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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Covid-19 Recovery Strategy, Health and Social Care (Winter Planning), Environment Bill, Urgent Question, Covid-19 Regulations (Scrutiny Protocol), Decision Time, Big Noise Programme (Wester Hailes), Correction


Covid-19 Recovery Strategy

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The next item of business is a statement by John Swinney on the Covid-19 recovery strategy. He will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interruptions or interventions.


The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Covid Recovery (John Swinney)

Presiding Officer, the coronavirus pandemic has had an enormous impact on the everyday lives of the people of Scotland.

As a nation, we came together to fight the pandemic. We made sacrifices to protect ourselves, each other and the national health service. The virus, and the measures that we took to fight it, changed every area of life—the ways in which we work, socialise and do business. The action that we took and the success of the vaccination programme in mitigating some of the most serious harms of the virus mean that we have been able, since the summer, to lift almost all the restrictions that we were living under.

Although important protections remain in place, and some new ones such as vaccination certification have been introduced, life is beginning to feel a lot more normal. That is a good thing for many of us, but not for us all. The pandemic highlighted the inequalities in our society. There were those who could work from home and those who could not; and there were those for whom Covid was a mild illness and those for whom it was life changing—or life ending.

Although the past eighteen months have not been easy for anyone, there are many for whom it has been much harder: in particular, people who were already coping with disadvantage. They were more likely to get seriously ill, to be hospitalised and, sadly, to die from Covid. They are also the hardest hit socially, educationally and economically due to the restrictions that it was necessary to introduce in order to control the spread of the virus.

We cannot go back to a life where some people, because of their income, health, disability, race or gender, are less secure and less able to protect themselves and their families from circumstances that are beyond their control. Our recovery must be about creating a fairer Scotland; it cannot be about going back to a way of living that for far too many people in Scotland was simply not good enough.

That is why today I am publishing “Covid Recovery Strategy: For a fairer future”. The document has a laser focus on addressing those inequalities. Central to the strategy is our determination to build on the spirit of co-operation, urgency and flexibility that characterised our response to the pandemic. If our people are secure and have firm foundations, our communities, businesses and society will be more resilient and will flourish.

The strategy is neither the end of the story, nor the whole of it. A vast amount of work has already been undertaken, notably on the NHS recovery plan and on the education recovery plan, which was published today, and more will follow. The strategy does not seek to provide that level of detail on recovery plans for individual public services, but it provides the overall principles that will guide them. The strategy has a clear vision: to address the inequalities that have been made worse by Covid, to make progress towards a wellbeing economy in which our success is judged on more than gross domestic product, and to accelerate inclusive and person-centred public services.

Throughout the pandemic and during the preparation of the Covid recovery strategy, the Government has been speaking to people in Scotland about what sort of recovery they want to see. People said that they wanted a recovery that achieves financial security for all; supports health and wellbeing; empowers communities and places; addresses the harms caused by the pandemic; recognises the value of time and social connections; advances equality and strengthens rights; starts from the individual and involves people in decision making; is evidence driven; supports economic development; and is ambitious and transformational.

We have listened to what people have told us and to what was shared through the citizens assembly and with the social renewal advisory board. The ambition for a fairer Scotland is the heart of the strategy and it lies behind the three outcomes that the strategy works towards: to establish financial security for low-income households, to enhance the wellbeing of children and young people, and to create good green jobs and fair work. Those three outcomes are supported by an overarching ambition to rebuild public services and learn the lessons of the pandemic when—because it mattered—boundaries were overcome and by necessity all spheres of government and the third sector came together to deliver truly person-centred services.

Overcoming boundaries was central to the approach that we took to homelessness during Covid. Pre-pandemic, Scotland had around 300 people sleeping rough or in shared dormitory-style accommodation. Those people generally have poorer health and higher rates of complex problems than the general population and were therefore at greater risk of the virus and its devastating consequences. Through our partnerships with local authorities and the third sector, rough sleeping was almost eradicated last year. Emergency accommodation was provided along with daily hot meals and emergency food, and enhanced independent living support was given to young women who were experiencing homelessness and who had experienced sexual assault.

Having a fixed place to stay also gave access to a range of vital support services; primary care, mental health, advocacy, employment support and addiction services came together to support individuals. That is just one example of how a collective national approach delivered truly person-centred service and it is exactly the type of approach that our country needs in relation to the Covid recovery. Our renewed and enhanced partnership with local government and working collaboratively with the third sector and business are the foundations of the strategy.

In the strategy, we set out the steps that the Government will take to ensure financial security for low-income families, including rolling out the Scottish child payment to children under 16 by the end of next year and doubling it to £20 per week per child as quickly as possible during this parliamentary session; expanding funded early learning and childcare for children aged one and two; designing a wraparound childcare system to provide care before and after school and in the holidays in which the least well-off families will pay nothing; reducing the costs of school with free breakfasts and lunches in primary school and the school uniform grant; and investing in employability support to get people into work.

To improve the wellbeing of children and young people, the strategy includes commitments to invest at least £500 million over this parliamentary session to create a whole family wellbeing fund, shift to preventative interventions, create holistic and universal support services, invest in mental health support for children and young people, and improve and scale up family support services.

The strategy details investment in important cultural and creative programmes, such as Sistema Scotland and the youth music initiative. It also outlines how we will address the opportunities that have been lost to young people during the pandemic through the young persons guarantee, which is providing up to £70 million this year so that every person between 16 and 24 has the opportunity to study, take up an apprenticeship, job or work experience, or take part in formal volunteering.

To support employment following the pandemic and Brexit, we will work to ensure that good green jobs are available; simplify investment in skills and training to ensure that people have support available throughout their lives; invest £200 million in adult upskilling and retraining opportunities; embed fair work so that people have good jobs and to increase productivity; and enhance equality of opportunity so that everyone can access, and progress in, work. We will work with local authorities on a community wealth-building plan to ensure that there are good local employment opportunities in every area.

I am pleased to tell members that the strategy has been agreed with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and is supported by local government.

Over the past 18 months, our response to Covid has been a shared endeavour. Our approach to recovery must be a shared endeavour, too, and local government is at the heart of that. Delivering on the strategy requires focus and prioritisation. Learning from the successful programme management of the delivery of 1,140 hours of early learning and childcare, the Scottish Government and COSLA will establish a Covid recovery programme board, which will be jointly chaired. That board will oversee the delivery of the strategy and ensure that focus is brought to that work over the coming 18 months.

Partnership with local government is essential, but our collective endeavour for recovery will also involve community groups, charities and voluntary organisations, and businesses large and small. There is no sector of Scottish life that does not have a part to play in the successful delivery of the strategy, and there is no sector that does not stand to gain from that success.

The role of the third sector during the crisis has been proven time and again in the rapid help that it and thousands of volunteers have provided to support communities. Collaboration has happened across organisations and traditional boundaries. We must build on that ability and strengthen the sector’s capacity in our recovery.

We know that economic recovery is central to the success of the strategy, and we will continue to work in partnership with business organisations. We are urgently working with them to better understand the challenges that are being faced as a result of the labour market shortages and to develop a working with business action plan, which will focus on employability, skills and fair work to identify the actions that are necessary to mitigate the impact of labour shortages. Later this year, we will publish a new 10-year national strategy for economic transformation that sets out plans for strengthening Scotland’s economy.

Today, the Government has published a strategy that sets out what we as a Government will do to ensure recovery from Covid in Scotland. It sets out an approach to ensure that the most affected are never so vulnerable again and to enable them to take steps to improve their lives and those of their families. It is a uniquely Scottish approach to progressive recovery that seeks to build a society that is better than what we had before.

Over the past 18 months, life has changed markedly. Over the next 18 months, which is the period that is covered by the strategy, we can build back on a fairer basis. To do that, we must move at pace and devote the same energy, imagination and urgency to Covid recovery as we devoted to the pandemic, to collectively achieve that change and drive a recovery that delivers for all of Scotland.

The cabinet secretary will now take questions on the issues raised in his statement. I intend to allow around 20 minutes for questions, after which we will move on to the next item of business.

Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I thank the cabinet secretary for his statement and for advance sight of it.

We will carefully consider the detail of the document that has been published today. As the cabinet secretary admitted, it is a high-level strategy paper. What is important, of course, is the detail of the policies and actions that will come forward in due course. We look forward to hearing more about those.

In the meantime, I have a question on the economy and employment, to which the cabinet secretary referred in his statement. We know that the impact of Covid means that some jobs that were there previously have disappeared in the short term and may not return. However, we also know that new jobs have been created and are likely to stay. Yesterday, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced an extra £500 million for job-related initiatives throughout the United Kingdom. What specific new help will be made available by the Scottish Government and its agencies to help those who are looking to retrain to fill vacancies in the economy, and to ensure that they take up secure well-paid jobs in the future?

John Swinney

I am grateful to Mr Fraser for his comments and his willingness to engage on the detail of the strategy. As he knows from the discussions that we have had in the cross-party group on Covid, I am open to discussion about the priorities that we should pursue.

Employment is a significant issue. There are acute labour market shortages in the economy and, at this stage, comparatively low levels of unemployment. However, substantial numbers of individuals have just come off furlough, and we await the impact of that on the labour market.

The Government already has in place a range of interventions, including the national transition training fund, the north-east skills fund, individual training accounts, the flexible workforce development fund and the young persons guarantee. The chancellor’s announcement the other day apparently indicates, at a high level, £41 million of consequential funding for the Scottish Government. As Mr Fraser would expect, we have to interrogate the detail of that, and look at it in the round of financial announcements that are made by the UK Government to make sure that it is actually £41 million of new money, because sometimes it is not new money.

We will look at that carefully, and announcements will be made by my colleagues as we look to deploy the resources to assist individuals and enable them to have good high-quality employment in the Scottish economy.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

I, too, thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of his statement. Recovery must be our enduring focus throughout this session of Parliament.

As the cabinet secretary said, it is important to consider what is new money. On the issue of upskilling and reskilling, is the £200 million that was announced in the statement essentially for pre-existing programmes, including the ones that he referred to, such as the national transition training fund, or was there additional or new money in the statement?

I very much welcome the focus on family wellbeing in the statement but, again, can I clarify how much of the £500 million fund is additional money over and above current local authority spend on social services and care?

Most important, perhaps, the cabinet secretary will be aware that, in order to meet the Government’s legal targets on child poverty, the child payment will need to not just double but quadruple. Many people expected that the Scottish Government was ready to bring forward the doubling this coming financial year, but they will be disappointed, because it appears that the Government is falling short of that interim measure. Can we get clarity on when the doubling of the child payment will take place?

John Swinney

As I indicated in my statement, the Government is fulfilling the commitment that it made to roll out the child payment by the end of next year. We have committed to doubling the child payment during this session of Parliament, and we want to do it as quickly as we can, when resources become available to do so. I assure Mr Johnson that that has the highest priority in Government. I welcome his support for the issue of securing the financial wellbeing of families, because I view that as critical in the work that we have to do to eradicate child poverty.

We have to be cognisant of the research evidence that demonstrates that there are a number of ways in which we can tackle child poverty, one of which, as Mr Johnson rightly alighted on, is to boost a payment such as the child payment. There are other ways, such as delivering effective childcare support for families to enable individuals to enter the labour market and command well-remunerated employment. There are also ways in which we can try to reduce household costs, such as through some of the measures that I set out. For example, we can try to reduce the cost of the school day, which I recognise is a significant factor for some families in our country.

We have to view such measures as part of a collective endeavour, through a number of interventions, to make sure that we deliver security for family incomes, rather than focus on one measure, such as increasing the Scottish child payment by doubling it—or quadrupling it, as Mr Johnson suggested. We must look at a range of interventions if we are to make the maximum impact when it comes to ensuring that there is security for family incomes.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

The Deputy First Minister knows that I have raised early learning and childcare many times, because I believe in flexible, accessible and affordable childcare, which is critical to the recovery. Yesterday, new official statistics showed that the number of two-year-olds who receive funded ELC has fallen. Some 14,500 two-year-olds from poorer backgrounds are entitled to funded ELC, because of the difference that it could make to their life chances and attainment, but fewer than 6,000 are taking up a place. This week is challenge poverty week. What will the Scottish Government do to drive up that all-important uptake?

John Swinney

We intend to work closely with our local authority partners to increase take-up. Funded ELC is a significant benefit for children and young people, so we have to ensure that the youngest and most vulnerable children in society are gaining access to what is being provided. It can also—this links to my answer to Daniel Johnson—help families to secure access to the employment market, which then strengthens their position into the bargain.

I assure Beatrice Wishart that we will work closely with local authorities to ensure that uptake is higher. I envisage that issue being taken up by the programme board that we will take forward, in partnership with local government, to ensure that we fulfil those commitments.

Audrey Nicoll (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

Households on low incomes are experiencing significant pressure due to Covid-19, which will only be made worse by the UK Government’s ill-judged moves to cut universal credit and the furlough scheme. Does the cabinet secretary agree that those decisions should be reversed immediately? Can he provide further detail on the actions that the Scottish Government will take as part of the strategy to support households on low incomes?

John Swinney

The Scottish Government’s position on the universal credit reductions that will come into effect tomorrow is well stated. We stated it again at the weekend, along with the First Ministers of Wales and Northern Ireland, when we appealed for a reversal of the decision to reduce universal credit.

The decision will increase the hardship that families face, and it illustrates the challenge that the Scottish Government faces in that, on one hand, we are trying to take a number of aligned measures—for example, in relation to school clothing grants, the removal of curriculum charges and the introduction of the Scottish child payment—which are designed to strengthen family incomes, only to find that, on the other hand, our approach is undermined by a decision of the United Kingdom Government.

We will continue to make representations to the UK Government in the hope that it recognises the damage that will be done to low-income households, and we will continue with our measures that try to impact on the financial wellbeing and security of such households.

Craig Hoy (South Scotland) (Con)

The Deputy First Minister will be well aware that many of the problems that the strategy seeks to address predate the pandemic. Today’s strategy document reveals that Scots who live in the most deprived areas are

“18 times more likely to suffer a drugs related death; four times more likely to die from alcohol ... twice as likely to die from Covid; and can expect 20 years less healthy life.”

What picture does that paint of life in Scotland for the very poorest people, under this Scottish National Party Government?

John Swinney

There are some very deep-seated and long-standing problems in Scottish society, with which successive Administrations have wrestled and which are the consequences of poverty. That deep-seated poverty has been a product of industrial decline and industrial change in our country over many years.

I make no apology that the Government’s strategy is absolutely focused on eradicating poverty and child poverty. If Mr Hoy wants to get behind us in doing that, that is all very well. The first thing that he could do is encourage his United Kingdom Government colleagues not to make our challenge worse with the attack on household income that will come tomorrow. Mr Hoy could do that if he wanted to help the process and support our strategy’s focus on eradicating poverty and giving people the opportunity of experiencing a better and safer life as a consequence.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

The cabinet secretary mentioned fair work a couple of times, but Westminster controls employment legislation and can drag standards down. What can the Scottish Government do to tackle that and ensure that there is fair work?

John Swinney

A lot of our efforts in this respect must be done by agreement, consent and example. We do not have the legislative powers to take many of the necessary actions, so we work in collaboration with business organisations and our trade union counterparts to agree common standards and apply them in the labour market in Scotland. The business organisations engage at all times constructively with us on such questions, and many employers set a really good example by paying the real living wage, engaging their employees in the operation of their organisations and having fair employment practices.

We will take forward such standards in all our dialogue. As a consequence of our partnership with the Scottish Green Party, a number of additional commitments have been made on conditionality and access to public sector funding, which are explicit in the agreement that we have reached. They will be applied to create the fair work conditions that Mr Mason talked about.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

Will the Deputy First Minister confirm that COSLA agrees with his statement? Will all local authorities be in a position to provide free school meals from the start of the next academic year? Given that this is challenge poverty week, can I ask whether the Government will meet its interim poverty targets in 2023-24?

John Swinney

The thinking behind the strategy has been discussed with local authorities and their leaders in recent weeks, and I have had a number of good and productive discussions with COSLA’s leadership on the questions. Local authorities are funded to provide free school meals.

As for achieving the child poverty targets, the Government is doing everything that it possibly can to reach the targets. We are conscious and seized of the importance of doing so, which is why the issue is at the heart of the strategy that I have set out to Parliament.

Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

Given that many people are still working from home and many companies are saying that staff will not return to the office, what work is under way to help small businesses and public transport providers that rely on people coming into our town and city centres daily to go to their places of work?

John Swinney

A lot of businesses are affected by the reduced footfall in town centres, and a number of public transport companies are experiencing such challenges. We have put in place a significant amount of support to enable such organisations to weather the difficult conditions.

Interventions that are part of the support that is available include the small business bonus scheme, which is a long-standing part of the Government’s programme that assists many organisations to prosper. We will encourage businesses to look at how best they can adapt their trading models to the new conditions that we must all adjust to. The business advisory networks that are in place provide a great deal of support to assist companies in that transition, and I encourage them to take up such offers where they are available.

Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

The strategy document contains a commitment to regional action and a regional approach to recovery, with a focus on regional economic partnerships. Does the cabinet secretary recognise the different impacts of the pandemic and the recovery on various parts of Scotland—particularly island communities, which have been doubly disadvantaged by the ferries crisis? How will the regional approach be followed by proportionate support and funding?

John Swinney

The issues of regional diversity are central to the strategy. Yesterday, several ministers, including me, were involved in a meeting of the south of Scotland convention, which brings together several south of Scotland bodies to consider areas of shared activity. We had a healthy discussion about the regional economic strategy that has been formulated by that partnership in the south of Scotland, which is very community and local authority led. The Government is actively engaged in the process.

After the recess, I will chair the convention of the Highlands and Islands, which is a further opportunity for that regional perspective to be considered. I look forward to continuing those discussions.

The Government makes funding decisions and announcements at different times, and we have set out commitments around the north-east of Scotland training fund and the transition funds for the north-east and Moray in relation to the oil and gas sector. The funding decisions will be taken to reflect the decision making that has taken place at a local level—and to complement some of the other financial arrangements around growth deals that distribute resources around different parts of the countries.

Annabelle Ewing (Cowdenbeath) (SNP)

I acknowledge that we do not have a crystal ball and are far from being out of the woods yet. Nonetheless, people from my constituency—and across Scotland—need a bit of hope in the months ahead. Can the Deputy First Minister indicate what factors will be relied on to determine when we can be considered to be safely out the other side of the Covid pandemic?

John Swinney

That question certainly invites the crystal ball analysis. The Government has set out its framework for decision making around Covid, which is about looking at key indicators in relation to pressures on the national health service, capacity in the NHS and the extent of cases of the virus and the levels of vaccination in our community.

As the First Minister has just told Parliament, we find ourselves—at this moment—in a comparatively better position than we might have expected to be in. If we maintain the current rigorous pressure on the virus for the foreseeable future, that will put us in the strongest possible position to withstand the impact of the virus and then to experience a much greater return to normality than was experienced when we relaxed the restrictions in August.

Gillian Mackay (Central Scotland) (Green)

The Deputy First Minister’s statement repeatedly references reducing poverty, and the Scottish Greens have long supported the introduction of a universal basic income to address that. Although I appreciate that the Scottish Parliament does not currently have the powers to introduce a universal basic income, I welcome the SNP’s manifesto commitment to introducing a minimum income guarantee as an interim measure. Although it is not referred to in the Covid strategy document, will the Deputy First Minister provide an update on timescales for the introduction of a minimum income guarantee?

John Swinney

Development work on that important commitment is under way. It relates directly to some of the measures that I talked about in my statement and answers on delivering financial security for families. We view it as a key route to enabling us to navigate our way out of the impact of poverty on our society. The Government will continue to pursue the work that is being undertaken and will keep Parliament advised of the development of that policy.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

With gas prices rocketing, it is heartening that the NHS, local authorities and other public sector bodies that use the Scottish Government’s national collaborative framework for natural gas supply will see no price increase in wholesale gas costs in this financial year, as was agreed last April. Can the Deputy First Minister say what impact rising fuel prices will have on households—particularly those on low incomes—on the private and third sectors and on our economic recovery?

John Swinney

That is a very serious matter. The issues that some individuals will face due to changes in their supply caused by the difficulties in which certain companies have found themselves might well exacerbate the other challenges that individuals are already facing.

In the short term, the Government will ensure that we have in place the necessary support measures for individuals, including the advice services that enable people to wrestle with such challenges, while ensuring that the heart and focus of the strategy on strengthening the financial security of families is on enabling them to withstand the pressures that Mr Gibson has, quite reasonably, cited. I assure him that, although the energy prices issue is one manifestation of the financial insecurity of families, tackling the basic question of financial security is central to how we will take forward the strategy.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Thank you, Deputy First Minister. There will be a short suspension before we move on to the next item of business.

15:50 Meeting suspended.  

15:52 On resuming—