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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, October 4, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 04 October 2018

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Challenge Poverty Week, Health and Care Update, Women and Girls in Sport Week, Scottish Fiscal Commission (Appointments), Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


Contents


General Question Time


Water and Sewerage Charges Exemption (Islands)

1. Tavish Scott (Shetland Islands) (LD)

To ask the Scottish Government whether an islands impact assessment was carried out when it removed the water and sewerage charges exemption for charitable bodies, such as public community halls. (S5O-02439)

The Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment (Mairi Gougeon)

No islands impact assessment was carried out as they were not required when the scheme was renewed in 2015. All organisations that were no longer eligible for exemption following the renewal of the scheme were provided with a two-year transitional period to help them to adjust to the changes.

Tavish Scott

Does the minister accept that community public halls are run by volunteers on a not-for-profit basis, their bar income is reinvested in a facility for nursery classes, youth clubs and community events, and they do not compete with pubs? Does she therefore understand that removing water relief is costing some Shetland halls £2,000 a year and could close the doors of these essential community buildings? Will the Government therefore conduct an islands impact assessment and reinstate that necessary rates exemption?

Mairi Gougeon

I completely understand the member’s concerns. There are provisions in the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018 for island impact assessments but those provisions have not been commenced. When they are commenced, we could consider a retrospective impact assessment if we receive a qualifying request from a local authority.

I hope that that answers the member’s questions but if he requires any further information, I am sure that the cabinet secretary would welcome a discussion with him.


Flags (Criminal Offences)

2. Sandra White (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with Police Scotland regarding the reported list of flags that it could be a criminal offence to fly. (S5O-02440)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Humza Yousaf)

This is an operational matter for Police Scotland, which has confirmed that the list of flags was produced to assist officers in differentiating between legitimate flags and those which include illegal images, such as the symbols of proscribed terrorist organisations. Police Scotland has clearly confirmed that, in the absence of other associated criminal behaviour, it is not illegal to fly any national flag in its unaltered state.

Sandra White

The cabinet secretary will be aware that some of the flags on the list were the national flag of Ireland, the Vatican City, Israel and Palestine. Perhaps the cabinet secretary could speak to Police Scotland and provide details of who created the list and the rationale behind it. The document that I received says that if the flags are

“flown or displayed in a provocative manner”

—I would like to know who defines “provocative”—the people doing so would be subject to section 38 of the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010.

Humza Yousaf

I will try to give the member some reassurance. I have the guidance in front of me and the flags that she asked about come under the heading of “Flags which do not in themselves constitute criminality”. The document and the list of flags were prepared by Police Scotland and it is for Police Scotland to determine.

The member asked who is to judge what is provocative. It is very much within the law and statute. She will recognise that, for example, any threatening gestures and so on could lead to some criminal offences under the appropriate legislation. If Sandra White has any further questions, I am more than happy to provide her with details of who in Police Scotland she can correspond with directly.

James Kelly (Glasgow) (Lab)

It is simply unacceptable that flags that demonstrate religious and political beliefs should be restricted. It is a breach of civil liberties. It is outrageous that the Vatican City flag can be considered one that might get somebody criminalised. Can the cabinet secretary make it clear to Police Scotland that, as lawmakers, the Scottish Parliament finds it deeply offensive and unacceptable that such flags are listed and that people’s civil liberties are being breached?

Humza Yousaf

I will give James Kelly the benefit of the doubt, because he might not have read the guidance in detail. As I said in my previous answer, the guidance states that flying the Vatican City flag, for example, in its unaltered state—that is important—would not, in itself, be a criminal offence. Police Scotland has said that, and it is happy for me to say that, too. Particular actions, such as altering any national flag, could make flying that flag an offence. As attendees at football matches, James Kelly and I know that flags could be altered to include the names of organisations that are proscribed under the Terrorism Act 2000. Flying national flags, such as the Vatican City flag, in their unaltered state would not, in itself, be a criminal offence. I give that reassurance to James Kelly and other members.


International Transport Connectivity

3. Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what efforts it is making to improve international transport connectivity. (S5O-02441)

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity (Michael Matheson)

Improving Scotland’s international air connectivity is one of the Government’s top priorities, because that will help to build stronger business links and provide a real boost to our tourism industry. Our support has helped Scotland’s airports to secure new routes to other parts of the United Kingdom, and to Europe, the Middle East, North America and China, including Emirates’ new service from Edinburgh to Dubai. The Scottish Government will continue to promote Scotland as a destination that can sustain more direct air services and better global hub connectivity, and we will work with Scotland’s airports to achieve those objectives.

On international ferry links, the Scottish Government would welcome international ferry services to Scotland. Such services would need to operate on a commercially viable basis and would be for ferry operators to consider. We work closely with Scottish Enterprise and VisitScotland, and we will work with any ports, ferry operators and other partners that could be involved in new commercially viable ferry services to Europe.

Murdo Fraser

Two weeks ago, the low-cost air carrier, Norwegian, announced that it was pulling its transatlantic flights out of Edinburgh, citing the Scottish Government’s failure to deliver a cut in air passenger taxes as the reason for its decision. We know that there are legal issues to be overcome around the devolution of air passenger duty, but the Treasury has signalled its willingness to work with the Scottish Government to overcome those issues. Is the Scottish Government still committed to a cut in air taxes? If so, will there be any progress before further routes are lost?

Michael Matheson

The member raises an important point. It is disappointing that the flights have been withdrawn from Edinburgh airport in the past two weeks. My ministerial colleague Derek Mackay has been pursuing the issue of air departure tax for a considerable period of time. The tax is defective in the way in which the power has been passed to the Scottish Government. Derek Mackay has raised that matter with the Treasury, and continues to pursue it, because it needs to be addressed. As soon as it is addressed, we will be in a position to take forward our policy of reducing ADT by 50 per cent and then abolishing it completely when the money is available in budgets.

However, the UK Government could take action on the matter on 29 October, when its budget will be announced. I hope that Murdo Fraser will press the Chancellor of the Exchequer to take action on ADT in the coming weeks.


Railway Stations (Accessibility)

4. Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to improve accessibility at railway stations. (S5O-02442)

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity (Michael Matheson)

There are 359 stations, and 254 of them are wheelchair accessible, which is 45 more than in 2007. Of the 105 remaining, 75 provide no access to either platform, and 30 of them provide access to one platform.

For inaccessible stations, ScotRail provides appropriate alternative transport for disabled passengers, at no extra charge, between the inaccessible station and the nearest or most convenient accessible one for their journey.

Rail accessibility is reserved to the United Kingdom Government. The UK Department for Transport is currently considering the Scottish Government’s proposals for accessibility funding and projects for the next five years.

The Scottish Government remains committed to improving access at stations beyond the UK Government’s programme. For example, the Scottish Government will fund accessibility works at Pitlochry and Aviemore stations as part of the Highland main line project.

Jamie Greene

I thank the cabinet secretary for that informative response. As he said, a number of stations are completely inaccessible to disabled users. Burntisland, on the Fife circle line, sees 330,000 passengers a year but is available to disabled passengers only on the northbound service, not the southbound service. That seems quite ludicrous.

I appreciate that the real estate is owned by Network Rail, but Network Rail is part of the ScotRail Alliance. Will the cabinet secretary therefore impress on the alliance the need to continue to improve accessibility across Scotland so that our rail network is truly open and accessible for as many users as possible?

Michael Matheson

The access for all programme, which is involved in improving accessibility at train stations, is a matter for the UK Department for Transport, as it concerns a reserved area. We continue to work with that department to consider where further improvements can be made, and we are going through a programme of work with it at present to identify other stations in the Scottish network for which we believe that it should provide resources in order to improve accessibility. That work is due to be completed by 2019, and I hope that the Department for Transport will listen to the recommendations and views of the Scottish Government, including on issues relating to the station at Burntisland.

Where we have the opportunity, through modernisation work that is being taken forward by the Scottish Government, we are making accessibility improvements to stations where that can be achieved through Scottish Government funding. However, it is certainly the case that the UK Department for Transport has to take more action on this matter in order to deal with the backlog of stations that do not presently have adequate accessibility.

Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

I am glad that the issue of Burntisland station has been raised. As a Fife MSP, I want to emphasise that it continues to have poor accessibility.

Is the cabinet secretary aware of the high percentage of stations across Fife that perform poorly in terms of accessibility? Does he agree that Fife should be a priority with regard to any additional funds?

Michael Matheson

The important element in terms of funding is for the Department for Transport to allocate funding that allows that work to be undertaken. Transport Scotland has been identifying stations where there are continuing accessibility matters that need to be addressed, including those in the Fife area that do not have adequate accessibility for individuals with a mobility issue, in order to ensure that the UK Government is aware of them. The UK Government will then determine which stations will have access improvement work taken forward. That will be set out in 2019. However, we are ensuring that the Department for Transport is very much aware of the concerns that we have around the range of stations in Scotland that need to have accessibility improvements carried out soon.


United Kingdom Immigration Minister (Meetings)

5. Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last spoke to the United Kingdom immigration minister. (S5O-02443)

The Minister for Europe, Migration and International Development (Ben Macpherson)

During summer recess, the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government and I had introductory meetings with the UK immigration minister, Caroline Nokes, and I expressed my concerns to her about UK policy on immigration. Although we hold profoundly different positions, I hope to work professionally and constructively with Ms Nokes to ensure that the rights of EU citizens in Scotland are protected and that Scotland’s needs on migration and population are met in future policy.

Rona Mackay

Does the minister agree that the fees that are charged to UK-born children of migrants who register as British citizens should be scrapped or drastically reduced? The current fee is £1,012, with £372 going on administrative costs, leaving a £640 profit for the Home Office. Is that not simply immoral profiteering?

Ben Macpherson

It is clear that current UK immigration policy is simply not appropriate for Scotland. The current costs are prohibitively expensive, as has been articulated, preventing eligible children for applying for British citizenship. Indeed, Stuart McDonald MP highlighted that very issue in a Westminster debate last month. The immigration system should be easy to access and focused on what a prospective migrant will contribute, not on their ability to pay. As a result, any fees and charges should be proportionate.

People who choose to make their lives in Scotland are our friends and neighbours. They strengthen our society, and we welcome them. We need an immigration system that values their contribution to Scotland, is fair and compassionate and puts people first, and this Government will continue to argue for that in stark contrast and opposition to the United Kingdom Government’s hostile environment policy.


Fire Services (Staff Shortages)

6. Dean Lockhart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the impact of staff shortages on local fire services. (S5O-02444)

The Minister for Community Safety (Ash Denham)

Operational decisions, including the deployment of firefighters and other staff, are a matter for the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. SFRS staff play a vital role in protecting our communities, and they continue to deliver the high standard of services required to keep Scotland safe.

In the 2018-19 budget, the Scottish Government has increased the spending capacity of SFRS by £15.5 million, which includes providing an extra £5.5 million of direct funding and ensuring that the service keeps the full £10 million from VAT costs, to invest in transformation plans. We will continue to press the United Kingdom Government to return the £50 million that has been paid to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs since 2013, because Scotland’s fire service is the only one in the UK to have paid this unfair Tory tax.

Dean Lockhart

I thank the minister for that response, although I point out that the Scottish National Party reformed the fire service in full knowledge of the financial implications of doing so.

I would rather focus on the needs of the constituents in my region. Last week, I met the senior fire officer for the Stirling region, following reports that the city’s second fire appliance has been unavailable a number of times this year as a result of staff shortages. The team at Stirling fire and rescue are doing all they can to address those issues, but notwithstanding what the minister has said, that will take time. What assurances can the minister give people in the Stirling region that they will have adequate fire cover while the staff shortfalls are dealt with?

Ash Denham

Fire appliances can be safely deployed only if a full crew is available, and there can be instances when appliances are off the run as a result of crewing levels falling short through either unplanned absence such as sick leave or planned activity such as crew training in specialist activities or new equipment. SFRS uses a variety of methods to ensure that a fully planned and safe level of coverage is maintained at all times, and that includes offering overtime to cover short-term staff absence and bringing in crews from other fire stations. That is normal practice for any fire and rescue service.

I reassure the member that there have been no instances when the SFRS did not respond to an incident without the appropriate level of resources.


Universal Credit

7. Gordon MacDonald (Edinburgh Pentlands) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to provide flexibility for recipients of universal credit. (S5O-02445)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

Since 4 October 2017, the Scottish Government has given people in Scotland the option to receive their universal credit payment monthly or twice monthly and to have any housing costs in their award paid directly to their landlord. That gives people more control and flexibility over how they manage their household budget in a way that best suits their particular circumstances.

I make it clear, though, that universal credit is entirely reserved, and we have very limited flexibility over it. As was highlighted in the report that we published this week on the impact of the United Kingdom Government’s welfare reforms, universal credit is causing hardship and deprivation, and it is not fit for purpose.

Gordon MacDonald

Given the evidence of impacts seen in other areas of Scotland where universal credit has been introduced, I am very concerned that constituents of mine will face even further hardship. Does the Scottish Government agree that the UK Government should take heed of the evidence, listen to organisations that support the most vulnerable people in society and halt this shambolic and fatally flawed system?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Absolutely. We have repeatedly urged the UK Government to halt the roll-out of universal credit, as have many organisations, and we have been repeatedly refused. The UK Government chooses to ignore the mounting evidence of the sharp increase in food bank use and rent arrears in universal credit full-service areas. Universal credit is now being rolled out to Scotland’s largest cities, and I, like the member, am very concerned about the impact that it will have.

Evidence from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities shows that the housing arrears in full-service areas are more than two and a half times the arrears of those on housing benefit, and, according to Trussell Trust analysis, food bank demand in full-service areas increases by 52 per cent in a roll-out year. However, despite that and other evidence, the UK Government is ignoring our calls. That said, it is not too late for it to recognise the impact of a damaging policy that is undoubtedly driving people into debt and arrears and causing extreme anxiety and distress to many people across this country.