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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, November 23, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 23 November 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Day of the Imprisoned Writer, Building Regulations (Fire Safety), Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Motion without Notice, Decision Time


General Question Time

Jagtar Singh Johal (Support for Family)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it can provide to the family of Jagtar Singh Johal from Dumbarton, in light of reports that he is being held in prison in Punjab without charge and has faced torture. (S5O-01483)

We are deeply concerned to learn about the detention of Jagtar Singh Johal. Scottish Government officials have contacted the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about the case and the Foreign Office has assured us that it is aware of the situation and has had access to Mr Johal. Consular assistance is a matter for the United Kingdom Government and the Scottish Government would usually refer individuals to the FCO’s consular affairs department, which works with foreign Governments and authorities in such circumstances. Consular officials continue to provide assistance to Mr Johal and are engaging with his family.

Will the cabinet secretary commit to engaging with the UK Government to ensure that everything possible is being done to secure Jagtar Singh Johal’s wellbeing and release?

Scottish Government officials are in regular contact with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and I will continue to liaise with them about this very serious case.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that Mr Johal was visiting India to attend his wedding and that for the first 10 days he was denied access to lawyers, representatives of the British high commission and his family. He has not been charged, he remains in police custody and he is continuing to be mistreated by the Indian authorities. I appreciate the representations that have been made to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. However, I urge the cabinet secretary to make urgent representations to the high commissioner of India and to use any diplomatic channels open to the Scottish Government to secure Mr Johal’s release.

We are well aware of the seriousness of the case and the reports and allegations. We are pleased that Mark Field, the Minister of State for Asia and the Pacific, has agreed to meet the local member of Parliament, Martin Docherty-Hughes, and Mr Johal’s family. I am sure that the points that Ms Baillie raises will be presented during that discussion.

As the member will know, diplomatic approaches can be a way to make progress in some areas. However, sometimes such diplomacy means that we have to work with others to understand the correct and most useful way forward to ensure that progress is made.

Cairnryan (Economic Importance)

To ask the Scottish Government what analysis it has carried out of the economic importance of the port of Cairnryan to the south-west of Scotland and nationally. (S5O-01484)

We recognise the important role that the ports at Cairnryan play in supporting the economy of the south-west region and Scotland as a whole.

As part of advanced work in relation to the commitment to commence the strategic transport projects review in south-west Scotland, Transport Scotland will commission consultants to undertake a specialist survey and analysis of road-based freight using the A75 and A77. That will include estimating the value of goods being carried through the ports, which will aid analysis of the ports’ economic value to Scotland.

If one looks around other ports in the United Kingdom that have attracted significant investment to help road accessibility, one can find some obvious examples, including the £125 million M6 link road at Heysham and the £500 million A55 upgrade for the Holyhead port. An assessment was made that every pound invested in the new Heysham link road will earn £4.40 for the local economy. Will the minister take that into consideration and look to secure the long-term future of the ports of Cairnryan?

Yes, we will. We will take on board the port’s economic importance as part of the wider study on the south-west, as well as the important point made by Mr Whittle and the A77 action group—Mr Whittle, among others, attended that meeting—who put it to me that we do not want to lose the competitive advantage of the ports at Cairnryan. We are very aware of that and it will be considered as part of the wider appraisal study on the south-west region.

Illegal Puppy Trade (Government Action)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what action it is taking to end the illegal trade in puppies. (S5O-01485)

I addressed the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals event on the impact of the dog trade on canine welfare on 9 November. The final report of the Scottish Government-funded research on the sourcing of pet dogs from illegal importation and puppy farms was presented to the event. We are taking forward the recommendations of that research into work with charities and enforcement agencies to create a robust strategy to combat the illegal dog trade and puppy farming. A particular concern is increasing public awareness of the dangers of buying animals on impulse without knowing where they came from.

Initial discussions on the responses to the consultation on the Non-Commercial Movement of Pet Animals Order 2011, which controls the import of pets from outside the United Kingdom, have already taken place. Over the coming months, the Scottish Government will continue to be involved in all further discussions with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Welsh Government on completion of the review and on any future policy development on pet travel into the UK.

I am interested to learn that the Scottish Government-commissioned report from the University of Sheffield contains additional recommendations. What additional recommendations does the cabinet secretary think should be implemented as a priority?

We think that our priority should be to work to ensure that the public fully understand the risks that are involved in buying puppies that have been illegally imported or bred by those whose sole interest is making money and who have callous disregard for animal welfare. We will work with partners to change buyers’ behaviour and reduce the financial gain that can be made from that reprehensible trade. We will also continue to support collaborative working between enforcement agencies. A number of other recommendations will be adopted as we take forward commitments that were made in the programme for government.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that, given the stress that is caused to seized puppies, which have to be kept in SSPCA kennels—at substantial cost to the charity—for the duration of the court case, which can sometimes take years, there is an animal welfare case for exploring a different approach to cases that involve the illegal trafficking of puppies? What action could the Scottish Government take to improve the current situation?

The member will have heard the indications that I gave to Emma Harper. It is the case that rescuers such as the SSPCA provide a very high standard of care for seized puppies, and the Scottish Government is keen to identify ways in which the cost to such rescuers might be reduced. There is a cost not just in financial terms, because many of the seized puppies require to be put down as a result of the circumstances in which they were born, which is a great sadness.

As we head towards Christmas, I re-emphasise the importance of people understanding that there are a lot of dogs waiting for new homes in rescue centres up and down the country. We must urge people who are considering getting a dog to look at rehoming as the first option, rather than continuing the reprehensible trade that we are seeing at the moment.

Land Ownership

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to enable the public to find out who owns land and property in Scotland. (S5O-01486)

As the member will be aware, in the vast majority of cases it is possible to determine the legal owner of land in Scotland from the land register or the register of sasines. The Scottish ministers have invited the keeper of the registers of Scotland to complete the land register by 2024.

I declare an interest as the operator of the who owns Scotland website.

A constituent of mine is trying to find out who owns five short-term-let flats in her tenement. She faces a £150 fee to find out information that is freely available in other jurisdictions.

In October 2015, John Swinney approved the creation of Scotland’s land and information service, which went live this month. It consists only of a basic directory of addresses that is searchable by postcode, and payment of a £30 fee is required.

Today is the deadline for implementing the 2007 European Union INSPIRE—infrastructure for spatial information in Europe—directive, yet the Scottish Government has failed to implement it in relation to cadastral parcels. When will the INSPIRE directive be implemented? When will ScotLIS be functional? Will ministers open up the registers of Scotland so that they are free to view? Will the Scottish Government follow the UK Government’s plan—which the Chancellor of the Exchequer confirmed yesterday—to create a free-to-view open land data platform to allow the people of Scotland to find out who owns their country?

We will of course look closely at the outcomes of yesterday’s announcements in the House of Commons and at whether any reconsideration should be given to what is available in Scotland. As the member knows, a considerable amount of work is being done in respect of registers in Scotland, not least of which is the introduction of the register of controlling interests in land. I will be happy to speak directly to the member about the issue, although it might be more appropriate for him to contact Keith Brown, who is the cabinet secretary who has the most direct responsibility for the land register.

Gourock-Dunoon Ferry Service

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its position on whether there should be a pedestrian and vehicle ferry service between Gourock and Dunoon town centres. (S5O-01487)

The Government’s programme for Scotland 2017-18 stated that we would continue with a number of initiatives to further enhance and improve Scotland’s ferry services, including the support of the town centre to town centre Gourock-Dunoon ferry service. We also committed to reviewing ferry services procurement policy and subsequently putting in place arrangements for the long-term delivery of our supported services.

The Scottish Government will shortly publish an interim report on the findings that are emerging from our on-going policy review of the future procurement of Government-funded ferry services. The report will outline the implications for each of our lifeline ferry services, including the Gourock-Dunoon town centre route.

Will the minister join me in welcoming to the gallery this afternoon the Dunoon-Gourock ferry action group? When will he make a decision on a new tender? I urge him to use the Teckal exemption to directly award the contract to the David MacBrayne Group, which is wholly owned by the Scottish ministers. I also urge him, in the meantime, to contact Caledonian MacBrayne to allocate the MV Coruisk to the route over the winter.

I will consider David Stewart’s final request regarding the MV Coruisk and discuss the matter with CalMac. He will know that, over the winter months, dry docking and maintenance of the fleet is essential. If he leaves that matter with me, I will respond to him.

I welcome the ferry action group to the Parliament. As I said in reply to an earlier question, the interim report into the Teckal exemption, which I applaud David Stewart for leading the drive on, will be published in the coming weeks. He and I share an ambition to have ferry service contracts directly awarded by an in-house provider, but he will know that we have to satisfy state aid criteria, particularly the fourth Altmark criterion. My interim report will be of interest to him, and I will outline how we will take forward the Gourock-Dunoon town centre route in that report.

The minister will be aware of the on-going problems with the Gourock-Kilcreggan ferry, which are affecting numerous businesses, commuters and people travelling for medical appointments from the peninsula. Can he confirm that the Scottish Government is considering transferring the contract for the Kilcreggan ferry to Transport Scotland and maintaining it as a separate contract from the Gourock-Dunoon service contract, given that the song of the Kilcreggan ferry had its debut on television this week?

The Gourock-Kilcreggan ferry service is the responsibility of Strathclyde Partnership for Transport, and we have had discussions with its officials about the potential transfer of the service. The criteria that must be met if we are to transfer it are outlined in the ferry’s plan. I had a good, productive discussion with the chairman of SPT, Councillor Martin Bartos. We are awaiting further information from SPT, but the service is its responsibility. I am more than happy to update the Parliament as those discussions continue. There will be a members’ debate in the Parliament shortly, when I am sure I can furnish members with more details.

Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act 2012 (Implementation)

To ask the Scottish Government what further progress has been made with the implementation of the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act 2012. (S5O-01488)

As Members know—and as I am delighted to remind them—last week, the United Kingdom Supreme Court ruled that minimum unit pricing for alcohol can proceed. The measure was passed overwhelmingly by the Scottish Parliament in 2012, and we should recognise the global significance of the ruling for other public health measures. Once again, Scotland is leading the way and we should all be proud to be at the forefront of such pioneering and life-saving policies. On Tuesday, I set out a timetable for implementation. After a long delay, now is the time for action.

I associate the Conservatives with the cabinet secretary’s remarks. Through no fault of hers, and because of the extended legal process that took place, minimum unit pricing for alcohol will be introduced at the point when we might otherwise have expected to be evaluating it under the sunset clause, five years into the act’s implementation. Last Tuesday, there were calls from all sides of the chamber, including the cabinet secretary’s, for her to consider whether the minimum unit price is appropriate. Given that it was set five years ago, will it be appropriate 11 years later? Will she reflect on whether at least compound inflation in the period since the bill was passed might appropriately be reflected in the price that is set?

As I said in my statement on Tuesday, a consultation will be issued at the beginning of December and will run for eight weeks. The consultation will be on price and on the business and regulatory impact assessment. Of course, we will listen to the representations that are made. However, we are clear that all of the modelling that has been done and the evidence base that has been presented have been based on a minimum unit price of 50p; therefore, the Government is of the view that we should proceed with that unit price. We are consulting, and we always listen to the views that come back in consultations, including this one. Jackson Carlaw and other members will have the opportunity to input into the consultation if they so wish, and I encourage him and others to do so.

Can the cabinet secretary confirm that the Scottish Government will engage with retailers to ensure that they are involved in the implementation process?

Yes, I can confirm that. We are keen to ensure that the views of retailers are taken on board, and we now want to work with them on the detail of implementation. We believe that the timeframe that is set out, with a commencement date of 1 May 2018, gives enough time for retailers to put the plan into action and make any changes that they need to make. We will work with retailers on the detail and get the implementation under way as soon as possible.

Draft Budget (Edinburgh)

To ask the Scottish Government how its draft budget proposals will take account of Edinburgh’s needs, opportunities and population growth. (S5O-01489)

The draft budget proposals that I will bring to the Scottish Parliament will provide the resources that are necessary to deliver the bold vision that was set out in the programme for government and balance the impact of United Kingdom austerity with the need to protect public services and strengthen the social contract.

People across Scotland, including those in Edinburgh, will benefit from our commitments to expand early learning and childcare, raise standards in schools and close the attainment gap, deliver affordable housing investment, protect the police budget in real terms and increase the health budget. In addition, funding for the Edinburgh to Glasgow rail improvement programme and the Edinburgh and south-east Scotland city region deal will help to transform the region’s economy and provide opportunities for all areas to grow, with investments in housing, innovation, transport, skills and culture.

I warmly welcome the cabinet secretary’s support for our capital city. He will be aware that Tory UK Government austerity and, in particular, welfare reform have led to increased instances of homelessness in the capital. What consideration will be given in the draft budget proposals to tackling homelessness in Edinburgh and across Scotland?

The chancellor set out the introduction of a homelessness task force, and he outlined about £28 million of investment in a pilot, although I understand that no consequentials from that will come to Scotland. We understand the impact of welfare cuts at the hands of the UK Tory Government, which are causing major hardship, and we have established a homelessness and rough sleeping action group to eradicate rough sleeping and transform temporary accommodation. The Government will support that initiative by creating the £50 million ending homelessness together fund over the next five years.

Fire Station Closures

To ask the Scottish Government how it will ensure there are no fire station closures during the current parliamentary session. (S5O-01490)

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service plays a vital role in protecting communities across Scotland. Since the establishment of the service in 2013, there have been no compulsory redundancies and no closures of fire stations. This year, 100 new firefighters have been recruited and the overall operational budget for the SFRS has increased by £21.7 million to support investment in equipment and resources. No decisions have been made on what transformation would look like, and the transformation process will involve liaison and discussion with staff, partners and the public.

If everything in the garden is rosy, why did the minister not go out and speak to the firefighters who are demonstrating outside the Parliament today? They are concerned for their jobs, their fire stations and the safety of the communities in which they serve.

Chris McGlone, Denise Christie and the whole of the Fire Brigades Union team know that my door is always open.

Mr Findlay will be interested to note that the SFRS is proceeding with a new recruitment round for 300 whole-time firefighters, which will open on 30 November.

On the key issue of resource, if it is wrong for the United Kingdom Government to take VAT off the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service going forward, surely it is wrong for the UK Government to hold on to the £40 million in VAT of which it has already deprived the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. I say to the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer that he should give us the money back.