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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, December 19, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 19 December 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Business Motion, Referendums (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Referendums (Scotland) Bill, Decision Time


General Question Time

Northern Isles Ferry Services

To ask the Scottish Government what update it can provide on legal action in relation to northern isles ferry services. (S5O-03941)

Scottish ministers are limited in what can be said at this stage of legal proceedings in order not to prejudice the outcome of those proceedings.

Arrangements are being made to extend the current contract so that the services operate as normal throughout the period, which will ensure that communities, passengers and businesses who rely on the services and the staff who work on them will not be affected during the proceedings.

Furthermore, the proceedings do not affect our commitment to fare reductions on the Aberdeen, Kirkwall and Lerwick routes from January 2020, which will proceed as promised.

In Orkney and Shetland, reduced fares that have been promised for many years have been delayed by 18 months, so far, by legal action. Earlier this month, the tender process for the northern isles service was delayed again by legal action. Then, yesterday, we heard that in the Ferguson Marine Engineering Ltd shipyard, which is earmarked to provide replacement ferries for our islands, orders are again delayed and will now come in at double the already high cost.

The Scottish National Party’s commitment to providing fair funding for our vital interisland ferries in the northern isles has still not been met. The Scottish Government’s mismanagement of Scotland’s ferry services has been chaotic and embarrassing. I therefore ask the minister how people in the islands are supposed to have confidence in the Government’s management of our ferry services? Will the minister apologise for that catalogue of failures on his watch?

Dear, oh dear. Jamie Halcro Johnston ought to reflect on the fact that Serco NorthLink, the current operator, has a 97 per cent satisfaction rating for the services to the communities in the northern isles. He might also want to reflect on the fact that there is no absence of Scottish Government intervention to provide the services through Serco NorthLink. The member ought to recognise that the Scottish Government has a good track record of delivering services for the northern isles.

The interisland ferry services are provided by Orkney Islands Council and Shetland Islands Council, and we have increased funding to them. I point out that the situation that has arisen for them arose prior to devolution at the time of the then Conservative Government and Scotland Office. [Interruption.]

If Jamie Halcro Johnston would listen to my response rather than continuing to chunter from the sidelines, he might actually learn something. In the past two years, for the first time ever, Orkney Islands Council and Shetland Islands Council have received additional funding from the Scottish Government to improve the ferry services, even though the councils are legally responsible for delivering them. [Interruption.]

Jamie Halcro Johnston is continuing to chunter while I try to explain matters to him so that he can learn from my answer to his question. His party’s Government in the 1980s put the current situation in place.

The 1980s!

Indeed. That was the last time the Tories had power in Scotland. Jamie Halcro Johnston might want to acknowledge that.

He ought also to recognise that the Scottish Government has made additional funding available to Orkney Islands Council and Shetland Islands Council. We are in positive dialogue with the councils on how we can help them to address the funding challenges that they face. Indeed, the figures that they have supplied to us have been fed into the budget process—which has, of course, been delayed by Jamie Halcro Johnston’s Conservative Party’s Government delaying its budget statement, potentially until as late as March. That situation is potentially very difficult for all local authorities in Scotland, including Orkney Islands Council and Shetland Islands Council.

I am pleased to see that members are in a festive mood, but they should try to restrict themselves to a question and an answer rather than also having a conversation with other members in the chamber.

We have the remarkable spectacle of the Government’s own ferry company taking legal action against the Scottish Government. Can the minister advise Parliament on whether calculations have been made of the likely cost to CalMac Ferries Ltd and the Scottish Government of that legal action?

All I can say to Liam McArthur is that the matter is clearly now sub judice, so I have to be careful about what I say. We regret that legal action is being taken, but we also recognise that CalMac operates at arm’s length from the Government and that it has the right to legal challenge of the Government about a commercial tender exercise. Obviously, we hope that the process can go forward as quickly as possible at minimal cost to CalMac and the Scottish Government.

I hope that Liam McArthur will accept that answer, and that he appreciates that I cannot give more information at this time. We regret that the legal action is happening, but we clearly want to see it being progressed as fast as possible and to put in place the long-term future of the services to the northern isles, which I know Liam McArthur cares about.

Welfare Support (Christmas and New Year Period)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to provide additional welfare support for people in need over the Christmas and New Year period. (S5O-03942)

The Scottish Government is already delivering a range of social security benefits, and is committed to ensuring that people receive all the support that they are entitled to throughout the year. We have also committed an additional £354,000 to support a range of initiatives that are tackling rough sleeping and homelessness this winter.

The majority of welfare benefits are still the responsibility of the United Kingdom Government. We continue to press UK ministers to reduce the unfairness of their welfare reforms, to improve support for the most vulnerable people and to ensure that safeguards are in place for those who need them.

The cabinet secretary and I would prefer that food banks were not needed, but while they are we must support them. Will she join me in congratulating the Evening Times on its “Bank On Us” campaign, which has resulted in more than 5,000 bags being delivered to food banks across the city? Does she agree that that demonstrates the generosity, not just of the people of Glasgow, but of the people of Scotland, who are supporting people who have been left vulnerable, particularly in the run-up to Christmas and the new year?

I absolutely endorse Anas Sarwar’s comments about the Evening Times campaign. I hope that all members in the chamber agree that there should be no place for food banks in our society. The fact that we have food banks is a demonstration of a broken welfare system. Although the welfare system is broken and the UK Conservative Government refuses to make the changes that are needed to fix it, it is highly commendable that the people of Glasgow and people across Scotland are stepping up, particularly at this time. It is also commendable that the Evening Times has been running a campaign to facilitate that.

Rape Crisis Support

3. Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to recent figures from Rape Crisis Scotland, which state that on a typical day 1,035 people are waiting to access rape crisis support. (S5O-03943)

Although it is welcome that more people are coming forward to seek support, we should unite in our outrage that women and girls continue to experience sexual violence at the hands of men. It needs to stop, and the Government will continue to take action, including by strengthening the law, investing in services and tackling the underlying attitudes and inequalities that perpetuate violence against women and girls.

We are investing £2 million in rape crisis work this year, including £800,000 of core funding for 17 rape crisis centres and £166,000 for the national rape crisis helpline. Rona Mackay will recall that, on top of that investment, last year the Government pledged an additional £1.5 million over three years to rape crisis services in order to improve access to support.

I will set out my plans for future funding in the new year, and we will continue to work to ensure that those who experience sexual violence have access to the right support at the right time.

Does the minister agree that that highlights the need for more support for victims, which the Scottish Government is giving, and that Rape Crisis Scotland’s “£16 for 16 Days” campaign, which raised £15,269 for local rape crisis centres and the national helpline, is a massive achievement?

As Rona Mackay has highlighted, it is clear from Rape Crisis Scotland’s report that we have much more to do, so we are working with it to do it.

We recognise the difficulties that support services across the violence against women sector face and will take them into account as we explore the structure of our next equalities funding round. We hope to be in a position to announce our future funding plans early in 2020. There is no doubt that Rape Crisis Scotland’s “£16 for 16 Days” campaign was hugely successful, having raised more than £15,000. I join Rona Mackay in acknowledging that massive achievement for Rape Crisis Scotland.

Strategic Transport Projects Review 2 (Survey)

To ask the Scottish Government for what reason the Strategic Transport Projects Review 2 survey is taking place over the Christmas holiday period. (S5O-03944)

The strategic transport projects review survey was planned to start after the consultation on the national transport strategy, which closed on 23 October. That was to ensure that there was a distinction between the two processes.

In order to keep to the programme, Transport Scotland is keen to have the feedback from the survey by mid-January. The festive period has been taken into account and that is part of the reason why the survey will run for six weeks, and will close on 10 January 2020.

The cabinet secretary will be aware of the considerable interest in west Fife and Clackmannan communities around the prospect of reopening of the rail route from Longannet to Dunfermline. He has previously committed to meaningful consultation of communities on the potential for that project through the STPR2 process, but all we have so far is an online survey that is very general, in nature. Will the cabinet secretary commit to running workshops with communities, as was expected, and to extending the online survey in order to give people, communities and stakeholders a proper opportunity to respond to the issues under STPR2?

An extensive range of engagement has already taken place. For example, 42 regional workshops took place in early summer this year, there have been seven national and thematic workshops, and there have been three business-focused events. So far, more than 300 organisations have engaged in the STPR2 process: that process has been extensive and will continue. We have also held 18 school workshops across the country, and another 30 are planned for the coming months.

There has been an extensive process that has allowed communities to engage on specific issues in their areas in order to feed into the STPR2 process. I encourage the member’s constituents who have an interest in the issue that he has raised to make sure that they take part in the online survey and any of the workshops that are taking place at regional level.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee recently wrote to him to highlight the £3 billion backlog of repairs to Scotland’s roads. Will he confirm whether the STPR2 process will seek to redress that backlog?

The STPR2 process considers what strategic project initiatives we should be looking to support in the coming 10 to 20 years. It will assess what are, by and large, new projects or upgrading of existing projects. It will not look at specific road maintenance issues in the way that the member alluded to.

Prison Staffing

To ask the Scottish Government what action is being taken to address reported staffing shortages in prisons. (S5O-03945)

The most pressing challenge facing the Scottish Prison Service in relation to staffing is at HMP and YOI Grampian, where the attrition rate is more than double the national average. The SPS recognises the continuing challenges of the recruitment and retention of staff at Grampian and has adapted the recruitment process to include online testing and application processes, as well as running a number of other initiatives to attract candidates. The challenges associated with staffing, including staff absence and recruitment, are matters that I discuss regularly with the chief executive of the SPS, most recently on 26 November. The SPS continues to support Grampian with staff from elsewhere across the prison estate.

On the wider issue, to address the problem the scheduled recruitment of prison officers in 2020 and 2021 has been increased and, as a consequence, the SPS will bring in more than 800 new officers over the next 24 months. As I have said many times before and I am certain that Alex Rowley agrees, Scotland’s prisons remain stable, safe and well run and that is very much down to the unwavering dedication and commitment of prison officers and staff across the country. I thank them for their dedication.

Prisons may well remain stable and well run, but if we are to adhere to the principles of crime, punishment and rehabilitation, there are shortages. As I have said to the cabinet secretary, I have met prison staff and I am happy to have that discussion further in private, but if the cabinet secretary is going to make the case to the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work for further resources for prisons—it is obvious to me that they are needed—surely he needs a proper assessment of those needs. I hope that he will do that and that we can work together, because it is in nobody’s interests to keep our prisons so full and have the staffing problems that we face.

Will the cabinet secretary bring forward a proper assessment in order to put the case to the finance secretary for the additional resources that will be needed?

I will answer that question in the spirit in which I think that Alex Rowley asked it. Of course I will work with anybody from across the chamber to address the real challenges that face us in our prison population and estate. Alex Rowley is right that, if our prisons are overcrowded as they currently are, there is less time for the likes of rehabilitation and other such measures. Where I would disagree with him is on the fact that, where the SPS has asked for more money, the Government has not been found wanting. In this financial year alone, the SPS asked for an additional £24 million and received it; we have increased the budget when there has been a need to do so.

Any conversations that I have with the finance secretary will of course be held in private, but I will also have conversations with members from across the chamber. If there are additional resources in the budget, I am glad that Alex Rowley has now said that he would support such a budget. I am sure that the finance secretary will hear that in the discussions that will take place.

One way in which the Scottish Government seems to want to tackle staff shortages is by emptying prisons. This week the Government had to breach parliamentary procedure and implement the restriction of liberty regulations without the necessary scrutiny from the Justice Committee. Does it not suggest a worrying absence of planning and preparation, and a disrespect for this Parliament, that such important legislation has had to be rushed through without the necessary scrutiny?

It is HM inspectorate of prisons that says that Scottish prisons are stable, well run and safe. The inspectorate in England and Wales says that Tory mismanagement of prisons is draconian in comparison to Scotland. Not only that, we look after those who work in our prisons. Our prison officers have received a 6 per cent pay rise this year, compared with a derisory rise of 2.2 per cent offered by the Conservative Government.

Mr Kerr talks about prison overcrowding. If I went with his regressive justice proposals, which would see whole-life sentences, the ending of automatic early release for short-term prisoners and opposition to the presumption against short sentences, we would have to build three more Barlinnies. Where the heck would the money come from for that? I will take no lectures from the Conservatives about the pressures on our prison estate. We are getting on with the job of managing that, while he carps from the sidelines.

High Court Trials (Time Limit Breaches)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking in response to reports that there are regular breaches of the time limits aimed at preventing delay in High Court trials. (S5O-03946)

I am sure that Pauline McNeill will be aware that Scottish ministers and the Scottish Parliament may not, by law, seek to influence either prosecutorial decisions or decisions by the judiciary about case management.

The Scottish Government has made additional resources available this financial year. We gave £5 million extra to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service and just shy of £2 million to the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service to help them to respond to the changing nature and complexity of criminal cases.

The member may be aware that a large number of those trials relate to sexual offences. The review group led by Lady Dorrian, the Lord Justice Clerk, is considering what distinguishes sexual assault cases from other criminal cases, and how court processes and the experience of complainers and witnesses can be improved without compromising the rights of the accused.

Section 65 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1995, as amended by this Parliament in 2004, states that an accused may not be held for more than 140 days following a preliminary hearing. However, when the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service wrote to me this year, out of the 492 trials started in 2018 only three did not extend the time limit, and there was an average of 16 weeks in 2018 in which courts did not meet the requirements of the 1995 act. That is a significant rise and the cabinet secretary has correctly said that there are many serious and sexual offences cases among that number, which are delayed because of a failure to meet that timescale.

Does the cabinet secretary share my concern? When he has a chance to study that picture in detail, will he respond to me about how we can get closer to what the spirit of the act intended when we passed it in 2004, so that the 140-day limit will be extended only in response to cause shown?

I reassure Pauline McNeill that I do look at the detail, and have looked at it. I have discussed it with the Lord Advocate. He would be happy, from a prosecutorial point of view, as prosecutors have the responsibility up to indictment, to speak to Pauline McNeill.

I share the member’s concerns about the 140-day limit. The majority of current High Court work is on sexual offences cases, which feature complex digital forensics as well as having a number of other complexities. That does not mean that the courts should not pay close attention to that 140-day limit; they should. I am happy to furnish Pauline McNeill with more detail, and the Lord Advocate is happy to meet her to discuss the Crown’s role in this.

Referendums (Scotland) Bill

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the Electoral Commission since the Referendums (Scotland) Bill completed stage 2. (S5O-03947)

As I have indicated previously, there have been multiple, constructive discussions between the Scottish Government and the Electoral Commission about the bill in recent months. Those conversations have continued since stage 2. I have lodged at stage 3, which will take place this afternoon, amendments that build on those discussions with the Electoral Commission.

Not only is the cabinet secretary seeking to impose on Scotland a second independence referendum that Scots do not want, but he is seeking to rig its rules by bypassing the critical role of the Electoral Commission in its independent testing of any referendum question.

In a unanimous report, this Parliament’s Finance and Constitution Committee made it clear that that is completely unacceptable and that the cabinet secretary must seek the agreement of the Electoral Commission on a way forward. Yet, this week, the Electoral Commission has said that no such agreement has been reached. The Electoral Commission says that it should be required by law to reassess any referendum question. Why does the cabinet secretary not agree?

The member is getting his retaliation in early, before he is defeated on the matter this afternoon when the Parliament votes on it. [Interruption.] He will be defeated, because he has misled us on what the Electoral Commission says. The Electoral Commission says in its briefing that it is “satisfied” with the amendments that I have lodged. That position and the position that Mr Tomkins has taken are not compatible.

We will have the debate this afternoon. I hope that, by then, Mr Tomkins will have read the Electoral Commission’s recommendations and that, in those circumstances, he will not repeat the error that he fell into just now.