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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Dalzell Historical Industrial Transaction, Economy (North-east Scotland), Ending the Not Proven Verdict, Motion Without Notice, Protecting Rural Bus Services


Portfolio Question Time

Health and Social Care

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

Good afternoon. I remind everyone that Covid measures are in place and that face masks should be worn when moving about the chamber or around the Holyrood campus.

The first item of business is portfolio question time—the first portfolio is health and social care. Members who wish to ask a supplementary question should press their request-to-speak button or type an R in the chat function.

I advise members that there is quite a lot of demand for questions, so I ask for succinct questions and answers.

Clinical Research (Support)

1. Sue Webber (Lothian) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of the role that clinical research has played in leading the country out of the Covid-19 pandemic, how it will support clinical research in the national health service to improve the care and treatment of patients with non-communicable diseases such as heart disease and stroke. (S6O-00524)

The Minister for Public Health, Women’s Health and Sport (Maree Todd)

Through the chief scientist office and NHS Research Scotland, the Scottish Government continues to invest in research infrastructure to support health boards to host and participate in a wide range of clinical research. That includes research relating to non-communicable diseases and, over the pandemic, studies to understand Covid-19 and trials of Covid-19 treatments and vaccines. Support for research in specific clinical areas is provided by clinical research networks and specialty groups, including for cardiovascular disease and stroke, as well as for other non-communicable diseases.

Sue Webber

Funding for the chief scientist office has not increased since 2011 and, compared with the United Kingdom Government’s funding the National Institute for Health Research, it is less than two thirds of the funding for clinical research that is provided in England per capita. Without funding, Scotland risks losing talented clinical researchers and having reduced access to valuable new treatments. Will the Scottish Government commit to increasing its funding of the chief scientist office to ensure that the national health service in Scotland is not left behind?

Maree Todd

We can certainly review the funding, but I have to say that the research infrastructure in Scotland is absolutely excellent. The number of leading universities that we have, the joined-up NHS and the unique community health index number that follows patients through the joined-up process that they go through, make Scotland an excellent place in which to conduct research. We continue to attract a great deal of scientific research.

The level of investment of about £40 million a year includes £4 million a year for 26 clinical research networks and specialty groups that provide support for research in specific clinical areas. Of that money, £69,000 supports the cardiovascular disease research specialty group and £641,000 supports the stroke research network. A great deal of work is going on. There are real challenges to research in Scotland, given the course of the pandemic and the circumstances that we currently face, but actually the situation is pretty healthy.

General Practitioners and Surgery Provision (North-east Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of general practitioner numbers and surgery provision in the north-east. (S6O-00525)

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care (Humza Yousaf)

The Scottish Government is fully committed to ensuring that all communities in Scotland receive safe, reliable and sustainable healthcare services. Of course, statutory responsibility for ensuring primary medical services rests locally with health boards and health and social care partnerships. It is for each board to put in place the services that best meet the needs of its patient population, through consultation and engagement with the local community.

The latest figures, which were published today, show that we now have a record 5,195 GPs working in Scotland, which is an increase of 74 on last year. We remain on track to deliver our commitment to increase the number of GPs working in Scotland by at least 800 by 2027.

Liam Kerr

Last week, Carden medical centre announced its imminent closure due to inability to recruit GPs, which will displace nearly 9,000 patients. A proposed merger was abandoned due to a continuing reduction in the number of permanent GPs across Aberdeen.

The Government’s failure to carry out workforce planning and to train and recruit GPs is a disgrace. Who will take responsibility for that, and what planning has been done to reverse the trend? When will the north-east have enough GPs to run the services that the people of Aberdeen need and deserve?

Humza Yousaf

I say to the member that the Government has an impeccable record when it comes to staffing. We have the highest number—a record number—of staff in our NHS. That follows nine consecutive years of growth.

The decision on Carden medical centre was made by local partners in the Aberdeen City Health and Social Care Partnership. My understanding is that the HSCP is working for a smooth transition for all patients who are affected by the closure of the centre, that patients will automatically be registered to a new practice, and that there are nine practices within a 1 mile radius of the centre. I hope that disruption to the patients who are affected will therefore be minimised.

On the Government’s record on staffing our NHS, the health service was a central issue in the election only six months ago when, of course, my party was re-elected for a fourth term.

Carol Mochan (South Scotland) (Lab)

We all know that GPs are under enormous strain and pressure as a result of the pandemic. However, in East Ayrshire, there have been cases of significant issues with practices communicating decisions to local residents, which has led to many people not even being able to book appointments or discuss treatment plans. What can the Scottish Government do to ensure that residents in East Ayrshire receive the best possible GP services and that they receive them in a timely manner?

Humza Yousaf

Ms Mochan is right to refer to the fact that GPs are under incredible pressure, as are all NHS and social care staff, during the pandemic. I record my thanks to GPs for the hard work that they have done.

We provided GPs with additional funding prior to my winter announcement and as part of the winter package that I announced in Parliament a couple of months ago. I will take on board what Ms Mochan has said and see whether we can reach out to partners in East Ayrshire.

Omicron (Vaccine Procurement)

3. Fiona Hyslop (Linlithgow) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government whether the emergence of the omicron variant has influenced its discussions with the United Kingdom Government regarding the four-nations approach to vaccine procurement, particularly in relation to the Valneva vaccine and any potential need to deploy different vaccine formulations both domestically and internationally. (S6O-00526)

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care (Humza Yousaf)

Information about the protection that vaccines offer in relation to omicron is still emerging. However, we know that boosters will maximise protection.

The Scottish Government will continue to be guided by the expert advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation and our clinical advisers on the most effective approach to vaccine deployment in the face of the omicron variant, including advice on vaccine types. The UK vaccine task force procures vaccines on behalf of all four nations. We will continue to work within that framework.

As Fiona Hyslop might be aware, this week, with the Minister for Business, Tourism, Trade and Enterprise, I met Valneva to explore how the Scottish Government can continue to support the company’s work at Livingston. I put on record that support for Valneva’s investment at Livingston is of paramount importance to the Government.

Fiona Hyslop

Crucially, the vaccine that Valneva has developed can be transported and stored at room temperature. In contrast to other vaccines, which target the coronavirus’s spike protein, the Valneva vaccine, which is yet to be approved but has had positive stage 3 results, targets the whole coronavirus envelope. Does the cabinet secretary agree that because variants are rapidly spreading globally and we need a strong global—not just national—vaccination programme, those factors might become premium? Will he raise those points in vaccine-order discussions with the UK Government?

Humza Yousaf

Yes, I absolutely will raise those points with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and the other nations’ health ministers, whom I meet regularly. Fiona Hyslop is absolutely right to refer to the Valneva vaccine’s unique characteristics. She is also right to say that it is still pending approval by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. We look forward to seeing the results of that consideration.

As well as looking for vaccine for domestic uses, Scotland prides itself on being a good global citizen. I know that Fiona Hyslop understands that well. Therefore, we must consider what else we can do with vaccine supplies, particularly for the global south, where far too many of the population remain unvaccinated.

I repeat the point that I made in my opening answer to Ms Hyslop’s question. Not only do I, as the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care, remain supportive, but the entire Government remains supportive of the site in Livingston and Valneva’s investment in it.

Craig Hoy (South Scotland) (Con)

I thank the Government for taking up our policy of mass vaccination centres. How many centres is the Government seeking to establish? How many sites have been identified? How many contracts or leases have been signed? By what date will all mass vaccination centres be open and administering jabs into people’s arms?

Cabinet secretary, that question is not directly relevant to the initial question, but if there is anything that you can usefully add, I invite you to do so.

Thank you, Presiding Officer. If Craig Hoy was made of chocolate, I am not sure that there would be a crumb of him left, because he would have eaten himself. Nonetheless—

That is not a response to the question, cabinet secretary. We move to question 4. I call Paul McLennan.

“Open with Care”

To ask the Scottish Government what the latest “Open with Care” guidance is for care homes, in light of the emergence of the omicron variant. (S6O-00527)

The Minister for Mental Wellbeing and Social Care (Kevin Stewart)

Information about omicron is still emerging. However, it is vital that visiting continues to be supported so that people who are living in a care home—which is, first and foremost, their home—can maintain contact with loved ones, because that is important for mental health and wellbeing. That will be increasingly important as Christmas approaches so that people, their friends and families can spend time with one another.

In recognition of the importance of visiting, the First Minister, in her statement on 14 December on further protective measures for the general population, indicated that we will continue to support people to connect with their loved ones.

However, it is now recommended that visits be limited to two households per resident at a time, and that all protective measures including testing, hand washing, physical distancing and face masks be utilised to prevent transmission. The protective measures that are in place for care homes, which are greater than those that are in place in community settings, continue to be an important way to safeguard against the spread of Covid-19, including the new omicron variant. I fully expect care homes to support visits. We will keep everything under review as knowledge of omicron continues to emerge.

Paul McLennan

I have been in discussions with the care home relatives Scotland group, which has advised me that interpretation of the guidelines in care homes is wide ranging. Some care homes are bringing in tighter restrictions already. Are there interim measures that the Scottish Government can take, prior to further consideration of Anne’s law, to ensure that no one is denied a visit to a loved one this Christmas as long as it is done within the Scottish Government’s guidelines?

Kevin Stewart

Let me make it clear that we expect care homes to continue to support visits, with all the necessary protective measures in place. However, as I said, as an extra precaution we now recommend that no more than two households meet a resident at any one time. That is in line with the guidance for the general population.

We are also asking everyone to test before they visit, and we will issue guidance to care homes asking them to do everything possible to accommodate visits. Care homes that have managed outbreaks should support named visitors to visit. It is vital that everyone works together to enable people to see each other in the lead-up to and over the Christmas period, so that everyone can spend time with others safely and with confidence. I reiterate that we expect care homes to continue to support visits.

Covid-19 Vaccine Roll-out (NHS Lanarkshire)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the Covid-19 vaccine roll-out in NHS Lanarkshire. (S6O-00528)

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care (Humza Yousaf)

Our autumn/winter vaccination programme—our booster programme—is leading the way for the rest of the United Kingdom. We are leading the rest of the UK on first, second, third and booster doses, and we are accelerating the programme. We will continue to recruit more vaccinators and bring on board more clinics. For the attention of Craig Hoy, that includes more mass vaccination clinics, and some of those are coming on board later this week.

NHS Lanarkshire has made good progress throughout the autumn/winter campaign, with a peak output of almost 6,000 Covid boosters per day, which has resulted in 77 per cent of the over-50 population having had a booster. NHS Lanarkshire has delivered 43.8 per cent of booster or third doses to those over the age of 12. I will continue to report regularly to Parliament on the progress of the booster programme across Scotland.

Neil Gray

I thank everyone in our national health service, and the volunteers, who are delivering the fastest vaccine roll-out in the UK, which is even more important given the new omicron threat.

Can the health secretary advise us what health boards can do to deliver booster vaccines at home as fast as possible for those who need them? As he will know from my correspondence with him, some of my constituents have not been able to make appointments as quickly as others who live locally.

Humza Yousaf

Yes, I completely understand the point that Neil Gray is making. Naturally, as a cohort, housebound patients take longer to get to, so we cannot get through them as quickly as we would like to, but Neil Gray has done the right thing to correspond with me. In turn, I will correspond with the local health board to ensure that those individuals, who are often very vulnerable and not as mobile as the rest of the population, get their boosters as quickly as the rest of the population.

Paul O’Kane (West Scotland) (Lab)

I associate myself with the comments about our fantastic vaccination staff, but I have spoken to constituents who had an appointment for their booster at the central mosque in Glasgow at 7.30 pm last night but, on arrival, were turned away and told that nobody would be vaccinated after 7.30, whether they had an appointment or not. Many people are scheduling appointments in the evening, because of childcare or work commitments so, given the speed that we require with regard to omicron, it is imperative that all appointments are fulfilled. Will the cabinet secretary look at that instance urgently and explain how capacity will be increased across board areas?

Humza Yousaf

Of course, I will look at that. Glasgow has increased the number of vaccinators by about 200 in the space of a fortnight, so more and more appointments are coming online. Those issues are unfortunate, and I always regret instances of people being turned away. That should not be happening, so I will look at the case that Paul O’Kane mentioned. In his question, he recognised that Scotland’s vaccination programme is a huge success, but we need to ramp it up and accelerate it over the coming weeks. I will look at the case that he referenced and feed back to him directly.

Stephanie Callaghan, who joins us remotely, has a brief supplementary question.

Stephanie Callaghan (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

NHS Lanarkshire recently urged the public to familiarise themselves again with the wide range of local NHS services, because 10 per cent of those who attend accident and emergency are sent home with self-care advice or referred to other services. What further steps can the Scottish Government take to encourage people to access other services and minimise the pressures on A and E?

Please answer as briefly as possible, cabinet secretary.

I think that this is question 6—

It is a supplementary question to the earlier question from Neil Gray.

Forgive me, Presiding Officer. I thought that it was the next question—

You might need to write to Stephanie Callaghan.

Yes, I will write to Stephanie Callaghan.

That would be helpful.

Free Dental Care

To ask the Scottish Government what measures it is taking, including any that may be funded through its budget, that will help deliver free dental care during the current parliamentary session. (S6O-00529)

The Minister for Public Health, Women’s Health and Sport (Maree Todd)

As a first step to delivering our manifesto commitment to remove dental charges in this parliamentary session, we abolished charges for all young people under the age of 26 from August 2021. We are also determined to support the profession and ensure that dentists remain in practice, following disruptions to services during the Covid-19 pandemic. Our budget for 2022-23 delivers an unprecedented 9 per cent increase for general dental services, which will support the continued recovery of national health service dental services while we begin on the delivery of significant reforms, with the manifesto commitment as the centrepiece.

Kaukab Stewart

I think the cabinet secretary for that response. Having been contacted by my constituents in Glasgow Kelvin about their concerns over limitations on accessing emergency dental provision, I would like to know what discussion and actions the Scottish Government is undertaking to safeguard access to emergency dental provision in the face of challenges from omicron and other variants.

Maree Todd

I thank the member for that wee promotion to cabinet secretary, although I am not sure that I would be thankful for that right now.

We have written to members of the profession to update them with regard to providing access to care over the winter period. Urgent patients will continue to be seen by their local dentist, when it is safe for that to happen using the personal protective equipment that continues to be provided by the Scottish Government at no cost to the sector. We have also instructed health boards to ensure that they have sufficient capacity to see emergency cases if local practices are unable to do so. Those measures will support patient access to critical care in the coming months.

Sandesh Gulhane (Glasgow) (Con)

A dentist with 30 years of experience contacted me to explain how NHS dentistry is not paying the bills, despite current levels of Covid funding. He sees 25 patients a day and is booked out until March next year, but he has had to take on two additional part-time jobs to make ends meet. His is not an isolated case—for many dental practitioners, NHS dentistry is not viable, with a 30 per cent cut in taxable income for principals and associates since 2008-09.

The British Dental Association estimates that it will require at least—

Question, please, Mr Gulhane.

Sandesh Gulhane

The British Dental Association estimates that it will require at least a 30 per cent increase in dental tariffs as an interim measure. Is the minister willing to increase the tariffs by 30 per cent to sustain services at this critical time?

Maree Todd

I assure the member that, this year, the dental profession is receiving an unprecedented level of increase. It is an extremely difficult situation for dentists while their capacity is constrained by infection protection control measures, but we have supported them throughout the pandemic, and we continue to support them in order to recover NHS dental services. It is essential that we focus on recovery before reform, but we are eager and keen to look at reforms and have further discussions with the dental profession in the future.

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

Dentists tell me that there is a two-year treatment backlog, so I am glad that the minister is willing to consider reform. Many dentists are seeing patients privately, such is the demand. What is the Scottish Government doing to prevent privatisation by the back door, and will the minister agree to meet me and representatives of the Scottish Dental Association to respond to its proposal for a review of the value and reimbursement structure for the whole dentistry team?

Maree Todd

I can confirm that, in recent months, we have seen a substantial increase in the level of activity—the number of patients who are seen in NHS dental settings. Therefore, the situation is improving, although the recent turn of events with the pandemic will undoubtedly cause further challenge. However, I very much welcome that improvement.

Dental activity is being closely monitored on a month-to-month basis, and, as I have set out many times in the chamber, we have given a great deal of financial support to the sector. I am always happy to meet Jackie Baillie in order to navigate our way through this challenging time, and consider how we respond to the needs of the sector and our ambitions for NHS dental care in Scotland.

Rural Healthcare Services

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to ensure that healthcare services in rural areas are working for the people that they serve. (S6O-00531)

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care (Humza Yousaf)

We aim to ensure that we have equitable, high-quality health services available to everyone in Scotland, including those who live in remote and rural areas. We continue to evolve health and care services through developing new treatments and technologies to meet demand and to deliver the best patient outcomes. That includes our commitment to create a centre of excellence for rural and remote medicine and social care. Our health and social care partnerships across Scotland play a key role in supporting national health service boards to work with communities and stakeholders on designing services according to the needs of local populations.

Emma Roddick

I thank the cabinet secretary for his detailed answer. Is the Scottish Government encouraging and supporting the Scottish Ambulance Service’s patient transport service to make use of alternative types of vehicle, such as SUVs, for patients with mobility needs in rural areas in order to free up ambulances for those who need them?

Humza Yousaf

Yes—that was part of a package of measures for the Scottish Ambulance Service that I announced earlier this year. The member will know that the patient transport service has two components: the blue-light vehicle fleet and the patient transport fleet. When patients qualify for transportation to a healthcare setting, they are allocated a seat on a patient transport vehicle that is designed for use by people with mobility needs.

The service’s patient needs assessment determines their requirement for support. If the patient requires mobility and clinical support, that is managed by the Ambulance Service. However, if it is deemed that only transport is needed, the service will signpost the patient to one of its agreed alternative transport providers or, indeed, Traveline Scotland. For those on low incomes, health boards can also provide financial reimbursement for taxi journeys to appointments.

Very briefly—Foysol Choudhury.

Foysol Choudhury (Lothian) (Lab)

Cabinet secretary, a large number of my constituents have contacted me to say that they have still not received their Covid-19 booster shot, despite being over 75 years of age. There is also a clear lack of availability of appointments in my region, with many people also unable to book online for their flu shot.

Many of my constituents in the Lothians want to celebrate Christmas with their families safely. What extra provision is the Scottish Government making to ensure that everyone who is entitled to a shot gets a shot, especially those people in rural areas?

As briefly as possible, cabinet secretary.

Humza Yousaf

Our booster and flu vaccination programmes are going extremely well. Where there are anomalies, particularly involving older people, who we know are at higher risk of severe illness from Covid and at higher risk from flu, or instances in which people are unable to get an appointment, as Mr Choudhury has referenced, I am happy for him to write to me with the details and I will raise that the local health board.

Thank you very much. I apologise to Karen Adam, whom I was unable to call, but we need to move on.

Social Justice, Housing and Local Government

I again remind colleagues who wish to ask a supplementary to any of the questions to press their request-to-speak button or place an R in the chat function during the relevant question.

Food Banks

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the latest Trussell Trust food bank statistics in relation to Scotland. (S6O-00532)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government (Shona Robison)

The statistics show that Scotland is the only area of the United Kingdom to see a marked reduction in the number of emergency food parcels, with a 25 per cent reduction between April and September compared with 2019. However, no one should have to rely on charitable food provision, and we are currently consulting on a national plan to end the need for food banks as a primary response.

The Government’s human rights approach means that we promote a cash-first response to hardship and, as we have seen in our budget, we are focused on boosting the incomes of low-income households, which is key to decreasing the need for food banks.

Siobhian Brown

Scotland is the only area in the UK that has seen a marked decrease in the number of emergency food parcels in the past six months, as the cabinet secretary has just noted. That has been credited to the Scottish child payment, which was introduced by the Scottish Government.

In a damning report that was released on Monday, the New Economics Foundation says that the poorest half of families are worse off since Boris Johnson came to power, while the richest have seen their income boom. Does the cabinet secretary think that that shows a tale of two Governments and that, while the Scottish Government doubles the Scottish child payment, the UK Government cuts universal credit by £20—

I call the cabinet secretary.

—from those who really need it the most?

Shona Robison

I think that Siobhian Brown makes an important point. UK Government welfare cuts are driving hardship and pushing people to food banks. Its punitive approach takes money out of the pockets of those who can least afford it. That includes the deeply concerning cut to universal credit, which represented the biggest single cut to welfare in 70 years.

The Scottish Government’s doubling of the Scottish child payment to £20 from April 2022 is among the ways in which we have shown leadership that the UK Government simply has not shown. It is time that it matched our ambition in tackling child poverty.

Social and Affordable Housing (Perthshire South and Kinross-shire)

2. Jim Fairlie (Perthshire South and Kinross-shire) (SNP)

I thank the Presiding Officer for his patience with my late arrival to the meeting.

To ask the Scottish Government what further support it will make available to help Perth and Kinross Council improve the availability of social and affordable housing in the Perthshire South and Kinross-shire constituency. (S6O-00533)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government (Shona Robison)

Since 2007, we have delivered more than 105,000 affordable homes, including 2,343 in Perth and Kinross. As part of our commitment to deliver a further 110,000 affordable homes by 2032, last week’s budget confirmed an increase in the affordable housing programme of a further £174 million in 2022-23. Over the past five years, Perth and Kinross has received more than £77 million in grant support from the affordable housing supply programme, which has helped the delivery of 963 affordable homes. During this parliamentary session, Perth and Kinross will benefit from investment of more than £86 million, which will go towards the delivery of more good-quality, affordable homes.

Jim Fairlie

As the cabinet secretary has just stated, a number of significant developments and refurbishments in my constituency, including at Huntingtower and Newhouse Road, have taken place through the efforts of various partnerships and projects, local housing associations and, of course, the Scottish Government.

However, does the cabinet secretary agree that the biggest boost to council house building that the country has seen this millennium was the reversal of the Tory policy from the 1980s that started the selling off of the best council housing stock, with no provision at all for rebuilding houses or cancelling the housing debt?

Shona Robison

Yes, I would agree with that. Scotland has led the way in the delivery of affordable housing across the United Kingdom. In 2009, we reintroduced grant funding for council house building, which has supported the delivery of more than 16,000 council homes across Scotland. By ending the right to buy, we have also protected existing social rented homes and prevented the sale of up to 15,500 houses over a 10-year period.

Miles Briggs has a supplementary question.

The allocation of funding for affordable housing projects has not been equal. For example, Edinburgh received 7.3 per cent of the total budget, although it has 8.8 per cent of the whole population—

I am afraid, Mr Briggs, that the question is about the Perthshire South and Kinross-shire constituency. Unless your question is relevant to that, I think that you will struggle to—

It is relevant, with regard to the affordable housing budget.

Complete the question, but I think that it strays a little far for a supplementary.

Given that differentiation in the allocations, does the cabinet secretary believe that the cut in the housing budget will have an impact as well?

Shona Robison

There is no cut in the housing budget—the housing budget is going up. Edinburgh will be receiving more money through the affordable housing supply programme than it has in previous years. That surely should be welcomed by everybody across the chamber.

Social Housing

3. Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what consideration it has given to allowing registered social landlords to purchase properties from home owners who would like to remain in their homes but become social housing tenants. (S6O-00534)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government (Shona Robison)

I am actively considering the implications of enabling support to be provided through the affordable housing supply programme to facilitate such purchases, where social landlords wish to make them. There are a number of considerations to be taken into account to ensure that any funding that is offered does not impact on other support that might be available for owners.

I would encourage home owners who are having financial difficulty to seek advice as soon as possible, as there is support available that they may be able to access, including our home owners support fund.

Stuart McMillan

The cabinet secretary will be aware that I have written to her about the Inverclyde acquisition programme. Registered social landlords in my constituency have asked for the existing policy to be amended, as it allows them only to purchase properties on the open market. They would like an option for properties to be transferred from private ownership to social housing, with the owner-occupier moving to become a tenant. That would relieve the tenant of the maintenance burden, but would allow them to continue to live in their home. That could help RSLs to bring properties with maintenance challenges up to standard, and would be beneficial for RSLs and prospective new tenants. Can the cabinet secretary confirm whether she has engaged with RSLs in Inverclyde on the issue? Will she provide details of any plans to change the policy?

Shona Robison

We have agreed with the council and RSLs in Inverclyde an acquisition programme that will make around £1.35 million available in the current financial year to enable the purchase of up to 50 properties on the open market. I am aware of the situation that the member highlights. As I have just mentioned, the implications of the suggested change for other policy areas are being examined, including those involving the provision of support to home owners. Of course, local authorities can assist homeowners who need to carry out repairs through the scheme of assistance. I am happy to keep the member informed about that.

I call Miles Briggs. Second time relevant, Mr Briggs.

Ministers have previously said that they would look to develop plans with local authorities to help to purchase empty homes. How many such purchases have actually been completed?

Shona Robison

The empty homes option is a good one. A number of empty homes have been purchased and brought back into use following repairs. I do not have the figure to hand, but I am happy to write to Miles Briggs to make him aware of it. We can do more on empty homes. Of course, we fund empty homes officers so that local authorities can look at the opportunities in their areas to bring more empty homes back into circulation. I am happy to provide the figure to Miles Briggs in due course.

Local Government Services (Argyll and Bute)

To ask the Scottish Government how it works with Argyll and Bute Council to support the delivery of local government services across the area’s islands and remote peninsulas. (S6O-00535)

The minister, Ben Macpherson, joins us remotely.

The Minister for Social Security and Local Government (Ben Macpherson)

Ministers and officials regularly meet representatives of all Scottish local authorities, including Argyll and Bute Council. Our island local authority partners are key stakeholders in how we develop and deliver islands policy. We regularly engage through the islands strategic group and national islands plan delivery group to identify and collaborate on issues facing our island communities.

Jenni Minto

Employment is integral to supporting the delivery of local government services across Argyll and Bute. Will the minister therefore provide an update on the work of the Campbeltown economic summit, which was convened following the closure of the wind tower factory and the town’s creamery?

Ben Macpherson

Following the most recent Campbeltown economic summit, work has continued with partners on the Kintyre action plan, led by Highlands and Islands Enterprise. The aim of the summit was to identify and support new business and employment opportunities, including in the space, hydrogen and whisky sectors. Future options for the CS Wind facility are being considered with the administrators of CS Wind UK. Pending the outcome of the administration process, further stakeholder meetings will be scheduled in early 2022.

We continue to support and diversify the region’s economy. We have committed to investing up to £25 million in the Argyll and Bute growth deal to deliver a range of strategic projects that will create jobs and maximise the region’s future economic potential, with a focus on aquaculture and tourism. We hope to sign the full deal for Argyll and Bute next year.

Question 5 was not lodged.

Tenant Support (West of Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government how many tenants in the west of Scotland have used the tenant grant fund and tenant hardship loan fund. (S6O-00537)

The Minister for Zero Carbon Buildings, Active Travel and Tenants’ Rights (Patrick Harvie)

A specific regional breakdown for the west of Scotland is not information that we hold. However, as of mid-November, 233 tenant hardship loans had been awarded totalling £615,614, and a further 12 loans had been offered with a potential award value of £38,608.

Councils are administering the tenant grant fund, and they will report progress to the Scottish Government quarterly. The first report is due by the end of this month. It will set out the number and level of grants that were issued, whether those paid the arrears in full or partially, and how many tenancies were sustained at the time.

Paul O’Kane

In the light of the Government’s refusal to continue the ban on evictions and of the ramifications of that, which we are now seeing—as was predicted by many Labour members and many people in the housing sector—and given the removal of any financial support for people who are in trouble with arrears, and indeed the effects of the pandemic, which are clearly very far from over, what is the Government’s plan to support people who are in arrears to stay in warm, safe and affordable homes?

Patrick Harvie

The member will be aware of the range of work that we are undertaking, including through the coronavirus legislation, to extend some of the measures that were brought in during the pandemic. There is also the work on the rented sector strategy, on which I will be saying more next week, which includes the commitment to act on winter evictions. I hope that the member is supportive of that agenda.

He will be well aware that grant and loan funds are not the only action being taken on funding. I could also mention the wider £38 million package of support that was brought in during the pandemic, the discretionary housing payments, which are worth £82 million this year, and a great deal else besides. I hope that the member will engage constructively with that agenda.

Will the minister outline how the new Scottish budget will help to prevent homelessness?

Patrick Harvie

Yes, indeed. There is a great deal in the Scottish budget to take forward such work, including the £23.5 million homelessness support fund to local authorities and the £10 million that is available from the ending homelessness together fund, which will build on the significant progress that was made in the past year as part of an overall £100 million investment in the course of this parliamentary session. There is also substantial investment in the provision of new affordable homes; there is the work that I mentioned before that is being funded to develop and then implement the rented sector strategy; and £80 million is available for discretionary housing payments.

Fuel Poverty (Rural and Remote Areas)

To ask the Scottish Government how its housing strategy is supporting action to prevent fuel poverty in households in rural and remote areas. (S6O-00538)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government (Shona Robison)

Our ambition is for everyone to have access to a safe, warm and affordable home. We provide support to fuel-poor households through our heat in buildings programme, and we are determined to address the higher levels of extreme fuel poverty that are found in many of Scotland’s remote and rural areas. By the end of 2021, we will have allocated more than £1 billion since 2009 to tackle fuel poverty and improve energy efficiency. Since 2013, more than 150,000 homes throughout Scotland have benefited from our home energy efficiency programmes. We will continue to fund home energy Scotland to provide free and impartial advice on how to make homes warmer and cheaper to heat, and we will publish our fuel poverty strategy later this month.

Donald Cameron

Some 43 per cent of homes in the Western Isles are estimated to be in fuel poverty, which is almost double the national average. It is a crisis that has been exacerbated following the recent loss of two meter readers, meaning that more household bills are worked out by higher price estimates. Given that the Government has set a target to reduce the number of homes that are in fuel poverty nationally to 5 per cent by 2040, how, specifically, will it support island communities such as the Western Isles to meet that target?

Shona Robison

I recognise some of the challenges that Donald Cameron has mentioned. We are incorporating adjustments to the UK minimum income standard element of the fuel poverty definition to take account of the generally higher cost of living in Scotland’s remote, rural and island communities. Through our energy efficiency schemes, we are already spending more per head on energy efficiency in remote and rural areas, where we know installation and labour costs are higher, and our warmer homes Scotland scheme has introduced additional renewable and enabling measures, including ground-source heat pumps and micro-wind and micro-hydro systems, which will be of particular benefit to households that live off the gas grid. We recognise those challenges, and they will be covered in the forthcoming fuel poverty strategy.

Ariane Burgess (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

Given that the Scottish Government has committed to a remote, rural and islands action plan, backed by a £50 million fund, in what ways is the Government drawing on lessons from previous programmes—specifically, on what worked and did not work? In what ways can housing enablers and community trusts with lived experience feed into the development of the remote, rural and islands action plan?

As briefly as possible, please, cabinet secretary.

Shona Robison

In all of those things, the role of community trusts is important, and so is the role of local authorities, of course.

Councils that serve rural and remote island communities can now provide to those in extreme fuel poverty grant in aid worth up to £14,000, which is up from the previous maximum of £9,000. Those councils can also apply for higher maxima of £8,000 of grant in aid for zero or low-carbon heating measures.

I will write to the member with more details in response to her question.

Convention of Scottish Local Authorities

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities—COSLA. (S6O-00539)

The Minister for Social Security and Local Government (Ben Macpherson)

The Scottish Government engages regularly with COSLA representatives to discuss a wide range of issues as part of our shared commitment to work in partnership with local government to improve outcomes for the people of Scotland.

I last met COSLA on 18 November to discuss social security with Councillor Kelly Parry, and I am meeting the COSLA presidential team on 16 December, which is tomorrow.

Craig Hoy

COSLA has noted that the Scottish National Party will cut its allocation to Scottish councils by £280 million in real terms next year. As the Government’s assault on local government finances intensifies, what would the minister advise town halls to do next April: slash services or hike the council tax?

Ben Macpherson

I note Mr Hoy’s service as a councillor, and I wonder whether he might want to point that out.

It would be helpful for the Parliament to note that table 5.16 in the Scottish budget document includes additional funding of more than £1.3 billion—currently held in other Scottish Government portfolios—which will be added to the local government settlement in year.

Taken together with the funding that is included in table 5.13 in the budget document, the total funding package for 2022-23 is more than £12.5 billion, providing an additional £917.9 million, which is a real-terms increase of 5.1 per cent.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

Following last week’s budget statement, Douglas Lumsden said that local government should be “properly funded”. Concern from the Tories is touching, given that they have financially eviscerated council budgets in England over the past decade. Have they said at any time how much the proper funding of local government should be and where resources should come from to meet their demands, or are we expected to guess?

Ben Macpherson

Mr Gibson makes an important point. The Conservatives are keen to criticise the Scottish Government’s budget decisions, but they rarely come up with any solutions, whether on changing spending priorities or taxation changes, or by pressing their colleagues in Westminster for action at United Kingdom level, with the vast amount of tax powers that the UK Government has that the Scottish Government does not.

It is important to point out, in comparison, that local authorities in Scotland have largely been protected from the savage budget cuts that counterparts in England and Wales have seen, although local government funding is not wholly comparable. As I said, there will be a real-terms increase to local authority budgets for the coming year of 5.1 per cent.

I refer to my supplementary answer to Mr Hoy.

I have said previously and will say again that it is pretty futile to heckle a person who is appearing on a screen.

That concludes portfolio questions.

Craig Hoy

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. In my enthusiasm to ask the minister a question, I omitted to refer to my entry in the register of members’ interests, which draws attention to my position as a councillor in East Lothian.

That is now on the record, Mr Hoy.