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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 28 February 2018

Agenda: Business Motion, Portfolio Question Time, UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill, Early Years and Childcare, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2018


Portfolio Question Time

Tourism in Central Scotland

To ask the Scottish Government how it promotes tourism in the Central Scotland region. (S5O-01824)

The Scottish Government fully recognises the importance of tourism to the economy of Central Scotland. The numerous attractions of the area, from the Kelpies at Falkirk and Coatbridge’s Sumerlee heritage park to the United Nations educational, scientific and cultural organisation site at New Lanark, are actively promoted by VisitScotland through a range of digital and traditional channels and through domestic and international marketing campaigns.

Other public bodies also play a key role in supporting tourism and development in the area. For example, there is business and destination support from Scottish Enterprise, training and development through Skills Development Scotland, promotion and protection of cultural heritage and historic properties through Historic Environment Scotland and promotion and enhancement of the natural environment through Scottish Natural Heritage.

The heritage of North Lanarkshire is undersold, in my view. North Lanarkshire is rich in history but does not play to its strengths. Campaigners fighting to save greenbelt next to the old Monkland canal at Calderbank believe that it could become a country park and celebrate the history of the area, including what could become a canal heritage trail. It could be a big tourist attraction. Does the minister agree that such a project is worth investigating and will she agree to look at what can be done to progress the idea?

On that latter point, the campaigners might find a discussion with Scottish Canals to be a helpful first step. Certainly, with the Kelpies and the developments on the Union canal and in Linlithgow, we have seen the benefits of those attractions for the wider area. Looking at leisure and recreation as an economic stimulus is really important. It is a good opportunity to tell the rich and deep heritage stories that we have in Lanarkshire and elsewhere. I am interested in the project, and if Graham Simpson can keep me in touch with what is happening we can perhaps identify the appropriate organisations to help those who are seeking to pursue that development.

Brexit Negotiations (Progress)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress there has been on Brexit negotiations following the recent joint ministerial committee meeting. (S5O-01825)

The latest meeting of the joint ministerial committee on European Union negotiations took place on Thursday 22 February. I was clear going into the meeting that I would continue to make the case for Scotland remaining in the single market and the customs union. As “Scotland’s Place in Europe: People, Jobs and Investment” shows, remaining in the EU is the best outcome for Scotland. Short of that, membership of the single market and customs union will best protect us from the worst economic damage.

However, the United Kingdom Government is still insisting on a hard Brexit, regardless of the cost to jobs and living standards and, as we have seen today, even regardless of the damage that it might do in Northern Ireland.

In relation to our involvement in the process, the terms of reference of the JMC make clear that all four UK Governments should have oversight of the negotiations with the EU, to ensure, as far as possible, that agreed outcomes are secured. However, that has not happened. With just months to go before a final withdrawal deal has to be agreed, there are unfortunately still outstanding issues from phase 1 of the talks, no agreement on transition and no clarity from the UK Government on what it wants from the future relationship.

On the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, I made it absolutely clear that what happens to devolved powers must be a matter for Holyrood. It is imperative that the devolution settlement is protected and the powers of the Scottish Parliament cannot be changed unilaterally by the UK Government.

Does the minister share my concern over the irresponsible comments made by some prominent Brexit supporters recently regarding the Good Friday agreement? Does he agree that their attitudes have the potential for disastrous impact and that their stance, as Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister put it,

“potentially undermines the foundations of a fragile peace process in Northern Ireland that should never be taken for granted”?

I very much agree. I am increasingly concerned by the language that is being used, as are many people in Ireland itself. When I gave evidence to the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs of the Oireachtas three weeks ago, I was asked specific questions about that. There is a strong feeling in Ireland that the language being used and the attitudes being shown are very wrong indeed. I found it difficult to believe what I read last night regarding the views of the Foreign Secretary. If the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom seeks to abrogate an international treaty in order to pursue his own warped view of what the United Kingdom should do, he is unfit for that office and the Prime Minister should be firing him rather than allowing him to continue to influence matters.

As far as we are concerned, the agreement that the United Kingdom and the European Union were meant to have come to last year, under which there would be no border and unfettered free trade, is the agreement that should stick. If the UK is trying to run away from that, it should be held to it by every means possible.

Dunfermline Heritage and Tourism Partnership

To ask the Scottish Government what support it is giving to Dunfermline heritage and tourism partnership to help develop the town into a major visitor destination. (S5O-01826)

Dunfermline offers tourists a growing range of cultural and historical attractions in its heritage quarter, and the Scottish Government, through our national tourism body, VisitScotland, will continue to ensure that it fully maximises its potential. VisitScotland already engages fully with the Dunfermline heritage quarter partnership, providing valuable input, helping to shape discussions and advising on successful funding bids. I had the pleasure of announcing that the newest attraction in the quarter, the Dunfermline Carnegie library and galleries, was the winner of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland Andrew Doolan award for the best building in Scotland for 2017, an accolade that is richly deserved.

The Dunfermline heritage and tourism partnership is doing a great deal of work. It is ambitious about bringing people to experience the arts, culture, hospitality and history of the former ancient capital of Scotland. The town was disappointed by VisitScotland’s decision to close its tourist information centre. Dunfermline should have more support to fulfil its potential as a visitor destination. Will the cabinet secretary agree to meet representatives of the heritage and tourism partnership to discuss the future of Dunfermline as a major Scottish tourist attraction?

As I said, ministers do not directly promote individual towns in Scotland, but we do work with VisitScotland. As I understand it, one member from VisitScotland and one from Historic Environment Scotland sit on the partnership to advise on the best ways to promote Dunfermline as a tourist area. In relation to the VisitScotland office, I should say that the VisitScotland information partnership programme now has seven members in Dunfermline, including the Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum and a number of tourist attractions. It is working with the new library and galleries to ensure that it can be one of the partners, so that visitor information can be provided, and it also hopes to work with Abbot House. However, with the visitor centre experiencing a 32 per cent decline in numbers and very few people taking bookings from visitor centres, the issue is more about information and accessibility. I am happy to find out more about the work of the Dunfermline heritage quarter partnership, but unless Mr Rowley is citing any problems I think that the best thing to do is to ensure that the professionals in VisitScotland can provide professional advice, so that Dunfermline can become the tourist attraction that he and I both want it to be.

In the light of the recent success and redevelopment of the Carnegie library and galleries in Dunfermline, what plans does the Scottish Government have to highlight that award-winning building, and what has it done to help businesses and local communities in south Fife to realise the tourism potential of the Queensferry crossing?

Work is on-going with local councils in particular to make sure that the tourism potential of the Queensferry crossing is realised. They want to take their time to consider how they might want to do that but, through VisitScotland, we are certainly actively involved in that work.

I have visited the Dunfermline Carnegie library and galleries and I have helped to promote it. It is a great place. As Alex Rowley pointed out, it has unrealised potential. We need all parties to work together to help to promote it, because it is not that far from the centre in terms of geography and transport links. Combining the accessibility and the profile of the Queensferry crossing with Dunfermline, I think that there will be great opportunities for Dunfermline as a tourist attraction.

LGBT Tourism in Scotland

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of Scotland’s potential as a destination for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender tourists. (S5O-01827)

Scottish Government-funded research in 2014 found that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex visitors attach significant importance to the warm welcome they can expect from a destination, how they will be treated in their accommodation, and how safe they will be. Based on the research findings, the LGBTI component of VisitScotland’s consumer website was redesigned in 2015. In addition, a number of initiatives are currently being developed by partners to further promote Scotland as a potential destination for LGBTI tourists. These include a project led by Leadership, Equality and Active Participation—LEAP—Sports, which aims to welcome LGBTI communities to the Glasgow 2018 European championships. That project is being supported by a funding contribution of £20,000 from the Scottish Government.

The cabinet secretary will also be aware that there are new Pride festivals popping up all over Scotland at the moment, notably in Fife and East Lothian. They are great for visibility and empowerment; they are also good for local economies. The Parliament is very proud of its record on LGBT rights and we consider Scotland to be a great place to be gay, but I encourage the cabinet secretary to reflect on whether we do enough to tell the world about that and I ask her to instruct VisitScotland to assess what financial support it could provide to Pride festivals as tourist attractions.

I do not have to instruct VisitScotland because it is already actively looking at producing materials that will help to promote that very welcome and the sentiments that the member has just described.

In relation to funding, contact was made by an individual who represents the Pride events. He has been responded to but has yet to take up the offer to meet VisitScotland and Scottish Government officials to look at how we can take forward some of those initiatives on better promotion. I look forward to his response.

How will the Scottish Government support the Scottish tourism sector to tackle the stigma and prejudice that can be faced by the LGBTI community?

The tourism industry must take every step to address the historical stigma and to make sure that, in the here and now, everybody is made to feel welcome.

I was due to attend a Scottish Tourism Alliance conference tomorrow; I understand that the conference is no longer happening, but initiatives can take place at such conferences to help people understand how they need to behave and what they need to do to make sure that everybody who visits Scotland, wherever they come from, feels welcome. I wish all those delegates who are either staying in Glasgow or making their way home well. Obviously, that is a missed opportunity to have such an initiative.

Tourism (South Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government what initiatives it has planned to promote tourism in the South Scotland region. (S5O-01828)

Our programme for government clearly sets out our commitment to the promotion of tourism in the south of Scotland. In the coming year, we will provide VisitScotland with an additional £500,000 to develop a marketing strategy that further highlights the unique tourism opportunities in the south of Scotland. We have also allocated £500,000 of capital funding to develop forest tourism, enhancing visitor experiences and growing leisure activities in the Tweed valley forest park and the Galloway forest park and on the Solway coast. The new south of Scotland economic partnership will also have a focus on developing the important contribution of tourism to the region, stimulating sustainable economic growth and encouraging tourism businesses to capitalise on what they already have to offer.

Tourism forms a key part of the Borders economy, contributing more than £200 million to the region each year. It is a sector that looks set to grow, particularly as the effects of the Edinburgh region city deal are felt. What provision is the Scottish Government making to improve skills and employment opportunities in tourism for young people in the Scottish Borders?

We have a tourism investment plan. We are actively engaged in using the developing the young workforce proposals to make sure that we can grow the opportunities for young people. Skills development is one of the vital parts of what we need to do to develop the tourism sector, to make sure that people realise that tourism is everybody’s business and that there are multiple careers that people can have in tourism. We need to make sure that it is a career of choice. It is an aspect that we are actively involved in, using the programmes that I have just described.

Galloway Hoard

To ask the Scottish Government what progress has been made towards ensuring that the Galloway Viking hoard is displayed in Dumfries and Galloway. (S5O-01829)

National Museums Scotland and Dumfries and Galloway Council have been in negotiations over a partnership agreement on displaying the hoard in the refurbished Kirkcudbright art gallery. As the council has felt unable to accept the agreement as yet, I have offered to meet the convener of the council’s communities committee.

When I raised this issue with the cabinet secretary last June, she informed Parliament that she would host a summit involving National Museums Scotland and Dumfries and Galloway Council in order to broker an agreement on displaying the hoard in the region. Although a date for the summit was set, it was cancelled by the cabinet secretary. Nine months later, she said that there would be a meeting, but there is still no date for it, despite the fact that Kirkcudbright art gallery is due to open in the next few weeks.

Does the cabinet secretary acknowledge the huge frustration felt in Dumfries and Galloway that a major tourism opportunity for the region is being missed because of the current impasse between National Museums Scotland and Dumfries and Galloway Council, in particular the barriers that are being put in place by NMS? Moreover, will she urgently intervene to ensure that we have a significant exhibition in Dumfries and Galloway sooner rather than later?

I was very keen to hold a summit and bring people together in order to broker an agreement but, at the request of Dumfries and Galloway Council and National Museums Scotland, it did not happen, because they felt that progress was being made in their negotiations and discussions and that such a summit would therefore not be appropriate. Despite officials’ advice to Dumfries and Galloway that it should accept the proposal put forward by NMS, that has not happened yet.

I am very keen to break that impasse, but there are a number of misunderstandings to address, not least what will be on offer. I am also keen to ensure that this happens with the Galloway hoard—which is what, I must stress, it should be called, and not, as the member has said, the Viking hoard. I have seen some of the collection, and it includes various things from different parts of our history.

These opportunities absolutely exist, and I have made my commitment to the Parliament and the people of Galloway that a significant part of that hoard will be on permanent display in Kirkcudbright art gallery and that the people of Galloway have that as a tourist attraction. I am determined for that to happen, and I have been very keen to intervene and meet the council to find out what the problems that it has in this respect are.

North Coast 500 Route

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to build on the impact that the north coast 500 route has had on tourism. (S5O-01830)

The north coast 500 continues to be a huge success in encouraging visitors to the north Highlands, one of Scotland’s most outstanding areas of scenic beauty, and the Scottish Government remains committed to ensuring that the increase has positive outcomes for communities and local businesses along the route. The NC500 working group, chaired by Highlands and Islands Enterprise, has expanded on its work to address the issues and opportunities that have been identified with regard to community engagement, infrastructure development and protection and enhancement of the environment, and its delivery plan will be available in the summer. VisitScotland is also actively working with partners for the benefit of the wider area to make sure that people visit outwith the summer season, and off the main route.

Highland Council has to maintain more than 7,000km of road, and the north coast route makes up more than 830 of that. A constituent recently said to me, “We used to drive on the left-hand side of the road—now we drive on what’s left of the road.” What assistance is the Scottish Government giving Highland Council for repairing and upgrading this iconic route?

I am not the transport minister, and the Highland Council is responsible for the roads that it administers. However, we are very conscious of the infrastructure issue; indeed, the reason why Highlands and Islands Enterprise is chairing the working group is that it can look at the issue and work with the council and other bodies to ensure that there is an offer across the north coast 500 that suits visitors’ needs. However, I think that talking in extremes is not a good advert for the north coast 500, and members should be very careful about what is reported with regard to whether people can access the route or not. I think that what the member has just said is very dangerous.

I want to drill down into that answer a wee bit more. Actually, the leader of the council wrote to the First Minister last August, requesting an additional £2.5 million to fund essential repairs on the north coast 500, particularly to sustain tourism. Will the cabinet secretary confirm whether she discussed the matter with the First Minister and, if so, what advice she gave her on that request relating to tourism?

The member asks about advice to the First Minister. Both the Conservatives and the Labour Party voted against the budget. The member expects additional funding, but he cannot come here and ask for more money when he voted against the budget.

Law Firms (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what work it is carrying out in partnership with the Law Society of Scotland to support putting Scottish law firms on the global map. (S5O-01834)

The Scottish Government is working in partnership with Scottish Development International and the Law Society of Scotland to promote Scottish legal international, an exciting new initiative that is designed to raise the profile of Scots law and our justice system with an international audience and to seek opportunities for inward investment in legal services in Scotland.

The work of Scottish legal international, along with other strands of work, will allow us to bring to bear the unique Scottish legal system. It will also allow us to contribute to the global effort among international partners to tackle dynamic threats, such as those in cyberspace, which can impact on Scotland’s citizens, its businesses and its public services.

Many people appreciate the quality of the Scottish legal system, but they—and I include some law firms in this—might not consider that there is an international opportunity for Scotland’s legal sector. How will the newly launched Scottish legal international initiative, in partnership with SDI, help law firms grasp global opportunities to contribute to Scotland’s economic growth?

Scottish legal international is chaired by Paul Carlyle of Shepherd and Wedderburn. It is a joint initiative developed by Paul Carlye and nine of Scotland’s top commercial law firms, in partnership with Scottish Development International and the Law Society of Scotland. It works collaboratively to promote all that Scotland has to offer as a place to invest in legal services and as a trading partner that offers the very best of legal knowledge, expertise and networks to a global audience.

Criminal Justice Social Work (Statistics)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the criminal justice social work statistics that were published on 6 February 2018. (S5O-01835)

“Criminal Justice Social Work Statistics in Scotland: 2016-17” contains valuable information about criminal justice social work activity at a national level, ranging from diversion from prosecution to community sentences such as the community payback order and statutory throughcare.

We have protected criminal justice social work funding for local authorities at record levels of £100 million a year.

The Scottish Government’s shift towards more community sentencing, including the introduction of CPOs, has greatly benefited Scotland’s communities.

The minister will be aware that completion rates for community payback orders have fallen for the third year in a row, resulting in a community justice system that lets one in three convicted offenders—nearly 6,000 criminals—off the hook. What action is the minister taking to address the mess of numerous delays in the system, with a third of CPO work placements failing to start within the Scottish Government’s seven-day target?

The 2016-17 statistics show that completion rates were only slightly down on the previous year—I think that it was down by 0.4 per cent, which is a marginal decrease. It may also interest the member to know that completion rates for community payback orders in his region have increased since the publication of last year’s stats, with all areas—aside from East Lothian—improving.

Ensuring that CPOs are completed is entirely a matter for the relevant local authority. A CPO is a court-mandated order, and accordingly the Scottish Government would expect local authorities to prioritise ensuring that they are completed.

CPOs deliver tangible benefits to communities by making individuals pay back for the damage caused by their crimes by carrying out unpaid work.

It is important to reiterate that we know that the evidence shows that individuals who are released from a custodial sentence of 12 months or less are reconvicted nearly twice as often as those who are given a CPO.

Will local authorities be provided with guidance on managing breaches of community payback orders?

Social work case managers have a number of options open to them in cases of breach, including returning the case to court. The legislation provides the courts with a range of sanctions in such cases, including imposing a fine and varying the CPO. We will, of course, continue to seek opportunities to strengthen and support the use of community payback orders. In fact, work is on-going to update the national practice guidance, which will help to bring greater clarity to breach and compliance processes.

The minister will have seen from the statistics that the number of community alternatives to prison has failed to grow in recent years. Indeed, the statistics show that short sentences of under three months still make up around three in 10 prison sentences. The Government has a presumption against short sentences, which are apparently failing to work as intended. Therefore, will the minister now look at what needs to be done to reduce the number of ineffective and expensive short sentences?

The member will be aware that, as indicated in the programme for government, we are seeking to extend the presumption against short sentences because we know—as I think he recognises—that short custodial sentences are not effective. That is, indeed, what the evidence shows. However, it is fair to say that the current diversion measures are continuing apace, including not just CPOs but fiscal work orders, for example. I think that the completion rate over the past year or so was around 80-plus per cent—it is important to bear that in mind.

There are also drug treatment and testing orders. Completion rates for those fluctuate annually, which reflects the overall downward trend in court volumes and the fact that such orders are targeted at individuals with entrenched drug problems and chaotic lifestyles, which means that achieving significant increases in completion rates is challenging.

I think that it is fair to take into account what the relevant diversion measures seek to do and who they are directed at. However, the member is correct to say that we need to look now at extending what is, indeed, only a presumption with regard to custodial sentences.

Drug Use in Prisons

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to reduce drug use in prisons. (S5O-01836)

The Scottish Prison Service takes a dual approach to reducing drug use in prison, focusing on both health and security measures. From a health perspective, the Scottish Prison Service’s strategy framework for the management of substance misuse in custody reflects the aims and objectives of the Scottish Government’s national drug and alcohol strategies, and it adopts the principle of recovery to reduce the harm caused by drug use. As the member will be aware, prisoner healthcare is the responsibility of the national health service, and addiction services in prisons are provided in line with local NHS boards’ strategies. The Scottish Prison Service has delivered the drug misuse pathway programme to help those in its care lead a meaningful life free from substance misuse and offending.

In terms of security measures, the Scottish Prison Service deploys a variety of strategic, tactical and technological responses to reduce drug use in Scotland’s prisons and it invests in the development of new technology and staff training to detect, deter and reduce the availability and supply of illegal substances in Scotland’s prisons. The Scottish Prison Service and Police Scotland work collaboratively and are committed to sharing information and intelligence in respect of criminal activity emanating from, or impacting on, our prison estate, and both organisations are committed to seeking convictions for those introducing illegal substances into the estate.

The 2017 prisoners survey shows that nearly 40 per cent of Scottish prisoners have witnessed illegal drug use in jail. We know that drug use in prison is rising and that the number of prisoners caught taking drugs is at an eight-year high, according to Prison Service’s most recent annual report. It is a simple truth that drug addiction is an obstacle to rehabilitation, so when will the Scottish National Party ensure that our prisons are the secure environment that they are meant to be?

Unfortunately, the member takes a rather simplistic view of the matter. He should recognise that some 70 per cent of those who come into the Scottish prison estate for periods in custody clearly have an illegal drug use problem and that the vast majority of them will be imprisoned for very short periods of time. Quite frankly, it is naive to expect the Scottish Prison Service, along with the national health service, to be able to unpick these matters over such a short period of time, given that we are often talking about individuals who have entrenched, long-standing drug problems.

However, along with the NHS, the Scottish Prison Service undertakes a range of work to tackle drug misuse among prisoners once they come into its care. Alongside that, the SPS has put in place extensive measures to tackle the problem of drugs being brought into the prison estate. I am sure that, if the member were to consider the issue in any detail, he would realise that the bringing of drugs into the prison estate is not peculiar to the Scottish prison system. He will be aware of the significant problems in England and Wales, which have contributed to the marked problems with violence in recent months.

The SPS takes robust measures to prevent drugs from coming into the prison estate. Where appropriate, it takes action, alongside Police Scotland, to deal with people who might be planning to bring in drugs or who have drugs on them when they are within the prison estate.

As the cabinet secretary acknowledged in his previous answer, many people who enter prison have a drug problem. Does he therefore agree that it is vital that we continue to invest in programmes to tackle drug use?

As I mentioned, tackling the use and the impact of drugs is not a challenge that is peculiar to Scotland or the Scottish Prison Service. The member will be aware that, under the national local delivery plan standard, 90 per cent of people are expected to receive access to appropriate drug and alcohol treatment within three weeks. The latest figures show that, of the 1,223 people in prison who started their first drug and alcohol treatment between July and September 2017, 99 per cent waited three weeks or less.

Ms Haughey and others will be aware that health ministers have indicated that they are committed to refreshing our national drugs strategy, which offers us an opportunity to reinvigorate our approach to the changing drugs landscape in Scotland. As part of that refresh, prisoner healthcare will be looked at. The agencies that are responsible for dealing with such matters will be challenged to identify new and more effective ways of tackling the issue. As was set out in the programme for government, that work is backed by an additional £20 million.

Pauline McNeill let me know earlier that she would be unable to make it for question 4.

Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (Proposed Changes)

To ask the Scottish Government how the proposed changes to the roles of Scottish Fire and Rescue Service personnel will impact on retained fire stations. (S5O-01838)

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service is currently consulting its staff and members of the public on its service transformation proposals in the document “Your Service, Your Voice”. For retained duty system fire stations, the service proposes to recruit new whole-time rural manager positions in key locations across Scotland. Those managers will support the delivery of local RDS training, undertake preventative work and ensure the availability of appliances in RDS stations. The service is also exploring the safe and planned introduction of new technology and vehicles in RDS fire stations that can be safely deployed with a revised crewing model.

I thank the minister for her response and welcome the measures that she set out. She will be aware of the challenges that many part-time fire crew members face in balancing work and home commitments with their duties as firefighters, notably the training requirements, which are a particular challenge in an island community such as Orkney.

Will the minister therefore keep a weather eye on the issue and on any additional training requirements that have to be met in pursuance of the reforms and which make recruitment and retention of retained duty fire crew any more difficult than it already is in Orkney and other rural areas?

Liam McArthur will well know that the challenges that are faced with the retained duty system are not unique to his island, the north or Scotland as a whole, but are shared in many other countries, because people no longer live and work in the same community. I am well aware of the interest that he has shown in ensuring that the vital nature of training is duly recognised and that there is resource available in the northern isles.

I will be happy on this snowy day to keep a weather eye, as Mr McArthur asked me to do, on ensuring that the SFRS maintains its absolute determination to ensure that training is at the fore of its activity.

I understand that the fire service aims to recruit 20 full-time rural firefighter posts each year for the next three years, to reach a total of 60 by the end of 2020. Does the minister share that ambition?

I am happy to say to Maurice Corry that I share the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service’s vision for the transformation of the service. Discussions are on-going with the unions and the workforce as to how exactly that transformation should look. The proposals that are included in its consultation document are interesting, exciting and innovative and I encourage all members and the general public to consider responding to them. There are a lot of exciting and innovative proposals to ensure that our fantastic Scottish Fire and Rescue Service can continue to meet the emerging risks for the 21st century in Scotland.

Police Scotland and British Transport Police (Merger)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the proposed merger between Police Scotland and the British Transport Police. (S5O-01839)

The Scottish Government is committed to delivering the benefits of a single command structure to provide integrated infrastructure policing in Scotland. The joint programme board that was set up to oversee the integration has been advised by Police Scotland and the British Transport Police Authority that operational aspects of the integration will not be ready by April 2019 as planned. As I set out in Parliament last week, we have therefore agreed that a replanning exercise should take place in the coming months to ensure that all aspects have a clear and realistic delivery plan in place. A safe and secure transition to the full integration of the British Transport Police in Scotland and Police Scotland remains our aim and a clear focus on public safety is paramount.

Last week, I asked the cabinet secretary if he would listen to HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland and be forthcoming about the risks and drawbacks of the merger. He responded:

“The HMICS report came before we had published the explanatory notes and policy memorandum that went with the legislation”—[Official Report, 21 February; c 7.]

However, the Railway Policing (Scotland) Bill was published in December 2016, and the HMICS report took place between February and April 2017. Will the cabinet secretary correct his previous comments? Will he consider commissioning an independent, transparent, arms-length analysis of the merger, as many experts are calling for?

No. As we set out in detail when the bill went through Parliament, the real benefits will come from integrated policing, with the BTP integrated with Police Scotland in a broadly similar way to that which the Conservative Party set out in its manifesto before the last election to integrate the BTP with civil nuclear police and Ministry of Defence policing. I assure Jamie Greene that, in undertaking the replanning exercise, the joint programme board will consider all the key issues that need to be addressed—as it has been doing—to make sure that there are detailed plans in place for the areas where progress still has to be made.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that the Tories’ constant criticism of the decision to merge Police Scotland and the British Transport Police is rank political opportunism and incredibly hypocritical, given that they committed—just as he has said—to merge the Ministry of Defence police and the British Transport Police?

I do not know whether it is for me to point out to the Conservative Party the hypocrisy in the matter, but it stands out, given the party’s manifesto commitment to abolish the BTP—something that they seem to want to conveniently ignore when it suits them. The actions that we are taking, given the policy that has been pursued by the United Kingdom Government to abolish the BTP, are to ensure that we have an appropriate infrastructure for policing in Scotland and to do so with a single command structure to deliver a safe and appropriate service to the travelling public in Scotland on Scottish railways.

Police Scotland Estate (Consultation)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on Police Scotland’s consultation regarding its 53 buildings that are no longer required. (S5O-01840)

Police Scotland undertook a consultation on the disposal of 53 unused police premises across Scotland. That consultation ran from 1 November 2017 to 31 January 2018. Responses are being collated and analysed and will be presented to the Scottish Police Authority board in due course. Responsibility for the police estate sits with the Scottish Police Authority.

I note that five of the 53 premises that are no longer required are in my constituency. Will the cabinet secretary give an assurance that, where there is a desire within the community to take ownership of those buildings, everything will be done to help to facilitate that?

I can confirm that Police Scotland has used its recent consultation on the disposal of unused police properties to raise awareness of the opportunities for community ownership that are provided by the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015. I and my other colleagues in Government are supportive of the potential benefits that can flow from communities owning land and buildings, and, for that reason, the Government set up the community ownership support service. The member might wish to make her constituents aware of the provisions that are available under the support service, which could assist them in potentially taking over some of those properties. However, Police Scotland remains very open to the possibility of community ownership of some of the properties, where there is a local case to be made for such a transfer to take place.