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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, January 26, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 26 January 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Holocaust Memorial Day 2017, Hate Crime, Improving Scotland’s Planning, Children and Social Work Bill, Business Motion, Decision Time


General Question Time

Access to Banking

To ask the Scottish Government what action it can take to ensure that communities and town centres provide at least a basic level of banking access for older and disabled customers and small businesses. (S5O-00599)

The regulation of banking remains reserved to Westminster and the Scottish Government cannot compel banks to maintain a branch presence where they have taken the commercial decision to close.

The Scottish Government appreciates that the banks must make savings and efficiencies in delivering services to customers in a modern and changing world, but clearly there is a continuing need—or a strong preference—for face-to-face provision of banking for some. Digital access will not be available to—or, indeed, suitable for—everyone, and many customers prefer direct contact for the provision of key financial advice.

Hence, although we recognise that declining branch activity may be a driver for banks today, we urge banks to see branch closures as a last resort and, before closing a branch, to consider consultation with local stakeholders and communities to explore all practical options.

I thank the minister for that answer. The 2013 Scottish Government report, “Sustainable, Responsible Banking: a strategy for Scotland”, recognised the future importance of accessible community banking. It said that the Scottish Government would

“explore the potential for promoting further community banking options in Scotland.”

The 2016 Scottish National Party manifesto also made a commitment to encourage and support other providers of services in the banking sector. My understanding from the minister’s recent letter to me was that he remains committed to that; he mentioned in particular credit unions and post offices. Will he and the Government therefore commit to working with local community groups, such as those in Juniper Green in Edinburgh, in order to explore options and viable alternatives for a continuation of banking services following the recent raft of branch closures?

I certainly accept that the recent round of branch closures has been of great concern. I know from representations made by Mr Lindhurst and, indeed, Mr MacDonald in relation to Juniper Green and to previous closures in the Pentlands constituency and in Edinburgh more widely that the issue is causing great concern locally.

As I indicated in my letter, we strongly support the credit union movement and it is quite right to point out that banks are not the only organisations that can provide local banking services. Scotland is currently well serviced by credit unions—there were 99 credit unions in Scotland at the end of June last year. The Scottish Government is working with credit unions to grow the movement in Scotland, so there may be opportunities in localities such as those affected by the recent raft of branch closures to look at a credit union alternative.

At this moment in time, Scotland has a proportionately higher level of credit union membership than England and Wales—it is a well-established movement here. According to the Bank of England’s most recent quarterly statistics, approximately 7.2 per cent of the Scottish population are enrolled in a credit union compared with only 1.5 per cent of the population in England and 2.6 per cent in Wales. Clearly, it is an area in which we could do more work, but we are starting from a good base of support for credit unions.

By this summer, the Royal Bank of Scotland will have reduced the number of branches that are available to my constituents from six to zero. The nearest branch will be at least two bus journeys away, which will impact on the elderly, the disabled and those constituents who prefer face-to-face banking.

Would the minister agree that, at the very least, large banks such as RBS that completely withdraw from communities should extend their mobile branch network to provide a service to those who are unlikely or unable to take advantage of online banking?

I certainly agree with the sentiment that there is an onus on banks that have reduced branch coverage to try to make sure that they maintain access to banking services as best they can. Mobile banks are very successful, particularly in rural locations, so there is no reason why that service could not be rolled out in suburban and, indeed, urban Scotland where it is required. I am grateful that RBS has delayed closure—going from three months to six months—to give more time to train and to assist customers with how to use digital banking.

As I said in my initial answer to Gordon Lindhurst, digital banking will not be a relevant means of access for all customers, and mobile banking may be a more acceptable option for many who prefer face-to-face contact.

If members make their questions brief, I will take three supplementaries. I call Kenneth Gibson first.

Clydesdale Bank has announced that it will close 40 branches in Scotland—including two of its three branches in my constituency, at Beith and Saltcoats—thereby cutting jobs and greatly inconveniencing customers.

What representations is the Scottish Government making to Clydesdale Bank regarding the closures? Does the minister share my view that the bank has not complied with the British Banking Association’s “Access to Banking Protocol”, which requires that community engagement is undertaken and an impact assessment is published prior to any closure?

I am particularly interested in the latter point, and I will look into whether the protocol has been considered in the particular case that we are discussing.

Members on all sides of the chamber have expressed concerns about the degree to which there has been meaningful consultation. In my original answer, I stressed the importance of the banks undertaking genuine consultation with the community and local customers who are affected before taking such a step, which should be seen as a last resort.

We respect commercial decisions when they have to be made, and it is clear that such decisions are necessary in some cases given the changes in customer preference for using bank branches, but there is an onus on us to try to protect those who are most vulnerable.

With regard to engaging with the banks through the Financial Services Advisory Board, the First Minister, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution and I engage regularly with the financial services industry, including one to one. I will raise these issues when I have the opportunity to do so with Clydesdale Bank and other banks on behalf of Kenneth Gibson and other members who have expressed concerns.

I declare an interest as convener of the cross-party group on towns and town centres. I am certain that the minister is aware of the rapid withdrawal of banks such as Clydesdale from Troon in my constituency and Cumnock in Jeane Freeman’s constituency, in addition to the closure of the branches in Mr Gibson’s constituency, which reduces their presence significantly in Ayrshire and elsewhere. The minister will also be aware of the banking sector’s proposals to end the free use of cash machines.

Noting those two facts, can the Scottish Government take specific measures to reduce the impact of the reduction in access to banking services, particularly for the elderly and our least well-off town-centre users?

I certainly note the impact on John Scott’s constituency and on other parts of rural Scotland. The impact of such closures is particularly hard when a branch is the last in town; closure in that case can have a big impact on the business community and on customers.

It is important that we think through how we can support people in that situation. We will listen keenly to any suggestions for Government action that could help, although I point out that regulation of the industry is still reserved. As I said in my response to Mr Lindhurst, we can consider alternative services such as post offices or credit unions where those might help vulnerable groups, in particular, to access local banking. I give Mr Scott an undertaking to listen to any options of which he is aware that we could undertake in respect of his constituency.

The minister mentions post offices. It was with deep worry that I heard the recent announcements about the closure of Crown post offices, including the Morningside post office in my constituency. Will he join me in condemning that announcement by the Post Office and the UK Government?

Please be brief, minister.

We share concerns about the contraction in the post office network and we are making representations to United Kingdom ministers on the issue. My predecessor Fergus Ewing was very active in that regard. The issue is of concern and we will look closely at whether we can do anything to support communities that are affected. Where credit unions and post offices are available, they are important alternatives to bank branches, and I hope that the Post Office will take into account the wider impact of what it is doing on access to key services.

Ferry Services (Mallaig to Armadale)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it takes to ensure that suitable vessels are deployed on the Mallaig to Armadale ferry route. (S5O-00600)

I am, of course, aware of the views of communities that are served by the service. I reassure them that Scottish ministers remain committed to the Mallaig to Armadale service and to supporting its long-term stability and growth.

The Clyde and Hebrides ferry services are operated by CalMac Ferries under contract with Scottish ministers. The operator charters the ferry fleet from Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd. Under the public services contract, CalMac is responsible for the deployment of vessels on individual routes to best deliver the contracted services across the whole network.

For summer 2017, CalMac will run a two-vessel service on the route, deploying the MV Loch Fyne and the MV Lord of the Isles. CalMac anticipates that the vessel deployment on the Mallaig to Armadale route this summer will offer additional capacity and sailings as well as greater reliability. That should provide ferry users with an improved service on the route this summer.

As a result of this saga, both visitors and locals have faced massive disruption, and communities on both sides of the Sound of Sleat have suffered. Although many of the issues lie with CalMac, in relation to vessels, as the minister is responsible for both ferries and the islands and is a member of a Government that awarded the tender to CalMac, will he take personal responsibility for pursuing an urgent solution to this problem?

As I said last summer to communities in Sleat, Mallaig and Armadale, I fully accept that there was an unacceptable level of service and disruption last year. That is why I tasked Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd and CalMac to come up with a better, improved service. They have done that with the two-vessel solution, which will offer more sailings with an increased number of return sailings per day and across the summer season. In addition, more cars will be able to be taken on the route and the MV Loch Fyne will undergo some modifications to make it more suitable for the route. As well as that, CalMac has offered marketing and promotional support to businesses. Importantly, CalMac has also appointed a dedicated person, who will lead on engagement with the community for the route.

Of course, because of the tidal nature of the route, there will be some element of disruption. However, what is important is that CalMac now has a much better idea of when that disruption might occur and has put in place as many mitigating measures as possible. I am, therefore, confident that the summer timetable this year should run better than it did last year, but I will of course keep a close eye on that. I thank Kate Forbes MSP and Ian Blackford MP, who have raised this issue with me consistently since I came into post.

Will the minister advise what long-term decisions are being made to ensure that we invest in our fleet of ferry vessels, so that all coastal communities are served?

Transport Scotland publishes an annual vessel replacement and deployment plan, which looks at a programme of vessel retention and cascades information about acquisitions and disposals. However, the general point that the member has raised is an important one. It is, of course, this Government’s successful introduction and roll-out of road equivalent tariff that has brought more tourists to the islands, which is a great success story. There are limitations, because we have a slightly ageing fleet of vessels, but we are taking steps to upgrade the fleet. We know that we have two hybrid vessels coming in 2018 that will be of great use across the ferry network. However, the member’s general point is well made.

Wild Fisheries Bill

To ask the Scottish Government when it will introduce its wild fisheries bill and what it will contain. (S5O-00601)

Draft provisions for a wild fisheries bill were consulted on last year. We will shortly conclude our consideration of the results of that consultation. In doing so, we will take account, in particular, of the need to protect angling participation and access to angling. As stated in the 2016 programme for government, our intention is to introduce a bill during this parliamentary session. The next programme for government will set out further detail on the Government’s future legislative programme.

Will the minister take the opportunity now to rule out completely changing the law so that fishing for freshwater fish without a landowner’s consent would go from being a civil case to being a criminal case?

I will not pre-announce details of the bill’s content ahead of the conclusion of our considerations. I can advise the member that discussions are current and active. I have had some communications from other MSPs about a number of different issues that were part of the consultation, but those options are not new and they did not signal Government intent. There are, indeed, risks to angling participation and associated access, which will be key factors influencing any final decision that I make.

What progress has been made to review the inadequate compensation packages that are currently offered to businesses using traditional fishing methods, such as haaf, poke and stake netting on the Solway Firth?

As the member is aware, conversations on that issue are on-going. We are looking at the issues in connection with haaf netting, for example, as part of an on-going project. It started in June last year, and a licence application is being prepared to continue the science work in 2017. All those discussions are on-going, but I am very happy to have a separate conversation if the member wishes to come and see me—again, I think—about the matter concerned and any other matters related to wild fisheries.

Young Carers (Access to Education)

To ask the Scottish Government how its learning directorate assists young carers in accessing their right to education. (S5O-00602)

Today is young carers awareness day, on which we are all invited to recognise the unique challenges that young carers in Scotland face. I am happy to do so and to acknowledge that, when this Government states that it is determined to ensure that all our children and young people get the same chances and choices to succeed at school and in life, that includes young carers.

The work that is under way across my portfolio—from the transformation of early learning and the increase in childcare entitlement to 1,140 hours by 2020 to the funding and activity to close the attainment gap, the plan to deliver excellence and equity in school education and the activity to take forward measures to widen access, review student support and reform the learner journey—will consider the needs of young carers to determine what more might need to be done to enable them to fulfil their potential.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that the solutions lie in a cross-portfolio approach, that they cannot be looked at purely in an education context, and that they are wider than being purely a Scottish Government responsibility?

I accept that point. It is important that we co-ordinate and link up at all levels of government—not just in the Scottish Government, but in local authorities and communities—to focus on the needs of individual young people and ensure that they are met. There are many good examples in the public services of where that thinking is brought to the fore. It delivers much better outcomes and opportunities for young people and ensures that they receive the support to which they are entitled. The Government is committed to working in such a fashion.

Divorce and Separation (Impact on Children)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to ensure that both parents can play an active role in their children’s lives following divorce or separation. (S5O-00603)

The Scottish Government recognises the importance of relationship support, given the impact that divorce and separation can have on children. That is why we are providing around £2 million per year through our children, young people and families early intervention fund to organisations that provide relationship support, including Relationships Scotland and the Spark.

We have also funded Relationships Scotland to develop a new parenting apart service, with the specific aim of helping separating or separated parents to support their children through what can be a difficult time, and we continue to support ParentLine Scotland, which provides advice and information to parents and families on a range of issues, including issues relating to the break-up of relationships.

Family breakdown can be a difficult time for all concerned, particularly the children. Recent research from Sweden, where shared parenting following family breakdown is now the norm and gender stereotypes regarding childcare responsibilities are becoming a thing of the past, has shown that, when children spend significant amounts of time with both parents, social, psychological and emotional outcomes are improved. Will the minister undertake to look into that research and to evaluate how it might inform the approach to family law and contact arrangements in Scotland?

I am happy to assure Mr McKee that we are aware of that research and that it forms part of the wide body of international research and evidence that helps to inform our approach to the development of policy. Mr McKee may also wish to know that we are already acting in the area to update and publish information to support parents who are separating.

We are also committed to reviewing the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. The intent behind our manifesto commitment in the area is to consider how to ensure that the child remains at the centre of responsibilities and rights relating to parents. In addition, we wish to ensure that the legislation enables children to maintain relationships with significant adults in their lives when that is in the child’s best interests even if their parents’ relationship breaks down. We also need to protect children from inappropriate continuing contact.

Fibre Optic Cables (Rutherglen)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the roll-out of fibre optic cables across the Rutherglen constituency. (S5O-00604)

The Scottish Government’s investment through the digital Scotland superfast broadband programme has delivered fibre connections to more than 6,100 homes and businesses in the Rutherglen constituency, with more than 99 per cent of those who are connected being able to achieve superfast speeds.

It has been brought to my attention that some new housing developments in my Rutherglen constituency have been built with only partial access to fibre optic internet connectivity being made available at the time when homes are constructed. I understand that the United Kingdom Government has struck a deal to avoid that situation in future. What assurances has the Scottish Government received from the UK Government that that will apply to housing developments such as those in Rutherglen?

The Scottish Government has discussed the issue with BT Openreach, which we understand offered to provide fibre to the premises. It has offered connectivity to housing developments of 30 properties or more and has a tariff proposal for smaller developments. I intend to have further discussions with BT about that.

From 1 January, amendments to the building regulations set out a standard for in-building physical infrastructure for high-speed electronic communications networks, which is rather a mouthful. It enables at any time easier installation of fibre in existing buildings.

The Scottish Government has acted in both respects on the important matter that Clare Haughey raised.