Meeting date: Thursday, June 28, 2018
Meeting of the Parliament 28 June 2018
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Ministers and Junior Ministers
First Minister’s Question Time
Prisoners (Sentencing and Release)
Michelle Stewart was murdered in the Ayrshire village of Drongan on 14 November 2008. She was 17 years old. Her killer, John Wilson, having lain in wait for Michelle, stabbed her 10 times and was sentenced to life. The judge made it clear that he should serve 12 years before he could apply for parole but, on Saturday, just nine years later, Michelle’s sister Lisa received a letter from the Scottish Prison Service, which informed her that Wilson has now been
“approved for First Grant of Temporary Release.”
It went on:
“Temporary Release includes release for work etc, home leave, short leave, pre-release leave and unescorted day leave.”
If the First Minister were in that family’s shoes, what would she think of receiving that letter?
I take this opportunity to convey my deepest condolences to the family. If I was in their shoes, I would be very upset to see that letter, as I think every family would be. We have independent processes in place to determine the guilt or otherwise of individuals who are accused of crime and to determine sentences. As Ruth Davidson is aware, we also have independent processes in place to determine whether prisoners should be eligible for parole or other forms of release.
I will certainly look closely at the individual case that Ruth Davidson has raised. As I say, those decisions are taken independently but, from a policy perspective—I have made this point previously in the chamber—where we consider that changes are required, we will not hesitate to make those changes. However, it is important that our justice system operates independently of ministers in individual cases. I believe that members across the chamber agree with that.
John Wilson was given a life sentence for murdering Michelle, but he will not serve life in prison. He will not even remain behind bars for the 12-year minimum that was recommended. He has been approved to be released unescorted back into the community in a little under 100 months. This week, we spoke to Michelle’s family, and Kenny, her father, says this:
“This was a pre-meditated murder. Why is he being considered for temporary release now when the judge said he should serve at least 12 years? How does this send the right message about Scottish justice? How is this a deterrent?”
When families such as those of Michelle Stewart say that they feel completely let down by the justice system, can the First Minister understand why?
I do not know the particulars of the case, which is why I said in my first answer that I will look carefully at the details. In terms of parole—from what Ruth Davidson has said, I am not sure that it is a case of parole—prisoners require to serve a certain portion of their sentence before they can apply for parole. Temporary release is part of the rehabilitation process, and decisions on that are taken very carefully by the Scottish Prison Service. Risk assessments are made, and I am sure that that will have happened in this case.
Of course, none of that takes away from the upset that any family who has gone through such trauma will feel when the person who has been found guilty is released, even if that is part of a rehabilitation process. As Ruth Davidson and I have discussed in the chamber before, it is important that we have processes in place that help with the rehabilitation of prisoners, but it is also important that the Prison Service and the Parole Board for Scotland get individual decisions right. As I have said twice now, I am not familiar with the details of the case and why those decisions have been taken, but I give Ruth Davidson an undertaking that I will look into the particulars and the detail. I am happy to correspond with her in greater detail when I have had the opportunity to do so.
The First Minister is right that this is a specific case, but the reason for raising a specific case is that the sense of injustice that is felt by Michelle’s family is not an isolated example. It is felt by grieving families right across Scotland, such as the family of Craig McClelland, who was killed by a convicted criminal who had been illegally at liberty for six months after breaching his licence; the family of Moira Gilbertson, who was murdered by her ex-partner, who had been allowed to walk free despite having beaten her up following his release from his sentence for a previous murder; or the family of Linda McDonald, who was brutally attacked last year by Robbie McIntosh just days after he had been released on home leave following a previous conviction for murder. We keep being told that criminals have rights that need to be respected, but who in the Scottish Government is standing up for victims’ rights? What reforms are being delivered now to correct those injustices?
First, some of the cases that Ruth Davidson cited relate to home detention curfew. It is the case that home detention curfew is used only for a very, very small proportion of the prison population, and careful assessments are made.
When things happen that all of us regret, lessons are learned. The former Cabinet Secretary for Justice established reviews, to be undertaken by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary in Scotland and by HM prisons inspectorate for Scotland, to make sure that we are learning those lessons.
I appreciate and accept that there are general principles at stake here. One of those principles is how we ensure that we are doing everything possible to rehabilitate those who have committed crimes, because that is in the interests of victims of crime and it is in the interests of society overall.
As I have said previously, none of what I say in the general sense is intended in any way to take away from the experiences of individual families in individual cases. Generally, Ruth Davidson tries to suggest that somehow the justice system in Scotland is loaded in favour of those who commit crimes and not victims; I do not accept that that is the case.
We have one of the highest prison populations in the whole of western Europe. One of the reasons for the reforms that we are undertaking is that we know that for many prisoners—and I am not talking about specific cases right now—prison is not the most effective form of sentence.
It is right that people are punished appropriately—I absolutely agree with Ruth Davidson about that—and it is absolutely right that the interests of victims are at the centre of our justice system, but we also owe it to victims and society to make sure that we have a justice system that effectively rehabilitates those who are capable of rehabilitation.
Those are never easy balances to get right, but as Ruth Davidson herself has acknowledged, and as her colleagues south of the border frequently acknowledge, it is important that we continue to make sure that we take all those factors into account in our justice system. We will continue to do so.
The First Minister reshuffled her Cabinet this week, so we will have a new Cabinet Secretary for Justice in place. Here is what we need from him: we need a root-and-branch review of the way in which the justice system is operating; we need greater transparency on sentencing, so that people such as the Stewart family are told honestly what is going to happen when someone is convicted; we need victims to have a right to speak at parole hearings—a right that currently they are denied; and, when so many offenders are committing crimes while out on parole or home release, we need to rebalance the system in favour of the law-abiding public.
We all want to have confidence in the justice system. Is it time that the Scottish Government ordered such a review, so that confidence can be restored?
Before I address the substance of Ruth Davidson’s question, let me say that I would be very happy to ask the new justice secretary—assuming that the Parliament approves his appointment shortly—to offer to meet the Stewart family, to hear directly from them about their experiences.
Ruth Davidson talks about the process of parole decisions. As I think that I have said in the chamber before, discussions are under way with the Parole Board for Scotland on further reforms and possible development of the rules of procedure by which the board operates. That review will include consideration of whether changes should be made following the United Kingdom review of the Worboys case.
We are absolutely committed to ensuring that the parole process is as open and as transparent as possible. Of course it must operate independently of ministers, as I hope that everyone agrees.
On wider review, two reviews are already under way, as I said, after a case that Ruth Davidson mentioned previously, and I think that it is right that we take time to hear the conclusions of those reviews before we consider whether other action is required.
We will continue to make sure that we have a justice system that reflects the needs and interests of victims, that assists us in helping to reduce crime and that allows us, where possible, to aid the rehabilitation of prisoners, because that is in everyone’s interests, at the end of the day.
Yesterday, the signatures of more than 25,000 people, who are demanding that this Government values education and values our teachers, were delivered to the Government. If education really was the driving and defining mission of this Government, the Educational Institute of Scotland would not have to send such a message to the Deputy First Minister, would it?
There is a pay negotiating process for education in place, and the negotiations for the next pay award are already under way. The body that takes those negotiations forward for education is comprised of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Scottish Government and the teaching unions. As a proud trade unionist, I would have thought that Richard Leonard would support the negotiating process that we have in place. I understand that those negotiations are making good progress. I hope that they conclude well and soon.
Finally, it was the Scottish Government, ahead of the United Kingdom Government and the Labour Welsh Government, that lifted the 1 per cent pay cap. I was very proud this week that it was also this Government that proposed a 9 per cent increase over the next three years for those working in our national health service.
The Government’s record is good and we will continue to take the decisions that are in the interests of our public service workers.
The First Minister has told us repeatedly that education is her top priority. However, for two years, the Government has wasted time on an education bill that its own international advisers have warned is unnecessary and misguided. This week, John Swinney finally got the message. He can spin all he likes that ditching the bill is fast-tracking the reforms, but nobody believes it. It is also clear that John Swinney is now reaping at education what he sowed at finance.
Less than three weeks ago, John Swinney told the Scottish National Party conference that we are witnessing a “renaissance” in Scottish education, but a renaissance of what? Rising class sizes? Flagship legislation shelved? Overworked, underpaid and demoralised teachers preparing to ballot for industrial action?
Richard Leonard said that nobody believes that our education reforms are being fast-tracked and accelerated. I hate to be the one to break it to Richard Leonard, but the Labour members of COSLA believe it, because every single party that is represented on COSLA signed up to the agreement. The fact is that the reforms are being fast-tracked. The agreement means that implementation of the reforms will start now instead of having to wait 18 months for the passage of the legislation. Crucially, the agreement will see the new headteachers’ charter begin to be implemented this year.
I suspect that the reason why Richard Leonard and his colleagues are so upset about this is that they have been denied the opportunity to play politics with education during the passage of a bill and to frustrate and undermine the reforms. Instead, the Government is getting on with the job. Budgets in education are rising. More money is going to headteachers. Important reforms are being implemented more quickly, and the attainment gap is starting to close. We will get on with the job and leave Labour to carp from the sidelines, as usual.
The two main themes of this final week of term have been the Government’s record on education and the politicians who Nicola Sturgeon chooses to serve in her Government.
Gillian Martin described transgender people as
“hairy knuckled lipstick-wearing transitional transgender laydees”
and she claimed that college public relations staff
“froth at the mouth with excitement if anyone in a wheelchair does anything that can be remotely described as an achievement.”
Minutes ago, Gillian Martin’s name was removed from the list of new ministers. However, the point is that the First Minister knew about those comments and still proposed to put Gillian Martin in charge of further and higher education. In the end, this is not just about Gillian Martin’s judgment; this is about the First Minister’s judgment, is it not?
After First Minister’s questions, we will come to the issue of ministerial appointments and I will address that issue directly at that time.
Richard Leonard opened his question by talking about this week’s themes. Let me just give him a flavour of this week’s themes from the perspective of the Scottish Government: NHS Scotland workers were given a 9 per cent pay rise; £20 million is being invested to lift people out of homelessness; a new target for fuel poverty has been set; and funding for university research and innovation is being increased. Those are the things that the Government has been working on and they demonstrate day in and day out that the Government is focused on getting on with the job of building a better Scotland.
We have a number of constituency supplementaries, the first of which is from Sandra White.
Sauchiehall Street (Fires)
I have met local residents and businesses that have been affected by the recent fires in Sauchiehall Street at the Glasgow School of Art and at Victoria’s nightclub. They have raised concerns, most of which are not individual issues but issues about the future of Sauchiehall Street, which is a much loved and great area in the city of Glasgow. What assistance can the Scottish Government provide to support those who are affected and to ensure that Sauchiehall Street has a future?
I am aware that the fire at the Glasgow School of Art has had an enormous impact on businesses and households across Glasgow, which is why we have been working very closely with Glasgow City Council to offer support to those who are affected. Later this afternoon, the finance secretary will set out details of a new hardship and relief fund for residents who have been displaced from their homes. The Scottish Government will make £1,500 available to each household, and that money will be match funded by the council, which will make a total of £3,000 available to each household. In addition, we will confirm increases in support for affected businesses. We will increase the amount that the Scottish Government contributes towards business rates from 75 to 95 per cent.
Many of the people who were affected by the fire at Victoria’s nightclub will also have been impacted by the Glasgow School of Art fire, and they will be eligible for the support that we are announcing today. We stand ready to discuss with the council what more we can do to support it and everybody who is affected by the tragic fire.
NHS Grampian (Cancer Care)
The latest figures, which have just been released, show that in the Grampian NHS Board area nearly 25 per cent of patients who are urgently referred with a suspicion of cancer fail to receive their first treatment within two months of that referral, which is the worst rate in Scotland. The First Minister knows that NHS Grampian has lost out on £165 million under her NHS Scotland resource allocation committee formula over the past nine years. Will she take action to ensure that NHS Grampian has the resources that are available to every other health board to tackle the crisis in cancer care in the north-east?
As a result of the Government introducing the NRAC formula, which replaced the Arbuthnott formula, health boards that are under parity have been taken closer to parity than they have ever been. That is the action that has been taken by this Government that was not taken by previous Governments of which the Liberal Democrats were members.
The figures that have been released this week show that we have work to do with boards, including Grampian NHS Board, to improve cancer waiting times. The 62-day waiting time target is from referral to treatment. The median wait across Scotland is 43 days. In the past year, there has been an increase in the number of patients who have been treated within the target—the number of patients who are treated within it has gone up by more than 7 per cent. We continue to work closely with boards, including Grampian NHS Board, to ensure that there will be further improvements as quickly as possible. That will be a key priority for the new health secretary.
In April 2013, Nicola Sturgeon visited Stranraer to chair the meeting of a task force that was set up to regenerate the area after ferry operator Stena Line moved to nearby Cairnryan. Despite the Scottish Government promising the people of Stranraer that it was committed to the regeneration of the town, it is now almost seven years since the ferries left. Stranraer has been badly let down.
The expansion of the existing marina is key to stimulating local regeneration and is a shovel-ready project. Will the First Minister give a commitment to the people of Stranraer that she will do everything that she can to ensure that the required financial resources are made available to progress the project sooner rather than later?
We work with local councils, including the council that covers Stranraer, on regeneration, and we have done so every year that the Government has been in office. The new Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity will be happy to have discussions with councils about what more we can do. We have already announced and are taking forward plans for a new enterprise agency for the south of Scotland, and the interim arrangements have been backed by £10 million of additional funding. The agency will ensure that actions are taken to support regeneration and business activity, which is a positive development that, I hope, Finlay Carson would welcome.
I believe that when Opposition parties criticise the Government for a course of action and the Government then ends that course of action, they should welcome it. Therefore, I am pleased to see that the education bill has been dumped—for the time being, at least.
However, we will continue to criticise the proposals that were in the bill because they were criticised not only by those who instinctively attack the Government for everything or who play party politics. They have been criticised across the political spectrum and by teachers, parents, academics and others. Do those people, in particular teachers and pupils, not have a right to be told that the action is not just the end of a bill, but represents a change in direction and a commitment to resourcing our education system properly, in order to make teaching once again the attractive profession that it needs to be? That will take money and not just the scrapping of a single bill.
As I said to Richard Leonard, we are committed to the reforms that we have embarked upon. As was set out in the Deputy First Minister’s statement earlier this week, those reforms will be fast tracked and accelerated. That is in the interests of pupils, teachers and parents across the country.
Investment in education is increasing, including the amount of money that is going directly to headteachers to empower them by allowing them to invest resources in ways that help to close the attainment gap. We are also making greater investment in the teaching profession. As I said earlier, negotiations on a pay settlement continue.
All that is important; it is also important that we do not take the advice of Patrick Harvie and others, but continue to take forward the changes, because they are already leading to improvements. Record numbers of young people are achieving positive destinations; a record percentage of young people are getting five highers; the attainment gap in our schools is continuing to close; there are improvements in literacy and numeracy; and access to university and to higher education more generally is widening. Those outcomes are important: it is equally important that we continue the action that will see such improvements continue and gather pace.
We will continue to make the case that the Scottish Government should not force through structural changes, as opposed to resourcing changes, for which it does not have a majority in Parliament.
However I would like to end with a positive proposal in education and a question about something that the Government should be doing, rather than something that we think it should not be doing.
This is the third anniversary of the time for inclusive education campaign, which seeks an education system that meets the needs of Scotland’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex young people. The TIE campaign has political support from across the spectrum. I am pleased to see so many members wearing the TIE campaign’s rainbow tie in the chamber today. [Applause.]
Will the Government give a commitment not to let the fourth anniversary of the TIE campaign pass without making the goal of truly LGBTI-inclusive education a reality in Scotland’s schools?
I am very proud to wear the TIE badge today. I take this opportunity to congratulate the TIE campaign on its third anniversary. The campaign is driven mainly by young people, which is an inspiration to young people across Scotland and is showing the power of their voices to make positive and progressive change. I pay tribute to the TIE campaign for its positive example—as I am sure all MSPs do.
As Patrick Harvie knows, the Scottish Government is working with TIE to
“promote an inclusive approach to sex and relationships education”.
That work is being done through the LGBTI inclusive education working group, which is chaired by the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland. The group includes representation from the Scottish Transgender Alliance, LGBT Youth Scotland and Stonewall Scotland. Recommendations from the working group are expected in autumn 2018. At that point, I am sure that everyone in Parliament will have an interest—the Government and I certainly will—in ensuring that the group’s recommendations are implemented as quickly as possible.
There is a general practitioner shortage threatening out-of-hours services from the east coast to the west coast; mental health waiting times are skyrocketing; we have the worst cancer treatment waiting times in six years; accident and emergency waiting times targets have been missed for months on end; and operations have been cancelled because surgical equipment is not being sterilised for use. With there being a multimillion pound shortfall in the health board budgets, the British Medical Association says that the national health service in Scotland is getting worse and is letting down patients and staff.
The First Minister has replaced her health secretary, but can she tell us what new policies the new health secretary will now pursue to clean up that mess?
For weeks Willie Rennie has been standing up saying that the health secretary has to change. Now that the health secretary has changed, he stands up and says that it is not the health secretary but the policies that have to change. Consistency has never been a particular strong point of Willie Rennie’s.
We will continue to invest record sums in the national health service, we will continue to employ record numbers of staff in the national health service, we will continue to make sure that we are rewarding them for the work that they do, and we will continue to progress reforms including integration of health and social care, through transfer of more care into the community and shifting the balance of care, which we know is so important to the future of our NHS.
We are also investing more in additional training places across the spectrum of health service employees. We will continue with that important work of investment and reform. It is that work that is delivering, and will continue to deliver, for patients, which is why there is still, in this country, such high patient satisfaction with our precious NHS.
The First Minister needs to know that it is the policy and the leadership of the NHS that count. I am not hearing a commitment to change from the First Minister. That is perhaps why her own survey shows that people judge her performance on the NHS to be getting worse.
If there is one crisis in the NHS, there is another in Scottish education: nursery education roll-out that is driving childminders and nurseries out of business; five-year-olds being made to sit utterly pointless tests; the college sector hollowed out; and now the shambles of a cancelled education bill. Scottish education used to be the best in the world. Now it is just average—letting down teachers and letting down pupils.
Given that the First Minister’s own growth commission says that the NHS and education would face years of added cuts, can she honestly look Scotland in the eye and say that now is the time to hit the independence red button?
I do not think that Willie Rennie does himself any credit with the ridiculous hyperbole of that rambling and incoherent question.
This is the Government that has already increased childcare and is now working to double childcare for families and children right across the country. This Government is overseeing, right now, a narrowing of the attainment gap, with record higher passes for our young people and more of our young people than ever going on to positive destinations after school.
We saw in an Audit Scotland report about colleges just last week that this Government has not merely met its target for places at colleges: we have exceeded the target for the number of young people at colleges. Despite—and contrary to—Willie Rennie’s ridiculous assertions, this is a Government that is getting on with the job of improving education in the early years, schools, colleges and universities. That is exactly what we will continue to do.
We have some more supplementaries. The first is from John Scott.
Carbon Dioxide Supply
I declare an interest as a farmer.
The First Minister will be aware that stocks of carbon dioxide are dwindling across Europe, with several manufacturing plants not producing it for a variety of reasons, which is leading to difficulties in Scotland’s food and drink sector and to the closure of abattoirs, as well as reducing manufacturing capacity in our drinks sector at a time of peak demand. Are there interim measures that the Scottish Government can take to help businesses that are facing very real difficulties until normal production is restored? If so, perhaps the First Minister could provide the food and drink sector, and other vital industries of which she will be aware, with the detailed reassurance that they require.
Those are issues in which the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity is very closely engaged to support our businesses, farmers and the food and drink sector across the country. He will be happy to write John Scott setting out in more detail the actions that we are taking and will continue to take.
However, I will say that our food and drink sector is one of the most successful sectors of our economy, partly because of the support that this Government has given to it over an extended period, which we will continue to give. The Tories will not like what I am about to say, but one of the biggest risks to our food and drink sector is the barriers to exports and trade that come from Brexit, so perhaps John Scott, as well as rightly raising such issues with the Scottish Government, could raise his voice to his United Kingdom Government colleagues and demand that they take action to give the certainty around trade that our food and drink sector, agriculture sector and every other sector of our economy so badly need.
I remind the chamber of my role as parliamentary liaison officer to the First Minister.
Department for Work and Pensions figures released this morning show that thousands of families in Scotland have been hit by the Tories’ two-child cap. Of the women hit by that cap, 190 were granted exemption under the rape clause, 10 of them in Scotland. Does the First Minister agree that no woman—not a single one—should have to relive the terrible experience of rape just to get the benefits to which they are entitled, and that it is time to scrap the cap?
Those statistics are really horrifying. This chamber has debated the rape clause on several occasions in the past and, although it has always been really moving and many people have been very distressed by those discussions, it has always, I guess, debated it in the abstract. Today, we see evidence for the first time of the real-life impact of the two-child cap and the rape clause on real women—190 across the United Kingdom, 10 of them in Scotland. Those women are having to disclose the fact that they have been raped and that that rape led to the conception of their child in order to access state support for that child. That is horrifying, grotesque and a stain on the reputation of the Conservatives and the Conservative Government at Westminster. The sooner we get rid of the two-child cap and the rape clause, the better. As First Minister, I say that as long as I am First Minister there will never, ever be such policies in Scotland.
Piper Alpha Disaster
On 6 July, families, friends and industry representatives will gather at the Piper Alpha memorial garden in Aberdeen to remember the 167 men who lost their lives in the Piper Alpha disaster 30 years ago that day. The tragic events of that night are long past, but, for so many people across the north-east and beyond, the pain, loss and suffering will never fade. Does the First Minister agree that we must never forget those who lost their lives, nor the family members and friends affected, and that we must ensure that the highest possible standards of safety are maintained offshore, to protect those who make their living on and around the rigs?
I agree whole-heartedly with Liam Kerr and thank him for raising the issue in the chamber. Many of us across the chamber vividly remember the Piper Alpha tragedy and the impact that it had, not just on the north-east of Scotland—although most importantly there—but on everybody right across our country. First, yes, it is important that those affected—those who lost their lives and their families and friends—remain very much in our thoughts at this particular time. Secondly, and importantly for the future, safety in the North Sea is something that must never, ever be compromised on.
Over the past three years or so, during the tough times that the oil and gas sector has had, I have had many discussions with companies and interests in the North Sea. Safety has always been at the heart of those discussions, and that is how it must always be. However, for now, and over the next few weeks, I know that all of us across the chamber will be thinking of all those affected by the tragedy of Piper Alpha.
International Trade (Impact of Tariffs)
To ask the First Minister what assessment the Scottish Government has made of the potential impact on Scotland of a trade war between the United States and Europe following the recent imposition of new tariffs. (S5F-02514)
We are very concerned that the US decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminium, and the subsequent European Union decision to impose tariffs on a range of US products, will escalate into a full-blown trade war. That will affect Scottish producers and the Scottish economy. The United States is Scotland’s largest international export market, worth £4.8 billion in 2016. The imposition of tariffs on bourbon and related spirits, in particular, increases the risk of US measures on Scotch whisky. That could have a significant impact on an industry that provides around 10,000 full-time equivalent jobs in Scotland and, of course, a similar number in the wider supply chain.
I thank the First Minister for her answer and welcome the fact that she shares my concern that the potential impact of a trade war is compounded by Europe’s decision to impose tariffs on American whiskey and bourbon in response to Donald Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on aluminium and steel, given that the US is the Scotch whisky sector’s most successful global market, worth £900 million in 2017 alone.
Does the First Minister share my disappointment that it appears that the United Kingdom Government did not formally object to the decision by the EU to add American whiskey and bourbon to the list of tariffs? Will she make representations to the UK ministers and EU authorities to ensure that we can minimise any potential impact on the Scotch whisky sector and will she closely monitor the situation in the times ahead?
The Scottish Government will monitor the situation very closely, such is its seriousness for the Scotch whisky sector and other sectors of our economy.
It was disappointing that the UK Government felt unable formally to object to the inclusion of bourbon on the list, given the potential impact that we know that that could have on Scotch whisky. If further tariffs on whisky or other key products were to be introduced by the US Administration, we would expect the UK Government to mitigate, or to compensate businesses for, the damage that would be done to export markets.
However, we will continue to engage with the UK Government and to do all that we can to protect the interests of the whisky sector, which is so important to our overall economy.
Scottish Canals (Finance)
To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking regarding Scottish Canals’ financial situation. (S5F-02515)
Scottish Canals carries out vital work in managing Scotland’s waterways. The Scottish Government is the main source of funding for the organisation, although it also has other sources of income, including investments and commercial revenue. In this year’s budget, we increased our funding from £10 million in 2016-17 to £11.6 million, which is a rise of 16 per cent. We also increased the organisation’s capital allocation by £500,000, to £3.5 million.
However, we are aware of the financial difficulties that Scottish Canals has faced due to the enforced closure of bridges on the Forth and Clyde canal, so I am pleased to be able to confirm today that we will provide an additional, just over £1.6 million of capital grant-in-aid, to enable Scottish Canals to repair the Bonnybridge and Twechar bridges and also to carry out further work at Ardrishaig pier.
I thank the First Minister for her answer, and also for ensuring the extra investment. However, the problem is that Scottish Canals still faces a shortfall of some £70 million for outstanding repairs
Recently, Scottish Canals has been more interested in investing in shops, holiday lettings and commercial ventures than in repairing waterways. [Interruption.] If Scottish National Party members do not agree with me, they should look at Scottish Canals’ asset management strategy, which highlights that very fact. The last thing that it quotes as a priority is:
“when funds allow, facilitates navigation”.
Will the First Minister ensure that Scottish Canals keeps our canals open across all of Scotland, including the Highlands?
Edward Mountain should look at the resurgence of canal traffic in Scotland, and perhaps visit Falkirk or parts of Glasgow, and then he would see that the premise of his question is completely misguided and, frankly, utterly wrong.
Like many parts of the public sector in Scotland, Scottish Canals is under financial pressure. I have to say that if we had followed the Tories’ recommendations in the Scottish budget we would not have been able to announce—as I have just done—the additional money for Scottish Canals, because we would have been looking for £500 million worth of cuts.
Edward Mountain also complains about Scottish Canals’ other activities. Those are partly about bringing in additional commercial revenue, and are all activities that should be welcomed. Scottish Canals has done a very good job. It does face financial pressures, but this Government will continue to work with it to ensure that it can address them, just as I have demonstrated with the announcement of additional money today—money that would not have been available had we followed the advice of the Scottish Conservatives.