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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 07 January 2020

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motions, Topical Question Time, Urgent Question, Empty Homes, Committee Announcement (Ferry Vessels in Scotland), Decision Time, Levern Valley Defibrillator Community Partnership


Topical Question Time

Drug-related Deaths

1. Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that drug-related deaths are continuing to increase. (S5T-01931)

The Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing (Joe FitzPatrick)

Each and every death is a tragedy, and tackling this issue is a priority for me and the Government. We set up the drug deaths task force specifically to advise on measures to reduce deaths, and it will meet for the third time next week. We are also working with local services to implement our action plan to deliver our strategy to reduce alcohol and drug harm in Scotland. That is supported by investment of £800 million, including an additional £10 million in 2020-21.

We will continue to pursue the options that are available to us within current devolved powers to reduce deaths, but we also want to work constructively with the United Kingdom Government on aspects that remain reserved. I have written again to the Home Secretary to invite her to attend a drug summit in Glasgow to discuss this vital issue.

Monica Lennon

I completely agree that each life that is lost to substance misuse is a tragedy. It is to the collective shame of this Parliament and the UK Parliament that more and more lives are being lost. We need co-operation between all parts of Government and our public services to respond to this humanitarian crisis. Tens of thousands of Scots are living in the shadow of addiction, and it is the poorest and most vulnerable who are dying in increasing numbers.

Does the minister accept that there is a desperate need for additional residential rehab beds in Scotland? Despite charities and people in recovery making that clear to him, beds are closing and people are stuck on waiting lists for years. What action is he taking to increase the number of rehab beds?

Joe FitzPatrick

Decisions on the configuration of local services, including residential rehabilitation, are made locally across Scotland, and I am sure that the member is not asking me to centralise those services. We are committed to reviewing the demand for residential services and to support the development of more effective services across Scotland.

It is important that there is a range of services available where and when people need them, and they should be focused on person-centred care. In the past number of months, I have spent a fair amount of my time visiting a range of local rehabilitation services, some residential and some community based. There is some really good practice in various places across Scotland.

I am keen that we look at that evidence, see how it fits in and ensure that people genuinely have access to the services that will work for them as individuals. We have to remember that this is about individual people and saving those lives.

Monica Lennon

I appreciate that the minister has undertaken many visits, but he must see that the problem is that there are simply not enough services. He must take this seriously and properly fund the third sector and the front-line workers who are the difference between life and death for people who are trying to get off drugs.

Does the minister accept the recommendations that were presented to him by Faces and Voices of Recovery Scotland when he got the FAVOR UK report last year?

Aside from residential rehab, we know that supervised injecting facilities will help to preserve lives, and I urge the Tories to accept the evidence on that. The Lord Advocate has acknowledged that he has powers to extend the scope of Police Scotland’s current de facto decriminalisation policy to drugs other than cannabis. That surely can be extended to safe and supervised injecting facilities. Does the minister agree with me and the Scottish Drugs Forum that the Lord Advocate can grant immunity from prosecution to anyone working in a safe injecting facility? Is that an approach that the minister would support?

Joe FitzPatrick

The member made a number of points there. The FAVOR UK report came out at a similar time to reports from the UK Parliament’s Health and Social Care Committee and Scottish Affairs Committee. I have made it clear that all three of those reports contain important information that the drug deaths task force will continue to consider as part of its wider work.

On safer injecting facilities, the member is absolutely right that there is good international evidence that safe consumption facilities will save lives. They have become standard health practice around the world. Most recently, advances have been made in Dublin, which has gone to the next stage of having a safer injecting facility.

Clearly, it is one of the bizarre aspects of devolution that, although we all agree that this is a public health issue and public health is devolved, the levers that allow us to take these public health approaches remain reserved to Westminster. I do not want to have a constitutional battle about this; we should be able to work together to take this forward and make a difference.

The member will be well aware that there is a line between the Government’s powers and the Lord Advocate’s powers, and it would not be appropriate or within my remit for me to direct the Lord Advocate to take action on this. The Lord Advocate has made clear that the law in this area is clear and, if he were to make such a direction, he would be going directly against the law as it stands in the reserved powers and against the wishes of the UK Government and Parliament. He has been clear that, if we want to make such a change, it should be a policy change. The evidence is becoming increasingly strong for a public health approach. Now that the UK election is out the road and the dust has settled to some extent, I hope that this will become a priority for the UK Government and it will realise that, not just here in Scotland but across the UK, this is a public health issue and it should be seen as such. We should be taking the public health measures that are evidenced not just in Europe but across the globe.

The Presiding Officer

There is a lot of interest in this subject. There are five members who wish to ask further questions, so I ask all members, and the minister, to keep questions and answers relatively concise.

Annie Wells (Glasgow) (Con)

This week, I wrote to the Prime Minister, asking him to make drug deaths his top priority in Scotland, ahead of everything else. Will the minister agree with me, by sending a cross-party political message, that drug deaths should be every politician’s main focus in 2020 and should come ahead of a section 30 order, Brexit and all the other distractions that have stopped us from saving lives?

Joe FitzPatrick

I would certainly welcome the Prime Minister parking Brexit in order for us to focus on that matter, but we live in the real world, so I do not expect the Prime Minister to do that.

However, that does not prevent the relevant UK ministers from working with us—it does not need to be a constitutional issue. That is why I have written to the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, asking her to work with us on taking the matter forward and on jointly doing everything that we can to save lives in Scotland and elsewhere across the UK.

Shona Robison (Dundee City East) (SNP)

Given the seriousness and urgency of the issue, will the minister join me in welcoming the emerging cross-party consensus that is calling for transfer of the necessary powers to tackle this critical issue effectively? Given the high number of drug-related deaths in Dundee, will the minister give serious consideration to ensuring that Dundee is at the forefront of the roll-out of new and innovative approaches?

Joe FitzPatrick

I very much welcome the growing cross-party support that has emerged, calling on the UK Government to devolve the powers that are necessary to tackle drug deaths in Scotland effectively. It is a public health issue. When the Scottish Affairs Committee discussed it, there was cross-party support for taking a public health approach and for decisions on the matter to be made in the Scottish Parliament by members from across the chamber.

We absolutely have to tackle the matter as a public health issue across Scotland, including in Dundee. Of course, I am aware of the particular efforts that are being made in Dundee and the challenges that are faced there. That is an area where we would hope to make significant improvements with the powers to take further action. Dundee will be at the forefront, given the particular circumstances there.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

The minister referred to the Scottish Affairs Committee’s report. That committee made it clear that the Scottish Government has the power to do more than it is doing at present. Scottish Liberal Democrats have consistently said that people who are caught in possession of drugs for personal use need treatment, not prison sentences—especially given that 50 per cent of people leaving HMP Addiewell have tested positive for illegal drugs. Has the minister examined the pilots in the Thames valley and in north Wales, where the police have focused on signing people up for treatment, and will the Scottish Government now end the destructive response of imprisoning people for misusing drugs?

Joe FitzPatrick

That is one of the areas of focus of the drug deaths task force’s work. We are working with Police Scotland and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. It is crucial that we have all the partners round the table, in order that we can take that forward. Liam McArthur is well aware of my views on the issue.

There are good examples in other parts of the world of a move away from a justice-based approach to a public health approach having made a difference.

Clearly, we need to be able to do that in practice. I can say that we want to take that approach, but we need to see how it works in practice, which is why one of the drug death task force’s streams of work is looking specifically at that area. We are on the same page: clearly, we all want to move faster.

Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

The FAVOR—Faces & Voices of Recovery—UK report highlighted the fact that there is a crisis in relation to rehabilitation beds across Scotland: their numbers have been cut dramatically in many alcohol and drug partnerships. The relevant powers lie with Scottish Government ministers. Therefore, I will ask two key questions. First, has the minister looked across Scotland at how many requests have been made to access those beds? Secondly, given that we have seen such dramatic cuts, will he consider establishing a fund to increase dramatically the number of drug and alcohol rehab beds?

Joe FitzPatrick

As I said earlier, one of our areas of work is looking at the need and demand for residential rehabilitation services across Scotland, and at a range of different methods. The Government is looking at those things outwith the task force.

In our action plan on rehabilitation, there is a commitment to ensure that people have access to appropriate treatment. In many cases, rehabilitation is different from what it was 20 years ago, and there are, around Scotland, some fantastic models that are making a difference. We need to allow areas to consider what works for them. However, we need to ensure that, wherever the person lives, if they decide in discussion with their clinician that a particular route would work for them, there is appropriate access to that route. I am not dismissing Miles Briggs’s suggestion, but I need to look at it within the context of funding across Scotland for ADPs and third sector organisations.

Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

Bereaved families who are watching this meeting will be appalled that the minister and the Tory front bench are making this a proxy for a debate on the constitution. This is about people’s lives—people are dying.

Safe injecting facilities are a small but important part of the big picture. I come to every meeting at which we discuss this serious issue. I am sick and tired of hearing the minister say lots of words that, accumulated, say almost nothing. There is an immediate crisis and people are losing faith in the minister’s ability to lead on it. When will we see action that starts to reduce the number of people who are dying on the streets, only yards from Parliament?

Joe FitzPatrick

I am not sure how much time we have, but I can go through a range of actions that the task force has started to take, which will start to turn things around.

One big area of focus is naloxone. Over the winter months, we have done considerable work to make sure that crucial life-saving injections of naloxone are available at the point of need—in particular, for the most vulnerable members of society, such as people who use homelessness shelters. We are working with the Scottish Ambulance Service to get to the point at which its staff are able not only to administer naloxone—thereby saving a life in an overdose situation, as they currently do—but also to issue the person who has had the non-fatal overdose with naloxone to take home, because a person who has had a non-fatal overdose remains at high risk of having another overdose. We are also in discussions with Police Scotland about police carriage of naloxone. I also hope that availability of naloxone in a nasal spray will help us to move in a positive direction.

We are tight for time, but I note that the Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans will bring forward proposals for a debate in the coming weeks. That will be a good chance for us to examine more fully the issues and the work of the task force. Mr Findlay can be sure that, while he bangs on, accusing others of playing games, that work is a priority for me. Although we might have differences of opinion on particular aspects, I do not doubt the sincerity of the other members who have asked questions today.

The Presiding Officer

Thank you, minister, for cutting your remarks short.

Ferry Cancellations (Arran)

2. Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the ferry cancellations that have led to visitors being stranded on the Isle of Arran. (S5T-01930)

The Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands (Paul Wheelhouse)

The weather caused challenges across the Clyde and Hebrides, and in particular with the Ardrossan to Brodick service, over the weekend. The decision to delay or cancel a sailing is never taken lightly by the operator. We and CalMac fully recognise the importance of ferry services to island and rural communities, and regret any inconvenience to passengers.

On Sunday, the moderate to strong winds forecast for the area and an increased swell height at Ardrossan harbour entrance made berthing in those conditions unsafe. The master of the ship will always put the safety of passengers, crew and the ship first, and his or her right to refuse to sail is enshrined in law under statutory instrument 1997/2886, the Merchant Shipping (Master’s Discretion) Regulations 1997.

The Lochranza to Claonaig service normally operates only one sailing per day in winter. However, CalMac made the decision to operate increased sailings on a shuttle service on this route to help to move traffic displaced from the Brodick service and to provide another route off the island.

Operators appreciate the commercial impacts on businesses and take this matter very seriously. Climate change is having an effect on our necessary lifeline ferry services, with masters experiencing severe, and at times prolonged, weather impacts in their operating areas.

The Ardrossan to Brodick service resumed mid-afternoon on Monday 6 January and no welfare issues were reported to CalMac. Due to deteriorating weather late on Monday afternoon a number of sailings had to be cancelled, but they resumed again and by early evening all traffic had been moved off the island.

As members will be aware, due to the severe wind strengths being experienced today, extensive disruption is being experienced across the Clyde and Hebrides network, with services liable to cancellation or disruption.

Jamie Greene

I thank the minister for that helpful update. The weather is a significant challenge to those who use those routes, and we see that on days like today.

It is also important to pay tribute to those across Scotland who work on our ferries in such challenging conditions, including the masters of the ships who have to make difficult decisions at the time. I also accept, as many who live on islands do, that if you choose to live on one of our beautiful islands there is always an inherent risk that ferries may be cancelled due to weather.

However, my conversations over the weekend with people living on Arran focused instead on their concerns about the overall resilience of the service that they rely on. The most obvious questions that they want me to ask the Government are as follows. Why are there so many issues with the ageing ferry on this route and with Ardrossan harbour? What is being done to address the reliability of both? In this specific instance, which other nearby ports, such as Gourock or Troon, are available to be used as a back-up when conditions permit? If they are not available, why not?

Paul Wheelhouse

There are a number of points there. I will try in good faith to answer them as quickly as I can.

I welcome Jamie Greene’s reference to staff. As we have discussed before, their work is exemplary and above reproach and I appreciate the point that he made in thanking them for everything that they do in such difficult conditions.

I turn to the points raised in conversation with people on Arran who were affected by the outage at the weekend. There are clearly issues with the ferry fleet, and the length of service of many of the vessels. We have acknowledged that a number of times in this chamber. The Government is taking steps to procure new ferries. We have heavily debated the future of Ferguson Marine in Port Glasgow in this chamber. The Government has commissioned two vessels from that yard and the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work, Derek Mackay, and the Government are fully committed to delivering those vessels for the communities that rely on them.

There is an issue with Peel Ports, which owns Ardrossan harbour, regarding the condition of the facilities there. We are working with Peel Ports and North Ayrshire Council, and with colleagues in this chamber and beyond in the Ardrossan task force, to deliver investment in Ardrossan and to ensure that that facility is fit for the future. During the construction period we will rely on the Irish berth as an alternative berth for the vessel on the Arran service.

Mr Greene mentioned alternative ports. Gourock is the port of refuge for the Ardrossan to Brodick service. I will look into what affected access to Gourock on this particular occasion. Obviously, wild weather in the Clyde can often affect more than one harbour simultaneously. Mr Greene will also be aware that we have recently been undertaking maintenance on the Gourock linkspan, with a view to improving its condition in advance of a longer-term master plan for Gourock.

Jamie Greene

I thank the minister again for that comprehensive update. My understanding, however, is that there are long-term issues with the linkspan that mean that it is unsuitable for cars getting off ferries there. Clearly that situation is untenable and unacceptable.

The situation over the past few days is simply one of a long list of problems that islanders have faced and that have rightly been raised by members from many political parties in the Parliament. Does the minister understand why there is so much frustration in communities when they see an upgraded harbour on the island—many people still have reservations about its ability to handle easterly winds—a mainland port that is clearly long overdue for upgrade, no plan B on the mainland with regard to alternative ports, an ageing ferry that is frequently offline for repairs, and £100 million spent on a new ferry that will not be delivered for at least another year, if not longer?

Our islanders are resilient when it comes to the weather, but they do not have an abundance of patience when it comes to incompetence or mismanagement. What reassurances can the minister offer those who are living in our island communities that 2020 will not see a repeat of the avoidable disruption and chaos that they faced so often in 2019?

Paul Wheelhouse

That is a long list of points and I am very conscious of time. I repeat the point that the port at Ardrossan is not owned by Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd, our own agency, but by Peel Ports; we cannot unilaterally take decisions around the future investment plans for the port. The situation is more complex than Jamie Greene presents. We are working closely with partners and with Kenneth Gibson, who is the constituency member, as part of the task force to ensure that we are developing a long-term plan for the facility. I hope that there will be good news on that front in the near future.

With regard to the investment in ferries, notwithstanding that there have been difficulties with the contract with Ferguson’s, as we all know, I hope that Jamie Greene will welcome the Government’s commitment to both the yard in Port Glasgow and to delivering a brand new ferry to provide services for communities on Arran and in Ardrossan. When the vessel is up and running, investment in ports and harbours will be needed, but we cannot do that simultaneously without having massive disruption to ferry services between Arran and the mainland.

Brodick has been upgraded and Ardrossan will be upgraded, and we are now procuring the new vessel for the route. I am confident that once we have the new vessel in place and the harbour investment at Ardrossan, we will have an excellent service for the community in Arran.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

Minister, 63 cars and their occupants were left stranded on Arran on Sunday night. Many of them had waited hours without being told that the ferry service would terminate at 7.30 pm until I contacted CalMac and urged them to inform those who were waiting. One would have expected that to happen automatically.

The 7.30 pm finish was apparently due to crew hours, which could surely have been made up later in the week. Do the passengers not come first?

Foot passengers who reached Argyll had no public transport to take them onward. Does the minister agree that that disorganised shambles is totally unacceptable, regardless of the weather?

A major issue for Arran and Bute islanders is the Gourock linkspan, which is 48 years old. It is inoperable for vehicles and in urgent need of repair or replacement to allow Gourock to be used as a port of refuge in bad weather. When will the linkspan be repaired or replaced, and when will the Government produce a long-term infrastructure and vessel replacement plan—over 10 or 15 years—so that we know what vessels are coming down the line to ensure that we do not have this situation year in, year out as the years progress? [Interruption.]

Paul Wheelhouse

I hope that Kenneth Gibson will be sympathetic to the point that I am about to make, even if colleagues on my left might not be. They may be sympathetic to Kenneth Gibson’s question, but not necessarily to the point that I am about to make.

For 10 years now, we have been living through a period of austerity, with significant constraints on the Scottish Government budget. Despite that—[Interruption.] We are hearing disagreement from predictable quarters, but the fact remains that in the financial year to come, we will have £1.6 billion less to spend than we had in 2010, after accounting for inflation. Having said that, we have increased investment in ferries in areas such as road equivalent tariff implementation and in the Clyde and Hebrides contract, and we have invested more than £100 million in harbour facilities and, as Kenneth Gibson knows, we are committed to investing in Ardrossan.

Mr Gibson made specific points about Gourock, which Jamie Greene also referenced. I will make the point categorically: over the past few months, CMAL, our agency, has carried out a series of repairs and maintenance to the linkspan at Gourock to maintain operations. A review is currently being undertaken by a consultant engineer on behalf of CMAL to identify the feasibility of returning the linkspan to accept vehicle loading capacity. We expect to receive the consultant engineer’s report later this month, which I appreciate is not immediate, but it is relatively soon. We will take appropriate action thereafter, at which point Transport Scotland, in conjunction with CMAL, will consider the options and I commit to giving Kenneth Gibson and Jamie Greene an update when we have that information.

As Kenneth Gibson correctly stated, the linkspan is more than 48 years old and CMAL is in discussion with Transport Scotland about finalising a masterplan to enable the redevelopment of the Gourock ferry terminal as a whole to provide updated facilities for the Gourock to Dunoon passenger service and to continue its role as a port of refuge for services from Bute and Arran.

I commit to keeping members informed as soon as I can and I will spare the time just now.

Neil Bibby (West Scotland) (Lab)

Winter disruption is inevitable, but islanders are warning that they are living with disruption almost every week—disruption that they believe is damaging Arran’s economy and reputation. We are aware that the Glen Sannox will not be ready for another two years, but Arran needs the Government to act now. Given that Transport Scotland’s action plan is silent on many of the big issues facing the island, will the minister tell us when the plan will be updated to include suggestions made by islanders on issues such as the use of ports of refuge? Will he ensure that further investment will be made to make ferries and ports more resilient this year, which is VisitScotland’s year of coasts and waters?

Paul Wheelhouse

The member fairly raises points around the infrastructure investment plan, which is under development. He will be aware that the national transport strategy has been published and that the second strategic transport projects review is currently under way—the consultation process ends on Friday. I encourage any constituents who have issues that they wish to raise around ferry infrastructure, whether positive or negative, to feed in views while they have a chance, as the STPR 2 will inform future Government investment decisions.

The member makes a number of points and I hope to catch up with him to discuss them in more detail. We are investing in the facilities to serve the Arran community—I reassure him on that. Certainly, the investment in Brodick—a considerable investment of over £30 million by the Government—has made a difference to the facilities there. We are investing in vessels and, indeed, at Ardrossan in partnership with Peel Ports and North Ayrshire Council. I will continue to inform the member and other colleagues of the details.

Automated Teller Machines (Charges)

3. John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it can take in response to reports that ATMs are increasingly charging for taking out cash. (S5T-01934)

The Minister for Public Finance and Digital Economy (Kate Forbes)

As the member will know, the regulation of banking services remains a reserved issue. However, I remain concerned both about the rapid reduction in ATMs and the increase in charging for their use. I will continue to press regulators, banking providers and the United Kingdom Government to ensure that the ability to freely and easily access cash is maintained, particularly for those in our most vulnerable communities.

John Mason

Which? tells us that, since January 2015, 403 bank branches have closed in Scotland—a reduction of 39 per cent. Between January 2018 and October 2019, Scotland lost 718 free-to-use ATMs—a reduction of 13 per cent.

Some of my constituents find that using cash helps them to budget and control their limited finances; they would rather use cash than rely purely on cards. They might want to take out £10, but the average cost of doing so using a pay-to-use machine is £1.45—that is 14 per cent of the money that they are taking out. What support can she offer vulnerable people in that regard?

Kate Forbes

It is the most vulnerable who are suffering from the rapid reduction in free-to-use ATMs. I have repeatedly urged the UK Government to appoint a regulator with sole responsibility for cash infrastructure, and I will write once again to the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, emphasising the importance of free access to cash for all. The UK Government can intervene if it wants to—it has chosen not to intervene in a failing market. It is not just me calling on the UK Government to do more; organisations such as Which? have made it very clear that the Government should step in and protect the UK’s ATM network before it is too late.

John Mason

If I understood the minister correctly, she said that she felt that the UK Government could intervene, but the UK Government is quoted as saying:

“Government cannot reverse the changes in the market.”

Is she convinced that the UK Government has chosen not to intervene, despite the fact that it says that it cannot do so?

Kate Forbes

Without a shadow of a doubt, it is a choice not to intervene: the UK Government has chosen not to intervene despite the fact that it is our poorest areas in this country that are suffering most from the lack of access to free-to-use cashpoints. I have written repeatedly to John Glen, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, in February and again in March. I have had meetings with Link and the Payment Systems Regulator to express my concerns. There are actions that can be taken—it is a political choice not to intervene. Once again, the UK Government leaves the most vulnerable behind.

Dean Lockhart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

A number of stakeholders across Scotland—including the Federation of Small Businesses, as part of its “Transforming Towns: Delivering a Sustainable Future For Local Places” blueprint—have called for the Scottish Government to create multi-use hubs on the high street. Such hubs would include free-to-use ATMs and mini bank branches. What steps has the Scottish Government taken to introduce multi-use hubs on our high streets?

Kate Forbes

I thank Dean Lockhart for his question. Anything that enables better access to free-to-use ATMs is to be supported, but it is important that we make clear that the priority is to ensure that people can access cash. For example, there has been an intervention in Sweden, which is seen as one of the most cashless societies, to encourage people to continue to use cash. The problem is that people are left behind when such hubs are used as though they provide the same services as ATMs do although they do not. Another means of accessing cash is provided through the Post Office, for example. It is key that services are free to use. There should not be a cover-up or a pretence that they are free to use when, in fact, they are not.