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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, January 21, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Virtual) 21 January 2021

Agenda: Place-based Economic Development Zones, Rural Economy (Impact of European Union Exit), Portfolio Question Time, Culpable Homicide (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Dogs (Protection of Livestock) (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Decision Time, Correction


Contents


Portfolio Question Time


Rural Economy and Tourism


Covid-19 Restrictions (Support for Tourism in West Scotland)

1. Mary Fee (West Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it is providing to tourism businesses in the West Scotland region in light of the current Covid-19 restrictions. (S5O-04921)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

I remind members that, if they want to ask a supplementary question, they should put R in the chat function.

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism (Fergus Ewing)

The Scottish Government recognises the difficulties that businesses throughout Scotland face and the fact that, although the restrictions are necessary, they have had a devastating impact on the sector. We have allocated almost £3 billion to support businesses. I announced a package of support worth £104 million for tourism and hospitality businesses, which was developed following many discussions with industry. The roll-out of those funds is under way.

Many tourism businesses in Scotland can also obtain regular support through the strategic framework business fund. On 11 January, we announced top-up grants worth up to £25,000 for larger premises. We continue to assess what more can be done to support individual sectors.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

If members put R in the chat function, they have to make it clear which question they want to ask a supplementary question to, because their question could be about anything.

Mary Fee

The £104.3 million of support will help many tourism and hospitality businesses in my region, but what support—financial or otherwise—is available to businesses in the tourism and hospitality supply chain that primarily rely on that sector?

Fergus Ewing

Mary Fee makes a very reasonable point. We have worked on that long and hard. There are elements of the supply chain that are largely dependent on tourism and hospitality; the wholesale sector in particular springs to mind. I have worked long and hard with representatives of the wholesale sector to ensure that they are not left out. My task is to get lifeline support out to those who need it, and we have not completed that task. I am determined that we will continue to do that and reach out to businesses that have been impacted but have not had help. That is absolutely imperative. I am determined to carry on doing that task for as long as the Covid crisis is upon us.


Tourism (Support)

2. Maurice Corry (West Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it plans to provide to the tourism industry in light of the uncertainty that businesses face in their decision making for this year’s summer season. (S5O-04922)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism (Fergus Ewing)

I agree that the restrictions will continue to have a devastating impact on our hospitality and tourism sectors, but they are, of course, vital in suppressing virus transmission. As our efforts to tackle the virus progress, we will continue to build on our very constructive dialogue with the industry and listen to its concerns as we move towards recovery. Indeed, that was one of the key recommendations from the tourism recovery task force report.

Maurice Corry

I welcome the long-called-for announcement last December of the Scottish Government’s funding package for the tourism and hospitality industry, which is to include a sorely needed outdoor tourism restart fund. Outdoor and marine tourism businesses along the Firth of Clyde in my West Scotland region desperately need sustained support to recover and rebuild their services, such as for the functioning and renovation of their piers. What progress are the cabinet secretary and the Scottish Government looking to make in co-operating with tourism bodies on producing detailed funding criteria and a roll-out plan that will help marine businesses, such as those in my region, to remain viable in the long term, especially given the challenges that they face in an on-going lockdown?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I would like shorter questions and shorter answers, please.

Fergus Ewing

We are working very closely with stakeholders, including the Scottish Tourism Alliance and Sail Scotland. We are working with marine tourism interests; I have met representatives and will continue to do so. To answer the member’s question, we are engaging actively with the marine tourism sector. I absolutely agree that it is an extremely important, growing and varied part of the tourism offering in Scotland, and it is hugely attractive to many throughout the world. I undertake that we will continue that work and do our very best to support the sector through the Covid crisis.

Richard Lyle (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

The cabinet secretary mentioned some of the responses to the Scottish tourism recovery task force’s recommendations. What engagement has the Scottish Government had with the United Kingdom Government regarding some of the long-term recommendations that were made by the task force?

Fergus Ewing

I have regular engagement with the UK, Welsh and Northern Irish tourism ministers. I think that Nigel Huddleston and I have a good working relationship.

I made it clear that I felt that the furlough should be extended from October, and it was, to April. I fear that the furlough, as we heard in the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee this morning, does not offer sufficient support to hotels and major employers in particular. I think that the case for extending the VAT relief period is very strong. I will be putting those points to Mr Huddleston in our next meeting, which I believe will be on 28 January.

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

Marine tourism misses out because boats do not have rateable values. I understand that some funding has been announced, and that is welcome, but it has not yet opened. Discretionary funding that is available to local authorities is also failing to meet those desperate needs. Those businesses cannot wait any longer. They will fail if they do not get funding immediately. What can the cabinet secretary do to give them immediate help, so those marine businesses—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Cabinet secretary.

Fergus Ewing

Of course it is absolutely correct to say that many businesses are facing real financial pressure. That is why we have sought to provide support for many sectors, including marine tourism, that face real difficulties. For some areas of activity, such as taxi driving and the coach sector, there have been supports, such as the hotel fund and the pivotal enterprise fund, that I do not think have been replicated in England. We have gone an extra mile for some.

However, I absolutely accept that the speed of dispatch of funds is extremely important. Frankly, my officials and I are working every day and sometimes at night in order to finalise the schemes and work with industry to get the money out to the people who need it. That is the absolute priority.


Agriculture Funding Review (Discussions with United Kingdom Government)

3. Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding the recommendations of Lord Bew’s agriculture funding review. (S5O-04923)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism (Fergus Ewing)

In September 2019, I welcomed the UK Government’s acceptance of the “recommendations” and “wider observations” of the Lord Bew review. That came after five years of campaigning by the Scottish Government and Parliament for the UK Government to right that historic wrong. In its response to the Bew review, the UK Government welcomed the principle of uplift for less productive land and that collective engagement with the devolved Governments should take place on future funding. Disappointingly, no such meaningful engagement has taken place. Indeed, it took persistent pressure from me, alongside ministers in the other devolved Governments, to receive the commitment to such engagement from the Secretary of State for Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in November last year.

The UK Government is causing considerable uncertainty about a sum of £77.1 million through to 2025 by not committing to, or even opening dialogue on, the future of Bew money. That sum is not in isolation; it is part of the £170 million that Scottish producers and rural communities are set to miss out on through to 2025.

Kenneth Gibson

Does the cabinet secretary agree that we simply cannot trust the Tories to do right by rural Scotland? What impact would the loss of the Bew review funding have on our farmers and crofters? Where would that leave Scotland in comparison with UK other nations in terms of payment rates for farming and crofting?

Fergus Ewing

The cut by the UK of £170.1 million is devastating. Incidentally, a decision was not even made clear to ministers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; it was communicated at a meeting of officials in September.

It is a disgraceful decision. Michael Gove and George Eustice promised that, if we got out of the EU with Brexit, there would be no reduction in funding, and indeed there would be an increase—they promised that funding would be at least matched. That promise has been broken. The Tories have broken their promise to Scotland, and we can never trust them again.


International Tourists (VAT-free Shopping)

4. Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government to expand on the discussions it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding the continued operation of VAT-free shopping for international tourists visiting Scotland. (S5O-04924)

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Your question is not quite as it was written in the Business Bulletin, but it is close enough—I will let you away with it.

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism (Fergus Ewing)

Despite the serious implications for travel, tourism and retail, there was no prior engagement between the UK Government and the Scottish Government on the matter.

On 22 October, the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture and the Cabinet Secretary for Finance sent a joint letter to the UK chancellor, expressing our opposition to the proposed change and requesting a review of the decision as soon as possible. We will continue to press the UK Government on the matter.

We believe that it is vital that these sectors receive the support they need to weather the difficulties they already face and the further challenges to come, thanks to Brexit, and we do not believe that this is at all an appropriate juncture at which to make such abrupt and significant changes.

Rona Mackay

Our retail and aviation sectors need all the support that they can get in the middle of this global pandemic. Given that the VAT scheme plays a critical role in helping the sector to create jobs and in helping businesses to survive, will the cabinet secretary call on the UK Government to see sense and maintain these crucial schemes, to protect thousands of jobs from being lost and businesses from going under?

Fergus Ewing

Yes, I will, and I will do so when I meet Nigel Huddleston on 28 January. I am grateful to Rona Mackay for raising the issue in the Scottish Parliament.

The international tourism sector is the least likely to emerge from Covid rapidly. It is the most affected, and surely VAT-free shopping is one of the factors that help to bring people into international custom and visitation. To cut that is to cut the feet from under international tourism when it is on its uppers. It seems to me to be a particularly callous and ill-chosen decision. That is why the Scottish Government has resisted it, and, thanks to Rona Mackay raising it today, I will raise the issue with Nigel Huddleston next week.


Covid-19 (Support for Food and Drink Businesses)

5. Bill Kidd (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it has provided to businesses in the food and drink sector whose operations have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. (S5O-04925)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism (Fergus Ewing)

Since the start of the pandemic, our support for business and the economy has totalled almost £3 billion, which demonstrates our commitment to supporting the economy and providing as much financial support as possible to affected business, including food and drink businesses.

We have also supported bespoke food and drink sectors. We have given £5.4 million to 40 businesses in the food and drink wholesale sector and £5.8 million to seafood processing businesses, which have been impacted very hard. We need to continue to provide help as we strive to balance our effort to suppress the virus, with the impact on business.

Bill Kidd

The cabinet secretary will be aware that many Glasgow-based businesses, including hauliers, are involved in the fishing and seafood sectors and that the problems with exports reach very far into the economy. Will the UK’s compensation scheme help everyone who has been affected by the chaos caused by the Tories’ Brexit?

Fergus Ewing

It is emerging that the compensation scheme will benefit only a few and that there will be quite high hurdles. Many businesses in the seafood sector that have been hit very hard during the past three weeks will therefore be absolutely spitting with rage when they find out that the promise from the Prime Minister will exclude them. He promised them El Dorado, but they are looking at insolvency instead.

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

Last year, ahead of stage 3 of the Agriculture (Retained EU Law and Data) (Scotland) Bill, the cabinet secretary announced that he was

“beginning a process of developing a non-statutory statement of policy on food”.—[Written Answers, 17 August 2020; S5W-31244.]

His argument was that it was a better alternative to the statutory national food plan that I called for because it did not need legislation. Five months on, can the cabinet secretary tell us what the timetable is for delivery of that statement on the food policy?

Fergus Ewing

We are working on that at the moment, and I will get back to Mr Smyth with a more detailed answer. I respectfully point out that we are in the middle of not just one but two crises—a Covid crisis and a Brexit crisis. Frankly, my day-to-day focus is on trying to help businesses that face going under, people who face losing their livelihoods and businesses that are being crippled by Brexit. Forgive me, but that is where I am spending my time and doing my work all day, every day.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

Many food and drink businesses will have scaled up or, indeed, embarked on online operations. Earlier today, my colleague Beatrice Wishart raised with the cabinet secretary the importance of reopening the digital boost scheme, but can the cabinet secretary advise what support is available to food and drink businesses to improve packaging, distribution and other aspects that will allow them to take advantage of those opportunities?

Fergus Ewing

Mr McArthur raises an important point on an issue that has, again, been exacerbated by the Brexit difficulties. It will have a significant impact on things such as labelling, requiring additional costs for additional, altered and different labels for different markets. In the light of that, we will have to reconsider whether there is more that we can do. The assistance on those matters came, in part, from the food and drink financial support from the European Union, of course, and that support has been massively cut—by £170 million—by the UK Government. Our scope for action on it, out of the EU, is far reduced from what it was when we were a member of the EU.


Brexit (Impact on Salmon Industry)

6. Annabelle Ewing (Cowdenbeath) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the impact of Brexit on the salmon industry. (S5O-04926)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism (Fergus Ewing)

Just as we warned, Brexit is having a devastating and immediate impact on the farmed fish sector, particularly salmon farming. The Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation has estimated that the industry’s losses since 1 January are several million pounds. That is due to salmon being stuck in transit, the inability to fulfil orders on time and the lack of groupage facilities, which is hampering smaller producers. Cancelled harvests and lost customers are adding to the impact, with a drop in spot prices for delayed and unreliable Scottish orders making Norwegian salmon more competitive.

Annabelle Ewing

I thank the cabinet secretary for his very worrying response. He will, of course, be aware of my constituency interest, given that Mowi has a salmon-processing plant in Rosyth that employs more than 600 workers. Will the cabinet secretary clarify whether it can really be the case that the rotten Brexit deal negotiated by the United Kingdom Tory Government enmeshes for the first time the future of Scotland’s aquaculture industry with the outcome of subsequent fisheries negotiations, with tariffs therefore not able to be ruled out?

Fergus Ewing

That is correct. The trade agreement negotiated by the UK is such that if, at the expiry of the five-year period, the European Union does not obtain a rollover or a satisfactory deal, it will be quite entitled to impose tariffs to the level of its estimated loss in fishing effort as a result. That would see tariffs imposed on aquaculture that would have nothing to do with the common fisheries policy—they would be entirely separate. The aquaculture industry will be punished for something completely separate and apart from it, which was an astonishing provision to agree to. It is completely irrelevant, utterly unjustified, appalling and just another example of how the Brexit deal let Scotland down badly. I am not sure that they know very much in Whitehall about Scotland’s aquaculture industry, and decisions like that prove that that must be true.


Gene Editing (Crops)

7. Rachael Hamilton (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the gene editing of crop varieties in order to deliver greater food production and achieve environmental targets. (S5O-04927)

The Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment (Ben Macpherson)

The Scottish Government’s policy on the cultivation of genetically modified organisms has not changed. We will maintain Scotland’s GM-free crop status in line with our commitment to seek alignment with high EU standards. We have made our views on that issue known to UK ministers.

We also await the result of the forthcoming study on the decision made by the European Court of Justice in 2018 that gene editing falls under the GMO legislation. That is the proportionate and appropriate approach to take.

Rachael Hamilton

At the Oxford farming conference last year, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism, Fergus Ewing, said that the Scottish Government would not comment until the European Union had considered the prevailing European Court of Justice ruling that gene editing could be considered in the same way as genetically modified crops. We know that gene editing reduces the need for the application of pesticides, which, in turn, would help the Scottish Government’s poor biodiversity record and help the agricultural sector meet climate change targets. If England were to approve gene editing, would the minister and his SNP Government seriously disadvantage Scottish farmers and the environment by holding Scotland back on the basis of an outdated EU decision?

Ben Macpherson

First, it is important to emphasise that the Scottish Government’s position on the cultivation of gene-edited crops remains precautionary. That is in line with our commitment to seek alignment with high EU standards when that is appropriate and in Scotland’s best interests. I should also emphasise that we have been opposed to the cultivation of GM crops in an open environment only in order to protect the clean, green status of Scotland’s £14.8 billion food and drink sector. It is important to bear in mind that that clean, green status is part of what makes Scottish produce so attractive to consumers in Scotland, in the UK and around the world.

It is also important to emphasise that the UK Government’s decision to consult on changes to the definition of GMO, which would differ to Scotland’s approach, is an example of why we believe the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 removes our competency to make decisions on the marketing of products in a devolved area. It is of concern that, although any definition change as outlined in the UK Government’s consultation would not, in legal terms, extend to Scotland, the UK Internal Market Act 2020 would force Scotland to accept marketing, sale and free circulation of products in Scotland that did not meet the standards set out in the Scottish regulations.

There is much to be concerned about. However, as I said, the Scottish Government will continue to take a precautionary approach.


Tourism Industry (Meetings)

8. John Scott (Ayr) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what recent meetings it has had with representatives of the tourism industry, and what was discussed. (S5O-04928)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism (Fergus Ewing)

The Scottish Government meets weekly with the sector to discuss a range of issues including the impacts of Covid restrictions, the need for continued business support and the route to recovery. At the most recent meeting, on 13 January, I met the Scottish Tourism Alliance to discuss details of the new £185 million business support package and to hear about the progress of the new tourism and hospitality talent development programme.

John Scott

The cabinet secretary will know that tourism businesses such as coach operators and visitor attractions have been waiting months for support. Last week, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities suggested that the support that was announced in December may not arrive until February or March. If that is the case, what is causing the delay, and when will those funds be paid out to struggling businesses?

Fergus Ewing

In the case of the coach sector and most other sectors, I would expect payments to be made following the application process that is being launched either this month or in February. I would expect payments to be made swiftly thereafter.

Mr Scott raises an extremely important point. We must get this money out as quickly as possible. However, we must use public money carefully and avoid making any wrong payments.

On the payment to coach operators which is going ahead in Scotland, given that coaches travel across the border and work on a pan-UK basis, I had asked the UK Government for a UK scheme, but the UK Government declined. That is why we are going ahead with the Scottish scheme to compensate coach operators, which are an essential and quality part of the tourism offering in Scotland.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That concludes questions on rural economy and tourism. My colleague Ms Fabiani will take over for the next set of questions.


Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

The next portfolio is transport, infrastructure and connectivity. I ask members who wish to ask a supplementary question to enter the letter R in the chat function during the relevant question.


Sustainable Transport (Investment)

1. Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

To ask the Scottish Government how it plans to redirect investment from unsustainable modes of transport and into modes that are considered more sustainable, including rail infrastructure. (S5O-04929)

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

We are investing more than £1 billion in bus priority and active travel infrastructure. We provide more than £1 billion every year to support public transport provision and, over the course of the pandemic, we have committed £692 million of additional support.

Since 2007, we have invested more than £9 billion in rail infrastructure, and we continue to invest record levels in this control period, including funding to support our commitment to decarbonise the network by 2035. Decisions on future transport investment will be made through the second strategic transport projects review and will prioritise investment in line with the sustainable investment hierarchy.

Patrick Harvie

The cabinet secretary might have seen the “Rail For All” report, which the Scottish Greens published recently. Among many other recommendations, the report calls for a streamlining of the Scottish transport appraisal guidance—STAG—process, which is extremely complex, time consuming and costly, and which places a barrier to rail development. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the process needs to be shortened and aligned with the overarching aim of rapidly delivering low-carbon transport infrastructure, and that the change should begin immediately?

Michael Matheson

I am aware of the report to which Mr Harvie refers, which makes a number of interesting suggestions that will be taken into account as we make decisions through STPR2. In our national transport strategy, which was published just last year, we set out a clear commitment to review the STAG process. I am conscious that there are some issues relating to the length of time that it takes and the costs that are associated with it. For that reason, we have already committed to carrying out a review over the next couple of years.

Mr Harvie will recognise that it is extremely important that, before we undertake any major transport investment, we have an assurance that it will deliver the intentions behind the scheme. That is why the STAG system is important. However, I recognise the need to reform it, which is why we have committed to doing so.


A75 Dualling (Progress)

2. Oliver Mundell (Dumfriesshire) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress has been made with dualling the A75. (S5O-04930)

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

The “South West Scotland Transport Study”, which was published in January 2020, contains in its recommendations the option of targeted improvements on the A75, including some partial dualling. That option will be subject to more detailed appraisal in the second strategic transport projects review.

The study emphasised the importance of a connected, safe, resilient and high-quality strategic transport network for south-west Scotland, and it found that targeted improvements, rather than full dualling, would be more proportionate in meeting regional transport objectives and the sustainable investment hierarchy that is set out in our national transport strategy.

Oliver Mundell

I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer but, after 14 years of Scottish National Party inaction, does he not believe that my constituents deserve better? Will he explain to them why he was unwilling to take part in the union connectivity review, which has the potential to boost the case for improvements to this vital route?

Michael Matheson

Let me deal with both issues that Oliver Mundell has raised. It is wrong to suggest that no action has been taken by the SNP Government. We have just completed the south-west Scotland transport corridor study, which identifies areas for not only road improvement but wider modal improvement in south-west Scotland. That work is feeding into the second strategic transport projects review, which will be published this year and will set out the priorities for investment across the country, including in south-west Scotland.

The union connectivity review has no relevance to investment in the A75, which is a devolved matter that is the responsibility of the Scottish Government. Equally, the member will recognise that the review was set up without any consultation or engagement with the devolved Governments across the whole United Kingdom. The Northern Irish and Welsh Governments have, just like the Scottish Government, raised very serious concerns about that. The review is nothing more than a blatant power grab by the UK Government, which is seeking to undermine the devolved competence of the Scottish Parliament. I would have thought that Oliver Mundell, as a Conservative, would want to stand up for the people of Scotland and ensure that his constituents get the type of investment that is necessary, rather than signing up to a political agenda that is being pushed by his colleagues at Westminster.

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

The challenges of Brexit highlight more than ever how vital the A75 and A77 are as direct routes to the ferry port at Cairnryan. Can the cabinet secretary tell us specifically to what extent he will take into account the increased economic importance of keeping Cairnryan competitive when it comes to allocating what is likely to be—as he has made clear—a smaller budget for road infrastructure?

Michael Matheson

The member raises an important point about the strategic importance of Cairnryan. Such key factors will be considered as part of the STPR2 process and in looking at potential modal improvements to both road and rail in the south-west of Scotland.

He also mentioned another important point, which is the fact that the UK Government has just cut our capital budget by 5 per cent. That will have consequences, not just for transport but for wider capital investment across the whole Scottish Government, and therefore across the whole of Scotland. Nevertheless, he can be assured that the strategic importance of Cairnryan will be a key factor that will be taken into account in determining investment for the south-west of Scotland as part of the STPR2 process.


Queensferry Crossing (Closures)

3. Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what action is being taken to reduce the impact of any closures of the Queensferry crossing. (S5O-04931)

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

When there is a risk that the Queensferry crossing may have to close as a result of ice accretions, our operating company BEAR Scotland will be alerted in advance. Our five-point plan is then implemented: it includes enhanced patrols; a heightened focus on prevailing weather conditions; increased data and intelligence gathering; the pre-laying of traffic management measures; and enhanced stakeholder communications. During any emergency closure of the Queensferry crossing, a diversion route will be implemented using the Forth road bridge or the Kincardine bridge as appropriate, depending on the required duration of the closure.

As the member will be aware, the Queensferry crossing was closed this morning at approximately 4.30 am. The northbound carriageway reopened at approximately 9.15 am and the southbound carriageway at 10.20 am. The closure followed forecasts of a high risk of ice accretions between 5 and 7 am this morning, and the five-point plan was implemented successfully. As this morning’s disruption was forecast to be of short duration, traffic was diverted via the Kincardine bridge in accordance with the established procedures.

Claire Baker

As the cabinet secretary has recognised, the bridge was closed overnight and earlier this morning, which has caused significant delays and diversions for those who are travelling. What cost assessment was made for the ice prevention system that was considered as part of the construction plans for the Queensferry crossing? Why was it decided not to take that system forward?

Michael Matheson

I do not have the precise figure to hand, but I am more than happy to write to Claire Baker with further information on the actual cost associated with that system, which was part of the original design programme.

The reason why the system was not progressed is that it was identified that there was a low risk of ice accretion being a problem on the new Queensferry crossing, given the history of the site and the weather forecasting in the area over an extended period of time. It is clear, however, that ice accretion continues to be an on-going issue, which is why we have enhanced the current arrangements for managing such matters to try to minimise the disruption that is caused to Claire Baker’s constituents, which is always very regrettable. She should also recognise that the bridge is much more reliable than the Forth road bridge, which was closed regularly because of high winds; that is not the case with the Queensferry crossing.

I assure the member that we are trying to identify any measures that would further minimise the risk of disruption to the Queensferry crossing that is caused by the specific weather conditions that result in the accretion of ice. We will do all that we can to minimise the risk and the problems that occur due to such disruption.

Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

Will the cabinet secretary tell us what measures he is looking at to prevent further closures of the Queensferry crossing? The number of closures is becoming immensely frustrating.

Michael Matheson

I recognise the frustration, but there have been only three or four occasions on which this problem has occurred. It was not a problem during construction and occurs only in specific weather conditions. For example, there were no problems on the bridge during the beast from the east.

We are looking at a range of options, which might involve ultrasound or a vibration system. Those may be appropriate means to address the problem, but any system for a bridge must be a bespoke design. The member may be aware that such problems have arisen on similar bridges in the United Kingdom and worldwide. Any new system would have to be a bespoke design that suits the parameters of the Queensferry crossing.

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

I was told in a helpful briefing from Transport Scotland that the reason why Kincardine was favoured this morning is that it takes five hours to put in place the contraflow, signage and road changes that would be required to open up the Forth road bridge as a resilience measure.

Given that the censors on the bridge have warned of ice accretion on almost every day since Christmas, it is likely to be a regular issue. What can be done to reduce how long it takes to stand up the FRB as a resilience measure? Will the Scottish Government commit the necessary capital funding for a permanent mitigating solution on the bridge?

Michael Matheson

We are committed to identifying a long-term solution to the issue. Research is on-going to try to make sure that we get a system that will address the problem.

Mr Cole-Hamilton is correct about how long it takes to implement a diversion. BEAR Scotland will be carrying out an exercise in the coming weeks to try to reduce that time. He will understand that if a diversion was implemented on every occasion when it was thought that there might be a risk to the bridge, that would cause significant disruption. There is a balance to be reached in making those judgments. BEAR Scotland’s on-going work and our own research will help to inform how we can help to manage the issue more effectively.


Covid-19 (Protection of Front-line Public Transport Staff)

5. Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what additional support is being provided to protect front-line public transport staff during the Covid-19 pandemic. (S5O-04933)

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

Since the pandemic began, Transport Scotland has provided guidance for transport operators to keep both staff and passengers safe. That guidance was produced in consultation with operators, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, regional transport partnerships, passenger groups and trade unions and is subject to on-going review.

The cornerstone of the guidance is an emphasis on the importance of undertaking a robust and on-going risk-based assessment with full input from trade unions and then keeping all risk mitigation measures under regular review so that transport facilities, vehicles and vessels continue to feel, and to be, safe for staff and passengers.

Anas Sarwar

The on-going conversations about protection against Covid-19 are welcome. I have heard staff express concerns about the added risk of threats, violence and abuse on our public transport system. There are fewer people on board, and those who are there feel more vulnerable as a result of that.

What public information campaign could be run, and what further support can be given, to ensure that we are protecting our public transport staff not only from Covid-19 but from threats and abuse at work?

Michael Matheson

Scotland’s front-line public transport staff have been outstanding throughout the pandemic. They have shown a commitment to maintain public transport and to ensure that key workers and others can get to their places of employment during a challenging time.

Mr Sarwar raises an important issue. There have been reports of some in our public transport sector experiencing increasing levels of abuse, particularly when they try to enforce rules around social distancing and the wearing of face coverings. No worker should face any form of abuse in the course of their work, and I condemn any form of violence or inappropriate language that has been used towards transport workers in the course of their duties.

We have engaged with both Police Scotland and the British Transport Police on what further action could be taken to address the issue. However, I can assure Mr Sarwar that the BTP in particular is proactive in pursuing matters where problems are identified across the transport network. We will continue to work with and support the BTP in that important work to address the issue.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

We will have a quick supplementary, please, from Alex Rowley.

Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

I have been contacted by constituents who have had to use buses for essential shopping and have found that a number of people on the buses are ignoring the need to wear face coverings. Given the previous question, what needs to be done to ensure the safety of people using buses when other passengers refuse to wear face coverings?

Michael Matheson

The current system requires operators to have prominent signage and information that encourages those who use buses to wear a face covering and indicates the rules for use of that transport during the pandemic. We have provided operators with support around communications that they can use, and expand on, in their networks to encourage service users to wear face coverings and to ensure that they do so.

However, we also have a collective responsibility to play a part in helping to reduce the spread of the virus across our communities, and face coverings are important in that regard. Ultimately, enforcement is a matter for Police Scotland when it comes to buses. If Mr Rowley hears that his constituents are experiencing a persistent problem on particular routes, he should engage with the operator and potentially with Police Scotland about that.


M74 (Soundproof Fencing at Uddingston)

6. Richard Lyle (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government when soundproof fencing will be erected on the Uddingston section of the M74. (S5O-04934)

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

My officials continue to press Scottish Roads Partnership for details of how it will deliver its obligations under the contract. Scottish Roads Partnership is considering how best to address the matter, therefore the programme for mitigation measures that may be required is unknown at this stage. The subject requires detailed specialist input, so my officials have sought independent specialist advice to aid the resolution of the issues in discussion with Scottish Roads Partnership.

Richard Lyle

The cabinet secretary knows that I have pressed on this issue for a number of years. I will continue to do so until I retire. My constituents were promised soundproofed fencing if noise levels increased. Given that noise levels have increased, as per recent surveys, what steps is the Government taking to press SRP to ensure that that promise is kept?

Michael Matheson

I recognise that Richard Lyle has pursued this long-standing issue vigorously on behalf of his constituents. To ensure that we make further progress on the issue, my officials have sought independent specialist advice on the noise assessment that was undertaken by Scottish Roads Partnership. I can assure Mr Lyle that that will be used to ensure that the necessary suitable mitigation measures that the contractor is contractually required to take forward will be implemented. The specialist advice will assist us in ensuring that progress is made on the matter.


Edinburgh to Perth Railway (Upgrade)

7. Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government when the Edinburgh to Perth railway line will be upgraded. (S5O-04935)

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

Record levels of investment continue to be made on the rail network in the current control period, including to the routes linking Edinburgh to Perth. Improvements include electrification from Edinburgh to Dunblane, the new Blackford freight terminal and the new high-quality Inter7City service.

Scottish ministers are committed to ensuring that the railway meets future growth needs for passengers and freight. For example, work to implement the rail services decarbonisation action plan includes consideration of electrification options for the routes to Perth.

Liz Smith

I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer, but he knows that, in relation to the green recovery and addressing climate change, the Scottish Government’s own experts have advised that infrastructure development and greener transport are essential. He also knows that the timescale for a journey between Perth and Edinburgh is exactly the same as it was 100 years ago. What priority is the Government placing on the upgrade? What is the exact timescale for any improvements that will be made?

Michael Matheson

The member should be aware that we are investing record amounts into our railway during control period 6, and that we are the first part of the United Kingdom to commit to decarbonising our rail network by 2035. That will involve significant investment not only in electrification but in new zero-carbon-emitting rolling stock. All that investment is a significant recognition of the importance that rail has in helping to achieve our climate change objectives.

Regarding the line between Perth and Edinburgh, as I mentioned we have already electrified the line to Dunblane, and we are considering the potential for further electrification, which delivers faster services and increases capacity on the route network. Alongside that, we are looking at improving the existing signalling system and the timetable; again, that would help to improve journey times between Edinburgh and Perth.


M8/M73/M74 Motorway Improvements Project (Evaluation)

8. Margaret Mitchell (Central Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government when the next evaluation will be carried out of the M8/M73/M74 motorway improvements project, in line with the Scottish trunk road infrastructure project evaluation guidance. (S5O-04936)

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

[Inaudible.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Mr Matheson, your sound appears to be on mute. I think that it is okay now, so could you start your answer again?

Michael Matheson

I am sorry, Presiding Officer.

Transport Scotland has undertaken an evaluation of the M8/M73/M74 motorway improvements project one year after opening, in line with its guidance. The evaluation report will be published shortly, after a technical review has been completed. Given the scale and impact of the project, the evaluation requires extensive data collection and analysis to ensure its robustness.

Margaret Mitchell

[Inaudible.]—flooding

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Excuse me, Ms Mitchell. We have a sound issue with you, too. Please start your question again.

Margaret Mitchell

Surface water and flooding during heavy rain continue to be a worrying issue on large parts of the upgraded M8. There have been countless gantry warnings telling drivers to take extra care and/or speed restrictions put in place to control traffic on roads that have been made hazardous by surface water. What is being done to address that dangerous issue and make the roads safer for drivers in wet conditions? Has drainage been identified as the problem? If so, perhaps the issue is rubble from the upgrade of the project.

Michael Matheson

I recognise the important safety issue that Margaret Mitchell raises. I am not aware of any specific problems on that area of the M8, or on the M73 or M74. However, I will ask officials to engage with our trunk road operating companies to ensure that, if there is a particular problem, that issue is addressed.

If Margaret Mitchell has specific details about sections of the road on which she believes that that is a problem, I would be more than happy to ensure that officials pick that up and investigate the matter properly.


Justice and the Law Officers

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

The final portfolio is justice and the law officers. I remind members that questions 2 and 6 have been grouped together. I will take any supplementaries on those questions after both of them have been answered. Any member who wishes to ask a supplementary question should indicate that by entering an R in the chat function during the relevant question.


European Union Security Protocols and Law Enforcement Organisations

1. Shona Robison (Dundee City East) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what the impact will be on security and safety in Scotland of no longer having access to EU security protocols and law enforcement organisations, including the European arrest warrant, Europol and Eurojust. (S5O-04937)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Humza Yousaf)

The impacts will be significant. Under the new deal, Police Scotland and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service now have to use slower and, frankly, less effective tools than those that they had previously.

Key impacts are the loss of access to the Schengen information system II—SIS II—database, which means that Police Scotland will no longer have access to real-time or immediate alerts from European Union partners on wanted or missing persons, and the loss of the European arrest warrant. As the new system allows EU member states to refuse to extradite their own nationals to Scotland, bringing someone to face justice here is likely to take longer and to cost more than it would have done when the UK was an EU member state.

Although the deal enables some co-operation with Europol and Eurojust, that is still less than was possible when we had full EU membership. Frankly, the only people who will benefit from such a loss of capability are those who commit crime.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Cabinet secretary, I am finding your sound quite quiet. I do not know whether that is just me or whether it is the same for all members. I ask Ms Robison to say whether she was able to hear your reply clearly.

Shona Robison

Yes, I was—thank you, Presiding Officer. I thank the cabinet secretary for his answer, albeit that it was very concerning. Does he agree that it is clearer than ever that Scotland will now have suboptimal security and safety arrangements, and that the only way to ensure the safety of our citizens will be to rejoin those vital cross-border agencies by becoming an independent nation inside the EU?

Humza Yousaf

Shona Robison is right to say that such arrangements are now suboptimal. They mean that it will take longer to extradite someone. We have absolutely lost access to the SIS II database, which Police Scotland formerly accessed millions of times a year and which alerted it to missing or wanted people. The only way to rectify that situation would be for Scotland to take up EU membership as an independent nation. That is not only because of the important social and economic benefits that it would bring; it would also afford us greater co-operation on security with the rest of the EU.


Covid-19 Lockdown (House Parties)

2. Alison Harris (Central Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government how many house parties police have been called on to disperse since the current Covid-19 lockdown was imposed. (S5O-04938)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Humza Yousaf)

The latest available data shows that, for the period from 31 December until 6 January, Police Scotland attended 565 house gatherings, 343 of which were found to have breached restrictions. In addition, 240 fixed-penalty notices were issued and 15 arrests were made. Police Scotland regularly updates such data on its website. We continue to work closely with it on the provision of a weekly Covid-19 bulletin, which is published on that site and summarises the position in various areas of policing, including enforcement of measures during the pandemic.

Alison Harris

The Scottish Government recognises that house parties are a major source of the spread of coronavirus, which is why the police are being called on to attend to disperse them. Why are the very same police officers not being prioritised to receive the Covid-19 vaccine when the Government expects them, as part of their daily work, to put themselves at even greater risk by attending to break up such parties?

Humza Yousaf

I say to Alison Harris that—regardless of the political party to which we might belong—I am certain that every single one of us credits Police Scotland and its officers for the difficult job that they do even in normal circumstances, let alone the risk they place themselves in during the pandemic.

I should say that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation prioritisation for the Covid-19 vaccine that we follow here in Scotland is exactly the same as the one that is being followed by the Conservative United Kingdom Government and the Governments of the other devolved UK nations. Priorities are set in order that the vaccine will be received by those who are at most risk of death or serious illness.

I can give an absolute assurance to Alison Harris, and indeed to any police officers or police staff who are listening, that when it comes to phase 2 of the vaccination process, the prioritisation of first responders, including Police Scotland, is very much at the forefront of our minds.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Before I move to question 6, cabinet secretary, can I ask you either to speak up or, at some point, to raise the volume, if you could? You are slightly quiet.


Covid-19 Restrictions (Enforcement by Police Scotland)

6. Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on Police Scotland’s enforcement of the current Covid-19 restrictions. (S5O-04942)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Humza Yousaf)

I will try to both speak up and to sit slightly closer to my tablet, so hopefully you will hear me a little bit better, Presiding Officer.

As I said in my previous answer, I appreciate the hard work of Police Scotland throughout the pandemic and the professionalism that the police have shown. I speak weekly with the chief constable about enforcement of the Covid regulations. Enforcement of the restrictions is of course an operational matter for the chief constable and Police Scotland, and Police Scotland has been clear that it will operate under the principle of policing by consent. It will also follow the four Es approach, whereby the police will engage, explain, encourage and only then enforce as a last resort to protect public health. Of course, the police can accelerate to enforcement if they believe that the circumstances warrant it.

As the member will be aware, John Scott QC was commissioned by the chief constable and the Scottish Police Authority to review Police Scotland’s use of the new emergency powers to respond to the coronavirus outbreak. The group will report directly to the SPA. The latest data on enforcement is available on the Police Scotland website.

Alex Cole-Hamilton

I am interested in how information is now flowing between Public Health Scotland and Police Scotland—for example, around breaches of quarantine. Over the—[Inaudible.]—lull especially, experts were telling us that quarantine was routinely being—[Inaudible.], that systems were incapable of responding to those situations and that that was leading, in turn, to outbreaks.

What work has the Scottish Government done to establish the extent to which that contributed to the spread of the virus and, looking forward, what is the plan for travel restrictions and enforcement for the period after lockdown?

Humza Yousaf

Forgive me, I did not hear all of Alex Cole-Hamilton’s question, but I think that the majority of it is probably better directed towards the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity, who is leading on issues around international travel, and indeed domestic travel.

However, there is of course a data-sharing arrangement between Public Health Scotland and Police Scotland whereby, if public health officials are unable to reach somebody they are trying to reach in relation to those who are quarantining or should be quarantining, they can pass that data on to Police Scotland for enforcement. A memorandum of understanding on that was developed between Public Health Scotland and Police Scotland. In addition, Police Scotland has tools that it can use for enforcement, or indeed it can issue a fixed-penalty notice if necessary in relation to any breaches of quarantine.

My understanding is that the figures on Police Scotland’s follow-up are routinely published in relation to international travel. However, if Alex Cole-Hamilton requires any further details, particularly around international travel, he may want to write to the transport secretary.


Covid-19 Restrictions (Education in Prisons)

3. Keith Brown (Clackmannanshire and Dunblane) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what guidance it has produced regarding the provision of education in prisons under the current Covid-19 restrictions. (S5O-04939)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Humza Yousaf)

The Scottish Government has produced guidance for colleges, universities and student accommodation providers during Covid-19; on 15 January 2021, we published further guidance on arrangements for the current term. Although the guidance is not specific to prisons, education provision across the public prison estate is modelled on our further and higher education systems, so the guidance acts as a guide for delivery within the prison community.

I know that education, like all other aspects of the prison regime, has been impacted by the necessary restrictions that have been put in place to manage the challenges of Covid. There is no alternative to face-to-face learning within prisons, and at a time when the whole country is being asked to minimise all but absolutely essential interactions and travel, prison education has been temporarily suspended.

Keith Brown

As the cabinet secretary will be aware, staff who provide learning across 13 prisons in Scotland are employed by Fife College and subcontracted by the Scottish Prison Service. As per guidance, the college has moved to remote learning, but staff who are subcontracted to the SPS—[Inaudible.]—their place of work, which can mean attending three different workplaces. Will the cabinet secretary clarify whether he believes that that approach falls within the current restrictive guidance and, if so, why it is different from the guidance that was issued in March last year?

Humza Yousaf

As I said, prison education has now been temporarily suspended. I understand that none of the staff who teach in prison learning centres has been in the establishments since 12 January. However, I will double check that and confirm it for the member.

For clarity, the SPS has a contract with Fife College to provide education, but management of staff is an issue for Fife College. Stay-at-home regulations came into effect on 5 January 2021, and they place a duty on employers to take all reasonable steps to minimise the spread of coronavirus.

The member is welcome to raise those specific issues directly with the SPS, who can provide him with more information but, as I said, my understanding is that, from 12 January, Fife College advised its prison-based staff not to return to learning centres in prisons for the remainder of that week and, on the Friday of that week, it took the decision to furlough its prison-based staff until 12 February. I understand that the college will review that decision on 31 January and that it intends to bring its staff back from furlough at the earliest opportunity.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I will take two brief supplementary questions—the word is “brief”.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

The number of people awaiting trial in Scottish prisons has doubled since April last year, yet those on remand cannot access education programmes and often have little time out of their cells. What purposeful activity is currently on offer to those sitting in Scottish jails on remand and what is the cabinet secretary doing to help to reduce the ballooning remand population?

Humza Yousaf

With Covid and the current restrictions, that activity is very limited. The SPS is doing what it can within the restrictions to allow some element of purposeful activity, but public health will of course always be our number 1 priority. I am happy to ask the SPS to provide the member with a fuller answer on purposeful activity.

On the rising prison population, I am more than happy to write to the member with fuller detail about all the steps that we are taking in relation to remand prisoners and prisoners who have been sentenced. I share an absolute concern that the prison population in Scotland is too high, and we are taking detailed measures to ensure that we reduce that population in good time.

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

Given that some prisoners have been released early on licence, it is unlikely that they will have had full access to pre-release support. What support will be available in the community for them and for those who have community disposals to ensure that they get the support that is required to address their offending behaviour and rebuild their lives as part of the community?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That is drifting a little off education in prisons, but feel free to answer it, cabinet secretary.

Humza Yousaf

I am happy to answer it, because Rhoda Grant has raised an important point.

We fund third sector organisations that help with prisoner integration on their release such as the Wise Group, Sacro and the Shine public social partnership, which works with the female offending population. That said, I am keen for the SPS to re-establish its throughcare officer support, which was suspended when the prison population rose quite significantly last year. If the member wishes, she can write to me or to the SPS directly and we can give her further detail on what support we can provide prisoners on release from prison.


Collection of Data on Sex and Gender (Draft Guidance)

4. Johann Lamont (Glasgow) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what involvement the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and his officials had in the development of the draft guidance on collecting data on sex and gender. (S5O-04940)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Humza Yousaf)

The sex and gender in data working group is led by and reports to Scotland’s chief statistician. The draft guidance has been developed by the chief statistician in consultation with members of the working group and through engagement with stakeholders. The work of the group is transparent, and details of group membership as well as papers and minutes are published online. Membership relevant to the justice portfolio includes an official from the Scottish Government family law unit as well as representatives from the Scottish Prison Service and Police Scotland.

Johann Lamont

[Inaudible.]—assault and domestic abuse are overwhelmingly male and the victims are overwhelmingly female. Given the recognised approach of prevention through education, protection through legislation and provision through support for women victims, how can the Scottish Government measure the scale of offending by men and any success in tackling that behaviour without collecting data on the sex of the offender? Does the cabinet secretary agree that it matters to record whether a rapist is male?

Humza Yousaf

I might have missed the very end of Ms Lamont’s question, but I think that it was about the recording of rape. Again, I will correct the record—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I think that it was about recording the gender—whether male or female—of the person who committed the rape.

Humza Yousaf

Yes, I believe that that is what the question was about.

I am happy to correct the record if I am incorrect, but my understanding is that, although Police Scotland may well record somebody’s gender, there are exceptions to that, and one of those would be in a case of rape, in which somebody is recorded by their biological sex. Of course, there are certain elements to the offence of rape that can be carried out only by those who were born male or who are post-operation trans male. I will double-check that and provide clarification to Johann Lamont.

On the broader point that Ms Lamont raises, she is absolutely right: domestic abuse is largely a crime that is committed by men towards female victims. The data that is currently gathered bears that out. The draft guidance says that it is up to organisations to decide whether to record the gender or the sex of the person concerned, but there are exceptions that organisations can make, depending on the circumstances.

As I said, it is draft guidance, and stakeholder responses are still being made. I encourage Johann Lamont, if she has not already done so, to respond by giving her views on the matter to the chief statistician.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I ask for shorter answers. I know that important matters are being discussed, but I have three more questioners to fit in.


Reduction in Criminal Trials (Support for Victims)

5. John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of the decision by the Lord President to reduce the number of criminal trials, what further support it will provide to victims. (S5O-04941)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Humza Yousaf)

We have provided additional funding of £5.75 million to support organisations that provide front-line services to those who experience violence or domestic abuse. That is on top of annual budgets of £18.7 million to support victims and £12 million to tackle violence against women and girls. In addition, we increased our budget to provide compensation for victims of violent crime to more than £21 million. All in all, we have provided £57.5 million of funding to support victims and organisations that help victims.

Although the Lord President’s decision was a difficult one, I think that it was the correct one from a public health point of view. I have spoken to Victim Support Scotland about that decision, and I have further meetings lined up—[Interruption.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer

John Mason, please. Sorry—had you finished, cabinet secretary?

Humza Yousaf

Not quite. I have a number of meetings lined up with a number of other victim support organisations to address the issue.

John Mason

Many of us feel that the justice system is very slow at the best of times, but the current delays mean that witnesses will forget what happened in an incident and victims will feel let down. Is there any way of speeding up the justice system?

Humza Yousaf

I can confirm to John Mason that active conversations are taking place with the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service, the legal profession and victims organisations, and between me and the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, about tackling the backlog of court cases. We have funded the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service for external jury centres, which has increased capacity in the High Court and will result in capacity in the sheriff court returning to pre-Covid levels. The best thing that we can do is provide funding to tackle that backlog.

Of course, the budget will be announced next week. I would not want to pre-empt that, but I can say that the finance secretary is considering the provision of finance to tackle the backlog so that victims do not have to wait so long for their case to come to court.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I will allow a brief supplementary question from Liam Kerr.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

I am very grateful, Presiding Officer. In September last year, the First Minister announced that a victim surcharge fund would open by the end of 2020, but we now know that it will not pay out a penny until March 2021. Furthermore, the reduction in criminal trials means that there is even less money going into that fund. What is the SNP going to do to mitigate the impact on the victim surcharge fund of the SNP’s delays to the scheme and the reduction in court trials?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I hope that you heard that, cabinet secretary. The sound was a bit strange at the beginning.

Humza Yousaf

Yes. I got the general gist of it.

First, I am pleased that Liam Kerr mentioned the ground-breaking victim surcharge fund that the SNP Scottish Government has brought in. It will make a real, tangible difference to victims right across the board. He will forgive me—in the midst of a global pandemic, there may well be a few weeks of delay to certain matters, but it has been no more than that.

There has been an impact due to the reduction in the number of cases because of Covid, but the victim surcharge fund will be open to victims. I am delighted that victims right across the board and right across Scotland will have the ability to receive further support from the Scottish Government due to our ground-breaking victim surcharge fund.


Naloxone

7. Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the roll-out of providing naloxone for front-line police officers to respond to suspected overdoses. (S5O-04943)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Humza Yousaf)

Police Scotland announced in November that the chief constable had approved proposals for a test of change for police officers to carry intranasal naloxone spray. The test of change will take place in three test bed areas: Falkirk, Dundee city and Glasgow east. Approximately 700 officers will be trained across the three areas and will be eligible to carry naloxone, with training expected to commence shortly, in the spring of this year. It will be the largest test of change for police to carry naloxone in the United Kingdom to date.

The programme will be delivered in collaboration with a number of key partners and agencies and with significant support from the Scottish drug deaths task force. It is anticipated that the test of change will provide a strong evidence base to inform policies around police carriage of naloxone in Scotland. The Scottish Government fully supports the initiative and looks forward to supporting a full roll-out throughout Police Scotland following the positive results that we expect the pilots to deliver.

Mark Ruskell

I thank the cabinet secretary for that detail on the pilots. However, the Minister for Drugs Policy announced recently that take-home naloxone kits will be given to people who are at high risk of accidental overdoses in order to urgently save lives. Can the cabinet secretary explain why a more cautious approach has been adopted by Police Scotland, with only very limited trials taking place in certain areas on a voluntary basis? When can we expect a roll-out throughout Scotland?

Humza Yousaf

I do not agree with Mark Ruskell’s characterisation. I have spoken to the chief constable and his senior executive team about the issue, and they are very enthusiastic about doing everything within their powers to reduce drug deaths right across Scotland. It is a bold initiative. As I said, it is the largest test of change of its kind—in relation to the carriage of naloxone—anywhere in the UK.

I hope that the member will appreciate that it is important to gather evidence of how that carriage will, as we hope, save lives. Issues and concerns have been raised by the likes of the Scottish Police Federation, and it is important that we continue to work with staff unions and, indeed, staff associations so that we get them on board. I expect positive results after the test of change, and, if they are as positive as I expect them to be, I hope that we will be able to begin a full roll-out thereafter.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

We can just manage to squeeze in question 8.


Scottish Prison Service Annual Report 2019-20

8. Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the Scottish Prison Service’s annual report for 2019-20. (S5O-04944)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Humza Yousaf)

I welcome the publication of the annual report. It recognises the achievements that our prison service made in 2019-20, but also some of the challenges that it faces. As I have said before, I am very grateful to all staff for their hard work and dedication, particularly during these unprecedented times.

The significant challenges that are being faced across our prisons, particularly in relation to the population, continue. The impact of Covid has meant that there has been a decrease in the population compared to the figures that are highlighted in the annual report. I am very frank about the fact that Scotland’s prison population is far too high, but it is also changing in its complexity, which is illustrated by the increasing numbers of people who are sent to prison with a history of sexual offending, organised crime and violence, and the increasing number of older people.

I regularly meet the interim chief executive of the SPS, and I am fully aware of all the issues that have been reported. Together, the Scottish Government, the SPS and justice partners are working to address some of the challenges.

Graham Simpson

I have a quick question about drug use in prison. When the Scottish National Party first came to power, there were 209 drug incidents in prisons. In the latest report, the figure has risen to just over 2,000. Will the cabinet secretary say why that is and what he is doing about it?

Humza Yousaf

In brief, the methods of detection of drugs and illicit substances in our prisons have got a lot better over the past almost 14 years for which the SNP has been in power. We invest in technology—Rapiscan machines are an example of that—and we will continue to do that.

On the general point, I am very concerned about the continued presence of drugs and illicit substances in our prisons. We are working on that with our justice partners and the SPS. If further investment in technology is needed, we will be happy to consider that as part of the on-going budget process.