Standard Responses

While I always welcome personal comments from constituents I am afraid that I have reached the conclusion that it is no longer possible for my staff to process individually the many thousands of identical or computer-generated `round-robins` I receive every month. If you live in South Scotland you may wish to come along to one of my regular advice `surgeries` when I will be pleased to discuss your own concerns with you in person. These are advertised in the local media, on my website, and my social media accounts.

Crisis Campaign on Temporary Accomodation

Thank you for contacting me about the recent Crisis report.

Like you, I firmly believe that no-one should have to live for extended periods in unsuitable temporary accommodation, and I recognise the important work that Crisis has done on this issue. I am happy to support amending the regulations as they suggest, and my colleague Graham Simpson will make this representation on behalf of all the Conservative MSPs.

This issue does need to be seen in context: this issue is fundamentally one of housing supply and the SNP have repeatedly failed to meet housing targets. The Scottish Conservatives have proposed a range of ideas to increase the housing stock available, from planning reform through innovative infrastructure funding to meaningful action on empty homes. We urge the SNP to back these ideas.

Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.

Communities Vs. Blood Cancer

Thank you for contacting me about the Communities Vs Blood Cancer campaign.

It is very important to increase the number of stem cell (cord blood and bone marrow) donors in Scotland and so I welcome the vital work undertaken by Anthony Nolan.

In 2015 the UK Government announced an extra £3 million in additional funding for stem cell services, part of £19 million in additional investment that the UK Government has committed since 2010 to improve the provision of cells in the UK.  This funding is being used to encourage young adult donors as well as those from under-represented populations, such as black, Asian and ethnic minority communities who find it difficult to secure a suitable match.

No patient should be denied a stem cell transplant due to the availability of a lifesaving donor. The Scottish Conservatives know the importance of the stem cell donor register and support its expansion. As an ex nurse I have experienced the challenge of talking to patients and families about organ donation and understand just how important it is that we as communities have these discussions before we are faced with one of the most distressing experiences that anyone has to face.

I will attend the Anthony Nolan’s parliamentary drop-in on Thursday the 20th of September to support this campaign. 

GIRFEC 

Thank you for contacting me about the human rights impact of GIRFEC.

As you will be aware, this petition was heard on 28th June by the Petitions Committee and various concerns were expressed by the petitioners Alison Preuss and Lesley Scott, both of whom have been in touch with my colleague Liz Smith MSP about the central issue. We await further developments with this petition given that the committee was keen to see more evidence presented.

On a separate, but nonetheless related issue, the Education and Skills Committee members will reconsider any amended proposals to the Scottish Government’s named person policy should that be brought before the committee again. These proposals were due to be debated this autumn but there has been a further delay given the concerns amongst key stakeholders about the information sharing aspect of the named person policy and where responsibilities lie.

The Scottish Conservatives have always been opposed to the named person policy for two reasons; firstly, we believe it allows the state to undermine the role of parents in determining how to bring up their children and, secondly, its universal basis means that scarce resources are diverted away from our most vulnerable children who are most in need of support. We remain opposed to named persons and to any attempts to introduce the policy by the back door. On an individual note I was involved in the early days of the original proposal to have one point of contact to collect and collate information relating to vulnerable children to endeavour to close the gaps that exist and often lead to a failure to intervene when a child is at risk. In my professional capacity before becoming an MSP I was part of my local government GIRFEC Implementation Team and, whilst I recognise that the idea had at its heart the right idea, it was catastrophically managed by the Scottish Government and the bringing forward of the legislation on the named person took a good idea and made it unworkable and unacceptable. I am saddened that on such an important issue we find ourselves in such a quagmire.

However the Scottish Conservatives are willing to get round the table and find a fresh solution to help and protect vulnerable youngsters. We believe that is a shared view of other political parties including many in the SNP too.

Thank you again for contacting me.

 

Scottish Booksellers 

Thank you for contacting me about business rates and a cultural exemption for Scottish booksellers.

Small independent booksellers and local shops are often at the heart of communities in towns and villages across Scotland. Booksellers in particular play a vital cultural role by providing a learning resource for people of all ages.

More must be done to help bricks-and-mortar retailers survive and thrive in this challenging economic climate but of course that requires local people to buy from their local shops.

In the last ten years of this SNP government, Scotland’s high streets have suffered. The unfair and outdated business rates system is in urgently in need of improvement and planning regulations need to be flexible about allowing a mixed economy within the High Street so that we can move away from the unedifying site of long term empty shops and For Sale/Let boards.

The Scottish Conservatives will continue to demand a fairer settlement for Scotland’s high streets, and ensure the SNP government deliver reforms to the business rates system as soon as possible.  

Coul Links

Thank you for your concern,

My Highland colleagues have quite rightly been monitoring the Coul Links application since it was submitted and acknowledge the concerns about the potential environmental impact of the development.

My colleague Edward Mountain, MSP for the Highlands and Islands Region, has spoken to the Scottish Conservative group leader on Highland Council. The group leader attended the planning meeting as an observer and he has confirmed that the planning committee have approved the proposed development.

Approval for the development was granted on the basis that it is supported by the local councillor and there is substantial local support in favour of the proposal. SEPA did not object to the development (having reviewed the additional information) and the developer has agreed to considerable additional works to mitigate any possible damage to the flora and fauna and in particular invertebrates.

As SNH did not withdraw their objection, this matter will need to be considered by the Scottish Government and I do hope that they will do so carefully. It is important the Government fully consider the concerns of both the supporters and the objectors and bear these in mind when they consider the comments of the statutory consultees.

However I personally believe that it is very important for planning permissions to be dealt with at a local level. As an ex councillor myself who has served on Planning and Building Standards Committees I have always supported local determination as I believe it achieves the most democratic outcome. I am also conscious that the information reviewed and considered by members and local residents can be significant and can lead to decisions that those who are not involved in the detail may not always appreciate.

I am aware that many of my colleagues have written to the Scottish Government about this case and I have also written to ask that the Minister ensures that this application receives the care and attention that such a beautiful area clearly requires.

Thank you for contacting me.

Pavement Parking

The Transport Bill offers a chance to examine and possibly change legislation surrounding pavement parking, as well as low emission zones and bus franchising to name some of the other issues it may address.

The Scottish Conservatives welcome the Transport Bill in principle but we will likely aim to lodge amendments to strengthen the Bill at Stages Two and Three to ensure it is a robust and sound piece of law.

Frequent parking on footways can cause damage that eventually manifests as uneven pavements. Such damage can represent a real danger to pedestrians, especially vulnerable ones, with local authorities having to foot the bill for repairs.

We can all agree that inconsiderate parking must be tackled and I am pleased that there are plans to look at it. A blanket ban on pavements must be properly researched and proportionate. Inconsiderate parking should not be tolerated, but there are many instances when parking partly on a pavement is the only available option and can be done without obstructing pedestrians’ access.

As you will be aware there may be instances in which parking with two wheels on a pavement has left sufficient room for pedestrians to pass while allowing traffic to flow freely on the road. That is a key point because it would obviously be counterproductive to impose a ban only for it to result in constant road blockages. As long as such parking can be done in a way that allows more than enough room for all pedestrians to pass freely, it is not always necessary to impose a blanket ban. I am not convinced that a blanket ban with no room for exemptions by local authorities in places might be too much of a catch all approach, I know of many areas where pavement parking is the only option to allow free passage of vehicles, including emergency vehicles, through narrow streets – in those examples perhaps local authorities may need to approach this pragmatically. Blanket centralisation of such individual circumstances in my view has historically caused unintended consequences.

The compromise that we would like to emerge would be to find a balance between protecting vulnerable pedestrians and allowing harmless pavement parking to continue. I suspect our amendments will be of this ilk.

I can understand the temptation to push through a blanket ban because it is right to say that we should not tolerate forcing vulnerable pedestrians to move around parked cars on pavements or dropped footways. However, we would not be serving the public if we simply imposed a blanket ban and left motorists, as well as law enforcement officers, to clear up the mess.

I hope you find the above position helpful and I thank you for contacting me regarding this important subject.

Climate Change Bill

Thank you for contacting me about the Climate Change Bill.

The Scottish Conservatives are committed to the highest standards of environmental protection. In May, we won cross-party support to enact stronger energy efficiency targets for homes by 2030. We have also committed to promoting a secure and low-carbon based energy sector, supporting sustainable transport, and to maximising Scotland’s resources, all of which can help achieve ambitious emissions reduction targets.

While the Scottish Government claims Scotland will be one of the first countries to achieve zero emissions, the Bill in its current form does not commit to that. The Scottish Conservatives will continue to stand up for the best interests of the planet and hold the Government to account on climate change issues. We will work to champion the environment and push the Scottish Government to be more ambitious in their Climate Change Bill as it progresses through Parliament.

Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.

Live Animal Exports for Fattening

The Scottish Conservatives support the highest standards of animal welfare.

Currently, the live shipment of Scottish stock to mainland Europe involves a small number of breeding, store and slaughter stock.

There are robust regulations in place, namely the Welfare of Animals (Transport) (Scotland) Regulations 2006 and the Council Regulation (EC) 1/2005, to ensure that the highest standards of animal welfare are maintained.

The safe transport of live animals, whether store or to slaughter, is hugely important to Scotland’s farmers and crofters, particularly for those in remote areas or on islands where access to local markets or abattoirs is often limited.  This is particularly relevant following the recent closure of the slaughterhouse in Orkney. While the regulation would not ban this practice, it could appear to the public as being out of step, especially if live shipping to slaughter is allowed within the UK whilst being banned for export.

Journeys within the UK, where animals are transported, are often much longer than those going abroad to the EU. Long distances, including ferry journeys, operate under the EU regulations mentioned and they protect animal welfare using vehicles and transporters specifically designed with welfare in mind. A small minority of journeys can take a few days, however much of that time is off the lorry. There are approved sites for resting with food and water, for minimum periods of 24 hours.

Where animals are transported on ferries operating roll-on and roll-off systems, the highest welfare standards are upheld. Lorries must be properly secured on the ferry with the captain of the vessel assuming responsibility of the livestock’s welfare. Crossings with livestock will only take place when it is felt that the conditions are suitable.

Concerns have been raised regarding the issue of live exports to the Republic of Ireland from Northern Ireland, as they would be covered by a ban too. We must remember Northern Ireland exported £16.7 million of live animals to the Republic of Ireland in 2016, which was 98 per cent of the total value of its animal exports.

When it comes moving animals for fattening, it is essential for farming practices in Scotland where the climate and landscape challenges often do not allow for animals to stay in the same place due to lack of good quality grass and forage. Moving livestock to better quality ground for wintering or fattening is in fact in the interests of welfare of the animal.

We back farm assurance schemes, that link farms, transporters, markets and abattoirs in order to ensure that the highest animal welfare standards are being maintained.

With all of these points taken into consideration, we will not support a ban on live exports, as we believe the animal welfare standards are sufficiently robust. However, we do believe that more could be done, by ensuring current legislation is rigorously enforced making sure the highest levels of animal welfare are upheld.

Teacher's Pay

Thank you for contacting me about teacher’s pay.

Pay constraint is always an issue in any job and as my daughter is a teacher and I worked with schools prior to coming into Parliament I am familiar with the workload and conversations that teachers are having.

Dedicated, inspirational teachers are essential to ensuring that future generations have the very best chance to succeed in life. However, in my political role and privately I have to say that it is not the issue of pay that teachers talk to me about most. Rather it is their frustration with the bureaucracy and the rising levels of additional needs in their classrooms, coupled with a lack of support that makes teaching increasingly stressful. These are areas that I have raised in Parliament that I feel are having an enormous impact on teachers’ morale and indeed willingness to continue with a profession that most of them love.

Notwithstanding the issues currently facing teachers, regrettably the demand for a 10 per cent pay increase is not financially sustainable. It would place a substantial bill on both local and central government - one that is unaffordable in the present circumstances. I am therefore concerned that such an increase could lead to a further reduction in teacher numbers, at a time when teacher workload is already stretched.

We must ensure that any pay increase is fully funded, and does not lead to reduced resources for frontline public services. 

I recognise that this will not be the answer you had hoped for but sadly it is the reality of where we are at present.

Mark Meechan

Thank you for getting in touch about the Communications Act 2003 and its interpretation in an individual case.

There is clearly a balance to be struck in our society between freedom of expression and courts having the ability to prosecute the most vile online content. It is incumbent upon all of us in public life to get this balance right.

However, when cases are tried, the decision arrived at is for the court alone. Having an independent judiciary free from political influence is an important part of a liberal democracy and where there is dispute on the outcome, the right of appeal is the process for challenging the judgement.

Each situation is different and judges are best placed to take into account the full range of factors that relate to any particular crime. However that is not to say that I will instinctively agree with any particular sentencing.

Planning (Scotland) Bill

Having spent five years as a local councillor on the Planning and Building Standards Committee I would agree that the Planning Bill contains some positive steps, such as simplified planning zones, which I would support.

However, I am in agreement with my colleagues that we will oppose the proposed infrastructure levy if it empowers the Scottish Government to gather and distribute those funds, in the place of local authorities. 

The bill also includes the draconian power to transfer functions from a local authority if a minister decides a council’s planning department isn’t performing. This measure within the Bill is unnecessary. The Bill as currently drafted would even allow the Scottish Government to take over a Council planning department. In effect the bill as it stands could enable the Scottish Government to centralise decision making and undermine local democracy, something I would never support.

I and my colleagues on the Scottish Conservative benches support measures that will speed up the planning process, ensure that planning decisions are made locally and that money gained from developers is ploughed back into local communities. The planning bill, as it stands, is a missed opportunity. It could go much further to revitalise the planning system and help more young people seeking to get on the property ladder.

With regard to equality of appeal, we are still considering the issue and will come to a view as the Bill progresses.

Terminal Illness Amendment to the Social Security (Scotland) Bill

We have been successful in convincing the Scottish Government to change the policy regarding benefits given to those who are terminally ill. Jeremy Balfour had originally secured an amendment to the Social Security (Scotland) Bill that extended the period that terminally ill patients received benefits from six months up to two years.

However, he has been successful in forcing the SNP Government to go further, with patients now receiving individual assessments from medical professionals to ensure that they receive the appropriate level of support based on their condition. It represents a significant climb-down from the Scottish Government who had originally defined a person as terminally ill if they are in the last six months of life.

The SNP’s proposal would have unfairly excluded many people living with terminal conditions from accessing the benefits quickly, and the Scottish Conservatives had joined with organisations involved in palliative care such as Marie Curie and MND Scotland to fight for this change.

Terminally ill patients need as much security and support as possible through what is a traumatic time and this should now ensure that they get it. We are of course thankful to Marie Curie and MND Scotland for working with us through this battle to make the SNP finally see sense.

Mountain Hare Culling

The Scottish Conservatives are committed to the highest standards of animal welfare. Mountain hares are Scotland’s only indigenous hare and almost all of Britain’s mountain hares are found in Scotland. It is therefore important to ensure their survival.

Mountain hares play an important role in the ecology of the uplands and their role should not be understated. Indeed, a harvestable crop of hares is needed by important species such as wildcats, golden eagles and other predators. However, an overabundance of hares can threaten other species such as grouse, wading birds and trees.

The pro-active management of all herbivores (deer, hares, sheep etc.) is vital to the health of the land they graze on. Over and indeed under grazing is potentially very damaging to upland moorlands and will affect the biodiversity of both flora and fauna.

Mountain hare populations fluctuate and periodic culling is required when numbers are high.  Grouse moors are often the best habitats for mountain hares anywhere in the country. We therefore appreciate that they need to be proactively managed in order to combat overgrazing and disease problems, when populations fluctuate.

Mountain hare management is carried out within a regulatory framework of closed seasons and licenses administered by SNH.  It has many similar aspects to the management of deer where large numbers can damage habitats and spread ticks, therefore they are controlled according to local population densities. Similarly, to deer, shooting is the only really effective method of controlling numbers and the carcasses then go into the food chain.     

We believe local management of land will ensure that biodiversity can be maintained and where necessary improved. A central policy will not achieve the grazing targets needed in specific areas. We believe we must encourage land managers to ensure a local balance of all species.

In January, the results of a three-year study conducted by SNH, the James Hutton Institute and GWCT, looking at the best methods of counting mountain hares were published. Land managers are now taking this forward in population surveys being carried out across Scotland.

A detailed Best Practice Mountain Hare Guidance Note, agreed by rural stakeholders, is to be published by the Scottish Moorland Forum for mountain hare management. Moreover, the Scottish Government’s grouse moor management review panel has now begun considering the issue.

Common Weal Trade Campaign

Following the vote to leave the European Union, the UK will operate a fully independent trade policy.

The UK Government’s Department for International Trade is examining options to ensure continued access to trade agreements negotiated by the European Union to which the UK is already party.  In addition, the UK Government has committed to making new free trade agreements more transparent and inclusive. The UK Government is determined that the UK will become a world leader in free trade, and ensure that we secure the right deals for the United Kingdom. These bespoke deals will be scrutinised by our Parliament, as all treaties are.

As to your concern about the effect of the bill on the devolution settlement, the Secretary of State for Trade has made clear that public services in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland will be unaffected by this bill and that the devolved administrations will be able to implement transitioned arrangements.

As the UK takes back independent trading powers from the EU, the voices of the devolved administrations and MPs from all parts of the UK will be more clearly heard than was previously the case. I hope you would agree with me that the Scottish Government should deal constructively with all UK administrations as the UK forges an independent trading future.

Defamation Law

Thank you for contacting me about defamation law in Scotland.

I agree with the Scottish Law Commission's conclusion that there is an important balance to be struck between freedom of speech and press on the one hand and the right to restore one's reputation swiftly when it has been unfairly tarnished on the other.

It is for the Scottish Government to bring forward legislative proposals based upon the Law Commission's recommendations, and when that happens the Scottish Conservatives will ensure any reform to the law receives the rigorous scrutiny it deserves.

Raven Culling

The Scottish Conservatives are committed to the highest standards of bird welfare.

As you are aware, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) can grant licences to permit the killing or taking of wild birds to prevent serious damage to crops, livestock and wader species.

Farmers and landowners know all too well the damage that ravens can inflict on their livestock. Ravens often target and kill new born lambs by the barbaric removal of their eyes and tongues.

The licences are granted as part of a five-year collaborative trial which will help improve the understanding of factors affecting key wader species. Ravens have increased their breeding range across the UK by over 70 per cent in the last few decades, whilst species of other birds, such as waders, have seen numbers have declined by a similar percentage.

The ‘Understanding Predation’ report by Scotland’s Moorland Forum, published in February 2016, was agreed by a range of stakeholders, including SNH, RSPB, the Scottish Government and Scottish Land & Estates. The report found strong support from survey data and stakeholders’ knowledge, that all six wild birds studied in detail (black grouse, curlew, golden plover, grey partridge, lapwing and oystercatcher) had shown widespread declines across Scotland since the 1960s. The report acknowledged that over the last 25 years, there has been wide-spread increases in the abundance of buzzards and ravens.

SNH take a robust evidence-based approach when issuing licences. Photographic evidence and records of attacks and losses of livestock must be provided in order to apply for a licence. SNH must also be satisfied that farmers and landowners have tried sufficient scaring techniques. They make it clear that licences are only offered when no other solution is possible to control raven numbers.

 Raven management is carried out within a regulatory framework by SNH.  It has many similar aspects to the management of deer where large numbers can have a negative impact on biodiversity and therefore they are controlled according to local population densities. Similarly, to deer, after all avenues of control have been explored, shooting is only the effective method of controlling numbers. 

SNH have been clear that if it becomes obvious that actions are not being carried out in accordance with the terms of any licence, then they will have no hesitation in removing a licence.

Many thanks once more for taking the time to write.

Clara Ponsati

Thank you for contacting me about Clara Ponsati.

It is my understanding that a European Arrest Warrant was issued for Ms Ponsati on 23 March, and having handed herself to the police she intends to resist her extradition in the courts.

It is unfortunate that we have arrived at this point, but because this matter is now being dealt with judicially it would not be appropriate for me as a politician to interfere in that process. A Scottish court will take all the facts and legal arguments into account and then arrive at an impartial decision.

In general terms, I believe the European Arrest Warrant is an absolutely vital tool in tackling serious and organised crime, which does not respect international borders. Without it, we would find it much more difficult to identify, apprehend and extradite criminals who travel here, and to track Scottish criminals who flee overseas. We should avoid taking steps which might compromise the integrity of this framework and our wider cross-border security collaboration through Europol.

I would also add that I was shocked by the scenes that emerged from Catalonia last October. As Ruth Davidson said at the time, the answer to this issue will come through dialogue and diplomacy, not violence. I hope the authorities will heed these words and exercise restraint in the future.

Devolution After Brexit

Thank you for contacting me about Brexit and the devolution settlement.

I understand your concerns about the status of the devolution settlement during Brexit. Brexit allows powers returning from the EU to come to the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Parliament will therefore be more powerful than ever before due to Brexit. The Scottish Conservatives have been consistently clear that Clause 11 of the UK Government’s EU (Withdrawal) Bill, as introduced, did not reflect the presumption of devolution.

The Scottish Conservatives are satisfied with amendments to the Bill since tabled by the UK Government, which do presume devolution for returning powers. We support continuing discussions between the Scottish and UK Governments on this matter. I and my Scottish Conservative colleagues have been consistent and vocal in our support for a strong devolved settlement, and will continue to be so.

The Scottish Conservatives have been clear that powers over farming and fisheries must be devolved where possible and that we also need to protect our UK internal market so that our farmers, fishermen and food producers do not face new barriers to business with Scotland’s most important market. So there are also areas where common frameworks are necessary.

We should also think of the current EU regulations on the environment as the floor, not the ceiling for our own new system.

When the UK becomes an independent Coastal State in 2020, we have the opportunity to take back control of waters and deciding who can access our waters and on what terms. The SNP, by contrast, are determined, at any cost, to get back into the EU, which under Article 38 of the Lisbon Treaty, means we would have to join the CFP.

Post-Brexit Trade

The UK Government has made clear that as we leave the EU, our high standards for consumers, employees, the environment and animal welfare will be maintained.

Withdrawing from the EU will give us the opportunity to shape our own investment and trade opportunities.

It will drive greater openness with international partners and bring prosperity, growth and jobs to Scotland as part of the UK.

We do not believe the process of negotiating trade deals should be drastically altered, and we are content that the public have been consulted regularly, having exercised their democratic rights in local, Scottish and UK-wide elections on multiple occasions in the last three years.

We will support a sensible deal on Brexit that brings more powers back to Scotland and allows our exports to flourish.

Armed Forces in Schools 

I have and will continue to listen carefully to the arguments/evidence given on this petition.

As a former RAF VRt Officer and with a husband and two sons who have served in the Army on the front line of conflict I have significant experience of the forces, it’s role in schools and the impact of Service life on young people. Whilst I can appreciate your concerns on armed conflict and I do not shy away from the risk and reality of Service life. In my experience the work that is done in schools has very positive value around confidence building, teamwork and leadership.

For those who choose later on to seek a career in the armed forces the majority will never experience front line conflict but the forces do not hide the reality of what the job may involve - in fact it is very important that young people do understand what they are committing to and the recruitment process is designed to ensure they are suitable. This process never takes place in schools and young people have to make their own approach to the forces through the recruiting offices and they are always encouraged to bring their parents along.

There has been considerable changes over the years from the days when recruiters were going into schools to sign people up and feedback from young people on their armed forces contact at school level is overwhelmingly positive.

I do not shy away from the impact that service can cause but it is important to remember that much of the work that our services do across the world is peacekeeping and the protection of vulnerable people in conflict zones. Many soldiers (my son included) are trained in negotiating and building relationships and trust to facilitate the resolution of conflict.

I can assure you that I will give all the evidence and commentary careful consideration and if I think there are areas of concern I will support them to be addressed.

A Life in Crisis - Unsuitable Temporary Accommodation

We back the campaign.

The Homelessness in Scotland: Bi-annual update highlighted that between 1 April and 30 September 2017, local authorities received 17,797 homelessness applications, an increase of 330 (2%) over the same period in the previous yea. There were 6,581 children in temporary accommodation on 30 September 2017, an increase of 594 (+10%) compared to 30 September 2016 (National Statistics for Scotland: Homelessness in Scotland: Bi-annual update 1 April to 30 September 2017, Link).

We support the ambition and many of the ideas in the Programme for Government on homelessness set out by the Scottish Government. Currently, the Scottish Parliament is examining the different approaches to eradicating homelessness so that we have a multi-layered approach to combating this social evil.

This issue is fundamentally one of housing supply and the SNP have repeatedly failed to meet housing targets. The number of new homes completed has fallen by more than a third under the SNP.

The Scottish Conservatives have proposed a range of ideas to increase the housing stock available, from planning reform through innovative infrastructure funding to meaningful action on empty homes. We urge the SNP to back these ideas.

The future direction of temporary accommodation in the coming years in Scotland, depends on the policy implementation of the SNP and future Scottish Government legislation.

Online and Electronic Voting 

The Scottish Conservatives are open to all ideas to improve our democratic system. However, online voting has been piloted in various countries, including the UK, and concerns have been raised concerning integrity, security and cost.

The security concerns behind electronic and online voting are well established, and in the current climate it is necessary to scrutinise the cyber-risks in a robust manner. Any electronic and online voting system implemented now could be vulnerable to domestic or foreign interference, potentially putting the democratic legitimacy of any result in jeopardy.

The current provision of postal voting provides people an expanded time-frame to vote in in the privacy of their home, and allows people who are not able to vote on election day the ability to participate in the democratic process.

As it stands, there is also no way to verify voter eligibility to a sufficient extent, whilst also ensuring voter confidentiality. Therefore, whilst online voting may be something for the Scottish Conservatives to consider in the future, until the current issues outlined are addressed it is not something we are able to support.

Forestry (Scotland) Bill

Thank you for your email regarding the Forestry Bill.

The Scottish Conservatives recognise the importance of forestry to the rural economy and environment.  It is therefore vital that we ensure the devolution of forestry to the Scottish Government is completed in a way that is beneficial to Scotland.

There are some areas of the Forestry Bill that cause us great concern and we are working in the Parliament, and with industry, to identify ways to resolve these issues.

Ahead of the vote on Stage Three of the Forestry Bill on Thursday we will continue to identify where we can improve the Bill and we will take all steps to do so.

Please be assured we will consider carefully the points you have raised and how they can be incorporated within the Bill to ensure that it will work for Scotland.

Eating Disorders

Thank you for contacting me about eating disorders.

I recognise the huge pain and distress caused by eating disorders, such as anorexia, the mental illness which kills more people than any other. Eating disorders primarily affect young people, and often prove to be family tragedies, as well as personal ones, if left untreated. However, with the right treatment, delivered on-time, these tragedies can be avoided, and full recoveries achieved.

I understand that the NHS in England has set an ambitious new access standard by 2020: 95 per cent of patients are to be treated within four weeks of their first contact with a healthcare professional. Urgent cases will be treated within one week, and the worst emergency cases in children should find support within 24 hours.

In Scotland eating disorder patients are covered by the wider mental health waiting times. At the moment 1 in 5 children are waiting too long for mental health treatment and more than a quarter of adults.

The Scottish Government is currently conducting a review into targets and the Scottish Conservatives would urge the Scottish Government to improve access to mental health services for all, and also consider ensuring people with eating disorders are seen as soon as possible due to the extreme risks posed by the condition.

My colleague Miles Briggs MSP, the Scottish Conservative Shadow Health Secretary, has written to the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport regarding the treatment of people with eating disorders in Scotland.

Tax Loopholes

We agree that the SNP’s 2018-19 Budget is not fair to the majority of Scots who voted for parties who promised not to raise income tax.

Under Nicola Sturgeon’s proposals, anyone earning more than £26,000 will be paying more tax than they would in the rest of the UK – including 898,000 basic rate taxpayers.

We will not support the Budget unless Nicola Sturgeon keeps her 2016 manifesto promise not to raise tax for low and middle earners.

Thanks to the Conservative UK Government, the SNP’s Budget is increasing in 2018-19. This means that tax rises are Nicola Sturgeon’s choice, they are not a necessity.

Only the Scottish Conservatives can be trusted to keep their tax promises and protect the take-home pay of hard-working families.

Flag-Flying Protocols

Thank you for contacting me about the issue of the SNP’s recent changes to flag flying protocol on Scottish Government buildings, which reduces the number of days on which the Union Flag is flown from fifteen to one.

Nicola Sturgeon’s alteration of the flag-flying protocol shows that the SNP is more interested in lowering Union Flags than raising standards in schools and hospitals.

Be assured that I and my Scottish Conservative colleagues are committed to using parliamentary means to hold the SNP to account and this issue is no exception. The Scottish Conservatives will urge Nicola Sturgeon to return the guidance to its original form. We will also make sure Nicola Sturgeon focuses on addressing SNP failings in our schools, our economy, and our Scottish health service rather than trying to undermine Scotland’s status within the United Kingdom.

Tied Pubs

We know that that pubs play an important part of our cultural heritage and communities. We are sympathetic to the aims of Neil Bibby’s Bill, creating a thriving and diverse pub sector, and the law in England and Wales changed to give greater protection to tenants in 2015, so it’s clear that government intervention is possible.

However, we have concerns about the operation of the statutory code in England and Wales and how this would be translated into Scottish law. The pub sector in Scotland is very different to England and Wales. Figures for 2015 show that there are 4,900 pubs in Scotland and most (64%) are independent free trades, 17% are tied pubs; 13% are managed, and the remaining 5% operate on a free-of-tie tenant/lease basis. The figure for England is almost inverted; most pubs in England are tenanted and not freehold.

This means that the bill would only apply to around 17% of pubs in Scotland, and even less if there were to be a threshold introduced. Additionally, tied pubs do have advantages such as making it easier to become a publican, and creating economies of scale. There is also a risk that moves in Scotland to regulate the tied tenant relationship could lead to a drop in investment in the tied-pub sector and therefore our high-streets.

Overall we are positive about the aims and objectives of Neil Bibby’s bill, but are keen to learn more about the operation of the code in the rest of the UK and potential consequences of legislating in Scotland. We look forward to engaging with the sector and examining the evidence provided to the Committee, to determine appropriate action to support the pub trade.

Local Government Job Cuts

The Scottish Conservatives and Unionists fully understand the concerns that the Scottish public have over local government job cuts.

The Audit Scotland report showed that council’s revenue funding from the Scottish Government has fallen in real terms by 7.6 per cent between 2010/11 and 2016/17. It has fallen by 5.2 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2016/17 alone.

There is no justification for job cuts and cuts to local government funding since the Block Grant from the UK Government will be protected in real terms next year. The Scottish Government’s budget will increase by £479 million in 2018/19, a 0.1 per cent increase in real terms. This has been confirmed by Independent researchers at the Scottish Parliament.

However, Local Government revenue is due to fall as a consequence of the SNP’s draft budget. Documents published alongside the draft budget show that there is a fall in cash terms of £17.06 million in Local Government Revenue, and a fall in real terms of £156 million (1.62%) in Local Government Revenue.

The SNP’s cuts would severely impact on the service delivery for the public and the life chances of the most vulnerable in our society.  There is no justification for any further fiscal tightening of local government budgets, and any cuts to local government would be a political choice by the SNP.  

The Scottish Conservatives are committed to ensuring that the SNP Government is held to account to prevent the erosion of vital local services.

Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.

The Brewing and Pub Industries

I recognise the vital role that the brewing and pub industries play – contributing £1.6 billion to our economy.

The Scottish Conservatives have been at the forefront of the campaign to prevent rates increasing by more than 12.5 per cent in any year. Indeed, it was only after pressure from this party and businesses across Scotland that Derek Mackay agreed to a £45 million relief package, that included a 12.5 per cent cap on rates increases for 8,500 hotels, pubs, cafes and restaurants for this year.

I support the ability under the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill for communities to take over local pubs that would otherwise close. The Scottish Conservatives want to empower local communities by strengthening their voices in the decision making processes that affect them. The community purchase of local pubs would be an extension of this endeavour and crucially it can help empower communities.

I agree there is a need for greater access to public transport in rural areas. In many cases, we have seen the diminution of services to rural villages, which has effectively isolated many people from nearby local businesses. The SNP’s centralisation agenda has seen the deterioration of services across the Highlands and rural parts of Aberdeenshire, Perthshire and the Borders, without consideration of the socio-economic impact.

I believe that the current drink driving legislation is robust, and should not be altered to the detriment of road safety.

NHS Pay 

Thank you for writing to me about NHS pay.

I believe strongly that the passion, commitment, and specialist knowledge our doctors, nurses and other NHS staff provide is part of what makes the NHS so special. I recognise that staff morale is vital to maintaining staff commitment to services.

Dealing with the country’s debts has meant difficult decisions. We know that has meant hard work and sacrifice for many people, including for public sector workers and it is right that we revisit the issue of the pay cap both in Scotland and across the wider UK.

But the SNP often take with one hand and give with another – and the public sector pay cap has helped protect the number of jobs in the public sector. So we need to know more detail about their plans to end the public sector pay cap, and how it will be paid for, before we can assess their proposals. Any pay rises must not be funded by cuts elsewhere in the NHS.

I am encouraged by the UK Government’s announcement that they will work with the expert pay review bodies, who make UK-wide recommendations, to deliver a more flexible settlement, bringing an end to the 1 per cent pay cap.

Hard-working NHS staff in Scotland have been let down by the SNP’s poor workforce planning over the past decade. Staff shortages are at record levels, and staff surveys have shown that nearly half are worried about there not being enough staff for them to do their jobs properly. Morale is about more than just pay, and these concerns must also be tackled.

Animal Sentience

Thank you for your concern.

The Scottish Conservatives are committed to the highest standards of animal welfare and we are clear that everyone who owns or keeps animals is responsible for their welfare.

I am proud that the UK has some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world. UK Ministers have been clear that they intend the UK to remain world-leading in the future and, as a minimum, to retain our existing standards of animal welfare once we have left the EU.

The EU (Withdrawal) Bill will convert the existing body of direct EU animal welfare laws to become UK laws. Most of these EU laws relate to farmed animals and many were passed after Article 13 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) came into effect.

Based on the Animal Welfare Act, the Animal Protection Index, maintained by World Animal Protection, rates the UK’s formal recognition of animal sentience as grade A. Other Lisbon Treaty signatories such as France, Italy and Spain do not enjoy this rating, having each received grade C.

Article 13 of the TFEU created a qualified obligation on the EU and Member States ‘to have full regard to the welfare of animals [as they are sentient beings]’ when formulating and implementing EU law.

Motion S5M-08973 put forward by the Scottish Green MSP, Mark Ruskell, fails to acknowledge the fact that the UK Government has said that it will enshrine the ‘animal sentience’ principle of Article 13 into UK law when we leave the EU.  In the recent vote on the EU Withdrawal Bill, an amendment to incorporate it into the bill was rejected, as animals will continue to be recognised as sentient beings under the Animal Welfare Act (2006).

In short, I do not believe that the process of withdrawing from the EU will undermine the UK’s already excellent track record.

Finally, as a party, the Scottish Conservatives are leading the way in animal welfare policy. We have called for a ban on electric shock collars, demanded an increase to the sentencing for animal cruelty offences and at a UK level, made it a legal requirement for slaughterhouses to have compulsory CCTV.

Trade Justice Scotland

Thank you for your e-mail regarding Trade Justice Scotland.

On leaving the EU, the UK will have the opportunity to make free trade agreements with countries across the world. An independent trade policy gives us the opportunity to make deals better suited to the UK and to make quicker progress with new partners and in growing markets. While we cannot agree new trade deals until after we have left the EU, we are able to prepare the ground. Discussions are in place with a number of countries, including existing EU trade partners.

Workers’ rights will be fully protected when the UK leaves the EU. The acquis communautaire, the entire body of EU law which includes the case law of the ECJ until we leave, will be converted into UK law. EU environmental legislation is also being transferred into UK law. The EU (Withdrawal) Bill will ensure that, wherever practical, the same rules apply in this country after we leave as they did before.

The European Court of Human Rights is also entirely separate from the EU and leaving the EU will not impact our membership of the ECHR. I also want to emphasise that the UK often provides stronger workers’ rights than the minimum stipulated by the EU. Employees in the UK enjoy more statutory annual leave, more paid maternity leave and more flexibility around shared parental leave than that required by the EU.

Although the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice will end, the UK Government will ensure that strong and effective governance arrangements are in place after the UK's exit from the EU. No decisions have yet been taken on the UK's future relationship with EU agencies including with the European Environment Agency. This is a matter for the negotiations.

I cannot put my name to this motion as I believe the principles outlined by Trade Justice Scotland would encumber the formulation and implementation of future trade deals that would benefit the people and employers of the United Kingdom. Nonetheless, I fully support our current high standards in regards to workers’ rights, human rights, and environmental standards and am confident that these will be maintained and strengthened as we leave the EU. I am keen to see these standards reflected in any future trade partnerships involving the UK.

Wild Animals in Travelling Circuses

Thank you for your email,

Firstly, let me assure you that the Scottish Conservatives are committed to the highest standards of animal welfare and we are clear that those who abuse and inflict cruelty on animals should be punished in accordance with the law.

The Scottish Conservatives are supportive of a ban on the use of wild animals in travelling circuses, on ethical and welfare grounds. We do not believe that the majority of the public are comfortable nor satisfied with this ongoing practice.

The Wild Animals in Travelling Circuses (Scotland) Bill was discussed on the 27 June 2017 during a meeting of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform (ECCLR) Committee. Scottish Conservative committee members made it clear to the Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham that legislation in this Bill does not go far enough in tackling the issue, of not only the welfare of wild animals in travelling circuses, but static ones too.

My Scottish Conservative colleagues and I will continue pressure the Scottish Government into changing the Bill to include both travelling and static circuses using wild animals, so that we have robust legislation in place to ensure wild animals are properly protected.

Offensive Behaviour at Football Act

Thank you for contacting me with your concerns regarding the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012.

Let me first make it clear at the outset that I consider sectarian behaviour and hate crime to be a blight on society in Scotland and it should not be tolerated under any circumstances. However, I do believe there is a compelling case for the repeal of this ill-considered and badly drafted law.

It is clear that pre-existing laws against ‘breach of the peace’ and ‘threatening or abusive behaviour’ already covered the types of offences that this Act was designed to tackle. The latest recorded crime statistics show that the vast majority of these crimes continue to be charged under pre-existing offences – highlighting that the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act is unnecessary.

There is also considerable opposition to this law from the legal profession and stakeholders. More than 3200 football clubs and members of the public took part in the recent consultation on the legislation and a hefty 71 per cent of respondents backed the repeal of Sections 1-5 and 62 per cent supported the repeal of Sections 6-9. A senior judge has said provisions of the Act were ‘horribly drafted’. The Law Society of Scotland have concluded that the new offence ‘does not improve’ on existing offences, and that all 287 charges brought under Section 1 of the legislation in 2015-16 ‘could have been prosecuted under pre-existing legislation’. On this basis, they said the legislation ‘has not been fundamental to tackling sectarianism’.

The 2015 Morrow report emphasises that the impact of sectarianism varies from community to community and that it is not a one-size-fits-all issue. We need an enduring change in culture and attitudes. That happens in homes, classrooms and communities. It is facilitated by the work of charities and third sector organisations such as Nil by Mouth, and we need to see and support more of that community-led activity.

I believe the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act unfairly targets those civilised, law-abiding fans who simply want to enjoy Scotland’s beautiful game. For the reasons set out above, I plan to vote in favour of this Act’s repeal when next presented with the opportunity.

ScotRail Fare Increase

The Scottish Conservatives and Unionists fully understand the concerns that rail passengers have with the increased cost of train fares, and their impact on household budgets. Scotrail’s ticket price rises are the sharpest since 2013. However, Scotrail passengers travelling during rush hours face even greater price rises, with a fare rise of 3.6 per cent.

In the last four years ticket prices have soared by 12.7 per cent, whilst the Scottish Government has been under fire for the Scottish railway system failing miserably to hit targets and ScotRail has faced growing criticism for the below-par service. Any fare increase implemented by the Scottish Government should be used for service improvement and focused on driving improved efficiency to ensure we maximise the value of passengers’ and taxpayers’ investment in the railways.

The Scottish Conservatives are committed to ensuring that the SNP Government focuses these additional funds from increased rail fares to improving the rail network in Scotland.

Scottish households are being hit by the SNP Government’s decision to increase income tax alongside increased costs for rail tickets and energy bills.  The SNP Government should recognise the impact on Scottish families’ finances and reflect before breaking their key manifesto pledge not to increase taxes on basic rate payers which will result in Scots earning £26,000 or more paying more tax than the rest of the United Kingdom.

Restricted Roads Bill

We look forward to engaging with stakeholders and gathering evidence on the proposals as the Bill progresses through the parliamentary process.

We believe that the current case-by-case basis, agreed by local authorities and with adequate and full public consultation, is the best solution when it comes to implementing changes to the speed limit at present. An example of such would be at the school gates or on a dangerous stretch of road where it is deemed necessary. This makes sense and seems a practical application of the law to reduce accidents in known hotspots.

Air pollution and traffic flow must also be considered in any proposals to change the speed limit, as ineffective traffic flow can increase roadside pollution, driver frustration and lead to unintended consequences.

That being said, we all want to see safer roads.  Implementing 20mph limits in the appropriate parts of our towns and cities could be one way of achieving this, but whether or not this requires a country wide blanket reduction in all residential areas remains to be seen. As ever, we remain open to any possible solutions which reduce the rate of accidents on Scotland's roads, whilst being practical in its application and without unduly penalising every day law abiding motorists.

Thank for you contacting me on the matter and like many we will monitor progress as evidence is given to parliament.

NUS Budget for Better

Thank you for your email about the recent report on student support. My colleague Liz Smith MSP, Shadow Education Secretary, met with NUS representatives on 5th December and the issues you cite in your email were discussed in full.

The Scottish Conservatives welcome the publication of the Independent Review of Student Support since it focuses on some key principles which must underpin future reform. We need to ensure a more sustainable approach in the future given the increasing financial pressures upon students and the commitment to widening access. We also believe that there is a very important debate to be had about the financial restructuring of tertiary education so that costs of tuition and student support are not seen in isolation. International studies reveal some interesting trends if there is a more strategic approach to funding - something that has been pointed out by Audit Scotland.

We agree with the NUS that a priority should be better provision of bursary support and have long argued that this could be achieved by a fairer balance of funding between taxpayers and graduates. We are mindful of the statistics which show that Scotland lags behind other parts of the UK when it comes to the extent of bursary support. That is just one reason why we are in favour of a modest graduate contribution to university education.

We are also mindful of the recent statistics published by SAAS which tell us that the poorest university students in Scotland are borrowing the most. We have supported a higher loan repayment threshold in past manifestos and will work with other parties in the Scottish Parliament to deliver this as soon as practicable.

We have also long campaigned on improved mental health support in Scotland. The provision across our colleges and universities is patchy and more needs to be done. We will consider the NUS calls for a universal counselling service carefully.