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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 26 September 2017

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Youth Football, Decision Time, General Practice (Recruitment)


Topical Question Time


To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update following yesterday’s meeting with the United Kingdom Government to discuss Brexit. (S5T-00691)

The meeting with the United Kingdom Government was a useful opportunity for an exchange of views on Brexit, including discussion of the Scottish Government’s proposed amendments to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which were published jointly with the Welsh Government last week. The discussions were constructive, and we repeated our willingness to discuss where common frameworks may be required, provided that they proceed on the basis of agreement and with the required changes to the bill. We made it clear that the Scottish Government will not recommend to the Scottish Parliament that it gives its consent to the bill unless changes are made to protect devolution, as set out in our proposed amendments.

Mr Russell and I also stressed the need for the forthcoming meeting of the joint ministerial committee on EU negotiations to be a constructive discussion that allows us to contribute to the development of a negotiating position for the whole of the United Kingdom, in line with the agreed terms of reference.

I understand that the talks were described as “constructive”, but there remains no significant movement by the UK Government towards a withdrawal bill that respects the 1998 devolution settlement, respects this Parliament or even keeps the promises that were made by leavers, including Michael Gove, that Scotland’s Parliament would become more, not less, powerful as a result of Brexit. Has the Scottish Government set a timescale for further talks, and what are its minimum expectations of the UK Government in the interim?

The Scottish Government has said that we will continue discussions with the UK Government and that there will be further contact at official level and at ministerial level in due course to take forward the discussions that Mr Russell and I had yesterday with the First Secretary of State and the Secretary of State for Scotland. We have had discussions on some of the issues in connection with the establishment of frameworks, and further dialogue will take place on that.

The UK Government has also agreed to consider the amendments that we have suggested in partnership with the Welsh Government, as part of the consideration of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill that will be making its way through the House of Commons in due course.

Friends of the Earth Scotland last week said that the withdrawal bill would result in an alarming loss of control by Scotland’s Parliament over renewable energy, climate change, air quality and fracking, which are all areas in which Scotland has led the UK. The charity Nourish has warned that the bill could diminish the quality of the food we eat, and NFU Scotland has said that the loss of agricultural payments could amount to £250 million a year. Does the Deputy First Minister agree that, for the sake of our environment and our rural economy, those powers must remain in Scotland, as Donald Dewar’s 1998 devolution settlement intended?

I think that people in Scotland would not be in any way surprised to hear that the Scottish Government and, I believe, the Scottish Parliament would want to protect the settlement that was agreed in 1998 and which has been subsequently updated by transfers of powers on different occasions, most recently by the transfer of powers that was implicit in the enactment of the Smith commission proposals. I think that people would be perturbed if there was to be an attempt, as a consequence of the withdrawal bill, to essentially recast that settlement. That is why such a breadth of opinion in Scotland supports the position that has been adopted by the Scottish Government.

I make clear that we have no opposition in principle as a Government to working within UK frameworks where it is relevant and appropriate to do so, but it must be appropriate and relevant to do so, and doing so must respect the devolved settlement. We have openly marshalled very specific amendments to the withdrawal bill because they rectify what is wrong in the bill that could be damaging and prejudicial to the devolved settlement.

We will continue those discussions, but I assure Ms McAlpine and Parliament of the Scottish Government’s determination to remain very clear about the issues of principle that are at stake in the withdrawal bill and to work at all times to ensure that we have in place a framework that protects the devolution settlement.

There is, of course, a wider debate to be had about the extension of powers to the Parliament as a consequence of the withdrawal bill. We have yet to hear specifics about what those powers, which were promised during the EU referendum campaign, are likely to be when they materialise.

I welcome the Scottish Government’s recognition that there will be a need for UK-wide, or perhaps Great Britain-wide, common frameworks as we leave the European Union. Can the Deputy First Minister tell Parliament anything about the substantive policy areas where the Scottish ministers think that such common frameworks will be needed? Can he tell us anything about his understanding of the timing for the common frameworks?

Fundamentally, we have to engage in dialogue with the UK Government on those questions. We have been absolutely clear throughout the process that we have no opposition in principle to the development of UK frameworks, but they have to be appropriate and respectful of devolved competences. In my view and that of the Scottish Government, what has been proposed in the withdrawal bill goes about that in entirely the wrong fashion, because it presupposes that all the powers should be reserved to the UK Government, regardless of whether they were devolved in 1998. We need to reverse that process and establish the basis on which UK frameworks should be constructed, what their substance should be and, most important, how agreement should be reached on the operation of those UK frameworks.

The point is very material, because we cannot have a situation in which the Scottish Parliament cannot properly and fully represent the interests of the people of Scotland in the frameworks and finds that the outcome of the frameworks will be determined by decisions made by the UK Government. Those will be the issues that will be taken forward as part of the on-going discussions. However, I reiterate to Mr Tomkins the position that the Scottish Government has made clear to the Scottish Parliament, which is that the withdrawal bill in its current format is not a bill to which the Scottish Government could recommend giving legislative consent, because of that fundamental weakness in the bill’s composition.

The Deputy First Minister will be well aware that UK ministers have made a couple of assertions about the withdrawal bill that I am sure he will want to test. First, there is the assertion that, of the powers that are coming to the UK under the terms of the bill, the UK Government will transfer without delay those that can be transferred directly to the Scottish Government. The Chancellor of the Exchequer said that during his visit to Scotland yesterday. The other assertion is that the UK Government is taking all the responsibilities for devolved areas as a temporary measure in order to put frameworks in place. Can the Deputy First Minister indicate whether the discussions that he has had with the UK Government so far have identified some of the 111 devolved areas that the UK Government has no quibble with transferring immediately to Scottish Government responsibility or whether there has been any indication of the UK Government’s intention to amend its bill in order to time limit the exceptional powers that it will take under the bill?

The way in which Mr Macdonald categorised the chancellor’s remarks of yesterday is not consistent with what is in the bill. The bill says something very different from the way in which Mr Macdonald characterised the issue. Fundamentally, there has to be a change in the bill to avoid the situation that the Scottish Government is concerned about, with, I believe, broad support from the Scottish Parliament, because the proposal in the bill is to transfer all those powers to the United Kingdom. I can give Mr Macdonald no clarity about how temporary that would be. He said that the UK Government has said that it would transfer the powers “without delay” but, based on the discussions yesterday, I can give no guarantee to Mr Macdonald about that.

There is a material conversation to be had about the powers within the range of responsibilities in the list of 111 that was shared with the Finance and Constitution Committee last week. There are discussions to be had about what should be the subject of UK frameworks and what should not, but I cannot at this stage share with Parliament any outcomes from the discussions as to which powers fall into which particular categories. That is a material issue that has to be addressed in our dialogue.

I recently visited a social enterprise in Glasgow that was set up to teach European languages to both children and adults. By necessity, it has found itself forced, in effect, to provide a support group for the many EU citizens and their families living in Glasgow, who find their lives in turmoil with the complete lack of clarity about their future.

Will the Scottish Government, in its discussions with the UK Government and others, place a high priority on the need to recognise and remember the position of people in Glasgow and elsewhere in Scotland who are part of this European country and who we value, and to make sure that the UK Government gives them the clarity that they deserve? So far, the UK Government has been unwilling to do that.

I agree whole-heartedly with Mr Harvie’s point in his question. At a personal level, I met a week past Saturday representatives of the Polish community in my constituency, and I detected exactly the unease, the anxiety and, frankly, the hurt that are felt by European citizens who have come here and are making their contribution to our society—both to the economy and to our communities, our schools and the lives that we all lead.

I completely accept Mr Harvie’s point. I reassure him that, in the meeting yesterday, I made clear to the First Secretary of State the importance that the Government attaches to being able to give certainty to those individuals, but also to having an approach, once the UK has left the EU, to enabling the free movement of individuals. The substantial contribution that the migrant population has made to our population as a whole and our economy should not be understated by anyone in this debate.

These issues are very much on our agenda. We have tried to seek clarity on every occasion that has been available to us, and I assure Mr Harvie of our determination to make sure that that continues in all further discussions on the question. The joint ministerial committee on EU negotiations, which will take place in October, will be an opportunity for us to engage substantively on the discussions around the United Kingdom’s negotiating position for the longer term. Again, I assure Mr Harvie that that will be a priority for the Government in those negotiations.

Needle Exchange Programme (Glasgow Central Station)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with Network Rail regarding its decision to withdraw support for the needle exchange programme at Glasgow Central station. (S5T-00686)

The Scottish Government is concerned at the decision that Network Rail has taken. The stance is contrary to the ambitions of our road to recovery drug strategy, which seeks to provide support and services to those who are most at risk from addictions, and it risks further stigmatisation of those who rely on needle exchange services across Scotland.

The Glasgow Central station needle exchange is one of the busiest in Scotland. It provides about 1,000 transactions per month to meet a significant public health need that was identified in the 2016 Glasgow public health needs assessment. Removing the service will not only displace but, potentially, exacerbate problem drug use in the area.

The Minister for Transport and the Islands has spoken to the managing director of the ScotRail Alliance, who has agreed, in light of the concerns, to look again at Network Rail’s decision.

Network Rail’s decision has caused a great deal of anxiety. The programme was set up in 2016 following a spike in HIV cases in Glasgow. It is used widely by 2,000 drug users and it has issued more than 40,000 clean needle kits. It is very much needed and, because of the facility’s location in Central station, it can have opening hours from 7 in the morning through to midnight.

The decision is damaging and has to be reversed as soon as possible. I note what the minister said and I ask the Government to take the lead in working with the various partner organisations—the health and social care partnership, Glasgow City Council and the national health service—to press the case strongly with Network Rail to reverse the decision immediately.

I largely share the concerns that James Kelly articulated. As I said in my original answer, the Minister for Transport and the Islands has spoken to the ScotRail Alliance, which has agreed to look again at the decision in light of the very real concerns, the public health need, the fact that there has been a spike in HIV cases in the city and the fact that the need was one of those that were identified in the 2016 Glasgow public health needs assessment. As I said in my original answer, the decision risks displacing and exacerbating the problem in the city centre.

James Kelly is right to acknowledge that the centre in question is very busy. It is centrally located and it provides an important public service. Discussions are on-going and, where we can ensure that there is discussion, we will do what we can. We will work with partners that have an interest in the matter. As I said, this is a cross-portfolio matter, and my colleague Humza Yousaf has engaged with Network Rail on the issue. We will keep Mr Kelly informed.

What approach will the refresh of the drugs strategy take to addressing substance abuse from a public health perspective?

In announcing my intention to refresh the Scottish drugs strategy, I emphasised the importance of viewing and treating substance misuse through a public health lens. Scotland’s drug problem is changing, and services need to adapt to meet the needs of those who are most at risk. We know that they face complex and wide-ranging social and medical issues. A key aspect of the strategy will be to consider how we can encourage those who are most at risk to engage with services and to look at how we can keep them there as a means of promoting the protective factors that are associated with being in treatment.

I will add something that relates to James Kelly’s question. The issue needs to be seen in the broadest possible context. It cannot be about just health professionals and those who are at the front line; it has to be seen across many disciplines and professions. When we refresh the strategy, my hope and intention is that we will engage as thoroughly and widely as we possibly can to ensure that we get the right strategy in place to adapt to and cope with the changing requirements across the country.

The needle exchange programme is an excellent service in an excellent location. We know that community safety and harm reduction are inextricably linked. The service users must be supported, not displaced, as the minister said.

The community responsibility is largely discharged by the NHS, but what role is there for the Scottish Government? Has the Scottish Government assessed whether there are sufficient and robust arrangements elsewhere in the country to avoid a repetition of such an incident?

I understand from NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde that discussions were on-going so, from its perspective, there was never at any point a need to escalate the issue to the Scottish Government. As I said in response to James Kelly, my colleague Humza Yousaf has engaged with the ScotRail Alliance, which will ensure that Network Rail’s decision is looked at again in light of the concerns that have been raised.

If we can press in other areas to ensure that what has happened does not happen again, we will take forward conversations where that is appropriate. I have certainly expressed my concern about the decision, which could exacerbate quite a significant problem for Glasgow. We—the different partners, such as the health board and others—need to work together across the different disciplines to get something in place and to ensure that discussions are always as open and considered as they possibly can be.

I understand that the Simon Community has agreed to allocate two members of staff to operate a backpacking exchange outside Glasgow Central station from 6.30 to 9.30 for the next two weeks. That is a temporary measure. The two-week period is a stopgap to give time to see whether the decision is reconsidered or for an alternative service to be established.

We will continue to keep members updated as things develop and we will ensure that, given that the situation is dynamic, those who have an interest are furnished with the appropriate information.

A survey of 1,000 drug addicts in Scotland revealed that fewer than 5 per cent of them wanted help with injecting safely and that the overwhelming majority wanted to become drug free. What action is the Scottish Government taking to help those addicts to achieve the goal of abstinence?

Adam Tomkins might be interested in the fact that we very recently hosted in his Glasgow region the first-ever gathering of our recovery communities. That brought together a number of groups from across Scotland, which were able to articulate the importance of recovery for them. That is an important plank of the road to recovery strategy, which will be refreshed.

At the end of this month, a recovery walk will take place in Dundee. If the member is interested in attending, I am sure that those involved would be glad to have the support and to have what they have achieved in trying to cope with their addiction recognised. We will keep the member informed of the strategy refresh.

There is a flourishing recovery community, of which we should all be proud. Its members have done enormously well to get to a position where they are not only able to cope with their addiction but able to help and support others through similar troubles.