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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 18 November 2020

Agenda: Business Motion, Portfolio Question Time, Safe Schools, Declaration of a Nature Emergency, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month


Portfolio Question Time

Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity

The next item of business is portfolio question time. I would like us to get through all the questions, so I would prefer short and succinct questions, and answers to match. The first portfolio is transport, infrastructure and connectivity.

Union Connectivity Review

To ask the Scottish Government what engagement Transport Scotland has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding the union connectivity review. (S5O-04753)

I am sorry—I am a bit dithery this afternoon—but I should also have said that questions 1 and 2 have been grouped together.

Officials take part in general fortnightly meetings with their counterparts at the Department for Transport, at which DFT officials have provided high-level updates on their plans for the study.

Transport infrastructure is a devolved matter. Decisions on investment will be taken by the Scottish Government through the infrastructure investment plan and the second strategic transport projects review.

What I really want to understand is whether the cabinet secretary is going to take part in the independent review. For those of us who live, work and run businesses in the south of Scotland, connectivity across the border is extremely important. It is not a political matter—it is just a necessity.

Is the cabinet secretary taking part in the review? If not, why not?

I want to make it clear what the union connectivity review is about. It is a process that was set up without any consultation with the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government or the Northern Ireland Government. Its remit and chair were decided by the UK Government, without any engagement with the devolved Governments, and it will make recommendations in areas that are the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament directly to UK Government ministers for them to make decisions on what the priorities should be.

The review was set up alongside section 46 of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, which sets out clear mechanisms for UK Government ministers to make direct decisions on infrastructure, when such decisions are clearly devolved to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Governments, without any engagement with the devolved Administrations.

The concerns that I have are not just some sort of Scottish National Party conspiracy; they are set out in a joint letter from the Scottish Government, my colleague Ken Skates MS, who is the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales in the Welsh Government, and Nicola Mallon MLA, who is the Minister for Infrastructure in the Northern Ireland Executive and a Social Democratic and Labour Party member. In that letter, we set out our concerns about the approach that the UK Government has taken to the whole issue.

It is nothing more than a blatant power grab and an attempt to overreach into the powers of this Parliament. We have a very clear process for deciding what the infrastructure and, in particular, transport priorities are in Scotland, and it includes looking at cross-border connectivity. I wrote to Grant Shapps on 6 March, setting out a range of cross-border actions that could be taken to address and improve connectivity across the border, and what have I had to date? No action on any of them.

We will make sure that we improve connectivity across Scotland and across the border into England and beyond, but the process for deciding that is for this Parliament, not for the UK Government.

Transport Infrastructure (Review)

To ask the Scottish Government what assistance it is providing to the United Kingdom Government with its review of transport infrastructure. (S5O-04759)

Transport infrastructure is a devolved matter. Decisions on investments will be taken by the Scottish Government through the infrastructure investment plan and the second strategic transport projects review. Our transport investment will improve lives, boost our economy, support communities and work towards net zero carbon.

The union connectivity review was established without any meaningful discussion. I and my counterparts in Northern Ireland and Wales wrote to express our serious concern about the UK Government seeking to undermine the devolved settlement and establish decision-making processes in devolved areas. To date, those concerns have not been adequately addressed by the UK Government.

I say to the minister that I am—as so many, including in his party, are—tired of hearing of his commitment to the south-west of Scotland while, in practice, it has received little more than 0.5 per cent of national infrastructure spend. His SNP Government has been in power for 13 years. At every election, it has made empty promises about infrastructure improvements, but it has only delivered more studies.

Will he commit today to a firm date on which my constituents will know when we will see significant upgrades to the A75 and A77? Will he put petty politics to one side and commit to working with the UK Government to look at ways of jointly improving those vital routes?

As the member will be well aware, the process for deciding on strategic transport investment is through the STPR 2 process, not just for the south-west of Scotland but for the south-east, the central belt, the north-east, the north-west and our island communities, all of which require infrastructure investment in areas of transport. That is the process that will be used for the south-west of Scotland, as it will be used for the rest of the country.

The member makes reference to the idea of petty party politics on the part of the SNP. He should reflect on the fact that not just the SNP-led Scottish Government but also the Labour-led Welsh Government and the multiparty Northern Ireland Executive have all raised the same concerns about the power grab that the UK Government is taking forward. It is seeking to undermine the devolved settlement.

We now know the UK Government’s view of devolution. We know that at first hand from what the Prime Minister had to say. He said that it is “a disaster”. It is very clear that a strategy is being employed, through the connectivity review, that is about undermining the devolved settlement across the UK, and we will not help those who are seeking to do that.

Questions 2 and 5 have also been grouped.

Edinburgh South Suburban Rail Line (Passenger Services)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to undertake a feasibility study into reopening passenger services on Edinburgh’s south suburban rail line. (S5O-04754)

The reopening of the Edinburgh south suburban rail line for passengers is being considered as part of an option to expand Edinburgh’s mass transit network within the second strategic transport projects review. The review is expected to conclude in the autumn of 2021.

Edinburgh and the south-east of Scotland are seeing significant growth in population, so there is a real and pressing need for a long-term plan for investment in local transport infrastructure projects such as the south suburban project. Will the minister agree to meet interested groups across Edinburgh and a cross-party delegation to consider the options for transport projects across the Lothian region, including the potential introduction of passenger services?

That issue has already been identified as part of the pre-appraisal work for STPR2, which has been shared with regional transport partners, the city council and other Lothian councils. It is now for them to look at the details of that and consider what further work is necessary in order to take it forward. That will then be considered as part of STPR2.

Notwithstanding the member’s invitation to meet to discuss matters, I would encourage him to engage with the regional transport partners, who are responsible for taking forward this type of issue. Once we are at the point of decisions needing to be made on the matter, I will be more than happy to engage with the member and others who have a particular interest in the issue.

That is all part of the wider work that Edinburgh is undertaking to develop a mass transit plan, in order to support transportation across Edinburgh and beyond. Clearly, the matter needs further consideration, but it is certainly being actively considered at the moment.

South Edinburgh Metro and Light Rail Service

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will examine the viability of having a south Edinburgh metro and light rail service. (S5O-04757)

The expansion of Edinburgh’s mass transit network is currently being considered as part of the on-going second strategic transport projects review, which is expected to conclude in Autumn 2021.

I ask the minister to forgive me for asking him to repeat himself. I am pleased that the Government is looking at the matter. I have with me a copy of one of the last studies on opening the south suburban loop. The study was clear that such a project would have a net present value of between £13 million and £27 million, and it acknowledged that the estimate of the benefits was probably cautious. Since then, the trams have commenced and outperformed their financial projections and the Borders railway has opened and outperformed its financial projections, which undoubtedly means that the south sub loop would be a more successful project were it to reopen.

Will the minister commit to making sure that any study looks at the synergies between those projects? I look forward to the Scottish Government getting on board with the south sub loop next autumn.

The member raises an important issue. No strategic transport project sits on its own. The project needs to be considered alongside other interventions that can help to improve transportation across Edinburgh and the Lothians as a whole, and consideration must also be given to how they will be integrated into the wider transport system across the country. That is why it is so important that we have a process that brings these things together, so that we can prioritise them on the basis of what is necessary. The STPR2 process is the way in which we do that.

The elements that the member has raised have been considered in the drafting of the pre-appraisal work and are now being considered by the regional transport working groups. They will look at what the priorities are and at whether those options can be further developed.

I encourage the member to engage with the regional transport partners to explore the proposal further. Clearly, as we move forward with STPR2, the proposal could fit into the wider range of work that will be necessary in Edinburgh and the Lothians as a whole to prioritise what strategic transport interventions are needed to improve transportation across the region.

Transport (Scotland) Act 2019 (Implementation)

To ask the Scottish Government when the full provisions of the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019 will be implemented. (S5O-04755)

The implementation of the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019 has been affected by the Covid pandemic, which has impacted particularly on the development of guidance and regulations and the related consultation processes. I indicated at my appearance before the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee on 2 September 2020 that there is limited space in this parliamentary session to implement the 2019 act, which means that not all of its provisions will come into effect in this session. However, officials have now recommenced work on all aspects of the 2019 act, and the Parliament will be kept updated on that accordingly.

The 2019 act was passed more than a year ago. Many key features, such as low-emission zones, a pavement parking ban and the passing to local authorities of powers over municipal bus companies have yet to be actioned. The 2019 act has made little or no difference to anyone’s life, at a time when bus companies are cutting more routes, air pollution is rising and parking on pavements remains a serious problem. I ask the cabinet secretary again: when will the Government take action on the 2019 act?

I recognise Mary Fee’s frustration about some of the key points that she has raised, but I am sure that she will recognise that for seven of the months since the act was passed there has been a pandemic, which has resulted in staff who deal with many aspects of taking forward the consultation and developing the guidance and the regulations that need to be brought before the Parliament having to be pivoted away to deal with pandemic-related issues. Some of those staff now have to deal with Brexit preparation issues.

I am sure that Mary Fee recognises that the civil servants who deal with those matters are working as hard as they can to take forward complex legislation that requires a significant amount of secondary legislation, guidance and consultation before the final provisions in the act can be fully implemented. However, she has my assurance that those civil servants are continuing to take forward as much of the work as they can in the present environment and that they will continue to work on the things that they can implement as quickly as possible and take forward the necessary consultation and guidance that needs to be developed in order to support that implementation.

Public Transport (Face Coverings)

To ask the Scottish Government how successful the roll-out of the wearing of face coverings on public transport has been, and how it is monitoring this. (S5O-04756)

Since 22 June, when the mandatory wearing of face coverings came into force in Scotland, uptake has increased considerably across public transport modes. Transport operators advise that compliance is generally high—it is normally observed to be between 80 and 100 per cent—although there are localised variations. In conjunction with operators, Transport Scotland officials continue to monitor the levels of compliance with legislation. However, the enforcement of the wearing of face coverings on public transport rests with Police Scotland and the British Transport Police.

I recently met the British Transport Police at Anniesland train station and observed it actively supporting the health regulations as it demonstrated how passengers without a face covering were calmly approached using the four Es: engage, explain, encourage and enforce. Without exception, the passengers complied with that guidance. I think that the approach is working well.

Powers are, of course, in place through legislation for fixed-penalty notices to be issued if necessary. However, Bill Kidd has made a good point. Police Scotland and BTP have an approach in which enforcement is used as a last resort. They encourage passengers to ensure that they are complying with the regulations on wearing a face mask on public transport.

Many disabilities and conditions that exempt a person from covering their face are not visible. What support is available to people who are exempt from covering their faces to ensure that they can continue to use public transport confidently and safely?

I recognise that there are situations in which people are, for a variety of reasons, unable to wear a face mask. The Government has developed an exemption card, which people can find out more about by accessing the Scottish Government website. If they choose to carry such a card, they can use it at any point if they are questioned about why they are not wearing a face covering.

I recognise that other exemption cards are also available, all of which are valid for people to use. I certainly want to encourage those who cannot wear a face mask to ensure that they carry one of those cards so that it can be presented at any point if people challenge them on why they are not wearing a face mask.

ScotRail (Service Reductions)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that ScotRail plans to reduce services by 10 per cent next month. (S5O-04758)

In line with other train operators, ScotRail has been assessing its actual patronage to match services against current demand, at a time when the number of passengers is around 25 per cent of pre-Covid levels. As with any timetable changes, ScotRail has consulted key stakeholders, including the regional transport partnerships, Transport Focus and the trade unions, to discuss the December changes. The changes will be confirmed by ScotRail in the very near future to give rail users sufficient time to make informed journey planning decisions.

How will that 10 per cent cut in services be factored into any future emergency measures agreement budget? What is the status of the on-going discussions with Abellio about a longer-term contractual agreement after the EMA expires in January 2021?

The changes as they stand, as proposed by ScotRail, would be accommodated in the existing EMA. Any savings that are derived from that would be accrued to the existing EMA.

The discussions about any future EMA are currently on-going with a view to looking at what the further option may be in the new year. That work is being carried out and detailed discussions about those issues are taking place.

Given that peak regulated rail fares on ScotRail services have risen by over 50 per cent under the Scottish National Party, does the cabinet secretary accept that another fare increase will not get people back on our trains? Can he tell us whether the planned 1.6 per cent fare hike will go ahead in January? If he has not decided, when will he? Passengers deserve to know.

Those matters are presently being considered as part of the on-going plan and any future plans for the new year. As the member will recognise, the capping that we apply to fare increases in Scotland means that on average, fares in Scotland are 20 per cent below those of train operators across the rest of the United Kingdom. That is part of our commitment to making sure that train travel is as affordable as possible. The member can be assured that the matter is being taken into account as we go into the new year.

Bus Services (Covid-19)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to encourage an increase in the use of bus services following the Covid-19 pandemic. (S5O-04760)

Supporting the resurgence of a healthy bus network will be a vital step in the Covid recovery. While physical distancing remains in place, capacity will continue to be restricted. However, we are now looking ahead with our partners towards a fair and green recovery. Tackling the negative impact of road congestion on bus services is key to that. The recently launched bus partnership fund has reaffirmed our commitment to capital investment of over £500 million for bus priority measures to make journeys quicker and more reliable for passengers.

Will the Scottish Government ensure that the funding that it spends now delivers so that routes are not lost due to travel restrictions? Can the cabinet secretary also ensure that investment continues in zero-carbon buses now, to keep jobs in the bus industry and in companies such as Alexander Dennis so that we have bus services for the future that will meet our low-carbon ambitions, and so that companies survive to keep those vital services going?

I missed the start of Sarah Boyack’s question, but I presume that it is about seeking to provide financial support to the bus industry to maintain bus routes and access to bus services.

That is why we have provided over £162 million to bus services and operators over the course of the pandemic in order to maintain those services. That funding helps to meet the gap that has been created by the loss in patronage due to physical distancing, which has had an impact on the fare box for operators. Alongside that, we have provided access to the concessionary fares programme, which allows companies to draw on funds on the basis of historical concessionary travel funding. Over £200 million has been made available as part of that package to support bus services.

On Sarah Boyack’s wider point about supporting the bus industry, the member will be aware of the wide range of work that we have done to support the introduction of zero emission buses through our grant scheme. A recent announcement was made on the award of those grants, and that resulted in 35 buses being ordered from Alexander Dennis. Given that that company is based in my constituency, I am well aware of its expertise and its critical importance to the bus industry and Scotland’s manufacturing capability. That is why we have been providing it with support and assistance in developing innovation in new bus technology through Scottish Enterprise, and why we are working with bus operators on whether further financial models could be put in place to encourage the move towards zero emission buses. That work involves the Scottish National Investment Bank, Alexander Dennis and other bus operators and manufacturers and all are playing their part in developing new financial models that can stimulate the market and generate further orders for companies that are working in the bus manufacturing sector.

Justice and the Law Officers

Questions 2 and 7 have been grouped together. If a member wishes to request a supplementary question, they should press their request-to-speak button or indicate in the chat function by entering the letter R during the relevant question. I remind all members to be succinct in their questioning, and I ask ministers, as far as possible, to be succinct in their responses.

Reconviction Statistics (2017-18 Cohort)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the reconviction statistics for the 2017-18 offender cohort. (S5O-04761)

Those latest statistics show that our evidence-based approach to rehabilitation is working. Reconviction levels are at a 21-year low. The average number of reconvictions, which is a measure of how often offenders are reconvicted, saw a reduction of 4 per cent compared with the previous year, and the reconviction rate decreased to 26.3 per cent in the same period. The latest figures are the lowest since comparable records began.

The statistics also demonstrate again that community sentences are more effective than short custodial sentences. That underlines why we were correct to extend the statutory presumption against short prison sentences last year.

The new figures demonstrate clearly the link between the Scottish Government’s smart approach to justice, with an emphasis on community sentences, and the prevention of reoffending. What impact will the introduction of a presumption against short sentences have on reoffending?

Joan McAlpine is right in asking her question and making the case that, when we invest in alternatives to custody and follow the evidence and the data, the results will be people who reoffend less and are reconvicted less often. Ultimately, that means that there will be fewer victims of crime, and that is the smart justice approach. We have already seen some of those results through the extension of the presumption. There are more smart justice interventions that I want to bring forward as Cabinet Secretary for Justice, but whatever we do will always be led by the data and the evidence.

Assaults Against Police Officers (Recording)

To ask the Scottish Government how assaults against police officers are recorded. (S5O-04762)

When the police record those crimes, the vast majority will be classified as common assaults of an emergency worker. Although the information cannot be split into different types of emergency worker, we know that most victims will be police officers.

The legal powers that are used to prosecute people for assaulting an officer will depend on the circumstances of the case. In addition to the common law of assault, that might include offences under section 90 of the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012 and section 1 of the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act (Scotland) 2005. In 2018-19, over 1,300 people in Scotland had a main conviction for assaulting a police officer or an emergency worker under the 2005 and 2012 acts. There could be additional convictions that do not appear in the data, as they were not considered to be the main charge in a particular case.

In the past five years, assaults on police officers and staff have increased by over 22 per cent. This year, between April and June alone there were 1,775 reported assaults on officers and staff, which is approximately 20 a day. In my area, police officers have been kicked and punched and have suffered dog bites when carrying out their duties. Does the cabinet secretary agree with me that that is completely unacceptable? Does he agree that no one should be a victim of abuse or violence while at work, not least those who are working so hard to keep our communities safe during these challenging times?

I entirely agree with Keith Brown. It is a disgrace that police officers in particular, who have been at the very front line of keeping us safe during the pandemic, have been the victims of assault. It was disgraceful and unacceptable pre-Covid, and it is even worse in the midst of the pandemic when they are keeping us safe.

I am a supporter of the pledge to tackle assault on police officers that the chief constable has brought forward. I also note that the Lord Advocate has made public comment as the head of prosecution to say that any person who commits such an act will be dealt with robustly by Scotland’s prosecution service.

If there is more that the Government can do, I am having constant conversations with the likes of the Scottish Police Federation and Police Scotland, and we will continue to keep the matter under review.

Emergency Workers (Attacks)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to recent statistics that show attacks on emergency workers have reached a record high. (S5O-04767)

As I said a moment ago, it is a disgrace, and I find it abhorrent, that there is even one attack on one of our emergency workers, including police officers, let alone the numbers that Jamie Greene has quoted.

The legal powers that are used to prosecute people for assaulting an officer will depend on the circumstances of the case. The figures might not show the entire picture because it is the main charge that is recorded, so it might not be apparent in all the relevant data.

I can assure Jamie Greene that I and the Lord Advocate take a zero tolerance approach to those who assault officers or any emergency worker. I am happy to work on a cross-party basis with stakeholders to see whether there is anything further that we can do in this regard.

I agree with the cabinet secretary that the situation is unacceptable to anyone, regardless of their politics. We should be alarmed that there were more than 7,500 attacks on emergency workers last year. The important thing to note is that, since 2013, three quarters of those who were convicted of such attacks did not face a jail sentence. I know that the cabinet secretary does not direct the judicial system, but how can we fill our emergency service workers with any confidence that the soft-touch approach to conviction levels will give them the protection that they need and that they deserve from the Government?

Jamie Greene and I share disgust and abhorrence at attacks on emergency workers. For all our differences in politics and in our approach to justice, this is certainly not one of them.

Jamie Greene is also correct to say that I do not direct judicial decisions; that is ultimately a matter for sheriffs and judges. However, I reiterate the very public commentary from the Lord Advocate, as head of prosecutions, that the prosecution service takes a robust approach to such offenders. If there is anything further in law that we can do, then, as Cabinet Secretary for Justice and as a member of the Scottish Government, I am open to having conversations about them. However, we should not have to rely on the deterrent effect of a jail sentence for people not to commit these crimes and assaults against police officers. We should be making it abundantly clear, through things such as the chief constable’s pledge, and through a concerted message from everybody, regardless of their political persuasion, that these attacks are completely unacceptable.

Last week, I asked whether the justice secretary thought that there could be a link between Scottish National Party cuts to front-line officer numbers and the rising number of officer absences due to mental ill-health. Given that the assaults on police officers that Keith Brown rightly brought up earlier have risen from 898 in 2015-16 to more than 2,000 in 2019-20, does the cabinet secretary accept that that rise in the number of assaults and the cuts to front-line numbers could have contributed to mental ill-health absences? If so, what will he do to address it?

I am astounded that Liam Kerr has managed to spin the additional 1,000 officers that we have brought in since 2007 as a cut to the number of police officers. Of course, it is for the chief constable to determine what number of police officers are at the divisional level, the regional level or the national level. If Liam Kerr thinks that he is better able to determine who should be at the divisional, regional or national level, he should pick up the phone and tell the chief constable. That is very much an operational matter.

There are 1,000 additional officers. There is, of course, a rising budget; the Conservatives asked for an additional £50 million for police officers. We gave £60 million and the Conservatives, of course, voted against that budget. We have rolled out mobile phones for police officers, and we have made a range of other investments that I hope will help.

Ultimately, the health and wellbeing of police officers is an issue of paramount importance to us. As I said, I have engaged with Police Scotland, the Scottish Police Federation and many other stakeholders to see what more we can do. We are in the middle of budget negotiations and, if there are further discussions that we can have on investing in measures that will help police officers’ mental health, the police service will certainly get an open ear from me.

Court Proceedings (Impact of Postponement on Mental Health)

To ask the Scottish Government what consideration it has given to the impact of the repeated postponement of court proceedings on the mental health of alleged victims, particularly of sexual crimes. (S5O-04763)

The current pandemic has impacted our criminal justice system and others throughout the world in way that has, frankly, never been seen before. Our priority is to ensure that our system can operate as effectively as possible, but it has to be person centred—victim centred—while balancing the rights of the accused to ensure a fair justice system for all.

I recognise the impact that the delays and uncertainty that Brian Whittle mentioned in his question can have on victims’ mental—and, indeed, physical—health. Before the pandemic I raised that matter with the Lord President and we are continuing those discussions in light of the significant progress that is required to tackle the backlog. It is one of the main drivers behind innovative solutions such as remote jury centres and the reason why we have invested £12 million of additional funding for the creation of those centres for High Court and sheriff and jury trials.

There has been positive progress on the number of High Court trials that we are running and the capacity that we have. Good progress is also being made on sheriff and jury trials. We have invested an additional £4.25 million in front-line services to respond to an increase in demand during the pandemic. That has increased the capacity of vital programmes such as Rape Crisis Scotland’s national advocacy project, which provides a key support worker in every centre in Scotland.

The cabinet secretary knows that my interest in the topic comes from working with a constituent who is going through exactly this issue. She has had her court proceedings postponed twice with no notice and no support, which has compounded the trauma that she was already suffering, and it transpires that that is a common occurrence. Is the cabinet secretary aware of the issue and the fact that, with many people suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, the practice may have a human rights element? Will he meet me to discuss the issue further?

I will be more than happy to meet Brian Whittle at the earliest opportunity. He will know from conversations that he and I have had that I have met a range of survivors of sexual offences and rape. It is fair to say that the trauma of going through a court process is challenging for them. It was challenging pre-Covid, let alone now when there are delays because we have not had jury trials for more than seven months and are working through the backlog.

I recognise everything that Brian Whittle is saying and I am happy to meet him to discuss the issue further. The best thing that we can do is to ensure that the court processes are back up and running, and we are investing in that happening. We hope that that will help to mitigate some of the very difficult challenges and trauma that victims and alleged victims are facing.

Victims of human trafficking are traumatised by their experience, and it is not surprising that many foreign nationals choose to return home. Delays to justice could mean that they are less likely to return to give evidence. What steps are being taken to capture their evidence in order that traffickers are held to account without causing further distress to their victims?

Rhoda Grant has raised a hugely important issue, which came up in conversation this morning when the Lord Advocate and I met Scottish Women’s Aid, Rape Crisis Scotland and Victim Support Scotland. We are investing significant amounts of money, time and effort in getting evidence by commission and video recording. The pandemic has had an effect and impact on that and we are already looking to see where we can work with third sector partners—for example, using their premises for video recording and taking evidence by commission. We hope that that investment, effort and energy will help us to get evidence from victims early in the process and deal with the trauma and re-traumatising that they might experience from potential court delays. If Rhoda Grant ever wants a conversation around the efforts that we are putting into tackling human trafficking, my door is open.

Drug Offences (Glasgow)

To ask the Scottish Government how many people have been charged with drug offences across Glasgow in the last year. (S5O-04764)

The most recent available data from the Scottish Government’s criminal proceedings national statistics show that, in 2018-19, 1,253 people were proceeded against in Glasgow sheriff or justice of the peace court with a main charge of a drug crime or offence, and 1,102 of them were convicted.

Over the past decade, the number of people proceeded against in Glasgow sheriff or JP court for drug crimes or offences has decreased by 35 per cent. That is identical to the decrease that has been seen nationally over the same period.

Although the role of enforcement is clear in respect of the need to stop the supply of illegal drugs, the Scottish Government has been very clear that we need to take a public health approach to the use of substances and the treatment of substance abuse.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that reply—my supplementary is on the public health issue, although it is also a justice issue.

The cabinet secretary will be aware of the recent arrest and charging of Peter Krykant, who has been operating a drug consumption van in Glasgow to help reduce the health risks that are associated with problem drug use.

Can the cabinet secretary provide any update on discussions with the United Kingdom Government regarding drug consumption rooms, and say whether the Scottish Government’s request for powers to enable it to operate such rooms has progressed in any way at all?

I am aware of the case. On a point of clarification—although I am happy to be corrected if I am wrong—Mr Krykant was not arrested but charged in relation to an obstruction while police officers were carrying out their duties under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

That was really unfortunate, and I strongly believe that Mr Krykant, who has been an activist on these issues for many years, should not be put in a position in which he feels that he has to break the law in order to help some of the most vulnerable people in Scottish communities to stay alive.

The Scottish Government takes a public health approach on the issue. We absolutely believe in overdose prevention facilities, and we believe that they should be regulated. We—not just the Scottish Government, but many Scottish MPs in Westminster—have made that case, which I strongly support. I call again on the UK Government either to change the 1971 act so that we can have overdose prevention facilities in Scotland—again, I stress, in a regulated manner—or, if it will not do so, to devolve the power to Scotland so that we can make the change in order to bring forward those facilities.

Those conversations continue. Joe FitzPatrick and I recently had a conversation with Kit Malthouse that touched on the issue, and we will continue to make representations. As I said, people, including activists such as Mr Krykant, should not be put in a position in which they feel that their only option is to break the law.

I remind all members to always be aware of the issue—or potential issue—of sub judice when they are discussing matters in the chamber.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that the Scottish Government can do more under its existing powers. For example, the Lord Advocate’s guidance directly impacts on how police respond to arrangements such as the mobile safe consumption room that Peter Krykant set up in Glasgow. Between Mr Krykant’s efforts and the actions of the police, which does the cabinet secretary believe do more to enhance public safety?

It is not an either/or. The police have a role to play. If Mr McArthur has looked at the news today, he may have seen that Police Scotland is piloting the carrying of naloxone by a number of its officers. That is a positive development and will undoubtedly save lives.

When I talk to the police, they tell me that they want to take a public health approach. Of course, where it is necessary, they will take an enforcement approach, especially to those who blight our communities through the supply of drugs.

The point about guidance, to which Mr McArthur referred, is for the Lord Advocate, and he can discuss prosecution with the Lord Advocate. However, that is not to let anybody in the UK Government off the hook—the only way that we will have overdose prevention facilities that are safe and regulated will be through a change in the law.

Trying to make changes around the fringes or asking the Lord Advocate to provide some sort of immunity or to review prosecution policy does not deal with the fundamental issue. If we believe in overdose prevention facilities as part of a suite of measures to help with substance abuse issues—as the Scottish Government does—there has to be a change in the law.

Police Strength Statistics

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the latest police strength statistics. (S5O-04765)

I am incredibly grateful for the hard work of all our police officers throughout the pandemic, and for the professionalism that they have shown in keeping us safe.

Police officer numbers in Scotland remain significantly above the level that was inherited in 2007, and recruitment into Police Scotland continues to be strong.

The recruitment of police officers is, of course, a matter for the chief constable. As of 30 September 2020, there were 17,249 police officers in Scotland, which is an increase of 1,015 since 2007. Officer numbers in Scotland continue to compare favourably with those in England and Wales. The latest figures show that, as of 31 March, there were around 32 officers per 10,000 people in Scotland, compared with around 21 per 10,000 in England and Wales.

As the cabinet secretary will be aware, the latest figures show that, since 2013, 656 divisional officers have been lost from the front line, and violent crime is now at an eight-year high. There are 258 fewer officers than there were last year. Will he guarantee that there will be no further cuts to the number of divisional officers—

I call Humza—

—in this parliamentary session?

Excuse me for butting in on your dramatic pause, Mr Simpson.

I have to go back to my answer to Mr Simpson’s colleague, Liam Kerr. There has been an increase of more than 1,000 officers. It is up to the chief constable to decide, operationally, what officers and how many officers are in which divisions, how many officers there are at a regional level and how many officers there are at a national level. If Graham Simpson thinks that he could do a better job of it than the chief constable, he should pick up the phone to the chief constable—I am sure that he will make himself available to Graham Simpson and listen to his argument.

There has not been a cut in officer numbers. In England and Wales, there has been a cut of more than 13,000 over the same period, whereas we have increased the number of officers here. I can point to a range of other comparisons between policing in Scotland and policing in England and Wales, and we compare favourably on every single measure.

It is important that Graham Simpson understands not only that we have additional police officers, but that the efforts of officers who are based nationally can very much help locally. For example, the force reserve, which can be deployed right across the country whenever circumstances require, was recently deployed in East Kilbride—a place in which Graham Simpson has an interest—when there was a high-profile murder. We should not think that, just because officers are deployed nationally, there is not a local benefit to that—there very much is.

I am afraid that I now only have time for a short supplementary from Kenneth Gibson.

Can the cabinet secretary advise the Parliament what the increase or decrease in police numbers has been in Ayrshire since 2007? If we had enacted the same policies as those pursued south of the border, where Mr Simpson’s party has now been in office for more than a decade, how many officers would Ayrshire be likely to have now?

Forgive me—I do not have the figures for Ayrshire right at hand. However, Mr Gibson is right to say that there has been an increase in the number of police officers from the number that we inherited in 2007.

Not only has there been an increase in officer numbers in Scotland since 2007 in comparison with a decrease in England and Wales, but it is fair to say that we treat our police officers better in Scotland.

In Scotland, the starting pay for a police officer is £26,000, whereas in some forces in England and Wales, the level is as low as £18,900. In Scotland, police officers had a 6.5 per cent pay increase, which was described as the best pay deal in two decades, whereas officers in England and Wales received a pay offer of 2 per cent in 2018, which was described as a punch in the nose for every single police officer.

I am happy to stand on our record of policing in Scotland, and I suspect that those on the Conservative benches would not be so proud of their colleagues’ record in England and Wales.

That concludes portfolio questions. I apologise to Willie Coffey and Rachael Hamilton, whose questions I was unable to reach.