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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 26 September 2018

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Common Agricultural Policy, Social Security, Human Rights Defenders (Support and Protection), Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, European Atomic Energy Community (Impacts of Leaving)


Portfolio Question Time

“Scottish Government Intervention—Assessment Report” (Action)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it has taken since the publication of the Scottish Information Commissioner’s “Scottish Government Intervention—Assessment Report”, which found that it was operating a two-tier system for managing freedom of information requests, which discriminated against journalists, MSPs and researchers. (S5O-02389)

The commissioner’s report explicitly acknowledges that the Scottish Government has made changes in the past 12 months that have already resulted in significant improvements to our FOI performance. On the day on which the commissioner published his report, we updated our guidance to state unambiguously that clearance should be based on the sensitivity of information that is requested, rather than on the identity of the requester. The guidance states explicitly that

“not all requests from journalists, political researchers or MSPs will be for sensitive information”.

On 13 September, we published a draft action plan for the commissioner’s consideration that aims to address all his recommendations and to build on our improving performance. I look forward to the commissioner’s feedback on the plan, and to working with him during its implementation.

As the minister will be aware, the report found that a number of cases featured

“unjustifiable, significant delays and disregard for the statutory timescales.”

Is the Scottish Government now fully compliant with FOI legislation?

As I said, the Scottish Government is in dialogue with the commissioner, having provided the information that was required in response to the recommendations. Performance over the past six months in turnaround of FOI requests is significantly higher than it was. In short, the answer is that the Government is fully compliant.

I call Annie Wells—I am sorry, I call James Dornan.

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I hope that you were not getting us mixed up. [Interruption.] No disrespect was intended, Annie.

Is it not the case that the Scottish Information Commissioner acknowledges that the Scottish Government has taken the steps that the minister has mentioned to improve and monitor its performance, and that

“the improvement should be judged against a backdrop of increasing numbers of requests”?

Paragraph 20 of the commissioner’s report highlights the “significant improvement” in the Scottish Government’s performance

“against a backdrop of increasing numbers of requests.”

In 2017, we received 3,046 requests, which was 41 per cent more than the previous high in 2015. The number of requests shows no signs of diminishing. We are on course to receive about 3,500 requests in 2018. A specific example of what is being dealt with is that on the afternoon of 12 September, one individual submitted 84 requests in the space of 56 minutes—one every 40 seconds.

Despite the continued high volume of requests in the first seven months of 2018, we have responded to 93 per cent of requests on time, which is more than the target of 90 per cent. I pay tribute to the diligence and hard work of staff across the Government for delivering that response.

The Scottish Government’s draft action plan on FOI handling includes the creation of criteria

“to define sensitive or ... complex cases.”

What measures will be used to identify a case as “sensitive”? How will the minister ensure that the identity of the requester is not known?

I will come back with further detail on that in due course. I give a commitment to Jackie Baillie and other members that we will continue to work closely to satisfy the commissioner on the nature of our response. I am extremely hopeful that we will reach that point and meet all the recommendations that the commissioner has made.

Brexit (United Kingdom Referendum)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on there being a United Kingdom-wide referendum on the final terms of the Brexit deal. (S5O-02390)

I assure Willie Rennie and the Parliament that the Scottish Government is not opposed to a second referendum on the final negotiated deal, if that is the will of the UK Parliament.

However, we are concerned that those who are in favour of such a vote have not demonstrated how they would address the serious democratic challenge of the people of Scotland still facing being removed from the European Union against their will, should they vote clearly and decisively to remain in the EU, as they did in the 2016 referendum.

Last week in the chamber, the First Minister said that, if the Scottish Government

“is to get enthusiastically behind the campaign for another EU vote, surely it is not unreasonable to ask for a guarantee that Scotland would not find itself in”

the same

“position all over again”—[Official Report, 20 September 2018; c 21.]

if it votes to remain in the EU.

The problem for the cabinet secretary is that time is running out. He has been talking about these talks for months, and he and I have had talks on several occasions. To be brutally honest, I say that he wants me to agree to back independence if he backs a people’s vote on Brexit. That is what he is trying to achieve, but it is not going to happen.

Therefore, the cabinet secretary has a decision to make. Will he sit on the sidelines or will he get behind the best chance of stopping Brexit, which is a people’s vote? Will he stop hiding behind the talks and do the right thing?

I am not sure that Mr Rennie is doing his case much good by in essence saying, “Back us, or else.” Fortunately, there are more reasonable and sensible voices who are arguing for such a vote. For example, this morning I had a constructive discussion with Hugo Dixon from the people’s vote campaign, which was an interesting and informative step forward. I commend that type of constructive engagement to Mr Rennie.

I note that Mr Rennie’s party leader, Vince Cable—I think that he is still the leader—demanded at the start of the recent Liberal Democrat conference that the SNP back a people’s vote, but also demanded that the people of Scotland never be allowed to support independence again. That is no way to win friends and influence people.

This week, we learned that, post-Brexit, pet owners who wish to take their animals to Europe will face barriers in acquiring a pet passport. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, they will need to have met a vet by November this year to guarantee travel after March 2019. Does the cabinet secretary agree that that is callous and disruptive and that it should have been avoided?

Yes. The United Kingdom Government’s technical notices, the third tranche of which were published this week, expose more starkly than anything else we have seen how disastrous and ridiculous a no-deal Brexit could be. The UK Government’s guidance could not be clearer about the chaos and disruption that will ensue. It can and should be avoided.

The Prime Minister should put an end to her brinkmanship and commit to the only feasible option short of continued EU membership—which I favour, as does Mr Rennie—which is to stay in the European single market and the customs union.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that, if remainers such as Willie Rennie had voted yes in the independence referendum four years ago, Scotland would not now be leaving the European Union and that the only way Scotland will have a future in the European Union is as an independent sovereign nation?

Yes, and I hope that Mr Rennie has voter’s remorse and considers that he made a major mistake—although there is no sign of that. Perhaps he was misled by another party leader, Ruth Davidson, who in response to the point that was made by Patrick Harvie—unfortunately, he is not here—that

“No means out and Yes means in”,

said that the opposite is true. She said that

“No means we stay in”.

That was the view of the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, which turned out not to be true. In the circumstances, Mr Rennie would, if he had the conviction that he claims to have, be backing independence all the way.

Welsh Government (Contact)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it has been in contact with the Welsh Government since last week's joint ministerial committee meeting. (S5O-02391)

The Scottish Government routinely engages with counterparts in the Welsh Government on a range of business between both officials and ministers. Since the meeting of the joint ministerial committee on European Union negotiations on 13 September, the Scottish ministers met the Welsh ministers at the ministerial forum on EU negotiations and at the quadrilateral ministerial meeting in London involving the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the devolved Administrations, on 17 September. Officials have been in touch since those meetings.

I note that the Scottish Government’s programme for government pledges obstinacy on all further legislative consent memorandums regarding Brexit legislation. Has the cabinet secretary had the chance to discuss that position with the Welsh Government?

The Welsh Government is fully aware of our position on the Sewel convention. It is a reasonable and reasoned position. The Sewel convention is broken: the UK Government has not operated it as it was meant to be operated. In the circumstances, it is important that it comes back into play in an effective way. The Sewel convention never said that consent meant either voting for something, not voting for it or saying nothing. Until the Sewel convention has meaning, we cannot go along with any process that involves it.

However, I am not an unreasonable person and, as Finlay Carson might know, in recent weeks I have suggested to David Lidington a means by which we could resolve the issue. The Welsh Government knows that, and the last time that we discussed the matter it indicated that it supports the solution. If we could all agree on it, we could move forward.

Brexit (Impact on Fish-processing Industry)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the fish-processing industry regarding the impact of Brexit on people from the European Union working in the sector. (S5O-02392)

On 16 August, the First Minister convened a seafood sector round table on Brexit at which she met key stakeholders in the seafood industry to discuss the impacts of Brexit on their sectors, including the processing sector. One of the main concerns expressed related to future access to migrant labour, given the processing sector’s reliance on it; figures show that 58 per cent of the workforce are non-United Kingdom European Economic Area workers. That is why it is vital that any future trading arrangements for our seafood exports to the EU continue to be free of tariff and non-tariff barriers.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that the recommendation in the Migration Advisory Committee’s report that low-skilled workers should be encouraged to enter the UK on a youth mobility scheme could lead to all lower-paid workers being paid even less, and that it needs to be revised in order to protect those who work in vital industries such as the fish-processing industry in Aberdeen South and North Kincardine and elsewhere?

I agree with Maureen Watt on her issues with the MAC report, which is immensely disappointing. Yet again, MAC has refused even to acknowledge the existence of a separate Scottish economy and its separate labour force needs. It is not the first time that that has happened: I hope that it might be the last.

In the circumstances, some of MAC’s proposals are, frankly, risible; for example, it suggests that the solution that could be adopted to some of the labour shortages is to change the retiral age. The prospect of people who are ready to draw their old-age pension being sent out into the fields of Angus to pick fruit is ridiculous. The Migration Advisory Committee needs to take a jump to itself, as my old granny would have said. It needs to look at the situation in Scotland and to understand the Scottish labour market; then its contributions might be of some help.

I echo the concerns of Maureen Watt and the cabinet secretary—labour is vital for the future success of those industries. Conservative members support the UK Government in getting the best deal for our fishermen, and we support the fishermen’s desire to take back control of our waters and catch a fairer share of the fish within our 200 miles. With that in mind, we need to ensure that Scotland has the capacity to process increased fish landings. There is a 34 per cent decline in fish processing in Scotland due to high business rates driving business down south. What will the Scottish Government do to encourage those businesses to remain in Scotland?

There are none so blind as those who will not see. The facts of the matter were laid out by Maureen Watt. It would be useful if Peter Chapman listened to those facts and did not bring garbage and prejudice to the chamber, which is what we have just heard. The reality is that Brexit is bearing down on the processing sector in terms of an available labour force. Unless Peter Chapman recognises that, his contributions will be worthless.

Veterans (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it provides for veterans. (S5O-02393)

Yesterday, the Scottish Government published its report, “Scottish Government support for Veterans and the Armed Forces Community in Scotland”, which highlights the work that is being taken forward across Government, including in the areas of health, housing and employability. The report also recognises that 2018 marks the 10th anniversary of investment in the Scottish veterans fund and the recent appointment of our new Scottish veterans commissioner, Colonel Charlie Wallace, who will continue the important role of providing strategic advice and scrutiny that was previously undertaken by Eric Fraser.

Tomorrow’s debate will fulfil our promise to update Parliament annually on the topic, and afford members an opportunity to discuss our report and highlight how we have taken forward the recommendations in Eric Fraser’s report, “Veterans’ Health & Wellbeing”.

I welcome that answer and look forward to hearing more in due course. Southwest Scotland RnR, which is a charity based in Castle Douglas, aims to help veterans by empowering them to access employment in civil life. Recently, it has been providing funding for veterans to obtain heavy goods vehicle and Security Industry Authority licences, as well as providing practical support for access to interviews and other social activities. Given that important work, does the minister support such a project and will he accept my invitation to visit Southwest Scotland RnR to see its important work that benefits veterans in the south-west of Scotland?

Aiding veterans into employment so that they have a fulfilling life after they leave the armed forces is a priority for me and my colleague, the Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills. I will be delighted to consider an invitation to visit RnR.

European Union Withdrawal Agreement

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its involvement in negotiations on the EU withdrawal agreement. (S5O-02394)

Since the European Union referendum, we have sought to engage meaningfully with the United Kingdom Government on withdrawal from the EU. However, we have been frustrated by the quality of that engagement to date.

There have been 11 meetings of the joint ministerial committee on European Union negotiations—including one on domestic issues, including frameworks—four meetings of the ministerial forum and three meetings of the JMC plenary.

I remain concerned that some critical issues are outstanding, including finding an acceptable backstop on the Northern Ireland border and the crucial issue of maintaining protection for geographical indicators. Further, it is vital that EU citizens know that their rights are secured. They still do not have that certainty.

I attended the last meeting of the JMC(EN) on 13 September. I went on to make it clear that, if we do not remain in the EU, the least-damaging outcome for the UK is retaining membership of the European single market and customs union.

The level of discussion is disappointing. Given the state of the two main parties with regard to Brexit and the uncertainty that that is creating, there are still some significant issues outstanding, not least finding an acceptable backstop for the Northern Ireland border with the Republic of Ireland, as Michael Russell mentioned. If there were to be a special deal for Northern Ireland, should there also be one for Scotland, which did not vote for Brexit?

Quite clearly, the issue of Northern Ireland has to be treated in two ways. The first is that we would do nothing at all to prejudice a deal for Northern Ireland that secured peace. That is what this is about, as the Good Friday agreement is at risk. Nobody who knows Northern Ireland in any way—James Dornan knows it as well as I do—doubts that the danger here is a return to violence, and the issue of the border is crucial. There has to be a deal in Northern Ireland, and that deal has to respect and take forward the Good Friday agreement.

Any deal for Northern Ireland is a deal of differentiation. We have argued for a differentiated deal for Scotland since the beginning of this process, and we have published extensively on that. A differentiated deal for Northern Ireland that did not recognise the need for a differentiated deal for Scotland could be economically and socially damaging. Although we continue to recognise the special circumstances of Northern Ireland, we also recognise the special circumstances of Scotland in terms of our economy and the arguments that we are making.

Another thing that joins Scotland and Northern Ireland is that both countries voted decisively not to leave the EU, so there is a democratic imperative, too.

What impact assessments has the Government carried out for the different scenarios that might flow from the Supreme Court decision on the challenge to the Government’s UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill?

I think that James Kelly was present at the meeting of the Finance and Constitution Committee when Mr Tomkins suggested that it was not a good idea to speculate about the outcome of a court case. I will not speculate, but I assure the member that the Lord Advocate and I will be more than ready whatever the outcome is.

On negotiations with the UK Government about Brexit, why does the cabinet secretary not understand that demanding a series of vetoes on the exercise of powers that are properly reserved to Westminster is not an approach that is likely to achieve consensus with UK Government colleagues?

Perhaps Adam Tomkins should advise his UK Government colleagues to stop demanding vetoes on their part, because the Scottish Government has never demanded a veto of any description on any item. We have simply said that there should be consultation and that agreement should be found. The veto has been exercised by the UK Government with regard to, for example, our continuity bill and its reference to the court. It is the UK Government that believes that it has the right to veto anything that this Parliament does and it has done that in its redefinition of the word “consent”.

The reality is that the UK Government, through the UK Parliament, is attempting to veto the rights, duties and obligations of this Parliament. I would be entirely happy if we sat down and worked in partnership towards a solution. I remain open to that and I hope that the UK Government is, too—it should stop vetoing.

United Kingdom Government Bills (Discussions with UK Government)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met the UK Government to discuss UK bills that contain proposals that impact on Scotland. (S5O-02395)

The Scottish Government is in regular contact with the United Kingdom Government about proposed UK legislation that might impact on Scotland.

On 13 September, I attended a meeting of the joint ministerial committee on European Union negotiations. At that meeting, the Scottish Government noted that, although progress continues to be made in areas in which frameworks might be agreed, it would not bring forward further motions for legislative consent on EU exit-related bills without action being taken by the UK Government to protect the Sewel convention. That does not mean that engagement on the policy content of such bills is not taking place. It is clearly important that Scotland’s perspective and the devolution settlement are taken fully into account when bills are being prepared.

We recently saw the publication of the UK Agriculture Bill. The Welsh Government consented to the UK Government legislating on its behalf to allow a new regime to be created, but the Scottish Government has refused to do that. The Scottish Government will now need to pass a separate bill at Holyrood to create a new subsidy programme. Given that that is such an important bill, why have Scottish farmers been left in the dark? Why are there no plans for an equivalent Scottish agriculture bill in the programme for government?

For a representative of the Conservative Party to talk about people being left in the dark on Brexit defies parody. The reality is that the Welsh Government has objected to issues in the Agriculture Bill, as we have. There are certain issues, such as World Trade Organization issues, that require resolution. We are trying to have a constructive discussion with the UK Government—[Interruption.]

Strangely enough, Adam Tomkins finds the idea of constructive discussion with the UK Government funny. I sometimes find it funny to think of the UK Government as constructive but I am doing my best, and he should try.

We will continue to have discussion, but we need to have a proper exchange. A bill cannot simply be imposed. That is the profound issue here. The Scottish Conservatives wish the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament to accept that anything that is said or done at Westminster will simply be imposed on us. That might be how they do business; it ain’t how we do business.

Short-term Lets (Effects on Tourism)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the impact of short-term lets on tourism levels in Aberdeen and other local authority areas. (S5O-02399)

There is no single definition of a short-term let in Scotland, so there is no single official or definitive source of data that can be used to gauge the number of properties that are let on a short-term basis.

I understand the pressure in some parts of the country for new controls over short-term letting of residential properties. We want to address that, which is why, in our programme for government, we have committed to working with local government, communities and business interests to ensure that local authorities have appropriate regulatory powers. That will ensure local authorities can take decisions that balance the needs and concerns of their communities with wider economic and tourism interests.

A national solution—one that allows local authorities to protect the interests of local communities while providing a safe, quality experience for visitors—must be based on the best possible evidence.

We have already established a short-term lets delivery group of officials from across Government to examine the issues. The group will consider local authorities’ existing powers and gather evidence about whether further measures are required. We would welcome any evidence from Aberdeen City Council or others.

As the cabinet secretary will be aware, short-term lets give those on low incomes and in larger families the opportunity to stay in Aberdeen, as well as adding to a diverse range of flexible and low-cost accommodation. Does the cabinet secretary agree that, for Aberdeen, short-term lets are essential in boosting the local economy, especially given the slump in the oil industry?

That example is why the short-term lets group has to work with all areas of local government to understand the pressures within different areas.

One of the main issues that we must consider is safety in short-term lets. The issue affects everyone who needs a short-term let, whether they are a visitor or, as in the example that the member gave, someone working in the oil industry. I am sure that that will be one of the issues that is considered by the group that we have established.

This summer, I ran a consultation on an amendment to the Planning (Scotland) Bill to strengthen the planning system in relation to short-term lets. In its response to that consultation, Aberdeen City Council said that, in the absence of licensing powers, it would welcome guidance from the Scottish Government on short-term lets. It also said that it recognises the pressure that short-term lets place on housing without the checks and balances that come with the planning system. Does the cabinet secretary recognise the pressures that short-term lets place on housing? Does she recognise that there have to be limits to tourism development in certain areas?

There are a number of aspects to the issue. In my constituency, one reason for short-term lets is a lack of affordable social housing. The Government has made considerable strides, particularly in comparison with the rest of the United Kingdom, on building houses to ensure that we have the required housing supply.

Andy Wightman made an important point about considering the balance between tourism needs and the need of city residents to have accommodation. The short-term lets delivery group is deliberating on that.

I also understand that Andy Wightman has lodged amendments to the Planning (Scotland) Bill that have not yet been considered.

Will the cabinet secretary confirm that the Government’s work with local authorities will look at options to limit the number of days for which someone can rent out an entire property and at seasonal systems with flexible rules to meet, for example, periods of high tourism demand in local areas?

I understand that the short-term lets delivery group will discuss those considerations. The City of Edinburgh Council has an interest in the issue, and the experience of other places in limiting short-term lets to 90 days a year has been part of the debate. The group needs to do its work and I am sure that it will report to Parliament at the appropriate time.

Scottish Tourism Alliance (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met the Scottish Tourism Alliance and what issues were discussed. (S5O-02400)

I met the Scottish Tourism Alliance as recently as 5 September, and the Minister for Public Finance and Digital Economy met the alliance on 6 September. The Scottish ministers have a number of formal and informal discussions and meetings with the Scottish Tourism Alliance and its membership organisations as part of our engagement with what is a key economic sector. We discuss a variety of issues, all of which support the ambition of achieving sustainable tourism growth that we share with Scotland’s wider tourism industry.

The cabinet secretary knows that the Scottish National Party leader of the City of Edinburgh Council supports the introduction of a tourism tax, as does the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. Among others, Berlin has it, Amsterdam has it and Vienna has it, but Scotland does not. Analysis that the City of Edinburgh Council released today shows that a year-round charge would raise an extra £11 million a year for the council. With that in mind, has the Government researched the impact of a transient visitor levy on tourism across Scotland? If not, does it intend to do that? If so, when will the results be available?

Claudia Beamish raises an important point, which I discussed with the City of Edinburgh Council’s leader last week—I know of the discussions that that council has had. As she said, a levy would have national implications. She identified some tensions and issues, because the cities that she cited do not have the 20 per cent VAT rate that applies to the tourism and hospitality industry in Scotland.

On the wider picture, UKHospitality and the STA have invited us to engage in a national debate, rather than having a local approach. Claudia Beamish also referred to COSLA, which wants the issue to be considered as part of the local governance review.

We are conscious of the issues. Our position remains that we are not in favour of introducing a visitor levy unless the tourism industry is involved from the outset. However, a healthy and informed debate would be helpful for local authorities and, most important, for COSLA and the national bodies that the STA represents.

Given the recent announcement that no special arrangements will apply to European Union citizens post-Brexit, what impact does the cabinet secretary expect the United Kingdom Government’s migration plans to have on the tourism sector in Scotland?

The tourism industry is one of our key sectors, and 13 per cent of those who work in it come from EU countries. We want to support those who are here and to ensure that we can in the future continue to attract such workers, who are vital to our sector.

We understand that the UK Government has agreed with the Migration Advisory Committee’s recommendation that, post-Brexit, applications from EU citizens should be treated in exactly the same way as those from other citizens. That means that someone would have to earn £30,000 to work in the tourism sector in Scotland. That is unsustainable. The sector has said that what we understand to be the UK Government’s decision this week will have a catastrophic practical effect on one of our economy’s key sectors.

That is why it is absolutely essential that the UK Government listens and that it understands that it is possible to have a Scottish policy within a UK immigration system, to ensure not only that we can address the interests of sectors such as tourism but that we can consider our different and challenging population background. That is essential. Brexit is suddenly getting very real for many sectors, and tourism is certainly one of them.

I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of members’ interests, as a shareholder in a small hotel. Claudia Beamish asked about the tourism tax, but I would like to ask the cabinet secretary whether she supports a transient visitor levy and when she will launch a Scottish Government consultation, because today the Scottish Tourism Alliance expressed its concerns about the introduction of a transient visitor levy by the City of Edinburgh Council.

As I said, we have no plans for, and we do not support, a transient visitor levy. We do not think that it should be introduced unless there is involvement from the tourism sector right at the start and the sustainability of the tourism sector is considered. As I said in my previous answer, a 20 per cent VAT rate means that, in terms of comparators, we are perceived to be a high-cost location. Given that the low level of the devalued pound is supporting tourism and given the pressures and costs in other areas that the industry is facing, I do not feel that this is an appropriate time to consider a levy. I understand that there are strong arguments both for and against a levy, but I would like there to be, and would encourage, an informed debate.

Is the cabinet secretary aware of the Unite hospitality charter, which aims to improve conditions for those working in the hospitality sector? Has she discussed the charter with the Scottish Tourism Alliance in order to improve working conditions for those working in hotels and restaurants across Scotland?

As Claire Baker will know, the First Minister and the Scottish Government are very supportive of the fair work agenda. Indeed, in our programme for government, we outline steps that we would like to take, particularly in the hospitality and tourism sector, in relation to the fair work agenda.

Claire Baker referred to the campaign. I would need to check my notes, but I think that I have raised the issue in the wider context of taking forward the fair work agenda in a sector that is one of our key industries. However, it is a sector in which, although some people earn £30,000 a year, that is not the average salary. We need to find mechanisms and policies to support the sector and make it an attractive career to be part of, but also to ensure that people are treated fairly. There is a specific reference to that point in our programme for government.

Arts and Culture Funding (South of Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has for the funding of arts and culture to the south of the central belt. (S5O-02401)

A range of arts and cultural activity south of the central belt is being funded by the Scottish Government’s grant in aid to Creative Scotland. That includes three-year regular funding for the Wigtown Book Festival, the Stove Network in Dumfries and Galloway, and Alchemy Film and Arts in the Scottish Borders. Local authorities in the south of Scotland also receive central Government funding for cashback for creativity and the youth music initiative programme.

In addition, the Scottish Government has provided direct funding of £2.5 million towards the development of the new purpose-built facility in Galashiels to house the great tapestry of Scotland and £1.375 million towards the redevelopment of the David Livingstone centre in Blantyre. Other Government initiatives include supporting the Ayrshire and borderlands growth deals and the south of Scotland economic partnership, from which cultural funding is a possibility.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that, for reasons that are best known to Creative Scotland, funding has not been available for Ayrshire companies such as the Ayr Gaiety Partnership in her home town, or across southern Scotland more generally. Notwithstanding what she has just said, can she give assurances that that disparity of funding allocations will be investigated and addressed in Creative Scotland’s review, as well as in the Scottish Government’s culture strategy, which it is consulting on before it produces its final report?

The member will be aware that the Ayr Gaiety has received more than £3 million of capital and revenue support in the past six years, directly and indirectly, from the Scottish Government. I have been very supportive of Ayr Gaiety and will continue to be so. He will be aware of the independence of Creative Scotland’s decision making, but I will ensure that his remarks are drawn to its attention as part of its review.

The member is quite correct to consider the culture strategy as a means by which to recognise the importance of place and the dispersed nature of Scotland’s geography. That has come through in our consultation to date. The final consultation has just closed, but I expect to see a strong place agenda forming part of the culture strategy when it is published.

Visitor Experience (Action on Improvement)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to improve visitor experience by working with local authorities to enhance facilities such as car parking. (S5O-02402)

Last year, the First Minister announced the establishment of the £6 million rural tourism infrastructure fund to help local authorities to provide immediate infrastructure support at tourist sites across rural Scotland. I am glad to say that the first tranche of successful projects, which are worth up to £3 million, will be announced shortly, bringing much needed infrastructure improvements such as toilets and parking to benefit visitors and local communities alike. That is in addition to three pilots that have already been progressed to deliver facilities on Skye and Orkney.

That is indeed welcome, but the minister might be aware that Argyll and Bute Council is increasing car parking charges by 900 per cent in Arrochar and is considering introducing charges for the first time at Duck Bay as a means of increasing revenue. It is a charge on tourists and local people alike; it denies people—particularly people on low incomes—access to our countryside. Does the cabinet secretary believe that that is in keeping with the Scottish Government’s approach to outdoor access?

Clearly, we want to encourage outdoor access, both for visitors and locals. I am not aware of the detail of the case that Jackie Baillie raises. The funding that we are providing should be in addition to having a successful and sustainable way of supporting the agenda of making sure that our outdoor spaces are accessible. I encourage all local authorities that are expecting to receive additional Scottish Government support to take a holistic view; the funding is not to replace or indeed be contradicted by other activity that they are involved in. I encourage all local authorities to take that holistic view if they are expecting the Scottish Government to provide additionality to their current provision.

Steam Train Tourism (East Coast)

To ask the Scottish Government what analysis it has carried out of the potential for developing steam train tourism on the east coast. (S5O-02403)

A train journey around Scotland can be one of the best ways of admiring our stunning landscapes. There are already a number of steam train routes across Scotland, including the Borders steam charters, which are now operated by the Scottish Railway Preservation Society. As recently as this month, the A1 Steam Locomotive Trust announced the Aberdonian, which is a brand new programme of five steam-hauled trains between Edinburgh and Aberdeen, which will launch in March 2019. The Scottish Government encourages requests from steam operators to visit Scotland and, each year, many trips through Scotland take place on the east coast line from London, York and Newcastle to Edinburgh and other parts of the country. In each of the past two years, the Flying Scotsman has traversed the route very successfully and has been well patronised.

I agree with the cabinet secretary that the launch of the Aberdonian on the east coast line between Edinburgh and Aberdeen, starting next year, is to be welcomed. Does she agree with me that it would be even better if passengers were able to board the Aberdonian in Aberdeen as well as in Edinburgh, so that people from both ends of the country can take full advantage of this fantastic initiative?

My remit is wide but, unfortunately, it does not extend to the operation of railway timetables. However, the member makes a reasonable point and I will draw it to the attention of those who are operating the service.

Would the cabinet secretary support the idea of a special one-day James Watt service involving Inverclyde and potentially the east coast to celebrate the bicentenary of the death of James Watt in August 2019?

That is an interesting suggestion. I would strongly encourage potential operators to have early engagement with Network Rail, as the industry normally uses a planning horizon of at least nine months. I would be interested to hear of any proposals to recognise that important bicentenary of the death of James Watt.

Question 6 is from Rhoda Grant, who alerted me to her late arrival in the chamber.

Skye Tourism (Support)

I thank the Presiding Officer for allowing me to arrive late.

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to support tourism on Skye. (S5O-02404)

The Scottish Government remains committed to ensuring that tourism on Skye—a vital part of the island’s economy—remains sustainable. In November, at a tourism summit on the island, I announced the establishment of a Skye tourism task force. Work is being led by Highlands and Islands Enterprise, which is assisting the local industry group, SkyeConnect, to develop a strategy and prioritise projects that will benefit tourism on the island.

As I mentioned in my previous answer, I am about to make announcements about the £6 million rural tourism infrastructure fund. Two of the initial three pilots are on Skye. The car park at Neist Point has already delivered much needed benefits to visitors and the local community alike, and work on developing facilities at the fairy pools is progressing.

Is the cabinet secretary aware of visitors’ behaviour around the fairy pools? We have seen photos of cairns that have been built in fields all round the fairy pools. Stones have been displaced and small cairns built. Locals have tried to rectify that situation, but what information are visitors given when they visit the area about how to behave to protect the environment?

What Rhoda Grant has said raises concern about how people behave at important outdoor sites. People engage with locations to visit through digital media, and I encourage all those who advertise the fairy pools to indicate what is and is not acceptable, to make sure that there is protection for a very precious and beautiful place.

I am afraid that that answer concludes today’s portfolio question time.

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Far be it from me to criticise, but we have had very long answers today, which has stopped back benchers such as me from getting a chance to ask the questions that we have prepared as a result of applications from constituents. I have a question on Skye and I eventually had question 9, although there was little chance to get there. Presiding Officer, would it be possible to get cabinet secretaries and ministers to give shorter answers to questions, so that we can answer more of the questions that are important to the Scottish constituents whom we represent?

On a point of order further to that point of order, Presiding Officer. With regard to management, I work very hard to answer as many questions as possible. The Presiding Officer has discretion to take supplementaries—there were a number today and they were extensive. If Edward Mountain wants to make sure that constituency issues are addressed, perhaps if John Scott had asked specifically about his constituency, I could have given a shorter answer rather than covering the whole of the south of Scotland.

I thank members for both points of order, which illuminate a difficult issue for everybody in the chamber, which is to keep the balance right between progress through written questions and taking supplementaries. I merely emphasise that today, in particular, there were some long questions as well as long answers. I urge all members, as well as ministers, to be concise.