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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, May 30, 2019


General Question Time

Brexit (European Election Results)

1. Maureen Watt (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of the European election results, what discussions it has had with its United Kingdom counterparts regarding Brexit. (S5O-03314)

The Cabinet Secretary for Government Business and Constitutional Relations (Michael Russell)

The Scottish Government has consistently made clear to the UK Government its position on Brexit. As yet, there have been no discussions between UK and Scottish ministers on the outcome of the election results, but the situation in which our views, the views of this Parliament and those of the people of Scotland are ignored is now completely untenable.

The result of Thursday’s election demonstrates once again that there is overwhelming support in Scotland for remaining in the European Union. It is unacceptable for the Conservative Party to be wasting precious time on internal faction fighting, rather than accepting the urgent need for a second EU referendum with the option to remain.

Maureen Watt

Given the disarray and chaos that are ripping the Tory party apart and the fact that its members cannot work with one another, let alone anyone else, it is encouraging that, in his statement yesterday, the cabinet secretary signalled the Scottish Government’s willingness to work with other parties that are opposed to Brexit. Can he outline what steps he is taking to that end?

Michael Russell

Yesterday, I indicated to the chamber that the invitation to take part in cross-party talks is open. I am glad that the Labour Party and the Scottish Green Party have accepted that invitation. I would like to have an acceptance from the Conservative Party or the Liberal Democrats but I have not had that yet. I intend to appoint an interlocutor, who will talk to each of the parties to discover their views, their position and what they would like the agenda to be. If they accept that there is a problem, what solutions are they proposing? That is the key issue, and I am interested to hear those solutions. I urge the other parties to accept the invitation and to start the process with us. It will happen without prejudice or precondition. We are trying to do it in the way that is least threatening and most likely to produce progress.

Sri Lankan Terror Attacks (Support for People in Scotland)

2. Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is seeking to support people in Scotland who have been impacted by the Easter terror attacks in Sri Lanka. (S5O-03315)

The Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government (Aileen Campbell)

My thoughts remain with all those affected, both in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. We condemn all incidents of religious prejudice, hatred and targeting of people based on their beliefs.

Following the attacks, I sent letters to a number of church leaders across Scotland, offering condolences and solidarity. In addition, and as part of our regular engagement with Scotland’s Christian communities, I will meet church leaders next week, and I will offer our continued support.

Bob Doris

I am pleased to hear that response. With constituents who lost loved ones in the terror attacks in Sri Lanka, I hope to meet Fiona Hyslop soon to see how Scotland can support Sri Lanka at this difficult time.

Some of my Muslim constituents have informed me of attacks on and intimidation of their families and friends who remain in Sri Lanka following the terror attacks. Will the cabinet secretary offer her support and solidarity to them and their loved ones at this difficult time? Will she join me in calling on the Sri Lankan Government to do all that it can, following the terror attacks, to bring communities together?

Aileen Campbell

I recognise and appreciate the interest that Bob Doris takes in this issue. I have previously discussed with him some of his ideas around how he intends to mark what happened in Sri Lanka. We will continue to stand in solidarity with Muslim communities across the world. Our thoughts and condolences remain with any victim, family or community affected by dreadful acts of terror. We continue to stand united against Islamophobia and all hate, because everybody, as they go about their daily lives, should feel safe.

I understand that Bob Doris has written to Fiona Hyslop and that there will be an offer of a meeting with Ben Macpherson, who, as Minister for Europe, Migration and International Development, will be best placed to address the issues that Bob Doris articulates. Nonetheless, given my portfolio responsibility for faith, I am more than willing to continue to engage with Bob Doris and to take an interest in ensuring that people feel respected and supported in Scotland and around the world.

National Concessionary Travel Scheme Cap

3. Bill Bowman (North East Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the talks between the Confederation of Passenger Transport and Transport Scotland regarding the national concessionary travel scheme cap. (S5O-03316)

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity (Michael Matheson)

Bus operators have long held that the concessionary travel scheme cap is inconsistent with the principle of fair reimbursement. Our view remains that the cap is needed to safeguard taxpayers’ interests; without it, there would be no way to control expenditure on what is a demand-led scheme.

My officials and I have met the CPT to discuss operators’ concerns. I have asked my officials to work with the CPT to further improve how we forecast and monitor reimbursement claims under the scheme and to report regularly to me during the year on trends and on the likelihood of the cap being exceeded.

Bill Bowman

I was made aware last week that, in March, public transport operators in Dundee carried concessionary customers initially for 11 days free of charge, which has now reduced to six days—in effect, that was a week of no payment. That was because of Transport Scotland’s underbudgeting for the national concessionary travel scheme. If the scheme does not cover payment for the whole year again, what measures can be implemented to ensure that Dundee bus operators are treated fairly, without disadvantaging those who rely most on the scheme?

Michael Matheson

The rate of repayment to bus operators is agreed with the CPT and its members at the beginning of the financial year, as was the case this year. I have agreed with the CPT that we will review the economic model that is used to assess the potential costs to operators in the next financial year and that we will consider what further improvements can be made to monitor the scheme and ensure that we have as accurate a picture as possible of the cost to bus operators across the country.

How much has been invested in the scheme since it started in 2006? How many people have benefited from it? How many more passengers stand to benefit from the scheme’s extension?

Michael Matheson

The demands on the scheme continue to increase, as it has proven popular and is being increasingly used by qualifying members of the public. Last year, we invested more than £202 million in the scheme, and we are investing a further £213 million in it in this financial year. That will continue to support those who use the programme.

Police Scotland (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met Police Scotland. (S5O-03317)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Humza Yousaf)

The Scottish Government meets Police Scotland regularly to discuss a wide variety of issues. I often meet senior officers; I last met the chief constable on 4 April, alongside the First Minister, and I will meet him later today.

James Dornan

Does the cabinet secretary agree that Police Scotland should thoroughly investigate all accusations of sexual abuse, including incidents in football clubs, and that those who are found guilty should be held to account to the full force of the law?

Humza Yousaf

Of course I agree, and I go a step further: Police Scotland not only should but does investigate all allegations of sexual abuse, whether they are historical or more recent. The Scottish Government takes extremely seriously its responsibilities both to ensure that children are safe and can enjoy taking part in sport, and to give parents confidence about safety. Recent cases of individuals who have been found guilty in court show that Police Scotland takes the matter seriously; it investigates such cases regardless of whether they involve a football club or any other organisation. I hope that that gives the member confidence.

Burntisland Fabrications

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to recent reports concerning the awarding of contracts to, and the future of, BiFab. (S5O-03318)

The Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands (Paul Wheelhouse)

We understand that the contract for the Neart na Gaoithe offshore wind project has not yet been awarded, so it would be inappropriate to speculate on potential future contract awards, which relate to commercial matters for the parties that are involved.

I reiterate that the Scottish Government fully supports the efforts of the industry, trade unions and campaigners to increase the number and value of contracts that are awarded to Scotland’s supply chain and we will continue to do what we can to ensure that a greater share of the work for offshore wind projects stays in Scotland.

Claire Baker

Following the passionate speeches from MSPs across the chamber in yesterday’s BiFab debate, does the minister agree that EDF can be in no doubt about the strength of feeling in Scotland, which is also evident from the Fife ready for renewal campaign, that BiFab must benefit from the award of contracts for the NnG project? In the areas that are within the scope of the Scottish Government’s powers, will the minister agree to take action on the weaknesses in the current procurement and contracting system that are disadvantaging Scottish companies, which members identified yesterday?

Paul Wheelhouse

On Claire Baker’s latter point, as Derek Mackay and I made clear yesterday, we are absolutely committed to using the powers that the Scottish Government has to try to maximise the opportunities. We are not prepared to tolerate the position that has emerged in recent years, in which contracts happen with limited content from the Scottish supply chain. As the cabinet secretary set out yesterday, we will potentially use the powers around decommissioning liabilities and the next Crown Estate leasing round to try to maximise opportunities.

On actions that others have to take, as we said yesterday, the United Kingdom Government must review the contracts for difference process and ensure that it is doing everything in its powers to maximise the chances for the supply chain. We were left in no doubt yesterday about the views of members in the chamber and the strength of feeling regarding Scotland’s need to get a fair share of the activity in such projects.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

I thought that the cabinet secretary, Derek Mackay, was quite clear yesterday that he intends to use his powers under the Scottish Crown Estate Act 2019 to influence leasing, to ensure that wind farms on the coast of Scotland are being built and manufactured here, which would support communities in Fife and elsewhere. Will that be too late for the Neart na Gaoithe wind farm and others that are currently in the pipeline, which BiFab desperately needs to have contracts for in order to retain jobs at Methil and Arnish?

Paul Wheelhouse

As I said in my original answer, there is obviously some sensitivity around the contracting process relating to EDF and its supply chain at this time and we cannot intervene directly in commercial matters. However, all developers will have been left in no doubt about the strength of feeling across the Parliament yesterday.

Mark Ruskell is absolutely correct that the cabinet secretary is looking very closely at how we use the powers that have come to us through the establishment of Crown Estate Scotland when we look at the next leasing round to ensure that we avoid a situation in which the supply chain misses out on the work.

On existing projects, we have to work closely with developers to identify challenges for particular supply chain companies, maximise their chance of winning work and make them as competitive as possible. However, people can be left in no doubt about how strongly we in Parliament feel.

Home Energy (Tariffs)

To ask the Scottish Government what measures it can take to ensure that customers pay a fair tariff for their home energy bills, including older people. (S5O-03319)

The Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands (Paul Wheelhouse)

The Scottish Government funds home energy Scotland to give people advice on how to reduce their energy bills. Since December 2015, almost 15,000 vulnerable citizens, including older people, have been helped to switch to a better deal. As well as that, the Scottish Government’s new action plan, “Energy Consumer Action Plan: Putting Consumers at the Heart of Scotland’s Energy Transition”, sets out how we will deliver a fair energy market for all, even though energy prices remain reserved to the United Kingdom Government. Through a new improving consumers’ outcomes fund, we will explore how to set up collective switches to ensure that consumers pay a fair price for their energy.

Margaret Mitchell

There is clearly a lot going on to help to reduce energy consumption and bills. However, accessing information on how to reduce energy bills, including information about how to change suppliers, is usually done online. What specific measures is the Government taking to ensure that elderly people, many of whom do not have access to the internet, can take advantage of the help that is available?

Paul Wheelhouse

Margaret Mitchell makes a fair and reasonable point. From the work of the annual Scottish household survey, we know that older people, especially those who are aged 60 and over, are significantly less likely to use the internet, which means that the older population tends to have less access to price comparison websites, which can direct them to the best tariffs. As a result, the service that is offered by home energy Scotland—into which we have put £5.1 million through the Energy Saving Trust for its delivery—is particularly valuable for older customers. I encourage members across the chamber to make sure that their constituents are aware of the opportunities that the service offers and that they use it as fully as they can.

Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

There is currently no requirement for energy providers to contact customers, including those on the priority services register—older people, disabled people and the chronically sick, among others—to offer them the best deal. Would the Scottish Government support the idea that the energy companies should be more proactive, particularly in respect of older people and those on the priority services register? There is a case for saying that we should go further than that and that energy providers should be required to contact people directly to offer them the best deals.

Paul Wheelhouse

Pauline McNeill makes some fair points. Again, I point out that some of those matters relate to powers that the Scottish Parliament does not hold.

Through the summits that the Scottish Government chairs, we are working with the big six energy providers and the energy sector more generally to encourage suppliers to work proactively with vulnerable customers on the priority services list. I am pleased to say that many companies are now being proactive in moving people off the standard variable tariffs to ensure that they are on the fairest tariff available. They are also being more proactive in contacting people from whom they hear very little—the more passive customers who are not aware of the opportunity to switch services.

Question 7 has not been lodged.

Fair Work

8. Tom Arthur (Renfrewshire South) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government how it supports fair work. (S5O-03321)

The Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills (Jamie Hepburn)

Fair work is central to delivering inclusive growth and remains a flagship policy for the Scottish Government.

We published our “Fair Work Action Plan” in February, setting out the action that we will take to achieve the vision for Scotland to be a fair work nation by 2025. For as long as employment powers are reserved, we will use all levers available, including attaching fair work first criteria to as many funding streams, business support grants and public contracts as we can, to deliver our ambitions for fair work. I will host a cross-party round table in June to consider what more we might do to drive fair work across Scottish workplaces.

Tom Arthur

An estimated 270,000 people in Scotland combine work with caring responsibilities. Ahead of carers week, which will take place next month, will the minister join me in encouraging more businesses and employers—including MSPs—to become carer positive employers?

Jamie Hepburn

I echo that call. Registered carer positive employers employ some 330,000 staff, and we want those numbers to continue to grow. In my previous role as Minister for Sport, Health Improvement and Mental Health, I was responsible for that area and saw the good work that the scheme did. I continue to see the good work that is happening in my current role.

I am registered as a carer positive employer. The Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing and I wrote to all MSPs earlier this year to encourage them to become recognised as carer positive employers, and I repeat that call today.

Scottish Qualifications Authority (Meetings)

9. Elaine Smith (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests in respect of both Unite the union and Unison. To ask the Scottish Government when it last met the Scottish Qualifications Authority and what was discussed. (S5O-03322)

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

I hold regular meetings with the chair and chief executive of the SQA. I last met them both on Tuesday 16 April, when a range of matters were discussed. Scottish Government officials are in regular contact with SQA officials.

Elaine Smith

When one of my Labour colleagues asked about potential industrial action at the SQA, the cabinet secretary told Parliament:

“Some of the trade unions have been in agreement with the restructuring proposals that the Scottish Qualifications Authority has taken forward”.—[Official Report, 1 May 2019; c 9.]

However, as confirmed by Labour this morning, the unions at the SQA—Unite and Unison—are not supportive of the restructuring proposals. If the education secretary is not speaking with the staff at the SQA, where is he getting his information?

John Swinney

The SQA is a self-governing body and I have no employment responsibility in relation to it. The information that I shared with the chamber is information that was shared with me by the leadership of the SQA on the discussions that they have had. This morning, Elaine Smith has provided me with new information. I will examine that information and explore the issues that she has raised and I will write to her once I have done that.

Low-carbon Travel (North-east)

10. Gillian Martin (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to increase low-carbon travel opportunities in the north-east. (S5O-03323)

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity (Michael Matheson)

We have invested in the north-east to promote low-carbon travel opportunities, including providing almost £3 million to support electric vehicle charging infrastructure, low-carbon vehicles and hydrogen buses since 2017; more than £1.2 million in the same time period to support bus infrastructure to encourage more people to use buses; and, between 2013 and 2016, almost £2.5 million to promote cycling, walking and safer streets and support cycle training in schools.

In addition, the Aberdeen western peripheral route will reduce journeys across Aberdeen by up to half at peak periods and free up roads for more public transport, faster journeys and improved reliability.

Gillian Martin

Many of my constituents would like to enjoy the benefits of rail travel. We have an opportunity to reopen the Formartine to Buchan rail line and tempt the people of Aberdeenshire East and Banff and Buchan out of their cars, on which they currently rely for their daily commute into Aberdeen city.

In the light of the climate emergency, will the cabinet secretary consider improved rail infrastructure in those parts of the country that are currently ill-served by rail?

Michael Matheson

As Gillian Martin will be aware, we already investing a substantial amount in rail in the north-east of Scotland, with some £330 million being invested in the area at present. We are always keen to consider opportunities to expand our rail network. The local rail development fund supports local communities to start the process of considering the development of rail routes in their area. That option may be available to the local community in this instance.

Beyond that, it would have to fit into our wider strategic transport projects review—the STPR2 process—which can consider other proposed programmes, including the one that Gillian Martin referred to.