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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, June 22, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 22 June 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Island Games (Support for Athletes), Provisional Outturn 2016-17, Limitation (Childhood Abuse) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Limitation (Childhood Abuse) (Scotland) Bill, Decision Time, Point of Order


General Question Time

Good morning. We start with general question time. Question 1 will be asked by Ruth Maguire.

Debt Arrangement Scheme (Creditors’ Legal Obligations)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it can take to ensure that creditors operating in Scotland are fully briefed on their legal obligations when dealing with clients on a debt arrangement scheme. (S5O-01156)

I clarify that that was actually question 2. Question 1 was withdrawn.

Creditors are fully informed of their statutory obligations at each stage of the debt arrangement scheme application and approval process by the Accountant in Bankruptcy or money advice organisations. The Accountant in Bankruptcy has a number of stakeholder groups that have been set up specifically to make sure that creditors and other interested parties have a proper understanding of debt management and debt relief processes.

StepChange Debt Charity Scotland has raised some concerns with me about the scheme, one of which is that there is a widespread misunderstanding of the scheme in the credit industry. What further steps could the Scottish Government take to ensure that creditors that operate in Scotland are reminded of their legal responsibilities and obligations regarding the debt arrangement scheme? Will the minister consider making it a requirement for creditors that operate in Scotland to have their staff trained in the debt arrangement scheme?

My first observation is that the debt arrangement scheme has been very successful. A lot of that is down to the support that is available to creditors and those who have to repay debt, as I set out in my initial answer.

Ruth Maguire mentioned StepChange. As well as being a critical partner in the formation of our policy and sitting on the advisory board of the scheme, StepChange delivers some elements of the scheme, so we will always be very willing to hear from it.

As far as the training of staff is concerned, Accountant in Bankruptcy staff visit creditors and provide training when that is requested. I think that it would be beyond the Government’s competence to force compulsory training on all major financial institutions. Potentially, the issue could be addressed at United Kingdom level through the Financial Conduct Authority.

That said, in the recent consultation on the debt arrangement scheme, creditors failing to meet their statutory obligations under the scheme was not highlighted as an issue in the consultation responses that were received. However, if StepChange or Ruth Maguire wants to provide more details of the specific concerns, we will reflect on those and see whether there is more that we can do.

Gordon Lindhurst has a supplementary.

Figures from StepChange Debt Charity Scotland, which has just been mentioned, show that in the Lothian region that I represent the fastest-growing client category to have been affected in the past three years is the 25 to 39-year-old age group. What is the Scottish Government doing at an educational level—particularly in schools—to ensure that young people are taught the basic principles of money management, to help them to avoid getting into debt in the first place, particularly once they leave school?

A range of work to provide young people with life skills can be done in school. The issue that Mr Lindhurst raises can be taken account of in personal and social education. If he wants to write to me about any specific concerns regarding his region, I will, of course, be happy to respond.

ScotRail (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government when it will next meet ScotRail. (S5O-01157)

Ministers and officials regularly meet representatives of ScotRail to discuss a wide range of issues relating to rail services. I will meet the managing director later this month.

The minister is aware of the many problems on the line from East Kilbride into Glasgow, which is an extremely busy commuter line. The fact that it is only single track brings its own issues.

For months and months, services on the line have had a reduced number of carriages, which has resulted in severe overcrowding. It is becoming more and more difficult for people to have confidence in the rail service from East Kilbride into Glasgow. Will the minister assure me that he will raise the issue seriously with ScotRail at his forthcoming meeting?

I am disappointed to hear about the problems. I use that route—my home station is there, as Linda Fabiani knows—and I recognise what she says about the need for additional capacity. The East Kilbride service is among the top 10 busiest services, and the 17.01 and 18.47 from Glasgow are extremely overcrowded. I give her an assurance that ScotRail recognises that. It is looking at additional capacity and additional carriages in the winter, which I appreciate is not an immediate solution. I can also say with a degree of confidence that when electrical services come in, with a cascade of rolling stock across the network, ScotRail has told me that East Kilbride is a priority for that increased capacity.

On the wider performance of the East Kilbride line, the public performance measure—the PPM—is 95.7, which is above the Scottish average and well above the United Kingdom average, so the performance on punctuality is good, notwithstanding the problems of overcrowding that Linda Fabiani spoke about. I will take those points to the managing director of ScotRail when I meet him later this month.

I met ScotRail recently and was assured that the line would be up to full carriage capacity over the next few months. What is required is for the whole of the line to be two tracks, rather than one part being one track—that is what affects the capacity. Will the minister tell us the timescales for getting that work done and for electrification?

The double-tracking will be via the city deal and it is for the city deal partners to take that forward and bring it before the Government as part of the city deal package.

On additional capacity on the East Kilbride line, ScotRail is very aware that the line faces overcrowding issues and sees resolving the issue as a priority. I give Graham Simpson the Government’s assurance that we understand that overcrowding on the line is not acceptable. The train operator and the Government have given those assurances and, if the member wishes, I am happy to write with more details as electrification comes to the service.

When the minister meets ScotRail, will he discuss the repeated incidents of violence at Hamilton Central station? Will he commit to meeting the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers to explore a way forward and to discuss how to support ScotRail workers who have been victims of violence?

I put on record my appreciation for the work that Elaine Smith has done on the safety of railway workers. We have met on a number of occasions about that matter and it would be remiss of me not to put on record that work and the good campaign that the RMT has run on the safety of railway workers.

I have a pending invitation to the RMT to meet me to discuss a range of issues, and one of those will be the Hamilton Central station issue, which the union staged a demonstration about this week. I will be happy to meet the RMT on the issue and to keep the member updated on that discussion.

Question 4 has been withdrawn.

Creative Learning

To ask the Scottish Government how it promotes creative learning among children and young people, including encouraging their participation in music, dance, film and the arts. (S5O-01159)

The Scottish Government promotes creative learning in a wide variety of ways across many portfolios, not just my own. For example, in education, curriculum for excellence recognises the value of creative learning, providing children and young people with opportunities to be creative and imaginative, to experience inspiration and enjoyment and to develop skills for learning, life and work.

Our work with young people under the umbrella of Scotland’s youth arts strategy, time to shine, supported by initiatives including the youth music initiative, cashback for creativity and Sistema Scotland, ensures that no young person’s background is a barrier to taking part in the arts. Creative Scotland works in close strategic partnership with Education Scotland, Skills Development Scotland and other key education bodies to deliver Scotland’s creative learning plan, which aims to put creativity at the heart of learning in Scotland. Together with Education Scotland, Creative Scotland continues to support creative learning networks in local authorities across Scotland, which deliver so many creative learning opportunities for young people.

I recently attended a Love Music concert at the Usher Hall where 60 young percussionists from Clovenstone and Sighthill primary schools in my constituency performed with professional musicians. The cabinet secretary will be aware that, in Edinburgh, more than 24,000 young people have participated in music, creative and cultural activities in the last academic year. Will she join me in commending the arts and creative learning team at the City of Edinburgh Council for providing Scotland’s largest instrumental music service and youth music initiative programme at no cost to children and young people?

I am more than happy to congratulate Edinburgh on what it does in relation to cultural experience and participation, as well as creative learning. The council’s reach is extensive and that has immense value. I also congratulate Clovenstone and Sighthill primary schools and their percussionists.

Schools and councils across Scotland appreciate the support that they receive from MSPs of all parties for the cultural life of Scotland, particularly for our young people. I encourage all members to continue to support local cultural activity as Gordon MacDonald has done in Edinburgh.

Policing (Edinburgh)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last discussed policing in Edinburgh with Police Scotland. (S5O-01160)

I meet the chief constable regularly to discuss issues concerning the policing of Scotland and Scottish Government officials liaise regularly with Police Scotland colleagues on a range of issues. Decisions about day-to-day policing in Edinburgh are a matter for the Police Scotland divisional commander for Edinburgh and for the chief constable.

The Edinburgh Evening News reported on Monday that detection rates in the capital have fallen to just 35.4 per cent, which is the lowest level in the country. It revealed that the toughest cases to crack are those that involve housebreaking and vandalism, both of which are particularly prevalent in my constituency. Such detection issues have been a concern from Police Scotland’s formation, since when there has also been a demonstrable drop in police morale. What steps do the cabinet secretary and his Government intend to take with Police Scotland to address the situation?

Police Scotland is committed to taking a robust approach to tackling all such forms of crime. A range of measures is being implemented in Edinburgh to tackle issues that relate to housebreaking—there is an on-going operation. Over this weekend, there will be further work in Edinburgh to address the theft of motorcycles that will bring in significant regional and national resource support. A key benefit of having a national police force is being able to deploy resources on a national level to support local operations.

It is worth keeping it in mind that, nationally, our most recent recorded crime statistics show that policing clear-up rates are at their highest for 40 years. I recognise that there may be issues in particular locations, which Police Scotland is taking appropriate measures to tackle. I continue to encourage members—including Alex Cole-Hamilton—to engage with local commanders when they have concerns about local policing issues.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that police in the Edinburgh division, as well as the 12 other police divisions in Scotland, and the communities that they serve would benefit greatly if the United Kingdom Government treated Police Scotland fairly and allowed it to claim back VAT—the figure involved is £35 million a year—in the same way that it allows police forces across the rest of the UK, academy schools and Highways England to claim back VAT?

As I have made clear in Parliament on several occasions, the UK Government’s treatment of Police Scotland and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service in relation to reclaiming VAT is simply unacceptable. The UK Government has chosen to allow other national organisations to reclaim VAT. Why it has chosen not to allow Police Scotland and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service to reclaim VAT is beyond me. I can only hope that the increased number of Conservative MPs at Westminster from Scotland will show some backbone and stand up for our police and fire services, rather than accepting the discrimination against our services.

Affordable Housing (Mid-market Rents)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on setting a cap on mid-market rents to achieve more affordable housing. (S5O-01161)

The Scottish Government wishes to ensure that mid-market rent levels remain affordable to households on low to modest incomes. That is why landlords that have received Scottish Government support in recent years—whether the support was in the form of grant funding, loan finance or financial guarantees—are not permitted to set rents above the mid-point of local private sector rent levels, which are generally based on broad rental market area data that is collected and published by the Scottish Government.

How many more mid-market rental properties are to be built in Edinburgh over the next four years?

Significant levels of MMR properties will be delivered across Edinburgh to meet the high demand for good-quality affordable housing. On the basis of strategic housing investment plan approvals for Edinburgh, we expect about 2,100 MMR properties to be built over the next four years, with support—of course—from Scottish Government funding.

Beyond that, the Scottish Government will this year invest from the affordable housing supply programme £29.115 million here in the capital city. The other week, I was pleased to announce resource planning assumptions of £1.745 billion for the next three years, which will give local authorities certainty about the delivery of our affordable housing programme. That will mean minimum investment of £124.5 million here in Edinburgh.

Bus Fares (Glasgow)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it can take to ensure that bus fare rates in Glasgow are affordable. (S5O-01162)

The Scottish Government supports bus services across Scotland, including those in Glasgow, through the bus service operators grant, for which the budget is £53.5 million in 2017-18. The aim of the bus subsidy is to keep fares at an affordable level and enable bus operators to run services that might not otherwise be commercially viable, which helps to support the national bus network.

Car ownership rates in Glasgow are lower than those in any other area of the country, so bus travel is essential to many people in the city. It is therefore deeply regrettable that, in the recent spate of fare rises, First UK Bus imposed some increases that were in excess of 10 per cent.

The transport minister represents a Glasgow constituency. Will he explain why the Government of which he is a member is in favour of reducing prices for air passengers, while bus passengers in Glasgow see hikes that are greater than inflation?

I will try to take a consensual approach, because I know that the member would like more people to use public transport as much as I would. Congestion is one of the biggest issues in Glasgow and the west of Scotland. I gently remind the member that the steepest decline in bus patronage across Scotland has been in Glasgow and the west, where Labour councils have been in control not for years but for decades.

Notwithstanding that, we will introduce a transport bill, which will have a bus element. It will contain a suite of measures: there is the potential for local franchising, on which we will consult, and municipal bus ownership, and other measures will tackle congestion and increase smart ticket availability. The suite of measures should help to increase bus patronage.

When I next meet First UK Bus, I will raise the issue that the member raised about bus fares in Glasgow and the west. I end on the point that bus fare rises, as unwelcome as they are, are lower in Scotland than they are anywhere else in the United Kingdom.

Does the minister accept that free bus travel for the over-60s is a win-win not only for the individuals concerned but for our environment by reducing congestion on our roads?

We have funded free bus travel through the national concessionary bus travel scheme for a number of years and, in our manifesto, we committed to extending the scheme to modern apprentices and, potentially, young people who are in receipt of jobs grants. We must look at the sustainability of the scheme—that is important, as I think people recognise. However, we will not make changes to the national concessionary travel scheme without consulting on them.

Does the minister agree that local authorities should have an enabling power over bus franchising made available to them?

That matter has been brought forward as part of the UK Bus Services Act 2017. As I mentioned in my answer to James Kelly, the transport bill that we will introduce will have a bus element. One of the measures that we will explore and consult on is local franchises.