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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, May 10, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 10 May 2018

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Highlands and Islands Airports (Car Parking Charges), Energy Efficient Scotland, Decision Time


General Question Time

Family Courts

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of the ongoing review of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, what consideration it is giving to putting a professional system, such as the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service in England, in place for family courts in Scotland. (S5O-02077)

The Scottish Government plans to launch a consultation shortly on the review of part 1 of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. The consultation will cover a wide range of issues relating to parental responsibilities and rights, child contact and residence, alongside a wider family justice modernisation strategy.

The proposal that private practice solicitors who currently act as child welfare reporters will receive two days’ training will not put children’s welfare at the centre. Elsewhere, it is deemed that people who are qualified, skilled and caring professionals are best placed to assess our children’s and families’ needs. Can the minister provide assurances that that will be considered in the review?

Yes, I can. The consultation that I referred to will seek views on whether we should regulate child welfare reporters. Being a child welfare reporter is an important, difficult and challenging job. Taking that into account, regulation is required to ensure that reporters are fully trained in the task that they are asked to carry out and to ensure that the quality of reports is consistently high across the board.

Has a decision been taken, within the review, on the form of training that may be provided to child welfare reporters—specifically, on whether there will be training relating to parental alienation, which is happening south of the border?

The consultation that is to be launched shortly will seek views about whether we should regulate child welfare reporters, including views about on-going training requirements. I encourage all those with an interest to submit to the consultation their views on what kind of training would be most appropriate.

Flexible Workforce Development Fund

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the effectiveness of the flexible workforce development fund. (S5O-02078)

Although the flexible workforce development fund pilot is still in its first year of operation, the Scottish Government has commissioned an independent evaluation of the pilot thus far. The evaluation commenced in February 2018 and is due to conclude shortly.

In this first year, provision for the fund has centred on colleges. Would the minister consider opening up the fund, or any successor programme, to other suitable providers of training and skills in future years?

That issue has been raised with me by a number of organisations. I say to Mr Halcro Johnston what I said to them. We have the pilot in place, and we are still at the pilot stage. This year, I intend that the pilot should continue to be delivered through the college sector. We will have the evaluation and will continue to learn. No assumptions about what will happen going forward have yet been made.

Supervised Contact Facilities (Inspection and Regulation)

To ask the Scottish Government how centres that provide a supervised contact facility for absent parents to spend time with their children are inspected and regulated. (S5O-02079)

The contact centres that are managed by Relationships Scotland all follow national standards and practice procedures. Relationships Scotland has policies that cover issues such as domestic abuse, child protection, equality and diversity, confidentiality and vulnerable adults. There are also a number of independent contact centres, some of which have their own guidance on practice and procedure.

As I said in response to question 1, the Scottish Government plans to launch a consultation shortly on the review of part 1 of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. That will seek views on whether we should regulate contact centres, among other topics.

When constituents of mine had issues with a particular contact centre that was not affiliated to Relationships Scotland, they discovered that there appears to be no regulatory body and no agreed quality standards or inspection processes in place for contact centres. That is the case despite the significant bearing that such centres can have on family relationships in the long term and on reports to courts in child custody cases. Will the minister look at regulation in that area, and will she meet me to discuss the matter further?

The forthcoming consultation will seek views on the regulation of contact centres. It will cover issues such as the setting of minimum standards for the accommodation that is used, and the laying down of training requirements, complaints procedures and inspection processes. I hope that that provides the member with some assurance on the direction of travel. Once the consultation is launched, which will be very soon, I will be happy to meet the member to discuss matters further.

In the light of the fundamentally new approach that was proposed in the recent legal aid review, will the minister consider putting child contact centres on a statutory funding footing through legal aid instead of their relying on voluntary efforts to provide that important service?

As I stated, the consultation will look at the regulation of child contact centres, and I imagine that we will receive views on a number of issues, including funding. As far as legal aid is concerned, I can advise the member that, in 2016-17, the Scottish Legal Aid Board sanctioned £459,583 of legal aid funding with regard to contact centre cases. I should point out that the sum that is ultimately claimed or paid may differ from the amount that was sanctioned. In addition, I point out that not all users of child contact centres are eligible for legal aid. The consultation, which will be launched very shortly indeed, will seek views on all those issues, and I encourage the member to make his views known.

Highlands and Islands Ferry Services

4. Donald Cameron (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to improve ferry services in the Highlands and Islands. (S5O-02080)

Over the past decade, the Scottish Government has invested more than £1 billion in new vessels and routes, in improved harbour infrastructure and in cheaper fares, which clearly demonstrates our commitment to the long-term prosperity of our island communities. To further strengthen our fleet, we have—as the member will know—invested in two new 100m dual-fuel ferries worth £97 million, which are currently under construction at Ferguson Marine Engineering Ltd. We have also recently provided the money to Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd to allow it to purchase the three passenger vessels that serve the northern isles, which will guarantee the lifeline connections to and from Orkney and Shetland. We are also committed to rolling out to the northern isles the road equivalent tariff, which has already been a major success on the west coast.

The minister referred to the two new ferries that are on order from Ferguson Marine Engineering. Can he confirm when they will be ready for service?

The timetable to which we previously publicly committed is still the timetable that we have with Ferguson. We are keeping a close eye on developments, and we and CMAL are working closely with Ferguson. It is worth saying that those ferries are the first ever liquefied natural gas dual-fuel vessels to be built in the United Kingdom; so, naturally, there are complexities with regard to the new workforce. If there are any developments in the timetable for the MV Glen Sannox and the 802, I will ensure that Parliament is updated appropriately.

Following the undertakings that were given around the time of the budget, earlier this year, can the minister update Parliament on the discussion with Orkney Islands Council about improvements to the internal services in Orkney?

The Scottish Government was delighted, in our budget discussions, to give a one-off payment in the budget to Orkney and Shetland, which was supported by both Liam McArthur and Tavish Scott—begrudgingly perhaps, but supported nonetheless.

The second part of that commitment, which is important, was that we would, through the working group, ensure that we have a long-term solution. On my recent visit to Orkney and Shetland, leaders of both councils raised that point with me, as Liam McArthur and Tavish Scott have done on previous occasions. I have agreed to travel back to Orkney and Shetland this summer to convene the working group, and I will keep both members and the Parliament updated on how those discussions go.

The minister recently agreed to consider my proposal to involve the trade unions and Caledonian MacBrayne with CMAL in the procurement process. Can he advise members whether he has agreed to that request and what discussions—if any—he has had with the trade unions?

On my visit to Orkney and Shetland a couple of weeks ago, I met the trade unions, including the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and Unite the union, and we discussed the issue to which John Finnie refers. Discussions are currently on-going.

I am open-minded about the idea, and I think that it makes perfect sense for future procurements. The next large contract that we are looking towards is, of course, the northern isles contract, and the trade unions will be very much involved in that discussion.

Policing 2026

5. Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress has been made on delivering the policing 2026 strategy. (S5O-02081)

Last week, the Scottish Police Authority board approved an updated policing 2026 implementation plan, covering the period to 2020. The plan sets out a number of early achievements, including improvements in custody provision, the roll-out of the service’s wellbeing programme and testing of new local policing models. The Scottish Police Authority chair has also outlined her intention to establish a designated committee to oversee transformation. The Scottish Government continues to support policing 2026, delivering real-terms protection of the police resource budget and a further £31 million of reform funding this year.

Last week’s SPA board meeting discussed the budget for the next three years, including Police Scotland’s plans for much-needed and welcome reforms, which include reductions in backfilling and investment in information technology. First, is the Government fully committed to meeting the costs of those reforms, including the indicated £206 million of capital spend on information technology over the next five years? Secondly, given that the British Transport Police integration is due to come out of the police reform budget but is explicitly not accounted for in the SPA’s plans, is the cabinet secretary at all worried that the as-yet-unknown costs of the BTP integration could harm those wider and much-needed plans for reform in the police?

No, I am not worried. The work that Police Scotland is taking forward on its information and communication technology development is part of the work that Audit Scotland recommended to make sure that Police Scotland had a robust ICT strategy in place. I welcome the work that is being done to develop that plan. The funding that will be required is a matter to which the SPA will have to give consideration. In any business plan, any request for funding will obviously be given due consideration. Daniel Johnson will also be aware that Police Scotland has confirmed to the SPA its intention to invest almost £5 million in core operational policing systems this year, in order to make sure that it delivers benefits to officers carrying out front-line duties in communities.

There is a lot of private chat going on, which is making it difficult for questioners and ministers to be heard.

Gordon MacDonald has a quick supplementary.

Does the cabinet secretary believe that progress is being made in the management and leadership of Police Scotland?

I believe so. Deputy Chief Constable Livingstone is an experienced and well-respected police officer who is offering the organisation excellent leadership, supported by two deputy chief constables and nine assistant chief constables. The Scottish Police Authority has set out its plan for the recruitment of further DCCs and ACCs, and that programme has already been taken forward. The SPA intends to have a recruitment process that will see the new chief constable in post by the end of this year.

Fuel Poverty (Rural Dimension)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on there being a distinct rural dimension to fuel poverty, and whether it plans to take forward all of the recommendations of the Scottish rural fuel poverty task force. (S5O-02082)

This Government has always prioritised tackling fuel poverty and is committed to ensuring that everyone in Scotland lives in a warm home that is affordable to heat, no matter where they live. We recognise that—[Interruption.]

Excuse me, minister. You were turned off at source, but you are back on again. [Laughter.] I do not know why that happened; I am not responsible.

Thank you, Presiding Officer. That is the first time that I have been turned off at source.

Could you repeat your answer?

We recognise that fuel poverty in our remote rural and island communities requires particular attention, and that is why we established the Scottish rural fuel poverty task force, which reported its findings in October 2016. We published our response to that in March 2017.

I hope that you caught all of that, Mr McArthur.

This exchange has taken an uncomfortable turn.

Will the minister reflect on the unwillingness so far of the Scottish Government to accept the advice of the rural fuel poverty task force, its own fuel poverty definition group, all the local authorities and housing associations in the Highlands and Islands, Citizens Advice Scotland, Shelter and a range of other organisations that we need a minimum income standard for remote and rural areas if we are to tackle fuel poverty at source in the communities that are most heavily affected by fuel poverty, such as those in Orkney?

Mr McArthur takes a great interest in all this. As he knows, our delivery plans are focused on remote, rural and island areas. The per-head spend on home energy efficiency programme area-based schemes in remote, rural and island areas is £9,000, compared to £7,500 elsewhere.

Although the majority of the recommendations that were made by the task force were for the Scottish Government, a significant number were for other bodies to look at, including the United Kingdom Government, Ofgem and energy suppliers. We will continue to listen to remote, rural and island communities, and the bill and strategy that we will publish before the end of the term will be designed to focus on those who are most in need, to help them heat their homes, no matter where they live in Scotland.

Rural properties are rarely connected to the gas network and often rely on kerosene central heating. What plans does the Scottish Government have to ensure that rural areas can play their part in decarbonisation? Does it plan to introduce schemes to help rural residents upgrade and modernise their heating systems and boilers?

We will continue to review all those issues. I am aware that households that are off mains gas have difficulties of their own. It would be helpful, of course, if the UK Government lived up to what it said it was going to do about fuel prices and put a cap on them. Perhaps Mr Chapman can talk to his colleagues at Westminster to see whether they will do that, because it would be a great relief to those who live in remote, rural and island communities.

Question 7 has been withdrawn.

Banking (Online Services and Branch Closures)

8. Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of recent issues regarding TSB’s online banking service and further branch closures, including by Santander, whether it will carry out an assessment of their impact on businesses and people who find it difficult to access or use online or telephone banking. (S5O-02084)

The recent information technology problems at TSB have highlighted the continuing importance of physical access to banking services. Although regulation of banks and financial services remains reserved, the Scottish Government has made clear its position that consumers across Scotland need to be able to access essential banking services in the way that best meets their needs.

Although online banking offers advantages for many customers, it is not suitable for all customers. The Financial Conduct Authority, which has responsibility for regulating the financial services sector, will investigate the TSB’s systems failure and monitor the bank’s resolution of the problems that are faced by its customers.

Highlands and Islands Enterprise has commissioned work to investigate the impact of branch closures on communities and businesses in the Highlands and Islands area. The Scottish Government will review the findings of that work, and of the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee’s on-going inquiry into banking services, and consider appropriate action to support communities.

I am encouraged that the Government might consider such an assessment. The minister will be aware that the RBS in Melrose has had a temporary reprieve, but only until December. I am only too aware—as he is, because Melrose is part of his region—that the many constituents and small businesses for which Melrose is renowned need an on-street bank, not an online bank. Given that we own 72.9 per cent of the RBS, does the minister not consider that that is a rotten deal for the public?

In the interests of time, Presiding Officer, I will just say that I agree with Christine Grahame that that is a bad outcome for customers of the banks. However, we are working with the banks, and I am encouraged that they are increasing their discussions with us, in recognition of the importance of retaining some face-to-face services when it is possible to do so. I reassure Christine Grahame that we are focusing on the needs of not only the south of Scotland and Melrose in her constituency, but the whole of Scotland.

We will have a very quick supplementary from James Kelly.

I reinforce the point that banks are the centrepiece of local communities. We have seen the detrimental effect of closures in Cambuslang and Rutherglen, and I urge the minister to do everything in his power to avert the closures.

I will do everything that I can to try and mitigate the impact of the closures and, if possible, prevent them.

That was even quicker than I expected. That concludes general questions.