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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 31 January 2017

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Bailey Gwynne (Independent Review), Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology, Gender Balance (Parliamentary Bureau and Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body), Business Motion, Decision Time, Veterans


Contents


Bailey Gwynne (Independent Review)

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

The next item of business is a statement by John Swinney on the Scottish Government response to the independent review of the circumstances surrounding the death of Bailey Gwynne. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of his statement. There should therefore be no interventions or interruptions.

14:23  

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

There can be no greater tragedy for a parent than the loss of a child. I cannot imagine what the last year has been like for Bailey Gwynne’s family. On behalf of the Scottish Government, I want to express my heartfelt sympathies to them and to acknowledge the resilience and dignity that they have shown since Bailey’s untimely death.

I know that Bailey’s school and community have also been deeply affected. Incidents such as this have a profound and lasting impact, and it is important to continue to support Bailey’s friends and fellow pupils as they come to terms with their loss.

I thank Cults academy, Aberdeen City Council and Police Scotland for the prompt and appropriate action that was taken immediately following Bailey’s death and since. In particular, Aberdeen City Council has responded effectively and swiftly, commissioning a review into the issues that gave rise to the incident and taking forward recommendations from that independent review.

As that report makes clear, although a death at school is very rare, Bailey’s death was a shocking and tragic incident. It arose from an unplanned and spontaneous conflict from which we must learn in order to minimise the risk of the same happening to other children and young people. The resilience of schools in addressing the threat that is posed by weapons and violence is key.

I will set out the Scottish Government’s response to recommendations 11 and 12 from the review. Both recommendations have been considered carefully, and ministers have been mindful of the need for a response that not only addresses what happened to Bailey and his family but will impact on all of Scotland’s teachers, children and young people. I make it absolutely clear that the safety of our children and young people at school is paramount. The possession of weapons in schools is absolutely unacceptable, as are threats and violence towards pupils and staff.

I will respond first to recommendation 12, on behalf of the Government and with the Cabinet Secretary for Justice’s full support. That recommendation asks us to explore further legislative controls that can be brought to bear on the purchase of weapons online, and I confirm that we are doing so. The Scottish Parliament has the ability and, indeed, has legislated to provide additional controls on the possession and sale of knives and offensive weapons. It is already illegal in Scotland to possess a knife in a public place without reasonable excuse.

In March 2016, we increased the maximum penalties for the offences of handling offensive weapons and knife possession from four to five years. Schools are included within the enforcement of those laws. It is also illegal to sell knives or similar products with blades or points to anyone under 18, with the exception that the sale of knives for domestic use is permitted to those aged over 16. A local authority licence is required to supply knives to the general public not for domestic purposes. That licensing scheme, which has no equivalent in England and Wales, aims to ensure that those who sell such knives do so responsibly. Anybody who sells a knife to somebody below the minimum legal age risks a fine of up to £5,000.

However, we know that, in the case of Bailey’s death—indeed, this can happen in the sale and purchase of many weapons these days—all those legal requirements and processes were circumvented through internet activity. We can act to change the law on the purchase of knives in Scotland but, as the purchase and delivery of knives crosses the borders of all United Kingdom countries, it is clear that the impact of a change only in Scotland would be limited. The most effective way to ensure that more robust controls are in place would be through UK-wide action.

Accordingly, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice has written to Sarah Newton MP, the UK Government’s Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Vulnerability, Safeguarding and Countering Extremism, to seek agreement to a UK-wide approach to address concerns about the online sale and delivery of knives. I hope that Parliament will agree with and support that approach. The Cabinet Secretary for Justice will update the Parliament once a response is received.

Turning to recommendation 11, I reiterate that our approach to education places the health and wellbeing of children and young people at the heart of our curriculum. That begins with a whole-school ethos that emphasises the importance that positive relationships play in maintaining and building resilience, providing a protective environment, supporting vulnerable people and addressing adversity. It is worth noting that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development review of Scottish education that was published in December 2015 identified that “Scottish students are resilient” as one of its positive developments in terms of those performing in the top quarter of international achievement.

Although our approach, which is backed by tough enforcement when necessary, is working, we must be prepared to do more. In the rare instances when violence does occur, we take such cases extremely seriously. The safety and wellbeing of everyone in our schools is our top priority and, where concerns are identified, robust action will be taken. I have sought stakeholders’ views to inform our response to recommendation 11, and I advise the Parliament that I will include new guidance on violence and weapons in schools in our refreshed guidance on school exclusions, which will be published in the spring. The new guidance will make it clear that any incident must be monitored and recorded at a local level. Indeed, Aberdeen has undertaken exemplary work to put such processes in place already. Monitoring and recording will enable local authorities to review and to improve local policies.

This Government’s approach to the issue of violence has been consistent. By investing in early intervention, we can deter and divert people from harmful behaviours and can encourage positive relationships that are founded on respect, tolerance and inclusion. We have already invested significantly—and we will continue to do so—in activity that is delivered in partnership with schools and a range of agencies and organisations. Those activities will continue to be freely available to all schools.

Since 2007 we have invested more than £10.5 million in activity to reduce violence among young people, including more than £3 million for no knives, better lives, and since 2008 we have invested more than £7.6 million in the national violence reduction unit, including on the delivery of the mentors in violence prevention programme. That programme seeks to give young people the skills and confidence to safely intervene and to speak up to protect themselves and their friends against violence and abuse. We are now accelerating expansion of the MVP programme to reach an additional 30,000 young people in another 93 secondary schools across Scotland by March 2018. A total of 108 schools across 18 local authorities are currently engaging with the programme.

Recommendation 11 also asked the Scottish Government to give consideration to amending the law in relation to searching pupils. I want to assure Parliament that I have given very careful consideration to that point and have listened to advice from key stakeholders, especially teachers and their representatives. I can advise Parliament that I will not be taking forward that recommendation.

Schools and local authorities in Scotland already have robust processes in place to address concerns about violence and weapons. Those processes take into account health and safety issues and are based on risk assessments that enable staff to deal appropriately with situations in which possession of a weapon is suspected. In such circumstances, teachers may ask to carry out a consensual search. Changing the law would confer statutory powers on teachers, which would allow them to compel a young person to be searched. Currently, outside of the prison system, this power is held only by the police. We would therefore be placing teachers on the same footing as police officers if we were to change the law. That would radically change the teacher-pupil relationship, which is often fundamental to encouraging young people to change challenging behaviour, and it could damage the school ethos and the commitment to positive relationships that currently exists in Scottish schools.

Given the recent debate on stop and search powers for Police Scotland in relation to children and young people, and the necessary safeguards that are now in place, it is important that we take that consistent position into our schools and communities. We will continue with the current approach, while strengthening and clarifying the position in our refreshed guidance on school exclusions. The guidance will make it clear that consensual searches can continue, but that if a teacher is uncertain or a young person will not co-operate by showing their belongings, the police must be called immediately.

I want to reassure Parliament that the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and I have given careful consideration to recommendations 11 and 12. We have sought advice and listened to a range of views and experiences. We have taken seriously our responsibility to provide an adequate and appropriate response on behalf of Government to the changes that were recommended to us. Most important of all, throughout our deliberations, we have kept at the forefront of our minds the fact that a young man lost his life in one of our schools. We recognised that it was incumbent on us to respond in a way that not only minimised the risk of that happening again but acknowledged all the circumstances that led to Bailey Gwynne’s death and the harm and hurt that were caused to his family.

Taking all of that into account, I believe that the response that I have set out to recommendations 11 and 12 in the independent review is the correct one. It is a response that demonstrates this Government’s—and, I believe, this Parliament’s—absolute commitment to ensuring the safety and wellbeing of all our children and young people in the schools of Scotland.

The Presiding Officer

Thank you. The cabinet secretary will now take questions, for which I will allow around 20 minutes.

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I thank the cabinet secretary for the measured and sincere tone of his statement, with which the Scottish Conservatives associate themselves.

I understand what the cabinet secretary said in relation to the debate about whether teachers should have additional powers to search for weapons and specifically about the point made in the advice that has been provided to the Scottish Government that such additional powers would place teachers on the same footing as police officers, which would, by definition, change the pupil-teacher relationship. I can therefore accept the reasons that the Scottish Government has provided for why additional powers would not be acceptable and would be inconsistent with other policies. I think that the decision will be warmly welcomed by teachers, who I know had great concerns about the possibility of the extra powers.

Notwithstanding that decision, the cabinet secretary has made it clear that in certain circumstances, as is the case now, teachers may be permitted to carry out a consensual search, and further guidance on that will be issued in the spring. Can he ensure that that guidance makes it abundantly clear whose consent must be sought and specifically whether it would include the head teacher and the parent or guardian as well as the pupil? Is any discussion taking place with the General Teaching Council for Scotland about teacher training for circumstances that we hope will not be repeated but are nonetheless possible in schools? I draw Parliament’s attention to my entry in the register of interests, which shows that I am a member of the GTCS.

John Swinney

I welcome the Conservative Party’s response and Liz Smith’s comments on the difficulties and dilemmas that are involved in the questions with which the justice secretary and I have wrestled over the past few weeks in coming to the judgment that we applied.

I make it clear that, when the Government formulates the guidance that will be issued to schools, we will do so through consultation and long-established mechanisms for dialogue on the subject that will involve us in discussions with the Scottish advisory group on relationships and behaviour in schools, which will bring together directors of education, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the teaching unions and a variety of other stakeholders. That will ensure that the guidance can be clearly followed by members of staff in our schools.

That brings me on to the question of equipping our teachers to ensure that they can handle the kind of situations that we are discussing. Part of that involves the approach to initial teacher education, but there is also the on-going training of members of staff and those in leadership positions in schools. It is important that teachers are equipped to handle the situations that they might face.

The emphasis that I placed in my statement on encouraging positive behaviours is a strategically important commitment for the Government. We think that it accords with the prevalent ethos in Scotland’s schools, which must be encouraged and nurtured. Equally, however, teachers must be able to be equipped to handle situations that we hope that they do not have to face but which—regrettably, as in the instance that we are discussing—some teachers have had to face. I assure Liz Smith that we will take due account of the need to ensure that teachers are properly trained for all circumstances and that the guidance that we issue is sufficiently clear to address the issues that she raised.

Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of his statement. The death of Bailey Gwynne was tragic, and our thoughts are with his family and friends.

The decision to undertake a review and give all the recommendations serious consideration is welcome, and I appreciate the work that Aberdeen City Council has carried out. We support the Government’s position on recommendation 11 and its analysis of the proposal—principally, that our schools must be places for learning and that parents must be confident that their children are safe and supported by teachers who have the relevant and proportionate powers and responsibilities to ensure that.

We support all efforts to restrict the purchase of weapons online throughout the UK and support the approach that has been made to the UK Government. However, will the cabinet secretary say more about what changes could be introduced to the law in Scotland, albeit that they would be limited, as would be UK restrictions in the context of worldwide online sales?

Recommendation 20 of the report depends on the completion of the Scottish Government’s child protection system review, which was due to report in December but has still not published its report. Will the cabinet secretary update Parliament on when that report will be published?

John Swinney

First, I welcome Claire Baker’s commitment on behalf of the Labour Party and its understanding and support for the position that the Scottish Government takes. The way in which she described our schools is exactly the way in which I would describe them as well—they are places of learning and of safety for our young people and they offer an environment of support from the teaching profession. We have to work to sustain that approach in the context of the report’s recommendations.

I also welcome Claire Baker’s support for the efforts that the Cabinet Secretary for Justice is making in trying to get to a UK-wide position. We have concluded that that would be the most effective way of taking as much action as we can to address the deficiencies in online security around the purchasing of knives. We could undertake and apply actions in Scotland—particularly more stringent measures on age verification—but the danger is that we would not capture all the potential sources of knives that are dispatched from online sales. We have to accept that that might not be possible to do even under a UK measure, because of the nature of the business traffic that is undertaken.

With the UK Government, we will explore how we can most effectively strengthen the provisions. As I said in my statement, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice will report to Parliament on that question and will ensure that the updates that we receive from our dialogue with the UK Government are reported to Parliament.

On Claire Baker’s final point, the Scottish Government is still considering the issue, and reports will be published in due course.

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. What is the Scottish Government doing to support schools in developing robust security and safety measures that ensure the wellbeing of all pupils and staff?

John Swinney

Much of that activity relates to ensuring that we create an ethos of safety in individual schools. The proactive measures that we take, such as those through the work of the violence reduction unit, the mentoring programme and the communication of the no knives, better lives campaign are all designed to create a positive environment in which young people can be supported effectively in our education system.

In my statement, I set out additional measures that we will put in place to strengthen the guidance so that there is more effective and assiduous reporting of incidents and, as a consequence, more effective and assiduous follow-up to those incidents, to ensure that we learn lessons and are constantly trying to make our schools as safe as they possibly can be, to protect the wellbeing of young people in our country.

Ross Thomson (North East Scotland) (Con)

I declare my interest as a current and serving councillor on Aberdeen City Council.

As a North East Scotland member who represents the community of Cults, I know how deeply affected the school community and the wider community have been by the tragic death of Bailey Gwynne more than a year ago. It is welcome that, following the publication of Andrew Lowe’s report, Aberdeen City Council agreed to a new strategy that is aimed at preventing knives and other weapons from getting into schools and acted swiftly to implement the report’s recommendations. Will the Scottish Government act to ensure that the exemplary work that the council carried out in response will be rolled out by other councils?

John Swinney

I have already indicated my appreciation of the work that has been undertaken swiftly and timeously by Aberdeen City Council. The council has swiftly and effectively addressed the issues that the independent report raised. There is good learning to be undertaken, and the practice that the council has developed will be significantly influential on the guidance that the Government looks at in the further discussions that it will have before the guidance is published later this spring.

Lewis Macdonald (North East Scotland) (Lab)

As the parent of a former pupil at Cults academy, I thank the cabinet secretary for acknowledging the impact of Bailey Gwynne’s death on the school and the community and, above all, Bailey’s family, who have acted with the utmost dignity in the most difficult of circumstances.

The cabinet secretary has already confirmed the discussions that he has had with Aberdeen City Council. Will he confirm further that the model of joint working with the other public sector bodies involved in the case has direct relevance to other such cases where different public authorities have a responsibility and those responsibilities intersect? If the implementation of the recommendations for Aberdeen City Council and the other public bodies is well on course, does the Scottish Government expect to play any further role in supporting the council on those matters, particularly in relation to the school and the family?

John Swinney

First, I readily acknowledge the impact of the tragedy on Cults academy, on the community, and most especially on Bailey Gwynne’s family. The school community has handled what is an almost unimaginable circumstance with all the dignity and the grace that one could ever hope to summon in such circumstances.

Mr Macdonald is absolutely correct that none of the responses take place in isolation; they must be the product of good collaborative working between different public organisations. Having discussed the issues with the director of education at Aberdeen City Council, I can confirm how appreciative she is of the work that has been done with Police Scotland—in particular through the family liaison officers, who undertake a most extraordinary task on our behalf in very difficult circumstances—to draw all this together. It is important that that partnership remains in place and, from my conversations with the director of education last week, I am absolutely sure that that will be the case. The Scottish Government will work closely with Aberdeen City Council on any areas where we can assist in advancing that agenda. A lot of the joint working will be reflected in the Government guidance and we have been given significant assistance in developing our thinking on that guidance by the council’s actions.

Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

Will the cabinet secretary provide more information about the no knives, better lives campaign and how it has impacted on the prevalence of knife crime in communities in which the programme has operated?

John Swinney

The no knives, better lives campaign has existed since 2009 and has been applied across 19 local authorities. The consequence of that activity has been the driving of a significant reduction in knife crime. The campaign is particularly focused on changing behaviours among young people—in particular those in the 11 to 18 age group. We have seen significant progress in that respect, which we are looking to sustain with the commitments that the Government has made today.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

I thank the cabinet secretary for early sight of his statement, and I associate myself with his remarks and, indeed, the remarks of other colleagues about the dignity shown by Bailey Gwynne’s family at what has been an exceptionally difficult time for them.

In relation to the response to recommendation 11, I warmly welcome the approach that has been taken. I do not underestimate the balance of issues that had to be weighed up. Does the cabinet secretary accept that going down the route of giving teachers statutory powers of search would have run the risk of undermining confidence, trust and relationships between staff and pupils, which arguably could have made school environments more difficult in terms of dealing with challenging behaviour?

In relation to online sales, is there any data or evidence that shows where online sales come from? One would imagine that such sales are probably international, but, within the limits of the cabinet secretary’s powers, I certainly support the approach that has been made to the UK Government.

John Swinney

I thank Mr McArthur for his support. My judgment on recommendation 11 was essentially arrived at by wrestling with the dilemmas that he has put forward. My judgment was that the recommendation had the potential to fundamentally recast the relationship between teachers and pupils in a way that would be completely at odds with the approach of the education system. It would also create an approach on search powers that would be at odds with the prevailing direction of the very good work—led by the justice secretary and informed by the working group led by John Scott—to create the guidance that Parliament is currently scrutinising in relation to this very question.

We have taken a decision that is rooted in our views about how the education system should develop and our consistent approach on stop and search.

The question of online sales is more difficult for me to pin down. In my answer to Claire Baker, I accepted that there is a difficulty because of the international nature of the market. We have accepted the issue in part, and we are pursuing UK co-operation to try to cast the net as wide as we possibly can, but I do not underestimate the possible dangers of international activity. That strengthens the argument for saying that retailers must be mindful of their conduct and behaviour in relation to the sale and dispatch of knives. We know from the report that was undertaken in the Bailey Gwynne case that internet activity was involved and that certain approaches were taken to circumvent the controls that are in place in relation to purchasing. We have to be mindful that the Scottish Government cannot police all of this area of activity. However, I have tried to reassure Parliament today that we will do as much as possible to address the issue directly.

Gillian Martin (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)

I am sure that the cabinet secretary’s statement, in particular the points about the forthcoming guidance, will be welcomed by families and teachers in schools across Scotland. What input have teachers had, or what input will they have, in the drafting of the guidance?

John Swinney

The guidance is developed in consort with the Scottish advisory group on relationships and behaviour in schools, which brings together the teaching unions, the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. We will also be mindful of input from key stakeholders working with the Government, such as the violence reduction unit. We will ensure that the views and input of teachers are at the core of designing the guidance that is rolled out to schools in Scotland.

Douglas Ross (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

The cabinet secretary will be aware that page 27 of the independent review report quotes a chief superintendent, who said that, at the time of the review, the local force had recently been called out to six incidents at local schools, including three in Moray, at Buckie, Keith and Elgin. The chief superintendent also said that all those incidents were reported by school staff to the police. Despite that statement, recommendation 3 says:

“Police Scotland shall be notified of each and every incident of weapons possession of which the school become aware.”

Was that recommendation included because there are still concerns that some incidents are not reported by school staff to the police? What more can the Scottish Government do to ensure that each and every incident is reported by school staff to the police?

John Swinney

I said in my statement that

“The guidance will make it clear that consensual searches can continue, but that if a teacher is uncertain or a young person will not co-operate by showing their belongings, the police must be called immediately.”

That is a direct point about the importance of involving the police where there is suspicion that a weapon is being concealed and there is no co-operation with a search. The guidance that the Government produces will address those issues. That is part of creating an approach in our schools that tries first to resolve issues by encouraging young people not to carry knives in the first place. All efforts will be made to promote that strong message and contribution to the ethos of our schools. There will then be guidance about teachers’ ability to exercise control and to undertake a consensual search if a young person is prepared to co-operate. Obviously, if that is not successful, the appropriate way for such matters to be handled is to involve the police in a way that is consistent with the approach that I have set out today.

Colin Beattie (Midlothian North and Musselburgh) (SNP)

I welcome the news that the Scottish ministers want the online purchase and receipt of offensive weapons to be outlawed. Will the cabinet secretary advise when he expects to receive a response from the UK minister and what action the Scottish ministers will take if the UK Government refuses to act to address the issue?

John Swinney

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice wrote to the Home Office on 18 January so we will wait some time before we hear a response. We hope that we can encourage the UK Government to work with us on the question and to find practical ways of addressing it. If we are unsuccessful, as I said to Claire Baker, we will do as much as we can within the confines of our powers and responsibilities to ensure that we are as effective as possible.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

Recommendation 10 in the independent report to Aberdeen City Council recommends that the council work with the Ben Kinsella Trust on violence reduction policies, and recommendation 13 recommends that it consult respectme, Scotland’s anti-bullying service, regarding anti-bullying policies. I note and welcome the cabinet secretary’s comments on violence reduction measures and programmes. Following those recommendations, what contact has the Scottish Government had with those organisations and others on these matters, and what revisions and improvements have been made to the violence reduction programmes in light of the tragic circumstances of Bailey Gwynne’s death?

John Swinney

The violence reduction programmes are long-standing programmes. They have been well developed and are successful in reducing crimes of violence among young people, particularly knife crime. The statistics speak for themselves in that respect, so the programmes can offer us a lot of assistance on the matter.

On Mr Johnson’s points about recommendations 10 and 13, respectme undertakes work on the Government’s behalf to tackle bullying among young people. As Mr Johnson knows, some guidance on anti-bullying strategies is currently being consulted on. We are engaging with the Parliament’s Equalities and Human Rights Committee on our approach and I hope to draw matters to a conclusion once I hear further from the committee on its thinking. I assure Mr Johnson that we work closely with organisations such as respectme, focusing on tackling bullying in our schools and providing the most effective support to assist in that respect.

Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

Like my colleagues, I send my condolences to the friends and family of Bailey Gwynne.

In light of not only the answers that the cabinet secretary has given regarding consultation with teaching unions and other stakeholders throughout Scotland but information about the consistency with which data is recorded, what steps will he take to ensure that there is a whole-Scotland approach to the matter across the 32 local authorities, and what support will the unions be able to offer in achieving that goal?

John Swinney

The guidance that we issue will obviously apply across all local authority areas. I have been greatly encouraged by the degree of common thinking about and support for the approach that we are taking that the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has expressed. The Association of Directors of Education in Scotland has also supported our approach. The existence of guidance that applies throughout the country and the willing participation of a range of organisations will help us to advance an important agenda to safeguard the wellbeing of young people in Scotland’s schools.

The Presiding Officer

That concludes questions on the statement.