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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Thursday, September 8, 2022


General Question Time

Good morning. The first item of business is general question time. Short and succinct questions and responses will enable us to get in as many questions as possible.

Residential Outdoor Education Centres

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions ministers have had with residential outdoor education centres regarding the provision of bed spaces for 2023. (S6O-01340)

The Minister for Children and Young People (Clare Haughey)

The Scottish Government values the benefits of outdoor learning for children and young people, which includes the specific role of outdoor education centres. We have supported outdoor education centres with £4 million of Covid emergency funding to prevent closures during the Covid pandemic, and we have provided guidance to encourage and support visits by schools.

Ministers, Government officials and representatives of outdoor centres continue to discuss a wide range of issues relating to the sector on an on-going basis.

Liz Smith

I thank the minister and the Scottish Government for the assistance that was provided to outdoor education centres during the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, when many of them could not operate. Their problems have been eased, but by no means have they been eradicated.

It is important that we have accurate data as to exactly what facilities are available, so that schools, in particular, can make informed decisions about where pupils can access residential facilities. Will the Scottish Government undertake to provide that data in conjunction with outdoor education centres?

Clare Haughey

I can provide Liz Smith with the latest data that sector representatives have shared with our officials. The data indicates that there is a capacity of 4,400 operational beds in around 50 centres across Scotland. However, that does not cover the full capacity of the sector, and the bed capacity figure does not take into account seasonal availability.

We will continue to engage with the sector and consider how we can more accurately reflect what is on offer to local authorities for bookings for schools and other organisations.

Scotland-domiciled Students (Scottish Universities)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the number of Scotland-domiciled students attending Scottish universities. (S6O-01341)

In the latest figures that we have, which are for the academic year 2020-21, there were a total of 180,170 Scotland-domiciled students attending Scottish universities.

Pam Gosal

According to Universities and Colleges Admissions Service figures, there has been a 56 per cent increase in the number of people attending Scottish universities since 2006. However, there has been an 83 per cent increase in the number of Scotland-domiciled applicants being denied a place.

The Scottish National Party-Green Administration claims to be on the side of Scotland, but the current model short-changes Scottish pupils. Does the minister consider that that is a problem? What action is needed to address it?

Jamie Hepburn

Ms Gosal says that the Scottish system leaves Scottish students short-changed. Let me tell her about that system. It has delivered 180,000 Scotland-domiciled students in the most recent academic year, which is up from 167,030 in the year before, and it is delivering that number on the basis of those students not having to pay £9,000 a year, as is the case under her party’s Administration south of the border.

In that regard, I could not help but notice former Tory MP Luke Graham’s article in The Times this week, which was headed “Time to be bold on national education”. In it, he said:

“There now exists a unique opportunity for the new prime minister to hold the devolved governments to account.”

That sounds very much like unsubtle code inviting the United Kingdom Government to introduce tuition fees here, in Scotland.

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

I welcome the record number of Scotland-domiciled students who have secured a place at university. Let us not be negative, Ms Gosal; that is a testament to the hard work of students and teachers across Scotland.

Minister, how many of those new university students come from deprived areas?

Jamie Hepburn

What I can say to Mr Doris about the process for the current year—we do not have the final numbers, as we have still to go through the clearance process—is that, as things stand, the number of 18-year-olds from deprived areas who have secured university places has gone up by 29 per cent since 2019, which is the most recent year in which there were exams. We are making good progress in achieving our target of ensuring that, by 2030, 20 per cent of students come from Scottish index of multiple deprivation 20 areas.

Good year-on-year progress has been made in that regard. Indeed, in Mr Doris’s home city, over the period that I mentioned, there has been significant growth in the number of 18-year-olds from SIMD20 areas attending the three universities there. That figure has gone up by 15 per cent at Glasgow Caledonian University, by 22 per cent at the University of Strathclyde and by 76 per cent at the University of Glasgow. That is the progress that is being made under this Administration.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

Despite what he has said, the minister must acknowledge that there are many excellent Scottish students who are being deprived of a place at Scottish universities because of the cap on places. Is he saying that he is going to do nothing to resolve that problem? Does he not recognise that issue? Will he agree to meet me to discuss it further?

Jamie Hepburn

I am always delighted to meet Mr Rennie, so I will be happy to accept his invitation to do so.

It has always been the case that there are people who apply to university who, unfortunately, do not manage to access university. That is always very disappointing for those individuals. Incidentally, it is not a unique phenomenon in Scotland—it happens in other jurisdictions in the United Kingdom. Not everyone who applies to university in England, Wales or Northern Ireland goes on to access university.

I have already made the point that, under the current system, 180,000 Scotland-domiciled students are being supported into Scottish universities. That is up on the previous figures and is a good direction of travel. Those students are not having to pay to access university. That is a record of achievement that I am proud of.

University of Dundee (Pensions)

3. Michael Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had and has planned with the University of Dundee’s management team regarding the reported pensions dispute between the university and trade unions representing staff. (S6O-01342)

The Minister for Higher Education and Further Education, Youth Employment and Training (Jamie Hepburn)

I regularly meet university principals and the campus trade unions, and industrial action is often one of the items discussed.

Since the beginning of the dispute in question, I have regularly engaged with the principal of the University of Dundee, as well as unions at the university. This week, I have again written to Professor Iain Gillespie to encourage the university and its workforce representatives to come back together to resolve the current issues.

Michael Marra

I welcome that intervention from the minister. He will remember that I have raised the issue with him on numerous occasions over the past year.

On 25 August, a majority of Dundee university court voted to impose cuts to the pensions of the university’s lowest-paid employees. Unite members are now taking all-out strike action, with permanent pickets. Unison members have voted for strike action on the issue for a third time, which I believe is unprecedented in Scotland. Management seem set to ride out the situation and are refusing to even respond to requests for dialogue.

Employees tell me that their trade unions have, in effect, been de-recognised at the University of Dundee. That collapse in industrial relations is unacceptable.

Can we have a question, please?

Will the minister contact the principal again today and urge him to do his duty and get his management to engage on the dispute immediately?

Jamie Hepburn

I have already made the point that I regularly engage with the principal. I have written to him this week to request an update and to urge for the engagement that we want to see. I will, obviously, prosecute some of the issues that Mr Marra has laid out. If what Mr Marra is hearing is correct—I am not suggesting that there is no foundation to what he has said—that is a cause for concern. I strongly believe that the trade union voice—the workforce voice—must be heard across the entirety of the labour market. Our universities are no different in that regard, and Mr Marra can be assured that I will continue to engage with the university on the matter.

School Meals Debt and Access to Universal Free School Meals

4. Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of reports of increasing hidden hunger due to the cost of living crisis, what action it is taking to address school meals debt and expand access to universal free school meals. (S6O-01343)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

We fully acknowledge that steep cost of living rises are putting a huge strain on some families and that they are facing many unforeseen challenges. All pupils in primaries 1 to 5 at publicly funded schools currently benefit from universal free school lunches during term time, while free school meals remain in place for eligible pupils in other age groups after primary 5.

We continue working with our partners in local authorities to plan for the expansion of free school meal provision to primaries 6 and 7 during this session of Parliament. That work is being supported by £30 million of capital funding in this financial year to support the expansion of catering and dining facilities.

We are working with our partners in local authorities to fully understand the impact of school meals debt on families. In the meantime, I urge all local authorities to do all that they can to resolve any payment issues without withdrawing meals from pupils.

Monica Lennon

I am grateful to the cabinet secretary for that update and welcome the commitments that we have heard about this week. We have seen an anonymous donor donate a generous, five-figure sum towards offsetting school meals debt; we need the Government to cover the rest.

Given the cost of living crisis, we must go further and faster on the extension of free school meals. Can the cabinet secretary tell us the dates when pupils in P6 and P7 can expect those to be available? When will we see that equality in our secondary schools?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As I said in my original answer, we are working closely with local authorities to determine what capital work must be undertaken—for example, to increase the capacity of kitchens and dining facilities. That work is on-going and is being supported by £30 million from the Scottish Government. We are continuing that work with local authorities.

I do, of course, recognise the impact of the cost of living crisis on families. That is why there is additional support—for example, through the increase of the Scottish child payment to £25 per week from 14 November for current recipients and the opening of applications for children aged up to 16, which will be a welcome additional support for families across Scotland.

Paul McLennan (East Lothian) (SNP)

I welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to extending free school meal provision. We already have the most generous universal offer anywhere in the UK. Will the cabinet secretary provide an update on the number of free school meal registrations in Scotland’s schools?

Indeed, Scotland has the most extensive provision of free school meals in the UK. More than 300,000 pupils are currently registered for free school meals at schools across Scotland.

Energy Price Rises Report

To ask the Scottish Government when it will respond to the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee’s report on energy price rises. (S6O-01344)

The Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport (Michael Matheson)

I am keen to provide the committee with as up-to-date a response as is possible. Now that we have details of the August price cap from Ofgem and the announcement by the United Kingdom Government this morning, I intend to provide the committee with a response shortly.

Fiona Hyslop

The cabinet secretary will be aware that the report reflects evidence taken in April and May and that it stated, even then, that the looming crisis in energy prices must be responded to, by both the Scottish and UK Governments, on a scale similar to the response to the Covid pandemic.

Will the cabinet secretary agree to improve awareness of and access to the advice, advocacy and home insulation services that the Scottish Government is responsible for, on top of the immediate and welcome financial support, based on devolved powers, that was announced by the First Minister? Does he agree that any UK Government decision to freeze energy prices, even at this late stage, should be welcomed, although that decision would have been made more swiftly by an independent Scottish Government with similar powers?

Michael Matheson

The committee’s report makes a number of important recommendations to both the Scottish and UK Governments about the action necessary to avert the crisis caused by the increasing costs that households face due to rising energy prices.

We have already announced £1.2 million of additional funding to support advice services and support customers who are experiencing difficulty, alongside a doubling of our fuel insecurity fund to help support those who are at risk of self-rationing or of self-disconnection from the energy network.

We will continue to look at what further measures we can take and will reflect on the announcement made by the UK Government this morning. There is absolutely no doubt that there has been a vacuum in political leadership from the UK Government on this issue for the past two months. In an independent Scotland, we would have been able to move swiftly to reassure households about how we would tackle the cost crisis.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

The report notes that homes that are not connected to the gas grid are often more expensive to heat. Given the Scottish Government’s drive to get owners of such homes to adopt electric heat pump technology, and noting Fiona Hyslop’s correct request for clear advice, can the cabinet secretary help me to understand the running costs of such technology, compared to the cost of fossil fuels in the current market?

Michael Matheson

One of the key things that could be done to help to reduce the cost of electricity is to uncouple it from the wholesale gas price. The UK Government has the power to do that, and it would have an immediate impact in bringing down electricity costs for those who use electricity-based heat pumps.

One of the other measures that the UK Government could take to help to offset the very high costs of energy in rural areas and in those areas that are off grid is to regulate the oil market. That would help to reduce the costs of heating oil for the many households that are dependent on it. Despite a request for the UK Government to do that, however, it has continued to refuse to make it a part of the regulated sector.

National Planning Framework 4 (Derelict and Abandoned Buildings and Land)

To ask the Scottish Government how the national planning framework 4 will help to address vacant, derelict and abandoned buildings and land, including across Aberdeen city. (S6O-01345)

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

We know that vacant and derelict land and buildings are a blight on communities, are challenging to deal with and often result in local authorities and other agencies bearing costs to keep them safe. The national planning framework 4 will change the way that we plan our places and support Scotland’s journey to becoming a net zero nation.

The draft NPF4, which was published in November 2021, proposes strengthening national planning policy to prioritise the reuse of vacant and derelict land and buildings in order to reduce impacts on communities and contribute to meeting our climate change targets. We are giving careful consideration to the wealth of views on the draft NPF4 from both the public and this Parliament in order to inform the final version. The finalised draft framework will be laid in Parliament once that process is complete.

Jackie Dunbar

Scotland has almost 11,000 hectares of vacant and derelict urban land. That means that almost a third of the Scottish population lives within 500m of a derelict site. These sites blight communities, harm wellbeing and limit opportunities, and they could be so much more. Will the minister outline what action is available to local authorities such as Aberdeen City Council to deal with these sites? Can he commit the Scottish Government to continuing to address them as a priority?

Tom Arthur

As the member will fully understand, local authorities can direct development to vacant and derelict land through their local development plans. In our draft national planning framework 4, we propose to strengthen national planning policy to prioritise development of vacant and derelict land. If approved by Parliament and adopted, our updated policies in the finalised NPF4 will directly influence planning decisions.

Our £50 million vacant and derelict land investment programme was launched in 2021 to complement our existing investment support for place-based regeneration across Scotland. We are keen for all authorities, including Aberdeen City Council, to work with their communities and other partners to develop suitable project proposals and apply to the programme.

Wind Farms (Removal of Objections)

7. Oliver Mundell (Dumfriesshire) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it supports property purchases, direct payments to property owners and the use of non-disclosure agreements as a means of removing objections to large-scale wind farm applications. (S6O-01346)

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

The Scottish Government does not support such measures. Our planning and consenting systems ensure that all relevant parties, including individuals and local communities, can have their say on development proposals, including for large-scale wind farms. It is beneficial for all those with an interest in a proposal to provide their comments where they wish to do so. I cannot recommend that individuals give up their right to comment, but, if they choose to do so, that is a matter for them.

Oliver Mundell

I thank the minister for that very clear answer. We should make no mistake—such agreements are destroying rural communities, turbocharging rural depopulation and changing the character of our uplands for ever. Will the minister urgently seek a review as to how such impacts are monitored and assessed during the application process? Sadly, these agreements are becoming the new norm, and they are corrupting our planning process.

Tom Arthur

I thank the member for his supplementary question. I am happy to consider what he has asked me to do. I would also welcome the opportunity to meet him to discuss that in more detail, particularly if he can provide evidence on the matters that he has raised.