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Seòmar agus comataidhean

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, January 25, 2024


General Question Time

Good morning. The first item of business is general question time. In order to get in as many members as possible, I would be grateful for short and succinct questions and responses.

Businesses in Aberdeen (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it offers to businesses in Aberdeen. (S6O-03014)

The Cabinet Secretary for Wellbeing Economy, Fair Work and Energy (Neil Gray)

Scottish Enterprise, our national economic development agency, works with businesses in Aberdeen to create high-value jobs, enable innovation, boost productivity and attract investment. It also helps businesses to internationalise and expand their export opportunities. Last week, with the First Minister, I was delighted to visit Verlume, a renewable energy company based in Aberdeen, to learn how it has benefited from such support from Scottish Enterprise and to hear about its future plans.

Further to that, the Scottish Government is investing more than £125 million in the Aberdeen city region deal, and it further supports businesses in the region through initiatives such as the energy transition fund and the just transition fund.

Liam Kerr

Last week, Aberdeen received the devastating news that Marks and Spencer is to close, just days after we lost Haigs due to difficult trading conditions. Recently, Aberdeen business leaders met the Government to highlight the impact of its decision not to introduce 75 per cent rates relief, as is in place in England. Will the Scottish Government reverse its decision to ignore the demands of businesses, including those in Aberdeen, and the witnesses at the Economy and Fair Work Committee this week, who desperately want the 75 per cent rates relief passed on to ensure that their businesses are competitive with markets south of the border?

Neil Gray

Marks and Spencer’s decision to close its Union Street store but invest £15 million in doubling its space at Union Square is a signal of intent and of confidence in the market in Aberdeen. My understanding is that the decision will have no bearing on redundancies. I do not believe that the issue of non-domestic rates had any impact on M&S’s decision to provide substantial investment.

This morning, the Deputy First Minister, Tom Arthur and I had a very productive meeting with the hospitality industry on what is possible in relation to not just non-domestic rates but further work with the sector. That followed on from a very productive session with the Scottish Retail Consortium last week. We will continue to look at what we can do to provide support.

If we had passed on that resource to the hospitality, leisure and retail industry, we would have had no further space to invest in public services. That would have had devastating consequences, as can be seen in England, where the national health service has had a real-terms cut.

Families Outside Report

2. Maggie Chapman (North East Scotland) (Green)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its response to the recent Families Outside report, “Staying Connected: Care-experienced children and young people with a sibling in prison or secure care”. (S6O-03015)

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

Keeping siblings connected is fundamental to the Scottish Government’s commitment to keeping the Promise. I welcome the contribution that the Families Outside report has made to helping our understanding of the issue.

In 2021, we enacted legislation placing a duty on councils to nurture children’s relationships with their siblings when they cannot live at home, including when one sibling is in prison. Through the work that is led by the children and families national leadership group, we are taking action to improve our understanding of how children and young people are affected by a family member being in prison or secure care. The group’s final report and summary of follow-on work will be published shortly.

Maggie Chapman

One issue that the Families Outside report highlights is lack of data. We do not know how many young people have a sibling in prison, we do not understand why multiple siblings might be involved in offending behaviour, and we do not routinely keep records of where imprisoned siblings are. The report also states that many families struggle to afford travel for prison visits. Will the cabinet secretary meet me and Families Outside to discuss those issues and others that were highlighted in the report so that we can suggest potential resolutions?

Angela Constance

Data collection is, of course, important in establishing the national picture and monitoring the implementation of the 2021 legislation. I would be delighted to meet Ms Chapman and Families Outside, which is an organisation with which I am well acquainted.

With respect to travel costs, I am aware that many families are finding it difficult to make visits to their loved ones in custody. Although there are existing supports, we are assessing current issues with partners and will consider practical ways to make travelling to visit family members easier.

MV Isle of Islay

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that the MV Isle of Islay will be launched on 16 March 2024. (S6O-03016)

The Minister for Transport (Fiona Hyslop)

The Scottish Government is pleased that work at Cemre Shipyard on all four vessels continues to progress well and that the MV Isle of Islay will be launched in March. I look forward to attending the official naming ceremony, which is due to take place in Scotland later this year and which marks another major milestone in the vessel’s construction. When the vessel is delivered in October, the communities of Islay and Jura can look forward to a more resilient and modern ferry service.

Sandesh Gulhane

The Turkish-built MV Isle of Islay is on time and on budget, only two years after being ordered. I assume that the First Minister will not attend the launch with fanfare and fake windows, as his predecessor did for another vessel, but perhaps the minister will.

The handling of the boat being built at the Clyde shipyard under this inept Scottish National Party Government is utterly shambolic. It is three times over budget and six years late, and there is no launch date. That is a complete humiliation for the SNP Government.

Given the latest saga at Ardrossan, which is further letting down islanders, will the minister take the opportunity to apologise to them for the ferries fiasco? Islanders have been let down, ignored and taken for granted. Will she provide a guarantee that the incompetence of the SNP Government’s handling of the ferries fiasco will never be repeated?

Fiona Hyslop

The Conservatives cannot acknowledge that six vessels will be delivered to support our islanders by 2026. There has been £2 billion of investment in our ferry service in order to support our island communities. Yes, there have been challenges, but, unlike Mr Gulhane, I will not insult the work of the Ferguson Marine (Port Glasgow) Ltd shipyard and its workers. The fact that the shipyard exists enables them to work on completing the vessels. [Interruption.]


Fiona Hyslop

I have spoken directly to islanders about the issues that they face. They know of the Government’s concern, and I have apologised directly to them for the difficulties that they face.

However, let us face forward and welcome the six new vessels. Let us not use a positive story about the MV Isle of Islay coming to Scotland this year as another hook for the Conservatives to bash Ferguson’s shipyard and not listen to the islanders who want the six ferries to be delivered by 2026.

Jackie Dunbar (Aberdeen Donside) (SNP)

The MV Isle of Islay is an exciting prospect for islanders, as is the MV Loch Indaal. The vessel represents an investment of more than £90 million and is proof of the Government’s commitment to providing communities with a resilient and reliable ferry service. [Interruption.] The new vessel will bring—

Can I have a question, please, Ms Dunbar? [Interruption.]

Would you put your question, please, Ms Dunbar?

Jackie Dunbar

I am sorry, Presiding Officer—I never quite heard you because of the chuntering.

Does the minister share my view that, although it is all very well to play politics, we should all welcome the news of progress on all vessels to improve services for our island communities?

Fiona Hyslop

I agree. Islanders do not want politics played; they want the vessels delivered. The MV Isle of Islay and the MV Loch Indaal will deliver increased capacity and added resilience, which will benefit islanders and businesses. We are investing in replacement vessels across the network, and I look forward to welcoming the six new vessels to the fleet by 2026.

Defence Solicitors

4. Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reported comments by the Faculty of Advocates and the Law Society of Scotland that an exodus of defence solicitors has left the legal system close to collapse. (S6O-03017)

The Minister for Victims and Community Safety (Siobhian Brown)

I am aware of the issues of concern that have been raised by the Faculty of Advocates and the Law Society. I established, and I co-chair—along with the chief executive of the Law Society of Scotland and the dean of the Faculty of Advocates—the future of the legal profession working group, which is examining evidence and identifying measures that we can collectively take to address recruitment and retention in criminal defence.

We recognise the important role of legal aid providers in the justice system, which is why, in recent years, we have provided significant additional funding and increases in remuneration. We have invested £31 million in legal aid since 2021, despite the clear and significant constraints on our finances as a result of the United Kingdom Government settlement. In this financial year, we will provide an £11 million package of legal aid reforms, including an uplift worth 10.2 per cent overall.

Jamie Greene

This is not a problem that has suddenly appeared this year—it is a decade-long issue, so it has been a long time coming. An estimated 70 defence advocates have left the profession and moved to higher-paid jobs in the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. Unsurprisingly, that exodus and the shortage of solicitors, which the Faculty of Advocates has described as “unprecedented”, have led to trials being delayed or, in some cases, cancelled. The Law Society has said:

“Scotland’s legal aid sector has been left in the dark without long-lasting reform”.

I agree.

What is the Government doing now to ensure that our legal sector does not collapse? As the Government often says, justice delayed is justice denied.

Siobhian Brown

The Scottish Government cannot compel private solicitors to undertake work. However, it is expected that the increase in legal aid fees will have a positive impact on availability for people who seek advice and representation, and on recruitment and retention.

Since 2021, £31 million has been invested in legal aid. If there is a continuing problem with recruitment and retention, that suggests that remuneration is not the only issue and points to a need for innovation in the provision of access to legal services.

Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

Although there has been an increase in fees, the profession still pays defence lawyers less than is paid to lawyers who work for the Government or the Crown Office. The issue is simple to understand: if we do not pay defence lawyers the same as is paid to Government or Crown Office lawyers, we will not attract talent into the profession.

Although Scottish Labour welcomes the Scottish Government’s commitment to independent legal representation for victims who are subject to section 275 in rape trials, the Law Society has already expressed concern about how it will fulfil that pledge if it does not resolve the unfairness of how defence lawyers are paid.

Siobhian Brown

Despite reductions in the level of crime, revenue funding for legal aid and other aspects of the justice system has been maintained in cash terms. There has been no cash reduction in the budget for the legal aid fund. In addition, the budget is demand led. Everyone who meets the eligibility criteria has access to legal aid, regardless of the allocated budget. The fact that the number of civil legal aid cases that were paid increased by 9 per cent, the number of summary criminal legal aid cases increased by 15 per cent and the number of solemn criminal legal aid cases increased by 13 per cent is a clear indicator of the work that is being done to reduce the Covid backlogs across the justice system.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

The lack of defence solicitors is a particular problem in rural and island areas, with the falling numbers giving rise to the risk of legal aid deserts in some areas. What steps will the minister take to address that specific aspect of the problems that the Law Society of Scotland rightly highlighted?

Siobhian Brown

Solicitors in all parts of Scotland are able to access funding for the work that is carried out under the legal assistance schemes. The schemes are flexible enough to allow solicitors to travel to rural and remote parts of the country to carry out work, should it be possible to instruct a local agent, although I reiterate that the Scottish Government cannot compel private solicitors to undertake work. However, it is expected that the increase in legal aid fees will have a positive impact on availability and representation.

Criminal Justice Social Work Statistics 2022-23

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the statistics that it has published on criminal justice social work for 2022-23. (S6O-03018)

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

Justice social work does commendable work to ensure that community sentences and other interventions effectively address offending and its causes, and provide benefits to local communities.

Although the pandemic continued to have an impact in 2022-23, the latest justice social work statistics show encouraging signs that community justice services continue to recover. There were 14,700 community payback orders commenced in 2022-23, which is an increase of 20 per cent on the previous year. The numbers of bail supervision cases and structured deferred sentences commenced also increased, with both at the highest level in the past five years.

Russell Findlay

What the cabinet secretary did not mention was that almost 5,000 criminals were diverted from prosecution instead of being put in the dock, which is a record high. She also did not say that one in three criminals who were given community service were not required to do any unpaid work. To put it simply, thousands of criminals are not prosecuted and those who are convicted receive no punishment.

This morning, I spoke with the Scottish Retail Consortium, whose colleagues suffer unacceptable threats and violence every day. Will the cabinet secretary tell them, and victims across Scotland, why they must pay the price for the Scottish National Party’s relentless weakening of Scotland’s criminal justice system?

Angela Constance

I know that Mr Findlay does not like the facts to get in the way of his narrative or of a good old yarn, but he should recognise that, since the inception of community payback orders, 10.6 million hours of reparation has been made to our communities through unpaid work. That is a good way of reducing reoffending and of ensuring that our communities are safer.

Mr Findlay raises the issue of diversion. I am quite sure that he knows that that is a matter for independent prosecutors and not for ministers. He should also be aware of the facts. For the first time, there has been more use of unpaid work in community payback orders than of other supervision requirements, which is positive. He should also know that unpaid work is one of 10 possible requirements in a community payback order, but—

Thank you, minister.

As usual, the Conservatives are soft on substance and soft on solutions and this Government will focus—

Thank you, minister. We will move to the next question.

Police Stations (Edinburgh)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions the justice secretary has had with Police Scotland regarding potential station closures in Edinburgh. (S6O-03019)

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

I have regular meetings with the chief constable, where a range of issues, including the police estate, are discussed.

Police Scotland’s 2019 estate strategy outlined plans to replace outdated, underinvested and underused properties with modern ones so that it could develop modern premises that are capable of delivering effective and efficient public services to meet the needs of the people and staff who use them.

We are supportive of that and I agree with Deputy Chief Constable Malcolm Graham, who said that the presence of policing in communities

“is not defined by buildings but by the officers and staff who work there”.

Co-locations often make the best use of the public sector estate and offer the opportunity for increased visibility, closer working and increased collaboration between partners. Police Scotland has more than 60 examples of successful co-location.

Sarah Boyack

The cabinet secretary should be aware that those closures might mean that communities such as Leith and Portobello in my region would be left without a local police station. Police stations are vital to our communities and ensure good relationships between the police and residents. It is not a surprise that Unison has said that the closures

“might deliver balanced books, but ... won’t deliver better policing”.

What assurances can the cabinet secretary give members that as many police stations as possible will be saved from closure? How is Police Scotland ensuring that it develops strong relationships with communities and residents to tackle crime and keep people safe? The cabinet secretary has spoken about hubs. Will she say where those will be in Leith and Portobello, so that people do not miss out on our police?

Angela Constance

I recognise that the matter is of extreme interest to local communities and that people often have strong views about the location of public sector buildings. That is why Police Scotland is currently consulting on its estate plans, which will help to inform the detail of future discussions and decisions.

That is, quite rightly, an operational matter for the chief constable. However, from my perspective, it is imperative that the estate meets the needs of modern policing, and that it is fit for purpose for 21st-century policing. That also includes visibility and engagement at the heart of our communities.

With apologies to the members whom I was unable to call, that concludes general questions.