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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 25 October 2016

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Point of Order, Building a Fairer Scotland, Standing Order Rule Changes (First Minister’s Question Time), Decision Time, Adopt a Station


Topical Question Time

Referendum Bill

1. Oliver Mundell (Dumfriesshire) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what analysis it made of the reported level of support for independence ahead of the decision to bring forward the draft referendum bill before article 50 has been invoked. (S5T-00125)

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution (Derek Mackay)

Our starting point remains protecting Scotland’s national interests, as set out by the First Minister. We are considering all possible options to ensure Scotland’s continuing relationship with and place in Europe. Scotland delivered a strong, unequivocal vote to remain, and our focus is on ensuring that Scotland’s interests are protected, particularly as it appears that the United Kingdom Government now favours a hard Brexit. The consultation on the draft bill, which was launched last week, is about the mechanics of the referendum should we conclude that independence is the best or the only way to protect Scotland’s interests.

Oliver Mundell

I take it from that answer that the real answer is none.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that pushing ahead with the bill, as the Government plans to do as its number 1 priority—before even listening to his party’s listening exercise—exposes the Scottish National Party’s true colours and its true intention of independence at any cost?

Derek Mackay

The Government is listening, engaging and consulting, but it is also acting in Scotland’s national interest, and we will do that each and every day. That is our day job: standing up for Scotland against a hard-right Tory Brexit that will impact on this country’s economy. We will do what is best for Scotland.

If the member wants to talk about opinion poll ratings, that is fine. I welcomed the most recent opinion poll, which showed that 51 per cent of people in Scotland would support the SNP in a Scottish Parliament constituency election. That is more support than that for all the other political parties in Scotland put together. No wonder the people of Scotland trust the SNP.

Oliver Mundell

If we want to talk about public opinion, why is the cabinet secretary’s Government so keen to ignore the 2 million no voters who made their intentions crystal clear, and why is the SNP so keen to airbrush out of history the 1 million leave voters in this country—more than the number of those who put their cross next to Nicola Sturgeon for First Minister? If the cabinet secretary is saying that the legislation might not be needed, which I think he is saying, how much taxpayers’ money has been spent on the publication and preparation of the bill, and under what legal authority has that money been spent?

Derek Mackay

It is clear that the Scottish Government has a mandate to consider the matter. It was clearly outlined in the election and in the manifesto on which the SNP secured victory in that election to form the Scottish Government.

Oliver Mundell wants to talk about the cost of policies. Does he realise what the cost of Brexit is to the whole of the United Kingdom as well as to Scotland?

On the subject of respecting this nation—and Scotland is not just a constituency; it is a nation—every part of this nation, including every local authority area, voted to remain in Europe. The UK Government should respect that. The ball is in the UK Government’s court to respect Scotland and how the people voted. If it does that, maybe we can find a solution that works for every part of the UK.

The Scottish Government is not just standing up for Scotland; it is trying to help the whole of the UK. The UK Prime Minister could react positively and constructively, first and foremost by respecting Scotland’s interest and the democracy of this country.

Alcohol (Minimum Pricing)

2. James Dornan (Glasgow Cathcart) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government how it will take forward plans for the minimum pricing of alcohol following the decision by the Court of Session. (S5T-00126)

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport (Shona Robison)

The Scottish Government intends to implement minimum unit pricing as soon as possible. The order to bring in minimum pricing must first be laid in draft before the Scottish Parliament for approval before it can be made by the Scottish ministers.

Although we respect the right of the Scotch Whisky Association to seek permission to appeal the judgment, I hope that it will accept it and enable us to get on with implementing a life-saving policy. The member will be aware that I am limited in discussing the case due to the Parliament’s guidance on sub judice.

James Dornan

I am aware of the restrictions placed on the cabinet secretary, but will she tell me what research into the public health benefits of the policy the Scottish Government has reviewed?

Shona Robison

Minimum unit pricing is underpinned by a wealth of international evidence on the public health benefit, which has been before this Parliament on a number of occasions and, indeed, before the court. Today, we have seen the publication of alcohol-related hospital statistics that show that the rate of admission remains four times higher than it was in the early 1980s, adding further to the need for this life-saving policy. As I said, I hope that we can introduce it as soon as possible.

James Dornan

Those facts show the importance of the legislation. I look forward to the drinks industry now respecting the will of Parliament and allowing these life-saving measures to be introduced without further delay. Will the minister outline what other measures the Scottish Government is taking in conjunction with minimum unit pricing to address Scotland’s relationship with alcohol?

Shona Robison

We have a comprehensive strategy to tackle alcohol-related harm in Scotland. It contains 41 measures, including minimum unit pricing. Other measures include the multi-buy discount ban, which has seen a 2.6 per cent reduction in consumption, and a nationwide programme of alcohol brief interventions, which has delivered more than 667,000 interventions since its introduction back in 2008. We have also improved substance misuse education, legislated to ban irresponsible promotions and, more recently, introduced a lower drink-drive limit. A lot has been done, but we are certainly not going to be complacent. We are working on a refresh of the alcohol framework, which we will introduce soon.

Donald Cameron (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

Does the cabinet secretary accept that a crucial part of the inner house’s judgment was its approval of the provisional or trial nature of the legislation and that the sunset clause argued for by the Scottish Conservatives is integral to that?

Shona Robison

I respect all the judgment that has been made. I welcome the cross-party support that we have seen for this important public health measure. I hope that Donald Cameron will join me in hoping that we will now get the opportunity to implement this life-saving legislation. As I have said, I hope that the Scotch Whisky Association will accept the judgment, enabling us to get on with the job of introducing this public health policy, and that all of us get behind it in making sure that it works for the people of Scotland.

Sexual Offences (Pardons)

3. Kezia Dugdale (Lothian) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will quash the convictions and cautions issued to people for now-abolished gay sexual offences and issue pardons. (S5T-00119)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Michael Matheson)

I thank Kezia Dugdale for raising this important issue. It is sadly the case that Scotland has only relatively recently modernised how our criminal laws operate so that they no longer discriminate against same-sex sexual activity. It is shocking to consider that consensual sex between men was decriminalised only in 1980 and that the age of consent for same-sex sexual activity was not equalised with that for sexual activity between men and women until 2001. Thankfully, we can look back with a sense of pride, knowing that those discriminatory laws no longer operate. Such laws clearly have no place in a modern and inclusive Scotland.

However, there are people in Scotland who have criminal convictions for same-sex sexual activity, which is now lawful, and we must right that wrong. Over the summer, I instructed officials to look at the steps that would need to be taken to correct that injustice. I advise Parliament that we will introduce an automatic pardon so that people who have been convicted know that they are absolved fully. We want to address the injustice that people experienced—simply because of their sexual orientation—in circumstances that are now legal, and the granting of an automatic pardon is one way of achieving that.

Separately, it is the case that information on such convictions is held in records that Police Scotland maintains. We engaged with Police Scotland over the summer, to seek views on steps that could be taken to right these historic wrongs. I have instructed my officials, working in partnership with Police Scotland, to determine the practical steps that are required to establish a scheme that will allow men who were convicted as a result of actions that are now legal to have those convictions disregarded. The scheme will ensure that convictions for activity that is now lawful are removed from central conviction records. Where an offence is disregarded, a person will be treated as not having been convicted of that offence, so the offence will not appear on, for example, disclosure checks.

I know that members of this Parliament will want to work together to resolve these important issues.

Kezia Dugdale

That is a hugely welcome announcement. It is nothing short of a historic moment for Scotland as a more equal and respectful country. The cabinet secretary will be aware that across the United Kingdom there are many men who have been prosecuted, convicted and in some cases imprisoned for being who they are and loving who they love. A pardon is therefore the very least that the Government of the day can do.

Given the significance of the announcement, I hope that the Presiding Officer will forgive me for asking three very quick questions. First, can the cabinet secretary confirm that there will be a blanket pardon for any gay or bisexual man who has been convicted of a crime that is no longer a crime? Secondly, will he confirm that no legislation is required for such a pardon and that those affected need not apply to be pardoned, as has been argued elsewhere in the United Kingdom?

Finally, the Scottish Government was not responsible for the laws and for the prosecutions, convictions and sentences that gay men faced, but it could issue a formal apology, which for many people would go a long way in recognising that they should never have accepted liability in the first place. For many men, an apology is as important as a pardon, because an apology will demonstrate that they should never have been convicted of a crime in the first place.

Michael Matheson

I will try to deal with each issue in turn. The member asked about a blanket pardon. There will be an automatic pardon for individuals who were convicted of offences that relate to activity that is now lawful. It is important that we have a system in place that also recognises that there are individuals who were convicted under the old criminal law for activities that remain criminal offences. We will create a system that allows that to happen. The approach will be automatic for people who were convicted of crimes in relation to activity that is now lawful.

The provision of an automatic pardon will require legislation. We will seek to introduce legislation at an early date in this session—over the course of the next year, at the very least—to ensure that we make progress on the matter swiftly.

The disregard is an issue that we can take forward as a practical policy measure, the implementation of which might not require legislation. We will seek to make progress on that as quickly as possible.

I fully acknowledge the issue to do with righting the wrongs faced by those who were convicted, some of whom were imprisoned, as a result of activity that is now lawful. An apology is an appropriate measure for the Government to give consideration to. My view is that that would be best dealt with collectively when we bring forward legislation on a pardon during this parliamentary session. I will certainly give the matter serious consideration as part of the package of measures that we will take forward.

Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

I welcome the question from Kez Dugdale and I very much welcome the answer from the cabinet secretary.

Let me reinforce the final point on the importance of an apology. Does the cabinet secretary appreciate that although many people will welcome a pardon, others will take from it an implication that they are being forgiven for having done something wrong? Does he agree that that is not the message that should be sent out and that the Government has a responsibility to acknowledge that the state is the body that acted wrongly, in enacting laws that were based on values that we now regard as completely immoral? I reinforce the importance for many people in this situation of the apology coming alongside a pardon, to ensure that the pardon is not misinterpreted.

Michael Matheson

I recognise the point that the member makes. The state was responsible for creating the situation in the first place. However, I believe that the most appropriate way in which to take forward any apology would be to consider it alongside the legislation that we intend to bring forward to introduce an automatic pardon. I recognise the sentiments that the member expresses and the points that he makes, and they will be part of our thinking in bringing forward the legislation in the coming months.

Douglas Ross (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I associate the Scottish Conservatives with the remarks that have been made. The cabinet secretary will be aware that there is cross-party support for what is being proposed throughout the United Kingdom and in this Parliament. However, he will also be aware of the developments down south last week in relation to the case that was put forward by one of his party’s members. The issue of the blanket apology is difficult because, down south, there are concerns that it would cover offences that are still illegal. The cabinet secretary mentioned in his second answer to Ms Dugdale the creation of a system to ensure that that does not happen. Can he provide the Parliament with more information on how he envisages taking that element forward?

Michael Matheson

I welcome the fact that, as the member has recognised, there is cross-party support. I am sure that he will also recognise that there was provision in my colleague John Nicolson’s bill to deal with the offences that were committed previously and remain criminal offences. I regret the approach that the UK Government has taken on the issue. It could have worked harder to ensure that cross-party agreement was achieved on the matter.

Setting that aside, however, I note that there clearly remain offences that individuals were convicted of under the old criminal law in the area. We need to ensure that the pardon arrangements that we put in place make provision so that those individuals continue to have those offences on their record and do not receive a pardon. Parliament will be given an opportunity to consider how the legislation seeks to achieve that while delivering the automatic pardon to those who are entitled to it.