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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 19 February 2020

Agenda: Smoking Ban (Play Parks and Outdoor Sports Facilities), Portfolio Question Time, National Health Service, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Prehistoric Rock Art


Portfolio Question Time

Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity

The next item of business is portfolio questions. As usual, short questions and snappy answers would be very helpful. Transport, infrastructure and connectivity questions 4 and 5 have been grouped together. I will first take those questions with the supplementary questions that are included in the group, and will then take any further supplementaries.

A9 (Electronic Signage)

To ask the Scottish Government when electronic signage will be installed along the A9, north of Inverness. (S5O-04121)

Transport Scotland has four existing variable message signs on the A9 north of Inverness. Two cover the southbound approach to the Kessock bridge, one is on the northbound carriageway approaching Helmsdale, and the fourth is on the southbound carriageway beside Georgemas Junction railway station. As part of the national high-wind management strategy, Transport Scotland will install an initial phase of four additional variable message signs to cover the approaches to both the Dornoch Firth and the Cromarty Firth bridges. They are planned for installation in spring 2020.

The Scottish National Party has committed to upgrading that lifeline road, and improvements are well under way at Berriedale, with the new road being due to open this spring. However, will the Scottish Government commit to further improvements to ensure that other notorious sections of the A9—the Tomich junction, the Tain section and the Cambusavie bends, for example—are safe and fit for the 21st century?

The safety of the trunk road network is assessed annually, and programmes of interventions are developed and delivered where it is expected that particular locations could benefit and there is evidence to support investment to improve safety. As part of that programme, work is on-going at Tain to improve junctions on the bypass, and the proposals are the subject of on-going engagement with stakeholders in the area.

We have published “National Transport Strategy: Protecting our Climate and Improving Lives”, and we are working to complete the second strategic transport projects review. The A9 north of Inverness is part of consideration in the STPR2 process, which will determine the Government’s priorities for future transport investment, including for the northern parts of the A9.

I met electric vehicle users in Orkney on Monday, and they raised concerns about the lack of charging points on the A9. There is also concern that existing charging points are often single points that are unavailable because they are being used by other drivers or are, in some cases, broken. Given that that infrastructure is essential, what plans are there to improve availability of electric vehicle charging points, in particular in remote and rural areas, such as are found across my region?

That question was a little wide of the mark, but the cabinet secretary looks ready to answer.

I do not know whether we have any electric signage for charging points, but I can say that we have an extensive car charging network across Scotland. Jamie Halcro Johnston might acknowledge that Scotland has the most extensive public charging network in the United Kingdom outside central London. We are building on that to ensure that we increase the number of charging points that are available for low-emissions and electric vehicles. That includes work that we are taking forward with local authority partners—including in the Highlands, Orkney, Shetland, the Western Isles and other areas across the country—through the substantial investment that we are making to support people to move to low-carbon and electric vehicles.

Road Safety (Rural Areas)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to improve road safety around schools in rural areas. (S5O-04122)

The Scottish Government is committed to achieving safer road travel in Scotland for all, including around schools. It provides funding to local authorities to create new or improved infrastructure, including around schools, through the places for everyone programme.

Transport Scotland funds Cycling Scotland to deliver bikeability training, which is available to all schools. Additionally, Road Safety Scotland has developed online learning resources for three to 18-year-olds, which is particularly useful for school teachers.

In accordance with local authorities’ statutory responsibility for local roads, it is for them to consider the most appropriate measures to safeguard schoolchildren in their areas.

As local parents are, I am concerned that Dumfries and Galloway Council is systematically ignoring its obligations in relation to rural schools. At Duncow primary school, there have for years been broken flashing signs on a 60mph-limit road, and at Hottsbridge primary school large volumes of lorry traffic have been forced to drive past the school daily as a result of a long-term road closure. Will the cabinet secretary ask transport officials to approach the local authority to see what more can be done to support them to ensure that we do not have a very serious accident?

I am more than happy to ask my road safety colleagues in Transport Scotland to contact the local authority on those matters. Oliver Mundell is right to highlight safety issues, but that does not remove the statutory responsibility of the local authority to take the appropriate measures. I encourage him to continue to press the local authority and its executive leaders to make sure that they take the appropriate measures to address the safety issues that he is concerned about.

Rural Bus Routes (South Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on reported rural bus route reductions in South Scotland. (S5O-04123)

We recognise the vital importance that bus services have for millions of Scots across the country, especially those who, for whatever reason, do not have access to cars or live in places that are not served by the rail network.

Bus usage has been declining across the country over many decades. Rural areas present distinct challenges for delivering viable local bus services. Local authorities and regional transport partners already have powers to secure additional services to meet local needs, and we are extending the range of options that are available to them through the Transport Scotland Act 2019, which received royal assent towards the end of last year.

Two members, Finlay Carson and Joan McAlpine, have supplementaries—[Interruption.] Oh! Have I not asked Claudia Beamish for her supplementary? That was disgraceful of me. Please ask your supplementary.

I do not know about “disgraceful”. Thank you for letting me in.

Since the start of December, about 4 per cent of services on Stagecoach’s 101 and 102 services, which run from Dumfries to Edinburgh, have been delayed due to mechanical and operational issues. What can be done to ensure that there is robust regulation, such that timetabled rural bus services are provided unless there are exceptional circumstances that are outwith the operator’s control?

Will the cabinet secretary consider extending the parameters of what is covered by bus regulation to include reasonable levels of comfort, such as adequate temperature control, sufficient seating and adequate shelter at bus stops?

Claudia Beamish has raised an issue that is largely an operational matter for Stagecoach, with regard to the mechanical nature of the fleet that it uses, which of course needs to comply with the regulations that have been set down by the traffic commissioner. It might be that the issues that she has concerns about can be addressed by the commissioner, or she could go to Bus Users Scotland, which we fund and which helps to support people who have concerns about bus services. However, the practical operation of the bus is a matter for the operator. Claudia Beamish could address some of the issues through the commissioner, who might be able to assist in addressing some of those concerns.

I welcome the budget’s £83 million investment in the future transport fund. Can the cabinet secretary outline how local authorities will be able to apply for and make use of the funding?

The future transport fund will have £83 million, as is set out in the draft budget. It will support a range of low-carbon programmes and projects, including initiatives to support the transition to deployment of zero-emissions buses on local routes.

The programme for Government also set out our commitment to take forward our Scottish ultra-low-emissions bus scheme—it is open for applications and bids can be made between now and 27 February—to support the industry to move to low-carbon buses.

The fund will also support the development of cycling infrastructure through the places for everyone programme, which is administered by Sustrans, and improved bus-priority infrastructure, which includes consideration of how the new bus partnership fund can be used by local authorities to develop proposals that they might consider for their areas. The fund covers a number of different areas. Local authorities and other organisations can contact Transport Scotland and look to make applications with regard to the various aspects of the fund.

Can the cabinet secretary outline what discussions, if any, he has had with Dumfries and Galloway Council about establishing a local bus service franchise? Can he also outline what support the Scottish Government can provide to local authorities if it is their intention to improve rural bus services in that manner?

Any intention in Dumfries and Galloway Council to establish a franchise would be a matter for elected members of that council. Transport Scotland officials can give them advice on the legislation that is in place, but that would be a matter for the council to take forward.

Transport Procurement (Processes and Criteria)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it has reviewed its transport procurement processes and criteria, in the light of recent issues relating to ferry contracts. (S5O-04124)

The Scottish Government continually reviews its procurement processes and levels of governance for major infrastructure and vessel investment projects.

The ferries that are being procured through Ferguson Marine raise serious questions regarding oversight and governance. We need answers from the Government on why it has decided to build two dual-fuel ferries that CalMac Ferries apparently did not want. There are questions about whether the ferries’ propulsion systems are appropriate for the distance of the routes and whether the design specification was properly signed off. Either the procurement process was deficient, or it was not followed. Which of those does the minister think it is?

Mr Johnson is obviously trying to get in ahead of the committee inquiry, which I am pleased to be taking part in. Unfortunately, the date on which I will appear has now been moved back by the committee. I will look to answer all of the questions that are raised with me at the appropriate time.

I do not agree with Mr Johnson’s assertions about the design of the vessels. We believe that the vessels are of a good design for the services that they will provide. Clearly, we are trying to move to decarbonise the fleet and dual-fuel propulsion systems are one means of doing that. We are looking forward and will ensure that we take full account of the need to decarbonise ferry travel for passengers and vehicles as we develop our future ferries plan and the vessel replacement and deployment plan.

On procurement, I remind the member that we are supporting a very important business in Inverclyde. I appreciate that his party are supportive of that, but I hope that it recognises that, in awarding the work to the yard, which is a good yard, we will ultimately see good vessels being delivered, notwithstanding the challenges that we had with previous management.

Ferry Procurement (Competition and Markets Authority)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the Competition and Markets Authority’s analysis of its handling of ferry contracts and the potential effect that has on future procurement. (S5O-04125)

The Competition and Markets Authority's paper is not an analysis of our handling of ferry contracts; rather, it notes the CMA’s view on competition in the future procurement of vessels.

I am sure that we can all agree on the importance of securing Scotland’s shipbuilding industry. However, does the minister also agree that the disastrous mismanagement by the Scottish National Party that we have seen at Ferguson Marine is not sustainable?

I am glad that Mr Balfour is not a member of the judiciary, because it is customary at an inquiry to hear the evidence from witnesses before coming to conclusions. As I said in my response to Mr Johnson, we fundamentally disagree with that assessment of the situation, and my colleagues and I are prepared to defend our position when we come before the committee as part of its inquiry. We will respect the results that come from the inquiry.

Not all of Mr Balfour’s colleagues have previously expressed support for shipbuilding in Inverclyde; not all of them have previously agreed with that position. I am glad to see a sign that the Conservative Party is, perhaps, beginning to support the shipbuilding industry after decades of neglect.

The Law Society of Scotland has stated that importance has to be placed not only on financial and commercial matters but on ensuring that procurement

“takes full account of other relevant considerations”.

Can the minister give an indication of some of the wider benefits that the recent issues relating to ferry contracts will have on the 300 jobs and on the local economy that the shipyard, which is in my constituency, supports?

As Mr McMillan will know—because he has been closely engaged throughout the process, since 2014—our efforts saved Ferguson Marine from closure. As he said, we rescued more than 300 jobs. We also ensured that the two vessels that are under construction will be completed, and secured a future for the yard. The alternative was to walk away. That was unpalatable for us and we were not prepared to do it. In addition to saving the jobs in the yard, stepping in to save the yard supports jobs in the supply chain locally and further afield, including local businesses and suppliers that depend on business from the yard and its workers.

In the past few weeks, we have heard suggestions—including at the committee sessions that were referred to earlier—that vessels should be built in China and South Korea. Although I respect the individuals who made those points, and they are entitled to their view, we believe that such a view betrays a staggering lack of commitment to the workforce and local community in Inverclyde. I assure Mr McMillan, who represents his community with great passion, that we are absolutely behind the people of Inverclyde.

As part of any review of procurement and the Government’s ferries plan, will the minister agree a timeframe with Orkney Islands Council for the procurement of the replacement vessels that are urgently needed to operate on Orkney’s internal lifeline routes?

I recognise Mr McArthur’s strong interest in the issue as the constituency member for Orkney. He will know that those services are currently provided by Orkney Islands Council. I undertake to have continued discussions with the council as we move forward but, at the moment, our focus is on the immediate issues that are before us, in the context of developing the vessel replacement and deployment plan for our supported ferries and the ferries plan for the next period, and supporting the workforce in Inverclyde to ensure that we maintain employment in the area, as I said in response to Mr McMillan, and deliver hulls 801 and 802 as soon as possible, which are needed to provide vital services to communities in the Clyde and Hebrides.

Scottish 4G Infill Programme (Aberdeenshire)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the progress of the Scottish 4G infill programme in Aberdeenshire. (S5O-04126)

We are making good progress with the 4G mobile infill programme. Thirteen masts have been built or are under construction and I am pleased to be able to advise the Parliament that the mast at New Luce in Galloway went live last weekend.

Unfortunately, progress has been slower at the two candidate sites that were identified in Aberdeenshire: Pennan and Collieston. No confirmed interest has yet been expressed by any of the mobile network operators. I assure Ms Martin that Scottish Government officials and I will continue to use every opportunity to secure mobile operators’ interest in those and other candidate sites.

The minister has largely answered my supplementary question, which was about Collieston, because I was informed recently that there is no interest from operators. What can be done to encourage operators to get involved in the process and give us the coverage that we desperately need?

It would be wrong to say that there is no interest whatever, but we have not had confirmed interest in taking on the mast at Collieston. It is important to recognise that a fundamental principle of the Scottish 4G infill programme is that, unless at least one operator is committed to delivering 4G services from a candidate site, the site will not progress to build.

We are in discussion with an operator that has expressed interest in the site at Collieston, but I reiterate that that is not yet a confirmed interest. We are pressing for the operator’s commitment to using the site. If that can be achieved, the site will progress to build. We will publish updates to the programme on our website and I will write to Ms Martin with a further update on Collieston when that is available.

Of course, I welcome interest from members about sites in their areas in relation to the Scottish 4G infill programme.

Get Glasgow Moving Campaign

I call Johann Lamont to ask question 7.

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of the River Clyde bursting its banks, what impact and risk assessment it has made in relation to Glasgow’s flood defences.

I do not think that that is the question as written—

It is not the question that I have before me—

No, it is not. Sorry, Ms Lamont, will you ask your question as published in the Business Bulletin?

I apologise. I think that I have got my weeks mixed up. No doubt there will be some investigation. I will not give my justification for the mix-up. [Laughter.]

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the Get Glasgow Moving petition calling for publicly owned buses. (S5O-04127)

Now, that is a wee bit different from the other question.

Flood prevention in Glasgow, no.

We welcome Get Glasgow Moving’s commitment to improving public transport in Glasgow. The Transport (Scotland) Act 2019 provides a range of new tools that local transport authorities can use to meet local needs and circumstances, whether they wish to pursue partnership working with local bus service providers, local franchising or the running of their own bus services.

Alongside the 2019 act, we are bringing forward transformational long-term funding for bus priority infrastructure of more than half a billion pounds.

I thank the cabinet secretary and, given the mix-up in my questions, I just ask him to consider carefully how he might encourage communities to develop co-operative models for the provision of local bus services. A number of campaigns, from the Co-operative Party and others, recognise that the co-operative model can provide an effective means of bringing bus transport to communities. I ask the cabinet secretary to commit to looking further at the issue.

I would be more than happy to look at that issue, which is a very interesting concept around providing local bus services. Particularly in rural areas, there is the potential for co-operative models to be one of the means by which bus services could be provided. If Johann Lamont will provide me with further information on the specific proposals that she believes are worth considering, I will be happy to engage with her and to look at those in further detail.

That concludes questions on transport and infrastructure. I apologise to Annie Wells for failing to reach her question.

Justice System (Support for Serious Crime Victims)

To ask the Scottish Government how the justice system provides support to victims of serious crime and keeps them informed at every stage of the process. (S5O-04129)

I welcome the member’s question, particularly as this is victims awareness week. The victims code for Scotland sets out victims’ rights to information. Victims of serious crime will be allocated a family liaison officer by Police Scotland to update them during the police investigation. If that leads to criminal charges, victims can also access support from the victim information and advice service at the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. Following a conviction, information on prisoners is available through the victim notification scheme. Support is available via Victim Support Scotland, including its support for families bereaved by crime service, and via the national advocacy project for victims of sexual violence. The victims task force is also considering ways to improve support and information.

How does the Scottish Government ensure that victims of crime, especially the most serious crimes, have suitable emotional support and receive practical information specifically about their rights to make representations to the Parole Board?

That is a hugely important area and a very important question; I thank the member for raising it. He will be aware that we recently held a consultation on parole and the analysis and response from that has been extremely welcome. We are actively looking at the support that Victim Support Scotland can provide and what it already does, and it can provide further emotional and practical support to victims when they are making written or oral representations to the Parole Board.

On the back of the consultation, we are looking at whether victims can perhaps even attend Parole Board hearings and a key part of that will be ensuring that they have welfare and emotional support. A transforming parole implementation group is taking that work forward. The group has met once, on 28 January, and it is due to meet again next week. I am happy to keep the member informed of progress as that work develops.

A key feature of the Victims and Witnesses (Scotland) Act 2014 was police restitution orders, which would help to finance an expansion of the support that officers receive following an assault in the line of duty. To date, there is no sign of those orders being implemented. Why has there been a delay and when can we expect those orders to be brought forward?

There has been good progress on restitution orders. I will write to the member with more detail. As he probably knows, some of the delay arose because of conversations that we had to have with the United Kingdom Government, which have been constructive ones. I made a commitment when I first came into this role that I would like to bring forward restitution orders and it was certainly an ask from the Scottish Police Federation. There has been significant progress and I will write to the member with more details.

Question 2 has been withdrawn for an obvious reason.

Transdermal Alcohol Monitoring Tags

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the introduction of transdermal alcohol monitoring tags. (S5O-04131)

Last year, through the Management of Offenders (Scotland) Act 2019, the Scottish Government introduced a legislative framework to enable the expansion of electronic monitoring, including through deployment of new technologies for remote substance monitoring. In October 2019 following a procurement exercise, we announced a new electronic monitoring contract, which will commence on 1 April 2020 and will include those technological capabilities.

While the provisions of the Act that enable remote substance monitoring have not yet been commenced, the next steps will be to work closely with justice stakeholders to discuss how this enhanced monitoring may be most effectively used in future.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that interesting answer. He will know that recent evaluations from two separate United Kingdom pilots—the first in Humberside, Lincolnshire and North Yorkshire and the second in London—saw a combined total of more than 1,400 offenders subject to compulsory sobriety when monitoring took place with alcohol tags. Those pilots yielded a 94 per cent compliance rate.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that continuous alcohol monitoring tags could play an important part in ensuring that we are tackling alcohol-fuelled crime here in Scotland?

I certainly think that the pilots that have been taking place in England and Wales are worth exploring and that the technologies that we are discussing can absolutely play a role. I previously welcomed a positive comment that was made by the Conservative justice spokesperson, Liam Kerr, about the technologies, and we think that they have a role to play. However, there will not be one silver bullet to tackle the issue; I know that Liz Smith is certainly not suggesting that that is the case. We will want to work very closely with individuals who are suffering from alcohol and substance abuse and work on the preventative agenda where we can.

Transdermal technologies could absolutely play a role, and we are working very closely with partners here in Scotland, as well as looking at what the pilots in England and Wales are demonstrating. I thank Liz Smith and her party for keeping an open mind about using such technologies in the future.

Access Rights for Grandparents

To ask the Scottish Government whether it is considering a policy of granting a right of access for children to their grandparents in cases of family separation. (S5O-04132)

The Scottish Government recognises the important role that grandparents play in many families in bringing up children. We have not included a specific provision in the Children (Scotland) Bill on the relationships between a grandparent and a child, as we believe that such a provision could cut across the key principle in the legislation that the welfare of the child is the court’s “paramount consideration”.

The minister will be aware of the United Nations convention that sets out the fundamental rights of a child, including the right to live with a family that loves and cares for them. Will the minister consider enshrining that basic right in our own legislation as we take forward the Children (Scotland) Bill, such that there is a requirement on anyone who is seeking to deny children that basic right to seek a court order to do so?

Currently, a grandparent can apply for a contact order under section 11 of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. In making a decision, the welfare of the child will be the court’s “paramount consideration”, taking into account the views that are expressed by the child. The bill would require the court, when considering the welfare of the child, to take account of the effect of its decision on the child’s important non-parental relationships, which could of course include grandparents. My view is that the present position complies with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

I am grateful to the minister for taking the time to meet my constituents, Gordon and Shonia-Maree Mason, who, after involuntary estrangement from their grandson, have been campaigning on the issue. They recognise the problems that the minister has outlined about extending the right to grandparents, but does the minister agree that the French model of giving children the right to have connections with their ancestors when it is appropriate and in the interests of their welfare to do so, is a way forward here?

I thank Alex Cole-Hamilton for raising the matter and mentioning that I met him and his constituents to explore the issue with them. We want to ensure that children can expect to know and maintain contact with their wider family, except in very exceptional circumstances. However, I do not consider that an automatic right of contact, such as Alex Cole-Hamilton is describing, is appropriate for a number of reasons, including that it may not be in the child’s best interest in every case and it could, as I said earlier, cut across the key principle of the 1995 act that the welfare of the child is the “paramount consideration”.

Grandparents can of course apply to the court for contact under the existing legislation, and a decision will then be made by the court about what is in the child’s best interest in that particular case.

Like other members, I have had a number of constituents contact me about the issue. As the minister will be aware, in other jurisdictions across the world there is a presumption that the grandparents would have a right of access—it is not an automatic right, but a presumption. Will the minister look at including in the bill a presumption that grandparents would have a right to see their grandchildren while also recognising that such a right must be in the best interest of the child?

We have already looked at such a presumption during the passage of the Children (Scotland) Bill. It is a very complex area. As members might expect, such a presumption was strongly supported by organisations such as Grandparents Apart UK. However, there was considerable opposition to it, and concerns were raised that any such provision would cut across the key principle in the bill, which is that the welfare of the child should be taken into account.

We consider that the arguments against having such a provision in the law are stronger than the arguments for including such a provision in the bill.

Management of Offenders (Scotland) Act 2019 (Implementation)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress has been made on implementing the provisions in the Management of Offenders (Scotland) Act 2019. (S5O-04133)

The 2019 act covers four distinct topics: electronic monitoring, disclosure, the Parole Board for Scotland and the control of release from prison, including the use of home detention curfew.

To date, there have been three sets of commencement regulations that have brought in different aspects of the act. In October 2019, initial commencement regulations brought into force a number of provisions in relation to home detention curfew and prisons, including those that provided for the new offence of remaining unlawfully at large, improved powers of recall from HDC and the duty on public authorities to co-operate in relation to early release from prison.

In December 2019, commencement regulations brought into force a number of provisions in relation to disclosure ahead of wider commencement of the substantive provisions later this year. In the same month, we also commenced section 44 of the 2019 act in respect of periods of appointment of the chairperson and members of the Parole Board.

It is a matter of real concern that no date has been set for the implementation of provisions in part 2 of the 2019 act on spent convictions. A case has been drawn to my attention involving an individual who was convicted and fined £400 in December 2015. Under the new law, that conviction would have been spent in 12 months and the record withdrawn from disclosure. However, last month the individual concerned had a job offer withdrawn because a record of the conviction was still on their disclosure. That is unacceptable.

Why has there been a dereliction of duty in that area? What is the point of Parliament passing laws when, six months down the line, no action has been taken to introduce that aspect of the 2019 act?

I express sympathy with James Kelly’s constituent. Mr Kelly will understand that the Scottish Government’s intention is to have a fairer system of disclosure. That is why we introduced the Management of Offenders (Scotland) Bill, which I am pleased was supported by Labour.

I take exception to the way in which Mr Kelly framed the question. There has not been a dereliction of duty. We sometimes take time to commence provisions because, for a variety of reasons, it can take partners time to be ready. When it comes to disclosure, some work needs to be done in relation to Disclosure Scotland’s information technology systems. The work to update Disclosure Scotland’s IT systems is progressing well, and we are confident that it will be completed in the next few months. [Interruption.]

Mr Kelly shouts, “Six months,” from a sedentary position. If he has ever been involved in projects to update IT, he will know that they can take some time.

I have been.

We are working on the basis that the new IT systems will be up and running and ready to commence operation in the next few months. There is no delay, dithering or dereliction of duty. We are talking about pragmatic, practical things that have to be worked through.

However, the policy intention is absolutely sound, and I can give Mr Kelly an absolute guarantee that there would be no reason for us to want to delay. We want the relevant provisions to be implemented, but it would be a dereliction of duty if I allowed that to happen when Disclosure Scotland’s IT systems were not ready to cope with those changes.

I will continue to make sure that Mr Kelly is kept up to date with progress, and I give him a reassurance that there has been no unnecessary delay in introducing the measures in question.

I ask for shorter questions and answers so that we can get in the other members who have questions.

Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (Investment)

6. Shona Robison (Dundee City East) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government how increased investment, outlined in its draft budget, will help support the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. (S5O-04134)

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service continues to adapt to the changing risks that Scotland’s communities face. With the additional £6.1 million funding that was announced in the draft budget, this will be the third year in a row in which the Scottish Government has provided increased investment to enable SFRS modernisation. That funding will allow the SFRS to have a renewed focus on prevention to keep vulnerable people safe in their homes.

I understand that firefighters are being balloted on a new pay and conditions offer, with the ballot closing at the end of the month. Will the minister provide an update on the negotiations and let us know what progress has been made so far with the main representative body, the Fire Brigades Union?

The Scottish Government is not part of the negotiations on firefighters’ pay and conditions, because those matters are between the SFRS, as the employer, and the FBU. The SFRS made a final pay offer that amounted to a 17 per cent increase for the period until July 2022, for the expanded role from November 2019. The FBU is balloting members on that offer, with a closing date of 28 February.

I have written to the SFRS and the FBU to make clear the Scottish Government’s position, which is that additional investment in the SFRS can be supported only if real progress is made on broadening the role of firefighters in Scotland. I hope that a deal can be reached soon.

Drug Supply Routes (Police Surveillance)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with Police Scotland regarding surveillance of drug supply routes. (S5O-04135)

As the chair of the serious organised crime task force, I have regular discussions with partners, including Police Scotland, about our collective enforcement activity in disrupting the drugs trade.

As Liam Kerr will be aware, the nature of the threats that our communities face is changing, and therefore our response to, for example, online offending against vulnerable people, human trafficking and other cyber-based crimes, such as child sexual exploitation, must change, too. The chief constable needs to make decisions about how best to use resources that reflect the changing nature of threats.

The best way of protecting people in all of Scotland’s communities is to ensure that the chief constable has the overall capacity and capability to address the threats that are faced by communities, including those in Dumfries. The decision regarding the surveillance team in Dumfries is an operational matter for the chief constable within that broader context.

From his discussions, the cabinet secretary will be well aware that it has been reported that a vital police surveillance unit that is based in Dumfries and Galloway will be shut down, despite the fact that the area’s ports and roads make it a choke point for the supply of drugs. It has been reported that cuts to police budgets are directly responsible for such decisions. A former member of the unit has said:

“Removing the team from Dumfries will give organised crime gangs more scope to carry out their criminal activities.”

Is he not correct?

It is utter nonsense to suggest that the decision has been taken for resourcing reasons. It has been taken for operational reasons, and it is right that the chief constable has the independent discretion to make such decisions. It is quite something for Liam Kerr and the Tories to think that it is appropriate for politicians to direct the operational activity of the chief constable. I am certain that Liam Kerr thinks very highly of himself, but the chief constable has 30 years of operational experience, which is far more than that of Liam Kerr or, indeed, any other politician in the chamber.

It is right for us to leave operational decisions to the chief constable. There should be no political interference in his decisions. If Liam Kerr has concerns, he should raise them directly with the chief constable; he should not be demanding that the justice secretary intervenes. However, I suspect that the chief constable will take a very dim view of Liam Kerr telling him what he should be doing in his capacity and with his assets.

Children (Scotland) Bill (Engagement)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is engaging with interested parties, such as Families Need Fathers, during stage 1 of the Children (Scotland) Bill. (S5O-04136)

The Scottish Government has engaged with stakeholders since the Children (Scotland) Bill was introduced in the Scottish Parliament on 2 September 2019 and continues to do so. I have met Shared Parenting Scotland—which was formerly called Families Need Fathers Scotland—twice since my appointment as Minister for Community Safety. Officials have met Shared Parenting Scotland on a number of occasions since the bill was introduced. For example, officials attended the relaunch of Shared Parenting Scotland on 10 February.

I have been contacted by not only Families Need Fathers but a number of constituents regarding the bill’s provisions relating to estranged parents and the need for them to maintain personal relationships and direct contact with their children. Would the minister be willing to meet me to discuss my constituents’ views?

The Scottish Government believes that both parents should be fully involved in a child’s upbringing, as long as that is in the best interests of the child. I would, of course, be happy to meet Mr Brown and/or his constituents to discuss the matter in more detail.