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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 26 November 2019

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Scotland as a Science Nation, Decision Time, Catholic Schools


Topical Question Time

University and College Union (Industrial Action)

1. Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to members of the University and College Union who are striking over pay, working conditions and pensions. (S5T-01899)

The Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science (Richard Lochhead)

The current industrial action is of course unwelcome news. However, as I am sure the member is aware, universities are autonomous institutions and matters relating to pay, working conditions and pensions are for them to determine. Although it is not for the Government to intervene, it is worth saying that industrial action is in the interests of no one, especially students, and I expect management and unions to make every effort to reach a settlement on these matters.

Ross Greer

During the previous round of sustained industrial action, which in that case was by college lecturers, the Government said that it would remain neutral and then in the very next breath called for the union to suspend its industrial action. In this case, will the minister respect the right of workers to take industrial action and withdraw their labour? Will the Government give a commitment to do nothing to undermine the union during the strike action?

Richard Lochhead

Of course the unions are acting within their rights in highlighting what they see as genuine concerns, and they are right to do so. As I said, I urge both sides to get round the negotiating table—I know that employers have offered to do that—in order that we can settle the dispute sooner rather than later. Any Government anywhere would want to minimise the period in which industrial action takes place, and we will continue to monitor the situation.

Ross Greer

That was not an answer to my question about the Government respecting the right of unions to act, but simply an acknowledgement of their legal rights, which is a different thing.

Will the Government acknowledge that university lecturers’ pay has plummeted by 20 per cent in real terms at the same time as their workload has increased to the point that they work an average of two days’ overtime a week? Does the Government consider it acceptable for any worker to see their pay plummet by 20 per cent while their workload explodes?

Richard Lochhead

If employees have concerns about their workload, or about any other issue—I know that a number of issues are being discussed as part of the dispute—they have every right to raise those concerns with their employers and act through their union representatives. We hope that both sides can reach an agreement sooner rather than later, so that there is an end to industrial action. As I said, staff have the right to act through their unions.

Justice System (Victim Experience)

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

To ask the Scottish Government how it is improving the experiences of victims in the justice system. (S5T-01900)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Humza Yousaf)

I welcome Rona Mackay’s question, which is asked during the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence. I thank all the organisations, particularly feminist organisations, that are working tirelessly to consign to history violence against women and girls.

We are progressing a range of initiatives to improve the experiences of victims. For example, this week, the victim surcharge was introduced in Scotland, which is a new financial penalty that will be imposed on offenders who are sentenced to a court fine. The funding that is generated will be banked in the victim surcharge fund and used to provide quick, practical support to victims and their relatives.

Rona Mackay

The victim surcharge fund has the potential to make a real difference to how victims experience the justice system. Will the cabinet secretary expand a little on the practical support that the fund will pay for?

Humza Yousaf

The member is right to emphasise practical support, because that is what we want the victim surcharge fund to provide. As I have said previously at the Justice Committee, I expect the fund to be as flexible as possible, so that it can help with a range of issues and pay for things such as new windows, doors or alarm systems for victims of house breaking right the way through to counselling for those families who have been bereaved by crime.

The fund is open and flexible, and I am looking forward to it being disbursed to victims’ organisations and then to victims directly thereafter. I think and hope that it will make a practical difference in helping to alleviate some of the trauma that victims of crime experience.

Rona Mackay

The fund is only one example of how the Government is working to improve the experience of victims. Will the cabinet secretary outline what other work the Government is doing to support victims and witnesses?

Humza Yousaf

We have a range of work under way. I know that there is still plenty of work to do—I have met enough victims and their families to know that. I am delighted to co-chair, along with the Lord Advocate, the victims task force, which brings together leaders from across the justice sector, including from victims organisations, and has a key focus on developing and further enhancing our victim-centred approach to the justice system.

As the member knows, we are investing £80 million this year in victim support services. We are also helping the most vulnerable victims and witnesses, as demonstrated by last week’s opening of the evidence and hearings suite in Glasgow, which was supported by almost £1 million of Government funding.

We are doing plenty. Nonetheless, I repeat that we realise that there is still much to do. That will always be informed by the direct experience of victims.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

Last Friday, the Scottish Government released an analysis report on the transforming parole in Scotland consultation, which aims to involve victims more in the process. Anything that improves the experience of victims and witnesses of crime is to be welcomed. Will the cabinet secretary consider extending the report’s actions to cover temporary release?

Humza Yousaf

Although I understand why Liam Kerr has asked the question, it is important that we do not conflate the two issues. I appreciate that he is not doing that, but it is important that we do not conflate parole with temporary release. They are two very different mechanisms for two very different purposes, although I accept that they are interlinked.

I will explore what has been said about parole and will see whether there is anything that we can learn that will inform temporary release. I will be open-minded on that, but it is important that we focus on parole. We have heard really good feedback from a number of victims who have said that they want to attend parole hearings. They want more confidence about what can be done in relation to exclusion zones. Those are all things that the Government has said that we will take forward.

James Kelly (Glasgow) (Lab)

The victim surcharge fund is a welcome support for victims whose lives have been disrupted as a result of crimes having been committed against them. It is important that all victims are able to access the fund. Will the cabinet secretary explain what steps will be taken to ensure that victims who do not have direct links to the organisations that have been set up to facilitate applications are made aware of the fund, and of the process involved in making an application?

Humza Yousaf

That is a hugely important point. If a person becomes a victim of crime, the details of those organisations will be sent to them. Victim Support Scotland knows that a significant proportion of victims do not take up that support. We will certainly work closely with organisations such as VSS to reach those individuals who do not often access support services.

When the victim surcharge fund is ready to launch—it will take time for money to accumulate in the fund, so we estimate that that will be in summer 2020—I will take James Kelly’s points on board. There will be marketing and awareness raising so that the fund reaches people who have not previously been reached by traditional methods.