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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Queen Elizabeth University Hospital (Patient Safety), Ventilation in Schools, Point of Order, Scottish Land Commissioners, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, World AIDS Day 2021


Portfolio Question Time

Justice and Veterans

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

I remind members that Covid measures are in place and that face masks should be worn while moving around the chamber and across the Holyrood campus.

The first item of business is portfolio questions. The first portfolio is justice and veterans. If a member wishes to ask a supplementary question, they should press their request-to-speak button or, if they join us online, put an R in the chat function during the relevant question.

Women’s Access to Justice

To ask the Scottish Government how it is improving women’s access to justice. (S6O-00456)

The Minister for Community Safety (Ash Regan)

Improving women’s access to justice is a key Scottish Government priority across all aspects of the justice system, including ensuring that criminal law can be used to deal with perpetrators of violence against women, such as with the new domestic abuse offence; empowering women to access justice through consideration of enhanced, targeted support for legal aid; assessing how the recommendations in Lady Dorrian’s report could transform the experience of sexual offence victims; and delivering the necessary funding to allow the justice system to respond to the challenges of the pandemic with a specific focus on gender-based offences.

Gillian Martin

We know that court delays as a result of the pandemic are impacting disproportionately on women and girls and that a significant amount of the solemn cases backlog is sexual offence and domestic abuse cases. The resolution of those cases is particularly important. Consequently, I hope that they are a priority for funding, so that the women involved can get justice. I would like the minister’s reassurance on what is being done to clear the backlog.

Ash Regan

Gillian Martin raises an important point. I commend her work on the matter.

Around 80 to 85 per cent of High Court trials relate to sexual offending, so the backlogs in the criminal courts can have a disproportionate effect on access to justice for women. The Scottish Government has invested £50 million of funding to help the Crown Office and the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service to address the impact of coronavirus on the courts. New court capacity was introduced in September this year, with four additional High Courts and two additional solemn sheriff courts sitting. That is a significant increase from the pre-pandemic trial court position and a direct response to the concerns about access to justice.

Efforts have also been made to prioritise domestic abuse cases, as raised by Gillian Martin. In the first quarter of 2021-22, such cases accounted for nearly half of sheriff court summary trials in which evidence was led. That helps to show how efforts have been made to prioritise domestic abuse cases.

Elena Whitham (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (SNP)

I have recently dealt with the harrowing case of a woman in my constituency who told me of her distress and dismay that she continued to be abused by phone by her abuser while he was on remand in prison. Further coercive and abusive crimes committed against women victims while their abusers are in prison have a dramatic and significant impact on victims. Does the minister agree that more needs to be done to protect women victims from their abusers, specifically when that abuser is already held on remand?

Ash Regan

I do, and I thank Eleanor Whitham for raising the matter with me. I am sorry to hear about her constituent’s experience. The Scottish Government is clear that no one should have to experience such abuse, especially where the abuse is being perpetrated by somebody who is already held in custody.

If she has not done this already, Eleanor Whitham’s constituent might wish to report that incident to the police. If the member wants to give me further information, I would be happy to raise the matter with the Scottish Prison Service. If a complaint is made to the Scottish Prison Service or Police Scotland, prison rules can be used to put further processes in place in respect of any prisoner who is involved in the misuse of a phone. The Scottish Prison Service could work with Police Scotland to assist in the investigation. If Eleanor Whitham wants to provide me with further information, I will look into the matter for her.

Question 2 has been withdrawn.

Heroin Seizures

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that the amount of heroin seized by Police Scotland has increased by more than 400 per cent since 2016-17. (S6O-00458)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans (Keith Brown)

First, I can confirm that the figures show that, since 2017, the amount of heroin seized by Police Scotland has increased by 311 per cent.

We are committed to bringing to justice those who supply drugs to some of our most vulnerable individuals and communities. I commend Police Scotland for its work to take illegal substances off the streets and dismantle the groups that are responsible.

Jamie Greene

I thank the cabinet secretary for that helpful update. I, too, thank the front-line officers who are tackling the issue.

We know that opiates such as heroin account for 89 per cent of drug deaths in Scotland. Drug deaths from heroin and morphine rose from 345 in 2015 to 605 last year—that is a staggering 75 per cent increase. Those drugs have no place on our streets. Is the recently revised guidance to divert those caught with heroin on our streets away from prosecution likely to push that statistic upwards or downwards in the coming year?

Keith Brown

I think that it is worth clarifying aspects of the decision about the guidance, which was not taken by the Scottish Government per se but by the independent Lord Advocate, who has authority in that area. First, the scheme extends to possession offences only; it does not extend to drug supply offences. The Lord Advocate has made it clear that robust prosecutorial action continues to be taken against the supply of controlled drugs.

It is also worth saying that recorded police warnings are not a finding of guilt but a form of law enforcement, which, if accepted, is recorded on the criminal history system for two years and can be taken into account if the individual comes to the notice of police.

The Lord Advocate’s decision adds to the police’s options; it does not bind the police. As I am sure that the member knows, recorded police warnings, which have been in operation for more than five years, provide police officers with an additional law enforcement option when they encounter someone in possession of drugs for personal use.

It should also be mentioned that the Lord Advocate’s decision has been widely welcomed by many of those who work on the front line to support individuals and communities that are affected by drugs. Police Scotland’s head of drugs strategy, Assistant Chief Constable Gary Ritchie, said that the measure

“will give officers another tool to support those at risk of becoming vulnerable in our communities”.

Veterans (Employment)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions the veterans secretary has had with skills agencies regarding maximising employment opportunities for veterans. (S6O-00459)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans (Keith Brown)

Maximising employment opportunities for veterans is a key priority for the Government, and we work closely with Skills Development Scotland and the Scottish Funding Council on that important issue. For example, SDS is a member of the veterans employability strategic group, and both agencies are working closely with partner organisations, including the Career Transition Partnership, to enable more veterans to fully understand—this is an issue that veterans sometimes have a difficulty with—the many skills that they already have and, where required, to develop new skills or gain qualifications to enable a smooth transition into employment.

Paul McLennan

I recently met Brigadier Andy Muddiman, who is the regional commander of the Royal Marines in Scotland. His role includes looking at how the joint services can help engage with and connect to local and regional businesses and communities to ensure that any mutual benefit is being capitalised on. What actions can be undertaken to support that objective?

Keith Brown

It is worth mentioning that I have met Brigadier Andy Muddiman a number of times recently. It is important to say that the armed forces are represented on the veterans employability strategic group. Currently, members of the group are leading employer-focused work, considering how we connect the needs of employers and veterans, addressing inaccurate perceptions of veterans, and working with employers to find ways of increasing work placements.

Developing our local employability partnerships continues, with employability leads considering the skills of veterans and their families to help address local and regional demands. That builds on previous initiatives, such as the one that we undertook with Prince Charles some years ago, to get large employers together in one place to make sure that they are aware of the assets that veterans can be if they are taken on and employed. We will continue with that work.

Stephanie Callaghan (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

How is the Scottish Government supporting greater adoption of the armed forces covenant by employers, to ensure that we maximise the support that Scottish society provides to former military personnel, including growing employment opportunities for veterans across my constituency and wider Scotland?

Keith Brown

We recognise the importance of continuing to increase awareness and understanding of, and to deliver, the covenant and its principles. As I have outlined, the veterans employability strategic group is leading a range of employer-focused work. Next year, we will launch a public awareness campaign targeting employers and businesses to help increase employment opportunities for veterans.

I am grateful to both members for raising those issues about veterans. Much of our work for veterans in relation to employment was undertaken in advance of the covenant being established. That work has been going on for some time, and we are building on what I believe is a very sound base for taking that work forward.

Human Trafficking

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to protect victims of human trafficking from retrafficking in Scotland. (S6O-00460)

The Minister for Community Safety (Ash Regan)

The Scottish Government funds Migrant Help, the Trafficking Awareness Raising Alliance and the Scottish guardianship service to provide specialised support to adults and unaccompanied children who are potential victims of trafficking. That support is key to mitigating the risks of retrafficking. It includes safe accommodation, legal and financial advice, supporting return to education and support in navigating the welfare and immigration systems.

Bill Kidd

What success has there been in prosecuting human traffickers who operate in Scotland? Does the Scottish Government agree with approaches, such as that of the charity Medaille Trust and the victims’ voices project, that hold that best-evidence interviews could improve prosecution rates, which would result in justice for victims of that abhorrent crime?

Ash Regan

The Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act was passed unanimously in 2015. It gives the police and prosecutors greater powers to detect and bring to justice those who are responsible for trafficking. Obviously, decisions in relation to prosecution are for the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, and are taken in line with its published “Prosecution Code”.

A number of convictions have been secured under the terms of the 2015 act. However, we also recognise that human trafficking is a complex crime in which control and coercion are often exerted by perpetrators over victims in sometimes subtle and often hidden ways. Crimes relating to human trafficking may also be prosecuted under other offences.

Supporting victim engagement is key in the area and is an element of the law enforcement approach that is being taken. Police Scotland has recently seconded a victim navigator from the charity Justice and Care to its national human trafficking unit, to enable early contact with potential victims and to support them through the criminal justice process, where the victims wish it.

Sheku Bayoh Inquiry

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the public inquiry examining the events surrounding the death of Sheku Bayoh. (S6O-00461)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans (Keith Brown)

The public inquiry into the death of Sheku Bayoh is independent of Scottish ministers, and it is for the chair of the inquiry to direct how the inquiry carries out its duties. As Mark Ruskell might be aware, the inquiry held its first preliminary hearing on 18 November, when Lord Bracadale provided an update on matters such as the gathering and disclosure of evidence and preliminary legal issues, and outlined when evidential hearings will commence.

Mark Ruskell

I thank the cabinet secretary for that update.

Police officers, lawyers, the Crown Office and many others will not have to worry about the financial implications of attending the inquiry. Despite having asked many times, Sheku Bayoh’s family has received no response on whether its costs for attending the inquiry will also be covered. The family remains under serious financial strain as it continues its fight for the truth.

The former justice secretary stated that the Bayoh family would be front and centre of the inquiry. Can the current justice secretary confirm that its concerns will be immediately addressed?

Keith Brown

I can confirm that I am happy to correspond with the member on that, because I understand that those concerns have already been addressed. If I am wrong about that, I will certainly let the member and Parliament know, but I am pretty sure that some of the issues that he raised around the expenses that have been incurred by the family have been addressed; I know that decisions on that have been taken recently. I am more than happy to get a view of the final position and to correspond with the member. By all means, he can come back to me if there is more information that he wants.

Russell Findlay (West Scotland) (Con)

Another family that is fighting for justice is the Mcleods, whose son Kevin was found dead in Wick harbour in 1997. The family has expressed concerns about an on-going review that is being conducted by Merseyside Police. Once that review concludes, will the cabinet secretary commit to fully evaluating its contents and meeting the family, if they would like to do so?

Cabinet secretary, I am conscious that that is not a supplementary that is directly related to the Sheku Bayoh case. You may respond if there is anything that you think you can usefully add.

Keith Brown

As you said, Presiding Officer, that is a completely different matter. I am familiar with some of the background to that inquiry, which is being conducted by Merseyside Police, as it was requested that it be conducted by a force from outwith Scotland. We would want to learn the lessons from any inquiry of that type. I undertake to examine the output from that inquiry.

Antisocial Behaviour

To ask the Scottish Government what targeted support it is providing to communities to help deal with antisocial behaviour. (S6O-00462)

The Minister for Community Safety (Ash Regan)

We are committed to ensuring that the police and local authorities continue to have the powers and resources that are needed to reduce antisocial behaviour in our communities, including investing in prevention and early intervention. We fund the Scottish Community Safety Network, which has links to all of Scotland’s local authorities and community planning partnerships, to support community safety partnerships and other agencies, such as CrimeStoppers and Neighbourhood Watch Scotland, to achieve positive outcomes for individuals and communities.

Can the minister outline how experiences and perceptions of antisocial behaviour in Scotland have changed over the past decade?

Ash Regan

Experiences and perceptions of antisocial behaviour have reduced over the past 10 years. The Scottish crime and justice survey reported that fewer adults thought that it was common in their area for people to behave in an antisocial manner, with a drop from 46 per cent in 2008-09 to 33 per cent in 2019-20. More adults felt safe walking alone after dark in their local area, with that figure going up from 66 per cent in 2008-09 to 77 per cent by 2019-20. Although we would all agree that that is good news, we are not complacent, so our support for the Scottish Community Safety Network and partner organisations makes it harder for individuals to engage in antisocial behaviour. By working in that partnership way, we can continue that positive trend.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

The Scottish Community Safety Network has identified mental health issues as a root cause of antisocial behaviour among young people. Does the minister agree with and acknowledge that assertion? Will she ask the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care why one in four young people in Scotland is still waiting for longer than the 18-week target for treatment?

Ash Regan

I agree that mental health issues can sometimes be the reason for that type of behaviour. If it is okay with Jamie Greene, I will speak to my colleague in health and will perhaps get back to him with a joint reply on how justice and health are working together on the issue.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

Although it is welcome that people experiencing antisocial behaviour has reduced in recent years, the lives of many of those who are affected by it are devastated. I have lots of constituents who are in such circumstances. They are frustrated by the process of having to provide evidence that their neighbours are engaged in antisocial behaviour. Can the minister do anything to try to make the system smoother so that people in those circumstances feel less helpless?

Ash Regan

I agree with Willie Rennie and I understand completely that although antisocial behaviour can seem to be quite minor in the scheme of things, it can have a devastating impact on individuals’ daily lives. We want people to feel safe in their communities, and we want the process for them to get help from the authorities in addressing issues to be as simple as possible. If the member contacts my office and provides examples of what he is talking about, I will look into the matter for him.

Finance and the Economy

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The next portfolio is finance and the economy. If members wish to request a supplementary question, they should press their request-to-speak button or, if they are joining us online, put an R in the chat function during the relevant question. We finished the previous session a little early, but that is just as well, because we have a lot of demand in this one. I alert the Government team to that.

Argyll and Bute Rural Growth Deal

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the Argyll and Bute rural growth deal. (S6O-00464)

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy (Kate Forbes)

Heads of terms for the Argyll and Bute deal were signed on 11 February 2021 and we are now working with Argyll and Bute Council and the United Kingdom Government towards agreement of the full deal. The full deal process involves the development and approval of detailed business cases for each project, alongside the governance, finance and implementation arrangements for the overall deal. Good progress is being made and we hope to reach agreement on the full deal in quarter 4 of next year.

Can the cabinet secretary provide any further information about how the deal will help to support the transition to a low-carbon economy in Argyll and Bute?

Kate Forbes

That is a good question. The deal focuses on promoting sustainable and inclusive economic growth in Argyll and Bute, and all projects will be required to minimise and mitigate carbon impacts.

The deal also includes a specific low-carbon economy project on Islay, which will aid the development of a local energy strategy and system through a holistic approach that considers power, heat and transport alongside the needs of individual and business consumers, to support a pathway to net zero emissions on the island.

Small Business Support

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the support that is available to small businesses during the Covid-19 pandemic. (S6O-00465)

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy (Kate Forbes)

I agree that Covid-19 has had an incredibly difficult impact on many of Scotland’s small businesses. The member will know that, since the start of the pandemic, businesses have benefited from more than £4.4 billion of Scottish Government support, which is more than the consequentials that have been received from the United Kingdom Government for those activities, including the extension of 100 per cent of non-domestic rates relief for all retail, leisure, aviation and hospitality premises for all of this year.

We are the only place in the UK to offer that support, and the member will know that, without the ability to borrow, the Scottish Government is not in a position to provide additional funding for business support. However, we have this week written to the UK Government, along with the Welsh First Minister, to request an up-front planning process in case the omicron variant starts to be of concern and results in additional restrictions to businesses.

Jackie Dunbar

As we learn more about the risk that the omicron variant poses, it is important that the Scottish Government keeps its response under close consideration. Although we all hope that further protections will not be necessary, businesses in Scotland will understandably have concerns about the possibility. Does the cabinet secretary agree that, if any further protections become necessary, Treasury funding should be made available to any part of the UK that requires to activate business support schemes?

Kate Forbes

One of the first things that I did on Monday when I heard about the omicron variant was to meet a very large selection of business organisations and businesses to discuss the concerns that they might have about the possibility of further protections becoming necessary. Obviously, we discussed the need for additional financial support and, as I said in the first answer, the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales have jointly written to the UK Government, because we know that throughout the pandemic, if additional funding is to be made available, it needs to come from the UK Government.

We have a number of supplementary questions.

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

The cabinet secretary will have exactly the same briefing that I have from the Federation of Small Businesses and she will know that one of the things that it asks for is that checks are made on the eligibility for some of the grants that are made to small businesses. Is that something that Scottish Government is considering?

Kate Forbes

If I understand the member correctly, that would be to make sure that business support is as targeted as possible at those businesses that need it the most, and I take that point on board. At the height of the pandemic lockdown, we had to make a conscious trade-off between getting funding out quickly and targeting the funding, which is inevitably more time consuming. It must be more targeted in future and must be based on tighter conditions and eligibility. I hope that that will not be necessary, because I sincerely hope that no further restrictions will be necessary.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

Will the cabinet secretary join me in congratulating and raising the importance of the ninth consecutive small business Saturday, which is this Saturday, as it does so much good for our shops and small businesses across East Lothian, South Scotland and the whole of Scotland? Will she welcome the efforts that have been made this year by small businesses to welcome customers in these challenging times?

Kate Forbes

I do not hesitate to join the member in welcoming and noting the importance of small business Saturday. During the pandemic, much was made of shopping locally and my sincere hope is that, as we emerge from the pandemic, we continue to remember that message. Certainly, my colleague Tom Arthur has done a lot of work with the Scotland loves local programme to try and maximise marketing support for businesses to ensure that consumers, where possible, choose to buy locally.

Stephanie Callaghan (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

My question is about small business Saturday as well. How is the Scottish Government supporting small business Saturday, which is due to take place this weekend on 4 December? Will the Scottish Government endorse this year’s key message, which is to say thank you to every small business for working closely in their communities to help us through the pandemic?

Kate Forbes

I agree with the member that we need to say thank you to our small businesses. Many of their owners are local residents in our communities who have chosen through some of the more challenging times of the pandemic either to keep their doors open or to keep them closed to protect customers and reopen them when the situation allowed. I sincerely thank those front-line workers.

With regard to how I will celebrate, my Christmas shopping is always at the last hour of 24 December, but I intend to be out on 4 December to get ahead of the crowds.

The cabinet secretary leads by example.

Public Finances (Transparency)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to ensure transparency in Scotland’s public finances. (S6O-00466)

The Minister for Public Finance, Planning and Community Wealth (Tom Arthur)

The Scottish Government supports transparency around the public finances in support of the budget process that was agreed with the Parliament, reflecting our commitment to further improvements in the open government partnership.

The Scottish Government publishes budget and in-year revision proposals for parliamentary scrutiny, and our tax and social security spending plans are forecast independently by the Scottish Fiscal Commission, which also comments on the overall funding position. Our medium-term financial strategy will outline the key risks in future years and how we intend to manage them, alongside a resource spending review framework that will invite views on our long-term spending priorities.

Stephen Kerr

A lovely neighbour of mine, who is a member of the Scottish National Party, gave me a copy of an SNP propaganda newspaper. She said that I would not read it, but I did. It contained some pretty outlandish claims, to put it mildly. The cabinet secretary wrote in that newspaper that Scotland pays its own way and somehow subsidises the rest of the United Kingdom. Given that, according to her own figures, our fiscal deficit in the past financial year is 23 per cent, but we benefit from the broad shoulders of the United Kingdom, does she now regret writing such drivel? What steps will she take to ensure that there is honesty and transparency about our public finances?

Tom Arthur

Where to begin, Presiding Officer?

I commend Mr Kerr for keeping such good company with SNP-supporting neighbours, and I suggest that he spend more time listening to them.

The revenues that are raised in Scotland more than cover our funding for the devolved public services that we control in the Parliament. It is rather a shame that Mr Kerr would take this opportunity to talk down hard-working Scottish taxpayers who contribute to those public services—

The minister is not answering the question.

Tom Arthur

Perhaps that attitude is why Mr Kerr’s party has not won an election in Scotland since 1955. On the number 55, I am sure that it will not have escaped the members’ attention that support for independence as of this afternoon stands at 55 per cent—Mr Kerr and his neighbour can drink to that.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

As I recall, the initial question was about transparency. The Scottish budget will be published in a week. How do financial transparency and scrutiny of public finances in the Scottish Parliament compare to the process at Mr Kerr’s beloved Westminster?

Tom Arthur

In the interest of time—given that much could be said in response to Mr Gibson’s question—I highlight that we have a transparent process in the Scottish Parliament, through our budget setting and budget revision processes, the provisional outturn and the publication of our consolidated accounts.

One of the challenges that we face is that the process at Westminster does not mirror ours, which means that we often face uncertainty about the consequentials that we will receive from Westminster. That creates significant challenges in our budget setting process. I am sure that Mr Gibson agrees with me that it would be far better if all decisions over public spending were taken in this Parliament, as a majority of people in Scotland clearly wants.

Just Transition (Highlands and Islands)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it has taken to ensure a just transition for the Highlands and Islands. (S6O-00467)

The Minister for Just Transition, Employment and Fair Work (Richard Lochhead)

We are committed to co-designing a series of just transition plans for regions and sectors across the country, including for the Highlands and Islands. Work on the energy strategy and just transition plan has already begun, and it will consider how communities the length and breadth of Scotland can benefit from the transition to net zero.

Additionally, a number of our existing commitments will help to deliver a just transition for the Highlands and Islands. That includes the £150 million that we are investing in forestry, the £250 million in peatland restoration, and the £242.5 million that has been committed to regional growth deals, all of which will support new and good green jobs in the Highlands and Islands region.

Beatrice Wishart

With news of the £500 million just transition fund for the north-east and Moray, what consideration has the Scottish Government given to the Scottish Liberal Democrat proposal for a Highlands and Islands just transition commission?

Richard Lochhead

As I said, the plan is to have sectoral and regional just transmission plans for the whole of Scotland. The first one is the energy just transition plan, which will be part of our energy policy refresh. That will include Shetland, of course.

We have appointed Professor Jim Skea to be chair of the new just transition commission that we are setting up, and we will appoint the other commissioners shortly. Professor Skea was the chair of the previous commission that gave us recommendations. The new commission will also look at how we deliver those plans, including their impact on Shetland and elsewhere. I recommend that Beatrice Wishart speaks to the chair of the just transition commission about the issue.

I have an open mind about the issue and will continue to discuss it with the member and others from across the country.

Jenni Minto (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)

A key part of working towards a just transition will mean encouraging growth opportunities in new sectors, particularly in green growth sectors that will require new skills. Will the minister provide an update on the steps that the Scottish Government is taking to ensure that people across Scotland are equipped with the necessary skills for the jobs of the future?

Richard Lochhead

Jenny Minto’s question goes to the heart of the just transition. We have to make sure that people have the skills and training to get good green jobs as we make the transition towards net zero during the next couple of decades. That is why we have the climate emergency skills action plan, which was published last year. We also have the national transition training fund, and we have now launched the green jobs workforce academy. We have also said that we will give a skills guarantee to those who are working in carbon-intensive sectors to move towards low-carbon sectors.

A lot of plans are in train, and I am sure that they will make a big difference in the coming years by ensuring that we make the transition fairly and that people have alternative employment opportunities.

GFG Alliance (Engagement)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will publish, in full, details of its engagement with GFG Alliance in relation to operations at the Lochaber smelter site. (S6O-00468)

The Minister for Just Transition, Employment and Fair Work (Richard Lochhead)

Information about ministerial engagements is already published on the Scottish Government website as part of a broader publication covering overseas travel, car journeys, domestic travel and gifts received. The series is updated monthly and the most recently published information covers the period up to April 2021.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

Workers at the facility have experienced real uncertainty in recent years. Thousands of new jobs were promised as part of the proposals that supported Scottish Government guarantees to GFG Alliance, but those plans were then amended and, so far, only a small fraction of the promised jobs have been created. Last month, the Financial Times revealed the struggle that it had to uncover the Scottish Government’s full financial exposure to GFG’s operations. Legitimate concerns are being raised about the transparency of those deals and even over what the Scottish Government’s expectations are now for jobs at the site.

With hundreds of millions of pounds of public exposure remaining in guaranteed payments, when will ministers next meet GFG? Have plans for the expansion of the workforce been shared with the Scottish Government? How many new jobs does the Scottish Government expect to be delivered at the site?

Richard Lochhead

Scottish ministers continue to meet the group to discuss future plans for the site. Indeed, my colleague Ivan McKee has had meetings with the group since the statistics were published in April 2021. Although GFG’s initial investment plan for Fort William was affected by a number of factors, such as the sharp fall in the United Kingdom’s automotive output, it has new investment plans totalling £94 million. I remind Jamie Halcro Johnston that it was the Scottish Government’s intervention and negotiations with the group that led to jobs being safeguarded in the first place. I hope that he will take the opportunity to welcome that, because the Scottish Government undertook intense negotiations to safeguard those important jobs.

As for transparency, the issue has been in the public domain for some time. The number of steps that have been taken through parliamentary committees and other publications, and all the other information that is not commercially sensitive, is in the public domain. Therefore, the Government has been transparent.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

I think that it is safe to say that, from the point of view of transparency, the Government has been less than forthcoming on the matter. At its heart, this was a deal involving a £500 million guarantee—given by the Scottish Government and underwritten by Scottish taxpayers—between Sanjeev Gupta and his father’s firm. How on earth did that get through Scottish Government due diligence? Was it signed off by the Cabinet?

Richard Lochhead

Of course due diligence was carried out. All meetings were registered properly and details were published online. The sales process and the selection of the eventual purchaser was led by the vendor, Rio Tinto Alcan, with the company’s full knowledge and backing. The Scottish Government also offered financial support, on an even-handed basis, to all shortlisted bidders.

At the time, Donald Cameron of the Conservative Party welcomed what was happening. He said that he was “delighted” that the future of the smelter at Lochaber would be secured thanks to the Scottish Government’s intervention. Unite the union welcomed it as a “shot in the arm” for industry in the Highlands. [Interruption.]

In addition, the Parliament was, of course, informed of the value of the guarantee and approved it following proper due diligence. That gets to the heart of Daniel Johnson’s question. On 22 November 2016, the cross-party Finance and Constitution Committee unanimously approved what was happening. Therefore, there has been transparency, and the Scottish Government has been up front with the Parliament.

I have taken supplementary questions, so members should not be shouting from a sedentary position. I will take one more brief supplementary, from Willie Rennie.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

Is this not part of a pattern? We have hundreds of millions of pounds of potential exposure. The 2,000 jobs that were promised are nowhere to be seen, and there is no indication that they are coming any time soon. If we add that to the catastrophic position of Burntisland Fabrications, is it not the case that the Government has a shocking track record on industrial intervention?

Richard Lochhead

I think that the Scottish Government’s track record has been somewhat endorsed by today’s opinion polls, which show that the Scottish National Party has a 33-point lead over the second-placed party in Scotland. Our track record speaks for itself and is clearly popular with the people of Scotland. We are doing everything that we can to safeguard jobs in the country, and to create new ones.

With regard to the guarantee, for the record, it is worth reiterating yet again that the net present value of the power purchase agreement revenue stream over the remaining 20 years is £286 million, while GFG valued the assets at Fort William at £438 million in its 2019 accounts. That shows that what we are doing is secure and in the interests of the public purse.

Brexit (Economic Impact)

To ask the Scottish Government what modelling it has done to assess the potential economic impact of Brexit on Scotland over the next five years. (S6O-00469)

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy (Kate Forbes)

Scottish Government modelling estimates that the Brexit deal that was agreed by the United Kingdom Government could cut Scotland’s gross domestic product by 6.1 per cent by 2030, compared with European Union membership. The UK Government’s deal has removed Scotland from a market worth more than £16 billion to Scottish exporters, and our companies are now facing additional costs, delays and barriers. We need only speak to small businesses in Scotland that are exporting to hear those stories up close.

Jim Fairlie

Scotland’s food and drink sector has long been recognised as a huge success story—indeed, it was the fastest growing sector in our economy. Given the impacts of Brexit and Covid, as well as UK Government policies that are clearly damaging our markets, does the cabinet secretary believe that we can still achieve what is set out in “Ambition 2030”?

Kate Forbes

Given that it generates £15 billion in turnover a year, the food and drink industry is, as Jim Fairlie said, a major contributor to Scotland’s economy; it has 17,500 registered businesses that employ around 122,000 people. We know that Covid-19 and Brexit have had a negative impact on the sector, which is modelling a reduction of £3 billion in predicted turnover in 2020. We have committed £10 million of funding over 2020-22 towards the food and drink sector’s recovery plan, which is the follow-up to “Ambition 2030”. The plan contains about 50 actions to help businesses.

With regard to the basis of Jim Fairlie’s question, there is no question but that Brexit and the challenges to exporters have had an impact.

Employment (Highlands and Islands)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to help improve employment opportunities in the Highlands and Islands, including for young people. (S6O-00470)

The Minister for Just Transition, Employment and Fair Work (Richard Lochhead)

Our Scottish approach to employability—the no one left behind strategy—adopts a local place-based approach to facilitate easier alignment with existing local services, particularly housing, health, justice and advisory services. Through no one left behind, we are working with partners in local government and the private and third sectors to ensure that individuals who face the greatest inequalities and risk of long-term unemployment have access to the help and support that they need.

Donald Cameron

The job start payment was designed to help young people with the cost of starting a new job but recent figures from four of the relevant six local authorities in the Highlands and Islands show that nearly half of all applications for support were rejected. What were the reasons for such a significant number of rejections, and what action will the Government take to ensure that more young people receive that vital support?

Richard Lochhead

I am happy to look into the detail of the circumstances in those local authorities in the Highlands and Islands region and write to the member about it. I have asked my officials for advice on that—we certainly want to pay close attention to it.

In terms of the bigger picture, it is worth saying that the claimant count rate for young people in Scotland is 4.5 per cent, whereas in the Highlands and Islands just now it is 3.3 per cent. It is important to keep in perspective the job situation that young people in different parts of the country face at the moment.

I also note the further £70 million that we announced for the young persons guarantee in 2021-22, which is part of an extra £125 million included in this year’s budget to enhance the national transition training funds, plus a number of other initiatives that we are taking. I hope that that will help young people in the Highlands and Islands to get more and more access to employment and, of course, training and education opportunities.

It is vital that fair work is at the heart of our work to build a wellbeing economy. Will the minister provide an update on what steps the Scottish Government has taken to ensure that new jobs are good jobs?

Richard Lochhead

I thank Jackie Dunbar for raising that issue. I remind members in the chamber that the consultation on making Scotland a fair work nation by 2025 closes later this month, so people can have their say about these issues.

Fair work is central to our wellbeing economy. Recently, to the fair work first criteria, we have added opposition to fire-and-rehire practices and support for flexible working. In August, we will launch the national living hours accreditation scheme in order to increase the number of workers who receive at least the real living wage and a secure contract. We have also mandated payment of the real living wage in our contracts by summer 2022 in order to strengthen our approach. Within the limits of devolution, we will introduce a requirement for public sector grant recipients to pay the real living wage and provide appropriate and effective channels for workers’ voices, such as trade union recognition. Therefore, just in the past few months, we have taken a number of measures to back the ambition to transform Scotland into a fair work nation by 2025, which, as Jackie Dunbar said, will help to create Scotland as a wellbeing nation.

Tay Cities Region Deal

To ask the Scottish Government what impact the Tay cities region deal is having on Dundee. (S6O-00471)

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy (Kate Forbes)

The Tay cities region deal has made good progress since it was signed last December. So far, £35 million has been spent on multiple projects across the region. We are investing in Dundee airport and 5G trials and committing £30 million to local universities in order to enhance their expertise in cybersecurity and biomedical sciences. Those long-term, strategic investments are producing returns. I could go into more detail or, perhaps, write to Joe FitzPatrick with the full list.

Joe FitzPatrick

One of the projects that the cabinet secretary mentioned is the Tay cities biomedical cluster project, which the Scottish Government is funding to the tune of £25 million, as part of the Tay cities region deal. That will build on the University of Dundee’s world-class expertise in life sciences research, including drug discovery and medical technologies innovation. Will the cabinet secretary provide an update on the potential job creation and expected economic benefit to the Dundee economy from that particular project?

Kate Forbes

The example that Joe FitzPatrick referenced is a great example of the Tay cities region deal enhancing Dundee’s existing reputation—in other words, backing its strengths—for excellence in the life sciences sector. The project is forecast to create more than 280 jobs and provide a £193 million boost to the Scottish economy, because the University of Dundee requires contractors to demonstrate local supplier spend, which is really important. The university has committed to recruiting locally where possible, and our £20 million investment in the deal’s regional skills and employability programme will help to ensure that the local workforce has the qualifications and experience that are needed in order to take full advantage of those job opportunities.

Maurice Golden (North East Scotland) (Con)

Dundee Heritage Trust hopes to refurbish and extend Discovery Point to complement the Tay cities region deal’s waterfront development plans. Given that the trust receives no support from the Scottish Government, will the cabinet secretary consider providing support to the trust in the upcoming budget?

Kate Forbes

I would, of course, need to see the full details and the business case, but I am always happy to engage with any member on the budget. This morning, I enjoyed engaging with the Conservative spokesperson and the Lib Dem spokesperson on the budget.

That concludes this item of business. There will be a brief pause before we move to the next item of business.