the VisitScotland information partner programme. The Galloway forest, which was raised in the previous question, provides an example. I know that there is poor broadband and mobile access in that area. How will tourism move forward if people cannot access their apps or websites?

That is precisely why, despite the very limited broadband roll-out by the United Kingdom Government, the Scottish Government has ensured that, through digital Scotland superfast broadband, instead of just 26 per cent, 85 per cent of premises in Dumfries and Galloway have access to speeds of 24 megabits per second and above. That is a challenge, but we know that the investment of the south pot for the reaching 100 per cent programme and the other investment that we are making will mean that Scotland, and rural Scotland in particular, is one of the best areas for access to mobile and fibre broadband—not just access in premises but outdoor access. The approach has to be joined up and co-ordinated. I am ensuring that the tourism officials and, indeed, VisitScotland are keeping co-ordinated with the roll-out of broadband to ensure that it is available for tourists when they visit.