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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 28 February 2017

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Economic Impact of Leaving the European Union, Decision Time, Endometriosis Awareness Week


Contents


Topical Question Time


Policing 2026 Strategy

1. Douglas Ross (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the consultation document, “Policing 2026: Our 10 year strategy for policing in Scotland”. (S5T-00419)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Michael Matheson)

We welcome yesterday’s publication of the draft policing 2026 strategy, which sets out the steps that the Scottish Police Authority and Police Scotland propose to take in order to better meet the policing challenges of the future. We very much support the strategy’s clear focus on improving the operational capacity of our police and enhancing the quality of service that the public receive. Once finalised, the document will play a key role in shaping the direction of policing, and I encourage all those who have an interest in participating in the consultation to do so now that it is under way.

Douglas Ross

Yesterday, we learned—not from the 2026 strategy but from the accompanying press conference—that 400 officers will be cut from the single force by 2020 and that officers are currently backfilling administrative roles. That latter admission came just a week after I had received a letter from Police Scotland’s deputy chief officer, David Page, denying that such a backfilling policy existed.

I agree with the cabinet secretary that we must respond to the strategy, but what confidence can the public have in responding to it if it does not even mention police officer numbers? Furthermore, the word “rural” is not mentioned once in the strategy, despite our rural population growing at a faster rate in recent years than the population in the rest of Scotland. Does the cabinet secretary agree that that is a crucial consideration? What assurances will he give that rural communities will not be overlooked?

Michael Matheson

I will try to unpick a few of the points that Douglas Ross has made. I reiterate that the chief constable and the Scottish Police Authority have issued a draft proposal on a change in the staff mix that they wish to have in Police Scotland. It is right to recognise that the nature of the crime that the police service deals with and the demands that are placed on it have significantly changed over the past 10 years. The police service has to deal with the demands arising from mental health issues, missing persons, vulnerable individuals and an ageing population. In addition, crimes are now taking place in a private place. We have seen a big drop in the number of crimes that take place in a public place, particularly crimes of violence, and those have moved into private places, with an increase in domestic violence being reported. We have also seen an increase in cyber-related crime.

It is important that the police have the right mix of staff with the right skills to be able to deal with such crimes and meet new and emerging threats effectively. I have said that on a number of occasions—and we set that out in our manifesto last year as part of the election campaign. The chief constable has also set out his vision of how that can best be achieved over the next 10 years. Part of that is to make sure that some of the transformation that has not taken place—as the chief constable also confirmed—in Police Scotland’s corporate and support role takes place. Much of that has remained the same as it was under the legacy forces. Part of it is about moving out officers who have been in those roles and giving them front-line responsibilities and reforming how support is provided to officers to support the corporate and wider support needs of the organisation. That is to be welcomed, and there are important lessons in that for us to consider over the coming weeks.

Rural matters are a significant issue for Police Scotland. We would expect that area to be included in the final strategy. No doubt the member will want to make his views known to Police Scotland and to make his own submission to the consultation exercise, and no doubt he will choose to focus on issues of rural concern.

Douglas Ross

If the chief constable was able to tell a press conference immediately after the release of the strategy about those issues, why are they not in the consultation in order to get the public’s feedback? That is an issue of concern.

I will concentrate on one other issue: technology. By its own admission, Police Scotland’s technology is “slow and outdated” and there is “duplication of input”. Those problems were supposed to have been overcome by the merger and the—now failed—i6 project. Technology is a linchpin of the strategy, but the single force’s track record on that front has been poor to date. We now learn that Police Scotland

“will invest in technology streamlining processes through greater self-service and automation.”

That could further distance officers from people in local communities who just want to speak to their local officer. What safeguards can we take from the strategy that those ties will not be further eroded?

Michael Matheson

The member again fails to recognise that this is a draft strategy, which Police Scotland, along with the Scottish Police Authority, has issued to allow people to comment and express their views on. The issues that the member raises can be considered over the period of the consultation exercise.

The vast majority of information technology infrastructure in Police Scotland was inherited from the legacy forces. In addition, the genesis of the i6 initiative goes back when the legacy forces were looking for a single police IT system. The company that was appointed to deliver the i6 programme has not done so. We provided additional reform money in the budget that we took through Parliament last week to allow the necessary IT investment to be made to support the police in releasing the capacity in the organisation that is, at present, being taken up by slow, outdated IT systems. That is the type of thing that, as the chair of the Scottish Police Authority and the chief constable set out, will be a key priority as the service moves forward with the strategy in the coming years.

Ben Macpherson (Edinburgh Northern and Leith) (SNP)

For context on these islands, can the cabinet secretary provide some detail of how the number of police officers in England and Wales compares to the number of police officers in Scotland?

Michael Matheson

I am clear that the purpose behind any strategy that is approved by the Scottish Government must be to ensure that we have sufficient police officers to deliver the safety and security of the people of Scotland. Over the past 10 years, we have been committed to having 1,000 extra police officers, and there are no plans to change police officer numbers in the forthcoming financial year. The present number of police officers in Police Scotland is 17,256.

I will not accept a strategy that follows the approach that has been taken by the Home Secretary in England and Wales, which has destroyed some aspects of police operation in England and Wales through the loss of 19,000 police officers over the same period in which we have been protecting police numbers. The loss of those officers has had a direct impact on the quality of policing in England and Wales. The “Policing 2026” strategy is not about delivering that; it is about improving capacity and the service that the public receive from Police Scotland.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

I asked the First Minister about the issue last week, so I am intrigued by the answers that have been given today and the statement that was made yesterday by the chief constable. The First Minister denied that there is any change in policy. She committed the Government to the policy of having 1,000 extra officers and said that that was not going to change this year. I have a precise question for the justice secretary: if the chief constable wants to reduce the number of police officers by 400, as he stated yesterday, will he have the backing of the justice secretary?

Michael Matheson

As I said yesterday, we will consider the details of the draft strategy, the feedback from the consultation and the final strategy before it is approved by the Government. On that basis, the answer is yes, because the strategy will have to be approved by the Government.

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

Does the cabinet secretary agree that the obligation on our chief constable is to assess the risks and put in place mechanisms to address those risks? This is not necessarily about officer numbers or buildings; it is about the quality of service. Will he undertake to move the conversation away from this obsession with the figure of 17,234 officers and, if the chief constable approaches him with further requests that are based on an evidenced need in the light of developing threats and things, support those requests?

Michael Matheson

As I mentioned, and as I have stated on a number of occasions, it is important that the police are able to respond to the changing nature of our society and the changing nature of crime. We must ensure that the police service is able to keep pace with changes at a societal level and at a criminal level. As the chief constable set out, the intention behind the strategy is to ensure that the police service can meet those challenges effectively, delivering better capacity within Police Scotland and a better service to the public. I am clear about the need to deliver those things, which is why I have said repeatedly that the issue is to get the right staff mix in the police service so that it can deliver a first-class service to the people of Scotland and keep them safe. I will continue to have discussions with the chief constable over the coming weeks, as the consultation is undertaken and after it has been completed, on how we can ensure that Police Scotland is able to do that not just in some parts of Scotland but right across the country.


Teacher Training

2. Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of reports that one in 10 training places are going unfilled, what action it is taking to encourage more people into teaching. (S5T-00412)

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

The Government is determined to create an education system that is world class, and teachers have a vital role to play in helping to achieve that ambition. Increasing the number of teacher training places that are available is crucial, which is why we are taking a number of actions to support universities to do that.

We are spending £88 million this year to make sure that every school has access to the right number of teachers. We are also investing £1 million from the Scottish attainment fund in opening up new and innovative routes into the profession. In addition, I recently launched our new teacher recruitment campaign, teaching makes people, which builds on the success of last year’s inspiring teachers campaign, which helped to drive a 19 per cent increase in professional graduate diploma in education applications to Scottish universities compared to the previous year. I want to see our universities build on that success and take further steps to attract high-quality students into their teacher education programmes.

Daniel Johnson

As the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council said about last year’s cycle, one of the main problems with ensuring a good match between subject targets and intakes is

“the timing of the announcement of intakes”.

An early announcement helps universities to plan and helps the Government’s recruitment campaign. In the last cycle, the Scottish Government sent guidance to the Scottish funding council in December. When did it send its guidance to the SFC for this cycle?

John Swinney

The advice was sent to the funding council in advance of the announcements that have been made and the decisions that have been set out to enable the universities to take forward the recruitment that is necessary.

Daniel Johnson

Maybe I can help the cabinet secretary. The Scottish funding council received its annual guidance from the Scottish Government only on 14 February, which is eight weeks later than it did last year. Last year, it got the guidance before Christmas, whereas this year it had to wait until Valentine’s day.

On the second problem identified by the Scottish funding council—the lack of student demand for some subjects—the Government launched a campaign this month, but that was a month behind last year’s efforts. Universities still do not know what their allocation will be or how many teaching students they can recruit.

We all support efforts to boost the number of teachers and support this vital profession, which is rightly a top priority for the Government, so why is it eight weeks behind where it was last year? Does the minister commit to do better for next year’s recruitment cycle?

John Swinney

As on most things to do with the education system, Mr Johnson’s enthusiastic support for the Government’s approach is closely veiled by the way in which he articulates his arguments in Parliament. It takes a lot of digging to find Mr Johnson’s firm support for the Government’s intention.

I would have thought that Mr Johnson would have welcomed the fact that the Government has significantly increased the number of places that are available for individuals who want to enter into teacher education. [Interruption.] I would have thought that Mr Johnson would have wanted to weigh in behind the Government’s efforts to ensure that more and more people decide to choose to enter into the teaching profession. [Interruption.] That is what our approach is designed to do. We want to make sure that we can recruit the number of teachers we need to fill the teacher vacancies—[Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

Would Mr Johnson stop talking, please?

John Swinney

—which Mr Johnson is always moaning and whingeing about.

At an event on Friday in the Caird hall in Dundee, in front of hundreds of teachers, I was asked what would improve the perception of Scottish education. I said that the perception of Scottish education would be improved if some members of Parliament improved the way in which they talked about Scottish education, and the person I had uppermost in my mind was Mr Daniel Johnson.

Jenny Gilruth (Mid Fife and Glenrothes) (SNP)

I remind members that I am the parliamentary liaison officer to the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills.

We need to ensure that there are enough places for teachers at university and sufficient take-up of those places, but an important part of that training is the opportunity for probationer teachers. What does the Scottish Government do to support probationary teachers? What progress has been made on providing employment to teachers after they complete their probationary year?

John Swinney

As part of the local government settlement in 2016-17, the Government made available £37.6 million to local authorities to secure places for all probationers who required one. We work closely with local authorities to allocate places, and I can confirm that places have been found for all eligible students since 2002. At the last available census, 87 per cent of probationer teachers were in permanent or temporary employment. That is a very encouraging figure, which shows that more probationer teachers are finding employment and stability.

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

Has the Scottish Government had any discussions at all with the teacher training bodies to establish how many professionally qualified potential applicants from other jurisdictions would be able to fill some of the places that are available if their qualifications were recognised in Scotland?

John Swinney

A number of issues pertain there, one of which concerns the free movement of individuals. I would have thought that Liz Smith might have thought more carefully about asking the question that she has just asked me, given the position that her United Kingdom Government takes on the ability of individuals to apply to come and teach in Scotland as a consequence of some of the issues that we are wrestling with, which we will be debating in the course of the afternoon.

On the accreditation and registration of teachers, I am in regular dialogue with the General Teaching Council for Scotland to ensure that it is taking every step that it can to ensure that individuals who have the requisite qualifications from other jurisdictions, principally from south of the border but perhaps also from Northern Ireland, can have the most efficient and seamless transfer of their registration into the Scottish system, while of course—I am sure that Liz Smith will agree me on this point—assuring the quality of individual applications. The GTCS is firmly focused on that point.

I have had direct discussions with the colleges of education about the importance of the issues that Liz Smith just raised and they have been fully involved in the discussions around the planning of teacher intake numbers as we go forward.


Highlands and Islands Enterprise Board

3. Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

To ask the Scottish Government whether the Highlands and Islands Enterprise board will retain its current “strategic, operational and budgetary” decision-making powers, in accordance with the recent vote in the Parliament. (S5T-00410)

The Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work (Keith Brown)

As I have mentioned many times before, I remain committed to keeping HIE firmly in place at the heart of the Highlands and Islands economy, which is why I asked Professor Lorne Crerar, chair of HIE, to lead discussions with the other agency chairs and some members of the ministerial review group, and to provide me with his views on the principles and proposals for a strategic board. I am currently reflecting on the detail of the proposals outlined by Professor Crerar, the views of the ministerial review group and the views expressed by wider interests in taking forward the development of the strategic board. I remain committed to the services and support that HIE provides, and I am happy to listen to members across the chamber in order to discuss the way forward, ahead of a statement to Parliament in the coming weeks.

Liam McArthur

While the cabinet secretary is reflecting on that, maybe he can reflect on the views of Inverness-based economist Tony Mackay, who described the Crerar report as “a whitewash”. That is little wonder, because if the report’s recommendations are implemented, the role of HIE’s board will be reduced to mere delivery. The board will be answerable to a new centralised superboard, to be chaired by a Scottish National Party minister, and the loyalty of HIE’s chair would be to the minister in Edinburgh, with the needs of Highlands and Islands businesses and communities being a secondary consideration. How can the cabinet secretary square that with the expressed will of Parliament to retain the full current powers of the HIE board?

Keith Brown

Liam McArthur has made a number of speculative points about the composition of the strategic board and other outcomes. He is right to mention the comments that were made by an individual in the Highlands, but there have been a number of different comments. For example, when the Deputy First Minister and I met members of the convention of the Highlands and Islands last week, a number of them expressed support for continuation of the board—I acknowledged that view—but they also said that the nature of the board had to change to take account of developing circumstances. There have also been supportive comments from HIE and from a number of other commentators.

As I have said a number of times, the important thing is to listen to views, including those that Liam McArthur has expressed. I have asked my office to arrange meetings with each of the groups to listen to their views and to see whether we can find common ground. I have said that I am willing to listen and I have talked to members across the chamber, but it is much better if we can have direct conversations with groups about the issues. That is the right spirit in which to take matters forward. Perhaps some of the fears that Liam McArthur has expressed might not come to fruition; surely the best chance of achieving that outcome will come through having a dialogue about what might happen in the final stages of phase 2 of the review.

Liam McArthur

I have listened carefully to what the cabinet secretary has said. I make it clear that I do not believe that the issue is his political affiliation: I would not support the proposed arrangement for HIE under any minister. Professor Jim Hunter was right to say that what is proposed is “centralism run riot”. He said in The Press and Journal yesterday that he remains unconvinced and that the changes would subject HIE’s

“no longer autonomous board to constant outside oversight and direction”,

and claimed that that will not be

“good for either the Highlands and Islands or Scotland.”

The cabinet secretary mentioned the discussions at the convention of the Highlands and Islands in Shetland last week. Can he tell members whether the convention backed his latest proposals?

Keith Brown

The convention did not have sight of Lorne Crerar’s proposals at that time, because they had not been published. However, the convention was aware of the nature of what he had to say, and there was strong support for it. I acknowledge, however, that the convention did not have the full detail of the proposals at that time, in advance of the ministerial review group.

The two defining characteristics of the response were general support for retention of a board for HIE—I have mentioned that already—and acknowledgement that the nature of that board has to change. In addition, there were two other points made.

The first was that the board has to change because circumstances have changed. Most particularly, the Highlands and Islands have over many years had regional development assistance through the European Union, and Brexit presents a threat to its continuation. That is a matter of real concern, and there was acknowledgement for that reason, if for no other, that things have to change.

The second point was about the need for collaboration, which is a vital issue in Lorne Crerar’s report. The aluminium smelter at Fort William, for example, was the result of Scottish Enterprise, ministers and people from various agencies collaborating. That kind of thing should happen automatically, and I think that that is what Lorne Crerar was pointing towards.

As I said, the proposals are Lorne Crerar’s and not the Scottish Government’s. We are willing to listen and to discuss the matter with willing partners.

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

The Crerar report recommends retention of the HIE board, but it would be subject to the strategic board and therefore to Scottish Government control. HIE was set up to benefit the Highlands and Islands. Will the cabinet secretary listen to public opinion? Also, can he explain to Parliament why Government party MSPs had access to the Crerar report, and therefore so did the press, before other members of Parliament?

Keith Brown

I have said a number of times that I am willing to listen to different shades of opinion; I have made the point repeatedly. What I have not had yet are the direct conversations that would support that listening exercise. I have contacted the other parties to see whether they want to have that discussion, and I am more than happy to have it in advance of the statement that I will give when I come back to Parliament in the next few weeks to say what the outcome is and what our view is on the governance review by Lorne Crerar.

Lorne Crerar has undertaken a tremendous piece of work; he did not undertake it under the direction of ministers. He was asked to do it and he has discussed the matter with other agency chairs. It was broad-based work that, importantly, has tried to take forward a number of things that the other parties in Parliament all say they are committed to, including raising Scotland’s economic performance and making sure that we do things in a much more collaborative way among the agencies. I would have thought that we could, if we have that as a starting point, certainly agree on some other issues around the nature of the strategic board and how collaboration can best work.

I am more than happy to have that discussion with Rhoda Grant and other members. I have made the offer before. It is a sincere offer, and I hope that members will take it up.