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Seòmar agus comataidhean

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, November 23, 2023


General Question Time

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

Good morning. The first item of business is general questions. I invite members wishing to ask supplementary questions to press their request-to-speak buttons during the relevant question, and I make the usual appeal for brevity in both questions and answers.

HMP Stirling (Noise Complaints)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on progress towards addressing the reported concerns raised by local residents about HMP Stirling. (S6O-02773)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs (Angela Constance)

As the member will understand, that is largely an operational issue for the Scottish Prison Service, but I can assure him that the noise complaints are being taken very seriously by both me and the SPS. Officials from the Scottish Prison Service and Stirling Council attended a public meeting with MSPs and councillors on 13 November to update residents on the actions that they are taking to help alleviate the noise coming from parts of the prison. Those include a range of operational and infrastructure options.

Keith Brown

I attended a public meeting last week, where representatives of the SPS were able to hear directly from residents about their concerns. I am pleased that the SPS agreed to provide updates every fortnight to keep people informed of progress towards addressing the issues.

Over the past few days, however, I have received several emails about continued disturbances, and I have real concern over what my constituents feel is a lack of urgency on the various mitigation measures discussed at the public meeting, with most of those measures appearing unlikely to happen until well into the new year. The situation is clearly having a significant impact on the lives of my constituents. For example, one constituent has explained that his eight-year-old daughter sits with headphones on, crying, because she is so upset by the noise that she is hearing. Does the cabinet secretary agree that that is not acceptable, and that the SPS must expedite its plans to address the situation as a matter of urgency?

Angela Constance

I agree very much with the member, who has continued to raise these matters with me, that the issues need to be resolved as soon as possible for all concerned. I know that the SPS is rightly very concerned about the impact on neighbours, and that it has been taking action as a priority, as Mr Brown is aware. The SPS remains committed to engagement with local residents. Indeed, Prison Service officials are meeting local councillors today to discuss the operational measures that they are already taking to minimise the noise. I have asked the chief executive to keep me updated on progress.

Alexander Stewart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

Residents are exhausted by the continued disturbances. The new facility continues to fail the inmates and residents, who cannot wait months for mitigation measures to be implemented. They need action, and they need it now. It is quite clear from what was said at the public meeting that residents were not in any way considered through the design and planning processes for the facility. What urgent action can we put in place to resolve the situation for the exhausted residents?

Angela Constance

I thank Mr Stewart for his extensive correspondence on this matter, which has included some video footage. I reassure him, all members and the constituents whom they represent that they have my support in working with the Prison Service to get matters resolved as quickly as possible. He will, of course, be aware of all the actions that have taken place both operationally, within the prison, and structurally, outwith the prison. I very much want to see the situation resolved, and I can confirm to Mr Stewart that I have replied to his extensive letter this morning.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

The evidence is clear that the noise disturbances at HMP Stirling have been getting worse, not better, despite the proposed mitigations from the SPS. At the public meeting last week, which was co-ordinated by my colleague Councillor Alasdair Tollemache, the SPS admitted that it had no way of monitoring noise around the site beyond recording the complaints from constituents. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the SPS must urgently find a way to monitor noise disturbances at HMP Stirling systematically and proactively to start to restore trust with residents, as well as monitoring whether or not the mitigations are working?

Angela Constance

I can confirm to Mr Ruskell that I have replied to his councillor colleague and assure him that staff on site are actively intervening daily to limit the sound levels that are related to the disturbances experienced on the prison site and by residents. Alongside that and further other operational measures, the SPS has given a commitment to continue to measure and monitor the noise levels to inform the development of further options to suppress them.

Severe Winter Weather (Disruption to Public Services)

To ask the Scottish Government what measures it has in place to reduce disruption to public services due to severe winter weather. (S6O-02774)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs (Angela Constance)

Under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 and its regulations in Scotland, business continuity is a core responsibility of categorised responders. To support that responsibility, the Scottish Government hosts regular winter resilience meetings over the winter months, with a wide range of stakeholders. The next winter resilience meeting is on 24 November. In addition, at a local and regional level, Scottish Government officials engage directly with partners to support preparedness, including through resilience partnership. That is not limited to winter preparedness, but is part of a continual process of monitoring and assessment.

Christine Grahame

I have a feeling that the subject of my supplementary question is not within the cabinet secretary’s portfolio, but I will ask it anyway.

Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale are mainly rural areas. Keeping the road network clear is crucial to all the services that the cabinet secretary has mentioned. How is road grit allocated to local authorities? If necessary, can a local authority access additional road clearing assistance?

For brevity, the best thing that I can say is that I will, with urgency, ask the Minister for Transport to reply to Ms Grahame.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

There was a lessons-learned exercise after storm Arwen. Issues that have been highlighted include the digital voice programme, turning off the copper wire telephone network and the lack of resilience in the mobile phone network. Last December, Shetland had a severe weather event that caused power cuts for up to six days for some people. What engagement has the Scottish Government had with the communications sector to ensure that people are able to contact public and emergency services during such severe winter weather events?

Angela Constance

Beatrice Wishart raises good points about the interaction between severe weather, communications and power outages. I have answered a number of substantial questions from colleagues on the lessons learned from storm Arwen and will forward my responses to Ms Wishart. I also reassure Ms Wishart that robust debriefing is built into our resilience arrangements because, after each and every incident, there are lessons to be learned. However, I will ensure that the member is replied to in depth.

John Swinney (Perthshire North) (SNP)

Although I acknowledge that winter weather can disrupt public services, we are increasingly finding that heavy rainfall can disrupt public services in spring, summer, autumn and winter. There is a risk that heavy rainfall can result in the type of disruption that my constituents have experienced in the past two months, so can the justice secretary reassure Parliament that all responders are preparing for changes in climate in order to protect public services?

Angela Constance

Yes, I can. We live in Scotland, where weather disturbance is all year round; resilience, therefore, is an all-year-round activity. As we all know, climate change is with us here and now, and it is one of the biggest challenges that we face here and now.

“Migration to Scotland after independence” (Staff Resource)

To ask the Scottish Government how many civil servants worked on the production of the latest “Building a New Scotland” paper on immigration and European Union policy. (S6O-02775)

The Minister for Independence (Jamie Hepburn)

I apologise to Alexander Stewart and other members that I am not in Parliament in person to answer his question.

As with other publications in the “Building a New Scotland” series, “Migration to Scotland after independence” was co-ordinated by the Scottish Government’s constitutional futures division, with officials from other business areas contributing as part of their normal duties supporting the Scottish ministers. There are presently 21 staff in the constitutional futures division.

Alexander Stewart

The minister has just related that 21 civil servants may have spent their time working on a policy that will never be implemented. Does he think that civil servants’ time is better spent on dealing with national health service backlogs, for example, or on writing this latest piece of literature in the Scottish National Party’s taxpayer-funded independence campaign?

Jamie Hepburn

When it comes to NHS performance, I remind Alexander Stewart that we have the best-performing accident and emergency provision of any part of the United Kingdom. I also remind him that this Government won the last Scottish Parliament election, which his party lost. In that election, we said that we would advance the case for independence, so we have not only the right but the responsibility to do that. It was part of our manifesto commitment.

When it comes to the time that is being devoted by Scottish Government civil servants, the cost of the work that is being undertaken in 2022-23 in producing those papers, and of the constitutional futures division overall, represented 0.0035 per cent of the Scottish Government budget. In comparison with the great opportunities that would be brought by independence—which, I assure Mr Stewart, we will win—that cost is well worth paying. [Applause.]

Bill Kidd (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)

I thank everybody for the round of applause. [Laughter.]

Described as “xenophobic and completely unacceptable” by the African Union, the United Kingdom’s illegal Rwanda deportation policy stands in stark contrast to Scotland’s human approach. What assessment has the Scottish Government made of the UK’s plans to force through new legislation, and what steps is it taking to help the Tory Government understand that it is imperative that we create an asylum system that treats people with dignity and respect, as set out in the Scottish Government’s proposals?

Be brief, minister.

Jamie Hepburn

We welcome the Supreme Court’s judgment. Not only is the UK Government’s policy immoral, but it has now been deemed illegal. Rather than seeking to circumvent that ruling by removing itself from the European convention on human rights, as has been suggested, the UK Government should accept the ruling and ditch its Rwandan policy. We will push it to do that, and I have pushed it to drop its so-called illegal migration act.

When all is said and done, we need independence in order to create a humane approach to asylum here in Scotland.

Health Services (Highlands and Islands)

To ask the Scottish Government how many health services across the Highlands and Islands have been downgraded or lost entirely over the last 16 years. (S6O-02776)

The Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care (Michael Matheson)

It is for territorial national health service boards and their planning partners to organise and provide high-quality services that meet the needs of local people, in line with national guidelines and frameworks. Clearly, those services are developed over time to account for factors such as changes in clinical best practice and significant technological developments.

When it comes to the Government’s commitment to and investment in local health services, the resource budget of just NHS Highland has increased in real terms by 19.5 per cent between 2010-11 and 2023-24, and in cash terms by 83.1 per cent—£348.6 million—between 2006-07 and 2023-24.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

Sixteen years of Scottish National Party mismanagement has seen a running down of our rural health services. Maternity provision has been downgraded in Caithness and Moray, general practitioners are undergoing pressure across the region, and our ambulance crews are increasingly stretched. Many of our more remote and vulnerable communities have lost out.

At a meeting of Sir Lewis Ritchie’s steering group in June this year, NHS Highland committed to providing urgent care and minor injuries cover at Portree hospital, seven days a week, by the end of October. That has still not happened. Will the cabinet secretary tell me and my constituents in north Skye when they will get that vital service back in Portree for seven days a week, as they were promised?

Michael Matheson

Jamie Halcro Johnston will be aware that some of the changes that have been made to specific services in the Highlands have come about as a result of safety issues. For example, the issue of the midwife-led service in Caithness was the result of the death of a full-term baby in 2015. The independent review of that made recommendations on why changes had to take place in order to improve safety in the delivery of that service.

When it comes to the provision of services as set out in the Ritchie report, Professor Ritchie is engaging with the health board and local stakeholders to make sure that there is resilience in the provision of urgent care services in Portree for seven days a week. That work is on-going. The board is also working very closely with the Scottish Ambulance Service to ensure that that service is resilient.

Jamie Halcro Johnston will also be aware that we have just invested £27.7 million in the new Broadford hospital to provide additional clinical services in the area.

Renfrewshire Council (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government when the education secretary last met with Renfrewshire Council, and what issues were discussed. (S6O-02777)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

I last met Renfrewshire Council on 31 August of this year, when we discussed school provision in the Dargavel and Bishopton areas of Renfrewshire. The member attended that meeting, as did Natalie Don MSP as the constituency MSP, the interim chair of Dargavel primary school parent council and the chair of Bishopton Community Council. My officials remain in close contact with the council and receive regular updates on school provision developments in the area.

Neil Bibby

The cabinet secretary will be well aware of Renfrewshire Council’s Dargavel debacle, which will cost taxpayers an estimated £160 million. There are now concerns that a similar blunder might even now be taking place at St Andrew’s academy in Paisley. Meanwhile, plans for a new Thorn primary school in Johnstone were dealt a blow as the council’s funding bid to the Scottish Government failed. Given that, what additional support will the Scottish Government provide to Renfrewshire’s children to ensure that no child is left paying the price for Renfrewshire Council’s incompetence and financial mismanagement?

Jenny Gilruth

I very much recognise the scale of the challenge, and we engaged on that matter on three occasions during the summer recess. I understand that the council is keen to learn lessons from the report that was undertaken on the action, particularly at Dargavel primary school.

On Government funding, it is worth saying that, over the years, Renfrewshire has benefited from Scottish Government funding for the school estate. It was awarded £16 million towards three projects through the schools for the future programme, and Scottish Government funding is also supporting Paisley grammar school through the learning estate investment programme.

Although Scottish Government investment is intended to augment and not replace local authorities’ responsibility for the school estate, we will continue to explore with the Scottish Futures Trust how we can improve the school estate.

More broadly, it is worth saying that the Scottish schools estate has improved since 2007, when 61 per cent of our schools were in good or satisfactory condition, to now, when more than 90 per cent of them are in good or satisfactory condition. That is thanks to investment from the Scottish National Party Scottish Government.

Question 6 was not lodged.

Vulnerable People (Third Sector Organisations)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is working with third sector agencies to improve outcomes for vulnerable people. (S6O-02779)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

Every portfolio across the Scottish Government works closely with third sector agencies and organisations, many of which support our work with vulnerable people across Scotland. Scottish Government grant making is allocated across portfolios to various parts of the third sector to make a positive difference in many areas. The Government recognises the vital work that third sector organisations do on a daily basis to help make Scotland a better place for everyone.

Audrey Nicoll

Aberdeen Football Club Community Trust recently launched its impact report, which highlighted how the charity used the power of football to support communities across the north-east to close the poverty-related attainment gap, improve physical and mental wellbeing and support our most disadvantaged citizens through the cost of living crisis. Will the cabinet secretary join me in congratulating Aberdeen Football Club Community Trust? Does she agree that, when public finances are so constrained, it is all the more important that local authorities and the Scottish Government continue to support such fantastic organisations?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I very much agree with Audrey Nicoll on that point. The Government recognises the impact that football clubs and their associated trusts and foundations can have on the lives of people and communities across the country, and Aberdeen Football Club Community Trust is a fantastic example of that work in action. I know, for example, about its initiative with its dementia-friendly football memories programme, which is run with Alzheimer Scotland. That is but one example of one club and the tremendous work that it does in its community, and I commend it for that.

Paul O’Kane (West Scotland) (Lab)

For more than a decade, the Government has pledged multiyear funding settlements for the third sector and the First Minister repeated that commitment at the most recent Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations gathering. When will the cabinet secretary be able to update Parliament on that and, more important for the third sector, when that will be delivered, or is it just more warm words from the First Minister and his Government?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The First Minister spoke directly to the third sector at that gathering, as Mr O’Kane said, and he committed to looking at the issue. Clearly, it is a difficult area for the Scottish Government when our budget is not guaranteed. In fact, the damaging policies of yesterday’s autumn statement show how difficult it is to ensure that we provide support not just for the third sector but for our public services in general. We are absolutely committed to that through our fairer funding approach, and I look forward to working with the third sector to deliver on that.

That concludes general question time.