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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, December 13, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 13 December 2018

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, General Practitioner Out-of-hours Facility (St Andrews), UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill (United Kingdom Supreme Court Judgment), Demonstrating Leadership in Human Rights, Pow of Inchaffray Drainage Commission (Scotland) Bill: Final Stage, Pow of Inchaffray Drainage Commission (Scotland) Bill, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


General Question Time

HM Young Offenders Institution Polmont

To ask the Scottish Government how many remand and how many sentenced prisoners have been sent to HM Young Offenders Institution Polmont since 2013 due to space being unavailable at secure care units. (S5O-02689)

In relation to solemn proceedings, there have been none. Local authorities are responsible for remand and summary proceedings and the Scottish Government does not hold information on those cases.

We are now a month on from the tragic circumstances of William Lindsay’s death, so I find it surprising that the Scottish Government does not know the number in question. It is vital that we understand it, so that we can put right what tragically went wrong. I ask the Government what it will do to find out what the figure is, and what it will do to put right the circumstances that surrounded William’s death, because, ultimately, that is what is required.

In relation to Daniel Johnson’s first question, my answer was that we do not hold that information on record, because it is local authorities’ responsibility. I can approach local authorities to ask them about that.

We have to be really careful when talking about any incident. It would be incorrect to say that secure unit space was not available at the time of William Lindsay’s case on 3 and 4 October. The information that I have is that there was secure unit availability. It would have been for the local authority—in particular the social work department—to have found that out and presented it to the court at the time.

I am working extremely closely with the Deputy First Minister on this. There is an issue about secure unit availability, which is that if capacity is not up to a certain level, secure units may close. None of us would want that to happen, so we are working on options; in fact, options were presented to the Deputy First Minister and me just this week.

I will keep the member and others updated and let them know when we get to what I would consider a more satisfactory position in that regard.

It is estimated that 70 per cent of those in prison have a mental health problem. A report by the Health and Sport Committee last year on healthcare in prisons noted that

“there is a considerable variation across prisons and health boards in relation to mental health care available to prisoners.”

What action is being taken by the Scottish Government to ensure that prisoners, no matter where they have been sentenced, are able to access mental health support that best fits their needs?

That is a hugely important issue. I have visited prisons across the prison estate and will continue to do so, and addressing mental health is absolutely at the core of what is provided. However, I do not doubt that we can go further and that more can be done in a variety of settings. We know, for example, that mental health issues present themselves more among female offenders than they do among the male prison population. Nevertheless, there are mental health issues among the male prison population. For young people, we have the talk to me strategy.

My previous answer dealt with the issues at Polmont, and Annie Wells will know that we have instructed a review of mental health services at Polmont, because we are not satisfied that we are in the best place possible.

We will continue to work with the Scottish Prison Service and with the national health service, which provides services in prisons. The Government is open to learning about best practice in tackling mental health issues from elsewhere, whether within or outwith the prison estate.

Congestion (Edinburgh City Bypass)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on a feasibility study being carried out to address congestion on the Edinburgh city bypass. (S5O-02690)

The Scottish Government recognises the important role that the A720 plays for Edinburgh and its region and for the national economy. Transport Scotland is currently monitoring the queuing on that route and is investigating how that can be managed.

Additionally, Transport Scotland is undertaking the second strategic transport projects review. That will be a multimodal review and will consider the performance of the A720. We have given a commitment to a collaborative review, which will provide a robust evidence base to support future decisions on investment in strategic transport infrastructure across Scotland for the next 20 years.

It is clear that work needs to commence now to take forward a long-term solution to address the constant gridlock on the A720. Therefore, will the Scottish Government also commit to a feasibility study? Will the minister agree to meet representatives from across the area, as I know that this issue is a growing problem for all of us across this Parliament?

The member might be interested to know that the strategic transport projects review will consider the entirety of the A720. That work, which will start next year, will be informed by the national transport strategy, which is due to be published at the end of next year.

The STPR2 will enable us to set out what our strategic investment decisions will be for our transport infrastructure over the course of the next 20 years, including making that assessment of the A720. The very process that the member makes reference to is facilitated through the STPR process, and I encourage people with an interest in the matter to engage in that process once it has been undertaken by Transport Scotland.

Small Business Bonus Scheme

To ask the Scottish Government how many businesses in the Stirling constituency have been lifted out of paying non-domestic rates under the small business bonus scheme. (S5O-02691)

Information on the small business bonus scheme is not currently available by parliamentary constituency but, as at 1 June 2018, 2,670 business premises were lifted out of paying rates altogether by the scheme in the Stirling Council area.

Since the small business bonus scheme was introduced by this Government, it has saved premises in Stirling nearly £39 million.

That is good information. In addition, can the minister tell us how much small businesses in my community will save next year as a result of the Scottish National Party Government’s budget, which delivers the best budget package for small businesses anywhere in the United Kingdom? I note that, incredibly, the Tories—including Dean Lockhart, who I see is here today—have said that they will vote against that budget.

I share the member’s incredulity that the Tories might be considering voting against something that saves businesses such a great deal in hard cash. Spend on the small business scheme was £5.8 million in 2018-19 in the Stirling Council area and, as I said, since the scheme was introduced by the Government, it has saved premises in that area a whopping £38.9 million.

Figures that the Scottish Government released two weeks ago show that more than 1,200 businesses, large and small, across the Stirling area have waited more than 18 months for the outcome of their appeals against punishing rate increases. For many, the outcome of their appeal will be the difference between staying in business or being forced to close and lay off staff. If, like me, the minister finds that situation unacceptable, what measures will she introduce to address it?

On appeals, one of the recommendations of the Barclay review, which we have accepted in full and which I am taking forward as part of primary legislation next year, along with other guidance support, was to make sure that the appeals process works for businesses and puts justice at the heart of the process, so that businesses that need access to justice can get it.

What Dean Lockhart does not acknowledge is the fact that, in the Stirling area, not only are more businesses in receipt of funds from the small business bonus scheme but the overall value of what businesses save as a result of the small business bonus scheme contributes directly to business growth in that area.

Exports (Mentorship Scheme)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress it is making with developing a peer-to-peer mentorship scheme to boost exports, alongside the Confederation of British Industry Scotland. (S5O-02692)

The First Minister launched the export challenge on 26 November 2018 at an event that was attended by around 100 businesses from across Scotland that have shown support for the challenge. Good progress is being made in developing the detail of the programme and we are working closely with partners, including CBI Scotland and Scottish Development International, to ensure its successful implementation.

I encourage businesses that feel that they would benefit from being mentored, or that are experienced exporters and would like to participate as a mentor, to volunteer for consideration to take part in the programme.

In a recent policy paper, CBI Scotland set out a number of measures that the Scottish Government could take to support Scottish businesses to export. The recommendations included: addressing the falling number of students who pass foreign language exams; making up the shortfall in uptake in science, technology, engineering and mathematics; and considering whether secondary, further and higher education could offer opportunities to study commercial international trade.

Does the minister agree that improving our children’s education in those areas is key to growing exports? Has he discussed the matter with the education secretary?

I understand the point that the member is making and I undertake to have a conversation with the education minister in which I will take the matter up—it is clearly an aspect of the overall approach that we need to consider.

Workplace Bullying and Harassment (Public Defence Solicitors’ Office and the Scottish Legal Aid Board)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the procedures used by the Public Defence Solicitors’ Office and the Scottish Legal Aid Board to investigate workplace bullying and harassment. (S5O-02693)

The Scottish Government has zero tolerance of any form of bullying, harassment and discrimination, from any source. Where such behaviour occurs, it is essential that it is reported and tackled. It is for the Scottish Government, in overseeing the work of public bodies, to promote diversity and to help to create an open culture that increases the likelihood of individuals speaking up about wrongdoing.

The Scottish Legal Aid Board is a non-departmental public body, so staff are employed directly by the organisation. All public bodies must have their own robust grievance policies and procedures in place. The Scottish Government requires grievance policies and procedures to comply with appropriate employment legislation. They must be accessible and clearly understood by staff and—this is important—staff must know how to access and use them.

The Scottish Government also provides a model code of conduct for staff of public bodies, and SLAB has confirmed that it complies with the model.

Ceri Evans is a lawyer in the Public Defence Solicitors Office. She is deeply unhappy with the way in which SLAB has handled her claims of bullying by her line manager. As was reported in the Sunday Mail, the Scottish Legal Aid Board gave Ceri’s personal diary about alleged instances of bullying in her workplace to her line manager, without her knowledge. The Scottish Information Commissioner has said that that was a breach of data protection obligations.

I understand that other concerns about bullying at that public agency have been raised. Will the minister take the issue seriously and request an independent investigation of the case? Will she make sure that staff have full confidence in the policies and procedures that are in place?

I assure Parliament that although the Scottish ministers have no mechanism by which they may intervene in or comment on individual and current cases, the Scottish Government is working to challenge and tackle the underlying attitudes and inequalities that perpetuate the behaviour that Monica Lennon is talking about. I am sure that she accepts that.

On the case that Monica Lennon has mentioned, the chief executive of SLAB has confirmed that an independent and external organisation with expertise in employment law, human relations and health and safety matters was commissioned specifically to review the circumstances and the organisation’s policies and procedures for handling such claims. The chief executive has confirmed that relevant policies and procedures will be reviewed and updated in light of the recommendations that come from the external review. I expect the chair of the board to update me on developments.

The right to privacy is important, and public bodies are responsible for ensuring that they adhere to data protection laws. The Scottish Information Commissioner is responsible for regulation in that regard.

I am sure that Monica Lennon understands that the Scottish Government cannot comment on the particular case that she mentioned, which relates to an on-going grievance.

Question 6 has not been lodged.

Age of Criminal Responsibility

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the United Nations regarding proposals to raise the internationally advised minimum age of criminal responsibility to 14. (S5O-02695)

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child is consulting on its “Draft revised General Comment No 10 (2007) on children’s rights in juvenile justice”, to seek views on its proposal to advise a minimum age of criminal responsibility of 14. No final decision has been made and we will, of course, consider the views of that committee once a final version of the revised general comment has been received. To date, we have had no discussions with the committee. We were contacted by the United Kingdom Government on 11 December 2018 regarding a response to the consultation, and will provide our contribution in due course.

Fewer than 700 12-year-olds and 13-year-olds are referred to the children’s reporter on offence grounds each year, and only half a dozen are referred to criminal courts. Those are not significant numbers, but the impact of a criminal record on any young person’s life chances is significant—it is traumatic and it is lifelong. That is why the Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration told the Equalities and Human Rights Committee at stage 1 of the Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Bill that it was imperative to go higher than the age of 12 in setting the new age of criminal responsibility. Given that the UN is likely to raise the internationally prescribed minimum age of criminal responsibility to 14 in February, does the minister share my concern that the bill will be out of date even before its ink is dry?

The Scottish Government absolutely recognises and respects the significance of the UN committee’s general comments as an aid to interpreting the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. We are committed to respecting and protecting human rights. We consider recommendations by international organisations very closely in our policy making, and we seek to uphold the very highest standards of children’s rights in a responsible and appropriate way.

In Scotland’s case, the age of criminal responsibility has to be looked at in the context of our unique children’s hearings system, which provides a distinct welfare-led alternative to criminal procedure for the vast majority of children under 16. Raising the age of criminal responsibility must be looked at in the wider context of current approaches.

We should all acknowledge the Government’s record in the area and its willingness to introduce further reform.

Conservative members believe that moving the age to 12 strikes the right balance, but will the minister confirm whether or not she was aware that the UN was considering raising its recommended age of criminal responsibility before she introduced the bill and gave evidence to the committee at stage 1?

The Scottish Government was made aware of the consultation on 14 November 2018, the day after the Scottish Parliament’s stage 1 debate on the age of criminal responsibility.

Housebreaking (Clear-up Rate)

To ask the Scottish Government what the clear-up rate for housebreakings is. (S5O-02696)

The clear-up rate for housebreaking was 23.9 per cent in 2017-18, which was up from 22.5 per cent in the previous year. The rate has remained at similar levels over the past decade. Since the advent of devolution, the number of housebreakings recorded by the police has fallen by 73 per cent, to their lowest level since comparable records began.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer, which—phrased a little more bluntly—confirms that more than three quarters of housebreakings in Scotland go unsolved and unpunished under the Scottish National Party. That is a disgrace. When did the cabinet secretary last meet the chief constable specifically to discuss the issue?

The chief constable and I meet regularly and discuss how we can improve safety. I regularly talk about housebreaking with my officials and with the police.

On a serious point, when it comes to the clear-up rate, we want to ensure that it is better. However, Liam Kerr should not ignore the fact that housebreakings have fallen dramatically with the SNP in power. In fact, in the north-east—in which, I am sure, he has an interest—the number of housebreakings fell by 58 per cent between 2008-09 and 2017-18. The clear-up rate for housebreakings in the north-east has increased by 5 per cent in the past year, so we are starting to improve.

I agree with Liam Kerr that the clear-up rate should be higher, so we will continue to work with the police to ensure that that happens. I am sure, however, that he will welcome the fall in the number of housebreakings over the past decade.

Can the minister tell us how the clear-up rate for housebreakings in Scotland compares with the rate in England, with the Tories in government? I understand that in England, the clear-up rate is less than 10 per cent.

There are many comparisons to make with England and Wales. We have seen a reduction in the number of housebreakings while there has been an increase in England and Wales, in fact. That might in part be because in Scotland we have invested in our police officers and the Police Service of Scotland. For example, we have awarded a 6.5 per cent pay increase, whereas the police service in England and Wales is taking the United Kingdom Government to court because it will not pay police officers an appropriate amount.

In Scotland, since the SNP has been in power, we have increased police numbers to record levels, to 913 more than we inherited, while in England and Wales police numbers have fallen by almost 20,000, which is a terrible indictment of the UK Tory Government.

That is why we are seeing housebreakings reduce in Scotland while they increase in England and Wales. We will continue to invest in our police officers, and to make sure that Scotland is kept safe, while we leave the Conservatives to carp from a sedentary position.