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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Water Environment, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Dumfries City Status


Contents


Portfolio Question Time


Justice and Veterans

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

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

The first item of business is portfolio question time, and the first portfolio is justice and veterans. Members who wish to request a supplementary question should press their request-to-speak button or enter R in the chat function during the relevant question.


Victim Notification Scheme Review

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the review of the victim notification scheme. (S6O-00558)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans (Keith Brown)

We will commence the review of the victim notification scheme early next year, to ensure that it serves victims effectively. That was agreed by the victims task force in March, and we continue to engage with partners to develop the review. The task force’s preference is for the review to be led by an independent chairperson, supported by a working group of representatives of the organisations that operate the scheme and victims’ organisations. We intend to proceed on that basis.

The detailed approach and remit of the review are being considered. It is likely to include matters such as the possible extension to the scheme’s scope, information sharing between agencies and links with the task force’s work on developing a victim-centred approach.

Tess White

Victim Support Scotland has highlighted, shockingly, multiple suicide attempts by victims as a result of the letter that notifies them that the perpetrator in their case is to be released. The organisation believes that the scheme is not fit for purpose and that the need for a review has never been greater.

The Scottish Government has dithered and delayed, but the Scottish Conservatives have committed to reform the victim notification scheme, as part of our victims law. Does the cabinet secretary support those proposals?

Keith Brown

On victims generally, what is really important is that we ensure that we reduce the number of victims in society. Our having far more police officers per capita than there are elsewhere in the United Kingdom, giving them a wage increase and the achievement of some of the lowest recorded levels of crime are important in reducing the number of victims.

It is also true that a number of areas to do with victims should be looked at. As Tess White said, a review has never been more appropriate, which is why we are taking forward a review that will cover all aspects of victims in the justice system.

The intention is to ensure that, right across the justice system, the approach becomes much more victim centred and trauma informed. That is a small thing to say, but it is a big goal to have in mind; it is the Scottish Government’s goal. If we achieve that, we will make more improvements, on top of the changes that we have made in recent years to improve how we treat victims in the justice system.

What initiatives and programmes are available to ensure that victims’ voices are heard, and that victims are represented throughout the justice process?

Keith Brown

As I said, we intend to have a victim-centred approach. As part of that, we recognise the importance of ensuring that victims’ voices are heard, including through representation on the victims task force, the renew, recover and transform advisory group and reference groups in which victims share their experiences and expertise, to help to inform policy and practice.

We have legislated to strengthen victims’ rights and voices—from the introduction of the victims code for Scotland and the standards of service for victims and witnesses to the strengthening of the victim notification and victim statement schemes.

We recognise that more can be done. We will continue to work with partners to improve victims’ experience.


Modern Slavery and Organised Crime (Police Training)

To ask the Scottish Government what training is given to the police force to identify potential victims of modern slavery involved in organised crime. (S6O-00559)

The minister joins us remotely.

The Minister for Community Safety (Ash Regan)

Any form of human trafficking or exploitation is completely unacceptable.

The training and development of officers and the operational delivery of policing are, of course, matters for the chief constable. Police Scotland has informed me that the national human trafficking unit undertakes human trafficking training on various courses at the Scottish Police College throughout the year, and that Police Scotland’s human trafficking champions disseminate briefings and guidance to local officers.

In addition, the Unseen app, which was recently introduced in Police Scotland, can be accessed by operational officers on their mobile devices. The app provides a wealth of information on modern slavery and exploitation. It clearly explains the indicators of human trafficking and exploitation and what to look for.

Bill Kidd

Charities and non-governmental organisations are aware that victims of modern slavery, including some teenagers, are often involved in drug and knife crime and have been exploited by groomers and gangs. What processes are in place to ensure that the burden of criminality is not misplaced on victims of modern slavery? Will new funding for victim support help to provide routes out of modern slavery for people who are in those circumstances?

Ash Regan

When it is believed that a child or young person under 18 is a victim of exploitation or human trafficking, an immediate child protection response is required from police officers who are trained to undertake relevant procedures, including interagency referral discussions. Police Scotland has in place clear guidance to ensure a dual investigation of suspected criminal activity and potential human trafficking that might have led to an offence being committed.

Decisions regarding prosecutions are for the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. The Lord Advocate has published instructions regarding the presumption against prosecution of persons who are the victims of trafficking, slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour who have committed offences as a consequence.

A key priority of the new victim-centred approach fund is to provide support and assistance to adult victims of human trafficking to help them to recover and begin to rebuild their lives.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

Modern slavery is an appalling crime. It is even more so when the victim is used by criminal gangs. To tackle it, we must understand the scale of it. Is the minister comfortable that the current national referral mechanism data gives the level of accuracy that Police Scotland needs to tackle the crime? The answer to my recent parliamentary question on that matter seemed to imply that no one really knows how many people are enslaved in modern Scotland.

Ash Regan

Jamie Greene is completely right to say that it is an appalling crime. The data that we use is the data that we have. The numbers this year are slightly down on the previous year’s, but Covid is having an impact on that. In general, modern slavery can be hidden. That is its nature, so the figures will perhaps not always reflect what is happening on the ground.

The Scottish Government is working with a wide range of partners. We have a serious organised crime task force and strategy, which aims to reduce the harms that are caused by serious organised crime and its involvement in human trafficking.

If Jamie Greene would like to meet me to discuss the matter further, I would be happy to do that.


Victims and Survivors Views

3. Maggie Chapman (North East Scotland) (Green)

To ask the Scottish Government what mechanisms are in place to ensure that the views of victims and survivors are considered by Community Justice Scotland and the justice board for Scotland and its sub-groups. (S6O-00560)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans (Keith Brown)

The justice board, of which Community Justice Scotland is a member, undertakes a wide range of engagement activity to ensure that the views of victims and survivors are taken into account.

Justice board members are represented on the victims task force, alongside representatives of victim support organisations and a victims representative. That ensures that the task force’s work is directly informed by the experiences of victims. The task force includes Community Justice Scotland, which co-leads the trauma-informed workforce workstream.

Victims organisations are also represented on a number of justice board sub-groups, including those relating to Covid-19, the recover, renew, transform programme and the recovery of community justice and preventing offending group.

Outwith the justice board, Community Justice Scotland has a statutory duty to assess the extent to which national community justice outcomes are achieved. It recently noted that community justice partners

“are closely linked to victim support services and that supporting victims is a high priority locally.”

Maggie Chapman

I would like to explore in more detail how victims’ voices are taken into account in strategic and operational discussions. The victims task force recently discussed victims’ voices. There is concern among support organisations that, on the rare occasions when views or feedback are sought from the people whom they support, there is little follow-up. There is no communication about what is done with those views or what has happened as a result of feedback. I know that the recover, renew, transform advisory group has also—

Ms Chapman, can we please have a supplementary question?

Maggie Chapman

What more can be done to restore victims’, witnesses’ and survivors’ confidence that their feedback is valued and that their voices are being heard and acted on in a way that is not wasting their time and retraumatising them.

Keith Brown

I will have to refer to what currently happens. Along with the work of the victims task force, my officials and representatives of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service and the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service meet monthly with victim support organisations and provide feedback on how their input is helping to shape our approach to making improvements to the justice system to aid victims’ recovery.

An advisory group including victims organisations was established to provide the criminal justice board with independent expert advice on the potential impacts that could arise for people who go through the justice system. Members of the criminal justice board have, in turn, attended the advisory group to feed back on the advice that has been received.

Question 4 is from Finlay Carson, who is joining us remotely.


Victim Surcharge Fund

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the victim surcharge fund. (S6O-00561)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans (Keith Brown)

The victim surcharge fund reopened for applications on 7 December 2021, with a closing date of 14 January 2022. Allocations will be announced in February 2022. At least £165,000 is available in this round.

Five organisations shared £157,000 earlier this year. That money has been used to provide direct practical help to victims from the fund.

The victim surcharge fund initial report for 2019 to 2021 was published on 1 October 2021, and a copy is available in the Scottish Parliament information centre. It provides information on payments made into and out of the fund. Information on the collection of the victim surcharge is published in the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service’s quarterly fines reports.

Finlay Carson

In its 2016 manifesto, the Scottish National Party promised that the victim surcharge fund would deliver £1 million of extra funding a year to go towards victims organisations, but in two years of operation it has paid out only £157,000, and the cabinet secretary’s recent announcement that the latest round of funding will deliver only £165,000 will add to the disappointment of victims. Why has the fund fallen so far short of what was promised to victims of crime?

Keith Brown

There is perhaps a misunderstanding on the part of Mr Carson as to how the fund is to work. The amount raised is entirely dependent on the number and value of fines imposed by the courts, and it was always going to take a number of years for the fund to build up. Only individuals or organisations who have been cautioned after 2019 are affected, and their cases will take time to progress through the court. Members will of course know the impact of the pandemic on the court system.

It is true to say that the collection rate for the victim surcharge in Scotland is 79 per cent, which compares favourably with the rate in England and Wales, which is 61 per cent. Notwithstanding the pandemic, we of course expect the amount that can be paid out to victims organisations to increase in future years.

Marie McNair (Clydebank and Milngavie) (SNP)

Many victim support organisations across the country do valuable work to assist victims of crime. Since its inception, how has the victim surcharge fund supported such organisations in the Clydebank and Milngavie constituency?

Keith Brown

We are in the fortunate position of being able to fund all the organisations that applied for the first round of the fund. Details of those organisations can be found in the initial report, and they include Victim Support Scotland, which offers support nationally. Individuals and families that access support from the fund through those organisations came from a range of localities across Scotland. We do not break down that data by constituency.

Victim support organisations throughout Scotland are welcome to apply to the second round of funding.


Forensic Examination Services (Children and Young People)

To ask the Scottish Government what update it can provide on delivering forensic examination services for children and young people in island and rural communities. (S6O-00562)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans (Keith Brown)

Child-centred and trauma-informed healthcare is at the centre of the current paediatric services that are provided to children and young people in Scotland who experience child sexual abuse. The national pathway for clinicians supporting children who have experienced child sexual abuse was published in November 2020 and makes it clear that the wellbeing of the child is paramount through each step of the process.

Liam McArthur

I thank all those who have helped to establish a service that allows adult survivors of rape and sexual assault in Orkney to be examined without having to be flown off the island. I recognise the added complexities of delivering forensic examinations of children and young people, but I am concerned that even efforts to explore how telehealth might be used to support the examination of a child who has experienced physical neglect, rather than sexual abuse, have been halted due to problems with admissibility of images captured in that way. Will the cabinet secretary speak to the Lord Advocate to establish how any concerns might be overcome, so that such an option can be tested and put in place for children and young people in my constituency?

Keith Brown

I am happy to take that up with the Lord Advocate, and with the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care, given that telehealth is the subject of the discussion. An important point, which the member has previously acknowledged, is that there have been substantial improvements in relation to adults’ services, but there is a continuing need to work on making sure that we have the same level of service for children. I am more than happy to take up the issues with the Lord Advocate and the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care, as the member has outlined.

Question 6 is from Stephanie Callaghan, who is joining us remotely.


Justice Vision and Priorities Delivery Plan

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on this year’s review of the justice vision and priorities delivery plan. (S6O-00563)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans (Keith Brown)

The Scottish Government published a report in March 2021 highlighting the key achievements in justice since the publication of “Justice in Scotland: vision and priorities”. The report summarised the progress that has been made and highlighted the key achievements under the seven justice priorities since 2017. The report also describes the impact of Covid-19 on policy development and on the justice system. The justice vision and priorities ran from 2017 to 2020 and it is due to be refreshed. Our new vision for justice will be published in the new year and will seek to build on the lessons that we have learnt so far.

The report made us aware of the impact of Covid-19 on the justice sector. What steps has the Scottish Government taken to help the sector and its recovery from the pandemic?

Keith Brown

I am sure that the member will be aware of some of the efforts made by the Scottish Government as it continued to support justice agencies to take action to address the backlog caused by the Covid pandemic and to minimise the impact on all court users. As part of the recent budget announcement, and in the continued absence of any apparent Covid funding from the United Kingdom Government, we announced significant funding increases for the justice portfolio—funding that is required to deal with the backlog and to support community justice services in recovering from the pandemic.

We have established a justice recovery fund for the next financial year of £53.2 million to be allocated to recovery, renewal and transformation activity across the justice system, including the ability to maintain enhanced court capacity and remote jury centres. That builds on the additional £50 million allocated in this financial year, which, by way of a tangible example, helped to deliver the setting up of 16 additional solemn and summary courts from September.


Management of Offenders (Scotland) Act 2019

To ask the Scottish Government when it plans to enact sections 5 to 7 of the Management of Offenders (Scotland) Act 2019. (S6O-00564)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans (Keith Brown)

The provisions in sections 5 to 7 of part 1 of the 2019 act relate to making electronic monitoring a condition of licence. Electronic monitoring is already a feature of post-release sentence management as a condition of licence for uses such as home detention curfew. The Parole Board for Scotland currently has an ability to recommend licence conditions, which can include an element of electronic monitoring. A number of provisions of the 2019 act have already been commenced and the next set of commencement regulations planned for the act is now likely to come into force in early 2022.

Oliver Mundell

The sections of the 2019 act that I mentioned would allow exclusion zones to be imposed on criminals when they are released on licence. Does the cabinet secretary agree with Scottish Conservative proposals to allow victims to request those exclusion zones?

Keith Brown

There are two ways in which the suggestion made by the member can be taken forward. We can look at it in relation to victims, but we must also look at the practical impacts of electronic monitoring, especially where that requires GPS. Further work on the latter point is currently being undertaken with justice partners, and I will ensure that the member’s former point is covered in the victims review, which I mentioned earlier.

What impact has the Scottish Government’s focus on early intervention, prevention and rehabilitation had on efforts to reduce the use of imprisonment?

Keith Brown

It has had a substantial impact. People in prison now are generally serving longer sentences and there are far fewer people serving sentences of less than 18 months, because of legislation that was previously passed. Other interventions that have taken place under this Scottish Government have also helped to deal with the situation that the member mentions. We are very conscious that more needs to be done, not least in relation to some of the proposals in the bail and release bill. That is currently out for consultation.


101 Phone Line (Waiting Times)

8. Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to reduce waiting times for people calling Police Scotland’s non-emergency 101 phone line. (S6O-00565)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans (Keith Brown)

As the member will be aware, delivery of the police 101 service is a matter for Police Scotland. Police Scotland has played, and continues to play, a crucial role in protecting our communities through the pandemic, and it has, alongside all sectors, been impacted by its own Covid-related absences.

I meet regularly with the chief constable, who updates me on the contingency plan to ensure that calls to 999 continue to be answered in less than 10 seconds, and that resilience plans are in place to meet the peak in calls to the 101 line at this extremely busy time.

Murdo Fraser

We are all conscious of the impact that Covid has had across the public service, but even before the pandemic I heard many concerns from constituents about the time that it took for them to get a response on the 101 non-emergency service. Those concerns will have simply been highlighted and extended as a result of the current situation with Covid. Is the justice secretary engaging with Police Scotland on the possibility of bringing in more resource for the 101 number to ensure that people are not having to wait—in some cases, for half an hour or more—for the phone to be answered?

Keith Brown

I engage with Police Scotland—I spoke to the chief constable about the issue as recently as last week. The deployment of resources in the police service is, of course, a matter for Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority, and they are doing exactly what Murdo Fraser suggested in allocating more resource.

The member is right to raise his concerns, and I know that he has engaged directly with the police on the issue. However, I point to the more recent figures, for October this year, which show that there has been a substantial improvement.

It is worth bearing in mind that the function of Police Scotland’s 101 service is often to pick up calls that would normally go to other agencies—in many cases, local authorities or care services. Police Scotland has to cope with that additional burden at the same time as the Covid-related absences that I mentioned. Nevertheless, I will continue to discuss the matter with Police Scotland, and I am sure that it will have heard Murdo Fraser’s suggestion today.


Finance and the Economy

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The next portfolio is finance and the economy. As ever, if a member wishes to ask a supplementary question, they should press their request-to-speak button or place an R in the chat function during the relevant question.


Social and Affordable Housing (Draft Budget 2022-23)

To ask the Scottish Government how much it has allocated in its draft budget for 2022-23 for building social and affordable housing in Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders. (S6O-00566)

The cabinet secretary joins us remotely.

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

Our draft budget increases funding for affordable housing by £174 million, which brings the total investment next year to £831 million and total investment across the current session of Parliament to £3.6 billion. We have not yet allocated the additional £174 million, but existing five-year planning assumptions mean that all local authority areas will benefit from increases in funding in comparison with the previous session of Parliament. Investment in Dumfries and Galloway specifically is £15 million higher, at £106 million, and investment in the Scottish Borders is £17 million higher, at £82 million.

Emma Harper

I recently visited Passivhaus housing in Dalton, near Lockerbie. The Passivhaus model is hugely beneficial in reducing energy bills for residents and in assisting our fight in tackling the climate emergency, and there is evidence to suggest that it can be beneficial for health as a result of the air filtration. Can the cabinet secretary comment on whether any funding in the budget is being used to explore the building of social and affordable houses to meet the Passivhaus standards?

Kate Forbes

The member raises an important point, and I will be happy to explore those issues further with her. The affordable housing supply programme and the social housing net zero heat fund have supported, and continue to support, the delivery of homes to Passivhaus standards in urban, rural and island communities across the country, including in Dumfries and Galloway.

We are continuing to take rapid action to increase the energy efficiency of new homes and to modernise construction. We recently consulted on improvements to the high energy standards in building regulations, and the consultation included an option that approaches the level of specification that is associated with the Passivhaus model.

Finlay Carson (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con)

The record to date is not good. In 2016, the Scottish National Party promised to build 50,000 affordable homes and it has failed to meet that target. The SNP ministers have spent less than half the £25 million budget that was allocated to rural housing funds and £11.4 million of that funding delivered just 59 affordable homes, so why should the people in rural Scotland trust that the SNP can deliver this time round?

Kate Forbes

Many criticisms could be levelled at the Government but not on our commitment to building affordable housing. The member will know, as I do, in representing a rural area, that the amount of housing that has been built over the past five years considerably exceeds the amount of housing that was built prior to that.

Planned investment in Dumfries and Galloway is almost £24 million in the current year alone and will enable an estimated 172 affordable homes to start on site and an estimated 166 homes to complete, all for social rent. Those are not small figures; they are hugely important. Such homes are a cornerstone of our rural communities.

Question 2 has not been lodged. Question 3 is from James Dornan, who joins us remotely.


Retail, Hospitality and Leisure Businesses (Government Support)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the support that it is providing to retail, hospitality and leisure businesses. (S6O-00568)

The minister also joins us remotely.

The Minister for Business, Trade, Tourism and Enterprise (Ivan McKee)

We recognise the difficulties that omicron brings for businesses and their employees, which is why we are providing £375 million to support sectors that have been impacted by the necessary additional public health measures. That funding includes the £100 million that was announced last week for those who have been directly impacted during this key trading period, and it provides £66 million to the hospitality sector and £8 million for the food and drink supply chain, including wholesalers. An update will be provided on the allocation of that funding as soon as possible.

The budget also continues support for the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors by delivering 50 per cent rates relief for the first three months of 2022-23—capped at £27,500 per ratepayer—as well as the lowest poundage in the United Kingdom for the fourth year in a row and a total relief package that is worth an estimated £802 million.

James Dornan

Although I welcome the significant additional funding to support businesses that the Scottish Government has announced, I also recognise that we cannot go far enough to fully compensate for the substantial impact of omicron within the restrictive resources that are currently available to the Scottish Government. Does the cabinet secretary—I mean “minister”; I nearly promoted Ivan McKee there—agree that businesses now need the scale of financial support that they received earlier in the pandemic and that that can come only from the UK Government, which has the necessary borrowing powers that the Scottish Government does not?

Ivan McKee

Absolutely. We know that the scale and urgency of the omicron challenge require that there be financial support for businesses and their employees on a scale similar to that at the start of the pandemic. Although we have announced significant funding for businesses to deal with the impact of omicron, totalling £375 million—significantly more, proportionally, than the chancellor has announced for the UK as a whole—it is worth noting that, of course, that will not fully compensate businesses and their staff. That is why we continue to call on the UK Government to put the necessary support schemes, including furlough, in place to protect workers, given that, under the current UK funding arrangements, only the Treasury has the borrowing powers to provide support on such a scale.

I will take two brief supplementary questions, which are both from members who join us remotely. I would appreciate succinct questions and answers.

Paul Sweeney (Glasgow) (Lab)

The minister will be aware of the problems that are faced by the travel sector, particularly companies with retail stores. Glasgow-based Barrhead Travel, which is the largest travel agent in Scotland and an employer of more than 500 people, contacted me this week to say that business has been badly hit by the recent announcements but, as of yet, there has been no indication of specific support from the Government. What discussions has the Government had with the travel industry about extending support to the industry? Will he meet me and representatives from Barrhead Travel to hear at first hand how the lack of support from the Government is suffocating one of Glasgow’s biggest companies?

Ivan McKee

I have previously met representatives of Barrhead Travel, along with other businesses in the travel sector, to understand the extent of the challenges that they are facing. It is a difficult time for the sector, and I continue to meet regularly with its representatives, as does my colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy, who meets businesses across the wider hospitality, leisure and travel sector with regard to the level of support that is available.

I have just spoken about it, so the member will be aware that, yesterday, the First Minister announced that a total of £375 million has been made available to support business, including businesses in the travel sector. In the context of the first £100 million, there was specific mention of the travel sector. The details of how that and the other £275 million will be distributed are being worked through at pace with representatives and will be communicated as soon as we have the final details.

That was neither a brief question nor a brief answer. Let us see whether we can do better.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

I would not get your hopes up, Presiding Officer.

The minister just mentioned furlough. For how long should the scheme be in place, because workers are struggling? Should there be a furlough scheme every time there is a new wave of the virus? What plans does he have to support workers who are really struggling?

Ivan McKee

The member makes a good point. We believe that a furlough scheme for affected sectors should be introduced when necessary. Given the restrictions that are now having to be put in place for good public health reasons in hospitality, leisure, travel and tourism and other heavily affected sectors, we think that the UK Government should put in place a furlough scheme that supports workers in those sectors.

We are doing what we can to support business but, without the employment data that only the UK Government has, we are in a difficult position when it comes to supporting workers directly. That is why we are calling on the UK Government to step up to the plate and put in place a scheme that supports those affected workers at this difficult time.


Scottish Fiscal Commission Report (Funding Shortfall)

4. Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the Scottish Fiscal Commission report, which anticipates a funding shortfall of £190 million in 2022-23 driven by slower growth in employment in Scotland compared to the United Kingdom. (S6O-00569)

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

The Scottish Fiscal Commission and the Office for Budget Responsibility have stated that the continued uncertainty around the pandemic means that there will be more volatility than usual in their forecasts. It is important to note that the final position on the performance of income tax revenues in 2022-23 will be known only once outturn data is published in 2024.

The problem in the fiscal framework is that strong earnings growth in London and the south-east means that our budget can be reduced even while earnings growth in Scotland has increased in every year since tax devolution prior to the pandemic. Rising inequality elsewhere in the UK should not see Scotland’s budget reduced. I believe that that needs to be addressed in the upcoming fiscal framework review.

Brian Whittle

The cabinet secretary will be aware that the Scottish Fiscal Commission’s forecast also shows that, by 2026-27, the shortfall could be as much as £417 million. That indicates that there are serious issues in the Scottish economy. What are the cabinet secretary and the Scottish Government doing to address the issue?

Kate Forbes

I thank the member for posing the question, because we need to get beneath the headline figures. The Scottish Fiscal Commission estimates that the Scottish Government’s decisions on income tax since 2017-18 add around £552 million to tax receipts next year, compared with following UK Government income tax policies. That implies that the Scottish budget could have been £742 million worse off next year if it were not for our tax policies.

On the specifics of the Scottish economy, the sectoral composition of the Scottish economy will likely be a contributing factor. We rely on receipts from the oil and gas industry, in which activity has been slowing in recent years, which has a disproportionate impact in the Scottish economy. Even a small reduction in pay and employment in that sector has a large effect on revenues. Conversely—Presiding Officer, I will finish with this line—the rest of the UK relies more heavily on receipts from the financial services sector, in which pay growth has been strong. We need to get behind the numbers to understand what is really going on in the Scottish economy.

We have two brief supplementary questions. Both of the members are in the chamber, so I can eyeball them.

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

Thank you, Presiding Officer—no pressure, then.

I make the cabinet secretary aware that I have been contacted by Gleneagles hotel, Crieff Hydro and Simon Howie Butchers, which are important businesses in my constituency. They have told me that, to operate at full capacity, they need to close a staffing shortfall of up to 25 per cent and that they want to be able to recruit from beyond our borders to do so. I wrote on their behalf to the UK Government—

Question.

Jim Fairlie

—but the reply was negative. Does the cabinet secretary agree with me that that is another area in which this Parliament needs the powers to legislate so that we can manage the challenges that our industries face to promote growth in those industries?

That was not really a supplementary to the previous question. Briefly, cabinet secretary.

Kate Forbes

The member is right in saying that the biggest challenge that business has faced over the past few months, which no one can have missed, is labour market shortages. That is driven almost entirely by the removal of freedom of movement. The UK immigration system is failing to meet the needs of Scotland’s employers. Ultimately, without our having full control over economic and immigration policy, which the UK Government refuses to give us, we do not have the powers to resolve the labour market shortage and allow business to grow.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

The cabinet secretary is absolutely right that we must get behind the numbers. However, when we do, they show that increases in earnings in Scotland are lagging behind not just those in London and the south-east but those in every other devolved nation and every English region. Why have we still not received the 10-year economic plan, which was promised by the end of the year? Why has it been delayed? When will it be published?

Kate Forbes

The member and I had extensive dialogue on that topic at the Finance and Public Administration Committee yesterday, so I will not go into the detail now.

On the specific questions, the member will, I hope, appreciate that business is struggling right now and that publishing a 10-year strategy when business is looking for financial support next year is a challenge. We have been working with the advisory council. The strategy is in a very good place. My hope is that we will be able to publish the plan as soon as possible. However, we need to ensure that there is as much space and capacity as possible in Scotland’s economy for all economic actors to participate. While we are in the grip of a new variant, perhaps now is not the right time to do so.


Small Businesses (Non-domestic Rates)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the impact on small businesses of non-domestic rates being reintroduced after the first three months of the new financial year. (S6O-00570)

The minister joins us remotely.

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

We are extending the retail, hospitality and leisure relief by 50 per cent for the first three months of 2022-23, capped at £27,500 per ratepayer. We are also maintaining the United Kingdom’s most generous small business bonus scheme, which will take more than 111,000 properties out of rates altogether.

Throughout the pandemic, we have consistently delivered more direct support to business than we have received in consequentials. Yesterday, the First Minister confirmed additional funding to deliver a package of support worth a total of £375 million. On the basis of the Barnett formula, that is equivalent to the Chancellor of the Exchequer confirming a £4.6 billion support package, in contrast to the £1 billion that he announced.

Colin Smyth

The Scottish hospitality group has said that removing the 50 per cent business rates relief just three months into the new financial year could

“spell the end for many hard-pressed Scottish hospitality businesses.”

The Federation of Small Businesses said that there is a

“compelling case to further extend the duration and level of the relief ... especially if we’re not out of the woods”

by spring.

Will the Scottish Government listen to Scotland’s small businesses, rethink the budget and extend the business rates relief to a full year, as Labour and businesses are consistently calling for?

Tom Arthur

One of the key asks of business prior to the budget was to avoid a cliff edge on 31 March, and the 50 per cent relief for the first quarter delivers that.

It is also important to consider the broader package of support that is being provided. For the fourth year in a row, we will have the lowest poundage anywhere in the UK. Some 95 per cent of properties that are liable for non-domestic rates will pay a lower property tax in Scotland than they would elsewhere in the UK. In addition, the small business bonus scheme continues to deliver no rates for more than 100,000 businesses across Scotland. That must also be seen in the context of our being the first part in the UK to extend 100 per cent relief for retail, hospitality and leisure for all of 2021-22, which was not replicated in England for example.

We have listened. We have taken this proportionate, balanced decision in the context of a challenging budget settlement. We are also, of course, responding in haste to the omicron crisis by providing support totalling £375 million.

Fiona Hyslop (Linlithgow) (SNP)

Can the minister outline what assessment has been made of the 100 per cent rates relief that is available to Scottish hospitality businesses, compared with the rates relief that is available in England, which is now limited to 66 per cent? Does he agree that the Scottish Government’s on-going higher level of business support, which continues to be available now and will be right through to April 2022, has provided and continues to provide vital business support for this winter period of disruption? Yes, more needs to be done, but that is a strong foundation.

Tom Arthur

Of course, and as Fiona Hyslop will well understand, it has never been possible to provide all the support that businesses have needed during these challenging times. However, as the only Government to offer uncapped relief since the start of the Covid pandemic, as well as an unprecedented reduction in the poundage, we have been there for businesses when they needed us most. We proved that again yesterday when the First Minister announced a total package of £375 million in direct business support.

How is the Scottish Government responding to requests from the business community for long-term reform of the structure of business rates?

Tom Arthur

As Liz Smith will be aware, we have a tone date on 1 April next year and a revaluation the following April. We will listen closely to calls from business, but the immediate priority is to provide stability in the non-domestic rates system to allow the Barclay reforms to bed in. That is something that we will do over the coming period.

I will be happy, later in this parliamentary session, to have further discussions with members who wish to make concrete proposals for the type and nature of reform that they would wish to see.


Hospitality Sector (Financial Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what further financial support it considers may be necessary to assist the hospitality sector as the Covid-19 pandemic continues. (S6O-00571)

Ivan McKee joins us remotely.

The Minister for Business, Trade, Tourism and Enterprise (Ivan McKee)

We recognise the difficulties that omicron brings for businesses and their employees, which is why we are providing £375 million to support sectors that are impacted by the additional necessary public health measures. That funding includes the £100 million announced last week for those who are directly impacted during this key trading period, and that includes £66 million for the hospitality sector. An update will be provided on the breakdown and allocation of funding as soon as possible.

Although the support that we are providing to businesses is significant, businesses clearly need large-scale financial support, such as a furlough scheme, which can only come from the United Kingdom Government, as it has borrowing powers that the Scottish Government does not. We have repeatedly called on the UK Government to urgently provide support similar to that which was available earlier in the pandemic.

Fulton MacGregor

Just last night, I was contacted by a constituent who operates SDLS Dancewear in Coatbridge, the only such shop in North Lanarkshire. The cancellations of dance events and pantomimes following yesterday’s announcement has absolutely devastated my constituent’s income so close to Christmas. What support does the Government intend to give businesses such as that, which are more indirectly impacted by the current restrictions, as they supply the sectors that the restrictions hit most?

Ivan McKee

We know how difficult the necessary additional public health restrictions are for businesses, including those in the events sector and, very importantly, those in that sector’s supply chain. That is why we are providing £375 million to support businesses that are impacted by the restrictions. That includes £100 million that was announced last week for those that are directly impacted during this key trading period. An update will be provided on the breakdown and allocation of the rest of that funding as soon as possible.

Although that is significant funding, we of course understand that it will not fully compensate business. The scale and urgency of the omicron challenge requires financial support for business, as I have said, on a scale similar to that which was put in place at the start of the pandemic. Given the current UK funding arrangements, only the Treasury has the borrowing power to provide support on such a scale. It is absolutely vital that the UK Government steps up and provides that additional support at this time.

There is a brief supplementary from Rachael Hamilton, who joins us remotely.

Rachael Hamilton (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

I draw attention to my entry in the register of members’ interests. Small businesses risk going down due to the Scottish National Party Government. This morning, NFU Scotland said that it has serious worries about the impact of short-term let licensing on Scotland’s rural economy. Even Fergus Ewing agrees with the 60 per cent of respondents to a Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee survey who strongly oppose the licensing scheme. Does the minister agree that the SNP Government should ditch the damaging plans to license short-term let accommodation providers, in order to prevent the knock-on impact on small rural businesses that are reliant on tourism and have been battered by the Covid regulations?

Ivan McKee

To be honest, Presiding Officer, that question is straying very far from the original question, but I shall answer it anyway.

The Government believes that we should move ahead as planned with the licensing of short-term lets, and my colleague Shona Robison is taking forward those proposals. We have listened extensively to the sector—I have had several meetings with representatives of the sector to understand their concerns, and many of those concerns have been addressed. However, we believe that, in principle, the licensing regime is the right thing to do and we will take it forward with the changes that have been made as a consequence of our listening closely to the concerns of the sector.

Relevance is for the chair to decide.


Employee-owned Businesses

To ask the Scottish Government what progress it has made on its commitment to increase the number of employee-owned businesses in Scotland to 500 by 2030. (S6O-00572)

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

An independent inquiry into employee ownership recognised that, as of March 2019, Scotland is leading the way, with 111 of the 370 employee-owned business in the United Kingdom. Scottish Enterprise records show that approximately 120 employee-owned businesses are now headquartered in Scotland, with around 170 operating in the country.

Claire Baker

I would appreciate it if, in the minister’s response, he could say by how many the number has increased in the past year, which was the original point of the question.

I anticipate that there has been a slight increase but, if the target of 500 is to be reached by 2030, we need to step up the work on that. It is fair to say that co-operative development Scotland is the Cinderella service of Scottish Enterprise, but evidence shows that co-operatives are more resilient, which is exactly what we need in these uncertain times. What budget commitments are there to achieving the target? Are there interim targets that can accelerate the pace of change?

Tom Arthur

We are supporting co-operative development Scotland, which as the member correctly says is within Scottish Enterprise. Of course, Scottish Enterprise is represented on the industry leadership group for employee ownership, of which I am the ministerial co-chair. We are working constructively with partners across the employee-owned sector to increase the number of employee-owned businesses in Scotland, including the number that are headquartered here. That is an important and serious piece of work that is part of the bigger community wealth building agenda, and we are making good progress.

In recent meetings of the group, we have recognised that there has been a significant uptick in the number of organisations that are transitioning to employee ownership, not just in Scotland but across the UK. There is a real moment that we can capitalise on. CDS is being supported to do that in partnership through the ILG, and I look forward to taking that work forward. I am more than happy to meet Ms Baker if she would like to discuss the matter further.

Question 8 is from Pam Gosal, who joins us remotely.


Draft Budget 2022-23 (Stakeholders)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with relevant stakeholders regarding the draft budget for 2022-23. (S6O-00573)

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

The Scottish Government, including me personally, engaged with a wide range of stakeholders in advance of the budget being published, including local government, trade unions and business groups, and there was wider portfolio dialogue on their respective interests. That engagement is part of our efforts to promote transparency and inform decision making. For example, we met with tax professionals, business representatives, civil society organisations, research institutes and others, and ran a consultation process on how we should use our tax powers as part of the budget.

Pam Gosal

There is a cut of £1.1 million to drug services, a £2 million real-terms cut to prisons and a £371 million real-terms cut to local authorities. In my region, West Dunbartonshire Council faces a funding gap of around £7 million, and that is not to mention the £2 million cut to attainment challenge funds in the region, which has some of the highest child poverty rates in the country. Can the cabinet secretary explain why, despite the highest block grant funding since devolution, the Scottish Government is cutting vital funds for public services?

Kate Forbes

I suggest that, rather than spinning the line that this is the biggest budget ever, the member should note that some of the comments that she has made reveal how challenging the budget is. We have had all Covid consequentials stripped out of the budget, despite the fact that we are dealing with a variant right now and that Covid will continue to have an impact. We are having to absorb all that within the block grant in next year’s budget.

The member referred to specific budget lines. On drugs support, for example, the budget includes £61 million specifically to address drug misuse, as part of our commitment to invest £250 million over the lifetime of this parliamentary session. Given the impact of the highest inflation rate for a number of years, alongside the on-going impact of Covid, it has been hugely challenging to deal with the budget. If the member would like me to increase any budget line, I look forward to her telling me where the money should come from.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

Can the cabinet secretary advise the chamber on whether Ms Gosal has contacted her to suggest how much more in resources the Scottish Government should provide for the additional expenditure that she seeks, and how those resources should be paid for? They would need to be paid for either by transfers from other budget lines or by increased taxation.

Kate Forbes

Ms Gosal has not contacted me to date, although I have obviously been engaging on the matter with the Conservatives’ spokesperson. All parties have made a lot of asks, but no party has told me which taxes to increase or what to cut.


Education and Skills

Question 1 is from Gillian Martin, who joins us remotely.


School Examinations 2022

To ask the Scottish Government what plans are being put in place for the 2022 school examinations. (S6O-00574)

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

As we confirmed in August, we are planning that exams will take place in 2022. Significant modifications have already been made to course assessments—both exams and coursework—to take into account disruption to learning. Contingency plans are in place, as the Scottish Qualifications Authority outlined in August and described in more detail in September, to offset any further significant national disruption that arises from Covid. That approach provides the flexibility to adapt to any increased levels of disruption to learning at a national level.

Gillian Martin

Obviously, since the cabinet secretary indicated that physical exams will take place in 2022, the omicron variant has arrived and public health advice is adapting to that. What reassurances can she provide that the Scottish Government’s priority will continue to be keeping our children and young people and our school staff safe?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As Gillian Martin would rightly expect, the safety of children and young people and of our education staff remains our overriding priority while we try to minimise any further disruption to learning where that is possible. The Scottish Government regularly reviews the guidance in the light of emerging scientific evidence. Indeed, refreshed school guidance was most recently published on Friday 17 December. The guidance was informed by the Covid-19 education recovery group and the advisory sub-group on education and children’s issues. The details of the enhancements to existing mitigations reflect the changing balance of risks following the emergence of the omicron variant. As Gillian Martin would expect, we will keep the situation under regular review.

Michael Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

Yesterday, the First Minister said that schools will open “as normal” in the new year, but, as parents and teachers have been pointing out to me since then, things are far from normal in our schools. Schools and classes have been closing for weeks, and disruption is widespread. Maintaining an exam diet will require new action from the Government. What new approaches will the cabinet secretary take on ventilation, testing, staffing and digital learning to ensure that our children have a fighting chance of sitting the exams?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I point Mr Marra to the guidance that I referred to in my answer to Gillian Martin, which deals with ventilation, testing and staffing. We are clear that we need to continue to look at what is happening across Scotland.

My message, at this point, is to thank teachers and support staff for everything that they have done and will continue to do in the new year and to ask everyone to play their part in ensuring that we keep cases of the omicron variant as low as possible, to allow as little disruption to education as possible.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

The cabinet secretary has committed to the reform of qualifications in the future. In particular, she said that she will develop a shared purpose and principles for Scotland’s assessment and qualification system from November until February. What public engagement—particularly teacher engagement—has taken place to develop that shared purpose now?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

We are still in the middle of the consultation that Mr Rennie would expect us to do, including with unions and teacher representatives, to ensure that we are considering the purpose and principles as widely as possible.

The purpose of Mr Rennie’s question is to ensure that practitioners are deeply involved in the process. I reassure him that they absolutely will be, both in its initial stages and in the work that Professor Louise Hayward will take forward, although the work that she undertakes is, of course, for her to direct.

The member is not in the chamber for question 2. Alexander Stewart joins us remotely for question 3.


Attainment Gap

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the efforts being made to close the poverty-related attainment gap. (S6O-00576)

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

Closing the poverty-related attainment gap remains a key focus for this Government. Through our record investment of £1 billion, we continue to fund and empower headteachers in 97 per cent of schools to support their pupils who are most impacted by poverty.

In recognition of the impact of poverty and the pandemic on children and young people across Scotland, from next year, as well as seeing continued investment in the pupil equity funding, all 32 local authorities will be funded to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap. That funding will empower schools and local councils to drive education recovery and accelerate progress in tackling the poverty-related attainment gap. Those allocations have been confirmed on a multiyear basis for the first time, from 2022-23 until 2025-26.

Alexander Stewart

Clackmannanshire, in my region, has been the beneficiary of additional funding through the Scottish attainment challenge. Although Clackmannanshire will receive £1.3 million in additional attainment funds next year, the funding will be cut to less than £500,000 pounds by 2025-26. Does the cabinet secretary believe that the most effective way of improving the prospects of children in Clackmannanshire is to strip more than £800,000 of attainment funding from their schools?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Our decision to share the investment over the 32 local authorities is a recognition that poverty is in all our communities and that the impact of the pandemic is shared across Scotland. We have been asked to consider those points, in particular, and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has supported our going forward with changes to the programme. If Mr Stewart thinks that we should do something different, he can perhaps advise which funding I should cut from that of other councils in his region that will receive funding for the first time.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

Teachers are often asked for two stars and a wish. One star this year must go to our young people and their families, and another star should go to the staff in our schools, in early learning and in colleges. My wish is that the Government gets a grasp on the on-going education crisis. What percentage of pupils in Scotland have a Government laptop or device this Christmas?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As the member will know, we made significant investments in the initial stages of the pandemic to ensure that those devices were distributed. I would be happy to provide the member with updated figures for that work, which is, of course, on top of the sterling work that local authorities have completed, as well as the work that the Scottish Government has undertaken.

The member will be aware that further funding has been made available in next year’s budget to ensure that we undertake further work on that important project.


Science Subjects Uptake

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to encourage uptake of science subjects by secondary school pupils. (S6O-00577)

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

The Scottish Government’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics education and training strategy has set out a range of actions to encourage the uptake of science subjects in Scotland’s secondary schools. We have invested in a range of measures to increase the capacity of teachers and school leaders to develop inspiring STEM courses, including measures to address the gender imbalance in STEM subjects.

We are supporting, among other initiatives, the delivery of science subjects throughout the school journey through teacher professional development provided by the Scottish Schools Education Research Centre and the raising aspirations in science education—RAiSE—programme. The SSERC also delivers the Young STEM Leader awards programme, which aims to inspire and reward young people who take up STEM subjects and encourage their peers to do so.

Alex Rowley

I thank the minister for her answer, but it is clear that the strategies are not working either in her constituency or in mine. In Fife, a total of 1,166 fewer pupils studied chemistry, biology or physics at S4 across the region than did the previous year. There is clearly a problem there.

Do we know what the impact of Covid has been on our schools, local authority by local authority? Has a proper impact assessment been done? Are local authorities being asked to produce the detail of that and to set out a clear recovery plan for education in their regions?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I point Mr Rowley to the work that will be undertaken with the Scottish attainment challenge refresh, which will ensure that we are investing that £1 billion from the Scottish Government across all 32 local authorities—including Fife Council, for the first time, and a number of schools in Mr Rowley’s region. That is very important, because we need to look at the impacts of Covid and of poverty.

The other part of the work that I announced in my ministerial statement on the refresh is the work that will be undertaken with local authorities to include stretch aims for improving what is happening in the different local authorities, including Fife Council. That work will be available in the new year and will be published for Mr Rowley to comment on.

How is the Scottish Government engaging secondary school pupils in the new draft national planning framework as a way of sparking interest in STEM and meeting the national skills shortage?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

What happens within schools is a matter for schools and teachers themselves. We do not have a set national curriculum in Scotland. I am sure that teachers will see the importance of what happens in this area and will encourage their pupils to take it up, but that is, of course, a matter for teachers themselves.

Meghan Gallacher (Central Scotland) (Con)

Reports from the Scottish Qualifications Authority show that, in 2020, young women made up only 28 per cent of higher physics students and 24 per cent of advanced higher physics students. Those statistics are the same as they were when the Scottish National Party came to power, in 2007. Does the cabinet secretary agree that it is vital to encourage young women to study STEM subjects in schools? Will she commit to ensuring that the next generation of women feel empowered to pursue STEM careers and continue to close the gender gap?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I very much agree with the premise of that question and on the importance of tackling the gender gap. I point the member to the STEM strategy, which includes a number of policy initiatives, delivered particularly through Education Scotland, to ensure that the issue is being tackled. The STEM strategy also looks very carefully at what we need to do from the early years all the way through, because, when it comes to STEM or to caring, gender stereotypes are already set by the time children are at nursery. We are determined to take the issue on at all levels. If the member can suggest any specific ways in which the Government could be doing more on this, I am more than happy to work with her on that in the new year.

What steps is the Scottish Government taking to further encourage women to have careers in STEM? It is not just about school; it is about encouraging women even in college or higher education.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Emma Harper raises an important point. As I said during my previous answer, that is really at the heart of the Government’s STEM strategy, because we know that we need to tackle gender inequality right across the education and learning landscape.

She rightly points out that the issue is one that affects colleges and universities, too. There are damaging perceptions around who does what job and, therefore, who does what course, and women remain very underrepresented in many STEM sectors. We will, of course, keep up to date on that. I cite the example of the work that Education Scotland is doing through its improving gender balance and equality team, which seeks to work with school clusters to ensure that more work can be done on that. We also do a lot of work in that area in colleges and universities, although universities are, of course, independent from Government.


Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths Teachers (Rural Areas)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress is being made in recruiting science, technology, engineering and maths teachers, especially in rural areas. (S6O-00578)

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

The Scottish Government is offering 150 bursaries of £20,000 for career changers to do teacher training in STEM subjects where the demand for teachers is at its greatest. To date, the bursary scheme has provided for the training of approximately 452 STEM teachers.

A new phase of our teacher recruitment campaign, which aims to encourage students and career changers to apply for a teacher education course, is under way, and it has a particular focus on STEM subjects.

In addition, since the start of the pandemic, we have provided £240 million of additional investment over two financial years specifically for the recruitment of more education staff, and a further £145.5 million of permanent funding will be provided from April 2022.

Jim Fairlie

The shortage of teachers in particular subject areas is more difficult to address in rural areas than it is in urban areas, and that is certainly true of STEM subjects. How is that challenge reflected in the Scottish Government’s response to the recommendations of Ekosgen’s final report for Education Scotland, “Evaluation of the STEM Grants Programme Round Two and Wider Education Scotland STEM Support”?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Mr Fairlie rightly points to another scheme that the Scottish Government supports through Education Scotland—the STEM grants programme. I understand that £3 million of funding has been delivered through that programme since 2018. The recent report includes mention of a number of innovative bids for rural areas. I understand that that has been a real strength of round 2, as it has provided teachers with access to high-quality professional learning, which acts as an enabler to retaining staff. As Mr Fairlie will be well aware, that is particularly important in our rural and remote areas.

Question 6 comes from Siobhian Brown, who joins us remotely.


Classroom Temperature

6. Siobhian Brown (Ayr) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what measures are being put in place to keep pupils warm while they are in classrooms over the coming months, given the need for adequate ventilation to mitigate the risks of Covid-19. (S6O-00579)

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

Our updated guidance for schools gives potential approaches to increase natural ventilation while balancing temperature and user comfort. Strategies will vary depending on local circumstances, but they can include partially opening doors and windows to provide ventilation while reducing draughts; opening high-level windows in preference to low-level windows to reduce draughts; purging spaces by opening windows, vents and external doors, for example between classes or during break and lunch; flexible uniform and staff dress policies to help to ensure that children, young people and staff can stay warm if doors require to be opened; and maintaining appropriate heating strategies.

Siobhian Brown

Over the past few months, it has become apparent that ventilation plays an important part in reducing transmission of Covid variants. How is the Scottish Government ensuring that the appropriate risk assessments are conducted for indoor teaching environments?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As the member will be aware, the Scottish Government has provided an additional £10 million to local authorities, on top of the £90 million that was provided earlier on in the pandemic, for measures including on ventilation. She is quite right to point out that an important part of all the work in that area is adequate risk assessment. Our recently updated guidance, which I referred to in answer to previous questions, sets out an increased expectation that sufficient CO2 monitors should be made available across all local authorities to allow learning, teaching and play spaces to be assessed often to support on-going decision making by staff about balancing ventilation with temperature during the winter months. As a broad guideline, spaces should be assessed for a minimum of one full day per week under normal occupancy.

Michael Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

Let us be clear that what that means is “Open the window.” After two years, that is what the Government has come up with. Young people are learning in freezing temperatures, wearing hats, scarves and gloves.

Just in the past week, a teacher in Dundee told me that the red light on their CO2 monitor is on constantly. He has been told to ignore it and he now has Covid. At best, he will miss Christmas with his family.

Will the cabinet secretary begin the immediate procurement of high-efficiency particulate air—HEPA—filter machines for every classroom, so that that completely unacceptable situation does not arise for a third winter in a row?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

If that teacher has indeed been told to ignore a red light, I strongly suggest to Mr Marra that, if he has not done so already, he encourages the teacher to contact his trade union.

Arrangements are in place to ensure that any member of staff who has concerns can have those concerns addressed at a local level. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has made it clear that trade union representatives can raise specific issues that cannot be resolved satisfactorily at a local level through the workforce issues group that COSLA chairs.

I point Mr Marra, once again, to the fact that our guidance on ventilation is based on expert advice. HEPA filters are not a replacement for natural ventilation—that point has been made clear in the expert advice that we have received.

I also point Mr Marra to the COVID-19 Recovery Committee, where there have been many discussions about the issue. For example, the committee heard evidence from Dr Shaun Fitzgerald, who said:

“My first port of call would be to try to use the infrastructure that is already there—namely, opening windows—and to be smart about the way that it is used.”—[Official Report, COVID-19 Recovery Committee, 4 November 2021; c 39.]

We are following the expert advice on the matter and will continue to do so. We are, of course, open to change if that expert advice itself changes.

Question 7 was not lodged. Graham Simpson joins us remotely for question 8.


Attainment Gap

Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

 

8.

To ask the Scottish Government how it plans to close the attainment gap in light of the report, “Achievement of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) Levels 2020-21”. (S6O-00581)

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

Our refreshed Scottish attainment challenge, backed by record investment of £1 billion in this session of Parliament, empowers schools and local authorities to drive education recovery and accelerate progress in tackling the attainment gap.

Alongside that increased investment, we are working with partners across education to develop a framework for recovery and accelerated progress, which we will publish in the new year.

Planning and reporting will be streamlined, enabling us to understand what schools and local authorities expect to achieve and by when, using local stretch aims. Schools and local authorities will set out their ambitions for improvement, using local knowledge and professional expertise.

Graham Simpson

I should apologise for the original question, because, of course, it is not an attainment gap—it is a chasm, and it is getting bigger. The figures in the ACEL report are absolutely scandalous. I will not go over them, but everywhere we look, that chasm is getting wider.

The cabinet secretary would do well to listen to people such as the commission on school reform, which suggests in its report “Playing Catch-Up” that, among other things, we should have flexible additional support and a greater roll-out of free devices. Will she do so?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The figures in the ACEL statistics are greatly concerning. However, I point the member to the fact that the challenge that we face is an international one, and that recent remarks from England, for example, acknowledge that all schoolchildren will have been impacted by Covid. We need to recognise the context that we are working in.

We have increased the funding that is going into the attainment challenge from £750 million in the previous session of Parliament to £1 billion in this session of Parliament not just because we are very concerned about what is happening in the statistics, but because we want an increase in the pace of change. That is exactly why we are prioritising investment in that area during a particularly difficult budget year.

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

We have to do all that we can to close Scotland’s attainment gap. The cabinet secretary referred to the issues that other countries are having with the pandemic, attainment gaps and the slippage in the most deprived communities. What analysis has the Scottish Government done of how other countries are faring in that regard? Are there lessons to be learned from other countries that we can implement here in Scotland?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Mr Doris is right to point to the impact that the pandemic has had across the globe. I referred to recent comments that came from the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills. We have also heard from HM chief inspector of education and training in Wales that maths, reading, Welsh language and social skills have suffered during Covid-19 lockdowns and school closures in Wales. That comes on top of the findings of the United Nations and World Bank report that was published earlier this month, which pointed to school closures resulting in significant learning loss.

That is exactly why we are doing everything that we can to ensure that there is as little disruption to education as possible in the new year. That is an important lesson that we need to learn, as Mr Doris has asked us to do, from previous aspects of the pandemic.