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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, November 30, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 30 November 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Ferry Services (Gourock to Kilcreggan), Gender Representation on Public Boards (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Motion without Notice, Decision Time


General Question Time

Childcare (Access to Childminders)

1. Alexander Stewart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to improve the accessibility of childminders for all families. (S5O-01513)

The Minister for Childcare and Early Years (Maree Todd)

We recognise the valuable contribution that childminders can and do make to the provision of high-quality early learning and childcare that is accessible and affordable for all families. We fund the Scottish Childminding Association and enable it to promote childminding services through its work with local authorities. “A Blueprint for 2020: The Expansion of Early Learning and Childcare in Scotland 2017-18 Action Plan” makes it clear that we expect childminders and community childminders to play a significant role in the expansion to 1,140 hours of funded early learning and childcare. To help to achieve that, we have worked with the Care Inspectorate to develop a resource to support childminders to enhance the quality of care that they provide through formal and informal learning opportunities.

Alexander Stewart

Earlier this week, the chief executive of the Scottish Childminding Association highlighted how childminders are being excluded from local authority plans to deliver funded childcare. The most recent figures from the Care Inspectorate have indicated that only 23 per cent of local authority nurseries can provide care for two-year-olds, whereas 92 per cent of childminders can provide such care. What action is the Scottish Government taking to recognise the vital role that childminders play and to ensure that they are closely integrated into and are able to deal with the expansion of funded childcare hours?

Maree Todd

We know that childminders provide high-quality early learning and childcare. Childminders and community childminders have an important role to play in delivering the expanded entitlement. Through our review of the local authority ELC expansion plans, and in response to the latest figures produced by the Scottish Childminding Association on the use of childminders in providing funded ELC, we have committed to working with local authorities, the SCMA and individual childminders to identify any barriers to commissioning childminding services. We will work together to address and to remove those barriers, building on learning from the national programme of 1,140 hours. Of the 14 Scottish Government trials, 10 involved childminders.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

Local authorities rely on partners in the private and voluntary sectors to deliver pre-school education and have a duty to fund them from the general revenue grant. Does the minister share the concerns expressed by some childminders and private and voluntary nurseries that some local authorities, such as North Ayrshire Council, refuse to fund those sectors to the same degree as they fund council-run nurseries and, by doing so, might be at risk of creating unfair advantage for their own nurseries while diminishing parental choice locally?

Maree Todd

We have been very clear that our approach to the transformation of early learning and childcare is provider neutral. We will create a new funding-follows-the-child model for introduction in 2020. The new model will prioritise the settings that are best placed to deliver quality outcomes for children, regardless of which sector provides the service.

While offering parents a greater choice of settings, delivering the funded entitlement, together with our living wage commitment for childcare workers, will support financially sustainable early learning and childcare provision across all sectors.

To support providers, we will introduce a new 100 per cent business rates relief for day nurseries from April 2018.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

The number of childminders has fallen sharply, by 400, since December 2015. We also know that the number of people graduating from childcare courses fell last year. Given that the expansion of free childcare provision will need more staff at all levels, will the minister guarantee that there will be more childminders and childcare graduates by this time next year?

Maree Todd

Yes. We are absolutely committed to increasing the number of qualified childminders. We have increased the number of college places for childminding and we will be delivering on the promises that we have made on ELC.

Rent Pressure Zones

2. Ben Macpherson (Edinburgh Northern and Leith) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government when the power in the Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Act 2016 to designate rent pressure zones will come into force. (S5O-01514)

The Minister for Local Government and Housing (Kevin Stewart)

The Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Act 2016 will come into force on 1 December 2017. From tomorrow, local authorities will be able to make an application to the Scottish ministers for an area to be designated as a rent pressure zone.

Ben Macpherson

Given that rents in Edinburgh have risen significantly in recent years, does the minister agree that the potential designation of rent pressure zones in Edinburgh merits serious consideration? To that end, will he say what guidance is in place to help City of Edinburgh Council and other local authorities to take forward applications to designate certain areas as rent pressure zones?

Kevin Stewart

The rent pressure zone provisions are a valuable discretionary tool for councils. Councils themselves must decide whether it is appropriate to submit an application, based on their knowledge of the local area.

On 16 November, we published “Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Act 2016: Rent Pressure Zones”, which sets out the requirements that local authorities must meet for an application to be valid.

Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

Have any councils shown early interest in setting up rent pressure zones? If so, which ones, on what grounds and in which areas?

Kevin Stewart

As I said in my first answer, the provisions come into force only tomorrow. I have read some media reports—as other members probably have—about certain local authorities looking at the possibility of rent pressure zones for their areas, but I will wait until applications come in. Then, the Government will look at the applications very closely indeed.

Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

I welcome the minister’s announcement. Will the guidance give local authorities an indication of the scope of the evidence that will be required to make an application to designate an area as a rent pressure zone?

Kevin Stewart

The document that I mentioned, which sets out the rent pressure zone requirements for local authorities, goes into some depth. I expect local authorities to pore over it and to act accordingly in their submissions.

Asylum Accommodation and Support Services Contract

3. Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

To ask the Scottish Government what level of input it had to the design of the asylum accommodation and support services contract, which was issued for tender by the United Kingdom Government on 21 November 2017. (S5O-01515)

The Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities (Angela Constance)

I wrote to the Minister of State for Immigration on 2 March 2017 to set out the Scottish Government’s detailed priorities for the next asylum accommodation contract. I also raised the issue during my meeting with the immigration minister on 12 July.

Since autumn 2016, Scottish Government officials have taken part in a number of engagement events with members of the Home Office’s asylum accommodation and support transformation project team.

I have to say that I have not been satisfied with the operation of the current contract. I made it clear that I wanted to be involved in the development of the next contract, to ensure that it meets the needs of asylum seekers in Scotland. It is, therefore, extremely disappointing that the Home Office has gone ahead and published a contract notice without discussion and without a clear commitment to integration support. I have written to the immigration minister this week to express my deep concern about the process.

Patrick Harvie

No one should be satisfied with the current level of provision of asylum accommodation and support services. Among many others, the UK’s Home Affairs Committee has condemned the level of provision that is offered by multinational corporations on a for-profit basis under the current contract.

The new contract will set the terms under which services are provided for the next 10 years. It is one of the biggest contracts that the UK Government lets—some £4 billion, £0.5 billion of which will be spent in Scotland over the decade. It is important that we get this right and do not repeat the mistakes of the past. Has the Scottish Government indicated to the UK Government a desire to put together a public sector-led bid to take on lot 5, which covers Scotland? If not, will it do so?

Angela Constance

I am grateful to Mr Harvie for his question. I have written to the UK Government on at least three occasions to express our concerns about the current contract, and in my meetings with two immigration ministers I have raised the desirability of having a public sector-led contract. Despite receiving a verbal assurance that the Home Office was open to a range of ideas, I am disappointed, as Mr Harvie is, that the Home Office and the immigration minister, in particular, have not responded to the detailed points made by the Home Affairs Committee—indeed, they have ignored many of those points—not least about the need to recognise the devolved Administrations as partners.

As far as the work that the Scottish Government will lead is concerned, we will continue to work with our stakeholders in the third sector. We continue to have discussions with the devolved Administration in Wales, and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and Glasgow City Council are important partners. The crucial issue here is that any third sector or public sector organisation must satisfy itself that it can provide a quality service to vulnerable people within the budget that the Home Office has set. That is the critical point.

For the avoidance of doubt, the Scottish Government has always made it clear that the provision of asylum accommodation and support should be led by the third sector or the public sector and not by those who have profit as a motive.

Flood Risk Management (South of Scotland)

4. Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the action it is taking to manage flood risk in the south of Scotland. (S5O-01516)

The Minister for Transport and the Islands (Humza Yousaf)

Local authorities, Scottish Water, the Forestry Commission Scotland and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency are taking forward actions to manage flood risk in the south of Scotland, as set out in the relevant flood risk management strategies and local plans.

Emma Harper

Can the minister reassure constituents in South Scotland that local authorities have the necessary powers and resources to regularly reflect on and, if necessary, to update flood defence plans in response to feedback from communities regarding measures that are currently in place?

Humza Yousaf

I can give that reassurance. The Flood Risk Management (Scotland) Act 2009 sets out a six-year cycle for delivering flood risk management strategies and local plans, which are implemented by councils and other responsible authorities. The first set of strategies and local action plans were published in 2015 and 2016. The focus of action is on areas where the risk of flooding and the benefits of investment are greatest.

Planning for the second cycle is under way, and new evidence and information on lessons learned will be taken into account when new strategies and local plans are developed. As the 2009 act sets out, there will be consultation to enable communities to provide specific feedback on flood protection measures that affect them.

Fibre Broadband (New-build Estates)

5. Clare Haughey (Rutherglen) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to ensure that new-build housing estates are able to access fast fibre broadband internet connections. (S5O-01517)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity (Fergus Ewing)

Despite telecoms delivery being a reserved matter, the Scottish Government has taken steps to assist with the roll-out of broadband during housing construction.

From 1 January this year, amendments to the Building (Scotland) Regulations 2004 set a standard for in-building physical infrastructure for high-speed electronic communications networks, which enables easier installation of fibre at any time on or after completion. That standard applies to new homes and other buildings.

In new-build developments where there is commercial demand for superfast broadband, we would expect that to be delivered commercially, without the need for public funding.

Clare Haughey

I have been contacted by numerous constituents in the Newton Farm area of my constituency about the fact that they can access only poor broadband speeds in their homes. Most of the area is new-build housing, and the estate continues to expand. Developers have not provided the infrastructure to allow residents to access reasonable broadband speeds, and it appears that no onus is imposed on developers by local authorities at the planning stage to ensure that the infrastructure is adequate to deal with demand in relation to internet speeds.

What is the Scottish Government doing to ensure that local authorities take connectivity needs into account when they approve housing developments?

Fergus Ewing

The planning system cannot require delivery of infrastructure by third parties—that is not what it is for—but it encourages developers to get infrastructure providers to agree to build in coverage and capacity in new developments. As I have said, the building standards that became applicable this year require physical infrastructure—which usually takes the form of ducts or cable trays—to be in place in new single-occupancy and multiple-occupancy buildings so that they are ready to receive fibre or cables for broadband.

Last week, I raised that matter with the chief executive of BT Openreach and the top officer of BT in Scotland, and urged them to go further than their current pledge, which is to enable connection to fibre broadband for developments of 30 or more houses, and to consider developments of under 30 houses. They told me that they are giving sympathetic consideration to that request.

The Scottish Government is, therefore, pressing very hard for further progress, in addition to there being the higher level of regulation that we introduced at the beginning of this year, which was designed to help Clare Haughey’s constituents and constituents around the whole country.

Maurice Golden (West Scotland) (Con)

Does the cabinet secretary accept that Scotland is behind every single English local authority, the Welsh Government and Northern Ireland in its approach to phase 2 of the superfast broadband roll-out?

Fergus Ewing

We have veered off building regulations and planning, but I will reply directly to the question. The claim that has been persistently made by United Kingdom ministers and Tory MPs this week—that Scotland is three years behind the rest of the UK—is entirely false. More than 800,000 homes and businesses across Scotland now have access to fibre broadband as a result of the digital Scotland superfast broadband programme. That programme represents investment of more than £400 million. Independent commentators and regulators, including Ofcom, have recognised that Scotland is ahead of the rest of the UK in the speed of equipping people with access to broadband. Indeed, when I met Matt Hancock on Monday, he agreed that our approach is the correct one and said that he will co-operate with us. We will wait and see whether that co-operation materialises, but he undertook to co-operate with the Scottish Government as our plans go forward for the final stage of broadband connection.

It should be borne in mind that we have an undertaking to connect everybody and to enable them to access superfast broadband. Down south, the UK Government is apparently not going to make any such commitment.

Rail Fares (Dumfries and Galloway)

6. Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with ScotRail regarding reported ticket price anomalies on the Nith valley line and west coast main line. (S5O-01518)

The Minister for Transport and the Islands (Humza Yousaf)

Transport Scotland meets ScotRail, as I do, on a regular basis to discuss franchise matters, including rail fares. No reports have been received yet concerning ticket price anomalies on the Nith valley line and the west coast main line. However, where fare anomalies are identified, ScotRail will be asked to take appropriate action as required, and as specified in the franchise agreement.

Colin Smyth

I thank the minister for that answer, although it is a bit surprising given that, when I was a councillor, I raised the issue with his predecessor.

Is the minister aware of the extent to which passengers in Dumfries and Galloway are being ripped off when it comes to rail fares? I will give two quick examples. A passenger who travels the 50-mile trip to Glasgow from Kirkconnel on the Nith valley line will pay £13.50 for a single ticket, which is 27p per mile. However, if they drive a few miles north outwith Dumfries and Galloway and catch the train at New Cumnock, they will pay £8.40, which is just 19p per mile for the 43-mile trip. Passengers on 28 commuter routes across Scotland benefit from ScotRail’s flexipass ticket, which allows discounts for regular users, but those discounts are not available anywhere in Dumfries and Galloway, including on the region’s busiest commuter routes from Lockerbie station to Edinburgh and Glasgow.

How can the Government say that it is committed to tackling the economic challenges that are faced by Dumfries and Galloway, which is among the lowest-waged regions in Scotland, when those anomalies make it more expensive for passengers from the region to use our railways to get to work?

Humza Yousaf

I will, of course, have a look at the specific anomaly that Colin Smyth suggests exists. As I said, there is a mechanism in the franchise agreement for ScotRail to rectify that.

I absolutely agree that passengers and commuters need fair and affordable access to rail, which is why the Scottish Government has taken action on fare rises. They are capped in Scotland and are therefore lower than fares in the rest of the United Kingdom. We will continue to take that action and to drive up performance.

To be constructive and helpful, I will take away the information on the fares anomaly that Colin Smyth suggests exists and see whether ScotRail can rectify it.

Legal Matters (Public Interest)

7. Adam Tomkins (Glasgow) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government how the Lord Advocate decides whether a matter is in the public interest. (S5O-01519)

The Lord Advocate (James Wolffe)

This question concerns—

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

I am sorry, Lord Advocate—you need to put in your card.

The Lord Advocate

I apologise for my lack of practice.

The Presiding Officer

That is quite understandable.

The Lord Advocate

I am grateful to Mr Tomkins for the rare opportunity to use my card and to answer a question.

The question concerns my function as head of the system of prosecution. Assessment of whether it is in the public interest to take prosecutorial action in an individual case, or to amend prosecution policy, depend very much on the particular facts and circumstances of a particular case or policy proposal. The assessment involves careful consideration of all the relevant public interests. In an individual case, that may include, for example, the nature and gravity of the offence, the impact of the offence on the victim and other witnesses, and the age, background and personal circumstances of the accused. The factors that will require to be taken into account and the weight to be given to each factor will depend on the circumstances of each case. In an individual case, consideration of the public interest arises only if there is sufficient evidence.

A non-exhaustive list of factors that may, depending on the circumstances, be relevant when assessing the public interest in the context of a prosecutorial decision is included in the publicly available “Prosecution Code”.

Adam Tomkins

Earlier this month, it was announced that the Lord Advocate will not suspend the operation of our drugs laws to enable a fix room to operate in Glasgow. I warmly welcome that decision, but can the Lord Advocate explain to Parliament his reasoning as to why that conclusion is in the public interest?

The Lord Advocate

I should make it clear that the proposals for a safe drug-consumption facility principally pursue public health objectives, so it is a matter for health officials to assess the public interest in implementing such proposals and to determine how they would operate in practice. I have not been asked to assess whether the proposals are in the public interest in any general sense.

A request was made to me by the Glasgow city health and social care partnership to consider amending prosecution policy to facilitate the operation of a safe drug-consumption facility. I responded to the partnership on 9 November. I advised it that, even were I minded to do that, the granting of immunity from relevant statutory or common-law offences would not enable the operation of such a facility, and I identified that there would be difficulties of principle and practicality in responding positively to the particular request that was made to me. No change has been made to prosecution policy as a result of the request, and no immunity from prosecution has been granted in respect of any offence.