Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) [Draft]
Meeting date: Tuesday, June 28, 2022
Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Independence Referendum, Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Business Motion, Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill, Business Motion, Point of Order, Decision Time
- Time for Reflection
- Business Motion
- Topical Question Time
- Independence Referendum
- Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3
- Business Motion
- Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3
- Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill
- Business Motion
- Point of Order
- Decision Time
Topical Question Time
The next item of business is topical question time. In order to get in as many members as possible, I would be grateful for short and succinct questions and responses.
Abortion Services (Safe Access)
To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update following the summit on safe access to abortion services convened by the First Minister. (S6T-00821)
The First Minister hosted a summit on safe access to abortion yesterday. The summit focused on making progress in ensuring that women do not feel harassed or intimidated when accessing abortion services.
The discussion agreed that primary legislation will be needed to provide a long-term solution for Scotland, but that any legislation must be carefully considered to ensure that it is consistent with our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, and that it can withstand any legal challenge. The First Minister and I confirmed that the Scottish Government wishes to continue working closely with the member on her legislation and to take particular account of the forthcoming Supreme Court judgment in relation to the Northern Irish Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) Bill.
The summit also considered a number of short-term actions that could be taken while the legislation is progressing. In particular, local authority representatives indicated a willingness to look again at what can be done in areas that are facing regular protests or vigils. We will have further discussions with them to consider the potential for local authorities to pilot the use of byelaws to provide for safe access zones.
I welcome the offers from the First Minister and the minister for women’s health to work collaboratively on my bill. Members from every party are now committing to back me on that issue. We know, however, that legislation takes some time. What can the Government, local authorities and the police do in the meantime to ensure that we reduce the impact on those entering clinics?
As the member says, legislation takes time. At yesterday’s summit, we discussed finding shorter-term solutions that will ensure that women can access the healthcare that they need in the meantime. Our programme for government included a commitment to support any local authority that wishes to establish byelaws to create protest-free safe zones outside clinics that provide abortion services. The First Minister reiterated that at yesterday’s summit and committed that she, and the Scottish Government, will meet local authorities and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities as soon as possible. I am pleased that COSLA and Glasgow City Council in particular indicated yesterday that they are willing to look further at that. The Government also continues to support Police Scotland taking appropriate action in response to any issues that arise at protests or vigils.
Abortion rights are under attack in many countries and last week saw the devastating rollback of reproductive rights in the United States of America. I am sure that members would like to express their solidarity with those in the US. We also see legislation similar to mine that was introduced in Northern Ireland by my Green colleague Clare Bailey being challenged in the Supreme Court. It is more important than ever to protect access to abortion and to support to those who need reproductive healthcare. How can the Government ensure that people who are affected by protests outside clinics, including staff and patients, receive any emotional support that they might need? Will the minister join me in expressing solidarity with all those in the US and elsewhere who do not have access to safe legal abortion care?
I thank the member for her question and for the opportunity to offer my whole-hearted solidarity to women in the United States following the decision to overturn Roe v Wade and to women elsewhere in the world who do not have access to safe and legal abortion care. At a time when women’s reproductive rights are being eroded in other parts of the world, I reiterate my firm commitment to ensuring that the rights of women in Scotland remain intact. The Scottish Government will continue to work with healthcare providers to ensure that the appropriate support mechanisms are in place for patients.
I, and many others with an interest in abortion rights, have seen comments—some from close to home—by people who seek to limit our right to access that form of healthcare. In light of the Supreme Court in America overturning the Roe v Wade decision, what can the Scottish Government do to support women and the LGBTQI community in Scotland, who might be concerned about the ramifications of the ruling for their ability to access services safely?
I reiterate my solidarity with all women, including LGBTQI women, in the United States following the overturning of Roe v Wade last week. The Scottish Government remains absolutely committed to ensuring that the rights of women in Scotland remain intact, and we will continue to work with healthcare providers through the buffer zones working group and its members to ensure that the appropriate support mechanisms are in place for anybody who is concerned about this.
What has happened in the US has sent a shock wave around the world, and all of us, as women with concerns about women’s rights, are feeling frightened about the ramifications of the decision. However, I can absolutely understand why many minority groups are feeling more threatened today than they felt this time last week.
I was pleased to join the First Minister and other colleagues at yesterday’s summit on abortion services. I reiterate that we support the comments that our colleagues have made today.
In keeping with that collaborative theme, a woman’s democratic right to safe healthcare services is vitally important. When will the minister issue a revised approval under section 1(3A) of the Abortion Act 1967 to allow mifepristone to continue to be taken at home where that is considered clinically appropriate?
I thank the member for the question. I have already made it clear that the system of being able to take both medications at home, which was introduced during the pandemic, will continue. I expect the review that we have asked to be done of the safety and efficacy of the processes that we have in place to report towards the end of this year. Of course, as with any healthcare provision, we will take on board any lessons that the review gives us in relation to refining the system going forward.
What I also expect from that piece of work is that we might well be better informed, bearing in mind that the systems were brought in during an emergency situation in the pandemic. There are variations around Scotland in how the services are delivered, and I expect to understand those variations better and to be able to iron them out to ensure that there are absolutely no barriers to women accessing early medical abortion at home. As we are all aware, it is safer and it is much welcomed by women and by healthcare providers as being a real advance in our ability to deliver equitable abortion services.
The summit was constructive and I pay tribute to all who took part, and welcome the First Minister’s commitment to a follow-up summit.
Unfortunately, during the summit, Mr Mason MSP continued his dangerous disinformation campaign. His comments are not just his views; they are disinformation. He is talking down healthcare workers and claiming that women do not have informed consent. We have already heard from the chief medical officer that there is no evidence to back that up. What will the Scottish Government do to tackle disinformation to ensure that all MSPs have the facts in front of them? It is not about our views; it is about the facts. What will the SNP do to ensure that Mr Mason does not continue with his dangerous disinformation?
I thank the member for that question. It gives me an opportunity to put on the record again that I profoundly disagree with Mr Mason’s views and that I am absolutely confident that services that are provided in Scotland around informed consent relating to abortions are good and meet the legal standards, but also that, in my experience, people who work in sexual health go above and beyond to deliver an exemplary gold standard around informed consent. They get right alongside their patients and, without judgment, help them to understand what they need to know to make a good decision. They do that day in, day out, and we are grateful for it.
I cannot speak for the party; I am simply an MSP in the party. What I can say is that our manifesto committed us to improving access to abortion and retaining our current abortion legislation.
On misinformation, I agree—
Very briefly, minister.
I agree that it is vital that each of us who are in positions of power in the Parliament take our responsibility very seriously to ensure that the information that we give is accurate, and I am more than happy to liaise with the chief medical officer to ensure that every member has the opportunity to understand the issues that are at hand.
Legal Aid Payments
To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on reports that the Scottish Solicitors Bar Association says that the impasse on legal aid payments has meant that the entire criminal justice system is in “imminent danger of collapse”. (S6T-00828)
To put it simply, that is not accurate; the justice system is working through and reducing the Covid backlogs. The Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service has confirmed that the trial backlog has reduced by nearly 1,500 trials since April, and cases concluded are above pre-Covid levels in the High Court and the sheriff courts.
The court recovery programme is progressing in line with the expected pace. Our recent offer to the profession in May represented an increase of more than 20 per cent over four years. Unfortunately, that was rejected by the profession, but I can update members that we have drafted a new proposal, which will be put to the Law Society of Scotland this week.
On 25 April, criminal practitioners voted to refuse all new instructions in summary cases in specific domestic abuse cases. They stated that that was necessary due to the Scottish Government’s decision not to adequately fund legal aid. In 1999, a summary legal aid case attracted £550, but in 2022, that figure is £550.76, so the headline figures on increases do not reflect the reality of those fees. Another example is representing under-21s in remand cases—for complex cases, there is no longer a separate fee.
The Scottish Solicitors Bar Association, which is the nation’s biggest defence lawyer group, has said that negotiations have been a failure so far. A proposal on the table in order to engage with the Scottish Solicitors Bar Association would be welcome. It has also said that it has no choice but to decline cases because they are not financially viable, and it warns of a total withdrawal from the scheme by the beginning of next year if there is no negotiation.
Does the minister accept that if we do not resolve the issue, there will be a crisis in the service, and what will she do address those concerns?
I will pick up a couple of the member’s points. There was a substantial set of reforms over many years prior to 2008. For clarity and purposes of discussion going forward, it is probably best if we stick to fee rates since 2008.
One point that the member raised was about DASA—Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018—cases. I have said in the chamber previously that prior to notification about action by the profession, DASA cases and the fee rates for those cases had not been raised with me. Had they been raised with me prior to that point, I would certainly have tried to address the issue.
The Scottish Government is, and continues to be, in active negotiations with the profession. Members will understand that I need to balance interests across the justice landscape and that I am operating in a very challenging public finance environment. Nonetheless, our actions and our investment in legal aid to date show that we are a Government that is listening and that wants to work with the profession to find a way forward.
If the Scottish Solicitors Bar Association has not raised those issues with the minister, I am raising them with her now. In the 10 years prior to the pandemic, there was a 25 per cent loss in the number of solicitors who were engaged in legal aid work. I am sure that the minister will take the point that there is not only a crisis in fees; there is a crisis of not having a properly resourced defence service. That is the direct result of the dramatic reduction in public spending on legal aid over the past 20 years.
In 2008, which is the benchmark that the minister is happy to accept, public spending on legal aid was £155 million, but in 2019-20, it had gone down to £130 million. There has been a fall of £85 million when inflation is taken into account. It is important that the Scottish Solicitors Bar Association says that the average rate for a newly qualified defence solicitor is £25,000, against £48,000 for someone who works for the Crown Office.
Briefly, Ms McNeill.
We can see that we are not attracting people into the profession. Given the loss of solicitors in the sector and the huge pay discrepancies, does the minister believe that, if Scotland is to stand up and say that we have properly resourced and good access to justice, we need to resolve that crisis now?
I remind members that Scotland is one of the leading jurisdictions in Europe on legal aid in terms of scope and eligibility. I am afraid that I cannot accept Pauline McNeill’s characterisation of the figures that she uses because—I know that she knows this—the legal aid budget is demand led. Therefore, it reflects the work that has been done, usually up to around two years before, although, obviously, that varies from year to year.
Members will be aware that negotiations with the profession have been going on for some time. I know that a number of sets of figures and different percentage rates are bandied about, and I want to be very clear about what has been agreed so far.
In 2019, the Scottish Government put forward a 3 per cent uplift on all legal aid fees across the board and, in 2021, it did a 5 per cent uplift on legal aid fees across the board. That was followed by a further 5 per cent uplift across the board in 2022. In addition to that investment, there was £9 million in Covid resilience funding and £1 million in traineeship funding, which were particular to Scotland.
An issue was raised with me that I managed to resolve. I set up an entirely new payment for holiday courts.
Briefly, minister, please.
Unfortunately, we were not able to accept the profession’s previous ask, which it raised with me prior to May, of a 50 per cent rise in legal aid fees. That was in addition to the investment that the Government had already put in. We put forward a rise, the total of which, as I mentioned in my previous answer, amounts to a 20 per cent increase. For context, that is much more than what has been offered in England and Wales.
Members will understand that the process is time consuming.
Thank you, minister.
We are in active negotiations, and I am committed to finding a way forward.
I will take two brief supplementary questions.
How does investment in fee uplifts in Scotland compare with that in England and Wales? For those who are seeking access to legal representation, how does Scotland’s legal aid system compare with that of England and Wales in terms of scope and eligibility?
You should be as brief as possible, minister.
The Scottish Government has provided fee uplifts and grant funding that are much greater than what has been offered—it has not yet been accepted—in England and Wales. Combined with our latest offer to the profession, that totals 20.5 per cent since 2019.
The minister might be aware of comments that have been made by her Scottish National Party colleague Mr Dave Doogan MP, who took to Twitter last night to mock well-respected members of Scotland’s legal profession as they raised valid concerns about Scotland’s justice sector. He aimed his comments at a female lawyer who is quitting the profession due to the mental health impact that the workload is having on her. For the record, does the minister condone or condemn his comments?
I am afraid that I have not seen those comments, but I will endeavour to have a look at them. I can then come back to Jamie Greene on them.
As I said, we are in active negotiations, and I am very committed to finding a way forward. I have also reminded members that Scotland is a leading jurisdiction in Europe on legal aid. We have put forward to the profession a substantial package of investment, and we have, of course, retained the scope and eligibility in Scotland. I remind Jamie Greene that that is not the case in England. More than 70 per cent of Scotland’s citizens are eligible for some form of legal aid; in England, the figure is just 25 per cent, following some quite dramatic cuts there. I do not think that anyone in Scotland would want me to follow the example of the Conservatives on legal aid.