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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, June 16, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 16 June 2016

Agenda: Business Motion, General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Points of Order, Post-study Work Visas (Rural Communities), Policing and Security, Children, Decision Time


Contents


Policing and Security

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

Good afternoon. The first item of business this afternoon is a statement by Michael Matheson on policing and security. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions until then.

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Michael Matheson)

I would like to make a statement about Police Scotland’s announcement of an increase in the number of armed police officers.

Let me be clear at the outset that today’s announcement is about the number of armed officers and not the circumstances in which they are deployed. Members will recall the controversy in summer 2014, when armed officers were deployed to incidents not involving firearms or a threat to life. Police Scotland then reverted to the policy of deploying armed officers only to incidents involving firearms or a threat to life. There is no change to that approach.

The threat that we face from terrorism is real. The overall threat level in the United Kingdom from international terrorism is classified as severe and has been since August 2014. The events that we witnessed at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 and again on the streets of Paris in November and the mass murders in Brussels are scenes that we never want to see again. They brought home just how vulnerable major cities can be. In the past few days in Orlando, we have again seen carnage and terror caused by a lone gunman.

There is no specific known threat to Scotland, but it is the duty of Government to protect its citizens, so we must plan and prepare for any eventuality. Sadly, we know that Scotland and the United Kingdom are not immune from terrorism. Previously, we have seen attacks in Glasgow and London. The criminal use of firearms also poses a threat.

The Government will always ensure that Scotland is well protected, that plans are in place to respond to such threats and that the risks are mitigated. I assure members that Scotland is playing its full part in the continuous planning and preparation that go on across the UK to protect communities. The Scottish Government and our emergency services continue to work alongside the UK Government in considering our preparedness against all threats. We are committed to ensuring that Scotland’s law enforcement and other bodies have all the tools that they need to tackle terrorism and organised crime effectively.

The attacks in Paris and Brussels as well as intelligence about organised crime have informed the work that Police Scotland has undertaken to review plans, and it has today announced an increase in the number of armed officers to help maintain safety and security in our communities. The chief constable has briefed me and ministerial colleagues on the case for the increase. It is an operational decision for the chief constable to make, and it is a decision that has the full backing of the Scottish ministers and the Scottish Police Authority.

Police Scotland constantly assesses and reviews resources against the latest intelligence and, to inform its decision to increase armed officer numbers, it has carried out a very detailed and robust assessment of capability and capacity. Currently, there are 275 Police Scotland officers who are dedicated to armed response vehicles. The increase of an additional 124 officers that has been announced today includes 90 officers who are dedicated to armed response vehicles. The increase will be phased over a number of months, as the officers are recruited internally and trained to the very high standards that are demanded for that specialist role.

The vast majority of Scotland’s officers are not routinely armed. We have made an unequivocal commitment that that position will not change. Of our 17,317 police officers, only a small proportion have standing firearms authority to carry a weapon. That figure will now increase, but it will still represent a small percentage—it will be fewer than one in 40 officers.

Police Scotland has written today to the Justice Committee to notify members of the planned increase, which will take the percentage of officers with a standing authority to over 2 per cent, as officers are recruited. That fulfils a commitment that was made by my predecessor in August 2014. Police Scotland will continue to keep armed policing capacity and capability under review based on understanding of the evolving threat. The Scottish Government will fully support Police Scotland in doing so.

As part of Police Scotland’s engagement with communities, local commanders in all parts of Scotland will meet local authorities and chairs of scrutiny committees to ensure that they are briefed. Senior officers have briefed representatives from the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents and the Scottish Police Federation, whose members include most armed officers.

In its announcement today, Police Scotland has made it clear there is no change to the policy of deploying armed officers only to incidents that involve firearms or a threat to life. Armed response officers will also continue to be able to use their professional judgment as police constables to deal with any situation that they come across during their patrols. Armed police officers are, first and foremost, police officers, and they are expected to respond appropriately to keep people safe. However, I want to be clear that armed officers will not be routinely deployed to incidents other than those that involve firearms or a threat to life. Members will recall that it was the fact of armed officers attending more routine calls that gave the impression that our police service was becoming routinely armed and caused controversy back in 2014. There is no proposal to return to that.

The model of deployment of armed officers will, of course, continue to be kept under regular review by Police Scotland’s armed policing monitoring group, which advises the chief constable. I am clear that any proposed change to the model of deployment would have to take into account the views of the public, stakeholders and Parliament.

Today, I offer my gratitude for the role that the men and women of Police Scotland play day in and day out in protecting our communities. Their commitment and dedication to the police service often means that they put themselves in harm’s way to protect others. That is especially true of officers in the firearms role.

Officers volunteer to become armed officers. They are then carefully selected for what is a highly specialised role. Training is long and hard as they ready themselves for the responsibilities and risks that the role entails. They then put themselves in the front line of many of the most perilous situations that police officers can face. They are among the most highly trained officers in the service, and they deserve our respect and support in the difficult and often dangerous work that they do across Scotland on behalf of us all.

All that preparation goes hand in hand with our work to build cohesive communities so that extremist messages do not resonate. We do that by building strong and enduring relationships with all Scotland’s communities. We have a strong track record of working for an inclusive and cohesive Scotland where diverse communities are valued for their contribution and a culture of respect and social justice is fostered.

The Government has always sought to build stronger and more resilient communities across Scotland and we will continue to do so. Respecting diversity and challenging hate are key to that. The Government, Police Scotland and other agencies are strengthening the protection of our communities but the responsibility for our collective safety also lies with each one of us as citizens and neighbours.

The attacks in mainland Europe and Orlando caused shock and grief around the world. The Government is resolute in protecting the way of life that we enjoy and cherish in this country. The different threats that we face in our daily lives and as a nation mean that we must ensure that we are prepared for any eventuality. That is precisely what today’s announcement is about.

There is no specific known threat to Scotland. People are safe to go about their daily business and should be further reassured by today’s announcement by Police Scotland.

The Presiding Officer

The first question is from Douglas Ross.

Douglas Ross (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance notice of his statement, and Deputy Chief Constable Ruaraidh Nicolson and Assistant Chief Constable Bernie Higgins for the briefing that they provided to party spokespersons and leaders.

The cabinet secretary is right to highlight that this move is about preparing. The public should not be alarmed by it; in fact, they can take some comfort from it. Over recent days, weeks and months, we have seen individuals and groups slaughtered by terrorists. The first duty of our brave men and women in the police force is to protect the public. Today’s announcement will allow for that greater protection.

The UK Government has set aside significant funds to increase the armed response capability in England and Wales. What financial support will be required by Police Scotland specifically to increase the number of highly trained and skilled armed officers, and what provision will be made for that?

I welcome the guarantee given by the cabinet secretary that today’s announcement does not indicate a change to the deployment procedures of our armed officers. This Parliament well remembers the concerns raised by the cabinet secretary about armed officers in the Highlands going to fast food restaurants, for example. What can Police Scotland and the Scottish Government do to reiterate to the public that they will not see a change in the deployment of armed officers?

Finally, I take this opportunity to praise our policemen and women for the work that they do each and every day. It is because of that work that today’s announcement is a proactive one rather than a reactive one. We are preparing for the worst, when in fact we should be highlighting the skills of everyone in the police force, who ensure that we are always kept as safe as possible in Scotland.

Michael Matheson

I thank Douglas Ross for his comments. I agree: the public can take reassurance from today’s announcement by Police Scotland about ensuring that we have the necessary preparations in place to deal with any eventualities that could come to Scotland.

A key part of Police Scotland’s planning around this announcement has been to look at the nature of the threat that we face in Scotland and how Police Scotland can best deploy its resources to deal with and mitigate that threat. The officers who will be recruited into the firearms teams will be officers who are presently within Police Scotland. Part of that involves some increase in the availability of equipment for those officers. Police Scotland has set out a range of costs associated with that, which is in the region of £3 million.

As the member will recognise, there has been a consequence to the Scottish Government of the uplift in funding for armed officers in England and Wales. That has been provided within the Police Scotland budget for this year to give Police Scotland the resources that it requires to meet the additional costs associated with the increase in the number of firearms officers. The extra £100 million that Police Scotland will receive over the next five years as a result of that decision will assist it in meeting some of those costs. Alongside that, we will continue to be in dialogue with Police Scotland on any other funding matters.

The member is correct to point out that the announcement today does not result in any change in deployment. Deployment of firearms will continue to be for incidents that involve a firearm or where there is a threat to life. Equally, though, police officers should use their skills so that, should they come across an incident, they respond to it in a professional manner. Ultimately, their responsibility is the safety of the public. That is exactly the model of deployment that we have at present, and it will continue with this uplift in armed officers in Scotland.

The Presiding Officer

For members’ information, there will be around 20 minutes for these questions.

Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

I, too, thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of his statement and Police Scotland for the briefing earlier today.

I am responding to the cabinet secretary’s statement just moments after hearing the horrific news about my colleague Jo Cox, a member of Parliament in Yorkshire. I am sure that the thoughts and prayers of everyone in the chamber are with Jo and anyone else who has been injured.

Following the horrific events in France, and in Orlando at the weekend, no risk can ever be fully assessed. We must always ensure that our police services can respond effectively and proportionately to protect the people of Scotland. The Scottish Labour Party supports the decision by Police Scotland, working with ministers and the Scottish Police Authority, to ensure that we can protect all our communities from severe and violent threats.

I welcome the minister’s recognition that the routine arming of police officers will not increase—that is clear and rightfully so.

I ask the minister to keep Parliament regularly informed about any further increases in the numbers of armed officers in the future, and about where capacity is lacking. I also ask the minister whether Police Scotland is working to ensure that it can build the intelligence and track the risk that would lead to incidents involving firearms or threat to life, so that the use of firearms will always remain the last resort.

Michael Matheson

I also learned of the very sad attack on Jo Cox MP this afternoon. Like all members in this chamber, my thoughts and prayers are with her and her family at what is an extremely difficult time for them.

Mr Rowley made a very important point when he used the term “proportionately”. A key part of the approach that Police Scotland has taken forward, in considering the uplift in the number of firearms officers, is to make sure that it is in proportion to what we believe the overall risk to be within Scotland.

I give the member an assurance of my determination to ensure that Parliament has the opportunity to consider any further increase in the number of firearms officers within Police Scotland. The very reason why we are having this statement—and also the briefing that we provided earlier—is to afford members of the Scottish Parliament that particular opportunity. That is certainly an approach that I would seek to take forward again in the future. Equally, the approach includes informing the Justice Committee, as my predecessor had previously given a commitment to do should there be an increase above the 2 per cent level that Police Scotland had prior to the time of that commitment.

On the issue of Police Scotland developing its capability to be able to track and to mitigate risks, one of the key aspects that we have with the national force is the ability to draw all of that type of information and capability into one central point. That allows us to make sure that we are operating within Scotland in a way that ensures that, no matter where a person is in the country, they receive the same level of service, reflecting the risk that is informed by that understanding. One of the things that Police Scotland does—working with other agencies—is to ensure that it interrogates that intelligence and information to consider whether there are any further measures that it then has to take forward here in Scotland.

I certainly give the member an assurance that, should there be any plans in the future to see a further increase in the number of armed officers within Scotland, the parliamentary process will be respected in the way in which it has on this occasion.

The Presiding Officer

The first two questions and answers have taken quite a long time. I recognise that the subject is very important, but there are a lot of members who want to speak, so I ask for quite tight questions and answers.

Ben Macpherson (Edinburgh Northern and Leith) (SNP)

What level of engagement has taken place between the Scottish Government, the Scottish Police Authority, Police Scotland and other partners on today’s announcement?

Michael Matheson

As the member will recognise, the decision is an operational decision for the chief constable to make, although it is a decision that has the full backing of the Scottish Government and the Scottish Police Authority.

Members will appreciate that, since the attacks in Brussels and Paris, we have been liaising with Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority to consider what further firearms capacity and capability may be required in Scotland. That has been considered over several months, resulting in Police Scotland’s announcement today. I give the member an assurance that the matter will be continually kept under review and that we will consider further information or any further incidents that occur to ensure that the approach that we take in Scotland is proportionate to the risk here and is informed by experience in other parts of Europe and the wider world.

Margaret Mitchell (Central Scotland) (Con)

I thank the cabinet secretary for early sight of his statement.

There is clearly a balance between assessing any possible current threat and raising anxiety among the public. It seems to me right and proper that, in the light of world events, Police Scotland should seek to reassess its response to any potential threat in Scotland.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that, in session 4, the Justice Sub-Committee on Policing was established to report on the functioning of the new Police Scotland. Given today’s statement and the issues that regularly arise, does he agree that the sub-committee performed an invaluable function in ensuring transparency, openness and accountability in all aspects of Police Scotland’s activities?

Michael Matheson

In her initial comments, Margaret Mitchell referred to assessing the threat that we face as a result of incidents that have occurred in other parts of Europe. I emphasise that there is no known threat to Scotland. The course of action that Police Scotland is taking is based on the nature of the incidents that have occurred in Europe. It is taking that action to ensure that we have the capacity and capability to deal with incidents—should such incidents occur here—and that our response is proportionate.

It is of course for the Justice Committee and the Parliament to decide whether to have another policing sub-committee. However, I assure the member that the Scottish Police Authority has been considerably engaged in the action that Police Scotland is taking, through scrutinising and being involved in discussions with Police Scotland as it has developed its thinking and final response to the issues that have been raised with it. The SPA has given the matter thorough consideration.

Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

What engagement has taken place with local authorities and the public on the increase in the number of armed officers?

Michael Matheson

A key aspect of the work that Police Scotland will take forward from today is engagement with the chairs of the scrutiny committees, individual local authorities and local authority chief executives. Local commanders in each area will undertake that work to ensure that the scrutiny committees and local authorities understand the announcement that Police Scotland has made today and are provided with further information about the decision. A key part of that work is therefore about ensuring that local scrutiny committees and local authority chief executives are informed about the matter.

Mary Fee (West Scotland) (Lab)

I thank the cabinet secretary for an advance copy of his statement, and I put on the record my support for the commitment and dedication of our police force.

The breaking news at lunch time about my colleague Jo Cox casts a dark shadow over today’s statement and highlights the need for safety and security in all our communities. Given the ever-changing threat and nature of terrorism and the need for increased numbers of armed officers, can the cabinet secretary tell the chamber what support and psychological services are available to armed officers who are deployed to deal with terrorist incidents to ensure that their health and wellbeing are fully supported?

Michael Matheson

Armed officers are trained to the highest level that officers can be trained to because of their extremely specialist role. If we consider policing right the way through from the role of constable to the various specialisms, we can see that there is no doubt that the skills required for armed officers are at a very high level. Police Scotland trains to the very highest level to ensure that our officers are equipped and trained to undertake their role professionally and effectively.

The member asked about the support and assistance provided to officers who deal with potentially traumatic incidents. There are standing arrangements within policing for officers to be debriefed and to get support in dealing with these matters. It is for the chief constable to ensure that the welfare of their staff is appropriately looked after. That applies to any constable involved in any incident in the same way as it applies to those who are armed officers. It is a matter for the chief constable, but there is a standard process for officers who are involved in serious incidents to be debriefed and provided with welfare and support following such incidents.

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

I draw members’ attention to the fact that I have a close family member who is a police constable.

Many incidents that happen in local communities across Scotland could not reasonably be foreseen through intelligence and stem from the actions of a single individual. Is the cabinet secretary satisfied that there are adequate ways in which local commanders can get access to the new resource that he has announced today?

Michael Matheson

Part of the work that Police Scotland has been undertaking over the past couple of months has been to look at the changing nature of the threat, and there is no doubt that the incidents that we witnessed in Paris in particular highlighted that changing nature, in that several different incidents took place simultaneously. That has led to a reassessment of how policing resource should be deployed in order to prepare for such an event, should it occur. However, the resource will be deployed by Police Scotland on the basis of where it believes the greatest risk is presented. The model is constantly reviewed and it reflects the information that Police Scotland has.

I assure the member that the uplift in resource will provide a greater level of coverage across the whole of Scotland and will ensure that all communities have the armed officer provision that is necessary and appropriate to the situation and the risk in the area. Police Scotland reviews that regularly, based on the information and intelligence that it receives.

Gordon Lindhurst (Lothian) (Con)

I say to the cabinet secretary that I and the Scottish Conservatives welcome the announcement and Police Scotland’s continuing commitment to our security both across the country and here in Edinburgh, the capital city, with its many residents and visitors, particularly at the time of the Edinburgh festival.

The commitment includes ensuring the availability of sufficient armed officers in the event of any firearms incident. The cabinet secretary will appreciate that there is a difference and a distinction between having such officers available should such an incident arise and officers being visibly armed from a public point of view. Can the minister give the Parliament a categorical assurance that we will not now see visibly armed officers on Scotland’s streets except where necessary in the event of such an incident or an immediate verifiable threat?

Michael Matheson

As I made clear in my statement and as Police Scotland has made clear, the model of deployment will not change from the arrangements that we have in place—that is, armed officers are deployed only to incidents that involve a firearm or where there is a threat to life. Outwith that, it will be for officers to exercise their professional judgment should they come across an incident where they believe that there is an issue of public safety, in order to respond to that. I am sure that all members would expect that to happen when officers witness such an incident taking place.

As I also made clear in my statement, if there was to be any change to the deployment model, the matter would require a level of public and parliamentary engagement and a level of scrutiny so that the issue could be considered in detail. I assure the member that the deployment model that we have at present, with the uplift in officers, will continue.

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

I welcome having early sight of the ministerial statement and the earlier briefing from the chief officers.

The Scottish Green Party accepts in good faith the information that we have been given, which we are told informs the threat level and therefore the change. I think that it is fair to repeat our earlier concerns about the Scottish recording centre, the quality and quantity of information and the legitimacy of its acquisition and retention. That said, we welcome that there is to be no change to the deployment policy.

Does the cabinet secretary nonetheless accept that there will be concerns that, however modest the increase is, it could be viewed as mission creep towards more routine use of armed officers? Does he accept that, although many will be reassured by what they have heard, a sizeable section of the community are concerned about the presence of armed officers, whether within or outwith vehicles? Can he reassure me that this is not the point of no return on arming and that, when the threat level reduces—we both know that there are groups that do not want that to happen—the number of armed officers will reduce as well?

Michael Matheson

I assure the member that the uplift in firearms officers within Police Scotland reflects intelligence and the service’s consideration of the threat level within Scotland and the UK as a whole. I assure the member that this is not simply a matter of mission creep or a desire to have more firearms officers. The matter has been considered in great detail and it reflects the changing nature of the threat given the incidents that have occurred in Europe as a whole over the past year and a half.

I have no doubt that a change in the threat level—if it is a reduction—will allow for further reflection and for the existing level of resource for firearms officers to be revisited, based on that change.

It is important that we reassure the public that Police Scotland’s approach is informed by its understanding of the threat and the changing nature of that threat. We must ensure that we have a proportionate response to the threat in Scotland, that we have in place the necessary resources to deal with any incident that should occur and that we revisit the matter, should the threat level change at any point in the future.

Mairi Evans (Angus North and Mearns) (SNP)

Will the cabinet secretary reaffirm the Government’s commitment to protect the police resource budget in real terms for the lifetime of this parliamentary session, ensuring that our police forces have the funding that they require to keep Scotland’s communities safe?

Michael Matheson

As I have said, we have given Police Scotland’s policing budget real-terms protection over this parliamentary session, which will allow it to invest an additional £100 million in policing. Alongside that, we have provided an additional £55 million reform budget in this financial year, to assist it in reforming the organisation. We are determined to continue to provide our law enforcement agencies and other partners with the necessary resource to ensure that they are able to meet and mitigate any threats that we face in Scotland.

Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

I confirm to the chamber that the First Minister has asked me to be the parliamentary liaison officer for the justice secretary. I look forward to working with colleagues across the chamber over the coming period.

How do armed policing levels in Scotland compare with those in England?

Michael Matheson

Fulton MacGregor will be aware that Police Scotland has considered the approach that it believes is best suited to ensure that we have a proportionate response to the risk in Scotland. It has engaged with its colleagues south of the border, including through the National Police Chiefs Council, to consider matters. The approach that Police Scotland has set out is proportionate to the approach that is being taken in other parts of the UK. The approach that Police Scotland has outlined today is very much in line with the approach that forces in other parts of the UK are taking.

The Presiding Officer

I thank the cabinet secretary for his statement and I apologise to the two members whom I was unable to call.