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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 18 March 2020

Agenda: Business Motion, Covid-19 (Economy), Covid-19 (Supporting our Communities), Portfolio Question Time, Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Motion, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

Justice and the Law Officers

The next item of business is portfolio question time, and the first portfolio is justice and the law officers.

Covid-19 (Prisons)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps prisons are taking to reduce the risk of the coronavirus, Covid-19, spreading among prisoners and staff. (S5O-04270)

The safety and wellbeing of those who live and work in our prisons is a priority for this Government and the Scottish Prison Service.

The SPS’s national coronavirus response group has implemented its national pandemic plan, which includes governors in charge overseeing the delivery of local plans that are tailored to the needs of their establishments. Those groups are meeting on a daily basis.

Like other public sector bodies, the SPS has in place robust phased contingency plans that reflect escalation demands. At this time, the SPS is following the advice of the chief medical officer, which means that anyone in custody who displays symptoms will self-isolate. Similarly, prison staff who display symptoms have been advised to follow the same advice and self-isolate.

The SPS is in regular communication with prisoners in custody to provide guidance on how to prevent the spread of infection and to update them on how the virus may impact their daily routine. That includes the sending of letters to every prisoner across the estate, as well as video messaging via in-cell televisions.

The SPS has established clinically led protocols for the testing, management and care of those who may contract or be suspected of contracting Covid-19, and it has secured a sufficient level of personal protective equipment to support those protocols, which are designed to minimise the risk of contamination spread.

How should visitors to prisons such as Saughton, in my constituency, proceed as we enter the new phase of self-isolation with Covid-19?

Gordon MacDonald raises a hugely important point. In the unfortunate case in Italy, there were prison riots and a number of people lost their lives. That was not precipitated by an infection or a case of coronavirus in the prison; it was precipitated by tensions rising because visiting was stopped altogether and prisoners were being kept in their cells for practically 24 hours a day.

We are keen not to do that, so we will follow the chief medical officer’s advice. We will continue to allow visits, but visitors must follow guidelines. They will be asked not to attend prisons if they are displaying symptoms. They should follow the chief medical officer’s advice, which is to self-isolate in those circumstances. There are posters at the entrances of all establishments advising visitors of that, and information is also provided on the external website and social media accounts.

As the member knows, the situation is fast moving and very fluid. We will continue to explore other ways in which family contact can be maintained, including via digital means.

Three members would like to ask supplementary questions. I wish to call them all, but I ask for questions and answers to be quick.

As Gordon MacDonald identified, the Scottish Prison Service and Police Scotland are organisations that must, for the safety of the Scottish public, continue to interact with many different people and communities. Given the obvious current health risks to both groups, will the cabinet secretary outline any contingency plans that he has in place to help with personnel shortages? For example, has he considered bringing in retired officers or using trainees, if that were safe?

I thank Liam Kerr for his very important question. Just over an hour and a half ago, I spoke to the chief constable, who has operational independence on the matter in relation to the police. It is fair to say that he and his senior management team are looking at exactly the kind of things that Liam Kerr suggested. The police are looking not only at those who have retired but at what more can be done with special constables, and I know that Liam Kerr has had an interest in that matter previously. Police Scotland is looking at a range of measures. The SPS is also looking at contingency plans in relation to those who have recently left the organisation but who clearly still have a number of skills to offer. I am happy to keep Liam Kerr updated as those plans develop.

Given the confined conditions in which prison officers and prisoners operate within the prison estate, there is clearly a high risk of the spread of Covid-19. If any prisoner or prison officer presents with any medical condition, including symptoms of Covid-19, can the cabinet secretary guarantee that they will get an immediate and appropriate medical follow-up?

Yes, that will certainly happen under the Covid-19 pandemic plan that has been put in place. It is essential that everybody—those within and outwith prison establishments—follows the chief medical officer’s guidelines. Helping to stop the spread of the virus will, first and foremost, involve ensuring that our prison staff—who do an excellent job, as we all recognise—have the appropriate PPE. As things stand, the Prison Service has about a couple of months’ supply of such equipment. I am speaking to the Prison Service about upping its stocks and whether we can assist with that.

Following the chief medical officer’s advice, by people self-isolating if they present with symptoms, will be key. There are people in the Prison Service who are self-isolating, and I suspect that, unfortunately, more will end up having to do so. We will continue to follow the protocols that are in place.

I am particularly concerned about how elderly prisoners or those who have long-term pre-existing conditions can practise social distancing in the close confines of a prison, given that there is not an awful lot of spare capacity. How will the cabinet secretary manage that?

That is very much part of the conversations that are taking place. We will have to think about radical solutions. In some respects, there is a greater ability to self-isolate or to keep people contained within the prison estate than there is outwith it. However, I do not for a second take anything away from the challenges for the Prison Service.

Willie Rennie raises an important point. We have an older population in prisons, and that population is growing year on year, so we are thinking about how we ensure that their health needs are met. These issues are all part of the pandemic plan. We have challenges within the prison estate relating to the numbers that are there. So far, we are managing those challenges, but we are keeping an eye on what more can and should be done.

Firefighters (Pay)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the firefighter pay negotiations. (S5O-04271)

The Scottish Government is not a party in the negotiations on firefighter pay, which is a matter between the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, as the employer, and the Fire Brigades Union.

In October 2019, following three years of discussion and negotiation, the SFRS made a final 17 per cent pay offer for the period between July 2019 and July 2022 in recognition of an expanded firefighter role. The FBU executive recommended the rejection of that offer and FBU members voted to reject it on 28 February.

Further negotiation on the issues is a matter for the SFRS and the FBU. The SFRS has indicated that, following the FBU rejection of its final offer for a specific deal for Scottish firefighters, negotiations will now revert to the mechanisms of the United Kingdom-wide national joint council.

I thank the minister for that helpful update on the Government’s position on the negotiations.

I hope that the Parliament will permit me licence in my supplementary question to make it more suitable to topical developments.

What contingency plans are currently in place should significant numbers of firefighters be off work due to isolation in their households? Does the minister anticipate our fire service having to take on additional duties and responsibilities, given that the demand on all our emergency services will, no doubt, increase in the coming months?

Over the past week, I have been in contact with the SFRS about its planning. It has already taken a number of measures to get ready for what we might face, and it has reviewed all its planning.

The cabinet secretary and I will have a meeting tomorrow with all our justice partners on the emergency services side, and we will go into detail on the emerging issues. I will be happy to keep members updated on that. It is built into the planning assumptions that staff numbers in front-line services will be reduced.

The fire service taking on additional duties is under consideration. I will be happy to keep members updated as we go forward.

Does the minister agree that now would be a good time—as it would show good will—for the UK Government to restore the £50 million in VAT that it took from the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service between 2013 and 2017?

I agree.

Don’t Tolerate Hate Campaign

To ask the Scottish Government how it plans to support the #DontTolerateHate campaign. (S5O-04272)

Any form of hate crime or prejudice is totally unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Hate crime has a hugely damaging effect on victims, their families and their communities. No one should have to tolerate being attacked because they have a disability or impairment, and I very much commend Sam, Ivan, Alison and Sean, who have shared their experiences as part of Police Scotland’s #DontTolerateHate campaign.

Although the number of reported disability hate crime incidents and the number of charges are low, we are not complacent and we recognise that disability hate crime is underreported. The Scottish Government welcomes the campaign and will continue to support Police Scotland to encourage victims and witnesses to report disability hate crime.

I am sure that the cabinet secretary will agree—indeed, he has already reflected this point—that the Police Scotland #DontTolerateHate campaign is important. No one could be unmoved by the disturbing testimonies of disabled people at the launch of the campaign about the reality of their experiences of abuse.

Given that one in five people in Scotland is registered as having a disability, yet that category of crime accounts for only 4 per cent of reports to Police Scotland, will the cabinet secretary consider how to remove barriers to disabled people reporting their experience of abuse? How will he make it clear that such abuse is a crime and will not be tolerated? Does he recognise that it is a particularly serious issue in these heightened times?

I agree with everything that Johann Lamont just said, and I can provide some reassurances. She might be aware that we will shortly introduce hate crime legislation to the Parliament. At least, that is the intention, although it might be delayed by pressing matters. However, a hate crime bill will be introduced and it will have a strong emphasis on the hate crimes that people with a disability face. I hope that that will give legislative reassurance to Johann Lamont.

In terms of underreporting, as Johann Lamont is aware, we have third-party reporting centres. However, I will take the issue forward with the chief constable in our regular conversations. We have had a conversation about the issue and, like me, he recognises that underreporting takes place. We should work with people with disabilities to understand the barriers that exist and work collectively to remove them. However, I accept Johann Lamont’s central point that disability hate crime is underreported.

Question 4 has been withdrawn. Question 5 is from Alex Cole-Hamilton .

Oh. [Interruption.] I am not sure which question I am asking.

Would you like me to read it out for you? [Laughter.]

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I am delighted to offer the chamber some levity this afternoon.

Mental Health Workers (Police and Prisons)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions the Cabinet Secretary for Justice has had with ministerial colleagues regarding how many of the 800 additional mental health workers committed to in its mental health strategy will be deployed within police and prison services in Edinburgh. (S5O-04274)

That is a brilliantly thought-out question—and the first time that I have seen Alex Cole-Hamilton speechless.

Let us hope that it is not the last. [Laughter.]

On a serious note, Alex Cole-Hamilton makes an important point. Action 15 of the mental health strategy outlines our commitment to funding 800 additional mental health workers in key settings, including accident and emergency services and all general practices, and, crucially for the purposes of the question, every police station custody suite and our prisons, ensuring that local provision and support are at the heart of those plans.

On 4 December 2019, the use of action 15 funding in prisons was discussed at a ministerial meeting that was chaired by the Deputy First Minister on the Scottish Government’s response to the expert review of the provision of mental health services for young people entering and in custody. Work on action 15 complements wider efforts to improve mental health outcomes for those in the justice system, including the work of the National Prisoner Healthcare Network and the refreshed Police Care Network.

I hope that I have given Alex Cole-Hamilton enough time to think of a supplementary question.

I hope that it will be a short supplementary question, Mr Cole-Hamilton.

It will be, and I am grateful, Presiding Officer. I apologise.

In the context of the situation in which we find ourselves, mental health will be important, particularly for people who are in social isolation, sometimes for many weeks. I ask the cabinet secretary to consider the fact that, in a lot of ways, we will all have to become mental health care providers to our loved ones, friends and family. Again, I voice the support of my party for every effort that the Government has put behind mental health. What steps does the cabinet secretary intend to take to ensure that all the original work that we were doing on mental health does not fall by the wayside in the teeth of this crisis?

A short answer would be appreciated.

Let me reassure Alex Cole-Hamilton. We take the mental health of those who are in our care—in prisons or police custody suites—extremely seriously. As part of action 15 and the additional mental health funding, we have already started recruitment into our prisons and police custody suites. However, I take the point that the member makes.

Toxicology (Waiting Times)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service is making with efforts to reduce waiting times for toxicology results. (S5O-04275)

The steps that the service has already taken or is taking to address waiting times include, first, an additional £300,000 investment for the University of Glasgow, which, under contract with the service, provides most of the toxicology services in Scotland. That investment is specifically for clearing overdue toxicology reports, recruiting additional staff and buying new equipment. The second step is that of agreeing an improvement plan with the university, to facilitate the prioritisation of cases; the third is securing agreement on simplified procedures for reporting certain categories of case; and the fourth is temporarily arranging to outsource a discrete bloc of cases to free up capacity.

As a result of the measures that have already been taken, since the end of last year, there has been a significant improvement in the weekly output by the university.

I thank the Lord Advocate for that answer. Does the Government accept that the significant delay in receiving post-mortem results has caused a huge amount of distress to too many families across Scotland? Can the Lord Advocate update Parliament on any potential impact that the events surrounding Covid-19 will have, especially given the fact that the Crown Office relies on contracts with external labs and experts? When does the Scottish Government now expect the drugs death figures to be published?

I absolutely acknowledge the impact that delays in receipt of final cause of death can have on bereaved families—I absolutely understand and appreciate that. I also acknowledge the hard work that is being done by the toxicology staff, and, indeed, all the staff in the service, in addressing the backlog of cases.

Covid-19 will have an impact on all aspects of public service. It would be foolish of me to seek to predict what that impact will be. As I mentioned in my first answer, considerable work has been done and is being done, which is delivering significant improvements in terms of the throughput of toxicology cases. That will continue, subject, of course, to any adverse impact as a result of Covid-19 on staffing levels.

I am afraid that I cannot be more reassuring at this time. All of us are having to make contingency plans in relation to a variety of aspects of public service. All that I can say is that the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service will remain committed to the improvement work in this area, as in all other areas, and will act responsibly and appropriately in the context of the public health demands that have been placed on us all.

I will allow an extremely quick supplementary question from Monica Lennon.

I will try to be brief, but this is an extremely emotive subject and my heart goes out to all those mums who will have to face mothers day not knowing why their loved one died.

I want to ask about the cold hard numbers behind the issue. Referring to the waiting times and backlog is not enough. We need some transparent information. What is the current waiting time? Families tell me that staff are advising them that it is between eight and 12 months. How big is the backlog? Figures that the Lord Advocate gave me in November, which covered the period from February to November last year, suggested that the backlog was at almost 2,000. From February up to now, how many cases have waited more than 12 weeks?

I am grateful to Monica Lennon for her interest in the subject.

I am advised that, recently, the waiting time has been around eight months. That is in a context in which, prior to the difficulties that have been experienced, toxicology reports were being made available within between six and eight weeks, depending on the circumstances, and post-mortem reports were generally being made available within 12 weeks.

As of 13 March, the number of cases reported for toxicology and awaiting a report is 1,692. I am advised that the university anticipates that, with the various measures that have been taken, all 2019 cases are expected to be reported by the end of May this year. I regret to say that that is, of course, subject to any issues that arise as a result of the Covid-19 situation.

That concludes questions on justice and the law officers. I apologise to Anas Sarwar for not reaching his question.

Constitution, Europe and External Affairs

We are pushed for time, so brevity is appreciated.

Fair Trade

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to promote fair trade. (S5O-04278)

On 24 February 2020, the Scottish Government published its first ever review of fair trade in Scotland, with a view to increasing fair trade sales.

As a fair trade nation, we are committed to ensuring that farmers and producers in the developing world are paid a fair price for their goods. That is why we are continuing our long-standing relationship with the Scottish Fair Trade Forum, which we core fund to promote fair trade in Scotland. I was delighted to meet the chair and chief executive of the forum at the end of last month, during Fairtrade fortnight, to discuss the direction of travel of their work. We will work with the forum to consider how best to take forward the recommendations that are highlighted in the review in the coming months and years.

The review that the minister mentioned, which is called “What Future for Fair Trade in Scotland?”, argues that Scotland must promote fair trade as part of the solution to the climate crisis. How does the Scottish Government plan to work with the United Kingdom Government to promote fair trade at the 26th conference of the parties in Glasgow?

That is a fair question from Graham Simpson. The UK will host the 26th United Nations climate change conference, which is also known as COP26, in Glasgow in November. Fair trade at COP26 was highlighted in my recent meeting with the Scottish Fair Trade Forum. As part of our planning for COP26, the Government will consider how fair trade can be factored into the events, and I am happy to work with our UK Government counterparts to ensure that COP26 is used as a platform to promote and celebrate fair trade.

Question 2 has been withdrawn.

Interministerial Group on Policy Coherence for Sustainable Development

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the interministerial group on policy coherence for sustainable development that it announced at the Scotland’s International Development Alliance annual general meeting in September 2019. (S5O-04280)

Since the announcement of the establishment of the ministerial working group on policy coherence for sustainable development, key pieces of work have been taken forward by the Scottish Government. Just last week, with the Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs, I met James Mackie from the European Centre for Development Policy Management in Maastricht, which is a leading European think tank with experience of working with other European countries on implementing PCSD. Following that, a cross-section of Scottish Government policy officials undertook a workshop that was delivered by ECDPM experts.

The first meeting of the PCSD working group is scheduled for May. As Minister for Europe and International Development, I look forward to leading the group.

I thank the minister for that clear answer. With the eyes of the world being on Scotland ahead of COP26 in Glasgow in November, virus permitting, does the minister agree that all ministers need to get behind the working group to ensure that there is policy coherence across all areas of Government if it really is to do no harm, which it committed to in signing up to the sustainable development goals?

I absolutely agree with Claudia Beamish on that point. Policy coherence cuts across all portfolio areas, as she outlined. She will know that, back in 2016, we published our beyond aid agenda, in which we committed to ensuring that different Scottish Government policies work together so that our development policy works in synergy, as it were; eliminating policy incoherence; and identifying other Scottish Government policies that can contribute positively to development outcomes. As part of that, the commitment to do no harm, which Claudia Beamish mentioned, is a particular focus of our work on policy coherence for sustainable development. To better align our policies across the Government with the UN global sustainable development goals will require co-ordination across portfolio areas, as Claudia Beamish outlined.

Question 4 has been withdrawn.

Humanitarian Emergency Fund

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking in response to the independent review of the humanitarian emergency fund. (S5O-04282)

The Scottish Government commissioned an independent review of its £1 million per annum humanitarian emergency fund in 2019, and we published the review report in full on 10 February. The independent review highlighted a number of successes of the fund, but the reviewers also identified areas for potential improvement. Thereafter, the Scottish Government discussed with stakeholders a range of options for improving the fund. The changes are being taken forward and they will be fully implemented in time for the financial year 2020-21.

We are preparing to appoint new members of the humanitarian emergency fund panel, with announcements to be made at the end of the month. Alexander Stewart will appreciate that, as a new minister, I am keen that we get this right. I have therefore requested to meet the out-going panel members as soon as that is possible in the current circumstances. I am also pleased to highlight that £1 million has been protected for the fund in the Scottish Government’s 2020-21 budget, which demonstrates our on-going commitment to helping the world’s most vulnerable.

I thank the minister for that comprehensive response. The fund has three secondary aims: building public awareness and raising additional funding; promoting the Scottish Government as a responsible global citizen; and enhancing the transparency of the emergency funding. Given that the review highlighted concerns in all three areas, what measures are in place to track progress on each aim? What immediate action will the Government take in the light of the review?

The humanitarian emergency fund was designed from scratch, so it is right that we work to improve its operation in the future, as Alexander Stewart highlighted. I met officials last week to discuss some of the points that he has raised today.

On public awareness, the fund is going to increase the level of communication about the activation of the crisis that has been identified, the short and medium-term needs of the crisis and the response of the Government.

Secondly, on responsible citizenship, the fund will use those communications to show that Scotland is taking a leading role in thinking differently about humanitarian emergencies. Thirdly, on transparency and accountability, the Scottish Government will hold public-facing events with support from the HEF panel to show the work of the fund and, importantly, to critically discuss our humanitarian response openly.

In summary, the increased focus on communications will help with enhanced transparency for the public about what is being spent and where. That also brings increased opportunities to explain more clearly to the public what the fund is trying to achieve.

Erasmus+ Programme

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on future arrangements for the Erasmus+ programme for Scottish and European students.

The Scottish Government has been consistent in arguing that Scotland should continue to participate in Erasmus+ for its substantial educational, cultural and economic benefits.

The programme is part of the wider discussions on Brexit, of course and, with the Presiding Officer’s indulgence, I would like to say a word or two about those negotiations more widely. I have today written to Michael Gove and copied the letter to the leaders of the parties, asking him for the negotiations be suspended for six months, given the unprecedented situation that we are now in.

I pointed out to Michael Gove that the Scottish Government has paused work on preparing for an independence referendum this year, which my officials have confirmed with the Electoral Commission today in a letter about testing. Given that we have to focus all available resources on current and future demands in what is an unprecedented set of circumstances, it follows that the preparations for a referendum this year will not take place. We strongly urge the United Kingdom Government that the time has come for an equivalent action with regard to the Brexit process. We ask it to institute a pause to European Union-UK negotiations for at least six months. It would be impossible in our view for businesses and others to cope with the enormous challenge of the coronavirus while at the same time preparing for a completely new relationship with the EU.

A pause is also necessary given the inevitable lack of parliamentary and public scrutiny of the negotiations and their progress over that period when all attention and effort will be focused on our collective actions to tackle and defeat the coronavirus. It will also be difficult for the joint ministerial committee (EU negotiations) to meet during that time, so there will be no opportunity for the UK’s four Governments to provide oversight of the negotiations, as set out in its terms of reference.

We have worked closely together on the unprecedented legislation that we will discuss tomorrow on coronavirus. It is essential that we both take realistic positions at this time.

In the absence of any commitment by the UK Government beyond the current arrangements, can the cabinet secretary give a commitment that Erasmus+ will continue in Scotland and will maintain that wonderful experience for our students and their European friends?

We are very committed to Erasmus+, as we are to other programmes. We have made it clear to the UK Government, as have the other devolved Administrations, that we wish Erasmus+ to continue, and the UK Government has indicated to us that it is listening to that. The proof of that will be whether the programme does continue; if it were not to do so, we would wish to continue to be part of Erasmus+ in our own right. That is a matter for further negotiation. As I have said, I think that that negotiation has to pause at this stage. I hope that is being listened to very intently. It means that a decision on Erasmus+ will be some time away.

I welcome the cabinet secretary’s statement about the referendum. It would be sensible for the UK Government to follow suit with Brexit, so I echo his calls on that front. It is important that we recognise that this crisis needs our full attention, and that we need to address that and work together to achieve it.

I thank Willie Rennie for those remarks. It is quite clear that we disagree on when and how a referendum should take place, but the imperative of the moment is clear. We have to defeat the tremendous challenge that we face. We can do that only across this chamber and across the four nations of these islands, and we shall endeavour to do so.

Forced Organ Harvesting

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of the comments in its China engagement strategy regarding respect for human rights, what its position is on the recent full judgment of the China Tribunal on forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience. (S5O-04284)

The conclusions that were drawn by the China Tribunal are deeply concerning. We will continue to actively monitor the human rights situation in China. We endeavour to ensure that the Scottish Government does not engage with any organisations that participate in illegal activity or human rights abuse. The Scottish ministers raise human rights issues in China regularly.

It appears from the reports that organs from Falun Gong detainees, and possibly others, have been available on demand at two weeks’ notice, which is virtually impossible from a medical point of view. Can the cabinet secretary further assure me that no Scottish universities or hospitals could, possibly unwittingly, be involved in helping that in any way?

Clearly, we work very hard to ensure that no Scottish university, hospital or any other institution is unethically involved in any such barbaric practices, and we will continue to do so.

That concludes the portfolio questions on constitution, Europe and external affairs.