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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 11 September 2018

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, European Union Exit Preparations, Social Enterprise World Forum 2018, Business Motion, Decision Time, The Ecology Centre (Kinghorn)


Topical Question Time

North West Community Campus (Dumfries)

1. Finlay Carson (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with Dumfries and Galloway Council regarding the closure of the new North West community campus in Dumfries. (S5T-01213)

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

The safety of students and staff is our primary concern. Although this is a matter for Dumfries and Galloway Council, we have been in close contact with the council and we stand ready to provide whatever assistance may be required. Scottish Government officials have undertaken regular discussions with the council and I have spoken to its chief executive to discuss the on-going situation at the campus. We have encouraged the council to ensure that a comprehensive inspection of the condition of the campus is undertaken and that any remedial action is undertaken as a matter of urgency to minimise any impact on children and young people’s education.

Finlay Carson

Almost exactly two years ago to the day, at the sod cutting, the cabinet secretary said that it marked an exciting milestone for Dumfries. Today, we mark another chapter in the woeful reputation of Dumfries and Galloway Council. Once again it seems that defeat has been snatched from the jaws of victory.

Parents and staff are hugely concerned that the North West community campus is unsafe. We have seen ceilings collapse and a door injure a child after coming off its rails, and the latest incident saw a child being hit by a falling electronic whiteboard. That was after a council officer gave assurances that

“we’ve probably done far greater levels of checks now than you might normally have done.”

Local people and parents are demanding answers. Will the cabinet secretary back my calls for a full public inquiry into what has gone wrong at the site and commit to investigate any issues that have arisen at any other Government-funded schools for the future campuses?

John Swinney

There were a number of elements in Mr Carson’s question, and I will work my way through them.

First, as I said in my original answer, the safety of students and staff is the absolute concern, so the local authority must satisfy itself that all scrutiny has been undertaken to ensure that the quality of the building is as it should be. Having discussed the matter with Dumfries and Galloway Council, I can say that I have seen extensive work that is being undertaken to secure the necessary confirmation that the standards of the building are as they should be. Quite clearly, that has not been satisfactory.

The council must—I know that it is intent on doing this—hold the contractors to account, because these are contractual issues. None of these things should be anticipated or expected in the delivery of a school building, so the contractor must be held to account on all of them, and the local authority will be meeting the contractor at a very senior level tomorrow to discuss these questions.

In relation to the latter part of Mr Carson’s question, obviously, there will have to be investigations into what has gone wrong and there will have to be transparency around the issues. From the Government’s perspective, I would certainly expect that to be the case in order to ensure that we have full information on the issues that have gone wrong—at, it appears, a very late stage in the contract—and to provide the reassurance that parents, staff, pupils and the local authority have the right to expect.

Finlay Carson

With regard to safety checks, Dumfries and Galloway Council’s website shows that a building completion certificate for the project was granted on 20 July. Five days later, a ceiling collapsed at the building after an issue with the sprinkler system. I am not a builder, but I would imagine that, if the school had been filled with pupils and staff at the time, it would have been disastrous.

The council’s website states:

“Building regulations are in place to make sure that buildings are safe.”

It strikes me that the process of the council awarding completion certificates to projects that it has a vested interest in—particularly if, as in this case, they are behind schedule—could be open to suggestions of potential conflicts of interest. Will the Deputy First Minister give an assurance that that will be reviewed when we look at the process for deeming whether buildings are safe for use?

John Swinney

It is really important that we remember that the purpose of the certificates that are issued by local authorities is to provide confirmation that buildings have been built to the necessary standards and to provide clarity and reassurance on that to members of the public. A local authority has a statutory duty to undertake that task and, independent of whether it has an interest in the building, it must provide that assurance.

Mr Carson has raised legitimate points in our discussion about the safety and security of buildings. However, fundamentally, we rely on contractors doing the job that they are contracted to undertake. That is the fundamental issue, and of course there have to be checks to ensure that that has been done. At this stage, it seems pretty clear to me that the contractors have let the local authority down, and the contractors must be held to account for what has happened in this case.

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

Four other members wish to ask a question. If we are to have a chance of getting to each of them, all members should keep their questions short, and ministerial responses should also be short.

Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

It is extremely concerning that there has been a second incident in a three-week period, which has resulted in the safety of children and, indeed, all building users being compromised. What action can the Scottish Government take to ensure that all future public building works in the south-west of Scotland and, indeed, across Scotland are inspected and thoroughly checked to confirm that they are of the optimal health and safety standard before they are signed off and the buildings are open to children, teachers and the wider public?

John Swinney

The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 places a duty on all owners of buildings to ensure that their premises are safe and without risks to the health of anyone involved. In addition to that requirement, which applies across all bodies and should apply across the south of Scotland, public sector bodies that procure construction works must have regard to Scottish Government construction policy note 01/2017, which provides guidance for contracting authorities on making appropriate arrangements for the independent inspection of construction activities. That guidance was prepared and the notice was produced following the publication of the “Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Construction of Edinburgh Schools”—or the Cole report.

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

There have now been three incidents at the new campus despite assurances having been given to the council on a number of occasions by the private contractor, Graham, and the developer, Hub South West Scotland, that the building was safe. The council has had to bring in an independent third party to check the school, which may result in the discovery of further problems. It has issued the extraordinary statement that it has lost complete confidence in both the contractor and the developer. Does the Deputy First Minister have confidence in Graham and Hub South West Scotland? Does he share my concern that there appears to be a Government-developed procurement process for new schools that does not properly hold private contractors to account for serious breaches of safety?

John Swinney

I expect private contractors to be held to account for contractual failures: that was at the heart of my answers to Mr Carson’s questions. I made it clear to the chief executive of the local authority when I spoke to him that I expected the private contractor to be held to account, because we are talking about very basic and elementary stuff that no contractor should fail on in the provision of public sector buildings.

There are contractual arrangements. I have seen documentary evidence that the local authority has been assured by the private contractor. The letter says:

“Graham gives you”—

that is, the local authority—

“an unequivocal commitment to provide the Council with the facility it expected to have when we entered into contract.”

That is an unequivocal commitment, to which I would expect Graham to be held.

There is a pretty simple answer in all these matters. When people are contracted to build buildings to a certain standard, they should do that. That would have saved the pupils and staff of the North West community campus the great deal of uncertainty and inconvenience that they face as a consequence of those issues.

Joan McAlpine (South Scotland) (SNP)

Professor Cole also produced a report that exposed the failings in the way in which Dumfries and Galloway Council officers monitored the contractors at the DG One leisure complex, which was closed for safety reasons. Does the cabinet secretary share my concerns that lessons have not been learned from that report?

John Swinney

It is important that, when material such as the Cole report is produced, we follow and observe the issues that are raised and the recommendations made.

What strikes me about the information that I have seen on Dumfries and Galloway Council’s handling of the matter is that it sought to verify the different assurances given to it by the contractor, but the fact that we are where we are today demonstrates that that process has not been as effective as it should be. I expect Dumfries and Galloway Council to look carefully at the Cole report and, particularly in relation to this process, ensure that effective scrutiny is put in place to protect the public interest and the safety of staff members and pupils at the North West community campus.

Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

Last week, Professor Cole told the Local Government and Communities Committee that it is possible for anyone, including Mr Swinney or me, to sign off a completion certificate. Anyone can do that because no level of expertise is needed. That is wrong, is it not?

John Swinney

I certainly would not sign off a completion certificate on a building. It is important that any public authority that has a responsibility for the construction of a building has appropriate expertise within the organisation to ensure that that process is undertaken satisfactorily and in accordance with the requirements of statute. Local authorities and other public bodies must ensure that they have taken account of their statutory responsibilities when they are signing off particular commitments or agreements.

Livestock (Exports)

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

I declare an interest as convener of the cross-party group on animal welfare.

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will ban the export of livestock for fattening for slaughter. (S5T-01204)

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

I am aware of Christine Grahame’s long-standing interest in and commitment to animal welfare, and know that she has raised this issue in a chamber on a number of occasions. I want her to know that I share her passion for the welfare of animals and that, in the care of livestock, we adhere in all circumstances to the highest standards and regulations issued by the European Union.

This Government recognises, as does the dairy sector and NFU Scotland, that the issue of male dairy calves is very complex. The situation is not black and white. Such calves are of no real productive value in this country, so they end up either being slaughtered at birth or exported to other countries, including those in continental Europe. No one is very comfortable with that situation, so we will work with the sector to look at other options. I am pleased that this Government is supporting the ethical dairy, which is taking a different approach to dairy cows and their calves.

I want to make Parliament aware that P&O Ferries has confirmed that it will no longer be transporting live calves from Scotland that are destined for continental Europe. The company has said that it was shocked by the scenes in last night’s BBC documentary, which influenced its decision. I, too, was shocked by the scenes in the documentary, but I emphasise that there was nothing in it that suggested any harm or breach of any welfare standards by anyone transporting calves from Scotland to Northern Ireland, Ireland or continental Europe. Therefore, I am concerned at the decision that P&O Ferries has reached.

I will urgently seek to find out more information. We need to determine that there are no other impacts on live transport of animals to Northern Ireland or Ireland or, indeed, on the operation at Cairnryan more widely.

I reassure everyone in the chamber and elsewhere that the Government remains committed to ensuring that livestock in Scotland are reared, transported and treated throughout their lives humanely, with respect and to the highest possible welfare standards. Just as I made clear in my interview with BBC Scotland for last night’s documentary, if anyone has any evidence that that is not happening, I hope that they would come to me with that information.

Christine Grahame

I welcome the minister to her portfolio, and I thank her for a very thoughtful and extensive reply. I make it plain that I do not blame the farming community or, indeed, P&O Ferries for shipping such livestock to Northern Ireland. I also understand the EU restrictions.

I was pleased to hear the minister reflect on ethical farming, such as that which is practised by David and Wilma Finlay at their farm in Gatehouse of Fleet.

The concept of animals as sentient beings has changed our whole concept of animal welfare. There remains widespread concern about removal of weeks-old bull calves from their mothers, which is distressing for mother and calf, and the transportation of those calves from Scotland—not England—over, in some cases, six days, to be fattened and slaughtered, whether or not we agree with the conditions in which they are transported.

Notwithstanding the minister’s words—they are welcome and I hope that we make progress—can her Government guarantee the welfare of those calves, from removal from their mothers to export, through fattening to dispatch, in whichever country that takes place? This is about guaranteeing calves’ welfare throughout.

Mairi Gougeon

That is exactly what we are trying to do. The subject is something about which I am passionate and care very much. The welfare of the animals is of paramount importance, which is why the Scottish Government has undertaken a project—it started in January this year and is due to run until January next year—in which we are monitoring every single stage of the process, to ensure that we are adhering to the highest possible welfare standards and do not end up in a situation in which animals are being mistreated. I must emphasise that, as far as I am aware, there have been no instances of mistreatment found so far in the project. However, we are undertaking the work to ensure that it does not happen.

I completely understand how emotive the issue is and that there are a lot of strong feelings around it, especially when we consider the number of hours for which animals have to be transported. I emphasise that half the time is taken up resting the animals; the issue is not as straightforward as it is sometimes made out to be.

We are committed to upholding the highest animal welfare standards, which is why we have undertaken a project to ensure that that is happening.

Christine Grahame

I did not hear a response to my point about the ethical farming on the Finlays’ farm at Gatehouse of Fleet. It seems to me that if such ethical practice were to be replicated throughout Scotland, the question of a ban on the practice that I have been talking about would be irrelevant, because we would not be using that practice. In ethical farming, farmers get a proper price for their milk produce, and bull calves are reared on the farm until they are six months old and are then slaughtered in Scotland, which removes the necessity of worrying about transport and what happens to animals once they leave our shores.

Mairi Gougeon

I refer to my first response to the member. No one is happy with the current situation. Ideally, animals would be reared and slaughtered as close as possible to where they are produced. We are not currently in that situation. That is why I and the Scottish Government support ethical dairy, and it is why I am keen to engage with the dairy industry and dairy farmers to see whether there is something that we can do about the situation. I would be happy to meet members and will look to engage actively with the dairy sector, to investigate.

Other members have probably received the briefing from the NFUS today, which says that the Scottish dairy industry is actively working to reduce the number of animals that are transported, and to find alternative home markets. I endorse and support that work. That is what we are keen to do.

The Presiding Officer

We have had very full questions and we have had very full and detailed answers, which all members will have welcomed. However, there is a huge amount of interest in the subject and five more members want to ask questions. I do not think that there is a chance of our getting through all five questions, but if we have succinct questions and answers we will get through a few.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

The minister has just repeated the assertion that she made on the BBC last night, which is that she has no knowledge that animals were being transported to north Africa. I find that difficult to believe, given that a letter was sent to the First Minister back in the spring detailing those transports.

Does the minister acknowledge that there is a huge difference between a ferry trip for sheep in the Shetland Isles and the 135-hour journey that sheep and dairy calves are making to Spain and on to Africa? Does she accept that a ban on live exports will not lead to a ban on exports of cattle and sheep within the UK?

Mairi Gougeon

When I undertook to do the interview, I asked the BBC, if it had evidence of our cattle being transported to and ending up in countries outside the European Union, to hand that evidence to us. As yet, I have not received any such evidence.

As I have said, we are undertaking a project that is running for a year to monitor the situation and to see exactly what is happening. I have not seen any resulting evidence that mistreatment is actually taking place, as Mark Ruskell suggests. Again, if there is evidence to the contrary, I will be happy to receive it.

Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

Parliament requires me to declare my interests, and I wish to do so. Considering the emotiveness of the subject, it is a slightly longer declaration than I would normally make. I am part of a family partnership that produces beef cattle. We sell breeding cattle, mainly in the UK and in Ireland.

The “Disclosure” programme that was aired last night does not accurately reflect the high standards of welfare in the industry that I have known and worked in for the 39 years of my working life. I ask the minister whether she will work with the UK Government to ensure that the high standards that are practised in the UK farming industry are replicated across the world.

Mairi Gougeon

I hark back to the project that we are currently undertaking, because that is exactly what we want to do. We have a proud record on animal welfare standards in Scotland. I believe that the study is the first of its kind anywhere in the world. We could learn lessons from it and therefore improve the legislation and regulations that we have at the moment. It is of paramount importance to me that we maintain high standards in Scotland, so regardless of what happens with Brexit, we will do everything that we can to ensure that we maintain such standards.

Mike Rumbles (North East Scotland) (LD)

On 6 June, I said to Fergus Ewing that

“the concern is not so much about direct exports from Scotland but about Scottish animals ending up in Spain and north Africa for slaughter.”—[Official Report, Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, 6 June 2018; c 48.]

He avoided answering my question: members can check the Official Report.

There is an alternative to slaughtering calves at a few weeks old, which is to rear them here for veal production and to promote that product for the UK consumer. The minister has just said that she will do everything she can to maintain high standards. Will she take positive action to promote consumption of Scottish veal by UK consumers, so that we can make it productive for farmers.

Mairi Gougeon

As I said in an earlier answer, I am absolutely open to looking at all alternatives and to engaging with the industry to see what we can do. Not everyone is happy with the situation. I am absolutely committed to engaging with the industry to see how we can move forward positively.

Claudia Beamish (South Scotland) (Lab)

I will build on previous questions. As we have heard, last night’s BBC “Disclosure” programme highlighted the Galloway farm of Wilma and David Finlay, which I have visited. They have an ethical system in which losses from lower milk yield are dealt with through selling the male cows at 18 months instead of their either being shot at birth or transported at up to four weeks, which could make up the difference.

In the interim, will the Scottish Government consider the possibility of supporting the development of such herds through transition subsidies? Also, will the minister agree with me that surely the only way to stop mistreatment is to ban live exports, as Scottish Labour and other Opposition parties including the Greens think we should?

Mairi Gougeon

Again, I say that the issue is not as black and white as that. We export animals for a variety of reasons. As far as I am aware from what some organisations have told me, we transport animals not only for further production but for breeding, with which, I believe, not all organisations have an issue.

The ethical dairy project is a business whose operators I have yet to meet, but I am very keen to do so as soon as possible. As I have said in my previous responses, I am happy to investigate alternatives and to look at other solutions so that we can find a positive way forward.

Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

I have listened carefully to Christine Grahame’s questions as well as to the minister’s responses. I would be happy to introduce the minister to David and Wilma Finlay on a visit to the south-west.

I am interested to know whether the minister supports NFU Scotland’s call for sound science and existing standards to be the basis of discussions prior to any changes to live export regulation.

Mairi Gougeon

I have spoken about the Scottish Government project that is currently under way: I reference it again. Being able to get the scientific evidence and the data is exactly why we are undertaking that work, to see what improvements we need to make, if any.

I also gratefully accept Emma Harper’s invitation to visit the ethical dairy project, which I am keen to do, as I am keen to look at alternative solutions.

The Presiding Officer

That concludes topical question time. I thank all the members who spoke, and the ministers, for extending what was clearly a lot of political interest in both subjects.