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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 14 November 2017

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Preventing Sexual Offending Involving Children and Young People, Migration, Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, Decision Time, World Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Day


Topical Question Time

Burntisland Fabrications

To ask the Scottish Government what support it is giving to Burntisland Fabrications to secure jobs in Fife and Lewis. (S5T-00755)

Discussions are on-going between the Scottish Government, Scottish Enterprise and the company, and the Government is fully exploring all the options that are available to save the company and the jobs that depend on it.

When ministers became aware of the situation, we immediately engaged with all the relevant stakeholders. The Minister for Business, Innovation and Energy had a conversation with the management team at BiFab to get a detailed insight into the challenges; he had detailed discussions with shareholders of the Beatrice project to ascertain more details; and he also discussed the issues directly with Seaway Heavy Lifting, which is the main contractor for the Beatrice project. In addition, both he and I have been involved in discussions today with those parties.

The Government and Scottish Enterprise are continuing those discussions, and we are encouraging all parties to work constructively to find a solution. I have also spoken directly to the trade unions and conveyed that we will do everything possible to support the workforce.

I appreciate that this is a very concerning time for the workforce, but the Government is committed to doing everything that we can to find a positive solution to the situation. We want to see a solution at BiFab and ensure that Scottish engineering and manufacturing are central to the supply chain for the renewable energy sector and for oil and gas going forward.

Following the announcement yesterday by GMB and Unite members regarding a planned work-in, it is clear that the workforce at BiFab are serious about playing their part in the company’s survival and future success. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the Scottish Government owes it to those workers to leave no stone unturned in finding a solution?

I agree that that is an obligation on the Scottish Government. Of course, we are not directly involved, in that the contract is between private companies and the issues that have arisen have been between those private companies. However, for the reasons that David Torrance mentioned, we are of course very interested and we want to do what we can to help to achieve a solution.

At root, we are talking about the future of 600 people who are directly employed and up to 1,400 people in general, including contractors and subcontractors. That has a huge impact on the areas that David Torrance mentioned in both Fife and the Western Isles. For the benefit of those individuals and for the benefit of the contract for the renewables sector and the Scottish economy, we are of course interested in doing whatever we can to help the situation.

More generally, BiFab plays a role in Scotland’s green reindustrialisation. In order to maximise Scotland’s renewables potential, create jobs and grow our economy, we need the engineering skills and fabrication capacity that BiFab has at its sites in Burntisland, Methil and Arnish. What priority does the Scottish Government give to placing and securing the future of BiFab in Scotland’s wider economy and the long-term future of renewable energy?

As I have said, it is my firm belief that Scottish engineering and manufacturing are central to the supply chain for the renewable energy sector and for oil and gas. With several billion pounds being invested in offshore wind and the potential for more investment in our offshore oil and gas sector, the Government believes that the Scottish supply chain should be well placed to take full advantage of those opportunities.

Five members wish to ask supplementary questions. Whether we can get through them all depends on members.

Reports say that delays in payments have contributed to BiFab’s cash-flow problems. Considering that Scotland has the highest level of late payments of any part of the United Kingdom, with reports that 67 per cent of companies are affected, what action is the Scottish Government taking to solve this on-going and severe problem that BiFab and others face?

I repeat for Alexander Stewart’s benefit that the companies that are involved in the contract are private companies. For our part, the Scottish Government has taken action to make sure that we pay all our suppliers promptly, and through the Scottish business pledge we ensure that as many companies as possible—at the last count, over 400—also follow best practice in relation to that.

I do not think that delays in payments are at the root of the problem, but payments certainly are. Ensuring that payments are made as they become due is, of course, a very important part of the process. However, there is not much value in going into more detail on that, given the discussions that we are currently having with the private companies involved.

As a regional member for Mid Scotland and Fife, Alexander Stewart will want to be assured that the Scottish Government is doing what it can to find a solution for the situation. The future of 1,400 people at a very difficult time of the year, a very important contract and the reputation of the renewables sector in Scotland are, of course, at the base of the matter. We are well aware of the challenges, and it would be useful to have the general support of other parties. That would help us to carry as much weight as possible into the discussions.

BiFab employs more than 150 people in Arnish in the Western Isles. Those jobs have a disproportionately large impact on the local economy, and the employer is one of the biggest private sector employers in the area.

The cabinet secretary talked about the Scottish Government working with Scottish Enterprise, but he did not mention Highlands and Islands Enterprise. What role will HIE have in working alongside the workers in Arnish and the trade unions to reassure the workforce that alternative jobs will be found if the jobs cannot be saved?

I reassure Rhoda Grant that HIE has been kept fully engaged in the process. It has, of course, a direct interest in the site in the Western Isles as it is the owner of that site. We will use anybody’s good offices to try to achieve the right solution and, as I said, HIE has been involved and engaged in the process.

Rhoda Grant has made a very important point. The impact of 100 jobs on the Western Isles is huge. It is no small matter that 1,300 other jobs elsewhere in Scotland could also be jeopardised. We are well aware of the potential damage that could be done to individuals and to the economy, so we want to work with all parties, whether the party is HIE, Scottish Enterprise, any of the other parties or, indeed, the UK Government, which also has a direct role, although I will not go into the details of that. We are not being precious about the matter or trying to keep it to ourselves; we want to get the right solution, and we are happy to work with anybody and to use all the assets that we have to get that solution.

The Dutch contractor, Seaway Heavy Lifting, has stated that it is

“keen to support BiFab’s workforce”.

What is the cabinet secretary’s understanding of that offer? Does he plan to speak to his counterparts in the Government of the Netherlands?

We have engaged with the company that Mark Ruskell mentioned, and we are looking to engage further with it. Obviously, it is central to the contract, and there has been some movement in the willingness of different partners to come to a solution that will keep BiFab going through the contract, but there is still some way to go.

We have not had discussions and do not currently plan to have discussions with the Government of the Netherlands. We are discussing matters with the appropriate party, which is Seaway Heavy Lifting. If Mark Ruskell is aware of a rationale for or purpose behind contacting the Dutch Government, I would, in all sincerity, be keen to hear exactly what that is so that we can take advantage of any opportunities. In the meantime, we will continue to discuss the matter with the parties that are most closely involved.

On the potential job losses at BiFab, the cabinet secretary will be aware that this is not the first time in recent months and years that Levenmouth has been devastated by unemployment and that, today, across my constituency and that of my colleague David Torrance, one in three children lives in poverty. What consideration has been given to establishing a group or a task force in light of the BiFab situation? Will the cabinet secretary meet me and fellow Fife MSPs to discuss urgent proposals to support the local economy?

Jenny Gilruth has made a very good point about keeping MSPs and MPs aware. Paul Wheelhouse and I have been involved with the matter for some time. I am very willing to meet those members to keep them updated as far as we are able to do so. As can be imagined, some of the discussions are commercially confidential, but where we can pass on information on the current state of discussions, we would be happy to do that. I will ensure that that happens for Jenny Gilruth and other members who have an interest in the area.

On the point about a task force, we have assembled the people necessary to do that work. We have had task forces in the past, of course. At this stage, our focus is on making sure that the company stays viable and that the jobs stay in place. We have all the resources and the different parties available to do that, but we will keep the matter under review.

Again, I confirm to Jenny Gilruth that we are well aware of her very pertinent points about the level of unemployment in Fife, particularly in her part of Fife. That is why we are pulling out all the stops to ensure that the jobs stay where they are and that the contract is completed.

This is an extremely worrying time for the workforce and the local community. There has been conflicting speculation in the press that the root of the problem at BiFab is a dispute over delayed payments between the company and Seaway Heavy Lifting. Although the cabinet secretary says that he does not believe that to be the root of the problem, does he recognise that delayed payments are an issue? If so, will he confirm, either in the chamber today or perhaps in confidence to MSPs, the value of the payments that BiFab has requested of Seaway Heavy Lifting, the value of the work that has been certified and the value that has been paid to BiFab? Until we have clarity over the financial picture we and, most important, all the BiFab workers are in the dark over how the issue can be resolved.

I assure Claire Baker that we will seek to pass on as much information, especially on the amounts involved, as we are able to. First, I want to check that we would be doing so in a way that is consistent with our obligations to the private sector partners who we are discussing the issue with.

I am talking not so much about delayed payments as about disputed payments. Of course, a disputed payment may lead to a delay in a payment being made. That is the nature of a dispute; there is a relationship between the two. We are trying to get to the bottom of that and a number of other issues so that we can ensure that cash flow is available to BiFab to keep the company going and for it to be able to pay its staff, which is crucial.

I want to say how much we appreciate the activities of the trade unions in continuing to work in the yards under what is, as Claire Baker says, a very distressing time for the workers.

We are obliged to try to work with the private sector partners. There is the issue of trust to consider in relation to some of the figures that have been passed on to us, but I undertake to pass on whatever figures we are able to pass on to Claire Baker and other MSPs with an interest.

I thank the minister and the members for getting through all five questions.

Scottish Police Authority

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the reported criticism of the Scottish Police Authority by some members of its board. (S5T-00759)

The report published yesterday relates to the early years of the authority’s existence. Since that time, a range of measures have been taken to learn from experience and to strengthen governance arrangements.

In order to address a number of remaining issues identified by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary in Scotland earlier this year, I commissioned a review of the executive functions to ensure that the board is getting the support that it needs to perform its role effectively. The review is expected to report in the coming weeks.

In a Scottish institute for policing research report, one former SPA board member has stated:

“Every time we try to bite, the government removes a tooth ... I have been shocked, absolutely shocked at the level of government interaction.”

Can the cabinet secretary comment on that? Given that

“Scottish Ministers have formal powers to give directions to the SPA, so long as those directions are not related to police operations”

will he confirm whether he or any other Scottish ministers have used those powers? If so, when were they used and under what circumstances?

Although ministers have the power of direction over the SPA, it is not a power that I have ever exercised. I do not think that my predecessor ever exercised the power, either.

I strongly refute the idea that Scottish ministers are, in some way, interfering with the role of the SPA. However, if Margaret Mitchell is not satisfied with my response, she need look only at the evidence that was provided to the Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee by Her Majesty’s inspector of constabulary in Scotland, Derek Penman, who said that he found no evidence of Scottish Government interference in setting of agendas or in submission of papers.

As a Government, we are responsible for setting the national strategic policing authority’s overall objectives, so we have regular on-going engagement with the SPA in areas of shared interest. As HMICS has identified, it has found no evidence to support the suggestion that there is Government interference.

When the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012 was passed, all the Opposition parties raised concerns about there being too much ministerial influence. Those concerns fell on deaf ears. While the SPA chair appointment procedure has been modified for the current selection process to include the convener of the Justice Sub-Committee on Policing, the cabinet secretary retains major influence in that appointment. Will he now confirm that the Government will revisit the 2012 act and amend it to ensure that Parliament as a whole selects—and, crucially, is involved in the decision on whether to reappoint—the SPA chair, and that the discretion for ministers to intervene will be exercised transparently? In that way, the new SPA chair will at least have the comfort of knowing that he or she does not have to rely on the good grace of the cabinet secretary for continuation of their appointment.

I have no plans to revisit the legislation.

Media focus and attention on the SPA board have been ongoing issues that detract from the work of the board. What steps will the cabinet secretary take, in conjunction with the board, to ensure that all board members have proper training, and that they fully understand not only their individual roles but their collective responsibilities?

In relation to governance, will the cabinet secretary ensure that the clear dividing line between the board’s scrutiny role and Government oversight is fully understood by all parties?

Mary Fee raises an important issue, which is about making sure that those who join public boards have the necessary training and support to undertake their duties effectively. I am very keen—we are keen, as a Government—to make sure that that is happening. That is why, in September 2016, the Scottish Government implemented a new corporate induction programme for all new members on public boards, in order to ensure that they have the necessary training and support to assist them in undertaking their roles, and that they have proper understanding of the on-board guidance that is issued to them, and how they should interpret it.

I can also assure Mary Fee that the work that I have instructed through Dr Nicola Marchant, the deputy chair of the SPA, along with Malcolm Burr, is to look at the overall support function that is provided to the SPA board and to identify where further measures can be put in place to support board members in their roles. That is not just about the board members themselves making sure that they are getting the right information; it is also about making sure that Police Scotland provides them with the information that the board requires in order to hold Police Scotland to account and to scrutinise the actions of the service—in particular, its executive team.

I am very much committed to making sure that board members receive the training and support that they require. Work is being done by Malcolm Burr and Nicola Marchant precisely to help the board in discharging its responsibilities and identifying what further support is necessary to make sure that it can do that effectively in the future.