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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 28 May 2019

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Children (Equal Protection from Assault) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Business Motion, Decision Time, Universal Credit and Mental Health


Topical Question Time

European Elections (Results)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the results of the European elections. (S5T-01676)

The Scottish Government welcomes the results of the European Parliament elections, which were a stunning success for the Scottish National Party. The elections have confirmed that there is overwhelming support in Scotland for remaining in the European Union. It is clear that the results from across the United Kingdom tell a tale of two countries that have different political views, values and visions for the future.

I congratulate all the Scottish members of the European Parliament, and especially the newly elected Christian Allard and Aileen McLeod who, as you will be aware, Presiding Officer, were formerly members of this Parliament. With the election of Sheila Ritchie of the Liberal Democrats, there is now gender balance in the Scottish contingent. In the absence from the chamber of any Labour member who might have done so, I also extend our gratitude for the service of David Martin, who has provided distinctive wisdom, commitment and advice on Scottish matters in the European Parliament for many decades. It is fitting that we pay tribute to him at this time. [Applause.]

Does the cabinet secretary agree that the results were an astounding rejection of Brexit in Scotland, in that the SNP finished 23 percentage points ahead of the Brexit Party and took the highest share of the vote of any party in western Europe? Does she think that Scotland has again made itself clear that it is not for Brexit and that the issue should go back to the people in a vote, in which I am confident that, once again, its people will make the decision that their future lies in Europe?

Yes, I agree that the Scottish people’s voice has been heard. The Scottish Government has consistently made clear that the best option for the future of Scotland and the UK is for us to stay in the European Union. The election results demonstrate that the UK political system has failed, and that it has also failed Scotland utterly. We are clear that continuing with Brexit would ignore the views of this Parliament and of the people of Scotland, which is why the Scottish Government will continue its efforts to secure that a further referendum is held on any deal that might be agreed by the UK Parliament. If Parliament cannot support such a deal, the default position should be that we revoke article 50 and not that we would have a no-deal Brexit. We will continue to do everything that we can to stop Brexit and all the ensuing economic damage to Scotland that it would entail.

The cabinet secretary will be aware of the shocking reports of EU citizens in Scotland and the rest of the UK being denied their votes on polling day. What pressure has the Scottish Government put on the UK Government to investigate that scandal? Can the cabinet secretary confirm that the UK Government was aware of the risks of that happening months ago but, until the last possible moment, made no preparations for the European Parliament elections, so causing the confusion that we saw ensue on polling day?

Participation in the European Parliament elections in whichever member state they have chosen to live in is a fundamental right of all EU citizens. The Scottish Government is therefore deeply concerned about the difficulties that were encountered by some EU citizens who were denied their right to vote. It is important that we understand that their experience was different in different parts of the country. However, Mr Adam is absolutely right. That challenge had been foreseen and the UK Government could—and should—have done something to ensure that no EU citizens were disadvantaged in exercising their fundamental rights. The Scottish Government has written to the UK Government to call for a full investigation and will share any response with this Parliament at the appropriate time.

Is it not symbolic that, at a time when there are no longer any Labour MEPs representing Scotland, no Labour MSPs are present in the chamber to ask questions of the cabinet secretary on the elections?

Given that, whether we like it or not, Europe is the dominant political issue of our time, what is the Scottish Government’s reaction to the fact that only two fifths of the Scottish electorate voted last Thursday, and that three fifths therefore chose to stay at home and not to vote at all? Is the Scottish Government content with that level of voter turnout? If it shares my concern that it is too low for a healthy democracy, what, if anything, does it propose to do about it?

I understand why the Labour Party and the Conservatives want to airbrush out the results of the European Parliament elections. However, let us be clear: the turnout was one of the highest ever for European Parliament elections—I think that it is the highest since 1994. Rather than people staying away, they deliberately went out to vote to make their voices heard, which is to be welcomed—indeed, there was a high turnout across the European Union.

It is not good enough for the Conservatives to come here and blame the Scottish people. They should be reassessing the situation and ensuring that Scotland’s needs are protected. The best thing that the Conservatives could do in this Parliament would be to join the rest of us to ensure that no deal is taken off the table, and that there is another opportunity for the Scottish people—and, indeed, for people in the rest of UK—to vote to remain in the European Union. We can stop Brexit if we act together.

I offer my sincere congratulations to those who were elected, and my sincere hope that they will have the opportunity to represent Scotland throughout the entire term of this European Parliament. I also offer my commiserations to David Martin who—as the cabinet secretary said—has earned the sincere respect of colleagues from across the political spectrum.

Is the Scottish Government still committed to legislation that would ensure that the right to vote is based on residence and not citizenship? It seems to me that that is one of the most important things that we can do to address the concerns that Mr Adams raised and which I share about EU citizens being disenfranchised. Would ensuring that devolved legislation controls the franchise for all elections that take place in Scotland not be the simplest way to ensure that we are never in this mess again?

Patrick Harvie is right to raise that fundamental issue. I talked about the rights of citizens, and the legislation that we plan to bring forward recognises the importance of residence in relation to the franchise.

I reiterate that it is important that we gather information about different experiences, particularly in different parts of the country—I know that my own council area did not have the same issues that there were elsewhere. That underlines the fact that the issue could, and should, have been tackled, and that it is a disgrace and a scandal that many of our fellow citizens here in Scotland were not able to exercise their fundamental rights.

Buchanan High School (Health Concerns)

To ask the Scottish Government what advice it is providing to North Lanarkshire Council, in light of reports that blue water at Buchanan high school may be linked to health concerns among staff. (S5T-01678)

The distribution and storage of water on school property is a matter for the local authority. I understand that Scottish Water, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and NHS Lanarkshire have been working with North Lanarkshire Council on the matter.

I thank the headteachers and all the staff at Buchanan high school and neighbouring St Ambrose high school, who have continued to act professionally throughout this speculation. Like all schools in the area, they deliver excellent outcomes for pupils against a backdrop of challenging demographic circumstances.

The minister will be aware that Professor Andrew Watterson of the University of Stirling’s occupational and environmental health research group said:

“the reported ill-health cases do merit serious investigation and it is understandable that staff, pupils and others who work on the site are anxious.”

Does the minister agree that North Lanarkshire Council should investigate concerns properly and that parents, pupils and staff should be kept properly informed by the council, which could go some way towards mediating the anxiety that some may have?

It is understandable that there is concern and anxiety. I absolutely agree that North Lanarkshire Council should take the concerns of parents, pupils and staff on this matter very seriously. Ensuring that there is a thorough investigation into what can be done to mitigate any potential risks is a sensible and pragmatic approach.

The minister may be aware that, in conjunction with local councillors, I will hold a public meeting on the matter on 6 June. North Lanarkshire Council has assured me that it will be attended by council officials, and I will ensure that the local MP and other ward councillors are invited. Would the minister consider the possibility of a Scottish Government official also attending the meeting?

I am pleased that North Lanarkshire Council will attend, given that it has statutory responsibility for the school estate. I agree with Fulton MacGregor that it would be good for the Scottish Government to attend, too. If he sends us the details of when the meeting will happen, my office will ensure that that happens. I would also expect the local health board, NHS Lanarkshire, to be represented.

Given that the school was built on toxic waste, is the minister satisfied that an appropriate environmental impact assessment was carried out? Is he aware of whether any related conditions were attached to the grant of planning permission?

The grant of planning permission would pre-date my taking up office as Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing and almost certainly my time in my previous position, but I understand that people want answers to those questions. I am not aware of any direct link between copper, which it is suggested is the issue in this case, and particular cancers, but clearly something is going on and we need to understand it.

As Fulton MacGregor pointed out, it is important that the local authority carries out a full investigation and works with SEPA to make sure that the investigation is as robust as possible, in order to give people in the local area—particularly parents, children and staff—confidence in the safety of the school.

In addition to the four teachers at the school—which was built on toxic landfill—who have developed the same rare cancer, the son of one of my constituents has become blind and there is a medial suspicion that the blue water, or some other toxic ingredient on the site, may have contributed to that. In the light of public concern, if the council does not carry out a satisfactory and robust independent inquiry into the matter to inform people and allay public fears, will the minister consider intervening? Public health is clearly a statutory requirement of the Scottish Government, as well as the council, Scottish Water and the health board.

Alex Neil is absolutely right about the statutory responsibility. The Education (Scotland) Act 1980 places a statutory responsibility on all local authorities to manage and maintain their school estates. I sincerely hope that the local authority takes that responsibility seriously and that the investigation that we are talking about goes ahead, in order to give people confidence. Part of the discussion around what the investigation should look like needs to be with other agencies, such as SEPA and Scottish Water, and with public health officials in NHS Lanarkshire.

That concludes topical question time. We will take few moments before the next item of business to allow the minister and members to change seats.