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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Thursday, September 8, 2022


Portfolio Question Time

The Presiding Officer (Alison Johnstone)

We now move to portfolio question time. The portfolio is constitution, external affairs and culture. I remind members that questions 1 and 5 and questions 4, 7 and 8 are grouped together and that supplementaries on those questions will be taken when they are answered. Any member who wishes to ask a supplementary question should press their request-to-speak button or indicate that in the chat function.

Copenhagen Office (Opportunities)

To ask the Scottish Government what trade, investment and cultural opportunities it expects to arise from its Nordic office in Copenhagen. (S6O-01332)

The Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture (Angus Robertson)

On behalf of the Scottish Government, I join the First Minister, the Presiding Officer and members across the chamber in extending our best wishes to Her Majesty the Queen and to her family at this difficult time.

Denmark, Norway and Sweden are already some of Scotland’s biggest trading partners, with all three in our top 20 export markets, and with £2.6 billion of goods and services being exported to those countries by Scottish businesses in 2019. The Nordics are also responsible for major inward investment into Scotland, including in ScotWind.

On 26 August, the First Minister visited Copenhagen to open our new Nordic office. As part of that trip, she had conversations with a number of major energy companies and investors. It is clear that the energy transition, renewable energy and hydrogen will be major opportunities for Scotland in the region. I am also struck by the scale of the opportunity for life sciences and medical technology, with Copenhagen being the base of the United Nations Children’s Fund, which is one of the world’s largest buyers of crisis and medical supplies.

Kenneth Gibson

Does the cabinet secretary agree that this new office is essential to boost trade with our Scandinavian neighbours, ultimately creating and sustaining jobs, and that Tory opposition to it shows that party’s utter lack of ambition for Scotland, Scottish business and the Scottish economy?

Angus Robertson

Scotland has borrowed some of the best Nordic policies, from baby boxes to rural parliaments and, most recently, district heating, but Nordic colleagues are also interested in what we know how to do, particularly around community engagement. There is also a high level of interest in our recent period poverty work, which was, of course, supported across the chamber.

Our cultural exchange with Nordic neighbours is a reality, with Finnish and Danish showcases at Edinburgh international festivals, a strong showing of 12 Scottish bands playing in one of Europe’s largest folk music festivals in Denmark, and a joint exhibition between the Danish natural history museum and the national museums in Edinburgh next spring. Further, of course, there is much to learn from Danish broadcasting, whose success has been marked over recent years.

Copenhagen Office (Opening)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the opening of its new Nordic office in Copenhagen. (S6O-01336)

The Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture (Angus Robertson)

The First Minister visited Copenhagen on 26 August to officially open the new Nordic office. The office has been operating since May, in line with our programme for government commitment. Productive meetings with the Danish Government and with the private and public sectors were held, and we look forward to following up with opportunities for trade, investment and cultural exchange.

Alexander Stewart

I acknowledge that the First Minister visited Denmark to launch the new Nordic office recently, and I acknowledge that there are opportunities for trade co-operation to be advanced. However, we already enjoy substantial economic links with the country. Given the current cost of living crisis, is that the best use of taxpayers’ money at this time?

Angus Robertson

Yes, it is. The Scottish Government has had overseas offices since the Scottish Parliament reconvened in 1999. Those offices continue to generate significant economic and reputational benefits to Scotland at a time of increasing global uncertainty, and we need our friends and allies more, not less.

We are pleased to see the enthusiasm for, and consensus on, the excellent job that Scotland’s international offices do from day to day in the Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee’s recent report on the Scottish Government’s international work. I invite Alexander Stewart to read the British Council’s 2019 report on Scotland and soft power, which suggests that we should expand the network as we are now doing.

Donald Cameron (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I associate Conservative members and the Scottish Conservative Party with the comments of the Presiding Officer and the cabinet secretary in relation to the health of Her Majesty the Queen. Our thoughts and prayers are with Her Majesty and her wider family at this time.

How is the Scottish Government’s new office in Copenhagen working with the United Kingdom embassy to pursue common aims of the UK Government and the Scottish Government?

Angus Robertson

I thank my colleague for his introductory comments on behalf of the Conservative and Unionist Party.

I confirm to Donald Cameron—I think that he is aware of this—that the Scottish Government team is based in the British embassy, as is the case for most Scottish Government offices around the world, and there is very strong and collegial co-operation between the Scottish Government officials and the rest of the UK embassy.

Alasdair Allan (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)

The new Copenhagen office will, of course, offer a new way for the Scottish Government to realise its ambitions on Nordic co-operation. Will the cabinet secretary detail how the new office’s mission will enhance the aims of the existing Nordic Baltic policy statement?

Angus Robertson

There is nothing better than having people in place in a region to understand the opportunities that exist in that particular region. For us, our northern European neighbourhood—whether we are talking about Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, the three Baltic states or, indeed, Iceland or the Faroes—is our immediate neighbourhood. There is much that we share in respect of needs, interests, concerns and expectations, and across policy issues, including energy, economic growth and sustainability and cultural exchange issues—and much besides. There is much that we could and should be doing. Having a dedicated team that is focused on delivering what the Scottish Government wishes to pursue in Scotland but also working as a conduit to colleagues in our Nordic neighbourhood is the ideal way in which we wish to pursue the collegial relationship that we want to have with our nearest overseas northern European neighbours.

Question 2 has been withdrawn.

Brexit (Impact on Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government how it continues to assess the impact of Brexit on Scotland. (S6O-01334)

The Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture (Angus Robertson)

As the Scottish Government has repeatedly warned, Brexit has been hugely damaging to households, communities and businesses across Scotland. Due to the hard Brexit chosen by the United Kingdom Government, Scotland’s total trade with the European Union was 16 per cent lower in 2021 than it was in 2019, while Scotland’s trade with non-EU countries fell by only 4 per cent over the same period.

Marie McNair

With yet another Brexit-obsessed Conservative in Downing Street and the cost of living crisis escalating, will the cabinet secretary reiterate the need for the people of Scotland to have the opportunity to decide their own constitutional future to make up for the worsening democratic deficit, which has seen Scottish concerns utterly ignored under the Tories at Westminster?

Angus Robertson

I agree with my colleague on the democracy point and, to remain with the economic challenge, Brexit has, of course, had visible impacts. For example, analysis in April by researchers at the centre for economic performance at the London School of Economics showed that post-Brexit trade barriers had led to a 6 per cent increase in food prices in the UK.

We, in the Scottish Government, continue to engage with stakeholders to understand the impacts that they are experiencing, and we will continue to carefully study further economic indicators as they are released.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

I am glad that the cabinet secretary is monitoring the impacts of Brexit. He and I share the view that Brexit is incredibly damaging, but he also knows that I feel obligated, every time that that question is asked, to point out the parallels between Brexit and independence. In his quieter and more reflective moments, does he, too, recognise those parallels?

Angus Robertson

The short answer is no, there is no parallel. The Scottish Government’s plans are for Scotland to reapply and to become part of the European Union again. That is totally diametrically opposed to the Brexit priorities of the UK Government.

Ukrainian Refugees (Support for Organisations)

4. Sarah Boyack (Lothian) (Lab)

First, I echo the comments of the Presiding Officer and the cabinet secretary and say, on behalf of Scottish Labour and my colleagues, that our thoughts are with Her Majesty and her family today.

To ask the Scottish Government how much funding it is providing to third sector organisations in the Lothians that are supporting refugees from Ukraine. (S6O-01335)

The Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development and Minister with special responsibility for Refugees from Ukraine (Neil Gray)

First, I thank Sarah Boyack for her reflections, which, of course, we all share.

The Scottish Government has committed £1.3 million to the Scottish Refugee Council to increase its capacity and extend invaluable help and support to arriving Ukrainians.

The Scottish Government has also provided £48,000 to JustRight Scotland’s Ukraine advice service, where displaced people can receive confidential, free legal advice on safe routes to Scotland. Further, we are providing a funding uplift of £77,000 for Edinburgh’s third sector interface organisations, the Edinburgh Voluntary Organisations Council—EVOC—and Volunteer Edinburgh, to assist with their important work. I commend all the organisations across Edinburgh and the Lothians, such as the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain and Help Ukraine Scotland, which are doing such phenomenal work on behalf of our guests.

Sarah Boyack

The minister agrees with me that the volunteers and the voluntary sector are doing a commendable stretch of work to support the high number of people from Ukraine who have arrived in Edinburgh and across the Lothians.

Last week, I visited the Welcoming, a charity that supports new Scots who are making Edinburgh their home. The charity told me that the demand for its services has increased substantially and it has had to turn away Ukrainians staying in Edinburgh who needed to access its English language sessions. It also said that it is now receiving referrals from the Department for Work and Pensions, the council and service teams on the MS Victoria, but it has not received any additional funding.

Groups such as that one are providing front-line services, so will the minister commit to meeting with the range of third sector organisations that provide direct support on the ground to people who have fled Ukraine and ensure that those groups receive funding to continue their incredible work in what is an incredibly tough financial time for them?

Neil Gray

Yes, absolutely—I would be more than happy to meet the groups that Sarah Boyack has mentioned, and I commend them for the work that they are doing.

There are a number of points to respond to. First, on English for speakers of other languages support, part of the funding that is going to local authorities relates to providing ESOL classes. It is up to each local authority to ensure that such classes are provided in the way that best fits their areas.

The Scottish Government has also been campaigning with the United Kingdom Government to uplift provision and to provide parity for Ukrainians with the ESOL provision that was provided—quite rightly—for Syrians and Afghans.

Of course, if there is more that we could do within the very tight financial situation that we are in, we will look to do that, but it would be useful for me to meet the excellent group that Sarah Boyack referred to, in order to hear more about its work.

As the Presiding Officer advised, I will come to the supplementaries at the end of this group of questions.

Ukrainian Refugees (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government in what ways it will continue to ensure refugees arriving from Ukraine will be provided with adequate shelter and support on arrival in Scotland. (S6O-01338)

The Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development and Minister with special responsibility for Refugees from Ukraine (Neil Gray)

The Scottish Government’s priority is to ensure that displaced people arriving from Ukraine are able to stay in appropriate temporary accommodation and get the right support, ahead of moving into safe, sustainable longer-term accommodation.

Welcome hubs across Scotland continue to provide immediate support, such as healthcare, language support, clothes, food and trauma support, as well as access to temporary welcome accommodation.

We are taking significant action to increase our temporary accommodation capacity, including the chartering of two passenger ships. We are boosting our matching system to maximise the number of people who can be placed with volunteer hosts who have completed the necessary safeguarding checks.

Fulton MacGregor

Along the same lines as the previous question from Sarah Boyack, I note that it is important that people who come here get as much support as possible. Therefore, can the minister provide an update on the increased support that local charities in my constituency, Coatbridge and Chryston, are likely to receive in order to manage the increased workload that is associated with the arrival of people from Ukraine and with helping them to settle in the local community?

Neil Gray

I thank Fulton MacGregor for his positive engagement with the work that is going on in his constituency and across North Lanarkshire to provide new long-term accommodation for those who have been displaced from Ukraine.

The engagement between the Scottish Government, local parliamentarians including Fulton MacGregor and Clare Adamson and local authorities will be important. We fund third sector interfaces to provide single points of support for third sector organisations, with one in each local authority area. The TSIs have been heavily involved in co-ordinating efforts to welcome and settle people who have been displaced from Ukraine.

Local authorities are also given funding to support activities to welcome displaced people. They can decide how best to use those funds, taking into account local circumstances and needs. Local authorities may choose to use some of that funding to contract with third sector organisations in order to increase their support.

The refurbishment of up to 200 homes in North Lanarkshire, supported by £5 million of Scottish Government funding, is an example of our commitment to providing safe and sustainable accommodation. As always, my door is open to Fulton MacGregor and others to discuss any further support that might be required.

Supersponsor Scheme

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the supersponsorship scheme. (S6O-01339)

The Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development and Minister with special responsibility for Refugees from Ukraine (Neil Gray)

We have exceeded our initial commitment to welcome 3,000 people under the Scottish supersponsor scheme. As a nation, Scotland is now providing safety to over 16,500 people from Ukraine, which is 18.6 per cent of all United Kingdom arrivals, and the highest number per head of population in the four nations.

Although the Scottish supersponsor scheme has been temporarily paused for new applications, the Scottish Government continues to work with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and local councils to provide safe, suitable accommodation and a wraparound support offer to displaced Ukrainians who are already in our country and to those who have been granted permission to travel here.

Has the Scottish Government set itself a target for how long an individual will be housed on the ship in Edinburgh before they will be moved into more permanent accommodation?

Neil Gray

We want people to be out of temporary accommodation as quickly as possible, regardless of whether that is hotel accommodation, the ship that has arrived in Leith, or the ship that is being worked on in Glasgow. We want people to be in temporary accommodation for as short a period as possible and to be moved to longer-term accommodation as quickly as possible, and we want to give people the opportunity to be able to rebuild their lives in Scotland. We do not want people to be staying in short-term accommodation for any longer than is absolutely necessary.

Paul Sweeney (Glasgow) (Lab)

I associate myself with comments from colleagues across the chamber about the health of Her Majesty the Queen.

The minister will be aware that Ukrainians are not the only people who are seeking refuge and asylum in Scotland. There are almost 5,000 asylum seekers in the country. Extending the concessionary travel scheme to all those asylum seekers would improve their lives immeasurably. The discussions that I have had with the Government have generally been positive, but progress has been painfully slow. Can the minister confirm whether the Government agrees that the concessionary travel scheme should be extended to all asylum seekers?

Neil Gray

For people who are arriving from Ukraine, which is my responsibility, the concessionary travel scheme already applies—so people over 60 and young people already have access to that scheme. I have heard the representations and have met Mr Sweeney, Bob Doris, Mark Ruskell and others to discuss their proposal to extend the concessionary travel scheme. We continue to work on doing what we can to see whether there is more that can be done with the limited financial resources that we have.

What assistance is the Scottish Government giving to third sector and charitable organisations, such as the Micah Project in Troon, that are giving vital support to Ukrainian refugees in Scotland?

Neil Gray

First, I pay tribute to the work that the Micah Project in Troon is doing.

The Scottish Government has provided additional funding to national charities. It has committed £1.3 million to the Scottish Refugee Council and £36,000 to JustRight Scotland’s Ukraine advice service. That funding will increase the capacity to extend valuable support to arriving Ukrainians. Along with support from local authorities, that will provide local charities with the assistance that they require to support displaced people from Ukraine who are living in Scotland.

It is worth reiterating the fact that we have also provided support to local authorities to ensure that there is assistance for local organisations, too. If more needs to be done, I am happy to hear such representations and to see what more is possible.

Sharon Dowey (South Scotland) (Con)

Councils need to know how many Ukrainians are arriving so that they can provide support. However, ministers are often better informed than they are. I am often referred to Home Office data when I raise such questions; however, that does not show which local authorities will receive Ukrainians under the supersponsor scheme, or how many.

Will the Scottish Governments publish its own detailed breakdown of people who are arriving under the supersponsor scheme in the near future?


Emma Roddick will ask the final supplementary question on the group.

Emma Roddick (Highlands and Islands) (SNP)

Following comments from the now former refugees minister at Westminster, and given that the cost of living crisis is escalating across the UK, has the UK Government asked the Scottish Government for views on increasing monthly payments to homes of Ukraine hosts?

Neil Gray

I record my thanks to Lord Richard Harrington for the work that he did, collaboratively, with the Scottish Government and the Welsh Government. We worked well together and I am sorry that he has moved on. We wait to see whether his position will be replaced in the UK Government reshuffle.

We are actively pressing the UK Government to increase funding for hosts, particularly during the cost of living crisis, when energy bills are soaring. I agree with Richard Harrington that it is essential that the UK Government increase the “thank you” payments for hosts to £700, and I hope that the new Chancellor of the Exchequer will reflect on that as he considers future support for the Ukrainian schemes.

International Office Network (Programme for Government)

To ask the Scottish Government what next steps the programme for government proposes for Scotland’s international office network. (S6O-01337)

The Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture (Angus Robertson)

Scotland’s international network creates domestic opportunities, attracts investment and ultimately benefits the people of Scotland. I am sure that my colleague Willie Coffey was delighted to see the First Minister open our new Nordic office in Copenhagen. We are also committed to opening a new office in Warsaw during this parliamentary session.

We will ensure that our international work is measurable, transparent and available to the public. From next year onwards, we will publish an annual report that explains how our international offices work to promote our values, objectives and priorities around the world.

Willie Coffey

The Copenhagen office is tightening our ties with our Nordic neighbours. The proposed Warsaw office promises to facilitate our dialogue with central Europe. Will the cabinet secretary elaborate on how the expanded international office network will amplify Scotland’s distinct voice on the world stage? How does the global affairs framework guide such work?

Angus Robertson

It is hugely beneficial that the network is growing—that we have a greater footprint in northern Europe and in central Europe. It is worth observing, in value-for-money terms, that the Scottish Government manages the network with significantly less resource than similar devolved Governments elsewhere in the world spend.

At present, we are living within financial constraints, so our plans have focused on delivering the opening of the office in Copenhagen and moving forward in the central European region, which is so important for Scotland—not least because of the great many people from there who have chosen to move to Scotland. There are many opportunities that we can pursue.

I hope that we will, in time, look at growing the network further. In the here and now, I am absolutely delighted that we have been able to open the office in Copenhagen officially and that we are moving forward with opening an office in Warsaw.

That concludes portfolio questions. There will be a brief pause before the next item of business.