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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 15 May 2018

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, Business Motion, Decision Time, Nakba 70th Anniversary


Contents


Topical Question Time


National Strategic Assessment of Serious and Organised Crime 2018

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

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the “National Strategic Assessment of Serious and Organised Crime 2018”. (S5T-01083)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Michael Matheson)

The Scottish Government welcomes the publication of the National Crime Agency’s “National Strategic Assessment of Serious and Organised Crime 2018”. The assessment presents a high-level picture of serious organised crime in the United Kingdom and contains a specific section on Scotland, which draws on information that has been provided largely by Police Scotland. Police Scotland has primacy for serious organised crime in Scotland and constantly assesses emerging and existing threats. It does so in collaboration with all the law enforcement agencies that are based at the Scottish crime campus at Gartcosh.

Liam Kerr

The Scottish section of the report, to which the cabinet secretary has referred and which has been co-authored by the NCA and Police Scotland, is very clear: in Scotland, the threat from organised crime gangs is not only increasing but diversifying into new forms of activity. The report highlights on-going feuds, violence and firearms incidents, particularly in the central belt. Does the cabinet secretary think that that is good enough?

Michael Matheson

The information that is contained in the report is intelligence information that Police Scotland provides on such matters to the NCA. It is correct to say that a small number of crime groups in Scotland are presently undertaking a feud that has resulted in serious gang-related violence, which we have seen in public spaces, particularly in the Glasgow area, and which is wholly unacceptable.

Police Scotland is doing everything possible to reduce the risk to the public from targeted acts of violence that take place in public places. However, I am sure that members will recognise that it would not be appropriate for me to set out in detail the specific nature of the work that is being undertaken by Police Scotland on such matters, which are operational matters for it. However, I am regularly briefed on them by senior officers from Police Scotland and its organised crime and counterterrorism unit. Members can be assured that Police Scotland takes such issues very seriously and is determined to make sure that the actions of that small number of feuding crime groups are dealt with appropriately. It has a trail of action that is taking place to deal with them effectively.

Liam Kerr

In his answer, the cabinet secretary avoided saying whether he thinks that that is good enough. I will tell him what the public thinks: that it is not. Therefore, will he analyse the report and tell us which part of the Government’s strategy for tackling organised crime has failed, and why? The report also revealed not only that criminals have ready access to firearms but that they are willing to use them in public places. What action will be taken in response to that news, and how will progress be monitored? To put it simply, how will the cabinet secretary get the guns off our streets?

Michael Matheson

I appreciate Liam Kerr’s interest in the subject, but he fundamentally misunderstands how such matters are addressed by the police and law enforcement agencies in Scotland.

The serious and organised crime strategy is a multi-agency one involving the Scottish Government, Police Scotland, other enforcement agencies, the Crown Office and a range of public and private sector organisations, which come together to tackle such crimes collectively in a range of areas in Scotland. For example, the work that is done by a range of agencies in the divert and deter strands of the strategy to prevent and deter people from getting involved in serious and organised crime, as well as the disrupt elements, which are undertaken largely by our law enforcement agencies, are extremely important. The information that is contained in the NCA’s assessment is provided by Police Scotland—it is not new information. It feeds into the national strategy that we have in Scotland to deal with serious and organised crime. One of the things that have been very evident from the creation of a single police force has been the co-ordinated action that we are now able to take in addressing such crime.

As I have mentioned, the spilling out of the feud between crime groups on to the streets in some parts of Scotland is wholly unacceptable, but I assure Liam Kerr that Police Scotland takes such matters very seriously and takes robust action to deal with them. I reiterate that the information that is contained in the NCA report is not new. It is formed from information from Police Scotland, which is key to the delivery of the strategy to tackle such matters.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

The report talks about serious and organised crime working across borders; it specifically mentions the ports of Loch Ryan and Cairnryan, and highlights the significant connections with gangs in the north-west of England. Therefore, what work are Police Scotland and the Scottish Government undertaking to work with the Home Office and police colleagues throughout the United Kingdom to ensure that intelligence is shared and activity co-ordinated?

Michael Matheson

The member raises an important point, because there is an issue to do with how serious and organised crime groups operate. Often, they do not recognise any boundaries between countries—that is true whether they come from Northern Ireland or from south of the border. A key part of the work that Police Scotland does is share information and intelligence with fellow law enforcement agencies within the UK and internationally to deal with such matters. The teams at Gartcosh in the organised crime and counterterrorism unit are responsible for taking such measures and sharing information as and when that is appropriate.

Mr Johnson will also be aware of the recent success of operation escalade, which resulted in a number of significant individuals from organised crime groups based in Scotland being convicted and given lengthy prison sentences. A key part of the work that Police Scotland did in dealing with those matters was share appropriate information and intelligence with other law enforcement agencies to support them in progressing their work in that area. That work continues, and having the crime campus at Gartcosh has provided a central hub that allows a range of Scottish, UK and international agencies—18 different agencies are involved—to work in a collaborative fashion to tackle such matters effectively here in Scotland.

Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

Does the cabinet secretary agree that it is essential that Police Scotland remains able to utilise the European arrest warrant so that it can combat such crimes effectively?

Michael Matheson

That question follows on well from Daniel Johnson’s point about the need to make sure that we can share intelligence and information as and when that is appropriate because, in the crimes that they perpetrate, organised crime groups do not recognise domestic or international boundaries. The European arrest warrant is critical in supporting that work. The loss of the European arrest warrant could significantly hamper our ability to tackle serious and organised crime here in Scotland. It is still not clear how the UK Government intends to address that issue in the Brexit discussions.

The work that we do with Europol, which involves the sharing of intelligence through different police agencies, is critical in being able to track individuals who are involved in organised crime. The loss of access to such intelligence would compromise Scotland’s ability to tackle such matters. As yet, we have had no clarity from the UK Government on how those issues will be addressed.

The European arrest warrant and Europol play an important part in helping us to address serious and organised crime here in Scotland. To date, it is unclear how the UK Government intends to address those issues once we have left the European Union and, in my view, that potentially compromises our ability to tackle serious and organised crime in Scotland as effectively as we do at the moment.


Onshore Fracking Licences

2. Claudia Beamish (South Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government whether powers devolved to the Parliament over onshore oil and gas licensing under the Scotland Act 2016, which commenced in February, give ministers the authority to take decisions on granting and extending petroleum exploration and development licences for onshore fracking. (S5T-01086)

The Minister for Business, Innovation and Energy (Paul Wheelhouse)

The Scottish Government welcomes the devolution, on 9 February 2018, of the powers to issue and manage onshore oil and gas licences to Scotland. The powers, which were transferred to Scotland through sections 47 to 49 of the Scotland Act 2016 and related subordinate legislation, provide the Scottish ministers with a wide range of powers over the administration of onshore oil and gas licences, including the power to grant or extend petroleum exploration and development licences.

Claudia Beamish

Will the minister seek to ensure that the initial term of petroleum exploration and development licence 162, which is owned by Ineos and Reach Coal Seam Gas Ltd and covers 400km2 in the Scottish central belt, will not be extended, and that the licence will cease to exist on 30 June this year? What is the process by which the licence will be considered?

Paul Wheelhouse

I hope that Ms Beamish will understand my desire not to pre-judge any application to ministers. The integrity of the planning system is very important, and we have only just received the powers in question. Any requests for extensions to a licence will be considered on a case-by-case basis and in the light of the policies that are in place at the time.

I reassure Ms Beamish that we take such matters extremely seriously and that we will take forward our plans to develop a framework for onshore oil and gas licensing.

Claudia Beamish

Can the minister clarify for the chamber and those in communities across Scotland who have concerns about onshore fracking whether the Scottish Government now holds powers to revoke a licence or whether those remain with the UK Government?

Paul Wheelhouse

Returning to my previous answer, I say that we are grateful for the quickness of the devolution of powers following the statement in Parliament in October last year. The powers were commenced on 9 February, and they include the power to grant or extend a petroleum exploration development licence, or to refuse to do so, if need be. However, I would not want to discuss any specific licence at this point. I hope that Ms Beamish understands that I do not want to undermine the impartial, clear and transparent process that we would hope to deploy.

Ivan McKee (Glasgow Provan) (SNP)

When it comes to meeting our energy needs, does the minister share my view that this Parliament’s focus should be on the importance of the renewables sector and that, regrettably, the United Kingdom Government has failed to provide that vital sector with the support that it requires?

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

Very briefly, minister, as that is hardly to the point.

Paul Wheelhouse

I agree with the member’s view. There has perhaps been too much focus in the past on fracking at UK level. We have encouraged UK ministers to take a greater interest in support for renewables industries. I had a recent meeting with Claire Perry at the all-energy conference in Glasgow and I have reason to believe that she is more progressive than some of her predecessors, so I hope that we will have more fruitful discussions. However, I take on board the member’s point and very much agree with him that renewables are the way to go and that we should be putting our energy into ensuring that we have a low-carbon future in Scotland.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

It is now almost four years since the conclusion of the public inquiry into the UK’s first commercial planning application for coal-bed methane, near Airth. The decision still sits in limbo on the planning minister’s desk, so is it not time that the Scottish Government gave communities the certainty that they deserve, using the legally watertight planning powers that it now has, and shut the gate on Ineos in the Forth valley?

The Presiding Officer

The minister will be aware that there is a live court issue in this case, so he should be careful in responding.

Paul Wheelhouse

Indeed, Presiding Officer. In any case, I can say only a limited amount on the matter. The appeals remain sisted and it is a matter for the planning and environmental appeals division to decide what the next step should be in each case.

Angus MacDonald (Falkirk East) (SNP)

I recall that, in his statement to Parliament on 3 October last year, the minister made it clear that the Scottish Government’s preferred position was subject to the completion of a strategic environmental assessment. Will he update Parliament on that process and confirm that he will also update Parliament following the completion of the strategic environmental assessment and any business and regulatory impact assessment that is undertaken?

Paul Wheelhouse

The member makes a very good point. We have embarked on a strategic environmental assessment, which is a requirement of the Environmental Assessment (Scotland) Act 2005. As I set out in my statement, that strategic environmental assessment has commenced and we expect it to conclude in the summer. We would undertake any other statutory requirements in reaching our preferred position, and that is all that I can say at this stage.