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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, November 9, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 09 November 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Global Entrepreneurship Week, Business Motion, Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time, Writers to the Signet Dependants’ Annuity Fund Amendment (Scotland) Bill: Preliminary Stage, Seat Belts on School Transport (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Seat Belts on School Transport (Scotland) Bill, Decision Time


Contents


First Minister’s Question Time


Police Scotland (Emergency Call Handling)

1. Ruth Davidson (Edinburgh Central) (Con)

We all recognise the work that is done by hard-pressed staff who answer 999 calls, but this week we heard more evidence of things going tragically wrong. Elizabeth Bowe called 999 to report a domestic abuse situation. Eighty-four minutes later, she had been murdered in cold blood by her brother, yet the control room had told her that they were refusing to send officers to her house. We know that the incident is not isolated, and the question that people are asking is: how many more times will a call for help go unheeded before the situation in our emergency control rooms is sorted out?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

This is an extremely serious issue and involves an extremely serious case. The first thing that I want to do is to convey my heartfelt thoughts and sympathies to the family of Elizabeth Bowe. It was a tragic incident. Police Scotland has rightly offered an apology to the family for its handling of the initial call that was made. It is beyond doubt that there were significant failings and that Police Scotland went outwith its own procedures for dealing with that type of call. In other words, Police Scotland did not provide the response that was expected. That is not acceptable, and it is crucial that the police service learns lessons from that.

On Ruth Davidson’s wider question, significant improvements have been made to police call handling. That is not just my view; we know from the update report published by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary in Scotland earlier this year that that is also the view of the inspectorate. Following another tragic case, a review of call handling was carried out and published in November 2015, so a number of improvements have been made, and it is vital that the police continue to make those improvements.

Indeed, since the incident that Ruth Davidson raised today, further action has been taken. For example, the police have rolled out risk and vulnerability training to more than 800 staff; further guidance has been issued to all control room staff in relation to the regrading and closing of incidents; and a national quality assurance unit for police call handling has also been established.

The case that Ruth Davidson raises was tragic and unacceptable, and nothing that I say today is intended to detract from the seriousness of that, but it is simply not the case that significant improvements to call handling are not being or have not been made, and it is important that lessons from such cases continue to be learned.

Ruth Davidson

The First Minister points to the assurance review by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary in Scotland—which was done in January this year, in her Government’s defence—but let me run through some of the 200 incidents from the past year that we have uncovered, mostly since that report was made. In one case, a suicidal man was told to hang up. In another, two separate call handlers failed to record a report of a dead body in a house. In another, a couple rang 999 to report that their front door was being kicked in, but did not get any help because, first, the wrong address was written down and, secondly, police officers were not even dispatched. That is the reality of what is happening right now. Does that sound to the First Minister like a system that is functioning well yet?

The First Minister

Every single one of the incidents that have been cited by Ruth Davidson today is serious and unacceptable. As I said in my initial answer, I do not want anybody to hear anything that I say today as detracting from the seriousness and unacceptability of those incidents.

However, it is also important to put the situation in context. Ruth Davidson has cited the figure of 200 incidents. As I said, that figure is completely unacceptable, but Police Scotland handles 2.6 million calls every year. I will quote what Derek Penman, the chief inspector of constabulary, said on this very issue when he appeared earlier this year before the Justice Sub-Committee on Policing:

“We must realise that there will always be risks and things will always happen. Some people fail to accept that, but we need to recognise that improvements have been made and that there is no crisis in police call handling.”—[Official Report, Justice Sub-Committee on Policing, 23 February 2017; c 13.]

I am very clear that one incident of the type that Ruth Davidson has cited is one too many and that lessons must be learned from all those incidents, as lessons will be learned from the one that the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner reported on this week. However, we also need to recognise the number of calls that are handled and use that as context; and recognise, as has been recognised by HM inspectorate of constabulary, the significant improvements that have been made. The responsibility of the police, overseen by the Scottish Police Authority and with the ultimate accountability of this Government, is to continue to make sure that those improvements are made and that all lessons are learned when they need to be learned.

Ruth Davidson

We keep hearing that things are getting better, but time and again members of this chamber are raising concerns about how the centralisation of our police force has been administered and time and again the Cabinet Secretary for Justice brushes those concerns aside and insists that the rushed closure of control rooms under his watch is safe. However, incidents such as those I have just read out are continuing and the problems—in part of this Government’s making—are still live. The public have a right to expect better. The justice secretary claims that he is on top of this. Does the First Minister share his confidence?

The First Minister

Ruth Davidson, to her credit, is raising a significantly important issue that is of concern to the public across Scotland. I do, however, think that she risks doing herself a bit of a disservice in how she is characterising the approach of both the police and the Government. It is simply not true or fair to say that the Government or the justice secretary has ever brushed aside concerns of the nature that have been raised. Indeed, it was the justice secretary who commissioned the investigation and report on call handling that HM inspectorate of constabulary carried out and published in November 2015, the update report of which we have referred to and was published in January this year.

It is also not just me or, indeed, the justice secretary who is saying that significant improvements have been made, because that is also the view of HM inspectorate of constabulary. The vast majority of the recommendations that were made in the original report have already been implemented. Significant actions, some of which I have already narrated today, have been taken to strengthen the call-handling processes and ensure that the whole process is of the quality that people deserve.

However, I will never ever stand here and say anything other than that the type of cases that we heard reported this week or that Ruth Davidson has quoted in the chamber are anything other than completely unacceptable. In accepting that, though, it would be equally wrong for me somehow to say that no improvements have been made, and it is wrong for Ruth Davidson to say that, because it is not the case. Significant improvements have been made and will continue to be made, and all lessons that are required to be learned absolutely will be learned.

Ruth Davidson

The issues that I am citing have happened since that report was published. So, this is not an issue that has been resolved: it is still on-going. All of us in this chamber were promised that taking control rooms out of local areas would not result in a loss of local knowledge, but I will cite some more cases from this year: a woman threatened by her ex-partner who did not get a response from the police because they were sent to the wrong address; a man threatened with a knife, and police were sent to the right flat in the right street but in the wrong town; and a caller who rang as their mother and niece were being assaulted but, again, the police were sent to the wrong location.

The justice secretary promised that if performance dropped at any of Police Scotland’s call-handling centres, there would be “rapid intervention”. He made that promise two years ago, but we are still seeing hundreds of serious incidents. Can the First Minister look those families in the eye and say that her Government has lived up to its promise?

The First Minister

I would say to any family who has experienced the kind of experiences that Ruth Davidson has cited today that that is completely unacceptable. There is no dispute between Ruth Davidson and me on that fact.

As First Minister, I would like nothing better than to stand here and be able to give an absolute categoric guarantee that, in a police system that handles 2.6 million calls every year, nothing will ever go wrong, but no country on the face of this planet has a Government that can stand up and give such a categoric guarantee. However, we will continue to take all appropriate and necessary steps to make sure that the system that is in place is as robust as possible.

The point that I am making is that significant steps have been taken that have led to significant improvements since the 2015 report. If it was only me standing here saying that, I guess that the scepticism that Ruth Davidson is articulating might have more justification, but HM inspectorate of constabulary is also saying that significant improvements have been made, and it has made the point that, given the volume of calls, there will, unfortunately—and this is of deep regret to everybody—be cases in which things go wrong.

Our duty is to try to make sure that that risk is minimised as much as possible, and that is what we will do. The lessons will continue to be learned and we will continue to give our police service the support that it needs to make sure that the public have assurances that the call-handling arrangements that are in place are robust.

I have already quoted HM chief inspector; let me quote Niven Rennie, who used to be the president of the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents, who said recently:

“I do know that police receive loads and loads of calls, millions of calls a year. The vast majority of them are answered extremely well, very professionally”.

I recognise that sometimes things will go wrong. Our duty is to make sure that we act in any case in which that happens so that all appropriate lessons are learned. That is what we will continue to do.


Sexual Harassment

2. Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

Will the First Minister join me in commending the bravery and courage of all those who have come forward to speak about sexual harassment?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Yes, absolutely. I join Jackie Baillie in doing that.

Many organisations, all political parties, this Parliament and other Parliaments have had to confront some very difficult situations in recent days, but it is absolutely right and proper that we have been prepared to do so. These are not easy situations, but the priority for all of us in this is to encourage women to come forward and to make sure that, when they do so, the environment that is provided for them is as supportive as possible, that they have confidence that they will be listened to and believed and that any concerns or complaints that they bring forward will be robustly investigated. The situation has led all of us to look afresh at our procedures and tighten them. I know that my party has done that and that the Scottish Parliament is doing likewise. We should pay tribute to women who come forward and encourage others to do so if they want to.

Jackie Baillie

I agree with the First Minister on that point. It takes incredible bravery to speak out about harassment, especially because it is often a woman who has to report the behaviour of a man in a position of power. A helpline is a welcome first step, but it is pointless if it does not ring, and it will not ring if victims do not see that allegations that are made are then investigated transparently. An absence of complaints does not mean an absence of harassment.

Our response needs to go further, because we know that apologies are not always enough. Will the First Minister tell us what changes she wants to see in the Parliament to create that safe space in which people can speak out?

The First Minister

That is not just a matter for me; it is a matter for the Parliament collectively. I met the Presiding Officer and representatives of other parties last week, and we talked about the changes in procedures that the Parliament should make. At that meeting, I made the point—which I have made publicly—that changes in procedures are necessary and important but it is the underlying culture that allows some men—I stress that it is only some, but it is predominantly men—to behave in a way that leads to women feeling the way that many have felt, so we have to change the underlying culture. Last week in the chamber, John Swinney rightly said that it was for all men to reflect on their behaviour and I reiterate that point.

I stress, before the Presiding Officer points it out to me, that the Parliament’s procedures are not a matter for me as the First Minister but a matter for Parliament. The situation of there being no women on the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body is unacceptable and will have to be addressed and resolved by the Parliament. We, as a Parliament, are about to consider legislation about gender balance on public bodies, and the Parliament has a duty to lead by example. That is a matter for the whole Parliament to address, but I think that I am making my views on the issue pretty clear.

Jackie Baillie

Again, there is much on which I agree with the First Minister, but we all know that a woman will not speak out if she thinks that she will be ignored, if the man’s behaviour goes unchallenged or if it is simply excused as a joke.

This should be a watershed moment. This is our opportunity to tackle sexual harassment in our Parliament, in our country and in our society, and the Scottish Parliament must lead the way. It does not matter whether we are back benchers or ministers, or whether it is at Holyrood or Westminster; sexual harassment needs to be challenged, and challenged transparently.

If the standard of someone’s behaviour is not good enough for them to remain a minister, how can it be good enough for a member of the Scottish Parliament?

The First Minister

Jackie Baillie is referring to the situation with Mark McDonald. He did what John Swinney asked all men to do last week: he reflected on his behaviour. He came to the conclusion that that behaviour—whatever he might have thought of it at the time—was not appropriate and, in my view, he did the right thing in resigning.

I want to be clear that that behaviour was to do with language and not physical conduct. Although I think that it justified the step that Mark McDonald took, I want to make it clear that it was not language that would come anywhere close to requiring to be referred to the police. That context is important.

I agree 100 per cent with Jackie Baillie’s point that women will not be encouraged to come forward if they do not believe that they will be taken seriously, if the behaviour that they are complaining about will simply be dismissed or if they feel that they will be ignored. However, there is another issue, which is particularly relevant to and difficult for politics. Women might also be discouraged from coming forward if they think that, the moment they do, every aspect of their concern will be all over the media. In that situation, we might unintentionally give politicians more protection than we give others in society, and that is not what any of us wants to do.

The supportive environment that we want to create for women who come forward must involve respecting the confidentiality and privacy around the issues that those women are raising. That will sometimes mean that we have to find balances that are not always easy for those of us who stand up in Parliaments to explain the situation. None of this is easy, but we must make sure that we provide the right environment for women. I want every woman who has had any experience of this nature and wants to come forward to feel that she can do that in the right way and get all the support, including confidentiality, that she requires.

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

I will take a couple of constituency supplementary questions. The first is from Alexander Stewart.


Flaring (Fife)

Alexander Stewart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

Flaring at Mossmorran has been causing anger, distress and upset among many Fife residents in my region. The flare, which lights up the sky with a pulsating glow, can be seen from as far away as Angus. The night sky has been turned to daylight in areas of Cowdenbeath and Kelty, causing anxiety, sleeplessness and distress. Day after day, residents have had to endure noise pollution and vibration, to say nothing of the impact on air quality and the environment.

Will the First Minister take affirmative action to hold Exxon Mobil to account over its unannounced flaring and give my constituents proper answers after months of worry and a lack of updates?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I understand the issue that the member raises and have a great deal of sympathy with the concerns that the public is expressing about the situation. As with all similar issues, concerns about accountability must be taken seriously.

The regulatory body, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, is closely engaged on the issue. It is looking into it and I understand that it is also engaging with the local population.

I will ask the environment secretary to write to the member to update him on the action that is being taken and the investigations that are under way at SEPA. It is a serious matter that must be properly and transparently resolved.


Kirsty Maxwell (Support)

Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green)

What action is the Scottish Government taking to support Adam Maxwell, who has barely slept since the death of his wife Kirsty, in Benidorm in April this year, as he and Kirsty’s family press for a full investigation into the circumstances of this tragic loss?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I offer my sincere condolences to Mr Maxwell and all of Kirsty’s family on their tragic loss. It is impossible for any of us to imagine what Mr Maxwell and his family are going through at this time, but they should know that my thoughts and the thoughts of everyone across the Parliament are with them.

The justice secretary met the family in September, to listen to their concerns. I understand that the investigation by the Spanish authorities into the circumstances surrounding Kirsty’s death is on-going and that Police Scotland officers continue to offer support to the Spanish authorities. I give Alison Johnstone the assurance that Police Scotland will continue to liaise closely with the family and will interview any potential witnesses who reside in Scotland. The family deserves answers about what happened to their loved one, and the police in Scotland will do everything that they can to make sure that they get those answers.


VG Energy

Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

Following the sudden decision by VG Energy in Galston to go into liquidation, what action will the Scottish Government take to support the firm’s 39 members of staff?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

This will be an extremely difficult time for the staff of the company concerned. As is always the case in such situations, the Scottish Government will liaise with the company to see whether there are any ways in which employment can be protected. However, partnership action for continuing employment—PACE—which is our approach to supporting people who face redundancy, will also be fully engaged, if it is not engaged already, in offering appropriate support to those who are affected. I am sure that the employment secretary will be happy to discuss the situation further with the member if there are any other issues that he wishes to raise.


Bilston Glen Call Centre

3. Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

I am sure that the First Minister will join me in wishing a speedy recovery to the police officer who was stabbed at Edinburgh College on Monday. We all stand together in appreciation of his service and his duty.

The case of Elizabeth Bowe, who was from my constituency, is deeply troubling. Since the recent centralisation of the call centres, I have raised such issues repeatedly. It is reasonable to ask such questions, because Bilston Glen call centre was at the centre of the M9 crash tragedy, in which two victims were left dying at the side of the motorway for days because of a shortage of experienced call handlers.

In this particular case, the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner has recommended that there should be additional training. Will the First Minister give members a guarantee that all the staff at Bilston Glen have the appropriate experience, and that the staff who were involved in this individual case have the appropriate experience, too?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I join the member in wishing well the police officer who was stabbed earlier this week. We wish him a speedy recovery. That incident is a reminder of the risks that our police officers take each day as they work hard to keep us safe.

It is entirely reasonable and legitimate for questions such as Willie Rennie’s to be raised, and he has raised the issues over a period of time, which is to his credit.

On the Elizabeth Bowe case, about which I have already had exchanges with Ruth Davidson, I give an assurance that all the recommendations in the PIRC report will be taken forward and implemented by Police Scotland. I will not go into detail on the specifics with regard to individual officers, but I am happy to ask the Cabinet Secretary for Justice to write to Willie Rennie if he wishes to have more detail.

As I said earlier in response to Ruth Davidson, Police Scotland has already taken action to deliver risk and vulnerability training to more than 800 staff, and that process will continue. That training is about helping staff to better identify and assess risk, and to capture all relevant information on calls. We will continue to ensure that everything that requires to be done following those cases is done. As First Minister, I will continue to pay close attention to the issue, and the Cabinet Secretary for Justice will continue to be engaged with the issues on an on-going basis.

Willie Rennie

I would appreciate a more detailed response from the Cabinet Secretary for Justice on the case, because it is particularly important to understand the level of experience of the staff at Bilston Glen.

It is disturbing that the M9 crash happened more than two years ago, yet the family have still not had the fatal accident inquiry that was promised to them at the time. We need to understand what needs to be done in order for improvements to be made. There are still questions about the underlying reasons for what went wrong in St Andrews and we still do not know what exactly went wrong on the M9. Can the First Minister give a guarantee that we will be told, before another tragedy happens?

The First Minister

First, on the fatal accident inquiry, I absolutely understand the desire of the family in that case to have all the answers to their questions. It is important that I make it clear that, as Willie Rennie knows, decisions about fatal accident inquiries are not for me as First Minister or indeed for the Cabinet Secretary for Justice; they are for the Crown Office. I am sure that the Lord Advocate would be more than willing to update Willie Rennie on the decision making on a fatal accident inquiry in that case.

I want to make it clear, as I did to Ruth Davidson, for the benefit of not just those of us in the chamber but the wider public, that there is no sense, in any of these cases, in waiting until fatal accident inquiries before action is taken to learn lessons and address any failings that have been identified. The work of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and the PIRC is hugely important in that regard.

I repeat what I said to Ruth Davidson. I stress that I do not seek in any way to diminish the seriousness of these cases, but significant lessons have been learned, significant improvements have been made—that has been recognised by the inspectorate—and we will continue to ensure that that is the case in all cases and that whatever action requires to be taken is taken.


Support for Veterans

Bruce Crawford (Stirling) (SNP)

In this important week in the run-up to remembrance Sunday, I ask the First Minister to outline what support the Scottish Government provides for veterans to make the transition from military to civilian life. My constituency, Stirling, has a long and proud connection with the military and I am sure that veterans across Scotland will be interested to hear the First Minister’s response.

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

As we approach remembrance Sunday, the interests and sacrifices of our armed services and indeed our veterans are very much at the forefront of our minds. Last year, the Scottish Government published a summary of our work to support our armed forces community in Scotland. Next week, the veterans minister will update Parliament fully on that. Since 2008, we have invested more than £1 million through the Scottish veterans fund to support more than 140 projects across Scotland that provide valuable housing, health and employment support for veterans. We have also established a veterans employability group to lead work in that area. This year, we committed £5 million to ensure that veterans in receipt of social care receive the full value of their war pensions. Although transition issues are reserved, we will continue to give veterans across Scotland the support that they deserve.

All year round, but particularly at this time of year, all of us recognise that nothing that we can do of that nature will ever repay fully the debt of gratitude that we owe to our armed services and veterans community.


Wind Farms

Graeme Dey (Angus South) (SNP)

While the legal obstacle to the development of four offshore wind farms in the Firths of Forth and Tay has now been removed, three of the proposed developments, including Inch Cape off the Angus coast, still require contract for difference support to proceed. In this, offshore wind week, will the First Minister join me in encouraging the United Kingdom Government to provide such backing and ensure that we are able to take a significant step forward on renewable electricity generation and meeting our climate change obligations?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I absolutely agree with Graeme Dey. The Beatrice project is now well under construction, to be followed by Neart na Gaoithe and Moray wind farms in the coming years. Together, those projects will provide 2GW of renewable energy plus huge economic benefits for the entire country. The UK Government has committed to a third contract for difference auction in spring 2019, which will provide an opportunity for the remaining projects in the Forth and Tay to secure a contract that will build on the momentum to deliver a sustainable and inclusive economy for Scotland. We are absolutely committed to protecting our marine environment, which is threatened by climate change, and we all need to play our part in tackling that global challenge.

It is widely recognised that Scotland is a world leader in this field and we want to make sure that the support is there to ensure that we can continue to be so.


Tax Avoidance Measures

4. Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)

To ask the First Minister what measures the Scottish Government can put in place to curtail tax avoidance. (S5F-01688)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Unfortunately, the Scottish Government only has power to directly tackle tax avoidance in relation to two fully devolved taxes—land and buildings transaction tax and the Scottish landfill tax. We take a simple, clear and very robust approach. We have a general anti-avoidance rule that is wider than the corresponding United Kingdom rule. It allows Revenue Scotland to take action against tax avoidance arrangements considered to be artificial, even if they otherwise operate within the law.

Following recent reports about the use of offshore tax havens, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution has written to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to seek urgent reassurance that the United Kingdom Government will now take the issue of tax avoidance seriously, and to demand that concrete action is now taken.

Christine Grahame

I thank the First Minister for her answer and particularly for the steps that the Scottish Government is taking to reduce tax avoidance.

Does she share my disgust, particularly at those who have been disclosed in the paradise papers whose salaries are paid by the public, such as Fiona and Martin Delany and Paddy Houlihan, who are actors in the hit show, “Mrs Brown’s Boys”, who have their wages paid by the BBC and funded by the licence payers, and who are squirreling away some £2 million offshore to avoid income tax? Does she agree that they should consider disbarring themselves from using, for example, any health service across the UK, which they obviously do not want to pay for—or would they not like that script?

The First Minister

I think that Christine Grahame is right, and I am sure that the anger that underlies her question is shared by the vast majority of people across the UK. People should pay the taxes that they are due to pay.

Paying tax is the collective duty that we have, to ensure that we have public services that are there for all of us when we need them. The taxes that we pay provide our national health service and our education system, and they provide the infrastructure and the other support that our businesses need if they are to prosper and thrive. When somebody does something that is about not paying full tax, such as putting money into an offshore haven, they are depriving those public services of the money on which they rely. That is wrong.

According to HM Revenue and Customs estimates, the Treasury lost out on £6.9 billion through evasion and avoidance in 2015-16, and £1.7 billion of that was down to tax avoidance. For individuals and businesses, tax contributions should be a matter not of what they can get away with but of respecting the spirit of the law and paying a fair contribution.

That is my message to individuals; my message to the UK Government is that it is within its power to crack down on some of this stuff, and it is a matter of regret and shame that it has not done so. I hope that we will now see action, before the next set of papers is released, no doubt some time in the future.

Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I accept that there is always much more to do to clamp down on tax avoidance and evasion, but will the First Minister acknowledge that the tax gap in the UK, at 6 per cent, is the lowest that it has ever been and is among the lowest in the world?

On the subject of regret and shame, does the First Minister regret being part of a Government that paid £10 million of taxpayers’ money to Amazon, a company that hardly has an excellent record when it comes to paying tax?

The First Minister

If I had had to guess which MSP would leap to their feet today to defend the tax avoiders, I would probably have put Murdo Fraser quite close to the top of the list.

Yes, okay, we can cite figures, as Murdo Fraser has just done, about the tax gap being less than it is in other countries, but let me repeat what I said: close to £7 billion is being lost to public services in our country because of tax avoidance and tax evasion. That is unacceptable, and even if Murdo Fraser cannot quite bring himself to see that and say so, I think that the vast majority of people in the country will do so.

We call on all companies, Amazon included, to pay their due tax, and we call on the UK Government, where power on this lies, to take the action to ensure that people pay the tax that is due.

James Kelly (Glasgow) (Lab)

As the First Minister correctly pointed out, companies that participate in tax evasion and tax avoidance reduce the amount of money that goes to public services to address the issues that we talk about in this chamber, week in and week out, such as building a better health service and supporting education.

Will the First Minister therefore agree to call in and cancel public contracts where companies have been shown to have participated in tax avoidance, to ensure that all public contracts are awarded to companies that organise their tax affairs in a fair and transparent manner and pay fairly into the public purse?

The First Minister

I generally agree with the sentiment of the question. As James Kelly knows, we have made significant reforms to public procurement over a number of years, to ensure that where companies are benefiting from public contracts they are expected to behave not just within the letter of the law but in a way that people would think is acceptable.

I hope that James Kelly recognises that the powers around tax avoidance and cracking down on it lie principally not with this Parliament, unfortunately, but with the United Kingdom Government, and I hope that he will join us in calling on the UK Government to at last do something about it.

Andy Wightman (Lothian) (Green)

The First Minister will be aware of reports in the paradise papers regarding the St Enoch Centre in Glasgow. She will also be aware that, for example, Edinburgh airport is owned by a complex structure, located in Grand Cayman and Luxembourg, and that a large rural estate sale that is currently being negotiated involves a transfer of shares in offshore companies to avoid land and buildings transaction tax. What additional work is the Scottish Government undertaking to ensure that those risks of tax avoidance by offshore companies are identified and ended?

The First Minister

We will continue to do everything in our power to try to crack down on such behaviour. I have already spoken about the fact that the rules on the two taxes for which we have responsibility are more robust than those for taxes across the UK.

Andy Wightman is aware of and has a keen interest in some of the work that we are progressing in the context of land reform to increase transparency with a register of controlling interests.

I wish that this Parliament had more power in this area. Unfortunately, we do not. Let those of us who think that that is wrong come together to demand that the UK Government takes action that so far it has dragged its feet in taking, and perhaps ultimately to call for those powers to lie in the hands of this Parliament, so that we can have the crackdown that people want.


Emergency Responders (Safety)

5. Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

To ask the First Minister, in light of reports of crews being attacked when dealing with bonfires over the weekend, what action the Scottish Government is taking to ensure the safety of emergency responders. (S5F-01686)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

None of us should ever tolerate attacks against firefighters or, indeed, any member of our emergency services, who do a remarkable job in very challenging circumstances.

The minister for community safety visited Dalkeith fire station on Tuesday and spoke to firefighters who had been attacked while on duty on bonfire night. Thankfully, none of them sustained any significant injuries. Unfortunately, one police officer suffered burns from a firework-related attack, which I understand to be serious but not life threatening. I am sure that the whole chamber will join me in wishing that officer a speedy recovery.

We fully support the police and our courts in dealing robustly with such offences. Those who are charged with attacks against our emergency service workers can face a prison sentence, a £10,000 fine, or both.

Liam Kerr

As the First Minister pointed out, last weekend our emergency services were the target of mindless violence, and today there are reports that front-line officers demanded specialist public order support, but were refused. As a result, an officer suffered serious burns from a firework that was thrown at her face.

The Scottish Government does not collate data on how many such incidents take place. If it does not know the scale of the problem, it cannot have any idea whether its solutions will be the right ones. As a first step to protecting those who dedicate their lives to protecting us, will the Scottish Government immediately begin gathering and publishing data on the number of assaults that have taken place against the emergency services, and will it commit to an urgent review of resourcing and protective equipment based on that data?

The First Minister

I believe that work is already progressing on the very reasonable issue of data that the member raised, and I will have the justice secretary or the minister for community safety, who I believe is overseeing the work, write to him with further details. The point about data is important and reasonable, not just when we are looking at this issue but generally. We will take that forward and reflect on whether further action is required on that front.

More generally, I am sure, as I said, that all of us want to send our sympathies and good wishes to the officer who was injured. I understand that Police Scotland had put in place a significant amount of planning for bonfire night. A significant number of additional officers had been deployed: double the number that is normally on duty. A formal debrief to review the events has been scheduled, to ensure that any lessons that require to be learned are learned for the future.

If lessons are to be learned, they should be learned, but all of us should come together to send the clearest of messages. Our emergency service workers literally put their lives on the line, each and every day, to keep us safe. It is unconscionable and awful that anybody could ever contemplate attacking a member of our emergency services while they are going about their duty. We must condemn that and make clear that there will be zero tolerance towards it.

The Presiding Officer

There is a lot of interest in this question.

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

Last year, the antisocial use of fireworks resulted in several convictions for mobbing and rioting in the Muirhouse area of my constituency. As Liam Kerr mentioned, this year, a police officer was hospitalised for burns following a direct hit from a firework that was deliberately thrown at her. Year on year, we are seeing an escalation in such behaviour. Does the First Minister agree that, as well as having a mature discussion on the licensing of private firework use, we need to dramatically invest funding in detached and sessional youth work in areas such as Muirhouse as a means of diverting young people from such activities in the first place?

The First Minister

Yes, I do. That is a reasonable point to make. We need to do a number of things. First, we need to make sure that our police officers and firefighters are properly resourced on and around occasions such as bonfire night—I have already said that double the usual number of officers were on duty given some of the disorder that we have seen previously.

There is a discussion to be had on and probably a look required at the rules, regulations and laws on the sale of fireworks and their permitted use. As the member is aware, there is split responsibility between this Parliament and the Westminster Parliament. The Scottish Government has responsibility for legislation on the use of fireworks, but responsibility for the sale and possession of fireworks is reserved to Westminster. I am sure that there is no one in this chamber who has not had concerns raised by constituents this week about firework use. The Scottish Government will certainly, in those areas where we have powers, take a look at whether we should do any more or take any further action.

Alex Cole-Hamilton’s point about diversion is important, not just in this context but more generally. I have already praised and paid tribute to emergency service workers, but we also need to pay tribute to those who work with our young people, such as youth workers, who seek to engage them in more productive conduct than some of the conduct that we are speaking about. The member makes a valid point in that regard.

Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

I support everything that the First Minister has said about attacks on fire service crews. However, attacks on the fire service come in many guises. Will the First Minister also condemn any proposals to reduce fire service staffing numbers and to close fire stations? Those are further attacks on the fire service. Will she commit today to halt any proposals that may come forward that would reduce fire service jobs and reduce the number of fire stations?

The First Minister

We will continue to take action to protect the front line of our fire service to do the job that it is there to do. There have been no closures of fire stations since the reform of the fire service took place.

It is absolutely right that the fire service, given the changing demands on it, looks at the action that it has to take to ensure that our firefighters are properly equipped to do the job that we expect them to do. As we see in this year’s budget, we have increased the fire service’s revenue operating budget. We will continue to work with the fire service to make sure that it is equipped to do the vital job that all of us depend on it to do.


Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy

6. Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

To ask the First Minister what discussions the Scottish Government has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding reports that the UK could leave the common agricultural policy and common fisheries policy in March 2019 with no transition period. (S5F-01699)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

On Monday, the rural economy and environment secretaries met the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs secretary of state, along with the Welsh cabinet secretary for rural affairs. During the meeting, the secretary of state was pressed on the issue of transition for the common agricultural policy and the common fisheries policy. The UK Government was not able to give any clear position at all.

Farmers and fishermen need to know what regime they will operate under in less than 18 months’ time. It is simply unacceptable that the UK Government has so far been unable to provide the clarity that has been requested and which is required. We will continue to press DEFRA and UK ministers on that critical issue in the coming weeks.

Rhoda Grant

The First Minister knows that many of our fishers and farmers depend on access to UK markets to sell their products; they also depend on European Union subsidies to make our food more affordable and to protect the environment. What steps can she take to provide them with some comfort that that situation will continue post March 2019?

The First Minister

We will do everything that we can to ensure that the support that our farmers and fishermen depend on continues after the UK leaves the European Union. However, right now, it is the UK Government that requires to provide that clarity. We do not even know right now whether the UK’s membership of the common agricultural policy and the common fisheries policy will continue during any transitional period or whether the UK will exit them at the point of Brexit in March 2019.

Just to underline the confusion that reigns in the UK Government, I will read out two quotes, spoken a matter of days apart. Speaking to the National Farmers Union Scotland, Lord Duncan, from the Scotland Office, said:

“The Secretary of State has been very clear that he believes that farming and fishing should not be part of any transitional deal.”

Five days later, Michael Gove—the secretary of state who was referred to by Lord Duncan—said:

“Certainly a transition period of around two years will follow.”

I have some thoughts about what might happen to CAP during that period.

It is unconscionable that our farmers and fishermen, who, as the member said, rely on EU subsidies, still have no clarity whatsoever. I hope that everyone across the chamber will join us in putting pressure on the UK Government to resolve the situation and give the clarity that is so urgently needed.