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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 21 September 2016

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, NHS Staffing, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Good Food from Angus


Contents


Portfolio Question Time


Justice


Police Scotland (Meetings)

1. Maurice Golden (West Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government when the Cabinet Secretary for Justice last met Police Scotland. (S5O-00151)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Michael Matheson)

I regularly meet representatives of Police Scotland. I met the chief constable on 7 September to discuss a range of issues.

Maurice Golden

The harm to Scottish businesses and communities that metal theft causes is well documented and has been recognised in the chamber. Between April and July, 417 metal-related crimes were reported, which equated to a £600,000 repair bill. How is Police Scotland prioritising other environmental crime, such as illegal waste sites, illegal waste exports and fly tipping? How is it linking with key stakeholders such as the Scottish Environment Protection Agency?

Michael Matheson

As the member will recognise, decisions on how the police prioritise such issues are an operational matter for the chief constable and local commanders. The member will be aware that we introduced legislation in the previous parliamentary session to tighten regulations on matters that relate to metal dealers and to ensure that a proper regime is in place to minimise the risk of stolen metal finding its way into scrap metal dealers. Those measures are starting to come into force across the country. In September, the new requirement for any payments to be made through a bank account came into force.

On the other aspects that the member raised, if he has a concern about how the police are handling or prioritising any issue in his region, he is at liberty to discuss the matter with the local commander. By and large, my experience of the police service in my constituency is that, when there is a concern about environmental matters or issues such as illegal dumping, the partnership between the local authority and the police is essential to dealing with the issues effectively. That may be through the different means that the council has, including covert means that can be used to catch those who dump items illegally. A range of measures can be taken through the local authority working partnership with the police.

Powers are out there that can be utilised, but how they are handled locally is an operational matter for the local commander. If the member has concerns that are specific to his region, he should discuss them with the local commander, who can explain and discuss the matter in much greater depth.

Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

Last week, The Courier reported that a police whistleblower has said that morale among officers in Fife is “dreadful” and that the number of staff who can respond to incidents has been “decimated”. It also reported concerns that the force came close to not being able to pay salaries in recent months.

The attitude so far to concerns that have been raised has not been good enough. Does the cabinet secretary recognise serving officers’ claims? Those officers are dedicated to the force but are working in increasingly difficult circumstances. How will the Government respond to the continuing concerns over the police budget?

Michael Matheson

Let me deal with the salary issue. Police Scotland’s response to the issue was very clear when it stated that the claims are “untrue”. That is pretty unequivocal. The member may choose not to accept that, but that is the reality of what Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority have said. The suggestion is simply not true.

On the morale issue, the member will be aware that Police Scotland conducted its first staff survey in order to establish a baseline for a range of concerns, including how the service responds to issues that serving officers raise, and to look at how it could improve on that. The Scottish Police Authority stated that it would take forward an action plan to address such issues where it saw that there was room for further improvement. Over the next two years, the SPA, along with Police Scotland, will take that work forward.

The police have also said that they will undertake dip sampling. During the year, they will sample a number of officers to see whether, in specific areas, the measures that are being taken are addressing the concerns and issues that have been raised. There is on-going work to address those issues.

I do not dispute the fact that some officers might not be happy with how things are going in the area in which they operate. That would be the case in any big organisation of any nature and particularly in an organisation that has undergone significant change, as has happened with the Police Service of Scotland. Equally, I can assure the member that Police Scotland and the SPA are committed to addressing issues as and when they are raised. Their approach is to ask officers for their views on how the service is performing and then to consider how they can address the issues that have been highlighted as part of the staff survey.

Ben Macpherson (Edinburgh Northern and Leith) (SNP)

What impact is Police Scotland’s disclosure scheme for domestic abuse—Clare’s law—having on tackling the scourge of domestic abuse?

Michael Matheson

We had a worthwhile debate in the Parliament last week on the proposed new domestic abuse offence. I am sure that all members unite in recognising that there is no place for domestic abuse in Scottish society.

The Police Scotland disclosure scheme for domestic abuse is one of a number of interventions that are being taken forward to help to eradicate domestic abuse from our society. The disclosure scheme has now been rolled out across Scotland. In the period from 1 October 2015 to 1 September this year, there were 926 applications, of which 391 resulted in information being provided to a person who was potentially at risk of abuse.

There is no doubt in my mind that the scheme that Police Scotland operates is very valuable. The figures for the past year demonstrate the scheme’s value in helping to prevent the possibility of individuals being exposed to domestic violence. I know that Police Scotland is committed to continuing to respond to requests that it receives for access through the scheme and that it will consider every case individually.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

The cabinet secretary will be well aware of the reports last week that police stations in Dumfries and Galloway are under threat of closure, with echoes of the earlier closure of countless police counters across Scotland. Police Scotland has said that the move in Dumfries and Galloway is part of a wider look at resources across Scotland. What assurances can he give that local police stations across Scotland will not face similar threats of closure?

Michael Matheson

The member may or may not be aware of the further detail that Police Scotland has given about those proposals. Police Scotland is consulting and engaging with the local community on proposed changes to the use of police stations in the Dumfries and Galloway area. A number of the stations are not fit for purpose or are too large for the way in which they are used. Police Scotland is considering forming partnerships with other public bodies, whether that be the local authority, health partners or housing associations, to identify more suitable solutions in order to continue to deliver some form of service in particular areas. A number of the stations do not have counter services and have not had them for some time.

I realise that Dumfries and Galloway is a slight distance from the member’s constituency, but I say to him that Police Scotland intends to consult the local community on the proposed changes of use of the facilities. In my constituency, a police station that did not have a counter facility and which was of limited use to the police closed, but the police moved in beside the housing department in the community. That provides a much better service, with a counter service delivered locally. That has enhanced the delivery of the service although, technically, there is no longer a police station in the place where it was.

The way in which the police engage and work in partnership with other public bodies in local areas can be enhanced in a number of ways, which include sharing premises. Part of the work that Police Scotland is doing in Dumfries and Galloway is about exploring those matters and engaging. I have no doubt that members who represent the area—one of whom I see here today—will seek to be involved in that process.

The decision on what action is to be taken will be for the local commander, following the consultation and engagement process. Given that, over the past couple of years, Liam McArthur has called for more local decision making in such matters, I hope that he will welcome that approach to ensure that decisions are not taken at a central level in the organisation or by the Scottish Police Authority but by local commanders, following engagement with the community.

Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

When the cabinet secretary last met Police Scotland, did he discuss the historical undercover policing scandal? Will he order a Scottish inquiry into undercover policing? Representatives from all parties in Scotland support the call for an inquiry—does he?

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

Please answer briefly, if at all possible, cabinet secretary.

Michael Matheson

As I said, I always discuss a range of issues when I meet representatives of Police Scotland. I am well aware of Neil Findlay’s repeated call for the Pitchford inquiry to apply here in Scotland. I share his disappointment that the United Kingdom Government refuses to allow that, because that would be the most effective and reasonable way to deal with the concerns that relate to the activities of undercover units from the Metropolitan Police Service in London. I will consider and in due course set out what response we will make in Scotland.


Dog Fighting

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

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to detect, prevent and prosecute dog fighting offences. (S5O-00152)

The Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs (Annabelle Ewing)

The Scottish Government supports the vital role of the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the police in dealing with organised dog fighting. Scottish ministers have granted authorised inspectors from the Scottish SPCA the same powers as local authority inspectors in relation to animal welfare offences under the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006. The powers differ from those of police constables only in relation to the arrest of an offender.

Dog fighting is a largely clandestine activity, and detection by enforcement bodies is greatly dependent on information supplied by concerned members of the public. The prosecution of all offences reported to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service is a matter for that agency.

Mark Ruskell

It is quite clear that we need to redouble efforts in Scotland. The Scottish SPCA has reported to us that, for example, the police have successfully prosecuted only one individual for dog fighting since 1991. We know that there is a particular link in Scotland to the activities of criminal gangs, so will the Scottish Government consider setting up a task force on animal fighting to share information, track those who have been convicted of animal abuse in the past and help bring more cases to conviction?

Annabelle Ewing

Having listened to what Mark Ruskell said, I would say what I said in my first response: detection of such a highly secretive crime is largely dependent on people coming forward, and we would always encourage people with relevant information to make it known to the police and the Scottish SPCA. In the period 2013 to 2016, only one case involving dog fighting reported to the COPFS led to a successful prosecution and conviction. I think that the case awaits sentencing; obviously, that is a matter for the independent judiciary.

If Mark Ruskell wishes to bring us further relevant information, we will be happy to look at it.

Oliver Mundell (Dumfriesshire) (Con)

Will the minister join me in welcoming the presence in the Parliament of the Dogs Trust and set out what action the Scottish Government is taking to tackle illegal dog breeding?

The Presiding Officer

The question was more about dog fighting than dog breeding. Minister, can you respond very briefly?

Annabelle Ewing

I welcome all groups who come to the Parliament to communicate with MSPs, and I welcome the Dogs Trust in that respect. In my capacity as an MSP, I will meet the Dogs Trust during the week and I will listen to anything that it has to say on the subject that Oliver Mundell raised.


Police Scotland (Cash Shortfall)

3. Maurice Corry (West Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government how it will fill the reported £21 million cash shortfall faced by Police Scotland. (S5O-00153)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Michael Matheson)

The Scottish Government is in regular contact with the Scottish Police Authority, which is taking steps to manage the in-year financial position.

Maurice Corry

The Scottish Police Federation recently published a statement by a whistleblower from within Police Scotland. It said that police officers

“are being told not to be proactive and investigate drug dealers because”

that

“could cause overtime”.

Why are police officers being prevented from incurring overtime in their fight against drug dealers?

Michael Matheson

Maurice Corry may be aware that Police Scotland responded to that matter and said that there is no ban on overtime.

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

I ask the cabinet secretary to advise Mr Corry that, so far, the United Kingdom has kept £72 million in VAT levied on Police Scotland—the only police force in the whole of the UK to have VAT levied on it. Given that the UK has now granted a VAT exemption to academy schools, which previously paid VAT, that does not seem just to be perverse but in fact to be punitive.

Michael Matheson

The member raises a reasonable point, although it caused some murmuring from our Conservative colleagues. It seems that there are double standards in the way in which Her Majesty’s Treasury in London operates when allowing the recovery of VAT. It changed the VAT law to allow academy schools, which are centrally funded by the UK Government, to recover VAT, but it has chosen not to do that for Police Scotland. That means that Scotland has the only force in the UK that is unable to recover VAT. Since Police Scotland’s establishment, that has cost the Scottish taxpayer £76.5 million, or between £25 million and £30 million per year. In addition, there is an extra £10 million for the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service.

It is perfectly reasonable that Police Scotland should be on an equal footing with other police services within the UK, including national forces such as the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and treated as a centrally funded organisation in the same way as academy schools are treated. HM Treasury should recognise that that discriminatory approach towards Police Scotland is simply unacceptable.

Maybe the Conservative members will stand up for Police Scotland, rather than just doing the bidding of their colleagues at Westminster.

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

Does the Cabinet Secretary for Justice accept that the cost-cutting proposals from Police Scotland to close eight police station in Dumfries and Galloway—on the back of the closure of the police control room, the scrapping of traffic wardens, the closure of public counters in numerous police stations, the cut in opening hours and the massive cull of civilian staff posts—will be a further erosion of services for the people of Dumfries and Galloway? Will he acknowledge that it is peripheral and largely rural regions in areas such as the south of Scotland that lose out most as a result of the Government’s obsession with centralising police services?

Michael Matheson

I mentioned to the member who asked an earlier question that decisions about any changes to the use of police stations in Dumfries and Galloway are a matter for the local commander.

Over the next three to four months, a consultation exercise is being undertaken with the local community and stakeholders, including the member, if he wishes to participate in that process. That is an opportunity for the police service to consider if there are better ways to use its resources. For example, one of the options is to have shared services with other parts of the public sector, bringing them closer together to make sure that they build stronger partnerships. There is an opportunity to look at shaping the service to make sure that it is able to meet local demand in the Dumfries and Galloway community.

I am sure that the member will welcome the fact that such decisions will be made by the local commander, with oversight from the Scottish Police Authority. Criticisms of changes where local commanders were not able to make those decisions were often voiced in the chamber in the past. This time around, Police Scotland is taking exactly that local approach, with oversight from the Scottish Police Authority. I would have thought that the member would welcome that.


Highland Prison

4. Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it considers that the proposed location for the new Highland prison is the most appropriate site. (S5O-00154)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Michael Matheson)

On 27 June 2016, the Scottish Prison Service announced that it was pausing the planning consultation process on the proposed site at Milton of Leys to ascertain whether a viable alternative option for the location for the replacement of Her Majesty’s Prison Inverness was available elsewhere.

Following discussions with the owners of the Milton of Leys site, a proposed alternative site was brought forward that had not previously been available as a potential prison site. A full assessment is currently being undertaken and we anticipate an outcome within the next three or four months.

Edward Mountain

I welcome all the work that is being done by the governor and her team at Porterfield prison to make use of very limited and outdated facilities.

Twelve sites were originally proposed. The consultant who looked at the issue used a traffic-light system: seven were classed as red—for those who do not understand, that is a no-go; four were amber, meaning that they have potential but are not perfect; and one was green.

I have made three requests to meet the chief executive of the SPS, who at first said that he would meet me, but who has twice subsequently refused to do so.

Why was a red site selected originally and why was the green site considered only after a local outcry over the decision that had been made?

Michael Matheson

The member should recognise that the SPS has chosen to pause the approach that it was intending to take in the Inverness area and is exploring options, with a site that was previously not available being considered as a possible site for building a new establishment in the Inverness city area.

I do not know whether the member was on the recent visit by MSPs to HMP Inverness to look at the existing conditions, but I am sure that he would recognise that the conditions there are unacceptable for staff and for prisoners and that the facility requires to be replaced. That is why we are determined to ensure that there is a new prison in the Inverness area to service the Highlands and Islands. Once the assessment of the new site that has come along as an option has been completed, we will be in a position to make a final decision on the appropriate choice for the replacement of the existing establishment in Inverness.

The Presiding Officer

I apologise to members for the fact that we could not take any more supplementary questions or make further progress on this topic.


Culture, Tourism and External Affairs


Brexit Negotiations

1. Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its participation in the Brexit negotiations. (S5O-00161)

The Minister for UK Negotiations on Scotland’s Place in Europe (Michael Russell)

At this point, formal negotiations between the Scottish Government and the United Kingdom Government concerning Scotland’s place in Europe have not yet commenced. The Prime Minister has undertaken that the Scottish Government will be fully involved in preparations for the forthcoming negotiations with the European Union. Scottish Government officials have been in talks with the UK Government to establish how that commitment can be delivered in practice. To that end, last Thursday I met the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union for an initial discussion.

Progress on establishing a formal mechanism for Scotland’s proper involvement has been slow, but we hope to inform Parliament about an agreed format soon. Of course, I undertake to update members regularly as negotiations begin, in line with the Government’s commitment to report regularly to Parliament and its European and External Relations Committee.

Clare Adamson

I welcome the minister to his post.

During the Scottish independence referendum campaign, David Cameron said:

“We are a family. The United Kingdom is not one nation. We are four nations in a single country.”

Does the minister agree that, as Scotland voted to remain within the family of European nations, that position is legitimate and should be respected during the Brexit negotiations?

Michael Russell

I very much agree with that. Before the referendum, the Scottish Government consistently argued for a quadruple lock to be included in the European Union Referendum Act 2015 in order to ensure that the will of all the nations of these islands is reflected. The UK Government ignored that request. That has put the people of Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as the people of London and Gibraltar, into a position in which they will—possibly—be taken out of the EU against their democratic will.

The First Minister has previously outlined that it is imperative that the democratic will of the Scottish people be reflected in our future relationship with Europe. The Scottish Government will consider all options, as the chamber asked it to, to ensure that the vote of the Scottish people to remain part of the European Union is respected. To that end, we will hold the UK Government to its promise to give the Scottish Government a meaningful role in the negotiations with the EU, in order to reflect our specific and devolved interests.

Jackson Carlaw (Eastwood) (Con)

The minister said that progress was slow in his meeting with the secretary of state. However, did he discern from that meeting when, after agreement is reached, there might be a commencement of discussions in which the Scottish Government would participate? Will he confirm that it is the Scottish Government’s intention to make every possible success of those discussions on behalf of Scotland and not to seek in any churlish way to scupper them in an attempt to justify a second independence referendum?

Michael Russell

Mr Carlaw once again displays his obsession with independence. I advise the Tories to get over it and to treat this matter in the same way in which those of us on the Scottish National Party benches are treating it, which is in an engaged and positive way.

I am more than willing to say that I enter into any possible discussions whole-heartedly and with a commitment to make them succeed. I hope that I would hear the same from the UK Government, because the UK Government will have to respect the devolved competences that exist, the interests that exist in Scotland and the need for Scotland to be—in the words of the Prime Minister—“fully involved” and “fully engaged”. I will make the commitment, and I expect to see it from the UK, too.


Brexit (Impact on the Arts)

2. Joan McAlpine (South Scotland) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what engagement it is having with the cultural sector regarding the impact of Brexit on the arts. (S5O-00162)

The Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs (Fiona Hyslop)

The Scottish Government is discussing Brexit with Scotland’s key cultural bodies and it is engaging with sectoral initiatives. I have asked the culture and historic environment bodies that are sponsored and funded by the Scottish Government to assess the range of potential impacts and, in particular, to be sensitive to the impact on their own employees who come from other European Union member states. Freedom of movement is of key importance for the cultural sector in particular. Creative Scotland has conducted a survey of the cultural sector seeking information on potential impacts and has submitted the results of that survey to the European and External Relations Committee’s call for evidence.

Joan McAlpine

Is the cabinet secretary aware of concerns, as outlined by the group known as culture counts, that cultural organisations elsewhere in the European Union might be reluctant to partner United Kingdom and Scottish cultural organisations in funding applications?

Fiona Hyslop

Yes, and that is of deep concern. We have not even started Brexit—we are examining the processes—and we do not know what form Brexit will take. Currently, there are 21 organisations involved in projects worth £8.2 million under the creative Europe programme. It is important to remember that, until the UK leaves the EU, it is still within the EU, and those networks and relationships must continue. We can measure exports and imports but—this is an area of concern—how can we measure opportunities lost because of concerns about relationships?

Lewis Macdonald (North East Scotland) (Lab)

The cabinet secretary will be aware of the importance to the Scottish arts and culture sector of the audiovisual services directive, which provides shared regulation not just among European Union countries but among member states of the European Economic Area that are outwith the EU. Is the Scottish Government engaging with the sector to identify how to protect those advantages, particularly given that that directive is in the process of being reviewed?

Fiona Hyslop

I have already spoken to the Creative Industries Federation on precisely that point. I have previously attended—and led for the UK—discussions on the digital single market and on audiovisual regulations. The relationship will change because the UK will not be part of those discussions, so the issue will be about what the opportunities for Scotland are. More important—as the UK and Scotland would have been the chief beneficiaries of the move to a digital single market—the impact is not just what has been lost now but what might be lost in the future.


Cross-border Tourism (Northumberland and Cumbria)

3. John Lamont (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with Visit Northumberland, Visit Cumbria and local authorities regarding promoting cross-border tourism. (S5O-00163)

The Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs (Fiona Hyslop)

There is clear mutual interest for cross-border collaboration. As well as the long-standing informal linkages between VisitScotland and relevant tourism bodies in the north of England, the Scottish Government understands that Carlisle City Council, Cumbria County Council, Northumbria County Council, Dumfries and Galloway Council and Scottish Borders Council continue to work together to develop cross-border tourism as they build on the borderlands initiative.

John Lamont

I am pleased that the cabinet secretary mentioned the borderlands initiative. One of the strands of that initiative is to build and promote the borderlands as a tourist destination but, after an encouraging start, there is a feeling among some stakeholders that progress has stalled. To date, no strategy or development plan has been published. I acknowledge that to move it forward will require the co-operation of the United Kingdom and Scottish Governments, as well as local councils, and the Scotland Office has confirmed to me that it shares my desire to move the initiative forward. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the Scottish Borders has a lot to offer as a tourist destination and will she pledge to do more to promote cross-border co-operation on tourism?

Fiona Hyslop

With my new responsibilities for tourism, I will take a close interest in tourism in the Scottish Borders and the rest of the south of Scotland. I am due to meet the other tourism ministers from across the UK and—with their agreement—I will ensure that that is an item that we discuss.


Standing Council on Europe (Reports)

4. Mike Rumbles (North East Scotland) (LD)

To ask the Scottish Government whether the standing council on Europe plans to publish a report on Scotland’s relationship with the European Union and, if so, when. (S5O-00164)

The Minister for UK Negotiations on Scotland’s Place in Europe (Michael Russell)

The standing council on Europe, which has now met in plenary on two occasions, is providing on-going advice to the First Minister and other ministers.

The Scottish Government is determined to protect our place in Europe and will explore all options to do so. The standing council is therefore undertaking work on the options that are available to Scotland for our future relationship with the European Union. As that work is informing our negotiating position, elements are obviously confidential, but I am committed to sharing as much of the work publicly as possible, as early as I can.

The standing council is also engaging widely with a range of individuals and organisations to further develop our understanding of the details of our relationship with the EU in a range of fields. Through that process, information is being shared and views are being gathered as openly as possible across a range of topics including the environment, human rights, and higher and further education.

Mike Rumbles

I commend the Government for its forward thinking in setting up the council and especially in looking at options. However, in the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee this morning, I asked the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity if he had set up a team of civil servants to design options for our Scottish system of farm payments post-2020, after we have left the EU, because that is an entirely devolved matter. From his response, it turns out that he has done absolutely no forward thinking on the subject. Will the minister encourage Fergus Ewing to put his thinking cap on?

Michael Russell

I would encourage everybody to put their thinking caps on. It would be quite nice to see thinking caps on the Liberal Democrats, if that is not something that baffles them; I would like to see thinking caps on the ministers in the United Kingdom Government.

It is important that we all consider the range of options. I have found Fergus Ewing to be very forward thinking on these matters. He attended the first event that I attended, which was organised for stakeholders. He has another event this week—I think that it is in Moffat on Friday, on the forestry sector. He is talking to the relevant sectors; he is looking at the potential of those sectors; and he is trying to come to some conclusions. It will not all be done in an afternoon, even if the Lib Dems think that it can be.

Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

I understand that the standing council recently considered the impact of Brexit on human rights and social protections. Does the minister agree that, as legislation in those areas is reserved, there is a very real risk that advances that have been made in those areas could be threatened?

Michael Russell

That is a very important point and I agree with the member.

There is a risk that the social protections that we currently take for granted could be impacted by an exit from the EU. The work that is being undertaken by the members of the standing council has highlighted the extent to which an exit from the EU could create a gap between the current protections that are enjoyed across a range of areas, including employment law and human rights, and any future policy making in those areas outwith the EU framework.

The standing council will undertake further analysis and engage widely to ensure that Scotland’s interests are protected in future; that there is no regression from the current range of protections that are enjoyed by all citizens; and that we continue to move forward, as obviously there is a European dynamic in both social protection and human rights.

The standing council benefits greatly from the input of Professor Alan Miller, who is a United Nations envoy on human rights.


North Coast 500 Route

5. Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to develop tourism facilities on the north coast 500 tourist route. (S5O-00165)

The Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs (Fiona Hyslop)

The Scottish Government is a member of a multipartner group that was recently established by Highlands and Islands Enterprise to lead on the strategic delivery of the opportunities that are offered by the north coast 500. The main objective of the group, which includes the Highland Council and north coast 500 among its membership, is to ensure that economic benefits are spread across the north Highlands.

The Scottish Government is also a key partner in the tourism redevelopment of Inverness castle, which acts as the start and finish point for the route, and which will, when finished, encourage tourism throughout the Highlands.

Rhoda Grant

The cabinet secretary will be aware that the route has succeeded way beyond expectations, which has impacted on infrastructure. Will the Scottish Government help the Highland Council fund essential maintenance and upgrades along the route to ensure that it is as safe as possible, given that a lot of the route is still single-track road? Will the cabinet secretary work with HIE to ensure that there is sufficient accommodation—accommodation is lacking in some of the smaller villages along the route—to help to cater for the increased visitor numbers?

Fiona Hyslop

Success is a good thing to have and I congratulate everybody involved. It obviously brings with it challenges. Some of it is about promotion; some of it is about facilities; and I will bring the transport issue that was raised by the member to the attention of the Minister for Transport and the Islands.


Brexit (Impact on Tourism)

6. Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what recent assessment it has made of the impact of Brexit on Scotland’s tourism industry. (S5O-00166)

The Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs (Fiona Hyslop)

We still do not know what form of Brexit the United Kingdom Government seeks to pursue, so any impact assessment at this stage is speculative. However, we continue to engage with the tourism sector to listen to its concerns with regard to what Brexit may mean both for European Union visitors to Scotland and for the many EU citizens who are employed in the sector, making up nearly 17 per cent of the total sustainable tourism workforce.

I have discussed those issues with industry bodies including the Scottish Tourism Alliance and the British Hospitality Association. More recently, I met EU citizens at Deanston distillery who work in tourism.

Monica Lennon

Scottish Labour would use the powers of the Scottish Parliament to give local authorities the ability to introduce a tourism tax locally should they wish to do so. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the devolution of power to local authorities to allow them to raise revenue from untapped streams would be a welcome boost to Scotland’s tourism industry following the Brexit vote?

Fiona Hyslop

I was trying to work out what the connection to the Brexit vote was in that question.

The issue of a tourism tax was raised a number of times by Monica Lennon’s colleagues in the previous session of Parliament. I know that some local authorities, and the Labour Party, are keen on it, but there are some issues. We are the country with the second highest-taxed tourism sector in the whole of the EU, so putting additional burdens on the sector may be problematic.

It is possible now—we do not need Brexit—for the UK Government to reduce VAT on tourism. If it was to do so, that may allow more flexibility, but at this point we have very serious concerns about the current level of taxation on the tourism sector.

Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

Last year, Scotland’s first ever marine tourism strategy was published, with a heavy emphasis on increasing the numbers of international tourists who sail. What would be the implications for Scotland’s marinas if visa controls were instated for EU sailors and tourists arriving in Scotland?

Fiona Hyslop

Again, that is one of the unknowns and uncertainties of Brexit. The suggestion of visa controls for visitors and those such as sailors who support the marine tourism industry is a very serious concern indeed. Those are the practical issues with which we are engaging in trying to identify what the implications are and trying to persuade the UK Government to get into a position that is least worst in relation to Brexit.


Maeshowe Closure

7. John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

To ask the Scottish Government for what reason the Maeshowe cairn at the Orkney UNESCO world heritage site has been closed without consultation. (S5O-00167)

The Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs (Fiona Hyslop)

The Scottish Government is very concerned about the closure of Maeshowe. I have expressed my concern to the chair of Historic Environment Scotland, along with our support for an early resolution to mitigate the health and safety concerns for staff and visitors that were identified following a new assessment in August that was triggered by HES’s decision to put on temporary hold the proposed infrastructure project.

The care and management of Maeshowe is delegated by Scottish ministers to Historic Environment Scotland, and HES is responsible under health and safety legislation for taking whatever steps are necessary to manage the safety of visitors and staff at the properties that it manages. The point has been forcefully made to me in the past that the Scottish Government should not interfere with direct operational decisions, but I understand that HES is in urgent discussions with Orkney Islands Council about an early resolution.

John Finnie

It is reassuring to hear the cabinet secretary’s words. She will be aware that Maeshowe is number 4 on the HES visitor list.

The cabinet secretary may well be aware that locals have suggested four alternative methods to keep the site open. I have had a number of representations, and people are very concerned given that the site is not only a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization world heritage site but a significant part of the islands’ heritage, not least with the winter solstice coming up.

I am glad that there has been some dialogue. I ask that the cabinet secretary goes back once again to encourage a situation that will ensure that educational visits can continue to access the site. There are alternatives—it just requires the will of HES to address the problem. The cabinet secretary’s assistance would be appreciated.

Fiona Hyslop

Historic Environment Scotland has been looking at the issue for some time. There are not only four options—there are in fact five options that were looked at previously. The situation requires discussion not only with HES but with others, including the council.

Anyone who has visited the site will be aware of the speeds at which cars on the neighbouring road are travelling. There have been 12 incidents since March, and I understand the seriousness of the situation, but we are working constructively to find a positive solution.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

I welcome the cabinet secretary’s comments. Does she believe that the decision to announce the closure without any prior consultation has damaged HES’s reputation for partnership working? Given the on-going efforts of the council and HES to reach a resolution, will she ask that the proposed closure on the 25th of this month be suspended pending the outcome of those further discussions?

Fiona Hyslop

A health and safety assessment was carried out in August and some time was allowed to see whether a resolution could be reached and what could be done by way of mitigation. I cannot interfere in issues that are operational matters for HES, particularly in relation to health and safety, but it is necessary to obtain constructive ideas on how to resolve the situation. Maeshowe is a fantastic site, and it is extremely important that we celebrate it and that we provide access for educational purposes and for visitors. I will do everything that I can to encourage Orkney Islands Council and HES to seek a resolution.

The Presiding Officer

I thank members and ministers.