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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, October 6, 2022


General Question Time

Good morning. The first item of business is general question time.

Road Fuel (Variation in Prices)

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

To ask the Scottish Government what engagement it has had with the Competition and Markets Authority regarding the impact on Scotland of its investigation into the variation of prices across the United Kingdom in relation to the supply of road fuel. (S6O-01436)

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

I am aware of the impact on the people of Scotland from the increased fuel prices this year and of reports of inconsistent pricing at forecourts across the country. I was therefore pleased to learn that the United Kingdom Government had asked the Competition and Markets Authority to launch an urgent review of the road fuel market.

Sarah Cardell, who is the CMA’s interim chief executive, has been in contact with the Scottish Government to outline the review’s initial findings and offer opportunities for engagement as the full market study is undertaken. The Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, welcomed the CMA’s engagement and offered the services of relevant Scottish Government and Transport Scotland officials who might be required.

The Scottish Government stands ready to work with the CMA to improve outcomes for consumers and businesses. Earlier in the year, I met the CMA to establish relationships for working on such situations.

Stuart McMillan

The minister will be aware that Inverclyde has some of the highest pump prices in Scotland. I have challenged those prices, but Morrisons, Tesco and BP claim that they are competitive locally. I recognise that there is also wide variation across the country.

I have previously highlighted in the chamber the impact that such prices have had on social care workers. It is worrying that a new community care survey suggests that a majority of social workers are also out of pocket because mileage allowances are inadequate as a result of rising fuel costs. Will the minister echo my call to companies such as BP, Tesco and Morrisons, which supply fuel in my constituency and have collectively made billions in profits in recent years, to put their customers first in the cost of living crisis and in particular to stop ripping off my Greenock and Inverclyde constituents?

Ivan McKee

I recognise the pressure that is on Stuart McMillan’s constituents and others across the country as a result of high fuel costs and I acknowledge the reported inconsistent pricing in the Inverclyde area. Such reports from road users across the country justify the CMA’s review of the UK’s road fuel market.

The CMA has confirmed that its inquiry will cover the factors that drive local price variation and any steps that could be taken to improve local competition. We expect the subsequent recommendations from the market study to be appropriately actioned by the UK Government when the study is published later this year. We recognise that some companies are making excess profits in the cost crisis, which is why we have made it clear that any new support from the UK Government should be funded in part by an enhanced windfall tax.

Independence (Currency)

To ask the Scottish Government what its policy is on whether to peg an independent Scottish currency to the pound. (S6O-01437)

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

We will publish our proposals for Scotland’s economy under independence as part of the building a new Scotland series. The proposals will set out the economic opportunities and the currency arrangements for an independent Scotland.

Michael Marra

So yet another new currency policy from the Government is on the way. The Tories’ calamitous run on the pound last week would have left an independent Scotland having to defend the madness of a currency peg. Professor Ronnie MacDonald of the University of Glasgow has estimated in recent days that the cost of that would be £100 billion. Where would the Scottish people find that money?

Tom Arthur

Where the Scottish people find themselves right now, under a Tory Government that they did not elect, is with soaring mortgage rates, financial instability and the threat of billions of pounds in cuts to public expenditure—a new age of austerity. That is where the Scottish people find themselves, which is why more and more people in Scotland support independence and why, when they are given the opportunity to vote for independence, they will do so.

“Fire and Rescue Framework for Scotland 2022”

To ask the Scottish Government what progress it is making to develop its “Fire and Rescue Framework for Scotland 2022”. (S6O-01438)

The Minister for Community Safety (Ash Regan)

Following a public consultation, the “Fire and Rescue Framework for Scotland 2022” was published on the Scottish Government’s website on 29 March 2022. The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (Framework) Order 2022 was laid in Parliament on 31 March 2022, and the framework was brought into effect from 26 May 2022. The new fire and rescue framework has been fully reviewed and updated. The “Scottish Fire and Rescue Service Strategic Plan 2022-25” was laid in Parliament on Monday 3 October and is based on priorities that are set out in the new framework.

Alex Rowley

It is my understanding that the workforce, the Fire Brigades Union and the management have all bought into the framework and are really keen to make it happen. There is an enthusiasm for it, but the question that they are all asking is how it will be funded, given the current financial proposals for real-term cuts.

In addition, a 2 per cent pay offer is on the table at a United Kingdom level. The FBU has been clear that it will not accept that. Therefore, regardless of whether we have industrial action, the bottom line is that the final settlement will be much higher than 2 per cent. Will the Scottish Government honour the pay award and make sure that it does not come out of further cuts to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service?

Ash Regan

The Scottish Government has a long track record of investment in the SFRS. We recognise its importance and the contribution of all its employees to keeping Scotland safe. The budget for 2022-23 contains an uplift of £9.5 million, and the next budget will be set in the normal way through the parliamentary process that takes place.

The Scottish Government is not part of the negotiations on firefighter pay. That is obviously a matter for the SFRS as the employer, and firefighter pay is negotiated under a well-established UK-wide collective bargaining arrangement. We encourage both sides to continue negotiating in order to reach a fair deal for firefighters. However, the Scottish Government will continue to work with the SFRS to ensure that it has sufficient budget to support a pay deal for its staff.

Russell Findlay (West Scotland) (Con)

The “Fire and Rescue Framework for Scotland 2022” is a classic of the Scottish National Party Government genre—all jargon and graphics. Page 7 has a kaleidoscope-style graphic that sets out the SFRS’s strategic priorities, which include the need to “grow up loved”;

“sharing opportunities, wealth and power”;

“a globally competitive, entrepreneurial, inclusive and sustainable economy”;

and making

“a positive contribution internationally”.

Rather than that exercise in jargon, do the people of Scotland not just want firefighters to turn up and be there when they need them?

Obviously, the main priorities of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service are prevention, protection and keeping the people of Scotland safe.

Bus Industry (Passenger Numbers)

To ask the Scottish Government how it plans to revive the bus industry following a slump in passenger numbers during the Covid-19 pandemic. (S6O-01439)

The Minister for Transport (Jenny Gilruth)

We are investing in the bus network to support long-term growth by providing more than £2.1 billion for bus travel over the rest of this parliamentary session. We have extended free bus travel to children and young people under 22, and around half of Scotland’s population is now eligible to travel anywhere in Scotland by bus free of charge.

More people are travelling by bus since the pandemic, and I hope to see passenger numbers increase further. The sector currently faces a range of challenges, and, later today, I will convene the first meeting of the industry task force to explore those issues and work together to find solutions.

Graham Simpson

I asked the minister last week about the network support grant plus, which is due to end on 9 October. The minister has just three days left to save the bus industry. If she does not extend that grant, more than 200 jobs could go, 50 routes across Scotland could be cancelled entirely and, in some areas, there could be a cut in services of more than a third. The Confederation of Passenger Transport Scotland estimates that it will cost £44.8 million to extend the grant for six months, and its modelling shows a potential underspend of £79 million for the concessionary travel scheme and of £84.5 million for the under-22s scheme. The bus industry is teetering on the edge and, as I have just demonstrated, the Scottish Government has the money, so when will it act?

Jenny Gilruth

I believe that I covered that matter in detail last week. I am looking urgently at a range of options to provide further support to the bus industry. However, I must remind Mr Simpson of the level of support that we provide to the industry in Scotland, which is significantly greater than the support in other parts of the United Kingdom. For example, we budgeted £93.5 million from April this year to support the bus network as we recover from the pandemic. Up to £20.5 million of net additional funding is already being provided to extend recovery funding to October, which is in addition to around £210 million that was provided during the pandemic. We have also provided additionality, with the £25 million of funding in relation to bus priority measures, which delivers funding to 28 local authorities in Scotland.

I note that, in his question, Mr Simpson did not identify some of the labour shortage issues that the sector is currently facing in relation to Brexit, nor did he identify any of the fuel cost charges that are really hampering some of our bus operators.

I look forward to meeting operators this afternoon, while noting that some of the competences that I have just addressed remain reserved.

Neil Bibby (West Scotland) (Lab)

To get more people on to public transport, we need to make it more affordable. Does the Scottish Government support fare capping and price regulation in the bus market, and will it make fare caps a condition of any future support for the bus industry?

Jenny Gilruth

That is a fair question. There is the network support grant, and we are also capping fare rises in line with the latest monthly consumer price index figure, although we know that we need to do more. I recognise some of the challenges, which is why we are conducting a fair fares review to look at the affordability of public transport across the piece.

In many areas across the country, fares are already below £2. In Edinburgh, people can travel anywhere in the city for a flat fare of £1.80. I cannot give a direct answer to Mr Bibby’s question today, because we are looking at a range of options in relation to any additionality that the Scottish Government might be able to provide. However, I am more than happy to write to Mr Bibby with more detail on his specific point about fair capping.

Higher Education (Widening Access in Colleges)

To ask the Scottish Government what contribution colleges make to widening access to higher education for students living in the most deprived areas. (S6O-01440)

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

Our colleges make a significant contribution to widening access to higher education and offer an alternative route to university through articulation. Scottish Funding Council statistics show that in 2020-21, 25.3 per cent of entrants to higher education at colleges came from the 20 per cent most deprived areas of Scotland, and 11,780 students who were enrolled on a first degree course at a university in Scotland in the same year had previously achieved a higher national certificate or higher national diploma qualification at college.

Bob Doris

The minister will know that around 43 per cent of undergraduates at university who come from Scotland’s most deprived backgrounds went there via a college route, such is the central role that colleges play in widening access. However, universities receive a greater level of reimbursement per student studying at an equivalent Scottish credit and qualifications framework level than their college counterparts receive. Despite the significant budgetary challenges that the Government is facing, will it consider reviewing reimbursement levels and working towards achieving greater parity between the college and university sectors?

Jamie Hepburn

With regard to the budgetary position, we should remind ourselves that the challenges that involved are very real and far reaching. However, even in that context, we have allocated nearly £2 billion to colleges and universities, which is a record amount. The agreements on funding levels and arrangements with colleges and universities are of long standing.

On Mr Doris’s question, we are developing the 2023-24 budget, and there is engagement with the SFC, Colleges Scotland and Universities Scotland. Mr Doris’s questions can best be considered as part of that. We are open to considering the matter, which we will do through the budget process.

Royal Mail (Strikes)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that the Communication Workers Union has organised strikes for Royal Mail workers next month, including in Scotland. (S6O-01441)

The Minister for Just Transition, Employment and Fair Work (Richard Lochhead)

Although employment law remains reserved to the United Kingdom Government, maintaining a progressive approach to industrial relations remains a priority for the Scottish Government. We therefore strongly encourage all parties involved in industrial relations issues to work together to reach resolution. However, we cannot overstate the importance of fair work and fair pay, particularly in the midst of a cost of living crisis. Unions play an important role in securing fairer conditions for workers in Scotland. On that note, I am sure that I am not alone in my concern about the UK Government’s continued aggressive anti-worker, anti-trade union agenda.

Emma Roddick

I completely agree with the sentiments that the minister has expressed in that response. I was glad to meet some CWU organisers outside the Parliament earlier this morning.

Does the minister agree that, with full powers over employment, this Parliament would be better placed to deliver fair work and build the fairer economy that workers in Scotland deserve?

Richard Lochhead

Yes, I absolutely agree with the member.

In reference to the member having met union representatives, we owe a great debt to our posties, particularly for working so hard throughout the pandemic. We thank them for that. It is absurd of Liz Truss to claim that anyone who is not a divisive, right-wing, out-of-touch Tory and who is part of a trade union movement that is trying to win better workers’ rights is part of an “anti-growth coalition”. Under the Tories, the gap between rich and poor has widened, as has the gap between low pay and excessive pay. If we could stop that gap growing, perhaps that would be an anti-growth coalition that we could all be proud of joining.

Gaelic-medium Education (Primary Schools)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to grow and encourage primary Gaelic-medium education. (S6O-01442)

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

The Scottish Government is committed to supporting the growth of Gaelic-medium education across Scotland. We are working with a number of local authorities that wish to start or grow their Gaelic provision. Those local authorities, along with others, will continue to benefit from our funding streams, the Gaelic-specific grant and the Gaelic capital fund.

David Torrance

Gaelic is thriving not just in Scotland but across the world. There has been a 72 per cent increase in interest in Scottish Gaelic-related content over the past few years, and more than a million people have taken a Gaelic course in the language learning app Duolingo. How important is it that action is taken to ensure a sustainable future for the language that is such an important part of our heritage and our cultural identity?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I am very pleased to see the growing interest in Gaelic that has arisen through activities such as Duolingo. That is why the Scottish Government has supported the SpeakGaelic multiplatform learning project, which has around 5,000 users a month. The platform will enable those who start their learning journey on Duolingo to reach fluency.

It is very important that action is taken to ensure a sustainable future for Gaelic, and for that reason the Government will continue to support a wide range of activities in that area. Further evidence of our support is demonstrated in the ambitious commitments that we are currently consulting on. I encourage all members to encourage their constituents across the country to get involved in that consultation, to ensure that we do everything that we can to support the Gaelic language and, indeed, the Scots language in Scotland.

Edinburgh Tram Inquiry (Conclusion)

To ask the Scottish Government when it anticipates a conclusion to the Edinburgh tram inquiry. (S6O-01443)

The Minister for Transport (Jenny Gilruth)

Questions concerning the conclusion of the inquiry, including its timeline, are a matter for the Edinburgh tram inquiry team and Lord Hardie. That is because, as a statutory inquiry, it is independent of the Scottish Government. Updates on the publication of Lord Hardie’s report will be provided on the inquiry’s website.

Miles Briggs

I thank the minister for that answer and I respect what she has to say, but the Edinburgh tram inquiry has now been running for over eight years. To date, it has cost Scottish taxpayers £13.1 million, and the end is still not in sight. The cost of the inquiry now stands at more than the cost of the Iraq war investigation. The Inquiries Act 2005 obliges the chair to consider costs at all times if they are funded from the public purse. I ask the minister a very simple question: does she believe that the inquiry has been value for money?

Jenny Gilruth

We are all keen to see the inquiry reach a satisfactory conclusion. I am advised that Lord Hardie and the inquiry team have been preparing the final report and recommendations for publication. I will again seek advice on the parameters that are open to me, as a minister, in the matter, but I must remind the member that the inquiry is independent and that its time and cost cannot be influenced by ministers, who are, of course, core participants in the inquiry.

That concludes general question time.