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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 15, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 15 March 2018

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Driverless Cars, Point of Order, Business Motion, South of Scotland Economic Partnership, Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Repeal) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Repeal) (Scotland) Bill, Business Motion, Decision Time


General Question Time

Sectarian-related Crime

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to tackle sectarian-related crime. (S5O-01877)

Sectarian-related crime and the attitudes that underpin it have no place in modern Scotland. That is why we have made an unprecedented investment of £13 million since 2012 to address the issue. That investment has supported a wide range of work, including work by Nil by Mouth, which challenges sectarianism in our schools and in private, public and third sector workplaces across Scotland.

We continue to tackle sectarian attitudes through education and have worked closely with Education Scotland to deliver and roll out Scotland’s first national educational resource on tackling sectarianism. In addition, I have commissioned Lord Bracadale to conduct an independent review of existing hate crime legislation in Scotland, including that which tackles sectarianism. The review is due to report shortly.

The minister will be aware of the recently reported incident in Coatbridge when the monstrance and blessed sacrament at St Patrick’s church were vandalised. In a separate incident, a local fast-food shop owner became embroiled in online abuse between rival fans following last Sunday’s old firm game. Those incidents follow an attack on the town cenotaph last year, when graffiti that was left at the scene pointed to a sectarian element.

Given that Parliament is likely to repeal the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012 later today—admittedly, that is only one part of how we are tackling sectarianism—what other proactive steps is the Government taking to combat this problem, which blights communities across Scotland, particularly in the west and the central belt?

I am aware of the terrible incident that occurred in Coatbridge. It was an act of mindless vandalism that was deeply offensive to the local community.

The Government is clear that any form of hate crime is totally unacceptable and will not be tolerated. We have been working consistently with communities to address the attitudes that can lead to such behaviour, and we will continue to do so. Of course, it takes time to change attitudes, but we are determined to continue to invest in the many groups that seek to work with communities to help us move on from these attitudes of the past.

Is the minister aware that, although successive Scottish Governments have put significant resources into tackling the symptoms of sectarianism, there has been an increase in religious hate crime during that period, with the latest figures showing that Roman Catholics were subject to more attacks than all other religious groups combined, and that that is an increasing trend? Will the minister now accept Archbishop Tartaglia’s words from some years ago, when he said that

“our problem is not so much sectarianism but anti-Catholicism”,

and take targeted action to specifically address discrimination against Roman Catholics in Scotland?

I assure Elaine Smith that we take religious bigotry, whatever its form, very seriously indeed. It is unacceptable in 21st century Scotland. We will continue to work with all churches and faith groups and with others to ensure that we are working together collectively to further implement the recommendations of Dr Duncan Morrow and his independent advisory group on tackling sectarianism in Scotland—which recommendations, I believe, received cross-party support.

I am, of course, happy to meet Elaine Smith to discuss the issue further if she wishes to do so.

Disabled People (Plastic Straw Ban)

To ask the Scottish Government what measures it is taking to ensure that disabled people are not disadvantaged by the ban on plastic straws. (S5O-01878)

On 7 February 2018, during a parliamentary debate, I made it clear that we would ensure that a disability adviser was appointed to the expert panel on single-use plastics that we are already committed to putting in place. I cannot recollect whether the member was present for that debate, but I am happy to say that I have now appointed Professor Kate Sang, professor of gender and employment studies at Heriot Watt University, to that position. She will advise on the implications for disabled people of all proposed action, including on plastic straws.

I thank the cabinet secretary for her answer. Paper alternatives have had a mixed response from many disabled people, as such straws often go soggy and give a taste that is not acceptable. Greener straws are also often more expensive. Does the cabinet secretary agree that, whatever scheme is proposed, people who require to use straws because of disability or infirmity should not be financially penalised by any changes?

That is the purpose of the commitment that I have given to ensure that all disability issues are taken on board when we look at items that are under review in respect of action against single-use plastics. I am very conscious that straws are not the only issue. There might be very specific concerns with each of the categories of items that we are looking at. There might also be potential solutions from the disabled community, which was an issue that Kate Sang raised when I spoke to her earlier this week. I absolutely agree with the member that nothing that we do should negatively impact the disabled community. We will be looking very hard for solutions and alternatives between now and the time of any action that might be taken on plastic straws.

Community Asset Transfers

To ask the Scottish Government how many community asset transfers there have been since the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 came into force, and how this compares with previous numbers. (S5O-01879)

The first annual report since the asset transfers part of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 came into force last year is due by the end of June 2018. Until that time, we will not know how many asset transfers under the act have taken place across Scotland.

In the early summer of this year, we will undertake an evaluation of asset transfers, which will tell us the number involved and provide more detail on the experiences of community bodies and the impact of the act. We are unable to compare with previous numbers, because we do not hold information on the number of asset transfers that took place before the act came into force.

Is the cabinet secretary aware of the plans of the Tory independent council in Moray to dispose of halls in Buckie, Findochty, Cullen and elsewhere in Moray? The communities would like to acquire and take on those halls, but the council appears to be very reluctant to provide them with adequate support in the very short period of time in which something could be done. Is that example something that will usefully inform the Government’s consideration of the operation of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015? It appears to show that the act is falling short of its intention.

Mr Stevenson raises an important point. I agree that, for community empowerment and asset transfers to work, help and support need to be provided to community bodies, including by local authorities. He might be interested to know that the Scottish Government funds the community ownership support service to support community-based groups in Scotland to take a stake in, or ownership of, land or buildings that were previously publicly owned. The community ownership support service has an active presence in Mr Stevenson’s area and offers individual community groups and public bodies a bespoke support service. If it would be helpful, I can put Mr Stevenson and/or his constituents in touch with the community ownership support service.

Councils have long had the chance to transfer buildings and land into community ownership. The benefits of transfers are clear: community empowerment for local people and asset disposal for local authorities. What reassurances can the cabinet secretary give to Parliament that the Scottish Government has carried out recent assessments that outline the short-term benefits that transfers can bring, compared with the long-term commitments involved ?

Mr Stewart raises an important point. The raison d’être of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 was to create opportunities for communities—on their own terms, not on terms enforced by statutory bodies—to be proactively involved in improving outcomes relating to the issues that matter most to them and, where they choose, to become involved in issues that need to be addressed. It is also about enabling those grass-roots community voices to have that response from the ground up, given that evidence shows the value of locally led solutions.

As I said in my initial answer to Mr Stevenson, the first annual report will be produced later this year. That will give us valuable information about progress with the 2015 act at a local level, which will enable the Scottish Government to take further steps in evaluating the overall progress of the act, particularly with regard to improving community outcomes and reducing inequality at a local level.

The Glasgow East Alcohol Awareness Project and Glasgow North East Carers Centre have been based in Trondra Place in my constituency for more than 20 years. Last October, they submitted a community asset transfer request, which was refused because the site is owned by Jobs and Business Glasgow, which is an arm’s-length external organisation and thus exempt from the 2015 act. The organisations are now also under threat of eviction by Jobs and Business Glasgow.

The Government can make individual bodies subject to asset transfer provisions by introducing an order. Will the cabinet secretary undertake to look into the situation and consider whether an order would be appropriate in this case to enable the organisations to stay in their current premises?

I would be very to understand more about the situation that Mr McKee describes. I will ask my officials to investigate further and I will endeavour to keep Mr McKee fully updated. What is and is not possible in relation to ALEOs is very much dependent on the legal form of the ALEO, but I will endeavour to investigate matters further and report back to Mr McKee.

Cold Weather Payments

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the Scottish fuel poverty strategic working group regarding cold weather payments. (S5O-01880)

The Scottish fuel poverty strategic working group was a short-term, independently chaired group that was convened between November 2015 and October 2016. Cold weather payments were discussed a number of times at the group’s meetings, and the minutes were published on the Scottish Government website. The group published a report in October 2016, which included recommendations relating to cold weather payments. Both that report and the Scottish Government’s response are available online. We will be mindful of those recommendations as we develop our approach to cold weather payments when that benefit is devolved.

I ask the minister to recognise, when she is having further discussions about the devolution of this benefit and considering its implementation, that the calculation of cold weather payments for East Kilbride, which everyone knows is a very cold part of the country, is done from Bishopton weather station, which is highly inappropriate and disadvantages those on pension credit in East Kilbride, who should be entitled to payments.

As Ms Fabiani says, East Kilbride is perhaps colder than the weather station that applies to it—although I am sure that, like many communities, it has a warm heart.

The current agreement is between the Department for Work and Pensions and the Met Office, which provides for each postcode area to be allocated to one of 94 weather stations, which cover all parts of Scotland, England and Wales. A range of issues and difficulties have been raised with me by communities and members with respect to how cold weather payments operate in Scotland, and we will take all of those into account as we develop our approach to the benefit and its delivery and move to take responsibility for it.

As the minister set out, current eligibility for cold weather payments is based on weather station mapping, which can produce some absurd results, as we have heard. I have been told of households in Coatbridge and Bellshill receiving just two payments due to the use of the Bishopton weather station, while residents in Airdrie and Holytown have just received their fourth. There are differences between people living in towns—and sometimes houses—that are right next to each other. The cost on the Coatbridge side was £50 this year, which sometimes represents the difference between heating and eating.

Can the minister give an assurance that cold spell heating assistance regulations will rely on localised forecasts rather than the postcode-to-weather-station mapping that the DWP uses at present?

Mr Griffin reinforces the point that I am making, which is that we understand those difficulties and differences. There are other issues with cold weather payments, not least factors such as wind chill. It is not simply about the temperature that is recorded; other factors play a part, particularly in some of our more rural and island communities, and we are mindful of that. However, we need to identify how we will best get the robust data that will be used to trigger payments, taking account of the points that Mr Griffin and Ms Fabiani have made.

That is what I mean when I say that we are mindful of those issues. They have been raised with me many times by local communities and I am clear about their importance, but we need to work through the basis on which the social security service in Scotland secures the data in order to trigger the payments. Of course, we do not want a system that is so complicated that people then have to wait too long to receive the support. We will work through those matters, and I will happily discuss that with members in due course.

Schools for the Future

To ask the Scottish Government how much it has invested in the schools for the future programme since 2011. (S5O-01881)

Since 2011-12, through the schools for the future programme, the Scottish Government has provided £269.6 million in capital investment and £41.6 million in revenue investment.

The City of Edinburgh Council is proposing to close two high schools in my constituency—Currie community high school and Wester Hailes education centre—and amalgamate them on a new site, which is causing great concern among parents at both schools, who want the schools to be refurbished at their existing locations. Under the schools for the future programme, what proportion of rebuilding or refurbishing costs is met by the Scottish Government, and how much of the current wave of funding to March 2020 is unallocated?

The issues that Mr MacDonald raises in relation to Currie community high school and Wester Hailes education centre are issues for the City of Edinburgh Council to consider.

The schools for the future programme is a shared funding programme between national and local government. The Scottish Government provides two thirds funding support to all secondary school projects and 50 per cent funding support to primary school projects. The programme is fully committed at present, supporting 117 school projects across Scotland.

Antisocial Behaviour

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to reduce antisocial behaviour. (S5O-01882)

The Antisocial Behaviour etc (Scotland) Act 2004 provides a wide range of measures for dealing with all forms of antisocial behaviour. Our national strategy is based on prevention, early intervention and diversionary activities. The Scottish Government is currently working with a group of local authorities to use their expertise and knowledge to inform, refresh and update all the guidance documents on tackling antisocial behaviour.

In 2016-17, nearly 900 incidents of antisocial behaviour were reported every day to the police in Scotland, and the total increased by about 10,000 from the previous year. Antisocial behaviour features in my casework quite commonly, and in Edinburgh there was a 3 per cent rise in that period. Despite that, we have seen a 50 per cent reduction in fixed-penalty notices during the same period. Does the minister see fixed-penalty notices as a valuable tool for the police, and can she explain the trend?

A number of powers are available to relevant authorities to deal with antisocial behaviour, depending on the nature of the behaviour, and fixed penalties, which are a quick way of dealing with certain levels of antisocial behaviour, form part of that suite of powers. I do not have the detailed statistics that the member cited in front of me, but I will look into that and get back to him. Of course, we have to remember that, although antisocial behaviour is of extreme irritation to many of our constituents across Scotland—I know that from my own casework—at the same time, antisocial behaviour-related crimes are continuing to fall. We have to look at the picture in the round, but I undertake to write to the member vis-à-vis the specific issue of the current statistics on fixed-penalty notices.

Affordable Housing (Support for Social Landlords)

To ask the Scottish Government how it supports social landlords in providing affordable housing that is allocated according to need. (S5O-01883)

The Scottish Government provides guidance to support social landlords to develop allocation policies that comply with the legal framework for allocations and meet the needs of their communities.

This year, along with the usual yearly rent increases, some of my constituents are facing additional increases due to a rent restructure and will be paying an additional 6 per cent rent for no obvious additional service. Does the cabinet secretary agree that, although social landlords such as Irvine Housing Association have a responsibility to maintain a sustainable business model, that must not ignore the real-life experience of their tenants, many of whom have seen little or no increase in their wages, and that any increase or restructure should take account of the impact of rent rises on all tenants, including those on low incomes who are not eligible for housing benefit?

All social landlords must understand the importance of keeping rents affordable and meeting the needs of the people whom they serve. Landlords need to demonstrate transparency in how rents are calculated. They should set rents in a consistent and transparent way across their stock and should not increase them without regard to affordability. Although the Scottish Government does not direct individual social landlords on setting rent levels for their tenancies, those landlords have a legal duty to consult their tenants and registered tenant organisations on matters that significantly affect them, such as rent setting and restructuring.