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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 13 March 2019

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Year of Young People 2018, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Sir Hugh Munro


Portfolio Question Time

Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity

The first item of business is portfolio question time. As usual, to get in as many members as possible, I request nice short questions and nice succinct answers. I live in hope.

Traffic Management (A90/A944 Junction)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will consider traffic management options for the A90/A944 junction. (S5O-02973)

Technical advisers are closely monitoring that location. Should the monitoring indicate that enhancements are required, considerations will be discussed with the local authority. In the meantime, we ask everyone using the new route to proceed with additional caution until they are fully familiar with the layout.

I offer my deepest sympathies to those who were affected by the accident on the A90 last night. As police investigations are on-going, it would not be appropriate to comment further at this time. As part of standard policy, I have asked my officials to meet representatives of Police Scotland and the operating company to obtain more information.

I echo the cabinet secretary’s remarks in relation to yesterday evening’s tragedy.

The A90/A944 Kingswells south junction at the Aberdeen western peripheral route has caused concern for my constituents. Although the AWPR has been a great boost to the area and has reduced journey time significantly, there are issues at peak times with the queuing of traffic and the difficulty of negotiating the roundabout at the A944. Given that temporary traffic lights, which operate at peak times, exist further along the A944 at Kingswells, is the cabinet secretary open to considering that option for this junction to ensure the smooth flow of traffic? If so, what timescale would there be for that?

As Mark McDonald will appreciate, with a major piece of infrastructure such as the AWPR, there can be a period of bedding down before local traffic plans are developed for the use of the new road and how it impacts on secondary roads that come off the road. That work is presently being evaluated to see how travel patterns are being established, including at the very junction to which Mark McDonald refers.

Technical advisors are undertaking assessments now. They will then evaluate whether further measures need to be taken, including the suggestion that Mark McDonald has made. They will report back to Transport Scotland, which will engage with the local authority to explore what further measures might be necessary at that junction.

The cabinet secretary mentioned assessments. I am sure that he recognises that the welcome impact of the AWPR extends beyond the immediate vicinity of the new road and to the wider road network. Does he agree that judgments on future road network development across the region should be based on traffic assessments that take into account the impact of the AWPR?

The AWPR is having a significant positive effect on north-east Scotland, and it will have implications for other road developments in the area in the years ahead, including the proposals for the A96 with regard to how it might link in with the AWPR and how traffic flows might change. That is why it is important, during the bedding-down period, as people start to establish use of the route, that any information that is used to take forward proposals for other road developments reflects the changing patterns of road use in the area. Decisions on any other major trunk road investments in the area will be informed by up-to-date data.

I, too, echo the cabinet secretary’s comments in relation to the tragic events that we heard about.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that years of real-terms cuts to funding by the Scottish National Party mean that Aberdeenshire Council is now the worst in Scotland with regard to the standard of its bridges. Many of them cannot meet the demands of modern traffic, especially that arising from road developments. What support will the Scottish Government provide to Aberdeenshire Council to repair or replace its deteriorating bridge infrastructure before it is too late?

That question is a bit wide of the mark from the A90/A944 junction. It is up to you, cabinet secretary, whether you answer it.

It is a bit rich to hear a Conservative talking about cutting budgets, given the track record of the Conservatives at the United Kingdom level.

As Liam Kerr is aware, if the bridge is on a local road, which is the responsibility of the local authority, it will be for the local authority to decide on the action that is taken.

Question 2 has been withdrawn.

Levenmouth Sustainable Transport Study

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the Levenmouth sustainable transport study. (S5O-02975)

Further to the members’ business debate in Parliament, Transport Scotland is leading the transport appraisal work for the Levenmouth sustainable transport study in collaboration with Fife Council.

Since I last spoke about the study in Parliament, the preliminary options appraisal has been completed and the six options emerging from that stage have been published. Transport Scotland and Fife Council have nearly completed the technical review of the preliminary options appraisal report, and the work on the final detailed options appraisal is under way. That reflects the most recent update that was sent to the member and other stakeholders on 28 February 2019, which was also published on Transport Scotland’s website.

Will the cabinet secretary tell my constituents when he expects the final detailed options appraisal to be published and how that information will be shared with elected members and the Levenmouth community?

Transport Scotland officials and their consultants gave a commitment to elected members and other stakeholders at the most recent workshop—which was held in Leven in November—that they would continue to keep stakeholders up to date on the study, including by inviting elected members and other stakeholders to a further session in Leven to update them on the outcomes of the final study report.

It is not possible to provide a date for the publication of the final study report while work on the final stage of the study is on-going. However, I will ask my officials to update the programme on the project website as soon as possible and to highlight that to stakeholders in their newsletter.

I reassure the member and her constituents that I am committed to completing the Levenmouth sustainable transport study. Although I understand the frustration around the time that it has taken, it is important that the study is carried out robustly and in line with the Scottish transport appraisal guidance, as any transport investment decision has to be based on robust evidence.

The cabinet secretary is right that there is a lot of impatience in Fife because it has taken an age just to get to this stage. I welcome the support of the cabinet secretary, but I urge him to accelerate the process from now on. After the options appraisal process and once the options are published, he should accelerate the next stage, because people in Fife are running out of patience on the issue.

There is a question in there somewhere, cabinet secretary.

I recognise the concerns that the member raises. The local member, Jenny Gilruth, has raised the issue with me previously. I assure Willie Rennie that as much work that can be done is being undertaken. However, he will appreciate that the work is a collaboration between Transport Scotland and Fife Council and that sufficient time is required to allow that work to be undertaken appropriately. Everything that can be done to make progress with the reports is being done, and I hope to have them published in due course.

Queensferry Crossing (One-year Review Report)

To ask the Scottish Government when it will receive the report of the one-year review of the operation of the Queensferry crossing. (S5O-02976)

Transport Scotland is undertaking an evaluation of the Forth replacement crossing project, in line with guidance, to compare conditions one year after the motorway regulations came into force, in February 2018, with the forecasts that were made during project design and development. I expect that the one year after evaluation report will be completed in the autumn. Further evaluations will be undertaken three and five years after the opening of the motorway.

The new crossing has increased resilience for the more than 70,000 vehicles that use it each day. Since it opened to traffic, there have been at least 22 occasions—possibly now 23 after the storm last night—when it has remained open when the Forth road bridge would have been closed or restricted to heavy goods vehicles.

Since the Queensferry crossing opened, it has fundamentally altered traffic volume and flow in the royal burgh of South Queensferry, in my constituency. Let me pre-empt the review by telling the cabinet secretary that we need a box junction on the bridge access roundabout; better traffic management on the motorway slip roads; local access to the southbound M90 from South Scotstoun; and a pedestrian crossing on the Bo’ness road, which has seen a huge spike in traffic outside Echline primary school.

On publication of the review—

Can you conclude?

I will conclude, Presiding Officer. Will the cabinet secretary ensure that Transport Scotland commits the necessary resources for those structural changes?

I hear the list of issues that the member wants to see addressed. However, I will not pre-empt the study; I will allow the study to be undertaken and its findings to be considered. Transport Scotland will then consider what further measures might be necessary as a result of the findings.

The final completion date for outstanding snagging works has been pushed back three times. Will the cabinet secretary explain to the chamber why that has happened and whether all works will be completed by the end of 2019?

The contractors intend to complete the remaining snagging work this year.

Glasgow Queen Street-Maryhill-Anniesland Train Services (Delays and Cancellations)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress—I nearly read out someone else’s question, Presiding Officer.

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to alleviate peak-hour delays and cancellations on the ScotRail Glasgow Queen Street-Maryhill-Anniesland service. (S5O-02977)

It is a good job that I was temporarily distracted.

The public performance measure for the Anniesland route has been consistently above 90 per cent over the past 12 periods. That is better than the performance of ScotRail services as a whole. In the most recent railway period, the PPM was 93.4 per cent, as opposed to 89.8 per cent for ScotRail as a whole. However, the level of cancellations on peak services experienced by passengers across the country, including in Bob Doris’s constituency, has been too high. ScotRail’s remedial plan is currently being reviewed by Transport Scotland.

Those statistics belie the reality of peak-hour cancellations on my line. I previously called for an improvement plan that is specific to the Maryhill line to address those issues, and I have met the managing director of ScotRail, Alex Hynes. I have had sympathetic words from ScotRail, but no discernible action or improvement. Will the cabinet secretary commit to arranging a meeting with ScotRail and me so that we can establish an improvement plan and ensure, once and for all, that my constituents get the train service that they deserve?

I understand the concerns that Bob Doris has raised. However, in period 12, 240 planned peak services were due to run between Anniesland and Glasgow Queen Street, and 11 of the 240—that is, 4.8 per cent—were cancelled. As I have stated in the chamber, I expect ScotRail to continue to improve services across the country through its remedial plan. However, I appreciate the concerns that Mr Doris has raised about busy peak services, and I will make arrangements for him to meet me and the senior management of ScotRail to discuss those matters further.

Transport Scotland will have received the first of two remedial plans from ScotRail. Will the cabinet secretary confirm that the Government’s response will require ScotRail to hit the targets that it is paid £960 million a year of taxpayers’ money to deliver, including the punctuality target of 92.5 per cent? When does the cabinet secretary think that that target will be reached?

Colin Smyth will have the opportunity to look at the details of the remedial plan and the Scottish Government’s response to it when the plan is published.

Tayside and Central Scotland Transport Partnership (Targets)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress it has made on meeting the targets set out in the Tayside and central Scotland transport partnership’s “Regional Transport Strategy 2015-2036 Refresh”. (S5O-02978)

It is the duty of each regional transport partnership to draw up a strategy for transport within its region that has regard to the current national transport strategy. The monitoring of performance against regional transport strategies is a matter for the relevant transport partnership.

Section 5.2.4 of the strategy refers to health and transport. It aims to

“Improve equality of access to healthcare”

and ensure that healthcare is “readily accessible”. At Ninewells hospital in Dundee, there is inadequate access and parking, which affects the hospital and surrounding residential areas. That causes difficulties and stress for staff, patients and local residents. Dundee City Council and NHS Tayside seem to be unable or unwilling to act to remedy that. What will the cabinet secretary do to remedy it?

The issue that Bill Bowman raises is for the local transport strategy and local transport partners, which include the local authority and the health board. He would be better addressing his question on the actions that will be taken to address those matters directly to them.

Broadband (Business Access)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to ensure that there are no barriers to businesses accessing broadband. (S5O-02979)

The digital Scotland superfast broadband programme has extended fibre broadband access to businesses across Scotland, with more than 920,000 homes and businesses connected to date, and the roll-out will continue throughout 2019. The R100—reaching 100 per cent—programme will build on that success and ensure that every business in Scotland has access to superfast broadband.

We are also providing a range of support services for businesses, including the digital boost programme via business gateway, which offers one-to-one support and advice for companies as well as seminars and workshops throughout Scotland. The digital development loan is also available for registered Scottish small and medium-sized enterprises that are looking to invest in their digital capabilities and skills.

In evidence to the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee, Nora Senior, the chair of the Enterprise and Skills Strategic Board, highlighted that only 9 per cent of businesses in Scotland embed digital in their business operation, whereas the figure in other countries is 43 per cent. What steps are the Scottish Government taking to address the low level of digital uptake by businesses in Scotland? Does the cabinet secretary agree with our calls to create a dedicated institute of e-commerce to improve digital support to businesses in Scotland?

As the member will be aware, we are taking forward a range of actions to support businesses in digital uptake. A key part of that work is the DSSB programme, which will ensure that businesses have access to fibre broadband in their premises so that they can capitalise on digital capabilities. We are extending that work through the R100 programme. The member will recognise that accessing fibre broadband is key to the ability of many businesses to capitalise on digital capabilities. For example, in his region, fibre coverage in Clackmannanshire has increased from 55.9 per cent, in January 2014, to 99.8 per cent. That increased coverage has supported businesses and individuals.

Increased connectivity, through having access to digital fibre broadband, is key to enabling businesses to access the digital markets that they want to utilise. That is why it is good news that the DSSB programme has not only achieved but exceeded its target. The R100 programme will build on that success.

Will the cabinet secretary confirm that since September last year, 95 per cent of properties in the Stirling area have been able to connect faster, thanks to Scottish Government spending on infrastructure? That is 16,000 more properties connected than would have been connected if the issue had been left to the United Kingdom Government. Dean Lockhart needs to get real.

The member will recognise that digital connectivity is wholly reserved to the UK Government. Given the UK Government’s failure to tackle the issue effectively, the Scottish Government has needed to step in and take action to address it.

The member makes a good point. In January 2014, fibre coverage was at 58.6 per cent in the Stirling Council area. As a result of the Scottish Government’s DSSB programme, the figure is now at 95.8 per cent. Had we left the issue to the UK Government, we would have been nowhere near meeting the target. Given that there is still a gap of almost 4 per cent in his constituency, the member should be reassured that the R100 programme has a particular emphasis on rural areas. The programme will focus on covering the areas in our rural communities that do not have access to fibre broadband. The Scottish Government is investing £600 million in the programme, whereas the UK Government is contributing only £21 million, despite the fact that the area is its responsibility.

M8, M73 and M74 Improvements Project (Evaluation)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress is being made following the one year after Scottish trunk road infrastructure project evaluation of the M8, M73 and M74 improvements project. (S5O-02980)

My officials at Transport Scotland are undertaking an evaluation of the M8, M73 and M74 improvements project, in line with Scottish trunk road infrastructure project evaluation guidance. Evaluations are being carried out to assess the impact of the scheme by comparing conditions after one year with forecasts that were made during scheme design and development. Three years after opening, a further evaluation will be undertaken. Given the scale of the investment, a third evaluation of the project will be undertaken five years after opening. The one year after opening evaluation report—the first of the three evaluation reports—will be completed in the autumn of this year.

Is the cabinet secretary aware that there are numerous post-completion problems with projects? For example, the replacement of Bothwell mini roundabout with traffic lights is causing congestion on Hamilton race days and tailbacks on approach roads, where none existed previously. Will he take the necessary measures, which are supported by South Lanarkshire Council, businesses and commuters, to reinstate the roundabout?

The member will be aware that the Bothwell Road signalling junction was constructed in a way to ensure that it complied with the guidance for linking into the M8, M73 and M74 improvements project. Work has been commissioned to introduce a vehicle actualisation system and to ensure that it works properly. Operations are being maintained, and the signals are now under the control of South Lanarkshire Council. Any changes to operations would be a matter for that council to look at.

Knife Crime

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to prevent knife crime. (S5O-02981)

First, I take this opportunity to wish the young boy injured in a knife incident in Glasgow this week a full and speedy recovery. My thoughts are very much with him and his family.

Alongside tough enforcement, our approach is firmly focused on prevention and early intervention. We have invested more than £17 million in violence prevention, and through the work of the Scottish violence reduction unit, Medics Against Violence and our many other partners, cases of handling an offensive weapon recorded by the police have fallen by 65 per cent. However, reducing incidents of knife crime further is clearly a key priority for this Government, and I will be meeting Niven Rennie and Christine Goodall on Friday to discuss that. Alongside that work, we will continue to invest in violence prevention initiatives such as our “No knives, better lives” youth engagement programme, which specifically aims to reduce the incidence of violence and knife carrying among young people.

In East Ayrshire, the number of crimes involving a weapon recorded between April and December 2018 has increased compared with the same period last year. New stop and search guidelines for the police, which restricted constables’ powers, were introduced in 2017. I recognise that a balance has to be struck, but what research has the Scottish Government undertaken to ensure that the new guidelines do not unduly hamper officers’ ability to detect and prevent such violent crimes?

I thank Brian Whittle for his question, which I know he asks in good faith. I also know that he has a genuine interest in the matter, but I sincerely and genuinely caution him that it can be dangerous to look only at quarterly statistics or a snapshot of one year’s statistics. We have to look at the long-term trend, which, in Scotland, has been positive. As I said, cases of handling an offensive weapon have been reduced by 65 per cent over a decade. In addition, emergency admissions to hospital due to assault with a sharp object have fallen by 59 per cent.

As for the substance of Brian Whittle’s question, he will be reassured to hear that I regularly engage with the Scottish Police Federation and, as he will know and expect, with the chief constable. When such matters are raised, I look at them seriously, but our focus absolutely has to be on prevention, and that is what the Government is investing in.

The cabinet secretary has rightly highlighted the role of the VRU and the importance of taking preventative steps. However, the Scottish Police Federation has been very clear about the pressures on local policing in terms of response officers and other officers in local divisions. We can argue about the meaning of reductions in local divisions, but surely any reduction in the capacity of local divisional officers to carry out such proactive and preventative measures is a concern if we want to reduce knife crime in our streets.

The number of police officers has increased by about 940 since we inherited power in 2007, and, as the figures that I have just mentioned show, we have seen knife crime fall drastically. We need only compare the situation here with that south of the border, where certain types of crime have risen, and that has undoubtedly been attributable in part to the severe reduction in police officer numbers. We will continue to invest in the police by protecting the resource budget and increasing numbers, which we have done since we inherited power in 2007, and I will continue to listen to what the Scottish Police Federation, the chief constable and others have to say about what more we can do to tackle the scourge of knife crime in our society.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that knife crime in North Ayrshire has fallen by a remarkable 77 per cent under this Scottish National Party Government. Although there can be no room for complacency, what lessons can be shared with institutions south of the border, which are currently grappling with a surge in knife crime, particularly in London?

Our Scottish Government officials have had very good engagement with the administration in London as well as the United Kingdom Government. As the member will remember, Sadiq Khan said not too long ago that he would put in place a London VRU that was very much based on the violence reduction unit model in Glasgow and Scotland, and that view was informed by the very positive engagement that his officials had in Scotland.

Moreover, just today, the spring statement contained an announcement of £100 million for tackling knife crime, with a portion of that money being invested in a UK VRU, again informed by experiences in Scotland. We are not complacent—and Kenny Gibson is right to make that point—but where we can share expertise and the successes that we have had with other parts of the United Kingdom or, indeed, more widely, we will of course do so.

Sectarianism (Reduction and Prevention Funding)

To ask the Scottish Government how much funding it provides to organisations that aim to reduce and prevent sectarianism in society. (S5O-02982)

The Scottish Government has invested £13.5 million to support anti-sectarian education in schools, prisons, workplaces and communities over the past seven years, which has supported more than 100 projects to deliver anti-sectarian education and activity across Scotland. In 2018-19, that includes £515,000 for nine projects, including Nil by Mouth and sense over sectarianism. We intend to build on that work in 2019-20 by ensuring that there is a real-terms increase to the funding for work in the area. I will shortly make an announcement about the specific work that will be funded in 2019-20.

It is clear from the cabinet secretary’s answer that third sector organisations are undertaking a lot of work to eradicate sectarianism in Scotland. They include the aforementioned Nil By Mouth as well as the West of Scotland Regional Equality Council and North Kelvin Sports Development Group, all of which are members of my cross-party group on combating sectarianism in Scottish society.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that, although sectarianism is undoubtedly a societal issue, football is a huge part of Scottish society and therefore football, too, must play its part in the eradication of this terrible problem, which so often rears its ugly head in football stadia?

I thank James Dornan for raising that issue. He has raised it many times in the chamber, for which he should be given credit. I know that he has suffered a lot of abuse because he has raised his head above the parapet to mention the issue very publicly in the chamber. I thank him for that.

James Dornan is absolutely right that sectarianism is a wider societal issue, and therefore the work that has been done in communities is very important. However, it would be silly and ignorant of us—we would be burying our heads in the sand—to ignore the obvious recent unacceptable conduct in that regard in and around football. I have said many a time, but I will repeat and re-emphasise it, that football clubs have to take real responsibility in this area; if they do not, the Government of course reserves the right to act.

The cabinet secretary has talked about where the funding is going, but a written answer that the Scottish Government provided to me in October revealed that, of the nine organisations that are funded by the Scottish Government to tackle sectarianism, only one—Nil by Mouth, which James Dornan mentioned—takes its message to workplaces. Education in schools is of course vital, but what steps is the Scottish Government taking to improve the number of initiatives that are aimed at working-age adults?

That is a good point. As I said, I will shortly make an announcement on the specific work that will be funded in 2019-20. We have to work in schools, workplaces, prisons and communities. I will have another look at the organisations that we are funding, and if we think that we can build on that and do more in specific sectors or areas of society, we should do that. I am afraid that the issue is a society-wide one that goes from young people all the way to old people, and we should cover as much of society as possible. I will reflect on what the member says. As I said, I will make an announcement on the matter shortly, but I am happy to keep the conversation going with him and with anybody else who has an interest in tackling this scourge.

Veterans (Prison Population)

To ask the Scottish Government how many of the prison population are veterans. (S5O-02984)

As at 6 March 2019, 255 people in Scottish Prison Service care disclosed that they were veterans.

What steps are in place to identify veterans on entering the prison population, and what supports are in place to ensure that their often distinct needs and circumstances are addressed?

I put on record my thanks to Keith Brown for his obvious interest in issues to do with veterans, which he has championed for many years.

When individuals enter custody, they are asked whether they are military veterans, and the SPS is committed to providing care and support to veterans who are sentenced to custody. Each prison has a veterans in custody support officer, who provides information and co-ordinates activities and services. The officers meet nationally, and organisations such as Poppyscotland, the Royal British Legion Scotland and Apex Scotland attend those national meetings.

The services that the officers provide differ from prison to prison, but I will give the member a flavour of them. Barlinnie has successfully arranged residential places on release for veterans with specific support issues, such as mental health issues and addictions. In Her Majesty’s Prison Edinburgh, coffee mornings are held every month for veterans in custody, which are usually attended by 40-plus individuals. Other prisons provide more one-to-one and peer-to-peer mentoring support. I can give Keith Brown more information in writing. A lot of support is provided, but I do not doubt that more can be done to support veterans in custody.

Can the cabinet secretary say how many of the veterans who are currently serving prison sentences in Scotland’s prisons have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder?

I do not have the figure to hand—I will go back and see whether we have it. A number of people in our care in custody in Scotland present with mental health issues, and a big part of the work that the veterans in custody support officers do is on mental health issues. I will see whether I can extract the information and provide it to Maurice Corry, who has raised an important issue.

Scottish Legal Aid Board (Project Funding)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions the Cabinet Secretary for Justice has had with ministerial colleagues regarding the impact of reductions to Scottish Legal Aid Board funding on child poverty. (S5O-02985)

The main legal aid fund is demand led. Unlike the position in England and Wales, the wide scope of legal aid has been maintained in Scotland, including for civil and family cases.

In addition to the main legal aid fund, over recent years, the Scottish Legal Aid Board has managed, on behalf of the Scottish Government, a variety of specific time-limited projects and funds to deliver access to justice and advice services, including for families. Decisions on the criteria and allocation of specific grant funding are taken in the context of our policy priorities, including our absolute commitment to reduce child poverty as well as to ensure the most efficient use of resources and transitional arrangements to any new funding schemes.

That commitment sounds a bit hollow because, although 230,000 Scottish children live in poverty and the number is rising, the Government is cutting the funding to the Scottish Legal Aid Board, which provides funding to citizens advice bureaux to deliver the making justice work programme. The Government is replacing that funding with a much smaller grant, for which bureaux will have to compete. Why is the Government doing that at a time when child poverty is rising?

In fairness, minister, the question was on the Scottish Legal Aid Board. You may answer, if you wish, on CABx.

The tackling child poverty delivery plan, which was published in March 2018, sets out action across Government to contribute towards reductions in the child poverty level. The plan, which covers the period 2018 to 2022, is backed by a multimillion pound package of investment, including a new £50 million tackling child poverty fund.

In relation to the other part of the member’s question, the Scottish Government will provide SLAB with £2.7 million next year to continue to fund 27 projects that are focused on helping vulnerable people with debt and legal issues. SLAB was always clear that those projects were for specific purposes, subject to annual review and not to be relied on as core funding.

I note that Labour’s only budget proposal this year, from Alex Rowley, would have resulted in further reductions to the justice budget. It is clear that, under Labour, the Scottish Legal Aid Board and citizens advice bureaux—and, by extension, the vulnerable families that Neil Findlay has spoken of today—would be worse off.

Legal Assistance (Island and Remote Areas)

To ask the Scottish Government how it supports people in island and remote areas in accessing legal assistance. (S5O-02986)

An independent strategic review of legal aid was announced to Parliament on 2 February 2017. The chair of the review, Martyn Evans, reported back to the Scottish ministers in February 2018. In his report, the chair commented on the availability of legal assistance in rural areas and recommended that a new payment model that takes into account geographical difficulties be set up. I am pleased to say that the first meeting of the expert payment advisory panel will be on 15 March 2019. It is vital that key stakeholders work together to make the panel a success. With that in mind, we are implementing a 3 per cent increase in legal aid fees, which will come into effect on 26 April 2019.

The panel’s work will be longer term and some changes will require primary legislation. In the shorter term, we will continue to ensure that individuals who are entitled to it will continue to receive access to justice.

In the event that private criminal solicitors are unavailable, public defence solicitors, who are directly employed by the Scottish Legal Aid Board, are able to assist. In some rural areas, including the Highlands and Islands, civil legal aid offices are able to assist in some types of civil case. We also continue to allow private solicitors to access payments for travelling time to remote or rural areas of the country, if that is required.

One constituent has been unable to find a local agent in the islands or a solicitor on the mainland who is prepared to travel to her location. Solicitors have repeatedly cited her location as the reason for that. As a result, she has been left to represent herself on a matter of family law. What can be done to ensure that people’s prospects of representation are not determined by where they live?

Briefly, please.

I am sure that the member will understand that it is not appropriate for me to comment on the specific circumstances of that constituency case without having the details. However, I recognise that a range of factors can impact on someone’s ability to secure legal assistance. I thank Alasdair Allan for raising the case. If he forwards me the details, I will raise it directly with the Scottish Legal Aid Board.

As Alasdair Allan said, there is very limited legal aid provision in the islands, with the result that most people who seek representation now have to look south. Despite what the minister said, SLAB’s reluctance to fund travel means that clients often meet their lawyer only on the day of the court hearing. Therefore, I ask the minister to work with the panel to ensure that the provision of legal aid can be island proofed to ensure that my constituents have access to the legal assistance that they need.

I thank Liam McArthur for raising that issue, which we are taking on board in the review process. With the panel, we want to ensure that we have a legal aid system that is fit for the future and that provides fair and equitable access to justice for people right across Scotland. However, I will take note of the issue that Mr McArthur has raised.

Health and Social Care in Prisons

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the progress being made by the health and social care in prisons programme board. (S5O-02987)

Healthcare in prisons is the responsibility of the national health service. My colleague the Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing wrote to the Health and Sport Committee on 22 February 2019 to update it on the progress of the health and social care in prisons programme. Developments include better integrated health and social care provision, improved clinical information technology and an innovation fund to improve joint working between the NHS and the Scottish Prison Service. For further information, the letter is available on the Health and Sport Committee’s page on the Parliament website.

Last year, it was revealed that more than 3,800 people who left prison between 2016 and 2018 identified as homeless to local authorities. Without a home, people with convictions struggle to register with general practitioners and to continue with the vital health and social care progress that was started while they were in prison. What measures will the Scottish Government take to ensure that people with convictions have a house to return to and can access vital GP services after their release?

Briefly, please.

I thank Mary Fee for that question, because she raises a hugely important issue. I know that she has a long-standing interest in such matters.

I have met the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning on a regular basis to talk about the sustainable housing on release for everyone—SHORE—standards, which Mary Fee will be familiar with. Pre-liberation and post-liberation throughcare is extremely important in ensuring that someone who comes out of prison has access not just to housing and health services, which Mary Fee rightly mentioned, but to addiction services and so on.

Bearing in mind the need for brevity, I undertake to write to the member with more detail on what we are doing. I would also be happy to meet her to discuss the matter in more detail.

Jenny Gilruth has a supplementary. You must be brief, please.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that a sensible way to reduce Scotland’s prison population is by extending the presumption against short periods of imprisonment and putting greater emphasis on community sentences, which was backed by 85 per cent of respondents to the Government’s consultation?

A yes or no will do, cabinet secretary.

Yes, and I hope to get parliamentary support for that. I will bring forward the order at Easter, and I hope that we will have that in place by the summer.

Incident Recording (Gender Identity)

To ask the Scottish Government whether Police Scotland and the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service record incidents according to the alleged perpetrator’s birth sex, or by self-declaration. (S5O-02988)

With regard to victims, witnesses and suspects, Police Scotland and the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service record incidents according to a person’s self-identified gender. Police Scotland requires no evidence or certification as proof of gender identity other than a person’s self-declaration, unless—it is important to emphasise this—it is pertinent to any criminal investigation with which they are linked and it is evidentially critical that Police Scotland legally requires such proof.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer, but I think that many people will be shocked to hear it. He will be aware that offending rates vary significantly according to biological sex, with males accounting for 84 per cent of violent crime and more than 95 per cent of sexual crime. Longitudinal studies elsewhere suggest that male-pattern offending remains the same even if men self-declare themselves to be women. Does the cabinet secretary agree with criminologists that, if data shows a rise in female sex offending, for example, including rape, that is misleading when those crimes are actually committed by men?

I will try to give the member some reassurance. Of course, I would be happy to see the longitudinal studies that she mentions. I have to say that I meet criminologists regularly and none of them has raised this issue with me, but I am happy to look at any studies that exist.

If we should have an unexpected result, such as a rise in the number of women being recorded as committing sexual offences, we would, of course, investigate that further. However, I would say that the statistic that the member quotes—men accounting for 96 per cent of sexual crime—is, in itself, evidence that there is certainly not a pattern of behaviour of those who are born biologically male self-identifying as women to either commit sexual offences or manipulate statistics.

If the member would like to provide me with details of those studies, she can, and if she would like to have discussions with criminologists, as I regularly do, I am happy to explore the issue further in detail.

That concludes portfolio questions. I thank members on the front bench, because we managed to get through all the questions and supplementaries.