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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, May 16, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 16 May 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Community Pharmacy Scotland, Portfolio Question Time, Brexit (Impact on Food and Drink), Decision Time


General Question Time

Fife Ethylene Plant (Reports)

To ask the Scottish Government what information it has on when the reports on the operation of the Fife ethylene plant at Mossmorran by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and the Health and Safety Executive will be published. (S5O-03246)

On 25 April, SEPA announced a formal investigation at the site. The timetable for that investigation will be decided by SEPA, which provides updates through its dedicated Mossmorran and Braefoot Bay hub.

HSE carries out regular inspections at the site under various regulations. At present, HSE is not expecting to publish any reports in relation to the Mossmorran complex.

When the Mossmorran complex erupted last year, causing widespread fear and plumes of black smoke everywhere, SEPA issued a final written warning. However, the same thing happened again this year. Does the cabinet secretary accept that people in the surrounding communities are fearful with regard to the safety aspects of the plant, and does she agree that HSE should be called on to give assurances, given the age of the plant and the amount of times that it breaks down and has to flare for safety reasons?

I absolutely understand the concerns of members of the community in respect of what is happening and the impact that it is having on those local residents.

The plant is regulated by SEPA, which has a range of regulatory and enforcement powers that it exercises independently of Government. I am aware that HSE has a joint role in respect of the plant. However, the member must be aware that HSE is, effectively, a reserved organisation, and I am not sure whether I have the ability to direct it in any way.

From what I understand, HSE has completed its investigation and has confirmed that actions have been completed to its satisfaction. However, I also understand that it does not routinely publish reports.

I note what the cabinet secretary has said, and it would be helpful if we could obtain some clarity from SEPA about what impact the latest unplanned flaring incident will have on its intention to proceed with a review of best available techniques recently submitted by the operators, and what the upshot will be for the report on that. It would be interesting to have some clarity on that.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that I have written to her supporting the calls of my constituents for the Scottish Government to commission an independent investigation. I am seeking a meeting with her in that regard, and I hope that she will look favourably on that request.

I believe that my office has already been in touch with Annabelle Ewing’s office about a meeting.

As I indicated to Alex Rowley, we understand the huge impact that unplanned flaring is having on local residents. I am aware of the work that SEPA has been doing on best available techniques. That is, obviously, a key step in identifying the way forward and improving performance on the site. SEPA is currently reviewing those technical assessments with a view to providing a summary update imminently.

Following last year’s investigation, permit variations were served on the operators requiring them to introduce best available technology to tackle noise and vibration. However, a letter that I received last week from SEPA’s chief executive says:

“Previous reviews had concluded that BAT”—

that is, best available technology—

“was being used at the installation”.

In that case, what was the purpose of those permit variations?

I do not have very much to add to the answer that I gave to Annabelle Ewing. SEPA is reviewing the technical assessments with a view to providing a summary update imminently. I anticipate that members who have a particular interest in the matter will await the publication of the summary update with interest.

Some members are calling for the plant’s closure, but I am certainly not one of them, because the plant is vital as a major employer in the area. A robust maintenance plan needs to be implemented so that we can give reassurance to the community. What is the Scottish Government doing to facilitate that?

I remind Alexander Stewart that SEPA is the independent regulatory authority in this case. I do not want to do or say anything that would cause a problem for the investigation that SEPA announced on 25 April. I appreciate that people in the local communities who are under pressure and members who are looking for early answers might find that difficult. However, if I caused difficulties for the investigation, that would create problems down the line greater than those that we currently experience.

Question 2 has been withdrawn.

Adult Mental Health Services (Tayside)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress has been made in addressing the areas for improvement identified in the Healthcare Improvement Scotland report, “Review of Adult Mental Health Services in Tayside”. (S5O-03248)

Scottish Government officials are in contact with the board to discuss progress, and the Minister for Mental Health met NHS Tayside’s senior management team on 12 March to seek further assurance. Healthcare Improvement Scotland has also followed up on its report and provided the board with further feedback on improvement priorities.

Given the gravity of the concerns that have been raised about provision in Tayside, the independent inquiry into mental health services was established in May last year, and it will provide an overarching review of mental health services in Tayside.

In recognition of mental health awareness week, I met volunteers in Dundee to discuss adult mental health facilities. They wanted me to ask the cabinet secretary whether she knows that there is still no out-of-hours mental health crisis service in Dundee. Does she know that? Is it time that the cabinet secretary delivered on the Scottish National Party’s commitment to provide 24-hour mental health crisis care in Dundee?

That issue has not been raised with me or with the Minister for Mental Health. If Bill Bowman wishes to provide details, we will certainly look at the matter. The provision of a seven-day service for the people of Angus is being pursued, with new provision coming on stream. We are happy to consider any issues that people in Dundee face and to resolve them, as we are doing elsewhere.

Social Work Services (Funding)

To ask the Scottish Government what funding is provided for social work services, and how it ensures that these services are adequately staffed and have the appropriate facilities and resources to help children and families. (S5O-03249)

The Scottish Government is delivering a funding package of £11.2 billion for local authorities this year. Compared with 2018-19, that is a real-terms increase of £310 million—or 2.9 per cent—for essential public services, including social work. However, it is the responsibility of individual local authorities to manage their own budgets and to ensure adequate staffing, facilities and resourcing for social work services for children and families.

The minister might be aware that social workers, social work assistants and support staff in West Dunbartonshire Council’s children and families services are balloting for strike action in June. Their concerns centre on the lack of staffing. The council has failed to secure a sufficient number of agency staff to provide cover, and the facilities are inappropriate for conducting difficult, and often sensitive, interviews with families. I understand that there is now a backlog of more than 200 cases. What direct assistance can the Scottish Government provide the council to resolve the problem? Will the minister meet Unison to discuss staffing issues more generally?

I am aware that balloting for industrial action is planned. Any industrial action that would affect services would be really regrettable, and I hope that it can be avoided. I encourage all parties to work together to seek a resolution to the dispute.

My officials are in close contact with West Dunbartonshire Council, and the health and social care partnership and the Care Inspectorate are monitoring the situation. I understand that the council is making progress on the issues that are of concern to Unison and its members and that it has invited Unison to contribute to that work. We are liaising with the Care Inspectorate to support West Dunbartonshire Council and the health and social care partnership in their work to ensure the delivery of services and the continued protection of people who are at risk.

This Government is committed to supporting strong trade unions in Scotland, for the benefit of workers in our economy, and we will be more than happy to meet Unison in the future.

Planning (Local Decision Making)

To ask the Scottish Government what value it places on local decision making in planning matters. (S5O-03250)

Ministers recognise the importance of local decision making, and we use our call-in powers very sparingly.

In relation to a recent application by Ineos, there is evidence, from a freedom of information request, that the minister disregarded not only the initial decision of the local authority and the advice of independent reporters, but the recommendation of civil servants, which was to refuse Ineos planning permission to close Bo’ness Road in Grangemouth.

Why did the minister decide to grant that permission and to put the interests of a large corporation before the interests of the local community? Will he reconsider that controversial and unpopular decision, which undermines local democracy?

First, I point out that the application was appealed on the ground of non-determination—that is, the local authority having failed to determine an application within the statutory period.

Ministers carefully considered all the evidence relating to the planning application. There were strong economic and security grounds for granting the appeal. Ministers set out their reasons in full in the decision letter, which is available publicly.

I acknowledge the reasons that the minister gave about his decision on Bo’ness Road in Grangemouth being based on the economic benefits and on the security issues that have arisen in recent years. I also acknowledge his comment about non-determination; the appeal resulted from the previous Labour administration at Falkirk Council failing to make a decision on the application within the timescale that is set for major planning applications.

Does the minister agree that the principle of local accountability works both ways, and that if Falkirk Council grants a stopping-up order it must include mitigation measures, the cost of which is currently estimated to be £22 million, which Ineos must pay? The petrochemical plant has returned to significant profitability, and mitigation costs must not be borne by taxpayers locally or nationally.

We much prefer it if local decision making takes place, as I said. The reason for the appeal was non-determination by the local authority: it should have determined the application.

The stopping-up order is a matter for Falkirk Council to determine. It is a live application that might come before ministers, so it is not appropriate for me to comment on the specifics, because to do so might be prejudicial to the decision-making process.

The minister might be aware that, earlier this month, the reporter overturned a decision by locally elected members of Orkney Islands Council to refuse applications by Hoolan Energy for two wind farm developments.

Constituents have been in touch with me to question why such a sensitive decision, which has significant local public interest, was left to an official rather than the minister. Why was that decision not called in by ministers?

I believe that I have written in some depth to Mr McArthur on that issue.

I am always wary of the special place in the ministerial code for the planning minister when it comes to talking about particular applications. If Mr McArthur has other queries on the application, further to what was in the letter that I sent to him, I will be happy to respond to him.

First-tier Tribunal for Scotland Housing and Property Chamber

To ask the Scottish Government what analysis the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning has undertaken of whether complaints against property factors and letting agents are being effectively resolved through the First-tier Tribunal for Scotland housing and property chamber. (S5O-03251)

The First-tier Tribunal for Scotland is an independent judicial body, so we are unable to comment on, or to intervene in, its decisions. In accordance with the Tribunals (Scotland) Act 2014,

“The Lord President is responsible for making and maintaining appropriate arrangements for securing the efficient disposal of business in the Scottish Tribunals”


“The President of Tribunals is to prepare an annual report about the operation and business of the Scottish Tribunals”

and how they

“have exercised their functions”

at the end of each financial year.

The report will be provided to the Lord President, who must publish it.

I thank the minister for his answer and for his letter of Tuesday, which spelled out the legal position around letting agent enforcement orders.

I have been contacted by numerous constituents about problems that have been caused by a letting agent or a property factor. I have done some analysis of enforcement orders that have been issued by the tribunal and have found that, despite having received orders, some companies, which are governed by a code of conduct, continually ignore them and are getting away with doing so scot free.

The First-tier Tribunal for Scotland lacks transparency in disclosure of details of those who continue to break the law and to ignore enforcement orders. Staff there told me that it has issued 26 enforcement orders, half of which have not been complied with and 10 of which have been reported to police, but the tribunal point blank refuses to say which ones. I have not yet been able to establish whether the police are doing anything about them. That is unacceptable.

Does the minister agree that for the system to work properly, it needs to be seen to do so and to show greater transparency? Action is required to deal with the few unscrupulous operators.

I apologise to Mr Simpson if I do not cover all aspects of his question—I had difficulty hearing everything that he said.

Failure to comply with a letting agent enforcement order or a property factor enforcement order are offences, and so are matters for Police Scotland to investigate. When ministers are notified by the tribunal of a failure to comply with an enforcement order by a registered letting agent or factor, Scottish ministers will, when appropriate, contact the business to highlight its legal requirements and the consequences of non-compliance, including the risk that it might be removed from the register, which would make it unlawful for the business to continue.

I am grateful to Mr Simpson and other members for pointing out difficulties that their constituents have faced, and I will always do all that I can to ensure that there is openness and transparency, and that everyone who is involved in the process is doing all that they can, including Police Scotland.

If Mr Simpson wishes to share any other information with me, I am more than happy to talk to him again.

Question 7 has been withdrawn, so we move on to question 8.

Sauchiehall Street (Glasgow School of Art Fire)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it is satisfied that everything possible is being done to aid the recovery of Sauchiehall Street following the Glasgow School of Art fire. (S5O-03253)

The primary responsibility for the on-going recovery of Sauchiehall Street is with Glasgow City Council. That said, we have been supportive of restoring Sauchiehall Street to its position as a significant business, retail and cultural location.

Following the exceptional circumstances of the fires, the Scottish Government has assisted Glasgow City Council to support businesses through what have been difficult trading conditions. In July 2018, I announced a recovery fund of £5 million for businesses that have been affected by the fires. The fund has provided more than £3 million of grant support to more than 200 eligible businesses.

Following engagement with the business community, I allocated the remaining £1.85 million to the council in December, to support business recovery further. In addition, we continue to fund discretionary rates hardship relief for affected non-domestic properties.

I put on the record my thanks to the cabinet secretary for extending business rates assistance to Sauchiehall Street businesses. I hope that it is acknowledged that residents and businesses are still struggling.

The O2 ABC Academy was widely seen as Glasgow’s most iconic and popular music venue. I recently met the owners, who are keen to have the O2 rebuilt. Does the cabinet secretary agree that it is vital to Glasgow’s status as a UNESCO city of music, and to Sauchiehall Street’s long-term survival, that the O2 ABC Academy be rebuilt?

Of course I will continue to work with the council, businesses and local MSPs, who have been very constructive and consensual in progressing the recovery of Sauchiehall Street. I would not want to overstep my role as Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work or to try to act as a determiner on future planning, but I think that there is a very strong case for that performance venue to continue to be able to flourish to support Sauchiehall Street, the wider economy and Scottish performance. I am sympathetic to Pauline McNeill’s case.

I call Sandra White. Please be brief.

I thank Pauline McNeill for raising the issue, and I thank the cabinet secretary for his on-going work with regard to the O2 and Glasgow School of Art.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that if extra money comes to Glasgow School of Art, it might be persuaded to use some of it to help the local people and businesses of Sauchiehall Street?

As I have said, I am more than happy to continue to engage with business support and retail support, and with the vision of the avenues project. As I said just moments ago, there has been a good cross-party approach to the matter: I hope that that will continue so that Sauchiehall Street and the economy of Glasgow can flourish.

Before we move on to First Minister’s question time, I invite members to join me in welcoming to our gallery the honourable Colin Brooks MP, who is the speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Victoria. [Applause.]