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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 23 January 2019

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Review of Personal and Social Education, Clinical Waste Services, Supporting Entrepreneurship, Point of Order, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Adult Learning, Correction


Portfolio Question Time

Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity

The first item of business is portfolio questions. I recite the usual mantra: short questions and succinct answers, and we will get through everybody.

Transport (Discounts for Young People)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it can take to allow young people access to cheaper transport, and what its position is on the discounts that are currently offered by the bus and train operators. (S5O-02789)

The Scottish Government continues to take positive targeted action to help young people to access cheaper transport through initiatives such as the national concessionary travel scheme for young people, which offers discounts on bus and rail services. We welcome the range of discounted fares that are offered to young people by operators. Discounts are commercial matters for the individual bus operators. On rail, they are offered under the terms of the ScotRail franchise contract.

The Scottish Government is seeking to introduce free bus travel for young modern apprentices, and for young carers who are in receipt of the planned young carers grant, once it comes into force.

On turning 16, a young person is welcomed into adulthood by being asked to pay full fares on all public transport. Many young people at 16 are not working but are still at school. The discounts that the minister talks about are not deep enough. I welcome what the minister has said on apprentices and carers, but surely it is time to recognise that teenagers across the board, but especially 16 and 17-year-olds, need a fairer deal on buses, trains and ferries.

Pauline McNeill will be aware that the national concessionary travel scheme for young people was introduced back in January 2017 and is delivered through the Young Scot smart card programme. It provides all 16 to 18-year-olds and full-time volunteers up to the age of 25 with discounts on bus travel. A discount rail card is also available for young people.

We are always keen to ensure that we support young people in accessing public transport. On the very specific measure that the member has proposed to provide further discounts over and above what we provide at the present time, no doubt the budget from which she wants that to come will filter through, in the process.

Levenmouth Rail Link

To ask the Scottish Government what progress has been made in advancing the case and funding for a new Levenmouth rail link. (S5O-02790)

Transport Scotland is leading the transport appraisal work for the Levenmouth sustainable transport study, in close collaboration with Fife Council. The findings from the transport appraisal work will identify whether there is a rationale for progressing the Levenmouth rail link.

Since I last spoke in Parliament about the study, the initial appraisal report has been published and stakeholders were updated on the findings of the report at sessions last November. Stakeholders continue to be updated monthly by email and with information on Transport Scotland’s website.

The draft preliminary options appraisal report, which includes rail link options, is being reviewed by Transport Scotland and Fife Council. The final stage is the detailed appraisal, the timescale for which very much depends on the outcome of the current stage.

I welcome the progress that is now being made, and I hope that we will see that progress continue. There is strong community support for the proposal and recognition of the economic and social opportunities that the rail link would bring. Is the cabinet secretary willing to meet the community organisation that is behind the campaign and come to Levenmouth? I understand that he is meeting one of the constituency MSPs today to discuss the issue, but will he come to Levenmouth?

The one thing that those people are clear about is that this should be—

No—questions should be short, please.

—a non-partisan campaign, so will the cabinet secretary come and meet that organisation?

I have already given agreement to the constituency member’s request to visit Levenmouth. Last week, when I was in Fife, I was approached by a member of the Levenmouth rail campaign. When I was asked whether I would visit, I confirmed that I was more than happy to do so.

I recognise the cross-party support for the proposal. No doubt we will, as the work is taken forward, be able to identify the best option to progress it.

Like Alex Rowley, I have an invitation to put to the cabinet secretary. Will he come to my constituency to meet members of the Levenmouth rail campaign and see the potential economic benefits that a rail link would bring to what is an area of high deprivation?


Excellent. Question three has been withdrawn.

Active Travel

To ask the Scottish Government how it promotes active travel. (S5O-02792)

The Scottish Government has doubled the active travel budget from £39.2 million in 2017-18 to £80 million in 2018-19 and 2019-20. The majority of that funding is allocated to local authorities to deliver high-quality walking and cycling infrastructure that enables people to walk and cycle more.

The funding also includes more than £10 million to support local authorities and communities to deliver behavioural change programmes including cycle training and increased access to bikes and facilities, to encourage more people to walk and cycle.

We also recently appointed Scotland’s first active nation commissioner, Lee Craigie, who will become the national advocate for the benefits of walking and cycling, including for everyday short journeys.

It is estimated that it will, at the current rate of progress, take about 239 years to reach the Scottish Government’s target of 10 per cent of journeys being made by bike by 2020. Although setting an ambitious target is positive—I welcome the steps that the cabinet secretary has set out—how will the Scottish Government ensure that the necessary support is in place to achieve it?

When Annie Wells said “239 years”, I thought that she was talking about the Brexit negotiations, given that state of affairs.

We have an ambitious programme for driving up active travel. We set an ambitious stretch target and we are seeing progress being made towards it. However, progress is clearly not being made at the speed that we would all like. That is why we doubled the budget in order to drive progress forward in the coming years. I am committed to doing everything that we can do to increase the number of people who choose active travel options when making journeys.

I welcome the doubling of the budget and highlight to the cabinet secretary that I visited the south city way CLPLUS—community links plus—project, which was supported on a cross-party basis. Its accessibility and visibility are inspiring. Can the cabinet secretary tell us more about how it will be ensured that marginalised communities have affordable options in such travel opportunities?

Claudia Beamish raises an important issue. I have on a number of occasions made the point that in promoting and encouraging active travel, we must reach out to hard-to-get-at communities, and to individuals who might not initially think that they will take up an active travel option.

In recent discussions, I challenged the stakeholders who are responsible for taking forward the promotion of active travel to demonstrate in greater detail how they are reaching out to our more deprived communities and ensuring that they are supported to consider active travel options. We are, for example, looking at how we can build the provisions that are necessary to support active travel into the infrastructure of social housing provision. That could include cycle and walking routes, work with housing associations, the creation of e-bike hubs and provision of electric vehicles through a car-club model. Those could be delivered through social housing. I have challenged stakeholders to develop all those in a more detailed way.

I am clear about the need to ensure that active travel is about not just people who are predisposed to being active, but is about reaching out to communities that are more deprived and difficult to get at in order to ensure that they, too, get the benefits of the investment.

Transport Scotland (Support for Tourism)

To ask the Scottish Government how Transport Scotland supports and promotes tourism. (S5O-02793)

Working with partners, Transport Scotland supports tourism by investing in our transport network to promote Scotland as an accessible and attractive place to visit. For example, Transport Scotland works closely with Scotland’s airports to help to secure new routes that improve business connectivity and inbound tourism, such as the Edinburgh to Beijing international route, which was introduced in 2018 and is operated by Hainan Airlines.

Another area in which Transport Scotland has direct involvement is the use of brown tourist signs on roads. VisitScotland research shows that those signs are valued and play a role in enabling visitors to reach tourist destinations safely by car. However, a small business in the Highlands and Islands region has recently been quoted almost £50,000 by Transport Scotland to erect just four signs for its business.

Does the cabinet secretary think that that valued scheme is sufficiently affordable and accessible for tourism-focused businesses? If not, what action will he take to support those businesses for which cost is a prohibitive factor?

Obviously, there are clear criteria for the use of road signage, but if Jamie Halcro Johnston would like to furnish me with the specific details of the matter to which he refers, I would be more than happy to get Transport Scotland officials to look into it.

Does the transport secretary believe that Transport Scotland’s sanctioning of the replacement of the MV Hamnavoe on the ??Stromness to Scrabster route with a freighter vessel with a passenger capacity of only 12 meets the needs of tourists or the local Orkney community?

I recognise that there are challenges with some of the vessels, particularly at key points in the year when visitor numbers significantly increase. We continue to look at how we can expand and improve the ferry network in Scotland and improve the vessels that are under construction at present. I recognise that there are challenges in certain parts of the network as a result of increasing demand in freight and passenger numbers. Through the ferries plan, we will continue to address those issues appropriately.

A83 Taskforce (Update)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update following the last meeting of the A83 taskforce. (S5O-02794)

I chaired a meeting of the A83 taskforce on 15 November 2018. There was a full and frank discussion and I appreciated the opportunity to listen to local concerns.

At the meeting, I made a commitment that the Argyll and Bute region would be prioritised in the forthcoming strategic transport projects review 2. I also announced that we will review the potential for additional physical landslide mitigation measures at the Rest and Be Thankful. I asked Transport Scotland officials to report back to me by mid-February with the findings of the review to enable discussion of the findings at the next taskforce meeting with local and regional stakeholders on 27 March 2019.

Since 2007, we have invested £70 million in the maintenance of that trunk road, including £11 million on landslide mitigation measures at the Rest and Be Thankful and on the local Old Military Road diversion. Those measures have worked, having already successfully stopped landslip material from reaching the road and keeping that important route open for an estimated 50 to 60 days when it would otherwise have been closed.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that, as the winter snap begins to hit, routes in the Highlands and Islands region, such as the Rest and Be Thankful stretch of the A83, will inevitably become more treacherous. Given that there is some scepticism about the mitigation measures, what assurances will he give to frustrated residents and businesses that they will be able to travel that route without fear of major delays or road closures?

I am surprised about Donald Cameron’s reference to scepticism, because the mitigation measures that have been taken follow those that were recommended by the taskforce, which includes local stakeholders. That work continues to be implemented and the sum of almost £4.5 million has been spent on additional measures that are being put into place.

The history of the site is clear—there have been significant problems as a result of landslides. The mitigation measures have had a positive impact. They had not eliminated all the material but, for example, the catch-pits that continue to be installed will provide additional resilience and assurance. The review work that is being undertaken at present by Transport Scotland and its expert advisers will inform us whether there are further measures that we can put into place to mitigate landslide risk on that route.

Caledonian MacBrayne Employees (Western Isles Residents)

To ask the Scottish Government how many staff employed by Caledonian MacBrayne are resident in the Western Isles. (S5O-02795)

CalMac Ferries Ltd is a major employer in our island and coastal communities, employing 242 staff who reside in Skye, Raasay, Lewis, Harris, the Uists and Barra.

Will the cabinet secretary commit to examining ways to encourage more staff who work for CalMac or the Government’s ferry division to be given the option in the future of living and working in the communities that they serve?

Alasdair Allan will be aware that CalMac proactively undertakes work in schools and at career fairs in our island communities to encourage people to think about doing an apprenticeship with the company; it also has a cadet programme. CalMac is always keen to encourage island-based locals to apply for jobs at the company.

I am always more than happy to encourage more of the people who reside in our island communities to consider applying for those posts and to look at ways to support that further. I will ensure that my ministerial colleague Paul Wheelhouse, the Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands, gives further consideration to the issue and to whether further measures can be taken, as Alasdair Allan has suggested, to increase the number of people who live in our island communities and are employed by CalMac.

Will the cabinet secretary confirm that, notwithstanding the valid point that my good friend and colleague Alasdair Allan has made, the CalMac headquarters will remain in Gourock in my constituency?

CalMac gave me a firm commitment in its bid for the Clyde and Hebrides ferry service contract to retain its head office in Gourock, and it is an integral part of the community in Inverclyde, where it employs 266 people. I assure Stuart McMillan that we are keen to ensure that communities with close links to CalMac maximise the benefits from them, not only in his constituency but in those of his parliamentary colleagues in our island communities.

First Bus (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met First Bus. (S5O-02796)

The last meeting that Scottish Government officials held with First Bus was on Monday 14 June this year.

The cabinet secretary may be aware that a growing number of my constituents have complained about the quality of the bus service from the south of Glasgow into the city centre. I asked First Bus to attend a public meeting that I had arranged, only for it to refuse. Does the cabinet secretary agree that, as First Bus receives substantial amounts of public money, it should be more accountable to the public and be prepared to listen to their needs?

Presiding Officer, I have got ahead of myself. To correct the record, the last meeting that officials had was on 14 January this year, not in June.

I regret that First Bus did not agree to attend the meeting that was organised by James Dornan, and I encourage the member to continue to pursue it on that issue. It is important that First Bus engages with the communities to which it delivers services, and I know of particular areas in the member’s constituency, such as Castlemilk, in which access to bus transport is extremely important to access the city centre. I encourage First Bus to engage with James Dornan and his constituents to address issues of concern and ensure that services are run in a way that reflects the needs of the local community.

Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route (Impact)

To ask the Scottish Government what its initial assessment is of the impact of the Aberdeen western peripheral route on north-east transport. (S5O-02797)

Transport Scotland will undertake an evaluation of the AWPR project, in line with the Scottish trunk road infrastructure project evaluation guidance, against both the transport planning objectives and wider evaluation criteria. The evaluation will consider the impact of the scheme by comparing conditions in year 1, year 3 and year 5 after opening with forecasts made during scheme design and development.

The cabinet secretary will be pleased to note that we are already seeing a significant reduction in heavy goods vehicles traffic in the Peterculter and Torry parts of my constituency and in Market Street in Aberdeen city centre, which has had unacceptable pollution and emissions levels. When will those next be measured, so that we can see the environmental as well as economic benefits of the Government’s delivery of the AWPR?

I ask the cabinet secretary to keep his answer brief, please.

I am pleased to hear that Maureen Watt’s constituents are already seeing the benefits on the ground of that scheme. The feedback that I have received certainly reflects that.

The Government’s project evaluation will include consideration of the impact of the AWPR against a number of criteria, which will include economic, safety and environmental matters. The local authority has a responsibility to consider issues that relate to local air quality monitoring, and to report periodically on the Aberdeen air quality management areas as to the levels in areas where there has been monitoring.

Air quality monitoring at a local level will be undertaken by the local authority, but I can assure Maureen Watt that we will continue to work with Aberdeen City Council to progress the introduction of a low-emission zone in the city by 2020. That is in line with our programme for government commitment to help to improve air quality in our city centres because of its potential impact on individuals who may have preconditions that are related to problems that are associated with taking in contaminated air.

Can the cabinet secretary update Parliament on when this delayed project will be fully open to traffic, and, for the record, what the total estimated cost of the project will be?

The member will welcome the fact that 85 per cent of the road has now opened and that the north-east economy is getting the benefits of that. The contractors have advised that they have completed the remedial work on the crossing over the River Don. They have still to provide assurances about the remedial work that has been undertaken and the enhanced monitoring arrangements that are being put in place for that. Once they provide that information, it will be passed to Transport Scotland, which will then consider it in relation to the opening of the final section of the road.

The cost still stands at £745 million, as was set out in the contract. The member will recognise that the contractors have stated that they have made a claim, which is not unusual for a major infrastructure project of this nature. As I have made clear, any claim has to be substantiated and evidence based. To date, the contractors have not provided evidence to substantiate any claim. Therefore, the present financial cost still stands.

We must now move on to the next item. I apologise to Gail Ross for not reaching her question.

Scottish Partnerships (Register of People with Significant Control) Regulations 2017 (Compliance)

To ask the Scottish Government how many proceedings have been raised against Scottish limited partnerships for failure to comply with the Scottish Partnerships (Register of People with Significant Control) Regulations 2017, and how many convictions there were. (S5O-02799)

The Lord Advocate (James Wolffe QC)

As of last Friday, the Crown has received no reports of alleged offences under the 2017 regulations. Accordingly, the Crown in Scotland has not raised any proceedings under those regulations.

As of 10 December 2018, according to work that was undertaken by investigative journalist Richard Smith, just more than 2,700 of the 18,000 active SLPs had not submitted any information. As the Lord Advocate is aware, that is an offence.

In a written answer to a question I lodged on 19 March 2018, the Lord Advocate said that, over the past 10 years, there have been no prosecutions for failure to meet statutory provisions. He also said that the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service

“has recognised Companies House as a Specialist Reporting Agency”

and is working with it

“to facilitate the reporting of alleged offences”.—[Written Answers, 17 April 2018; SW5-15385.]

What progress has been made on that work, and are any prosecutions anticipated as a consequence, given the fact that the offences are very evident?

A number of cases have been reported to the Crown since that question was asked and answered. They have been reported by Companies House under section 451 of the Companies Act 2006 and are currently being considered. The Crown has continuing engagement with Companies House with a view to facilitating the reporting of other alleged offences, including those under the 2017 regulations.

It is a matter for Companies House, as a specialist reporting agency, to determine its approach to enforcement of the regulations.

All steps to improve transparency around SLPs are, of course, welcome. Does the Lord Advocate agreed that the proposed reforms that were announced by the United Kingdom Government in December last year, snuck out under the cloud of Brexit chaos, still fall far short of what is necessary to close the many loopholes that exist?

It would be more appropriate to direct that question to Derek Mackay. Questions of substance about the proposed reforms to the law are matters for him. I can deal with issues that relate to the investigation and prosecution of alleged offences under the regulations.

Indeed, Lord Advocate.

Police Strength Statistics

To ask the Scottish Government when it will next publish the police strength statistics for Scotland. (S5O-02800)

The next edition in the “Police Officer Quarterly Strength Scotland” series, for 31 December 2018, will be published on Tuesday 5 February 2019 at 9.30 am. In line with requirements of the code of practice for official statistics, that publication date has been announced via the Scottish Government’s “Official Statistics—Forthcoming Publications” web page.

The latest police figures show that the number of local divisional officers in the north-east has been cut by 42 in the past year alone, which is a clear demonstration of the Scottish National Party’s policy of centralisation and is to the detriment of communities in my region. Can the cabinet secretary assure me that I will not discover further reductions in the next set of statistics?

On the local policing issue, as at 30 September 2018, the north-east division had 1,158 full-time police officers, which was an increase of 2.3 per cent from 2013.

I have to mention Peter Chapman’s lack of self-awareness in asking the question when, under the SNP-led Scottish Government, we have 913 more officers than we had in 2007, whereas the Conservative-led United Kingdom Government has utterly decimated police services in England and Wales, where there are 20,000 fewer officers, which is a reduction of 13 per cent. In Scotland, we have 32 officers per 10,000 of population; in England and Wales, there are 21 officers per 10,000. Perhaps a little bit of self-awareness is necessary when the member asks such questions. As we are getting into Burns season, he might want to be reminded of those famous verses:

“O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!”

I will resist the temptation to quote Burns.

The City of Edinburgh Council currently plans to cut the £2.6 million that it provides the police directly to fund 54 additional community-based officers in the capital. Does the cabinet secretary know the total number of officers who are funded directly by local authorities? What impact have the reductions in local authority spending over the past few years had on the number of community-based officers in Scotland?

I discussed that issue with the member at a recent meeting of the Justice Committee. It is for the local authority to decide how to spend its resource. The member is free to argue otherwise, but I would say that local authorities will receive a very fair settlement in the upcoming budget. If the member thinks that that is not the case, it is incumbent on his party to make proposals on where to remove money from the budget, as we would have to do, to increase the local government budget. No doubt, the member and his party will engage in that process. However, in our investment, we are treating the police fairly and well, with revenue protection plus a 52 per cent increase in the capital budget.

We will continue to invest in the police and in local government. If the member thinks that there should be a change in the budget, he and his colleagues should engage positively in the budget process.

Scottish Independence Referendum (Authorisation)

To ask the Scottish Government what the Lord Advocate’s position is on its competency to authorise another referendum on Scottish independence without another section 30 order. (S5O-02801)

By long-standing convention, the content of any legal advice received by the Government is confidential.

What a poor response that was. In the spirit of openness and transparency, which the Parliament prides itself on, does the minister agree that, just as the Scottish ministers demanded that the United Kingdom Government publish its legal advice on Brexit and it was published, the Lord Advocate’s advice on an independence referendum should be published by the Scottish ministers? I see that the Lord Advocate is present in the chamber. It would have been helpful if he had given us the benefit of his advice.

Presiding Officer, in the spirit of your oft-repeated plea that ministers and members should avoid extending such exchanges unnecessarily, I refer the member to my previous answer. However, in so doing, I point out that the convention that I referred to is so long standing that it goes all the way back to when the Lib Dems were part of the then coalition Executive. Of course, that was quite some time ago, which is perhaps why the existence of the convention has slipped from Mr Rumbles’s memory.

Is it the Scottish Government’s view that the Parliament could lawfully pass legislation authorising an independence referendum without a section 30 order—yes or no?

I have to refer the member to my earlier answer.

Kurdish Community (Relations with Police)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to improve the relationship between the police and the Kurdish community. (S5O-02802)

Police Scotland is committed to building positive relationships with all of Scotland’s communities. Responsibility for that lies with the chief constable. However, the Scottish Government understands that Police Scotland has engaged recently with representatives of the Kurdish community to address concerns that have been raised by some of its members. I also understand that Police Scotland has engaged directly with Ross Greer, in his capacity as co-convener of the Parliament’s cross-party group on Kurdistan.

The cabinet secretary might be aware that police operations over recent years have resulted in members of the Kurdish community being afraid to attend their own community centres and no longer sending their children to language and dancing classes for fear of them being monitored. That is an unacceptable and unsustainable situation. Will the cabinet secretary agree to a meeting with representatives of the Kurdish community and the cross-party group on Kurdistan to discuss how we can improve relations and trust between the community and the police?

I am more than happy to engage with Ross Greer and members of the Kurdish community. He will understand that I cannot do so in relation to any live police investigations but, on the wider issue, I am more than happy to meet him, in his role as the co-convener of the cross-party group, to hear the community’s anxieties and concerns.

Over a number of years, I have engaged with Police Scotland over concerns that I, as a young Asian male and a member of the Muslim community, have had. Having been stopped and searched on numerous occasions in my younger days, when I was growing up, for no apparent reason, I know that it has taken time for Police Scotland to build back up a level of trust with the Muslim community. That takes hard work and effort. I know that the chief constable is absolutely committed to ensuring positive community relations.

Ross Greer can continue to engage directly with Police Scotland. I am more than happy to assist with that, when I can, and to listen to concerns.

Draft Budget (Police Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government how much Police Scotland expects to receive from the proposals in the draft budget, and how it will allocate this. (S5O-02803)

The Scottish budget for 2019-20, which was published on 12 December last year, contains funding of £1.2 billion for the Scottish Police Authority, which is a 3.7 per cent increase on the 2018-19 budget. The funding includes real-terms protection for the revenue budget and, as I have mentioned, a 52 per cent uplift in the capital budget for investment in modern information and communications technology. It is for the Scottish Police Authority to set its budget for 2019-20, which includes setting the budget for Police Scotland.

I am sure that the cabinet secretary will welcome the fact that Police Scotland and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service will no longer be punished by the UK Treasury in that they will now be allowed to claim back VAT. Have the police and fire services been paid back the VAT that had been withheld? If so, how much have they been repaid?

Members will know that we welcome the VAT policy change that came into effect in March 2018. However, that did not address the issue of VAT that had already been paid to Her Majesty’s Treasury between 2013 and 2018. Having conceded the principle that it is unfair to charge VAT only to our services, the UK Government has refused to pay back £120 million to the Scottish Police Authority and about £50 million to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. If, as a Parliament—I am looking at Conservative members specifically—we agree to lobby the UK Government to give back the money that it has taken unfairly from Scotland, we can continue to invest in the police service, in the ICT system and in keeping our communities safe.

Police Scotland has been plagued by financial troubles since the SNP created it, despite the Scottish Conservatives getting back the VAT and bailing out the SNP. Last December, the Auditor General was clear that, if the information technology is not sorted out, the force will remain in deficit. Does the cabinet secretary think that the Auditor General was wrong?

I always listen to what the Auditor General has to say. I also listen to what those south of the border say about the UK Government’s lack of investment in the police service. The Police Federation of England and Wales has said that it is the UK Government’s

“austerity policies which have seen police budgets”—[Interruption.]

The Conservatives do not like hearing this at all, but I will continue to read the quote. The Police Federation says that it is the UK Government’s

“austerity policies which have seen police budgets slashed by 19% in real terms. This is why policing”—

in England and Wales—

“is in crisis and our members are on their knees trying to keep up with the rising tide of crime with nearly 22,000 fewer officers.”

Compare that to the situation in Scotland, where we have revenue protection, an uplift of 52 per cent in the capital budget, more police officers than we inherited and lower crime rates. That puts us in a relatively good position compared with that of police services south of the border.


HMP Inverness (Capacity)

To ask the Scottish Government whether Her Majesty’s Prison Inverness exceeded prisoner capacity in 2018. (S5O-02804)

It did. The average population during 2018 was 113 people, which is an average occupancy level of just over 120 per cent. As the member no doubt knows, HMP Inverness is a small local prison that manages the requirements of the courts across a vast geographical area. The Scottish Prison Service supports positive relationships by, wherever possible, accommodating people in the prison that is closest to their home, and that has contributed to that occupancy level.

When prisons exceed their capacity, two areas that suffer are rehabilitation and safety. Will the cabinet secretary confirm that enough resources are being directed at providing sufficient warders and rehabilitation support to prisoners in Inverness? Will he also tell us when the new prison in Inverness will be ready for use?

Edward Mountain makes a very important point. None of us wants to see overoccupancy in any of our prisons—indeed, I answered a question last week on this issue from, I think, Liam McArthur. The fact that we have one of the highest prison populations—if not, by some measures, the highest—is to our great shame and not something to be proud of at all.

The member is absolutely right to say that such a situation potentially has a detrimental effect on rehabilitation. I know that the SPS is very aware of that and will work hard on continuing to fund rehabilitation programmes and looking at alternatives to custody. I know that his colleagues in the United Kingdom Government recognise this, but I say genuinely to the member that short sentences do not have the same impact on rehabilitating those who commit crimes as community disposals do. As a result, I would appreciate it if, when we come forward with plans to introduce a presumption against short sentences of 12 months, he and his party would look at them with genuine open-mindedness.

As for the replacement for HMP Inverness, I will send the member some details on that. It is included in the Government’s infrastructure planning, but it is fair to say that at the moment the priorities are the female custodial estate, a replacement for Barlinnie and then a replacement for HMP Inverness.

Hate Crime Policy (Input from Women’s Organisations)

To ask the Scottish Government how its policy on dealing with hate crime is informed by the expertise of women’s organisations. (S5O-02805)

There is a clear need for action to be taken to tackle gender-based prejudice and misogyny, and we are currently seeking views on how best to tackle that in Scotland as part of our consultation on hate crime legislation. As we worked to develop the proposals in our consultation, we engaged with a number of women’s organisations including—and this is not an exclusive list—Engender, Rape Crisis Scotland, Zero Tolerance and Scottish Women’s Aid.

As the member no doubt knows, the consultation was launched on 14 November 2018 and will run until 24 February. It provides a range of organisations and groups, as well as members of the public, with an opportunity to share their views and inform what is included in the new hate crime legislation, and I encourage everybody with an interest to respond.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer and certainly welcome the consultation. Can he give some detail on how the Government is engaging with women’s groups, especially in rural parts of the country where women might be quite isolated and might not necessarily be members of a particular grouping?

The member makes a hugely important point. As part of the hate crime consultation, we are holding a host of events right across the country, including in some remote and rural areas. In March, the Minister for Older People and Equalities and I will be meeting Engender and a number of other women’s organisations, and I will certainly be speaking to them about this issue. If they feel that there is a deficiency in engaging with women in remote and rural areas, I will be more than happy to see how we can address it, if it exists. However, the premise of the member’s question—that there are issues that specifically affect women in rural and remote areas—is undoubtedly right, and anything more that I as cabinet secretary can do about that, I will certainly look to do.

Accused Persons (Anonymity)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps are in place to prevent disclosure of an accused’s identity from compromising the safety of innocent parties. (S5O-02806)

In addition to the provisions of the Contempt of Court Act 1981, the courts have a common-law power to restrict the reporting of proceedings where it is in the interests of justice to do so. It is for the court to decide whether to make such an order in any individual case and in appropriate cases, an interdict may also be available.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that I wrote to him, the Lord Advocate and the Solicitor General about a case in my constituency in which a young victim could have been identified inadvertently as a result of the accused’s identity being disclosed. I am grateful for the support that was provided to prevent that from happening, but there other cases in which it occurs. For example, the disclosure of the accused’s identity and address opens up the potential for innocent family members to face retribution and repercussion as a result of the actions of the accused, despite the fact that those family members are innocent. Will the cabinet secretary look at the issues around identification, in particular the disclosure of address details, which can often lead to retribution and repercussion being brought to the door of family members who have played no role in any criminal proceedings?

Briefly, please, cabinet secretary.

Mark McDonald has raised an important issue. I will look at that, but I say again that it is for the courts to make decisions on whether to impose orders banning publication of matters mentioned in court.

On the wider issue, Mark McDonald is not the only member of the Scottish Parliament to have written to me about such cases. Protections are already in place, but if we can strengthen them, I will look to the Lord Advocate and other colleagues to see what else we can do. Of course, we will keep an open mind on that. We will explore whatever might be within the power of the Government, but I reiterate that much of this area is within the powers of the courts—and rightly so.

That concludes portfolio questions. I apologise to Liam Kerr and Joan McAlpine that we have failed to reach their questions.

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. My point of order focuses on the role under the Scotland Act 1998 of the law officers—the Lord Advocate, who is present with us today, and the Solicitor General—who are privileged to be the only two unelected people who are allowed to sit in the chamber. That was written into the act so that they are here specifically to give their opinions and views directly to MSPs. In my question at portfolio question time, I asked what the Lord Advocate’s position was on the Scottish Government’s competence to authorise another referendum on Scottish independence without another section 30 order. I did not ask what his advice to the Scottish Government was; I specifically asked for his advice to MSPs here in the chamber. As I have said, under the Scotland Act 1998 they are here for that purpose. I find it particularly annoying that the Lord Advocate is present but has taken the decision not to answer my question.

I would like to know from you, Presiding Officer, whether it is appropriate for the Lord Advocate to sit in the Parliament, in the privileged position that he has under the Scotland Act 1998, and not to address members directly, as was the purpose of the provision in the Scotland Act 1998 in the first place?

I thank Mr Rumbles for making that point of order. However, as is set out in rule 13.7 of the standing orders, with a few exceptions that do not apply in this instance,

“oral questions may be answered by any member of the Scottish Government or a junior Scottish Minister”.

As the member is aware, oral questions are addressed to the Scottish Government, as his question was, and it is for it to decide who attends to answer each question.

With respect, Presiding Officer, I understand all that and I accept entirely the position that you have just outlined. However, my question goes further than the one that I asked earlier today. I understand that, under the standing orders, the Scottish Government can choose to do that. My question is on a more fundamental point, which is very important for the Parliament: why has the Lord Advocate, who is here by virtue of his privileged position under the Scotland Act 1998, chosen not to answer directly the questions that he is here to answer?

I am afraid that I answered your point of order clearly. The position is that that is in the standing orders. You may be dissatisfied with that, but those are the rules of the Parliament.

I must move on to the next item of business, which is a statement. I will give members on the Government front bench a moment to take up their places.