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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 15 December 2020

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Points of Order, Drug-related Deaths, Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Decision Time, No-take Zones


Topical Question Time

Brexit Negotiations (Update)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the United Kingdom Government’s Brexit negotiations and their potential impact on Scotland. (S5T-02593)

I call the Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs, Michael Russell, who joins us remotely.

Our understanding is that negotiations are continuing between the United Kingdom Government and the European Union, with significant differences remaining in relation to the level playing field and fisheries. Throughout the Brexit process, we have sought meaningful engagement in order to ensure that Scotland’s interests are protected, but, unfortunately, that has not been forthcoming.

That remains the case even at this endgame stage, in which we are largely unsighted on process and on progress, or any lack thereof. Engagement with the UK Government, especially at ministerial level, tells us little beyond what we already know from the media. We have had no ministerial engagement since the last joint ministerial committee, which was on 3 December.

By the Prime Minister’s own admission, the chances of a no-deal outcome are increasing. That would be absolutely catastrophic for Scotland and must be avoided, but I should make clear that even if a deal can still be secured, it will be a very low deal, which will represent an extremely hard Brexit. It will, for example, take Scotland out of the single market and customs union, and it will end freedom of movement, hitting jobs and living standards hard. Our modelling of the basic trade agreement of the type that the United Kingdom Government wants to negotiate finds that, by 2030, Scottish gross domestic product is estimated to be 6.1 per cent lower than if we continue European Union membership. That equates to a loss of £1,600 per person in Scotland. Of course, the impact of no deal would be even worse.

Like the cabinet secretary, I am appalled that, since 1 December, the Scottish ministers have not been engaged in the endgame of a very difficult set of negotiations—they were made difficult by the Tory Government.

I understand that agreement on participation in the Erasmus+ scheme post-Brexit has failed to be reached. Can the cabinet secretary tell us about the prospective impact on students, at a time when we are told that we will have to build new relationships and trade with countries across the world?

The Scottish Government has always been clear that full association with Erasmus+ is in the best interests of Scotland. Wales and Scotland have argued on every occasion that if the UK Government decides not to proceed with Erasmus, Wales and Scotland should proceed with the scheme. It supports not only our universities and colleges but school sports and youth and community groups with mobility exchanges with other countries in Europe. Taking part is a transformational experience, and Scotland has done very well out of the scheme. It would be mad not to proceed with it, but if that is the UK Government’s decision it would be madder still to try to prevent Scotland and Wales from taking part.

In 1931, my mother was the beneficiary of a scheme that took her to study in France. It looks as though today’s generation will not be as fortunate as my mother was, 90 years ago.

With only a few days to go before the end of the transition period, we are being left in the dark. Does the cabinet secretary share my concern about the serious effect that that will have on students’ and communities’ futures?

I understand that. One of my predecessors as president of the Scottish National Party, Winnie Ewing, was a prime mover in Erasmus as it was getting under way in its previous incarnations. We really need to get clarity on this, and let us hope that that clarity means that Erasmus will continue.

To damage the opportunities of our learners and young people, to threaten to diminish their life experiences and to undermine our institutions’ ability to secure the funding that is needed to support their ambitions would be mad. Institutions that take part in Erasmus need time to prepare, and the situation has already been deeply damaging to them. I hope that the UK Government is listening on this issue, although it seems to be listening on nothing else.

Drug-related Deaths

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking in response to the National Records of Scotland publication, “Drug-related deaths in Scotland in 2019”, in order to prevent further drug-related deaths. (S5T-02588)

First, I convey my condolences to the families, friends and loved ones of the 1,264 people who have lost their lives. Each death is an untimely tragedy.

The drug deaths situation that we face is a public health emergency, and tackling it remains a priority for me and for the Government. The drug deaths task force recently published its forward plan, which sets out the longer-term interventions that we are putting in place to tackle the problem. I will provide a further update to the Parliament in my statement this afternoon.

On behalf of Scottish Labour, I express sorrow for all the lives that have been lost and send our condolences to the bereaved. Today, we remember the people behind the statistics. They died because they were failed by decision makers and failed by the system.

The minister’s response was far from good enough. Time and time again, the Scottish Government was warned—by dozens of organisations—that it must properly fund treatment and recovery services, but it delivered real-terms cuts. Calls for bold and urgent action have not been acted on.

How can the minister say in his press release today that the Scottish Government is doing everything in its power, when residential rehab beds are lying empty? How can he say that he is doing all he can, when he has snubbed volunteers running an overdose prevention centre in Glasgow? Last year’s figures revealed that Scotland’s drug death rate was the highest in the world; even more people have died since then. Does he accept responsibility for that devastating increase?

I am the minister with responsibility, so yes, I accept responsibility for the actions that I am taking. In the past two years, we have taken considerable action to improve the service. The suggestion that I am not listening to wider stakeholders is not based on fact. Since being appointed to my post, I have taken great care to listen to people across Scotland with lived and living experience and to those who are on the front line in this public health emergency.

The member implied a cut in funding, but the fact is that, since 2015-16, there has been a 27 per cent increase in funding, up to £95.3 million now. Every year since I have been in post, I have been pleased that the Government has announced an increase in the budget for this area of work. Last year, there was an additional increase to support the work of the task force.

As the member says, every single one of those deaths is a tragedy, and we need to continue to look at how we can work differently to turn the numbers around and avoid such unnecessary deaths.

I know from family experience that the first step towards recovery from addiction is to recognise and admit that there is a problem. However, what we are hearing from the public health minister still sounds to me like denial. The figures today reveal a dreadful record of what has occurred on Joe FitzPatrick’s watch. There is still no radical plan, no urgency, no humility and no ambition for reversing the trend any time soon. The public needs to have confidence in the public health minister to lead us out of this human rights tragedy. The shocking statistics and his woeful response give us none.

The minister may have tried his best , but it is not good enough. I am sorry to say it, but I believe that his time is up. Will he please do the decent thing, resign, and make way for fresh leadership?

I thank the member for her comments. I have heard her views. Fortunately, I have great confidence that, across Scotland, many of the people who work at the front end of this public health emergency take a different view and continue to work really hard to turn this around. It is easy to call names and personalise; I am disappointed that it has come from Monica Lennon. While I expect it from others on the Labour benches, I do not generally expect it from her.

The figures are a tragedy. I will leave it there.

My thoughts are with the families and loved ones affected—this will be a really tough day for them in particular.

In Dundee, 56 of the 72 recorded deaths have been attributed to the use of street Valium—that is almost four out of five drug-related deaths in the city. Clearly, the increasing use of benzodiazepines is one of the primary causes of drug deaths in Dundee. Can the minister say what action has been taken to tackle the manufacture and distribution of benzodiazepines, alongside the general issue of stopping the increased use of street Valium?

We think that a key reason behind the numbers is the availability of those drugs and their extremely low price, coupled with the unknown content and potency of the substances used to make the tablets. I will shortly make a statement to the chamber in which I will set out a bit more detail on the specific actions that we are taking on that matter.

Today is another sad day for Scotland, but the facts speak for themselves. Over the past 13 years, £47 million has been cut from drug and alcohol partnerships and more than 300 rehab beds across Scotland have been lost. We are asking ourselves how we have got to this point.

The Parliament is increasingly losing confidence in the Government’s drug deaths task force. Will the minister agree to an urgent cross-party summit on the issue? We have to do something about it, because another year with another 6 per cent rise is totally unacceptable.

I regularly meet members from all parties who want to engage on the matter. The truth is that some of the figures that Mr Briggs mentions do not stand up to proper analysis. In relation to rehab beds, I urge members to look at the work of the rehab working group led by Dr David McCartney, which is a robust piece of work that is helping us to consider, as we said in our strategy, how to improve access to rehabilitation.

A number of members have indicated that they wish to ask a question now, but they are all due to ask a question on the drugs deaths ministerial statement later, so they will get their chance then.

Policing (Financial Sustainability)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the Auditor General’s report stating that policing in Scotland is “not financially sustainable”. (S5T-02591)

Scotland is well served by its police service, and the service’s key role in keeping communities safe has been highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic. All members will acknowledge that.

There is much in the Auditor General’s report that is to be welcomed. It recognises the improvements and progress across organisational leadership, capacity, governance, financial planning and management, and that the Scottish Police Authority has built on the progress that was highlighted in last year’s report.

Despite the constraints on Scotland’s public services from a decade of United Kingdom Government austerity, our investment in policing this year has increased by £60 million, to more than £1.2 billion. We have also given the SPA an additional £8.2 million to mitigate the impacts of Covid-19 on the policing budget.

Future policing requirements will be considered as part of the budget process. We will continue to support the SPA to address the findings of the report, and we will work closely with the SPA and Police Scotland to consider options to address the challenge of financial sustainability.

The cabinet secretary is right that Scotland is well served by its police officers and staff, but Audit Scotland’s latest report leaves the SPA’s aim of achieving financial balance by 2020-21 in tatters. To make matters worse, Audit Scotland warns that without significant action the deficit is set to increase. Dealing with Brexit, Euro 2020 and COP26—the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—all while policing a pandemic means that next year could be the busiest ever for Scotland’s police force.

The challenges are new, but the financial problems are not. There have been bailouts ever since Police Scotland’s inception, so at what point does a bailout just become the budget?

I will refresh Liam McArthur’s memory on a couple of things. One is that outcomes are hugely important to people; of course we will continue discussions on the finances of Police Scotland, but the outcome from Police Scotland’s hard work and endeavour is a fall in crime over the past decade, including a fall in violent crime, which has almost halved.

There have been other positive outcomes; for example, sexual offences, including rape, have been investigated to a consistent level and in a consistent way across Scotland, which was not the case prior to Police Scotland’s inception. Those are not my words—that is what many stakeholders who are experts on the issue say. The outcomes from Police Scotland are indisputable, and have been positive right across the board.

I hear what Liam McArthur says about funding. I have no doubt that the Cabinet Secretary for Finance will engage with the Liberal Democrats in good faith when it comes to the budget process, so the points that Liam McArthur makes about finances can be taken up during it.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that one of the areas of exponential growth in pressure on Police Scotland is in relation to mental health. Officers often spend entire shifts accompanying vulnerable people at accident and emergency departments. Although they are not best equipped for that role, police are being left to pick up the pieces from Scotland’s mental health crisis. Because 85 per cent of revenue expenditure is on staffing, that use of time puts huge pressure on police resources.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that Scottish Liberal Democrats have long campaigned for more mental health professionals to be based in A and E departments and police stations, but roll-out so far has been sluggish. Of the 800 new workers who were promised by the Scottish Government, police stations have had only an additional 12. When will police stations have their fair share of those workers to help with that burden?

I do not accept Liam McArthur’s characterisation of the work as “sluggish”. He knows that our “Mental Health Strategy 2017-2027” outlines our commitment to funding 800 additional mental health workers in key settings by 2021-22. We are making good progress and are on course to deliver that commitment; as of July, 485 whole-time equivalent mental health posts had been recruited. I am certain that the figure will now be higher. We are at 60 per cent of the target and there is still time to go.

As for the numbers who are recruited for police stations, although we have committed to providing funding for 800 additional mental health workers—to which action 15 of the “Mental Health Strategy 2017-2027” commits us—workforce planning is conducted by integration authorities according to their population’s needs. If Liam McArthur thinks that more mental health workers should be in X, Y or Z custody setting, he should make that known to the relevant local integration authorities, and we can take up that conversation.

Progress on action 15—to recruit mental health workers—has been positive. There is still a way to go to meet the commitment in 2021-22, but I am certain that more such workers will be recruited to police custody settings.

Audit Scotland’s report said that Police Scotland has had to rely on existing resources to finance change. The Angiolini report noted that budgetary constraints prevented procurement of body-worn cameras. Will the Scottish National Party commit to providing funding to roll out those cameras?

We increased Police Scotland’s funding by £60 million in the previous budget, which was £10 million more than the Conservatives asked for. On body-worn cameras, decisions on spending of capital funding that we provide are, ultimately, operational decisions for the chief constable. If he makes it clear in budget discussions that he would like money for body-worn cameras or any other initiative, that will be considered.

The chief constable, the interim chair of the SPA and I have met the finance secretary twice, and we plan to meet again in the new year, so the budget discussions are well under way. Discussions will also continue with the Conservatives, and if they believe that funding for body-worn cameras should be part of the financial settlement, we will engage in good faith.

Like Audit Scotland reports of the past, the current report highlights the lack of workforce planning. Police Scotland faced a cut of 750 officers last year, but they were saved by an 11th hour reprieve because of Brexit. Will the force face that cut in officers in the coming year? If so, will the officer numbers be sustainable?

I am not sure that I accept the characterisation of the situation as a last-minute “reprieve”. It was always the case that the Government said that it would cover a budget deficit, which allowed the chief constable to make the operational decision to maintain additional police numbers at more than 1,000.

It is important to note that, while the Government has been in power, more than 1,000 additional police officers have been recruited. Because of the funding that we have provided and the assurances about the budget deficit, which we have a long-term plan to reduce, Police Scotland has been able to maintain the 1,000 additional officers. As I said, the budget discussions for 2021-22 continue, but I see no reason why officer numbers would be reduced, particularly given the pressures that there will be on policing in the next 12 months.

The Auditor General’s report shows that progress has been made despite a decade of UK austerity, but there is uncertainty because of the coronavirus, and Brexit has hampered efforts. What additional policing costs have been incurred because of the risks that are associated with European Union withdrawal?

Police Scotland has devoted significant resource and time to managing operational impacts on policing and the wider justice system from Brexit. The Scottish Government continues to work closely with the SPA and Police Scotland on planning for the consequences of EU exit by working through the operational and financial implications. As I said, the additional £60 million of funding that we gave the SPA in this year’s budget has allowed police officer numbers to be maintained throughout the year.

However, Brexit not only has financial impacts; it has real-life community impacts. Brexit will mean that Police Scotland has no access to the European arrest warrant, which has helped to catch criminals who have absconded and fled overseas. It will mean that it has no direct access to the Schengen information system, which gives it alerts about people in Scotland who are wanted in, or missing from, other countries. Those operational tools are important to keep our communities safe; the real impact on justice, home affairs and policing will be felt in our communities.