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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 10 September 2019

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Creating a Sustainable Future for Crofting, Immigration Policy (Universities and Scientific Research), Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Bullying and Harassment in the National Health Service


Topical Question Time

The next item of business is topical questions. In order to get in as many members as possible, I would prefer short and succinct questions—I live in hope—and answers to match.

Marches (Disorder)

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of recent sectarian violence, what action it proposes to prevent disorder at future marches. (S5T-01762)

I first want to commend Police Scotland for the robust operation that it delivered on Saturday in extremely difficult and challenging circumstances. I am sure that I speak for everyone in the chamber in wishing the officer who was injured by a pyrotechnic device a speedy recovery. The police have my full backing in identifying and prosecuting the irresponsible individual who threw the dangerous device.

The events of the past two weekends have clearly demonstrated that sectarian violence is not a thing of the past. We have seen the right to parade peacefully and to counter-demonstrate, which are both perfectly legal and important elements of a democracy that values free speech, being abused by those who are intent on denying others a voice so that they can indulge in violent, disorderly and offensive behaviour. The right to free expression does not give people the right to intimidate communities.

I can safely say that the vast majority of the citizens of Glasgow view the sectarian violence stemming from those marches as a stain on the city’s reputation. That is why I have been working with Glasgow City Council and Police Scotland to find a way forward that will prevent the recent scenes from happening again. There is no simple solution, and all the options, including legislative ones, are firmly on the table. The council is determined to reduce the number of marches, and I support it in that aim.

I also remain committed to tackling sectarianism and bigotry. We will continue to invest in education work, building on our unprecedented investment of £14 million in that respect since 2012. We must work together to eradicate sectarian violence once and for all. Of course, we are open to considering all proposals from across the chamber.

The cabinet secretary mentioned the council’s desire to reduce the number of marches. As he may know, 14 are planned for the rest of this month. I understand that one of those is a republican march, two are on other subjects altogether and the rest are all Orange or Orange related. Does the council have the power to reduce the number of marches, or would that require some change?

That is a helpful question. That issue was the focus of our conversation on Thursday. Where the council feels that it has the legislative powers, it will use them and act. I told the council that, where it feels that it does not have such powers, the Government would be open to a conversation on that, and I think that the Parliament should be, too.

Frankly, it frustrates me quite a lot that we are having to talk about legislation to tackle disorder that is committed in 2019 in a multicultural city such as Glasgow by grown men who are fighting the battles of centuries gone by. The fact that we have to think about legislating to prevent those individuals from committing that disorder is pretty depressing.

I assure John Mason that, where the council feels that there is a need for further legislative options to be explored, I have given it an undertaking that we will do so.

Three members want to ask supplementary questions. Can we have short questions, please?

I agree with everything that the cabinet secretary said in his response to the questions from John Mason. As I understand it, Glasgow City Council is reviewing the procedures by which it permits marches in our city, which I welcome. What practical support is the Scottish Government offering Glasgow City Council in that regard?

Before the cabinet secretary answers, I point out that I have realised that Mr Mason had another question. I will let you have one at the very end, Mr Mason.

I thank Adam Tomkins for the question and for the tone in which he asked it. We have told Glasgow City Council that we will help in any way that we can with the review. Adam Tomkins makes an important point. Legislation is one way that the Government can assist, but it can help in many other ways. For example, it is currently exploring whether it could play a role in funding mediation or doing development work to bring the various parties together to agree a rationale for reducing the number of marches. Those are some ways in which the Government might give practical support.

I assure Mr Tomkins that if there is a request from Glasgow City Council for anything further that the Government could do, its leader will be knocking at a very open door.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that the events in Glasgow have left many people feeling that we are going backwards and becoming less tolerant and more divided? Does he also agree that there is no place for hatred on our streets, no matter where it comes from or who it is directed towards? We need to bring people together and ask them to reach out across divides. Will the cabinet secretary therefore encourage Glasgow City Council to reinstate the previously established stakeholders group?

I thank Anas Sarwar for his question and the way in which he asked it. Any member in the chamber will recognise the work that he has personally done in bridging the divide between communities in which there can often be tension and in attempting to eradicate hate. I wish that to be recognised on the record.

On Mr Sarwar’s substantive point about encouraging Glasgow City Council, I say that I will leave it to the council to come up with what it thinks are solutions. I know that many people will have their own views on those. The Government should also consider the proposals that Anas Sarwar has mentioned—indeed, it will be open minded to any others that might come from across the chamber. The council should be similarly open minded towards listening to ideas from across the political spectrum.

Mr Sarwar is absolutely right. My constituents in Govan, who were affected by the events a week past on Friday, have told me that they felt that it was not safe for them to go outside their houses. That is not acceptable in 2019.

We have a collective desire, need for and interest in eradicating such hatred from our streets. Frankly, the citizens of Glasgow who have spoken to me have tolerated such marches for many a year, but they have just had enough. Glasgow City Council’s desire to reduce the number of marches is a pretty decent place to start on that endeavour, and it will certainly have the Government’s support.

There is a balance to be struck between promoting and protecting freedom of speech and ensuring that local communities do not have their day-to-day lives disrupted. I ask the cabinet secretary whether consideration has been given to consolidating the number of marches. For example, if one organisation has a number of applications over a calendar period, could they be merged into one march, or a number of them, in order to reduce the number that take place and so minimise disruption to local areas?

I thank James Kelly for his suggestion. In the same vein as I answered the previous question, I say to him that I think that we should look at all proposals. I assure him that part of the discussion that the Government had with Glasgow City Council was about whether it could rationalise, and therefore reduce, the number of marches that take place. The challenge is that applications often come in from different organisations. For example, the Apprentice Boys of Derry is a very different organisation from the main Orange order whose march takes place on or around 12 July each year. Although their marches might both be grouped under the umbrella term of “loyalist” parades, each organisation will make an individual application. Adam Tomkins’s suggestion about engaging with and possibly mediating between such groups is one strand that the Government should explore.

Would be helpful if we were to have a united front in the Parliament and among the relevant spokespeople from all the parties in acting on this issue, which is a sensitive one?

If this topical question has demonstrated anything, it is that we have the ability to have a mature discussion across the chamber about such issues. We all want to see a reduction in the number of such marches while, of course, protecting people’s rights to freedom of speech and of assembly. When I replied to James Kelly, it was an oversight on my part not to have welcomed him to his justice role.

I will take up John Mason’s suggestion and invite the justice spokespeople from all parties across the chamber to have a conversation about how we might assist local authorities in dealing with the problem and whether that might involve the passing of legislation or other measures.

Prestwick Airport (United States Military Payments)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it can confirm how much Prestwick airport has received from the US military for its operations. (S5T-01760)


Cabinet secretary, your card is not in the console, so your microphone is not on. [Interruption.] Do not look at me—I am not in charge of microphones.

There it is—it has come on. Off you go.

Glasgow Prestwick airport operates at arm’s length from the Scottish Government. Information on individual revenue streams is available in the annual accounts, which are available online and are laid in Parliament. To protect the commercial interests of the business, information on revenue is not broken down by individual customer in published accounts.

In relation to recent media reports, it is important to make clear that Prestwick, like all other airports that provide fixed-base operations, arranges overnight accommodation for air crew when it is asked to do so. It uses a list of 13 hotels, some of which pay Prestwick commission. Turnberry is generally booked only if other hotels are unavailable or if customers specifically request it. There is no commercial relationship between Prestwick and Turnberry. Prestwick does not benefit from commission or in any other way from booking Turnberry, and customers settle their own accounts directly with the hotel.

It seems that we will have to wait for the American inquiry to find out the actual figures. However, can the cabinet secretary confirm reports that the income stream is the largest single income stream that Prestwick relies on? If so—if he knows that—does he really think that it makes Prestwick airport a viable economic proposition?

The member will recognise the important role that Prestwick airport plays for the Ayrshire economy and for the aviation industry that is clustered around the airport, which is part of the reason why the Scottish Government stepped in to purchase it at the time. For historical reasons, the airport has for many decades—since the 1930s, I think—been utilised by the military for stopovers and for refuelling. That was the case when it was in the private sector and it remains the case when it is in the public sector.

There has been increasing growth in the work that Glasgow Prestwick airport undertakes and growth in the revenue that it receives from refuelling and rest-overs, and that is a reflection of the proactive work that the management team has been undertaking in order to reduce the airport’s losses and make it more commercially viable.

When does the cabinet secretary believe that we will receive back any of the £40 million of loans of taxpayers’ money that the Government has so far given to Prestwick airport, considering that it has still not made a profit in more than a decade?

If the Scottish Government had not provided financial assistance to the airport, the likelihood is that it would have closed, and the hundreds of jobs that are directly associated with it and the more than 1,000 associated jobs next to the airport would have been put in jeopardy. With the actions that we have taken, we have seen Chevron operate a new base from the airport and, alongside that, we have seen Ryanair introduce its overhaul and maintenance facility at Prestwick, providing hundreds of highly skilled jobs.

The member will be aware that we advertised back in June for parties interested in purchasing Prestwick. That process is being taken forward. Any final decisions on the future of Prestwick will be dependent on the bids that are received for the airport, and any actions that we take will be in the best interests of the Scottish taxpayer.

I have three members wanting to ask questions. It is an important subject, but I would like short questions, please. I call Colin Smyth, to be followed by Patrick Harvie and Brian Whittle.

The sale documents for Prestwick suggested that a preferred bidder would be selected by 6 September and a sale completed by 4 October. Can the cabinet secretary say whether any bids have been received for Prestwick airport? Has a preferred bidder been selected? Is 4 October still a realistic date? Does he think that the revelations on the heavy reliance on income from the American military are likely to impact on the sale?

That was multiple questions, but it was cleverly done.

Good progress has been made. At the present time, the management team is assessing the bids that it has received. I will not go into any more detail in relation to the bids—given their commercially sensitive nature, it would be inappropriate for me to do so. The management team at Prestwick has advised me that it is making good progress and it intends to continue to work to the timescales as best it can. However, there is always a need to take into account any unforeseen matters that may arise during consideration of such issues.

Colin Smyth will be aware that the use of Prestwick airport for military operations is a long-standing arrangement. Anyone who is interested in purchasing Prestwick will be aware of its history as a long-standing base that is used for rest breaks and refuelling military aircraft.

The relationship between Prestwick and the US military is indeed long standing, and so is the concern about that relationship, including complicity with extraordinary rendition and active military missions, which the Scottish Government has said that it opposes.

Is it not now clear that we also risk having Scotland’s good international name dragged into a corruption allegation against a far-right US President? We cannot afford that reputational risk. Should we not now at least suspend the relationship with the US military until the congressional investigation has concluded?

Those matters have been explored in the chamber before, and Patrick Harvie has made known his views on the use of Prestwick airport for military refuelling and for rest breaks and stopovers. I do not see the benefit of rehearsing the issues again.

In relation to his specific point about ending the relationship to allow any congressional investigation to take place, it is entirely a matter for Congress and the US authorities to conduct any investigation that they think appropriate. As I have already outlined, the arrangement that Prestwick airport has in place is to arrange accommodation as and when requested, and there are 13 different hotels in the local area that the airport uses to provide such a facility when necessary.

Prestwick airport has always had unique qualities, including its long runway and, believe it or not, its weather—it is very rarely fogged in. As a five-year-old, I watched Concorde’s inaugural training flights there and, when running along the beach, I have seen F-18s refuelling on their way to the Gulf.

What is the Scottish Government doing in its negotiations to ensure that the strategic uniqueness of Prestwick airport is maintained by the potential new owners?

Brian Whittle will be aware that the airport operates at arm’s length from the Scottish Government, to make sure that we comply with European state aid rules. Therefore, the Scottish Government is not directly involved in any contractual discussions that relate to the airport itself.

The very fact that we stepped in to purchase the airport—recognising its strategic importance, both as an airfield and as an aviation facility—and that we continue to support it in looking to diversify the business, is a reflection of the value that we see that it has, not only to the Ayrshire economy but to the national economy of Scotland as a whole.

Brian Whittle may also want to reflect on the details that were set out in the eligibility questionnaire for interested parties that was associated with the advertising of the airport, which set out very clearly to anyone who is bidding for the airport that we expect it to be maintained as an active airfield and that the progress that has been made in recent years by the management team at the airport is built on.

That concludes topical question time. We will have a short pause while members on the front bench take their places.