Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]
Meeting date: Wednesday, September 20, 2023
Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Scotland’s Nature, Neonatal Services (Lanarkshire), Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Maternity Services
- Portfolio Question Time
- Scotland’s Nature
- Neonatal Services (Lanarkshire)
- Business Motion
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
- Maternity Services
Portfolio Question Time
Constitution, External Affairs and Culture
Good afternoon. The first item of business is portfolio questions on the constitution, external affairs and culture.
I remind members that questions 1 and 2 are grouped together, and therefore I will take any supplementaries on those questions after both have been answered.
If a member wishes to request a supplementary question, they should press their request-to-speak button or indicate as much in the chat function by entering “RTS” during the relevant question.
To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the role of its international offices in promoting Scotland internationally. (S6O-02520)
I begin by welcoming Ian Liddell-Grainger of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association to our proceedings this afternoon.
In answer to Emma Harper, I say that our international network provides a range of benefits to the people of Scotland. Working alongside Scottish Development International, our offices focus on attracting overseas investment, helping business trade internationally and protecting Scotland’s interests in the European Union and beyond. The hard work and dedication of our civil servants deployed overseas, working collaboratively with their excellent counterparts in SDI, help ensure that Scotland is the most attractive location in the United Kingdom outside London for foreign direct investment, thus securing and creating thousands of real living wage jobs.
Our offices also work with officials in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and other UK bodies to deliver impact on behalf of Scotland. I am pleased that their effective joint working was recognised by the Scottish Affairs Committee at Westminster in its report, “Promoting Scotland Internationally”, which was published last week and to which I was happy to provide evidence.
I welcome the fact that the Scottish Government continues to do excellent work to foster relationships with our friends across Europe, the United States and the globe. However, the House of Commons Library reports that the UK Government Foreign Office’s spending, including on consular services, has fallen from a peak of £15.1 billion in 2019 to £14.5 billion in 2020 and £11.5 billion in 2021. Most recently, a third of UK Foreign Office spending was on housing refugees in the UK.
Does the cabinet secretary agree that the degradation of UK Foreign Office spending shows that the UK Government is intent on becoming more insular, and that it is only with independence that Scotland can truly play its part as a progressive, outward-looking—
Thank you. I now turn to the cabinet secretary for a response.
I certainly agree that the UK Government is overseeing a significant degradation of its great office of state. The Scottish Affairs Committee, of which Douglas Ross is part, recognises that the Foreign Office and the Scottish Government share a responsibility to promote Scotland’s interests internationally and that the UK Government could and should be doing more.
The UK Government must reflect on that as it considers the resources and priorities that are given to the Foreign Office. However, it demonstrates that to secure Scotland’s interests internationally—with regard to trade and investment, jobs in Scotland and a just transition to net zero—we must take our place as an independent member of the international community.
To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the work of its international offices. (S6O-02521)
As I mentioned in my previous answer, our international offices provide a range of benefits to the people of Scotland. Those offices, which in 2023-24 will account for around 0.02 per cent of our overall spending plans, deliver real impact for our nation—for our economy, for inward investment, for our jobs market, for tourism, for culture and much more.
I welcome the fact that a growing number of Tess White’s colleagues on the Conservative benches have taken part in visits that have involved Scottish Government international offices. I do not think that Tess White has yet had that experience, but I commend it to her for the future.
The Scottish Government has announced that the annual report on the contribution of Scotland’s international offices will be published in December 2023. Given the enormous pressures on the public purse, and given that ministerial portfolios are crying out for more funding, can the cabinet secretary explain what metrics will be used to justify the activities and output of those offices?
That sounded a bit critical in tone, so it would be interesting to hear from the Conservative front bench whether that is indeed the position of the Scottish Conservative Party. The Scottish Government’s international offices measure their activities, output and successes using a range of qualitative data, such as feedback provided by our stakeholders, media articles and case studies and quantitative data such as social media performance and event statistics.
Each Scottish Government international office submits a monitoring and evaluation report for each financial year in order to monitor its effectiveness, which helps ensure that each office is achieving its objectives and is providing value for money. Tess White is absolutely right to say that a report will be produced later this year.
The location of the Scottish Government’s international offices has been the subject of much debate. In particular, there is a noted absence in certain parts of the world, such as the global south, which is an issue that has come up in the Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee. There have also been calls for a Scottish presence in South America, which is a rapidly growing market for Scotch whisky, exports of which to that area increased by 66 per cent in 2022. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the international office network would benefit from a wholesale review of locations, staffing and funding, and will he implement such a review?
First, we remain committed to opening a new office in Warsaw during this parliamentary term. After all, there is a rich history of education, trade and cultural links between Scotland and Poland, and we are keen to build on that. There are no plans to open any further Scottish Government international offices during this parliamentary term, but I very much welcome the tone and approach from the Conservative front bench spokesperson, which I contrast with the earlier contribution from his colleague behind him.
There are very strong reasons to actively consider expanding the network, and the member is right to point to different parts of the world where, as yet, there is no Scottish Government office. I would be delighted for him to make his case further, and I would very much welcome contributions from his party or indeed any other political party in the chamber that wishes us to expand the international network. I think that I am right in saying that there is all-party consensus that the offices provide excellent value for money and do a tremendous service for Scotland internationally.
Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2023
To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the 2023 Edinburgh festival fringe. (S6O-02522)
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society and the fringe festival that the society operates are independent organisations. Therefore, it is not the role of the Scottish Government to assess their activity. However, following the support of the Scottish Government, especially during the pandemic, I was pleased to see the fringe return in force this year, with just under 2.5 million tickets issued across the festival to approximately 250,000 visitors for more than 3,500 shows.
The member might also wish to note that the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society produces an annual report of its activities, which is in the public domain. An initial closing statement on the 2023 fringe festival was published on 28 August, and the 2023 annual report will be published once the relevant data has been collated.
Research carried out by The Stage showed that the average cost for an adult to stay at the festival for its duration this year was more than £2,000 in Airbnb while, in other cases, about £5,000 had to be spent on accommodation. That situation is only set to get worse next year, once the Scottish National Party-Green short-term let licensing scheme comes into effect. Given that the scheme will put accommodation for next year’s festival at risk and out of the reach of many people, what does the Scottish Government intend to do to support the sector?
Our proposals give licensing authorities powers to strike a balance—a balance that needs to be struck—between the needs and concerns of local communities and the wider economic and tourism benefits of short-term lets. Licensing authorities may consider applications for temporary exemptions for a single continuous period of up to six weeks in each 12-month period, which would allow them to be used for events such as the Edinburgh festival that last a number of weeks. Licensing authorities can also make the temporary exemptions process a light-touch one by offering a reduced fee and a shorter application form and by not applying some of the normally mandatory licence conditions. A balance must be struck, and we must take that into account with regard to festivals and ensuring that those who want to access and perform at those festivals have the opportunity to do so.
Will the minister be meeting the fringe society soon to discuss the successes and challenges of the most recent festival, including accommodation issues and the short-term let regulations? Will she be working with City of Edinburgh Council to make the temporary six-week exemption as practical and as effective as possible, particularly for those home letting and home sharing? I know that the Minister for Housing has committed to meeting the festival about that.
Will the minister also advise what work is being done from the Scottish Government’s perspective to support working and touring artists with regard to working and touring visas post-Brexit in order to maintain Scotland’s thriving cultural sector?
The First Minister met the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society on 11 August 2023, and both I and the Cabinet Secretary for Constitution, External Affairs and Culture are scheduled to meet Festivals Edinburgh, the umbrella organisation for all 11 festivals—including the Edinburgh festival fringe—in early November.
On Ben Macpherson’s question about visas, we will continue to push the United Kingdom Government to improve visa arrangements for creative professionals. Touring and other such international activities are essential to the business models of many parts of the sector and enrich the diversity of our own cultural scene. Access to and from the European Union simply was not an issue before, but it has been brought about by the disaster that is Brexit, and the long-term solution lies in Scotland being an independent member of the European Union.
The arts and culture sector suffered immensely during the pandemic and is now suffering once more due to economic pressure, which has seen the sad closure of institutions such as the Edinburgh Filmhouse. Although it is now hoped that the Filmhouse will reopen, the same might not be the case for other venues. Will the Scottish Government outline the support that it plans to give the arts and culture sector ahead of next year’s fringe festival and how it will protect Edinburgh’s other iconic venues?
We will work closely with all the festivals. As I have said, I and the cabinet secretary will meet with the festivals organisations in November to pick up on all the points that Foysol Choudhury has raised.
We support all the festivals. For example, one of the events that I visited during the fringe was the made in Scotland programme, which we have been funding through our expo fund since 2008 at an annual average of £513,000, with an additional £550,000 this year.
We are supporting the sector and are meeting it. We will be happy to give an update when we have collated all that information.
Creative Writing (Support)
To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to support creative writers. (S6O-02523)
Scotland’s literary culture is a notable part of our identity and must be nurtured. Our support for creative writers flows through our sponsorship of Creative Scotland. Its regularly funded network and open project funding route support a number of literature and publishing organisations, such as Moniack Mhor, the Scottish Book Trust and the Scottish Poetry Library. We are working closely with stakeholders to explore what can be done to overcome the challenges faced by creatives and ensure that they earn a fair living from cultural professional work.
Local writers Thomas Cox and Linda-Jane Paterson, in the Clydebank writers group, do so much for creative writing in my constituency. Will the minister join me in praising their commitment? Will she also advise what funding is specifically available to support that kind of locally based talent?
I am delighted to join Marie McNair in praising the commitment of Thomas Cox and Linda-Jane Paterson, and the Clydebank writers group, for their dedication to the art of creative writing.
Funding for writers is available through the Creative Scotland open fund for individuals, which can support a period of research or development and/or delivery of a creative activity for up to 24 months. Writers can ask for financial support towards writing time or research costs relating to their work. Numerous writers are supported in that way across all literary forms. Project funding also supports organisations that platform and develop writers. A key example is the literary festivals that support writers to build readerships and connect them and their work in a live setting.
Will the minister join me in congratulating the winners of the young Shetland writer competition, which attracted 316 entries from across all areas of Shetland? How can the Scottish Government support those young writers to continue to develop their creative writing?
It is hugely encouraging to hear about the work that the young writers in Shetland are doing. I am keen to hear more about it, and Beatrice Wishart knows how to find me if she wants to tell me about it.
One of the big pieces of work that we are doing to widen access and create such opportunities for people is our Culture Collective programme, which has been supported with more than £10 million of Scottish Government funding to date. It includes a range of projects delivering creative writing workshops for underrepresented groups. In the north-east, Culture Collective’s stories to tell project worked in partnership with Alcohol & Drugs Action to deliver creative writing workshops for people with lived experience of addiction in Aberdeen.
There are many areas in which we are supporting people to access such funds and develop their creativity, but the Shetland young writers group sounds exciting indeed.
Glasgow’s Museums and Galleries (Support)
To ask the Scottish Government what steps it will take to support Glasgow’s museums and galleries. (S6O-02524)
Ministers recognise the unprecedented challenges faced by Glasgow City Council’s cultural sector—I know that we all do. We continue to provide extensive support to the culture sector in Glasgow through the Scottish Government’s funding of the national performing companies and with substantial capital investment towards the city’s cultural infrastructure, such as the Burrell Collection.
We will continue to work with the sector and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to identify barriers to immediate and long-term recovery and to ascertain how, within our powers and resources, to continue to help the museums and galleries that are most affected by current economic challenges.
The minister may recall comments made by her colleague David McDonald, who, until recently, was a Scottish National Party deputy leader of Glasgow City Council and chair of Glasgow Life. He said:
“Unlike Edinburgh, London, Liverpool, Manchester, York, Bradford, Leeds, Cardiff and others Glasgow gets no national funding for its museums from the UK/Scottish Government … This can’t go on. Can it?”
He is right, is he not?
As I explained in my earlier answer, we are all aware and mindful of the challenges that everyone faces right now. Glasgow has a long history of ensuring access to museums and galleries. I grew up in most of them and learned most of the things that I know about Scottish history there, not in school.
We work closely with COSLA and Glasgow City Council. I met them at the Burrell Collection just a few months ago to discuss those issues, and I am happy to keep doing that. I am also happy to work with Paul Sweeney on the issue. It is not one on which we disagree but one on which we know that we have a challenge that we can work together to resolve.
Culture and Major Events (Skills and Careers)
To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide further details regarding its programme for government 2023-24 commitment to develop a “long term strategic approach to skills and careers” in the culture and major events sector. (S6O-02525)
Our culture strategy action plan refresh, which is due to be published later this year, will provide further details on our commitment to develop our strategic approach to skills and careers in the culture sector.
Furthermore, responses to the recent events strategy consultation highlighted the point that maximising skills development opportunities should be a priority when delivering mega-events. An independent analysis of responses and update on next steps on our refreshed national events strategy will be published soon.
I also draw attention to work that is being undertaken in relation to skills and careers in Scotland’s burgeoning screen sector. I look forward to updating members on that in due course.
The cabinet secretary knows that, in a submission to the Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee, Creative Scotland described the Scottish Government’s support for the sector as
“short-term in nature and precarious in reality”
and warned that one arts organisation in three is at risk of insolvency, with possible job losses of 900. The First Minister recently said:
“The sector should be assured that this Government values the role of culture”.—[Official Report, 5 September 2023; c 17.]
So, will those 900 jobs be secure?
I recognise the importance of ensuring that we have the right traditional skills to sustain our historic environment and progress our journey to net zero. Often, questions are raised about skills specifically in the heritage sector and Historic Environment Scotland. There is a great deal of focus on that area at present.
I acknowledge the pressures that Liz Smith highlights to the chamber. I am extremely focused on the matter. She will appreciate the budgetary constraints under which the Scottish Government operates, not least because of the policies of the United Kingdom Government, which she supports. However, we will do absolutely everything that we can to fund the sector as well as we can and to support emerging sectors.
That is why I mentioned the screen sector, which has now reached £500 million gross value added to the Scottish economy and is still on a trajectory to reach £1 billion. We need to ensure that we have people with the right skills to take—
Thank you, cabinet secretary.
EU Alignment Policy
To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of how its European Union alignment policy could be impacted by potential EU expansion, in light of the remarks of the President of the European Commission in her state of the European Union address. (S6O-02526)
The Scottish Government noted with great interest President von der Leyen’s state of the Union address, which begins the process of the European Union considering its strategic priorities for the year ahead. The Scottish Government will continue to follow the EU’s dialogue on the issues raised and consider what implications that might have for Scotland’s EU priorities and our commitment to align with EU legislation, where it is possible and meaningful for Scotland to do so.
EU alignment will play an important role in ensuring that Scotland is best placed to rejoin the European Union in the near future. As we know, Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU and was dragged out against its will, so it is disappointing that, this week, Keir Starmer has again disregarded the voices of voters in Scotland and has ruled out the possibility of the United Kingdom rejoining the single market or the customs union, or re-implementing the policy of free movement. Does the cabinet secretary share my concern that that will inhibit economic growth? Does he agree that it is becoming increasingly clear that the only route to our rejoining the EU is as an independent country?
We are all, indeed, paying a very high price for a Brexit that Scotland did not vote for, and it is clear that the costs of Brexit outweigh any costs of EU membership. For example, 32 per cent of the UK’s small and medium-sized enterprise employers named EU exit as a major obstacle to growth. The Office for Budget Responsibility expects the UK’s gross domestic product to be 4 per cent lower in the long run due to Brexit. Every year, that equates to around £100 billion in lost output and around £40 billion in lost public revenues.
The Scottish Government agrees that rejoining the EU at the earliest opportunity as an independent country represents the best future for Scotland. Meanwhile, we remain committed to aligning with EU laws and standards where we can.
Nordic Music Days Festival 2024
To ask the Scottish Government what additional support it will provide to the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and other stakeholders to assist with hosting the Nordic Music Days festival, which is being held in Scotland for the first time in 2024. (S6O-02527)
I welcome the Nordic Music Days festival taking place in Glasgow next year and recognise the important long-term partnerships that that could nurture. Officials have been working with Nordic Music Days and the RSNO on their plans for the festival. Due to budget constraints, the Scottish Government is not able to provide any additional funding for the event, although Creative Scotland has awarded three national lottery targeted grants towards the development of Nordic Music Days.
The support that has been given thus far is noted and appreciated.
The benefit of the year-long Nordic Music Days festival and the involvement of a multitude of stakeholders will bring significant gross value added to Scotland. However, if we are to get that benefit, funding has to be at scale and must, I concede, come from a variety of sources, including the Scottish Government. Will the minister meet me to explore further avenues, including what might be suitable Scottish Government funds?
Yes. As I said, Creative Scotland has awarded Nordic Music Days three targeted grants through lottery funds, and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the RSNO have agreed to look at contributing towards the festival.
In addition, officials based in the Scottish Government’s Nordic office in Copenhagen—this is a great example of our use of overseas offices—are liaising directly with Nordic Music Days festival organisers to explore how to increase the reach of the festival when it comes to Glasgow in 2024. That work includes plans for a Scottish Government-hosted launch event in London with the diplomatic and cultural communities that are based there.
Although the Scottish Government is not in a position to provide any additional funding, I welcome Michelle Thomson’s invitation to have a meeting with her to discuss how we can further support the festival, and I look forward to having such a meeting.
Justice and Home Affairs
We move to portfolio questions on justice and home affairs. Question 1 comes from James Dornan, who joins us remotely.
Community Safety (Glasgow Cathcart)
To ask the Scottish Government how the measures set out in its programme for government will help create safer communities, including in Glasgow Cathcart, in 2023-24. (S6O-02528)
The safety and security of the public are my top priority, so I am pleased that the latest recorded crime statistics indicate that crime remains at one of the lowest levels since 1974. This Government’s commitment to creating safer communities, as set out in the programme for government, includes a hate crime strategy and delivery plan, implementation of our violence prevention programme, a commitment to refresh the equally safe fund and the development of Scotland’s first multi-agency domestic homicide review model.
I recently visited Cathcart police station to speak with officers about the collective emergency services role, and I was impressed with the commitment to partnership working there. I learned about the vital work of our cashback for communities partners. Currently, 14 of the 29 cashback for communities partners are delivering services for young people in the Cathcart constituency area.
Alongside creating safer communities, a key focus of the programme for government is to reduce reoffending. Can the cabinet secretary outline some of the key actions that the Government is taking to achieve that aim?
Reducing reoffending will require continued work with our partners to change how custody is used, in recognition of the clear evidence that community-based interventions can be more effective than short custodial sentences, as is highlighted in our “National Strategy for Community Justice”. It will also require supporting people who are given sentences of imprisonment. Our work in that area will include continued investment in community justice services as well as in the prison estate.
In the coming months, we will also be implementing the provisions of the Bail and Release from Custody (Scotland) Act 2023, which will ensure that remand is focused on the people who pose the greatest risk to public safety, and that improved support is available for people leaving prison custody.
Mental Health Services (Prisons)
To ask the Scottish Government what discussions the justice secretary has had with ministerial colleagues regarding improving mental health services in prisons. (S6O-02529)
In June, I chaired the first cross-portfolio ministerial group on prisoner health and social care, which has been established to provide collective ministerial leadership across health, social care and justice. The group will support the delivery of improved health and care, including mental health care, for our prison population, with an integrated approach to prisoner health. It is a short-life strategic group consisting of senior cross-policy officials and key stakeholders. It has been established to drive forward improvements in prisoner healthcare and it reports to the cross-portfolio ministerial group.
I know that the cabinet secretary has a great interest in this particular area. Can she give us an indication of what is being done to improve processes to move folk from prison to secure hospital accommodation when the prison environment is not able to meet their support and treatment needs?
I assure Kevin Stewart that the Scottish Government takes seriously its responsibility to ensure that everyone who is going through the criminal justice system with mental health issues is appropriately supported, treated and cared for, while ensuring that their rights are being maintained.
The Forensic Network, together with justice and forensic mental health team stakeholders, is process mapping the pathway from prison to hospital, including what happens when beds are not immediately available. The proposed programme of work in relation to that is due to be concluded soon. Officials are developing protocols in relation to prison-to-hospital transfers, together with guidance for health boards on their responsibilities to persons in prison who need in-patient mental health care and treatment.
Vehicles belonging to prison officers have been destroyed in at least 10 fire bombings outside Scottish prisons. In the light of those cowardly attacks, what can the Scottish National Party Government do, not only to protect prison officers physically but to protect their mental health?
Cabinet secretary, the question in the Business Bulletin relates to improving mental health services in prisons, so perhaps you could extract any relevant bits of information that are related that.
Of course, Presiding Officer. I am more than happy to answer Mr Findlay’s question.
The mental health and wellbeing of prison officers is very important. We must look after the care and treatment of prisoners, of course, but prison officers do a particularly demanding and difficult job. I assure Mr Findlay that, via the capital budget, the Scottish Prison Service takes measures to try to reduce any threat or danger to prison staff. However, there is not just one solution; there are many solutions for ensuring the safety and wellbeing of prisoners, which is a matter that I take seriously.
Since the introduction in 2016 of “Talk to me”, which is the Scottish Prison Service’s mental health strategy, suicides among prisoners have increased by 42 per cent. Staff testifying at fatal accident inquiries have said that they are reluctant to implement the strategy because it worsens prisoner wellbeing.
I am sorry to interrupt, Mr McArthur. I think that your microphone is in the wrong place. Could you start again, please?
Since the introduction in 2016 of the prison service’s mental health strategy, suicides among prisoners have increased by 42 per cent. Staff testifying at FAIs have said that they are reluctant to implement it because it worsens prisoner wellbeing. Will the cabinet secretary confirm that those concerns will be taken into account in the revised strategy, and say when that strategy will be published?
I struggled to hear Mr McArthur, but I am confident that we will consider those matters very carefully. It is imperative that the right interventions are in place at the right time, whether it is the “Talk to me” scheme or something else. A wheen of work—a great breadth and depth of work—is focused on addressing issues around deaths in custody. I am happy to write to Mr McArthur on the detail of that work.
Prisoners’ Families (Visits)
To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the Scottish Prison Service regarding supporting and enabling families of prisoners to have better access to visiting their loved ones while they are in prison. (S6O-02530)
Strong family and social relationships are known to help to reduce reoffending. That is why we support people in custody to maintain and enhance links with their families. That includes support for face-to-face visits through funding of prison visitor centres, the roll-out of in-cell technology and the availability of virtual visits.
Although decisions on the timing of visits are an operational matter for the Scottish Prison Service, I have regular engagement with SPS and partners on a range of issues, as do my officials.
As the cabinet secretary says, the times that some prisons have for visits, especially children’s visits, make it very expensive or impossible for some families to visit their loved ones. For example, getting to HMP Shotts from any distance, particularly on public transport, for 9.30 am on a weekend is just not possible, and Perth prison has no weekend family visits at all. That means that visiting is expensive. Overnight accommodation might be needed or children might need to be taken out of school, and if they cannot do that, they barely see their relative. None of that is good for rehabilitation, maintaining family ties or the wellbeing of the children involved. What more can the Scottish Government do to ensure that families of prisoners are not punished in those ways?
I very much recognise that a prison can be a daunting place for children, and I know that the Scottish Prison Service works hard to provide child-friendly visiting spaces. All prisons offer visits specifically for families and children, but there are challenges around timing, costs and accessibility, as Gillian Mackay has outlined.
Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of attending a parliamentary reception for the “Paying the Price: A Project on the Financial Impact on Families of Imprisonment and Release” research report, which is about the burden of care that disproportionately falls on women. The cost of living crisis has increased those challenges.
The Scottish Government has invested £800,000 in prison visitor centres. There is also the assisted prison visit scheme, which provides assistance for travel costs, and there is the Sacro service. However, I know that the Scottish Prison Service is working hard to make other assistance and schemes available.
Transport is a significant barrier for families from the islands who are trying to visit their loved ones in prison. They have to travel hundreds of miles over multiple days, and pay high costs for visits of only 30 minutes.
We know that family contact is important in the rehabilitation process and for mental health. What support can the Scottish Government provide to families in rural and island areas who are trying to maintain in-person contact with their loved ones who are in prison?
Beatrice Wishart has made a good point. Although virtual contact is important, whether it is in-cell telephony or access to face-to-face online contact, which grew during the pandemic, it should not replace face-to-face contact. I recognise that there are additional costs for travel from the islands to the mainland. Does Beatrice Wishart have any case studies or details of constituents who have such issues? If she wants to give me examples of when those costs have not been met, I would be happy to look into the matter.
Gillian Mackay was right to mention how crucial visits are to rehabilitation and wellbeing, but it is also crucial that that support network continues when prisoners approach release.
The Dick Stewart Service, in Glasgow, has provided support and accommodation to male ex-offenders and their families for more than 20 years, but it is set to close in December due to council cuts. I know that the cabinet secretary believes in the importance of community-based support and rehabilitation, so will she personally commit to exploring all available options to prevent the closure of the Dick Stewart Service in Glasgow?
Before I ask the cabinet secretary to respond, I point to the fact that the question in the Business Bulletin relates to enabling families of prisoners to have better access to visiting their loved ones while they are in prison. Based on that, please respond to the part of the question that you feel is appropriate, cabinet secretary.
I am—as a former prison social worker—very familiar with the Dick Stewart hostel. The purpose of the Bail and Release from Custody (Scotland) Act 2023 was to start release planning early, which is important when preparing families to be reunited, to reduce the risk of reoffending and to make vital accommodation arrangements for release.
Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and Fire Brigades Union (Meetings)
To ask the Scottish Government when it last met with the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and the Fire Brigades Union to discuss the impact of any reduction in budget and services on communities, including in the South Scotland region. (S6O-02531)
The Scottish Government is in regular contact with the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and the Fire Brigades Union and those discussions will include how the service is provided to ensure that it is delivering value for the public purse while maintaining community and firefighter safety.
I last met with the SFRS board last week, and with the FBU in June, and officials met with them at the end of August.
The reality is that our communities are being seriously let down by the major cuts to fire service budgets, which are putting lives at risk. Reports in local Ayrshire papers last week suggest that there is
“evidence that on at least two days last week, appliances from larger and smaller stations alike across the area were noted on the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service’s own system as being unavailable for service because there are insufficient staff to operate them safely.”
The cuts are reducing the ability of firefighters to provide high-quality services. Our firefighters are standing against the cuts, as are the FBU and our communities. When will the Scottish Government listen and reverse these dangerous and damaging cuts?
As the minister for victims and community safety, I want to reiterate my commitment to ensure that the SFRS continues to deliver the high standard of service that is required to keep our communities safe. I also thank all the firefighters, who play a vital role in that.
I am sure that every member in the chamber can appreciate the financial pressure that the Scottish fixed annual budget finds itself in, and not one of us could have envisaged 18 months ago the current financial challenges that we face due to record inflation and public sector pay rises.
Despite that, the Scottish Government increased the budget by £14.4 million this year—it now totals £368 million during this financial year. Decisions on how SFRS allocates its budget are an operational matter. The Scottish Government and I am in regular contact with SFRS on plans to deliver the service and ensure value for the public purse while maintaining community and firefighter safety.
As the minister so rightly said, all budgets are under severe pressure. Can the minister advise the chamber whether the Labour Party said how much additional funding should be allocated to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service or what should be the source of that funding, given its recent reluctance—no doubt under pressure from its Westminster bosses—to support the raising of increased tax revenue?
The minister should respond with her perspective as a Scottish Government minister.
I look forward to all members taking part in the forthcoming budget process, and I recognise the constraints on its budget that the Scottish Government has due to continuing United Kingdom Government austerity and the sustained impact of high inflation due to the disastrous Tory budget of Liz Truss, which was announced this time last year.
We have limited levers available to us to increase our spending power in the face of the UK Government’s failure to ensure that public spending responds to the real challenges that people face in their lives; that is a reality.
I hope that the UK Government’s autumn statement realises the situation that the UK cost of living crisis is causing for people and increases the Scottish Government’s budget, but I am not going to hold my breath.
Slashing £11 million from the fire service’s budget led to a terrifying situation last week. When Aberdeen’s height appliance was “off the run” and Dundee’s was faulty, crews had to travel to Falkirk—a 230-mile round trip—to get cover. How often will the Government gamble that brave underresourced fire crews will make things right, operating with slashed budgets, before they cannot?
That is why it is imperative that the United Kingdom Government’s autumn statement sets out more substantive action to increase the Scottish Government’s budget, so that we can better align spending and deliver for people and organisations across Scotland.
Everyone supports our firefighters, who play a vital role in keeping our communities safe. How many firefighters would we have per head of population in Scotland if we were to match the current situation in England?
We are maintaining front-line services by having a higher number of firefighters than there is in other parts of the UK. The latest statistics show that, as of 31 March 2022, there were 6.1 firefighters per 10,000 of the population in England. If that ratio was replicated in Scotland, we would have just over 3,342 firefighters, but we had 6,225 firefighters in place at the end of March 2023, which is 11.3 firefighters per 10,000 of the population.
I am also pleased to say that, in February, firefighters accepted a two-year pay offer that runs from July 2022 to the end of June 2024.
To ask the Scottish Government when it anticipates that body-worn cameras will be delivered to over 14,000 police officers, in light of its 2023-24 programme for government commitment to support Police Scotland to achieve this. (S6O-02532)
We are fully supportive of Police Scotland’s plans to introduce body-worn video cameras. Such cameras have a significant potential to reduce crime, and they will offer greater safety and security to officers and members of the public.
Police Scotland is undertaking a full procurement exercise for body-worn cameras. Following an initial pilot phase, it will commence the roll-out of the technology from summer 2024. The precise pace of the roll-out is a matter for Police Scotland and will be determined by the need to provide full training for officers and staff.
At last week’s meeting of the Criminal Justice Committee, David Page of Police Scotland was unable to confirm whether body-worn cameras will be rolled out from next year. Can the cabinet secretary guarantee that the roll-out of body-worn cameras will go ahead as planned next year?
We are at risk of violently agreeing with each other. The Scottish Government, the Scottish Police Authority and Police Scotland have been clear about their priorities, particularly the priority relating to body-worn cameras. As is reflected in the programme for government, the Scottish Government will support Police Scotland in its plans to roll out body-worn video cameras to more than 14,000 officers and staff from 2024.
There are plans ahead. The initial business case has been completed, and a full procurement exercise is being undertaken. I was very pleased that, at the committee meeting, members of Police Scotland and the SPA spoke in detail about the plans ahead.
Will the cabinet secretary confirm how much the Scottish Government has invested in policing this year and how much has been allocated to the body-worn camera programme?
As I indicated to Sharon Dowey, operational decisions on specific budget priorities are for Police Scotland. The full cost of the implementation of this very important, in effect spend-to-save programme will be available when the full procurement exercise is complete.
On Audrey Nicoll’s direct question, the Government will invest £1.45 billion in policing this year. That is £80 million in addition to what was provided the year before, and it represents a 6.3 per cent increase. Crucially, in relation to body-worn cameras, we have more than doubled the policing capital budget since 2017-18.
Fire Brigades Union (DECON Campaign)
To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its engagement with the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and the Fire Brigades Union regarding the FBU’s DECON campaign to mitigate the carcinogenic nature of firefighting. (S6O-02533)
In August, we provided the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service with £56,000 in additional funding to enable firefighters to participate in a United Kingdom-wide health screening programme, which is being facilitated by the Fire Brigades Union and the University of Central Lancashire. I am pleased to say that last week, 175 SFRS firefighters took part in that trial, in which more than 1,000 firefighters from across the UK will be screened for early signs of cancers and other health problems that could be related to contaminants. The trial will help to inform the next steps on the health monitoring of firefighters. In addition, the SFRS is taking action across all aspects of operations and working practices to reduce exposure to contaminants, including investment in new fire appliances and facilities.
I thank the minister for her response and the funding that made last week’s screening possible. That is a good first step to improving how we support firefighters to keep safe. However, it must be followed by concerted investment, planning and action relating to healthcare, facilities and infrastructure and basic necessities such as showers and soap, as well as justice at work. How will the minister engage with the SFRS on the programme for government commitment to progress decontamination requirements? Does she recognise that only by protecting our firefighters’ wellbeing with proper facilities and investment will we have a sustainable service that is fit for the 21st century?
I agree with the member’s last point. The SFRS is taking action across all aspects of operations and working practices in order to reduce exposure to contaminants, including investment in new fire appliances and facilities, through the additional funding that we have provided to support that work. The programme for government commitment on the wellbeing of firefighters shows that we are committed to making progress in the area. I will continue to work closely with the SFRS and the FBU and will carefully consider any proposals that come forward that would increase the safety and wellbeing of firefighters.
Hate Crime Strategy
To ask the Scottish Government whether it can provide an update on how it plans to regularly monitor and evaluate the implementation of its hate crime strategy for Scotland, in the lead-up to the review that is planned for 2028. (S6O-02534)
The hate crime strategy makes a number of commitments, including improved support for victims, improving data and evidence and developing effective approaches to prevention. We will shortly publish a delivery plan to set out our activity over the next two years. One of the key priorities will be to improve hate crime data. We are also committed to on-going lived experience engagement, to help us to understand if our interventions are working. The hate crime strategic partnership group will oversee the progress of the delivery plan.
Last week, I asked the First Minister how the Scottish Government ensures that demand for police officers is being suitably met after the number of police officers in Scotland was reduced due to the funding cuts. However, calls to Police Scotland are only increasing. Can the Scottish Government advise what talks it is having with Police Scotland in order to ensure that its officers will be able to fully investigate all reported hate crimes, given the reduction in the number of police officers?
I assure the member that we are in constant talks with Police Scotland regarding the delivery plan for the hate crime strategy. The strategy will set out the strategic priorities for tackling and preventing hate crime and has been informed by individuals who have lived experience of hate crime. Police Scotland is on board and we engage with it at every meeting.
Transport of Prisoners to Court
To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports of significant issues in transporting prisoners from custody to court. (S6O-02535)
It is clear that the current performance of the GEOAmey contract is not working as it should be and is causing disruption for courts, the Scottish Prison Service and others. We are working with justice partners and GEOAmey to agree a range of measures to minimise disruption and reduce the pressures on justice services, including cutting the number of people travelling between prison, court and police custody.
The Scottish Prison Service leads the management of the contract and is supporting GEOAmey to improve its staff recruitment and retention to meet the current and future demand for the service.
To say that it is not working is an understatement. Court delays caused by late prison transfers exacerbate misery for victims who have already got a long wait to see their case brought to trial. The cabinet secretary will be aware that the Scottish Prison Service receives penalty payments from GEOAmey every time that court proceedings are delayed due to its failures, so will she agree with my call today for victims to be compensated through receipt of those payments, as they are the ones most affected by that shocking incompetence?
The member will appreciate that, when I am in this place, I have to choose my words somewhat carefully and he is of course correct to point to issues and the impact on the courts, but there is another aspect of the contract that is vitally important—that is as important as supporting our court service—and that is, for example, ensuring that prisoners can access their hospital appointments, because, believe you me, prisoners have the same rights as the member and I to access healthcare.
There are many aspects of how the contract has been implemented that I am far from content with but, in terms of action that we are taking, we are in and around the details and the guts of the contract, because it is clear that the Scottish Prison Service and GEOAmey will have to work together to amend the situation and sort this out for the benefit of our courts system, which is, after all, doing very well in its recovery programme and is getting through the backlog of cases that arose as a result of the pandemic.
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