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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 21 January 2020

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Veterans, Business Motion, Scottish National Investment Bank Bill: Stage 3, Scottish National Investment Bank Bill, Decision Time, Robert Burns in the Scottish Economy


Topical Question Time

Police Scotland Budget

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the chief constable’s recent remarks to the Scottish Police Authority regarding the Police Scotland budget. (S5T-01957)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Humza Yousaf)

Before I answer the substance of the question, I record my and the Government’s condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of Police Constable Lynch, who lost his life late on Sunday night. Also, today is the funeral of PC Natalie Faulds—a young officer who tragically lost her life a few weeks ago. I offer the Government’s condolences to their family and friends, and to the wider police family on those two losses.

On Liam Kerr’s question, the annual budget for policing has increased by more than £80 million since 2016-17, which brings the budget to more than £1.2 billion in 2019-20. That includes a £12 million increase in capital funding, which was focused on the introduction of mobile devices for front-line police officers.

Despite there being constraints on Scotland’s public services through a decade of United Kingdom austerity, the Scottish Government has worked with Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority to maintain and improve policing services, including by providing significantly more officers than at any time since before 2007. Current officer numbers stand at 17,256, which is 1,022 more officers than we inherited, while in England and Wales the number has reduced by 20,000.

Discussions around the Scottish budget for 2020-21 continue, but we will continue to ensure that the Police Service of Scotland is supported to keep people and communities safe. As well as pursuing the UK Government to ensure that it meets the full costs of European Union exit and of hosting the 26th conference of the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity—COP26—we will continue to press it to pay back the £125 million of VAT that was paid by Police Scotland before the Treasury reversed that unfair policy, in 2018.

Liam Kerr

The chief constable was utterly scathing about the Scottish Government’s funding of Police Scotland. The cabinet secretary has referenced capital funding; Police Scotland’s capital funding has already been cut to the bone. The chief constable has said that it is “derisory”, and is leaving facilities unmaintained, vehicles unreplaced and police numbers in jeopardy. Is it not the case that, if the Scottish Government had taken only £100 million out of the budget, instead of £200 million, Police Scotland would have a balanced budget by now? Will the cabinet secretary at the very least give in to our demand and give Police Scotland the £50 million that it needs to maintain officer numbers?

Humza Yousaf

Again, for wider context, I will make sure that Liam Kerr understands the investment that we have put into the police. Our investment includes real-terms protection of the police budget and a 52 per cent increase in the capital budget, which has meant 1,000 more police officers for Scotland, versus the 20,000 cut in officer numbers in England and Wales. Crime rates in Scotland remain among the lowest, and we have 32 police officers per 10,000 head of population versus 23 in England and Wales.

The UK Government stole £125 million out of policing, but Liam Kerr is asking us to put £50 million back in. If he really wants to be helpful, he could use his enormous influence with his UK Government colleagues to get them, at the stroke of a pen, to reverse that decision and give us back £125 million.

While he is at it, will he ask them to give us the £200 million that Police Scotland has asked for to cover the UK Government-hosted COP26? Police Scotland is already having to spend money and use resources, but has not had a single copper penny from the UK Government.

If Liam Kerr really wants to be helpful, he can get on the phone to his friends in Westminster and ask them to return some of the money that they have stolen from Police Scotland.

Liam Kerr

There was no answer in that at all to the chief constable’s point.

The cabinet secretary has clearly put some work into his defence and obfuscation. If only he would give the same attention to our police officers. He referenced crime rates. Under the Scottish National Party, crime has been rising for the past two years and violent crime has been rising for the past four years. The SNP Government keeps asking our brave policemen and policewomen to deal with increasing crime with fewer resources. Surely the cabinet secretary accepts that that is totally unsustainable? When will our police officers be able to say that they are working from and with an estate that is fit for purpose?

Humza Yousaf

I really struggle to take lessons from Liam Kerr on this topic. If he wants to talk about what we have done for police officers, I will tell him: we gave them a 6.5 per cent pay award, compared with a derisory 2 per cent pay award that was given to police officers in England and Wales.

Liam Kerr’s demand is that the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work put £50 million towards policing. If that was to be done, would he say right now that he would vote for the Scottish Government budget? I suspect that there would be no answer to that question—that he would obfuscate and equivocate.

Liam Kerr mentioned crime rates. We have one of the lowest crime rates in more than four decades. The Scottish violence reduction unit, which is being hailed across England and Wales, including in London, is doing phenomenal work. However, last week, statistics showed that knife crime incidents in England and Wales are at their highest rate for 10 years, so he will forgive me if I do not take any lessons from him on crime rates.

I ask Liam Kerr to answer one question. If that £50 million were to be put towards policing, would he vote for the budget?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I have two supplementaries that I wish to take. Can we have shorter answers, please, cabinet secretary?

Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

According to the Fraser of Allander institute, the tax plans that have been outlined by Conservative leadership candidate Jackson Carlaw would take £270 million from the Scottish budget. Does the cabinet secretary agree that Liam Kerr, as Jackson Carlaw’s campaign manager, might have wanted to reflect on the impact that the Conservatives’ tax plans would have on the Police Scotland budget before raising the topic in the chamber today?

Humza Yousaf

I am sure that Liam Kerr is very fond of the work of the independent Fraser of Allander institute: he quotes it regularly. The institute’s analysis is that Jackson Carlaw’s tax plans would take £270 million out of the Scottish budget. Despite that, Liam Kerr expects us to spend more on policing. I will continue my discussions with the finance secretary about the justice budget. From looking at the tax plans of the man whom Liam Kerr wants to be leader, it seems to me that he will have to borrow Labour’s magic money tree sometime soon.

James Kelly (Glasgow) (Lab)

The issue is not just the number of front-line police officers, but the conditions in which they are having to work. The Scottish Police Federation has reported that 25 per cent of police stations are in poor condition. David Hamilton of the SPF tweeted a video of a police station in Paisley where water was leaking in through the roof. Does the cabinet secretary accept that it is completely unacceptable that some of our police stations are falling apart? What action will be taken in the budget to ensure that our police estate is fit for purpose?

Humza Yousaf

Describing police stations as “falling apart” is unhelpful hyperbole. [Interruption.] I do not doubt that the Scottish Police Federation has a job to do, particularly pre-budget, to ensure that the maximum amount of resource comes to the police. It would not be doing its job if it did not do that.

I ask James Kelly and his finance colleagues in the Scottish Labour Party to engage positively with the budget on the matter. When he was shadow finance secretary, before he was moved to the shadow justice secretary position, he never asked for more money for justice. In fact, Labour made no proposal on policing in Scotland—all that it did was suggest that there should be a 3 per cent cut to every department, including the justice department.

We have continued to invest in policing, including in the capital budget, which has had a 52 per cent increase. We will continue to look at any proposals that Police Scotland makes for the budget.

Highlands and Islands Airport Ltd

2. Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd regarding the announcement of plans to centralise air traffic control services. (S5T-01956)

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity (Michael Matheson)

The Scottish Government has regular discussions with HIAL about how best to ensure a long-term sustainable future for air services in the Highlands and Islands. The decision was made and announced by HIAL early in 2018 to modernise air traffic control, a key feature of which was to establish a central surveillance centre rather than retaining individual towers at each airport. That decision—which is one part of a wider programme—was based on an independent analysis of the different options available and careful consideration by HIAL and its board.

Both the Scottish Government and HIAL are clear that this is a major change, both technically and personally, for the staff involved, and its success will depend upon continued engagement with staff, airlines and the Civil Aviation Authority.

Forthcoming regulatory changes and the general shift in the industry away from more traditional air traffic control procedures mean that doing nothing is not an option. The option chosen by HIAL, after very careful consideration, embraces new technology, future proofs operations, improves safety and will benefit the communities served by the airports involved.

Liam McArthur

Operating air traffic services across the Highlands and Islands via a remote tower in Inverness was identified by HIAL’s independent consultants Helios as the riskiest and costliest option. Helios identified alternative options that would achieve the much-needed modernisation at a fraction of the cost or risk. Despite that, HIAL has spent more than two years ploughing ahead while ignoring the serious concerns that have been voiced by its own staff.

Does the cabinet secretary honestly believe that the project can be delivered when 82 per cent of HIAL’s ATC staff have stated that they will leave the organisation should it continue down this path? Will the cabinet secretary, even at this late stage, call a halt to enable a proper islands impact assessment to be carried out, given the significant implication of these plans for lifeline air services and employment in our three main island communities?

Michael Matheson

The priority for HIAL was to make sure that it chose the best option in order to help to sustain and support the modernisation of air traffic control services at HIAL airports. Any new approach that is taken to the delivery of air traffic control services at HIAL airports will have to be approved by the Civil Aviation Authority, which is the safety expert in assessing these matters and the regulator that will have to consider any changes that are introduced by HIAL.

On Mr McArthur’s wider reference to employment and the island communities, key aspects of making the necessary changes to air traffic control are recognising the regulatory changes that are taking place and addressing issues of resilience at the existing facilities, which will have controlled airspace. The new centralised surveillance model will provide a greater level of resilience than we currently have, or would be provided in any of the other models that were considered.

I confirm that HIAL intends to undertake an island impact assessment in line with the legislation—the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018— in the coming months.

Liam McArthur

I welcome at least the latter part of the cabinet secretary’s response. However, as one local ATC staff member in Orkney told me earlier this week, HIAL’s plans offer no additional safety benefits over the other options available, while introducing serious additional risk, including a complete reliance on information technology infrastructure that no one who lives in the Highlands and Islands believes can be delivered for anything like the costs that are being quoted.

By the time reality catches up with the rhetoric and assertions that are being made by HIAL—or the CAA has any involvement in the process at all—millions will have been wasted and staff will have voted with their feet. Can the cabinet secretary therefore guarantee Parliament that Orkney’s lifeline air services and those across the region will not face major disruption as a result of this remote tower project? Will he, at the very least, look again at the phasing of the project, so that breaks can be provided that would allow independent assessments to be made of the technology before any final decisions are taken to close air traffic control services at Kirkwall or other airports across the network?

Michael Matheson

I expect HIAL to continue to engage with staff and trade unions on this matter in the way in which it has done over the past two years. In my discussions with HIAL it has been clear with me that it intends to continue that engagement with staff and with interested stakeholders.

It is worth keeping in mind the views of others in the aviation industry. For example, I was struck by comments from Jonathan Hinkles, the chief executive of Loganair, who said:

“Loganair’s view is that the technological improvements and airspace changes will enhance safety and we see no credible safety based argument against the remote ATC proposals.”

He went on to say:

“Having seen the remote ATC technology in action I can confidently say that it represents a quantum leap forward from what we have today in relation to safety.”

A number of airports across Europe and North America use that particular technology. What is important is that I recognise that with a significant change of this nature, there is a need for HIAL to remain engaged with local communities to provide them with the assurances that they require. I will certainly ensure that HIAL continues to undertake that work in the months ahead.

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

The cabinet secretary says that HIAL has engaged with its staff and with local communities. I can assure him that that is not the case. HIAL needs to speak to the specialists on its own payroll, who are totally ignored and whose concerns are not being listened to. There is no connectivity. This is just another vanity project that will cost a huge amount of money, provide less service and damage our island and rural economies at the same time.

Michael Matheson

Taking forward an approach that will enhance safety in air traffic control systems in HIAL airports cannot be described as a vanity project. As I have outlined, any changes that are introduced will require to be approved by the Civil Aviation Authority. The CAA must be satisfied that those changes meets its strict safety regulations.

If there is engagement with local communities that the member believes HIAL should undertake, over and above the action that it has taken to date, I would be more than happy to hear from her. Alternatively, she can contact the chair and chief executive of HIAL directly to suggest further actions that it could take.

HIAL has provided me with details about the extent of its engagement. I recognise that some air traffic control staff will not support HIAL’s approach, which is why it is important that HIAL continues to engage with the staff who are affected and their union representatives. I have impressed upon HIAL the need to ensure that engagement is maintained and, where necessary, extended as HIAL takes the modernisation programme forward.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That concludes topical questions. I apologise to John Finnie and Jamie Halcro Johnston that I was unable to take their supplementary questions. I suggest that those who took part today go away and look up “succinct” in the dictionary, please.