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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 15 November 2017

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Building and Fire Safety (Ministerial Working Group), Prejudice-based Bullying and Harassment in Schools, and Personal and Social Education, Business Motion, Decision Time, Point of Order, Sport and Leisure Sector (Barclay Review Recommendations)


Portfolio Question Time

Cycle Tourism (Economic Value)

1. Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what value cycle tourism has to the Scottish economy. (S5O-01453)

Nature, heritage and activities such as cycling are all identified as key assets in the industry-led tourism Scotland 2020 strategy. Based on their usage estimates of the national cycle network, the March 2017 research by Sustrans in Scotland and Scottish Enterprise valued cycle tourism as adding £345 million to the Scottish economy in 2015.

On Monday I visited Glentress forest and met local business people from the world-leading mountain biking trails there. I understand that the TweedLove bike festival, which took place over two weeks in May, brought 5,000 visitors and a net economic impact of £594,000 to the Tweed valley economy.

With that answer in mind, does the cabinet secretary agree that when new road infrastructure projects are in the design phase, cycle tracks and walking paths should be integral parts of the design, and does she therefore find it regrettable that the A77 Maybole bypass does not include such plans, which highlights yet again how the south-west of Scotland is excluded from such investment and positive tourism outcomes?

The south of Scotland—Ayrshire in particular—has a focus on outdoor activities and coastal routes. I am not aware of a tourist route around the Maybole bypass, and Brian Whittle’s question relates to tourism.

In connection with rail links, my experience this week in the Tweed valley was that people there have used the opportunity to develop cycle tracks by the railway—as happened with the Bathgate to Airdrie line—using the old solum.

Whether cycling can be included as part of road developments is a matter for Transport Scotland. I understand, for example, that parts of the A9 route development include cycling. Mr Whittle can make applications to Transport Scotland and make his case known, but from a tourism point of view he can be assured that I am investing in and supporting the work of VisitScotland on cycling and cycle tourism.

MG Alba (Programme Commissioning)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last discussed the commissioning of programmes with MG Alba. (S5O-01454)

I last met MG Alba on 24 August, but what is commissioned on BBC Alba is a matter for the joint working between MG Alba and the BBC, independent of Government. Scottish Ministers and Government officials do, however, keep in regular contact with MG Alba and a range of relevant matters are discussed. I have also recently met and discussed matters relating to BBC Alba with the BBC.

The cabinet secretary will be aware of the £1 million pressure fund that MG Alba has in recent years received as a top-up of its core funding, which helps it to commission extra programmes. However, the fact that that funding is not included in MG Alba’s core funding causes concern not only to MG Alba but to the Gaelic independent production sector, which relies heavily on the seasonal commissioning rounds for which the pressure fund is used. There are concerns that—

No, no, no. I need a question.

Will the cabinet secretary agree to raise the issue with the Deputy First Minister and with the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution with a view to ensuring that the £1 million pressure fund is included in MG Alba’s core funding from now on?

I am not responsible for the funding of MG Alba—I have responsibility for broadcasting. I am sure that Mr MacDonald regrets that the United Kingdom did not continue its £1 million funding. The additional funding from the Scottish Government is not a pressure fund, but is for specific commissioning. It is helpful to MG Alba to have had that. We committed in our manifesto to maintaining funding for investment in MG Alba, and we will continue to press the BBC to increase funding for BBC Alba programming. I think that we were quite clear in our manifesto, on which Angus MacDonald was elected, and I am sure that he, like me, will press not only the BBC but the UK Government to step up to the mark with funding for MG Alba.

Culture Sector (Local Government Budgets)

To ask the Scottish Government what the impact is on the culture sector of reduced local government budgets. (S5O-01455)

The overall increase in spending power to support local authority services this year amounted to over £383 million, or a 3.7 per cent increase, compared with 2016-17.

The 2018-19 budget will continue to treat local government fairly despite the cuts to the Scottish budget from the UK Government. We are aware that there are challenges because of the UK Government’s austerity regime, and we are doing all that we can to protect Scotland’s culture and historical environment, and to ensure that our diverse and world-class cultural and heritage scenes continue to thrive.

Local councils are responsible for their own spending decisions on culture.

That was a thoroughly depressing answer from the cabinet secretary.

Midlothian Council is being forced to consider another £13.5 million of cuts this year. No doubt, there will be the same, or more, next year. Included in the cuts is closure of libraries. Across Scotland, sport, music, the arts and culture are on the front line, with councils of all political persuasions proposing major cuts. What is the cabinet secretary doing to protect the sport and culture sectors from yet more cuts? Can she tell us what representation—

No. You have had one question.

The Scottish Government has consistently supported our culture sector. Neil Findlay mentioned libraries in particular: I, as the responsible minister, have supported investment in libraries and am looking forward to an event on Friday in the north-east to mark that.

Councils are responsible for their own culture spending; it is not a statutory requirement. Neil Findlay will be aware that in West Lothian—I was shocked to see this—the Labour-run administration’s budget estimate for 2017-18 was the largest of any single local authority in Scotland. Others are increasing their culture spend.

The austerity measures that are being imposed on us by the UK Government, so perhaps the member should ask West Lothian Council, in which Labour is in administration with the Conservatives, to address that point.

Perhaps the 14 per cent reduction in culture spending, when it is compared to other areas where we see increases in expenditure—East Ayrshire Council, for example, is showing an estimated 7 per cent increase for that spending for 2017-18—shows a stark contrast in the value that different local decision-makers place on culture and its impact.

I say to back-bench and front-bench members that I want to get everybody in. I also want to get supplementaries in. Questions must be brief, and answers must be as brief as possible, while still answering the question.

I will take two supplementary questions.

The cabinet secretary will be aware of the significant impact that a reduction in the national lottery income of good causes will have on organisations that rely on it, including Creative Scotland. What representations is the cabinet secretary making to the UK Government to ensure that the impact of that reduction will be mitigated?

It will be of concern to all members to realise that the national lottery income for good causes reduced by 14 per cent between 2015-16 and 2016-17, and by a further 4 per cent in the first half of 2017-18.

Aileen Campbell, the Minister for Public Health and Sport, and I have written to our counterparts in the UK Government to urge them to take cognisance of that reduction in the forthcoming budget, because some of the reduction in that income is a result of decisions that were made by the United Kingdom Government about the lottery. I have also written to Karen Bradley MP, and Derek Mackay has written to the UK Treasury, to relay our concerns about a number of issues, including the reduction in lottery funding for culture and sport.

We all saw the letter that the cabinet secretary wrote to the UK Government on culture funding through the national lottery. As she said, funding is going down—

No, no, no. I want a question, please.

It is absurd to depict that as a UK Government cut. This is the question. Given—

At last!

Given that the cabinet secretary called on the UK Government to develop a recovery plan to meet the shortfall, can she confirm that the Scottish Government also has a plan? Will she today commit to—

No. One question. Thank you.

I said that it was not a cut from the UK Government; I specifically said that it was a reduction in national lottery income, but the decisions that the UK Government makes about licensing and the range of lotteries that are available has had an impact on income from the lottery. The UK Government therefore has a responsibility, which is why it is incumbent on it to address the matter.

For our part, despite the reductions in UK funding for Scotland, we have protected culture funding because we think that it is important to the life and economy of this country.

European Union Nationals (Post-Brexit Working)

4. Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding the future of European Union nationals currently working in Scotland post-Brexit. (S5O-01456)

The Scottish Government has repeatedly urged the UK Government to guarantee the rights of EU citizens and their families who are living in the UK post-Brexit. We want EU citizens in Scotland to feel settled and secure and to continue to make a strong contribution to our country. The Scottish Government has not been substantially engaged in the detail of the negotiations.

Last week, the Scottish Government provided the UK Migration Advisory Committee with the latest evidence on the overwhelmingly positive contribution that EU citizens make to Scotland and the vital importance of continued free movement in delivering future population growth and economic growth.

Stewart Stevenson

Does the minister see any prospect of a solution to the fishing industry’s problems, which involve the fact that 70 per cent of workers in the industry in the north-east of Scotland are not EU nationals?

As the member points out, that is a huge problem for Scotland’s offshore processing sector, where EU nationals make up 58 per cent of the workforce in large seafood processing factories—the percentage is even higher in the Grampian area.

As we have made clear, people who choose to work and live in Scotland—whether they are from the EU or elsewhere—are welcome and needed. It is for exactly that reason that the UK Government must give assurances. I am asking the UK Government to provide those assurances and to immediately remove the unnecessary uncertainty that is being caused to businesses and to the workers to whom the member refers.

International Development Fund (Lobbying)

To ask the Scottish Government how it ensures that there is transparency regarding lobbying when its international development fund offers humanitarian aid. (S5O-01457)

The Scottish Government’s £1 million humanitarian emergency fund is activated and distributed either in response to the launch of a Disasters Emergency Committee appeal or on the recommendation of the independent expert HEF panel, which is made up of eight of the leading humanitarian aid organisations in Scotland.

Does the minister agree that it was concerning to hear reports last week that the United Kingdom’s former Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, held secret discussions about routing aid through the Israeli military? What representations has the minister made to the UK Government to ensure that its decision-making on humanitarian aid allocations is transparent and free from undue political interference?

I hear muttering from the Conservative benches, but I struggle to visualise what would have happened to me if I had gone on a rogue mission to offer Scottish aid money to a Government in Israel to use, through its military, in an area of land that is not recognised as its territory by the UK. Enough has been said about that matter, but I will say that I have written to the Foreign Secretary to ask what exactly Priti Patel was thinking of in that instance.

What was the most recent award of emergency humanitarian aid made by the Scottish Government, and is the Scottish Government arranging to make any more awards soon?

We have recently assisted the Rohingya people in their plight, as they flee from real persecution and end up in camps outside Burma. We continue to receive representations from the sector and more generally about the best use of the fund in the future, and we take seriously our responsibility to disburse the fund fairly.

Community Radio Stations (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it provides for community radio stations, such as East Coast FM in East Lothian. (S5O-01458)

Between January 2011 and November 2017, community radio channels received a total of £307,645 from the Scottish Government for running public information adverts.

The Office of Communications administers a community radio fund that has been taking applications for 2017-18, and the fund can be accessed by Scotland-based stations such as East Coast FM, whose director, Ian Robertson, I met last year at the invitation of Mr Gray. I congratulate Mr Robertson on his silver award as volunteer of the year at this year’s UK community radio awards.

That is much appreciated. The cabinet secretary will be pleased to know that East Coast FM recently received a Princess Royal training award at St James’s palace, where it was recognised as one of 40 businesses that have created a lasting impact by successfully linking their skills development needs to business performance. I think that that demonstrates—

Question, Mr Gray.

—the important role beyond simple broadcast media that the station plays. Could it not receive more support than it does from our Government?

When we last met, the member raised the situation in Wales. He will be aware that the Welsh Government closed its radio fund in 2013-14. I have written to Mr Gray, outlining the number of different funding sources that community radio can access. I encourage him to pass on that communication to Mr Robertson, along with my congratulations.

Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn (Cultural History)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it offers communities in the Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn constituency to celebrate the area’s cultural history. (S5O-01459)

Creative Scotland and Historic Environment Scotland promote the rich culture and traditions of our communities in many different ways.

In 2016 the Maryhill Burgh Halls Trust received almost £5,000 from Creative Scotland for the “The Maryhill Songbook”, which is inspired by historic poems in the Trust’s collection that relate to Maryhill. Toonspeak, the young people’s theatre, also received £30,000 from Creative Scotland for “Ma Bit”, a large-scale contemporary musical theatre production that was created by young people and that helps to build a greater connection between young people and their communities. Historic Environment Scotland’s support fund can provide grant assistance of up to £5,000 for one-off, heritage-related events.

I draw the cabinet secretary’s attention to plans for a Maryhill museum, which is to be based at the stunningly restored Burgh Halls in my constituency, which was mentioned by the cabinet secretary. I extend an invitation to the cabinet secretary to join me and see for herself, perhaps some time in the new year, the importance of the excellent work that has been undertaken by the Maryhill Burgh Halls Trust.

Diary permitting, I would be delighted to return to Maryhill Burgh Halls. I was there when the building was officially reopened after extensive investment. It is a great celebration of traditions and history as well as of engagement with the local community.

Glasgow has a fabulous culture, which has been rightly celebrated over the years. What discussions has the Scottish Government had with Glasgow City Council ahead of its upcoming budget to ensure that proper support and funding are given to local communities to encourage tourism?

I will meet Glasgow City Council in the next few weeks. Only this morning, I was in Glasgow, where I heard about the Glasgow international festival of visual art, which is going to be fantastic. I also met Glasgow Life representatives.

The new administration in Glasgow is to be commended for putting centre stage its approach to culture and creativity. I look forward to engaging with Glasgow City Council as it moves forward to a very exciting year—the anniversary year of Celtic Connections and the year of the European championships, which will be a great opportunity to showcase and celebrate the great traditions of Glasgow, the great city.

Tourism in Ayrshire

8. John Scott (Ayr) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what recent discussions it has had with VisitScotland regarding tourism in Ayrshire. (S5O-01460)

The Scottish Government’s programme for government commits us to promoting the south of Scotland and Ayrshire as a tourism destination for coastal and forest tourism activities.

I met Malcolm Roughead, the chief executive officer of VisitScotland, only last week, and part of our discussion was about VisitScotland’s progress in taking forward that commitment. In particular, there is to be a two-week-long digital skills push to increase the number of Ayrshire tourist businesses that use digital channels.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that VisitScotland’s recently announced proposal means that there will not be a tourist hub in mainland Ayrshire and that, in the future, information about Ayrshire will be provided by hubs in Dumfries and Glasgow. I think that it is unreasonable that Ayrshire should be neglected in that way. Will the cabinet secretary please join me in making representation to VisitScotland that a presence be retained in Ayr?

Those are operational matters for VisitScotland. The member will be aware that there has been a 58 per cent drop in visitor numbers to the VisitScotland iCentres and a 62 per cent drop in visitor numbers to the iCentre in Ayr, in particular. The footfall in Ayr has dropped from 50,000 in 2006-07 to 19,000. In addition, he is wrong to say that there will be no information, as information will be provided through the partners. There are 1,500 new visitor information partners, including a number in Ayr.

I note that, following the discussions that VisitScotland had with South Ayrshire Council in recent weeks, in the meetings that the three Ayrshire councils have had subsequent to the announcement, the closure of the VisitScotland site has not been on the agenda as a council item.

We need to move into a digital age, and two out of three visitors always use their internet access to make bookings. It is, therefore, very important that we encourage businesses in Ayr and Ayrshire to get involved with the VisitScotland information partnership programme, because that is the way in which tourism is moving. Indeed, the programme that has been set out by VisitScotland has been supported by the Scottish Tourism Alliance.

I have just managed to squeeze in a question from Alexander Burnett.

North East 250

I ask members to note my entry in the register of members’ interests, particularly in relation to businesses in the tourism sector.

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the proposed tourism initiative, the north east 250. (S5O-01461)

Briefly please, cabinet secretary.

The Scottish Government welcomes industry-led initiatives such as the north east 250. Launched on 8 November, the north east 250 is a privately developed route that has the potential to encourage visitors to experience the wonderful scenery, rich culture and numerous attractions that the north-east has to offer, from coastal villages in Banff and Buchan and the distilleries of Speyside and Royal Deeside to the vibrant city of Aberdeen.

Very briefly please, Mr Burnett.

I thank the cabinet secretary for her answer. I am grateful to see that initiative come to the north-east. I ask the cabinet secretary what data the Scottish Government will look to collect in order to determine the success of the initiative, so that it can be replicated elsewhere.

The initiative has not “come to the north-east”; it has been developed by private interests there. I encourage them to engage with everybody so that its progress can be seen. If it is anything like the north coast 500, there is great potential to maximise its economic impact, but it is very important that all of the north-east can benefit from it. I hope that engagement and inclusion will be part of that privately led initiative.

That concludes portfolio questions on culture, tourism and external affairs. I apologise to Bruce Crawford for not reaching his question. We will try to do better next time, Mr Crawford.

British Transport Police Integration Cost

1. Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government how much the integration of British Transport Police in Scotland into Police Scotland will cost. (S5O-01463)

The Scottish Government set out the projected costs of railway policing in the financial memorandum to the Railway Policing (Scotland) Bill. Under current arrangements, the costs are around £20 million per annum, and the financial memorandum assumes an envelope that is the same in real terms following integration. The costs of railway policing in Scotland following integration will continue to be funded through contributions from the railway industry.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that Police Scotland submitted evidence to the Justice Sub-Committee on Policing that stated that it did not know the costs of the merger. He will also be aware that not a single trade union or staff association representing the workforce supports the merger: not the British Transport Police Federation, not the Transport Salaried Staffs Association and not the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers—and, indeed, not the Scottish Trades Union Congress. Surely the cabinet secretary must now accept that the merger is one that the workers do not want and that passengers do not need. Is it not time that we ended this politically motivated merger right now—

Mr Sarwar, this is a supplementary question, not a long ramble before another question. I call the cabinet secretary.

Parliament, including the Justice Sub-Committee on Policing, considered those matters and voted on the bill. The bill was supported by the majority of MSPs and the Government is now progressing the policy.

A brief supplementary question from Liam Kerr.

No details have been provided about which staff body will represent the employment interests of BTP officers north of the border after the force is abolished here. Will the cabinet secretary end that uncertainty now?

As the member will be aware, the Justice Sub-Committee on Policing has written to me, looking for further details on that matter. I will respond to the committee in due course.

Non-harassment Orders (Domestic Abuse)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the mandatory imposition of non-harassment orders on people convicted of domestic abuse. (S5O-01464)

The Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill, which is currently before Parliament, strengthens the system of non-harassment orders by requiring the court in every domestic abuse case always to consider whether to impose protection for the victim. That improves on the existing system, which requires an application to be made by the prosecutor.

We consider that discretion should remain with the court in any given case. That is because there may be cases in which such an order is not appropriate, and the court needs discretion to ensure that a decision can always be made on the basis of the facts and circumstances in a given case.

I ask the cabinet secretary to give further consideration to that issue as the bill progresses, and to consider in particular the fundamental principle that the onus should not be on the victim to justify the need for a non-harassment order, but should be on the convicted perpetrator to justify why such an order should not apply.

The requirement for the court to consider granting a non-harassment order in each case and to give reasons for its decision will help to ensure that such orders are granted to protect victims where that is appropriate and necessary.

However, we are always happy to engage with members to consider further ways in which the bill could be strengthened, and I have no doubt that the member will continue to make representations on the issues, on behalf of her constituents, as she has done over a period of time. We believe that a level of discretion is still required in the system so that the courts can decide whether a non-harassment order should be applied.

I am very supportive of the domestic violence disclosure scheme known as Clare’s law; I recognise its value. Does the cabinet secretary have a view on the petition that was launched this week calling for an official register of domestic abusers, similar to the sex offenders register?

I am aware of the petition and will give consideration to the matters that are raised in it. The Scottish Government is committed to taking forward a range of measures to tackle domestic violence in our society. There is still much work to be done in addressing that issue and we will give due consideration to the issues that are raised in the petition.

Like Claire Baker, I welcome the moves that have been outlined by the cabinet secretary. What consideration has been given to extending non-harassment orders to cover children, particularly when an aggravation in relation to children is referred to in a case?

Liam McArthur will be aware that I am due to appear before the Justice Committee for stage 2 consideration of the bill. I have lodged an amendment to extend the provision of non-harassment orders to children in such circumstances in order to improve the protection that can be made available to them. My amendment reflects the evidence that the Justice Committee received at stage 1, particularly from children’s organisations, about the impact that domestic violence can have on children. I am pleased that the amendments that I lodged on Monday have been welcomed by a number of the children’s organisations that have been calling for an extension of that provision.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that if the same sheriff who heard the evidence in a domestic abuse case in the criminal court were to rule on civil orders such as non-harassment orders following a domestic abuse conviction, domestic abuse survivors would suffer less trauma? If so, will he confirm that the one-judge proposal will be included in the family justice modernisation strategy consultation?

My colleague Annabelle Ewing is taking forward the consultation as part of our review of family law, in which we will look at a range of measures. No doubt the issue that Margaret Mitchell raises is one of the factors that will be taken into account as part of the consultation. If she wishes to provide further information on that proposal, I have no doubt that my colleague will be more than happy to give it due consideration.

Urban Crime

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to tackle urban crime. (S5O-01465)

The Scottish Government remains committed to tackling urban crime around Scotland. Overall, crime levels are at a 43-year low, violent crime is down by almost half since 2006-07 and the number of homicides is at its lowest since records began.

The Scottish Government is committed to building safer communities by supporting local authorities, partner agencies such as Crimestoppers, Neighbourhood Watch Scotland, the violence reduction unit and the Scottish Business Resilience Centre, and communities themselves in helping to create an environment where people feel safe and supported, and where everyone takes responsibility for their own actions and how they affect others.

I welcome any reduction in crime, but official figures for the past year show that, sadly, Dundee is one of the worst areas for violent crime and is the worst area for sexual crime. In addition, attacks on NHS Tayside staff are up. What guarantee can the minister give Dundonians that the figures will be lower next year?

I understand that there has been a spike in the number of murders in Dundee over the past year, but we are committed to tackling all forms of violence around Scotland, wherever they are manifested. We will continue to work with our national and local partners to make our communities safer and stronger.

Our strategy is focused on tough enforcement, coupled with education, early intervention and diversion activity. That is very important, hence our work with, for example, the violence reduction unit, which has secured Scottish Government support of £8.7 million since 2008 and has developed key initiatives—I am sure that Bill Bowman is aware of them—such as the no knives, better lives campaign, Medics Against Violence and the important navigator programme. We are absolutely committed to doing everything that we can to tackle violence around Scotland, including in Dundee.

Bail-related Offences

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to reduce the number of bail-related offences. (S5O-01466)

The Scottish Government is keen to discourage breach of bail, which is why we have made it easier to bring charges for such breaches. Decisions in any given case as to whether to grant bail are a matter for our independent courts.

I am sure that the cabinet secretary is aware of the significant increase in the number of people breaching bail conditions. In 2006-07, one in eight bail orders was breached, but the figures for 2015-16 show that it is now one in five. In light of a recent high-profile sexual assault case where bail conditions were breached with tragic consequences—

Please ask a supplementary question.

Can the minister confirm whether the Scottish Government is considering additional measures to enforce bail conditions to protect the most vulnerable victims of crime?

In recent years, we have taken two separate measures through legislation to tighten up bail-related matters, in 2007 and again in 2010. In 2015-16, there were 8,563 bail-related offences, which was similar to the figure in previous years. Between 2008-09 and 2015-16, the number of bail-related offences decreased by 6 per cent, so there has been a reduction in the number of offences that have been committed on bail. We took additional measures through the Criminal Proceedings etc (Reform) (Scotland) Act 2007 and the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010 to make it easier for our courts to deal with breaches of bail and to tighten up the conditions under which bail can be granted. The member is incorrect to state that, overall, breaches of bail are up. The statistics show that, between 2008-09 and 2015-16, which is the most recent year for which there are figures, bail-related offences decreased by 6 per cent.

Prison Estate Modernisation

To ask the Scottish Government what progress is being made with its commitment to modernise the prison estate. (S5O-01467)

I recently announced plans for the modernisation of the women’s estate. On completion of those projects, proposals for the next phase of the estate development programme will get under way. That next phase comprises the construction of HMP Highland to replace HMP Inverness, the construction of HMP Glasgow to replace HMP Barlinnie and the proposed replacement of HMP Greenock.

Currently, there is no mention of HMP Dumfries in the strategic corporate plan for the Scottish Prison Service, which is obviously of concern to staff who work at the facility. What reassurances can the cabinet secretary give the staff at Dumfries with regard to the long-term future of the prison?

HMP Dumfries is an important part of the existing range of provision in the Scottish Prison Service. As I have set out, we already have a capital investment programme, which is proceeding in a number of phases. The Government has invested hundreds of millions of pounds in the prison estate to ensure that it is fit for purpose, and we will continue that programme in the coming years. As I said, we are taking forward the next phase of the estates plan and, after we have completed that process, we will look at the remaining elements of the prison estate, including HMP Dumfries and HMP Castle Huntly, which is the open estate.

I say to the member that, given the capital costs that are involved in investing in our prison estate, one of the major inhibitors to investment has been the significant cuts that the United Kingdom Government has been applying to our capital budgets.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that I work closely with Families Outside and I am keen to see progress on improving the relationships that prisoners have with their children. Does he have any plans to make improvements across the prison estate to the facilities that are available when children visit a parent, to make the visits less imposing and to help parents and children to maintain and develop close bonds?

We have been taking forward work with a number of third sector organisations to provide visitor centres in a number of our prison establishments. Several months ago, I had the pleasure of opening the new visitor centre at HMP Glenochil, which is specifically designed to accommodate the needs of children who are visiting the establishment. We have provided resources to allow similar facilities to be provided in prison establishments across the prison estate, and we want to continue to build on that progress.

We recognise that maintaining and supporting family links can be an important element in promoting desistance among offenders and that family centres in our prison system have an important role in helping to support and maintain those relationships. We have been taking forward work on that and have provided additional resource for facilities to be established in a number of our prisons, and we want to continue to move forward on that in the months and years ahead.

Scottish Fire and Rescue Service

To ask the Scottish Government what support it provides to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service to ensure that it can continue to provide its existing level of service. (S5O-01468)

The Scottish Government has provided the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service with a budget in 2017-18 of £316.4 million, which is an increase of £21.7 million from the previous year. That budget has allowed the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service to protect front-line services, notwithstanding significant cuts to Scotland’s budget from Westminster.

Of course, the funding for the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service would go much further if the United Kingdom Government would allow the service to recover VAT like other fire services across the UK, adding an estimated £10 million to its annual budget. The Scottish Government will continue to press for a change to VAT legislation to remedy that long-running inequity.

Although I agree with the minister on the VAT issue, given the geographical spread of the South Scotland region, any cuts will put communities at risk. Does the minister agree that local community engagement is essential and that fire stations should be at the core of our communities and officers known in them, such as at the recent bonfire awareness event at St Mary’s primary school in Lanark? Can the minister give me assurances that no fire stations will close and that there will be no reductions in services in South Scotland, and in Scotland more generally?

I pay tribute to the bonfire awareness event that Claudia Beamish referred to, at St Mary’s primary school. That is the kind of important event that the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service participates in daily across the country.

The member alludes, I think, to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service transformation draft plans that have been put on the SFRS intranet. Those proposals are out subject to discussion and no final decisions have been made on what transformation will look like. There is a commitment to engage fully with not just staff but the service as a whole and members of the public.

I reiterate that being deprived of the sum of £10 million per annum from the front-line emergency services that are provided by the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service certainly does not help. I urge the chancellor to end that inequity and to place the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service on the same footing as all the other fire services in the UK, which are not subject to VAT that cannot be reclaimed. I urge the chancellor to take the opportunity of his autumn statement to do right by our front-line firefighters.

Police and Fire and Rescue Services (Remote and Rural Areas)

To ask the Scottish Government what workforce planning and recruitment plans are in place for the police and fire and rescue services in remote and rural areas. (S5O-01469)

Workforce planning and recruitment are, rightly, matters for the chief constable and the chief officer.

The Scottish Government continues to support our police and fire services. We are protecting the police resource budget in real terms in every year of this parliamentary session—a boost of £100 million by 2021—and we are providing additional police reform funding of £61 million in 2017-18. We have also increased the overall operational budget for the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service this year by £21.7 million, to support investment in equipment and resources.

What support can the Scottish Government give to remote and rural areas to roll out programmes such as the uniformed services programme at Golspie high school, while recruitment to emergency services is an issue? Will the cabinet secretary pay the school a visit?

I welcome the initiative that has been taken at Golspie high school. I know that our police and fire services work closely with a number of youth-based organisations to help to support and promote the work that our uniformed emergency services carry out daily to protect our communities. I am keen to ensure that we continue to develop that partnership between the police and our fire service. I am happy to consider any invitation that I receive to visit that particular initiative at Golspie high school.

According to figures collected by the Fire Brigades Union, the number of fire safety officers and inspectors has fallen from 102 in 2013 to 90 in 2017, which is a 12 per cent drop in four years. Can the cabinet secretary assure members that he plans to reverse that trend?

How the staffing complement is configured in the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service is a matter for the chief officer.

Thank you very much. That concludes portfolio questions. I apologise to Emma Harper and Donald Cameron, whose questions I did not reach this time.