Meeting of the Parliament
Meeting date: Thursday, November 2, 2023
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Nuclear Weapons
- Portfolio Question Time
- Edinburgh Tram Inquiry Report
- Early Childhood Development Transformational Change Programme
- Appointments of the Chair and Commissioners of the Poverty and Inequality Commission
- Motion without Notice
- Decision Time
General Question Time
Good morning. The first item of business is general question time.
Fire Brigades Union (Dispute)
To ask the Scottish Government what progress it has made towards reaching a resolution to the on-going dispute with the Fire Brigades Union. (S6O-02672)
I will be clear: the Scottish Government is not in dispute with the FBU. The FBU campaigns on behalf of its members, as all trade unions do, and we share the aim of having an effective Scottish Fire and Rescue Service to keep our communities safe. I meet the FBU regularly and am next scheduled to meet it this month.
The regional secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, John McKenzie, is on record as saying that the union is in consultation with its members on industrial action, but it is extremely important to note that that action is a result of the deep impact of cuts on the safe running of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, and that firefighters are considering taking that unprecedented action because they are firmly of the view that lives are being put at risk. With that in mind, what will the Scottish Government do to avert strike action and ensure safer communities?
The £36 million savings figure for 2026-27 that has been quoted by the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service’s chief officer is based on various assumptions about inflation, pay increases and future funding levels, all of which can change over time. The resource spending review provides long-term indicative spending plans for the Scottish Government, based on the challenging financial situation that we currently find ourselves in. Although it is appropriate for the SFRS to assess its long-term planning up to 2026-27 on that basis, that assessment does not replace the annual budget that is presented to the Parliament. The amount that is allocated to the SFRS in the annual budget will be based on a robust assessment of need—as was the case for 2023-24, when we gave it an extra £14.4 million.
Our fire service is in crisis, according to the Fire Brigades Union. The on-going dispute, if unresolved, threatens to have a further detrimental impact on response times in rural communities in my region. Why should rural communities suffer due to the Scottish National Party Government’s failure to resolve long-standing issues within the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service?
Since 2017-18, there have been substantial year-on-year increases in funding to support the SFRS to create a modern and effective fire and rescue service. The annual budget for the SFRS for 2023-24 is more than £55.3 million higher than it was in 2017-18. I highlight to Sharon Dowey that, during First Minister’s question time on 26 October, the First Minister made it clear that
“We continue to invest in our fire service. I want to thank and pay tribute to the FBU and to our firefighters on the ground. I will continue to promise them that we will, as long as we are in Government, continue to ensure that they get the investment that they need to keep”
“safe.”—[Official Report, 26 October 2023; c 16.]
Fire Brigades Union (Report)
To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the Fire Brigades Union’s report “Firestorm”, which reportedly warns that the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service is in “crisis”. (S6O-02673)
I recognise the role that the Fire Brigades Union plays in highlighting the concerns of its members, including in the publication of its “Firestorm” report. I agree with many points in that report—including that our firefighters should be paid a fair wage for the work that they do and should be properly trained and equipped to deal with the wide range of emergency incidents that they attend.
As I said in my previous answer, the more than £368 million that we are providing to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service this year is an increase of £14.4 million on last year. The Scottish Government will continue to support the SFRS to prioritise public safety.
On Tuesday, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service’s publication of new statistics indicated a rise in fatal fire incidents and an increase in non-fatal fire casualties, which amount to just under 1,000 in one year. The data illustrates the dangerous consequences of having an underfunded fire brigade. How much worse does the situation need to get before the Government looks at the statistics and provides the resource that the fire brigade deserves to support it?
The number of fatal fire casualties per million of population has been on a long-term downward trend in each nation since the early 2000s. In the early 2010s, that trend levelled off, but the different demographics and urban and rural profiles of each nation are the likely factors that explain the different rates for fires. The Scottish Government will continue to work with the FBU and the SFRS to ensure that they have the money that they need to keep communities safe.
The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service is highly valued for its unwavering dedication to saving lives and protecting communities. It embodies the highest levels of service and public safety. The “Firestorm” report says that 96 per cent of respondents who were surveyed agreed that
“Increased investment in training and facilities would positively impact the skills and preparedness of firefighters”.
Given the concerns that have been raised about training, will the minister consider the report’s recommendation for an independent audit of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service’s training provisions?
Ensuring that our firefighters are properly trained and equipped is a ministerial priority in the “Fire and Rescue Framework for Scotland 2022”. The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has an assistant chief officer with dedicated responsibility for training, to properly address that strategic priority. Some aspects of training fell behind as a result of the Covid restrictions, but the service is addressing that backlog as a priority.
His Majesty’s Fire Service Inspectorate in Scotland carries out independent inspections of fire service activity, and training is examined as part of the HMFSI service delivery area inspection programme. The “Inspection of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service: East Service Delivery Area” report was published on 19 October, and the service will be taking forward all the recommendations that that report contains.
Does the minister agree that the “Firestorm” report makes alarming reading and that not providing safe systems to enable firefighters to decontaminate is a failure of the employers to fulfil their duty of care to their workforce?
Firefighters’ safety and wellbeing are a priority for the Scottish Government and the fire service. The SFRS continues to make progress with its contamination working group, and I was pleased that we were recently able to contribute £56,000 to allow Scottish firefighters to be part of the current health screening trials.
HMP Kilmarnock (Public Ownership)
To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the transition of HMP Kilmarnock into public ownership. (S6O-02674)
When I visited HMP Kilmarnock in August, I saw at first hand that work on its transition into public ownership and operation is progressing well and that the prison is on track for handover to the Scottish Prison Service on 17 March next year. The Scottish Prison Service has been working closely with Kilmarnock Prison Services Ltd and Serco, which is the private operator, to deliver a smooth transition that not only supports staff and those who are in custody but maintains the high standards that are already set in the prison.
When I visited the prison last week, I asked the staff whether they backed the transfer. None did. I asked whether they knew why it was happening. None of them did. I asked whether they knew how it would happen. None of them did.
Humza Yousaf is transferring HMP Kilmarnock for blindly ideological reasons. He does not care that it is an effective, efficient and well-run prison. The Scottish National Party’s transfer will even result in staff losing the protection of body-worn cameras, which will be sent to English prisons. Will the cabinet secretary reverse that dangerous decision and commit to providing cameras to all prison officers across Scotland?
The contract with Serco was due to end. The Government has always believed that our prisons should be owned and operated in the public sector, in the interests of public safety and not those of private profit.
When we look at the facts and information, we see a lower level of assaults in the Scottish Prison Service than in our private prisons and a lower level per population of drug-taking incidents in the public sector. I would have thought that Mr Findlay would take such matters seriously.
I reassure the member that the Scottish Prison Service is finalising its arrangements for a pilot on body-worn cameras to be carried out in collaboration with our trade union partners, and that the cameras that are currently in HMP Kilmarnock belong to Serco and not to the Scottish Prison Service. I further assure him that efforts are being made, and will be made, to progress work on the important matter of body-worn cameras.
Mr Findlay’s comments are completely at odds with what I have heard from the project director and the staff at Kilmarnock prison over many years. Will the cabinet secretary confirm that arrangements for transfers under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006 for all the staff and prison officers are well under way and that the overall impact of their transferring to the SPS will be beneficial?
The transfer will take place following the well-established process under the TUPE regulations that have existed since 2006. The Scottish Prison Service has written to Serco to inform staff groups about the measures that will be taken. Plans have been developed in partnership with recognised trade unions, and the Scottish Prison Service is actively planning one-to-one meetings. It is also important to recognise that the chief executive of the Scottish Prison Service has chaired four engagement sessions to date.
We move to question 4. Let us keep our questions and responses concise, please.
Transitions to Adulthood Strategy
To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its national transitions to adulthood strategy, following its statement of intent on 28 September. (S6O-02675)
We will introduce Scotland’s first national transitions to adulthood strategy in this parliamentary session, to ensure that all disabled young people can experience a supported and positive transition to adult life. We are currently engaging with more young people, parent carers and others with a role or interest in transitions to seek feedback on the statement of intent. Following that phase of engagement, we will analyse and publish a summary of the responses to show what people have said, which will then be used to develop the strategy.
I thank the minister for that answer, but the Government mentioned a strategy on transitions as far back as 2016, in its manifesto. That is seven years ago, and there is still no strategy. A young person who entered high school then will have left by now. They have not seen a strategy and their chances have been affected as a result. The Government knows that transitions are not working. On what date will the Government publish a national transitions strategy, and will it include a legal right to a plan that gives all young disabled people a fighting chance for the future?
As I said in my previous answer, we are currently seeking feedback on the statement of intent through the online questionnaire and a host of engagement events, including the Glasgow Disability Alliance’s transitions event for young people, the Scottish Youth Parliament and the forthcoming carers parliament. That is an important step to sense check what we have heard so far. We want to get this right. Findings from that phase of engagement will be used to develop the strategy for the future, on which we will aim to consult more widely in spring 2024.
Question 5 has been withdrawn, for reasons that will be apparent.
Accident and Emergency Admissions (Winter Falls)
To ask the Scottish Government what data it has on rates of winter admissions to accident and emergency as a result of winter falls since October 2020. (S6O-02677)
Public Health Scotland publishes quarterly data on emergency hospital admissions resulting from falls. Total figures for falls admissions across the two winter quarters ending in December and March show a slight downward trend, with the highest number, 18,508, having been seen in the winter of 2020-21 and the lowest number, 17,892, in the winter of 2022-23.
I thank the cabinet secretary for his detailed answer. I advise him that both Midlothian Council and Scottish Borders Council in my constituency have on their websites information as to where salt bins are located, which is good. However, does he agree that the more that can be done by simply increasing the number of salt bins available for clearing winter pavements, the greater the likelihood that there will be even fewer falls and so less pressure on already hard-pressed accident and emergency services?
I encourage councils to continue to take the action that I know that they already take when there is adverse weather that can result in slippery pavements, which can have a knock-on effect on demand on our A and E departments. Local authorities will consider applications from local communities that are looking for salt bins to be located in their area—that is something that I have undertaken to do on behalf of my constituents, and I encourage the member to do so on behalf of her constituents, where it is felt that that would be appropriate.
Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (Support for Evacuated Residents)
To ask the Scottish Government what support is available to residents who have been required to evacuate their properties due to deteriorating reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete. (S6O-02678)
Where residents are evacuated from their homes under local authority dangerous-building powers, it is for the local authority to determine what support is available to the individuals affected. For Mark Ruskell’s constituents who have been decanted in Tillicoultry, that has involved providing temporary housing, as well as support and advice to find alternative accommodation while detailed investigations take place.
My thoughts are with the families who are currently in those circumstances. The impact on those households has been significant, but I know that Clackmannanshire Council is working hard to minimise disruption while keeping people safe.
I thank the cabinet secretary for that response and note her awareness of the situation in Tillicoultry. I understand that Clackmannanshire Council suspects that more than 100 other residences in the same area could also be seriously affected. What engagement has there been between Clackmannanshire Council and the Scottish Government? Has there been correspondence about the dire situation that some residents are in at the moment? How is the Scottish Government preventing affected residents across Scotland from remaining in temporary accommodation indefinitely while they await the outcome of building assessments and potential remedial works?
The Government is in contact with all councils on the issue and with the Scottish Housing Regulator, and it has been involved in the issue in Tillicoultry since it was first identified. My understanding is that 29 households across three housing blocks have been affected. The local authority is conducting further survey work to determine next steps, but it has not identified other blocks with unsafe RAAC.
An important point of reassurance is that the Institution of Structural Engineers notes that statements about RAAC having a 30-year lifespan are misleading and that there is no specific data supporting that. The institution notes that, if manufactured and installed correctly and maintained appropriately, RAAC should perform comparably with similar materials. Of course, it also stresses the importance of inspecting RAAC installations to determine their condition, which is my understanding of what the council is doing.
The response to a freedom of information request that I submitted to the City of Edinburgh Council identified two developments comprising 43 homes that contain RAAC. Can the cabinet secretary tell Parliament whether ministers now know how many social rented properties and private properties across Scotland could contain RAAC?
As I highlighted in my original answer, this is an issue for the councils concerned, but we are working with the Scottish Housing Regulator to undertake a data-gathering exercise on the presence of RAAC across all social housing providers. The initial responses to that request were due by 31 October and are now being collated. It is important to ensure that the Scottish Government continues to work with local councils to support communities where they are affected.
Violence and Bullying in Schools
To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what action it can take in response to the reported rise in violence and bullying in schools. (S6O-02679)
In June, I convened the first meeting of the headteacher task force, which is focused on school exclusions. In September and October, I hosted two events as part of the Scottish Government’s summit on relationships and behaviour in schools. A third event will take place later this month to discuss the behaviour in Scottish schools research, which will provide a robust national picture of what is happening in our schools across the country on a wide range of behaviours. My aim for the summit process is to work with teachers and other stakeholders to identify practical actions that we need to take to make progress.
Finally, we have started a review of our national anti-bullying guidance, “Respect for All: The National Approach to Anti-Bullying for Scotland’s Children and Young People”. The outputs from the summit and behaviour research will inform that work.
It is important to work with teachers, pupils and schools, but the fact is that we will not build a world-class education system while so many pupils are worried in schools. We need to put discipline and behaviour back on the top of the agenda as a condition of being in school. Will the cabinet secretary bring forward a detailed proposal that sets out the types of resources and the plan that we are going to use to address the problem, which is affecting schools up and down Scotland?
I very much recognise Mr Rowley’s interest in the matter, and I agree that we need to work with the profession on how we can support it to best respond to some of those challenges.
Mr Rowley talked about behaviour and discipline. I am conscious that we have a cohort of young people moving through our education system who have experienced disruption to their education from industrial action or Covid impacts. We need to be mindful that all of that plays into changed behaviour and relationships in our schools. That said, Mr Rowley has raised an important point.
There is already national guidance in relation to what we as the Scottish Government provide. The national policy that already exists is the “Included, Engaged and Involved” policy document. However, I have made it very clear that my intention through the summit process is that we look to gather national evidence from those who work on the front line—our teachers and, of course, those who work as learning support assistants, who play a hugely important role in relation to our schools.
We use the findings from the summit process and the behaviour in Scottish schools research, which gives us the national picture, to help to inform the national action plan. Subject to the agreement of Parliament, I intend to bring forward a statement later this year to that end.
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