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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 30 April 2019

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Music Tuition in Schools, Business Motion, Decision Time, Parkinson’s in Scotland


Topical Question Time

Police Scotland (Estate)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the Scottish Police Federation describing some of the buildings in the police estate as being “unfit for human habitation”. (S5T-01619)

Although the allocation of police resources, including for the police estate, is for the Scottish Police Authority and the chief constable to determine, we are protecting the police resource budget in real terms in every year of the current parliamentary session, delivering a boost of £100 million by 2021. Total Scottish Government funding for the SPA in 2019-20 is increasing by £42.3 million, bringing the annual policing budget to more than £1.2 billion. That also includes a 52 per cent increase to the capital budget. In its on-going investment in its estate, Police Scotland will continue to ensure that, in all cases, the focus will remain on a health and safety-first approach for all officers, staff and the public.

I will consider the SPF’s report in detail and will raise it in my discussions with the chief constable and the chair of the SPA tomorrow.

The Scottish Police Federation has uncovered conditions that nobody should have to work in—mushrooms growing in damp shower rooms, rat infestations, locked fire escapes without keys, furniture salvaged from skips and victims having to give officers lifts. Police officers are saying that the conditions are the worst that they have seen. Is the police estate being poorly managed, or has it not had the funding that it needs to get the job done?

It is a legacy issue that predates Police Scotland. Of course, Police Scotland and the SPA have the responsibility to ensure that police officers’ places of work are compliant with health and safety legislation and, more than that, are good environments to work in, and they have said that they will do so. There is no doubting that the SPF’s deep dives into the police estate are a welcome examination and scrutiny of the estate across Scotland.

I will reflect on what Deputy Chief Constable Fiona Taylor has said in response to the report that Liam McArthur mentioned. She said:

“Work was undertaken immediately to remedy a number of concerns raised by the Scottish Police Federation last week, as the safety and wellbeing of our staff is a priority for Police Scotland. A small number of officers affected by property issues raised in Dunoon have already been moved to temporary accommodation while improvement works are carried out. A range of options for Oban Police Station are being examined following HMICS recommendations last year.

The policing estate has been built up over the last century and we acknowledge some buildings fail to match current or future needs. We are prioritising the capital budget we have been allocated across a multitude of competing demands to achieve as much as we can, as quickly as we can.”

That shows the commitment that Police Scotland has to the estate right across Scotland. We understand that it is a Herculean task and we will continue to provide Police Scotland with budgetary support to help it with that task.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that response, although it begs the question as to why it took so long for those matters to come to the attention of those who have now taken decisions. The SPF warned that the appalling conditions present

“significant legal and reputational risk for individual officers, the SPA”

and Police Scotland. It believes that the Housing (Scotland) Act 2006 and the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 have been breached and recommended that

“the SPA refer itself to the Crown Office”

for investigation. Does the cabinet secretary believe that that would be the right thing to do? Was Police Scotland illegally operating houses in multiple occupancy?

I have dealt with the SPF on many occasions and we have a good working relationship. I will leave the SPF to have a conversation with the SPA and colleagues at Police Scotland on the best way forward.

I will not only raise the matter with the chief constable and the chair of the SPA tomorrow but have a conversation with the independent inspector of constabulary, Gill Imery, about the estate to see whether there is also a role for the independent inspector.

It is important to restate some of the context around what we are dealing with. We know that 75 per cent of the police estate is in sound condition and operates safely, with only minor deterioration having taken place. That leaves 25 per cent of the estate that needs repair and refurbishment. It is worth noting that 66 per cent of the Police Scotland estate predates 1980, and that 33 per cent predates 1950. It is a legacy issue. We are investing, and I have mentioned the capital uplift that we are providing. We are investing in local and national infrastructure as well as in refurbishment and repair.

That is not to dismiss the issue. The exchange with Liam McArthur has been a positive one. The issue must be raised. I will continue to listen to Police Scotland, which has mentioned the capital allocation on a number of occasions. We responded with an uplift and will continue to listen to what Police Scotland has to say in relation to the issue for future spending reviews.

Yesterday, I visited Oban police station, which is one of the police stations that the SPF report said should be closed immediately, and spoke to local officers. Will the cabinet secretary join me in recognising that, despite working in such horrific conditions, they remain committed to providing the highest levels of service? What message does he have for those officers, given that things have got so bad under his Government?

In response to Mr Cameron’s first question, I recognise the outstanding contribution of our police officers. Those are not mere words; we demonstrate that by action. Police officers in Scotland have received a 6.5 per cent pay increase. I say gently to Mr Cameron that, in England and Wales, where his party is in charge, police officers have received a derisory increase of 2 per cent. When it comes to recognising the good work that police officers do, actions are much more important than mere words.

We will continue to invest. As well as providing an uplift in the capital budget, we will protect the resource budget. Of course, it would be helpful if we got back the £125 million that we have had to pay the United Kingdom Government in VAT, which no force in England and Wales has had to pay. The Scottish Government has sent 15 letters to the UK Government on the matter, without it being resolved. If Mr Cameron can exert any influence on the UK Government in that respect—I suspect that any influence that he has with the Westminster Conservative Party will be minor—I ask him to stress that it is deeds rather than words that are needed.

I had intended to ask the cabinet secretary whether any progress had been made in getting back the £125 million, but I gather from his previous answer that that is not the case. Will he continue to pursue the matter?

I will. It is a hugely important issue. The UK Government conceded that, in principle, the situation was unfair, but—[Interruption.] Liam Kerr is shaking his head, but the UK Government conceded that, in principle, the situation was unfair and gave back some of the VAT for one year, which we made sure was kept with Police Scotland. However, the UK Government has not paid back the £125 million that it took off Police Scotland or the money that it took off the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service.

Despite that, we will continue to invest in Police Scotland. As I said, we have increased the capital budget and protected the resource budget, but challenges are still faced. That is not to take away from the SPF’s report or the deep dives that it is doing. There are issues that we must examine and explore. I will continue to meet the chief constable of Police Scotland and the chair of the Scottish Police Authority on a regular basis, as well as the SPF, and those issues will undoubtedly come out during the spending review discussions.

On a number of occasions, the cabinet secretary has referred to the capital uplift in this year’s budget, but it remains true that the capital funding for Police Scotland is the fifth lowest per employee of any police force in the UK. Indeed, the capital budget is just 3.5 per cent of Police Scotland’s overall budget, whereas the capital budget of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service makes up around 10 per cent of that organisation’s overall budget. Do the conditions that have been raised not reflect that poor level of capital funding? If the cabinet secretary rejects the benchmarks that I have cited, what benchmarks does he use when he reflects on the capital funding for the police force in Scotland?

When I appeared in front of the Justice Sub-Committee on Policing a number of months ago—I think that Daniel Johnson was there—I was asked about the capital allocation. I said that, along with my colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work, I would listen to the arguments that Police Scotland put forward in relation to the capital spend. The argument that Police Scotland made in advance of the most recent spending review that its capital allocation did not reflect the size of the organisation was persuasive, so I spoke to the finance secretary, who recognised that that was the case, and we proposed an uplift in the capital allocation of 52 per cent. That is not an insignificant uplift.

When it comes to the next spending review, I will continue to have constructive discussions with not just the Opposition but, importantly, the chief constable of Police Scotland, the chair of the SPA and the SPF. I say gently to Daniel Johnson that, if we had gone with Labour’s only proposal, there would have been a 3 per cent cut rather than an uplift in the police budget.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that the SPF’s report shows the value of the workplace inspections that are undertaken by staff associations and trade unions and suggests that there has been a singular failure of police management?

The cabinet secretary said that the problem predated the Government’s term in office. He may or may not be aware that Lochboisdale police station was closed down as a result of an SPF inspection, and the chief constable of Strathclyde Police found himself at Airdrie sheriff court as a result of a series of failures to enforce a safe working environment. I hope that Mr Yousaf will take the opportunity to say to the chief constable of Police Scotland and the chair of the SPA that, if we do not resolve the deficiencies in the police estate very soon, it is inevitable that someone—probably the chief constable—will end up appearing in a sheriff court.

Before we rush to take that particular step, I know that the chief constable enjoys a positive and constructive relationship with the SPF and therefore I have no doubt about his commitment to try to resolve this issue as best he can. I certainly have confidence in the chief constable and the chair of the SPA to work with staff associations to resolve the issue. They will also come to the Government to talk about the capital allocation and we will discuss that ask in future spending review discussions.

I agree with John Finnie about the importance of staff associations. The SPF regularly challenges the Government. It has every right to do that; its job is to represent its members and to pursue issues in the interests of its members. I have no issue with that whatsoever. I enjoy the relationship that I have with Calum Steele and with Andrea MacDonald, the chair of the SPF, and I will sit down with them to discuss their latest report. They know that my door is always open.

New Currency (Impact on Businesses)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has carried out on the potential impact on businesses across Scotland of no longer using the pound. (S5T-01624)

First, our proposals are to keep the pound in the immediate term. A Scottish National Party Government will take the steps that are necessary to enable the Scottish Parliament to authorise the preparation of a Scottish currency as soon as is practicable after independence.

The sustainable growth commission, which was established by the First Minister in her capacity as SNP leader, produced a detailed report on the financial, economic and regulatory requirements necessary for the transition to an independent currency. It engaged extensively with businesses in developing its recommendations. It recommended the introduction of six tests to guide that transition, one of which is the financial requirements of Scottish residents and businesses. Those tests were backed by the SNP conference on Saturday.

Our position is clear—until a new currency can be safely and securely established in the interests of the economy as a whole, the currency of an independent Scotland should continue to be the pound sterling.

The principal objective of the SNP Government and the Scottish National Party is to achieve an independent Scotland where the pound would be immediately replaced by a new Scottish currency. People’s mortgages, savings and pensions would need to be converted from sterling into a new currency, at a cost of up to 30 per cent. That would have a catastrophic impact on businesses and the economy, so why does the cabinet secretary think that it is credible to adopt a policy of dropping the pound, which would make Scottish families and businesses significantly worse off?

As Scotland’s finance secretary, I was on the growth commission and I was in attendance at the party conference that endorsed the policy at the weekend. I was a co-author of the resolution, so I am delighted that it passed. What was passed is an economic strategy that shows the benefits of independence and how we can grow our economy and live in a fairer society.

I am delighted that even James Kelly is scenario planning for Scottish independence; I am delighted by that conversion. It is no wonder, given that all the most recent polls suggest that Scottish independence is more popular now, of course, and is gaining momentum. Incidentally, I think that it is quite healthy for parties to have such party democracy—perhaps the Labour Party would benefit from it as well.

We have set out our position on the currency, which is that we will continue with the pound, and we have set out the tests that will guide our decisions. It will be for an independent Scottish Parliament to decide when the time is right for such a change, based on the right economic position for Scotland.

The six tests are: fiscal sustainability; central bank credibility; the financial requirements of Scottish residents and businesses; sufficiency of foreign exchange and financial reserves; a fit to trade and investment patterns; and correlation with the economic and trade cycle. They are sensible tests to guide such a decision. I will take no lectures or lessons from the Labour Party on fiscal credibility; it cannot even put together an Opposition budget, never mind run a country.

In addition to the disastrous proposals on currency, we know that the effect of the proposals of the SNP cuts commission would be a decade of austerity, piling cuts on to local communities. People and businesses want a Government that will start to deal with issues that matter rather than waste time on promoting another independence referendum. Will the cabinet secretary discard the proposals and focus on delivering a national health service that serves patients instead of leaving them on waiting lists, an education system that gives pupils proper subject choice and a rail system that puts passengers first and gets the trains running on time?

The Government is investing more in the NHS, in education and in rail than the Labour Party would have been. When we look at the small advanced economies around the world, what do we see that they have that makes them so successful and that we do not have? The answer is independence. It is with independence that we can grow our economy and have a fairer society.

However, let us talk about the day job and the current economic indicators. There is record low unemployment in Scotland right now, at 3.3 per cent, so we are outperforming the rest of the United Kingdom. On gross domestic product growth and increases in exports, Scotland is outperforming the rest of the United Kingdom. There is more investment in enterprise research and development, as well as productivity improvements. We are getting on with the day job and doing as much as possible with the devolved powers to build a stronger economy, but we could do even more with the powers and levers of independence. That is why we seek those powers for the Parliament—to get the best for our country, rather than be left in the hands of the Tories, who are the biggest threat to Scotland’s economy right now.

Very simply, and for the benefit of those watching at home and those in the chamber, particularly James Kelly, who obviously needs to catch up, will the cabinet secretary confirm that the currency that the people of Scotland would use the day before an independence vote would be the same currency that they would use the day after it, the day after that and the day after that—namely, the pound? [Interruption.]

Much to the concern of the unionist Opposition, Bruce Crawford is correct. The currency will remain the pound upon independence, and that will change only when an independent Scottish Parliament endorses such a change. Our policy is that we will support a change as soon as it can be done safely and securely and in the economic interests of the country. That would be determined by an independent Parliament when the time was right. However, we need the powers of independence to be able to match the best-performing economies around the world. They are independent, and that is what we seek for Scotland.

It has been only three days since the vote at the SNP conference and already the cabinet secretary is in full retreat from the position that was set out at it. We know that for Scottish business the largest export market for goods and services is the rest of the United Kingdom. What estimate has been made of the extra transaction costs that will apply to Scottish businesses if they have a different currency operating here than operates in their major export market?

Murdo Fraser’s weekend viewing was clearly not the SNP conference, which I was at and at which we went through in great detail our position, which I have outlined. It is that, on independence, we will be keeping the pound. Of course we can build our options as an independent country. We have set out the tests that we would apply to any potential change of currency and our preferred position. Importantly, we have also shown how our economic policies would be enhanced if we had the powers of independence. That would grow our economy, deliver greater fairness and empower us to make the right decisions for the people of Scotland. With independence, we would also build financial institutions that would advise the Parliament and the Government of the day, rather than being left to the vagaries of UK economic policy, which is disastrous for the people of Scotland.

I apologise to Patrick Harvie and Willie Rennie—we do not have quite enough time for them to ask questions, because we have to move on to the next item of business.