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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, June 27, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 27 June 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time


General Question Time

Superfast Broadband (Falkirk East)

1. Angus MacDonald (Falkirk East) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what percentage of businesses and domestic properties in the Falkirk East constituency can access superfast broadband, and what percentage are connected. (S5O-03455)

The Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands (Paul Wheelhouse)

The independent broadband analysis site thinkbroadband states that 96.6 per cent of all premises in the Falkirk Council area are able to access superfast broadband speeds of 30 megabits per second or better. The latest Ofcom figures for the Falkirk East constituency, which are from December 2018, show that 89 per cent of all small and medium-sized enterprise premises and 96 per cent of domestic premises have access to superfast broadband of 30Mbps and above.

Ofcom figures also suggest that 62 per cent of all lines in the Falkirk Council area have an active fixed broadband connection that can provide speeds in excess of 30Mbps. That information is not available at a constituency level.

Angus MacDonald

The Scottish Government deserves full credit for providing superfast broadband to communities that would have fallen behind if it had been left to the United Kingdom Government to get its act together.

However, despite that success, rural communities in my constituency, particularly in Avonbridge, have faced severe delays and are still without access to the superfast network. The owners of around 12 properties face the prospect of having to wait for the reaching 100 per cent programme, including businesses that are reliant on having the best broadband that is available, even though they were originally advised that superfast broadband would be available to them some two years ago or more. Those issues have been compounded by a lack of communication from contractors and misinformation from project literature and websites, which have caused frustration, confusion and anger among members of those communities, who feel that they have been left high and dry while other communities very close by are surging into the digital future.

Therefore, can the minister provide reassurance that, with the R100 programme, lessons will be learned from the issues that have been faced in rolling out the digital Scotland superfast broadband programme, with a view to ensuring that better, more effective community engagement is at the heart of the R100 programme?

Paul Wheelhouse

Given the applause from Conservative members, I point out that broadband matters and, indeed, telecoms as a whole are reserved to UK ministers. [Interruption.] If Mr Carson wants to ask a question, I will certainly answer it.

Mr MacDonald will recognise that we acknowledge the issues that he raises in respect of his constituents. We are unhappy to hear that constituents of his were led to believe that they would get superfast broadband but have not had it. There are a number of complexities to do with the interaction between the commercial investment plans of operators and the public-sponsored projects, such as the DSSB programme, which we are very proud of. Such state interventions cannot be made where there are commercial plans. That means that there is interaction between the commercial investment programme and the publicly funded investment programme, which can present some difficulties in understanding exactly which properties will be covered.

As Mr MacDonald knows, we have committed to a £600 million programme under R100, which I hope will deal with the properties in question in his constituency. If he lets me know which properties are affected, I will be able to give him a more definitive answer. I reassure him that we have learned a great deal from the DSSB process and that we are trying to avoid some of the communication difficulties that he has described. We want to make sure that, from the very start of the R100 programme, we provide as much clarity as we can to communities about when services will be delivered in their area.

Apologies (Scotland) Act 2016 (Awareness Raising)

2. Margaret Mitchell (Central Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it has taken to raise awareness of the Apologies (Scotland) Act 2016 since it came into force on 19 June 2017. (S5O-03456)

The Minister for Community Safety (Ash Denham)

The Scottish Government expects public bodies and other organisations to be aware of the current legislative framework and to update their procedures and guidance accordingly. The Scottish Government did not commit to issuing general guidance, on the basis that, were it to do so, that would risk interpreting the law, which is the job of the courts. Given that the act is not retrospective and that it applies only to legal proceedings commenced after 19 June 2017, it might be premature to look for any practical content that courts might have added to the legislation.

Margaret Mitchell

Will the minister consider launching a media information campaign, possibly using the Government’s digital presence—Facebook and so on—targeted at solicitors, local government, businesses and the general public, to raise awareness about the act? If so, will she initiate research on the uptake before and after such a campaign, in order to establish its effectiveness?

Ash Denham

I thank the member for raising that point—I can see that she is driving at more general guidance rather than guidance of a specifically legal nature. The Scottish Government is working closely with the interaction action plan review group. It is anticipated that it will consider reparations, including apology, acknowledgement support and commemoration, this year and next. That is likely to include consideration of how information about the Apologies (Scotland) Act 2016 and its benefits can best be communicated.

I take the member’s point about a media campaign, and I will get back to her after I have considered it.

Hong Kong Protests

3. Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of the comments in its China engagement strategy regarding respect for human rights and the rule of law, what discussions it has had with the Chinese consulate regarding the recent protests in Hong Kong. (S5O-03457)

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

The recent protests show the strength of feeling among the people of Hong Kong, who have exercised their rights to freedom of speech and assembly, as guaranteed in the joint declaration.

The Minister for Trade, Investment and Innovation discussed the protests in Hong Kong with the Chinese consul general at a recent engagement. He has since written to the consul general, outlining the Scottish Government’s position, which is that it is vital that Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and the rights and freedoms that are set down in the Sino-British joint declaration are respected in full.

Ross Greer

I welcome the cabinet secretary’s remarks and the fact that a Scottish Government minister has engaged with the Chinese consulate on the issue. Out of a population of 7 million, 2 million people in Hong Kong came out to protest and, yet again, were met with batons and tear gas deployed by their own police force. That tear gas was manufactured by a company called Chemring, which is based in the United Kingdom and is in receipt of hundreds of thousands of pounds in enterprise grants from the Scottish Government.

Given that the First Minister has previously confirmed in Parliament that the Scottish Government is interested in helping arms dealers transition into what has been described as the blue-light sector—the equipping of police forces—can the cabinet secretary confirm whether funding the companies that are arming police forces such as that in Hong Kong is part of what the Government had in mind? If so, how on earth is that compatible with the Scottish Government’s commitment to human rights?

Fiona Hyslop

The plant at Stevenston does not produce tear gas. A grant of £160,000 was given to Chemring in 2013 to help modernise the company’s site at Stevenston, in North Ayrshire, helping to secure 13 permanent full-time jobs at the site.

Queen Elizabeth University Hospital Inquiry

4. Michelle Ballantyne (South Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress has been made with the inquiry into the Queen Elizabeth university hospital. (S5O-03458)

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport (Jeane Freeman)

Since their appointment, the co-chairs of the independent review have consulted extensively with experts and established systems for stakeholder contact. In line with the Britton report recommendations, at a meeting today they will publicly present the preliminary terms of reference and ask for feedback—they will consult on those. They will also formally seek submissions of evidence and launch the review’s website and contact details. That is all important, because it is critical that a wide range of views and information is considered.

Michelle Ballantyne

Given that the Royal hospital for children and young people—the sick kids—in Edinburgh is due to open on 9 July and shares the same design concept and is being built by the same contractors as the Queen Elizabeth university hospital, has the cabinet secretary received assurance that the same issues will not be experienced there?

Jeane Freeman

As Ms Ballantyne will know—it is a reply I have given previously in the Parliament—NHS Lothian, for the sick kids hospital in Edinburgh, and other boards where we have new buildings, such as in Orkney, were tasked with ensuring that they had the proper assurance that the immediate lessons that we had learned from the Queen Elizabeth university hospital in relation to air ventilation, water supply and the use of sinks had been applied in the design and construction of those new buildings. We have that assurance. NHS Lothian did not take ownership of the site until it was absolutely assured that those steps had been taken.

Elaine Smith (Central Scotland) (Lab)

The Queen Elizabeth university hospital is one of Europe’s largest hospitals, with 1,100 patient rooms and 14 floors, and it was built on the site of the Southern general hospital. Why is that acceptable for Glasgow but not for our hospital in Monklands, on which the cabinet secretary has just slapped a “closed” order this morning?

Jeane Freeman

What a pity that Ms Smith did not read the answer to the Government-initiated question that was issued this morning. I have not “slapped a ‘closed’ order” on Monklands hospital; I have repeated this Government’s absolute commitment to sourcing a replacement for it. What I have ruled out is building that replacement on the current site, for a number of reasons that were set out in the GIQ answer.

I will give the member some of those reasons. There is no room around the existing hospital to build a new hospital, so to build a new hospital on that site would require demolition of the current hospital. The current hospital’s capacity could not be picked up in the rest of Lanarkshire, and patients would therefore wait longer for the treatment that they needed. I am sure that, if that happened, Ms Smith would be first person on her feet to criticise it. There would also be a patient safety issue if we were to construct a new build in such close proximity to an operating hospital.

I have required NHS Lanarkshire to ensure that, from the very beginning, its consultation on a range of options—including new options that may have come forward in the most recent period—involves the local communities that the Monklands hospital serves; to ensure that the design that the clinicians have led so well for a new hospital continues to be applied in any new build; and to ensure that all the work is undertaken with some speed while ensuring that the local communities’ voices are well heard and they are part of the decision making before it comes to me.

Those are the facts. Yet again, I would appreciate it if Scottish Labour members would stick to the facts instead of making it up as they go along.

European Digital Single Market

5. Willie Coffey (Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government how it plans to maintain Scotland’s participation in the European digital single market, which is estimated to be worth €400 billion, in light of the United Kingdom Government’s reported intention to withdraw from it. (S5O-03459)

The Minister for Public Finance and Digital Economy (Kate Forbes)

I recognise the value of access to the digital single market. Tech is already a fast-growing sector in Scotland, and it would be a deep shame if Scotland were to miss out on the emerging opportunities of being part of the European single digital market. Brexit will have a detrimental impact on Scotland’s digital businesses, as they face increasing trade costs if United Kingdom and European Union legislation diverges.

Willie Coffey

The situation with the digital single market is akin to a luxury €400 billion cruise liner sailing off into the sunset while the UK sits in a tug boat at the jetty, wondering whether to try to follow it. One minute the UK was fully behind the plan and leading it, and the next minute we are waving goodbye to it, to the horror of information technology companies across Europe.

If we do not follow, roaming charges will be back and shared digital services and access to IT procurement contracts will be seriously restricted. Can the minister give us some assurance that Scotland’s reputation for world-class IT innovation and developments will be protected and that we will seek to maintain our links with Europe as that market develops in the future?

Kate Forbes

That is why the Scottish Government has put forward a comprehensive set of positions for us to remain part of the digital single market. We have engaged with Governments across EU member states and, despite Jeremy Hunt’s recent interventions, we will continue to engage strategically with our European partners.

As Scots head off on holiday to EU countries—as perhaps some members in the chamber will do—we will benefit from surcharge-free roaming. In a no-deal scenario, that would no longer be guaranteed. We cannot have an EU exit outcome that puts Scottish citizens and businesses at a disadvantage just as we are beginning to reap the benefits of a fast-growing tech sector.

Sea Water Quality (Musselburgh)

6. Colin Beattie (Midlothian North and Musselburgh) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the Scottish Environment Protection Agency classifying the sea water at Fisherrow in Musselburgh as poor in 2018-19, and the potential impact that this has on tourism, and the health of people bathing, in the area. (S5O-03460)

The Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform (Roseanna Cunningham)

The Scottish Government recognises the importance of good quality bathing water for bathing and tourism. Any poor classification is unacceptable and must improve. Together with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and Scottish Water, the Scottish Government is taking all possible steps to raise bathing water quality. That includes public sewer network improvements and fixing property misconnections.

Colin Beattie

Specifically, what more can the Scottish Government do to help East Lothian Council manage the situation? Is there a timeframe to completion?

Roseanna Cunningham

The Scottish Government has provided £340,000 to fund a joint programme of intense sewer investigation at Fisherrow and Portobello to identify and fix sources of pollution from property misconnections. Scottish Water is also currently carrying out improvements to the sewer network.

The Scottish Government and SEPA provide support to East Lothian Council through the Edinburgh and Lothians bathing waters stakeholder partnership group, and the Government-funded Keep Scotland Beautiful my beach your beach initiative provides support to East Lothian Council to reduce the impact from litter, dogs and gulls on Fisherrow sands.

Animal Cruelty

7. Annabelle Ewing (Cowdenbeath) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to tackle animal cruelty. (S5O-03461)

The Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment (Mairi Gougeon)

The Scottish Government is committed to the highest possible animal welfare standards. We are taking forward legislation on animal sanctuaries, the breeding and sale of dogs, cats and rabbits, and the licensing of pet shops.

In September, we expect to announce the timing of that legislation, which will increase the penalties for cruelty offences and to allow animals that have been seized to protect their welfare to be quickly rehomed. We are planning a follow-up public awareness campaign on the risks of buying puppies, and we are also working to establish an animal welfare commission to provide expert advice on future issues.

Annabelle Ewing

The minister will be aware of the increasing number of calls for a five-year maximum sentence to be available for the most serious cases of animal cruelty, as opposed to the current maximum sentence of 12 months. Can the minister confirm that she is sympathetic to those calls and that that will be a provision in the proposed legislation that she referred to?

Mairi Gougeon

I can confirm that. Proposals for increasing the maximum sentence for the worst cases of animal cruelty, including attacks on service animals, were consulted on as part of the Scottish Government’s commitment to amend the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006. We published the responses to that consultation on 10 May and the analysis of the responses will be published soon. We expect to be able to make an announcement on the timing of the proposed legislation in the programme for government in September.

Rockall (Deployment of Fishery Protection Vessels)

8. Peter Chapman (North East Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the use of patrol boats at Rockall in response to Irish fishing vessels. (S5O-03462)

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

Marine Scotland continues to monitor and gather evidence regarding fishing activity at Rockall. However, we do not discuss specific details on the deployment of surveillance assets. Our aim is to resolve the issue through discussions with the Irish Government.

Peter Chapman

I thank the minister for her answer, but I am disappointed by it. There has been a major increase in the number of Irish vessels in the 12-mile limit around Rockall, from 15 incursions in 2014 to 94 in 2017. Even two Irish international maritime law experts agreed that it is illegal and should be stopped. What enforcement action has been taken? Have any Irish vessels been boarded and checked? If not, why not?

Fiona Hyslop

As I said, we continue to monitor the situation. I will not discuss the specifics of the deployment of surveillance assets, but it is important that we address the issue, as we have been doing for some time. Indeed, the figures that Peter Chapman quoted are figures that I proactively gave the Parliament when I answered a previous oral question.

Workplace Parking Levy (Disabled People)

9. Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what analysis the transport secretary has carried out regarding how the proposed workplace parking levy could affect disabled people accessing employment. (S5O-03463)

The Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands (Paul Wheelhouse)

The Scottish Government has not carried out such analysis. The Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee agreed to John Finnie MSP’s amendments to the Transport (Scotland) Bill on the workplace parking levy on 19 June. The amendments include a national exemption for blue badge holders and a requirement for any local authorities that choose to develop a workplace parking levy proposal to carry out impact assessments.

Jeremy Balfour

Does the minister recognise that many disabled people do not have blue badges? People with hidden disabilities or upper limb disabilities will be included in those affected by that tax. Will the minister stop and look again before this bad piece of legislation is passed?

Paul Wheelhouse

I certainly recognise Mr Balfour’s concern, but we encourage people who think that they might be eligible to apply for a blue badge to do so, and we certainly encourage members to encourage their constituents to do so.

The charge will be levied on the occupier rather than the individuals who park, so it will be for the employer to consider the needs of their employees. That is one of the variables for local authorities to take a decision on when developing schemes, and it will be for them to undertake impact assessments to ensure that they take account of the needs of disabled customers.

Clyde Tunnel

10. Adam Tomkins (Glasgow) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last discussed maintenance of the Clyde tunnel with Glasgow City Council. (S5O-03464)

The Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands (Paul Wheelhouse)

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity, Michael Matheson MSP, met Glasgow City Council on 11 June to discuss a number of transportation issues affecting Glasgow, including the maintenance of the Clyde tunnel and its approaches.

Adam Tomkins

The Clyde tunnel faces an annual funding shortfall of some £775,000. Major structural work is required to keep open the tunnel, which is used by 64,000 vehicles every day. What support is Transport Scotland offering to Glasgow City Council to ensure that the Clyde tunnel remains open and is safe?

Paul Wheelhouse

I very much recognise the strong interest in the issue. The Clyde tunnel and its approaches form part of the local road network, and therefore responsibility for maintenance rests with Glasgow City Council. However, the cabinet secretary has instructed his officials at Transport Scotland to work with Glasgow City Council to explore the issue and the costs that are associated with maintaining the important section of road.