Meeting date: Thursday, February 27, 2020
Meeting of the Parliament 27 February 2020
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, War Memorials, Exam Results 2019 (Analysis), Portfolio Question Time, Budget (Scotland) (No 4) Bill: Stage 1, Decision Time
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- War Memorials
- Exam Results 2019 (Analysis)
- Portfolio Question Time
- Budget (Scotland) (No 4) Bill: Stage 1
- Decision Time
General Question Time
Crofting Commission (Employment)
To ask the Scottish Government how many people are employed by the Crofting Commission. (S5O-04179)
The Crofting Commission currently has a staff of 55. None of them is employed directly by the commission. Two are temporary staff provided by an agency and all the others are Scottish Government staff on secondment.
Despite my constituency having more than a third of all crofts in Scotland, the Crofting Commission can often seem a long way away. What consideration can the Scottish Government give to relocating any jobs or moving any vacant posts at the Crofting Commission to the Western Isles, where they could, perhaps, be closer to the crofting communities that they serve?
Dr Allan has been raising this matter with me for some time on behalf of his constituents. As a result, I agree that it should be considered and I have already had preliminary discussions with officials. I have asked officials to explore the matter further with the Crofting Commission and its board and I will discuss it with the board when I meet it later in the year. I am always looking for ways to strengthen the links between the Crofting Commission and the communities that it serves.
Carrier Bag Charging Scheme (Exemptions)
To ask the Scottish Government whether it plans to review exemptions under the plastic bag charging scheme. (S5O-04180)
We have no plans to review the exemptions under the Single Use Carrier Bags Charge (Scotland) Regulations 2014. Our approach to exemptions was carefully considered and was based on experience in other countries. As far as I am aware, our recent consultation on proposals for legislation on the circular economy, which included a question on increasing the carrier bag charge, raised no issues on the question of exemptions and a change to the policy.
On the important issue of the scope of the exemptions regime, the cabinet secretary will be aware that the 2014 plastic bag exemptions include bags for prescription medicines. Some groups, such as the plastic-free Dalgety Bay group, have questioned why that should still be the case. Given that the Welsh Government is reportedly looking again at its exemptions, will the cabinet secretary consider reviewing that exemption to the plastic bag charging scheme in Scotland?
The single-use carrier bag charge applies to both plastic and paper bags. The exemption in the regulations for bags for prescription medicines was asked for by pharmacists in order to protect people’s privacy when collecting medicines, and that confidentiality remains important. We will, however, monitor any developments in the policy in Wales. I am glad that many pharmacies are already using paper bags when dispensing medicines and appliances, and I encourage other pharmacies to follow their lead.
Police Scotland (Drug Overdose Nasal Spray)
To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the announcement that Police Scotland is developing proposals to trial the use of a lifesaving nasal spray that allows officers to treat victims of a drugs overdose. (S5O-04181)
I very much welcome the news that Police Scotland is conducting that test of change. We know that naloxone can help to save lives and, as such, improving its provision, particularly among emergency responders, has been a key focus of the early work of the drug deaths task force. We are now seeing the results of that from other sectors, and news of the development follows the recent announcement that the Scottish Ambulance Service made about a pilot of the use of naloxone.
When the test of change that Police Scotland is running concludes, it will be for the force executive to assess the test and decide on the next key steps. As the member would expect, feedback from officers on the ground will undoubtedly be a key part of that assessment.
Yesterday I attended the drug deaths summit in Glasgow and I was encouraged by the determination that is being shown to tackle the issue on many fronts, including through the role that is played by Police Scotland. Will the cabinet secretary expand on how he sees Police Scotland’s role developing in respect of the crucial work to reduce drug deaths in Scotland?
That is an exceptionally important question. We will continue to look at how the test of change for officers to carry naloxone develops; we will be keeping a close eye on that potentially important development.
The enforcement aspect of Police Scotland’s work is incredibly important in disrupting serious and organised crime gangs, which are supplying drugs into our communities; the reducing harm aspect of its work is hugely important, too.
There are examples up and down the country—I suspect that there are examples in the member’s constituency—of the police working with multi-agency partners to reduce the harm caused by illicit drugs in our communities.
Enforcement is one aspect of the police’s work, but, equally, the police work with partners to reduce harm. It is exceptionally important that they continue to do that work.
Question 4 has been withdrawn.
Voluntary Sector and Third Sector (Support)
To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to support the voluntary and third sectors. (S5O-04183)
The Scottish Government’s draft budget includes investment of £24.6 million for the third sector in 2020-21. That will enable us to continue to work in partnership to deliver on Scotland’s national performance framework.
The third sector budget represents just one aspect of overall spend on the third sector from across Scottish Government portfolios. For example, the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations has estimated that, in 2018, the income to the third sector from the Government was £472 million, which represents 7.9 per cent of its total income.
The third sector is not only a crucial part of our social and economic infrastructure; it has a key role to play in the reform of our public services—without them, we would not be able to innovate, adapt and maintain our drive to tackle deep-rooted social challenges in the way that we are doing.
Given the involvement of, and reliance on, the voluntary and third sectors, especially in criminal justice work, does the cabinet secretary agree with Apex Scotland that the annual budget process for justice-related third sector organisations is “extremely wasteful and inefficient” and that, as a priority, it should be replaced with—at the very least—a more sustainable and effective minimum of three-year funding, which would encourage preventative spend?
I think that everyone agrees that the ideal situation would be to provide three-year budgets and to indicate that length of commitment to organisations that continue to do great work, for which the sector is rightly credited.
However, it does not help that we have a yearly budget, particularly when that budget has been delayed. Indeed, the third sector has made a big plea in that regard, given the uncertainty over the delay to the United Kingdom budget. In addition to that, we have no clarity from the UK Government about the shared prosperity fund. We have continued austerity, and we are continually having to mop up the pieces left by the UK Government.
Again, on a point of principle, we are always willing to work with other parties. The fundamental challenge is that, when we get a budget of only one year, that has a knock-on impact on the programmes and the operations that we try to fund.
We will continue to engage with Margaret Mitchell. However, one of the big points of concern that the third sector has raised with me is the delay to the UK budget.
This morning, I received an email from Kingdom Off Road Motorcycle Club. I understand that the transition from the community jobs Scotland programme to the no-one left behind model, which is due to start in April 2021, appears to be creating a funding gap. I understand that offers of grants have been withdrawn. Will the cabinet secretary investigate that?
I will happily meet Claire Baker.
In my answer to Margaret Mitchell, I noted that the third sector budget that sits in my portfolio is only a small part of the overall funding that comes from Government. Indeed, on income, the SCVO noted that the third sector has benefited from £472 million-worth of funding, from across different portfolios.
I will endeavour to meet Claire Baker to talk about that issue—because the funding to which she referred may sit in another part of Government—so that she can get clarity and the organisation that she mentioned can get the support that it may require.
City Region and Regional Growth Deals (Outcomes)
To ask the Scottish Government how it measures the outcomes of city and regional growth deals. (S5O-04184)
The deals are three-way partnerships between the Scottish Government, the United Kingdom Government and regional partners. It is incumbent on all partners to demonstrate impact through appropriate monitoring and evaluation arrangements.
The deals are long-term investments delivered over 10 years or more, and outcomes will take some time to develop, but we can already see returns for our economy and our communities. For example, our investment in the Glasgow city region deal is transforming Sighthill, one of our most deprived areas, for the benefit of future generations.
A recent report by Audit Scotland stated that
“The Scottish Government needs to be clearer”
about what it wants from city region deals, particularly in relation to how success is measured and the sustainability of economic growth. I appreciate that the majority of city and regional growth deals are under way, but will the cabinet secretary commit that, for future long-term infrastructure projects, those measures will be in place from the outset?
We welcome Audit Scotland’s report, which made a number of recommendations for regional partners and the Scottish Government. Disappointingly, it did not look at the United Kingdom Government element of those deals, because that is not within its remit. However, the recommendations broadly apply to the UK Government as well. The Scottish Government’s inclusive growth outcome framework, which was refreshed in December 2019, will assist the Scottish Government element of the deals to be better assessed, and to demonstrate the impact that the deals are having and support regional partners. As yet, it is not clear what the UK Government will do to make sure that we have greater sight of the impact that its investment is making through city and regional growth deals.
Question 7 was not lodged.
Antisocial Behaviour (Off-road Vehicles)
To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to address antisocial behaviour on quad bikes and similar off-road vehicles. (S5O-04186)
I am strongly committed to tackling all forms of antisocial behaviour and was pleased to hear from Police Scotland about the success that the improving Levenmouth together project has had in tackling the antisocial use of motorcycles. A range of legislative powers is available to tackle antisocial behaviour, but successful reductions in antisocial behaviour will be best achieved through that type of effective partnership working. Although the Scottish Government remains committed to ensuring that the police and local authorities have powers available to them that are effective and fit for purpose, I have asked my officials to consider whether the Levenmouth initiative could be highlighted as an example of best practice that could be adopted in other areas experiencing similar problems.
I have been raising the issue for a number of years, but a constituent still contacted me last week to describe a near miss between his family and a quad bike user in a public park. Further to the letter that I received from the minister in October, can she say more about what progress, if any, has been made in scoping a national strategy that makes clear to retailers and users of off-road vehicles that it is against the law to use them in public spaces, and that doing so creates a danger to the safety of members of the public and is antisocial behaviour that will not be tolerated?
I am sorry to hear that there has been a problem in parks in Fife, especially as those are places where young children should be able to play in what should be safe surroundings without any fear of traffic. I have not received any information on that issue, but I suggest that the lessons learned from the good practice collected through the improving Levenmouth together project should be shared with the areas of Fife that are experiencing problems.
Antisocial behaviour involving reckless and illegal driving over farmland is part of a wider rural crime issue. The rural crime rate is rising and antisocial motocross, bike theft, machinery damage and rural fuel theft are damaging rural communities. The National Rural Crime Network 2018 survey stated that 27 per cent of those living in rural areas felt that crimes reported were not being dealt with sufficiently. Will the minister act on calls from rural organisations such as the Countryside Alliance to level up funding in areas where tackling rural crime is difficult, and will she work with Police Scotland to further develop its Scottish partnership against rural crime, or SPARC, programme?
I would be happy to meet the member to discuss some elements of her question, although parts of it may have strayed into a colleague’s portfolio. The Scottish Government fully supports the police, our local authorities and court services to take appropriate and proportionate action to tackle antisocial behaviour. We believe that the range of powers already available to authorities allows them to deal effectively with antisocial behaviour, regardless of the circumstances. However, we are always open to listening to authorities and, indeed, to members if they have suggestions on how we can improve our approach to tackling antisocial behaviour for the benefit of all our communities.
Transport Links (West Scotland)
To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to improve transport links in West Scotland. (S5O-04187)
The Scottish Government is investing in a range of transport improvements in the west of Scotland, including the opening of the £30 million A737 Dalry bypass, the £5 million Den realignment and continuing design work for the schemes at Beith and on the A82. That is alongside the £350,000 that is being spent on new active travel measures in Inverclyde and North Ayrshire and the £2.5 million that is being invested in extending the life of the Gourock ferry terminal linkspan to improve the resilience of the Bute and Arran ferries for users of those services. We are also refurbishing the region’s rail fleet as part of a £475 million national programme.
Looking forward, the strategic transport projects review is considering future investment priorities for the strategic transport network.
My constituents have consistently raised concerns about ScotRail services. This week’s transport statistics confirm that, since the so-called “world-leading” deal with Abellio, passenger satisfaction with ScotRail has fallen across the board.
Does the cabinet secretary agree that listening to passengers as well as the workers is key to driving improvements in my region and elsewhere? Will he therefore consider the issue of passenger and trade union representation in a future publicly owned ScotRail? Will he also consider how automatic compensation could be introduced to improve service standards for passengers?
The member raises a number of important points, but he will be aware that the recently published statistics on passenger satisfaction with ScotRail showed a marked improvement over the course of the past year, and further work is to be undertaken on that. In some cases, the increase was the largest for any rail operator in the UK providing regional passenger services. However, it is clear that there is more to be done.
In relation to Mr Bibby’s wider point about public ownership of our railways, I very much hope that it is now the Labour Party’s position to support the full devolution of all rail powers to this Parliament to allow us to be able to take that option. To date, the Labour Party has refused to back that, and I hope that it will now commit to supporting this Parliament being given the power to make the changes that are necessary to deliver on that priority.
River Esk (Pollution)
To ask the Scottish Government what is being done to find a long-term solution to the pollution issue in the River Esk in the Midlothian North and Musselburgh constituency. (S5O-04188)
I am, of course, aware of the recent pollution incident in the River Esk. Scottish Water is committed to cleaning up any sewage-related debris arising from any discharges in storm conditions. In addition, Scottish Water is making regular checks along the River Esk for any signs of sewer debris and is actively working to encourage people to stop flushing the wrong items.
In order to minimise the risk from rural diffuse pollution to water quality on the north and south Esk, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency has committed to visiting farms in the catchment during 2020 and working with land managers to help to reduce pollution.
Does the cabinet secretary think that it is acceptable to allow sewage to flow into local bodies of water, given that there are 17 sewage outflows along the River Esk in my constituency? Will she take action to encourage SEPA to reduce the sewage that goes into rivers and streams through outfall pipes?
Operation of the sewer network is a matter for Scottish Water. As the member will be aware, discharges from outfalls generally occur during extreme storm conditions, not during regular operation. Scottish Water has committed to investigate any recurring network issues.
As I indicated in my earlier answer, SEPA intends to visit farms in the catchment and work with land managers in respect of the diffuse pollution that might emanate from land use.
That concludes general questions. We are a minute early, but I hope that members are happy to proceed to First Minister’s question time.