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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, September 7, 2023


Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

The next item of business is a statement by Shirley-Anne Somerville on reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of her statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.


The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

The Scottish Government and the wider public sector have already done much to understand the extent of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete—RAAC—issues in Scotland, and we recognise that there is more to do. Everyone with a responsibility for building safety takes the matter very seriously, and I assure the public that the Scottish Government is working at pace with partner organisations across the public sector on that challenge and that it has been doing so for some time.

The risk that is associated with the presence of RAAC in buildings is not a new issue in the construction sector. To fully understand the scope of RAAC, including in the school estate, we have been working with local authorities, NHS Scotland and other public sector organisations as they have conducted reviews of RAAC in their properties, which has allowed us to understand the extent of the issue, ensure that risks are managed and, where required, be reassured that remedial work and mitigations have been put in place.

The Institution of Structural Engineers first published guidance on RAAC to raise awareness among the structural engineer community in March 2022. My officials were made aware of that publication through engagement in professional channels at that time and have supported responsible building safety throughout. For example, in July 2022, learning directorate officials made contact with Scottish heads of property services and the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland to discuss RAAC; in December 2022, NHS Scotland Assure commissioned a survey team to establish the extent and condition of RAAC across the national health service estate; in early summer this year, my officials have met the Health and Safety Executive to discuss school estate matters, including RAAC, and met several local authorities individually to discuss their specific issues; and in July this year my officials issued a RAAC survey to all local authorities via the SHOPS network.

Furthermore, the ministerial working group on building and fire safety discussed RAAC, pressing for and tracking progress on that issue since December 2022. The cross-sector working group on RAAC now supports our work, as my officials join up with their sector counterparts, key public sector partners and representatives of the private sector. That working group has been established as a more formal forum to share good practice and discuss recent professional advice, which builds on the work that was already under way.

More recently, my officials have been invited to join the cross-United-Kingdom Government working group on RAAC. In various recent meetings, we have once again been assured that the current Institution of Structural Engineers guidance and the risk-based approach remains appropriate for the assessment and management of RAAC in schools and other buildings. The most recent discussion with the Institution of Structural Engineers was on 5 September, when my officials met the director, who confirmed that its RAAC guidance has not changed and remains a good and valid practice measure in this area; we have issued it to local authorities for their information.

The Institution of Structural Engineers remains of the view that its guidance is in keeping with the Health and Safety Executive’s approach to managing risk in a proportionate manner and considers all relevant factors.

Although the issue of RAAC has been under discussion for some time and action has been taken, the UK Government Department for Education changed its approach for RAAC specifically in schools on 31 August—a change in approach that Scottish ministers learned about through the media. Events of recent weeks have highlighted a deeply concerning level of chaos in the UK Government, overseen by the Secretary of State for Education. It is totally unacceptable that UK ministers prioritised briefing the media before alerting or sharing crucial information with devolved Governments. In what can only be described as a complete dereliction of duty, it was not until 18:56 on Sunday 3 September that the UK Government shared four pages of RAAC photographs dating as far back as 2018—not detailed or comprehensive structural reports but photographs with the bare minimum of supporting context. To be frank, the engagement has been insulting.

I confirm to the chamber that, following receipt of the photographs, we are still awaiting detailed and comprehensive structural reports, which we requested on Sunday 3 September and again on Tuesday 5 September. The withholding of that information was completely reckless and irresponsible. The secretary of state’s disregard of the work of devolved Governments could not be clearer. More importantly, it has spread unnecessary alarm among parents, staff and children.

As I stated earlier, work has been under way to deal with RAAC in the school estate. To date, RAAC has been identified in 40 school buildings across Scotland, although in some of those schools it is in parts of buildings that have not been in use for some time. Wherever RAAC has been found, mitigations have been put in place. For example, St Kentigern’s academy in West Lothian has closed parts of its estate, including dining and kitchen areas, and Preston Lodge school in East Lothian has taken action to close off impacted classrooms and other areas. Riverside primary school fully closed its building over the summer holidays and moved pupils into alternative provision. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has confirmed that safety is the central consideration and that there is robust guidance that is followed by every local authority to ensure that those buildings are safe to be in for pupils, staff and the public.

Local authorities have a clear responsibility to ensure that their schools are safe for pupils, staff and their users, and I know that they take that responsibility very seriously. They are carrying out assessments of their school buildings. We are aware that some parts of the school estate in some councils still need to complete full surveys. Ministers have been clear to authorities that those must be carried out as a matter of the highest priority and have offered assistance to councils in the matter where appropriate.

However, it is imperative that there is transparency around the schools where RAAC has been identified and the mitigations that are in place. We are working with COSLA to ensure that all local authorities will have published information about the schools that are affected by the end of this week. The cross-Government working group that we established is enabling a centralised understanding of how RAAC is affecting other sectors of the public estate. Work is on-going to assess properties across the public sector.

It is important to state again that the assessment process is proportionate and based on the guidance from the Institution of Structural Engineers. Once again, I reassure members in the chamber that, where RAAC has been identified, mitigations are in place in accordance with that guidance. What is clear is that significant work will need to be undertaken across the public sector estate in Scotland and right across the UK to deal with RAAC in the longer term. The First Minister has been clear that, although we do not have contingencies within Government to spend on RAAC, we will of course spend what we need to in order to ensure that our buildings are safe for those who use them.

I was pleased to see the Chancellor of the Exchequer seeming to commit over the weekend to the UK Government spending what is needed on the issue. However, the more recent briefings coming out of the UK Government indicating that there will be no new money are deeply worrying. Let me be clear: after a decade of Tory austerity and cuts to capital budgets, it is simply not sustainable for the UK Government to say that no new money will be made available.

We have been alive to the issue for some time, and long before the change in approach by the Department for Education. On 16 August, the Deputy First Minister wrote to the Treasury seeking clarity on new capital funding to deal with RAAC. On 3 September, our Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills wrote to the Secretary of State for Education to seek clarity on funding. Thus far, neither has received a response. Again, the ignorance is simply astounding in such a serious situation.

The UK Government cannot put its head in the sand. New capital money has to be made available, including to the devolved Governments, to allow us to take any action that may be required. Anything else would be a dereliction of duty from the Prime Minister and the chancellor. I hope that I can count on the support of all members in the chamber in making that case to the UK Government.

I will close as I started. The safety of buildings and their occupants is of the utmost importance. The actions that the Government is taking, along with public sector and industry partners, is designed to ensure that the appropriate measures are in place and provided for in the short and long term to ensure the safety of buildings for their occupants.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The cabinet secretary will now take questions on the issues raised in her statement. I intend to allow around 20 minutes for questions, after which we will move on to the next item of business. I ask members who wish to ask a question to press their request-to-speak buttons now.

Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of her statement. It is clear that, for more than 40 years, the use of RAAC will have been widespread in construction projects not only in the school estate but, potentially, across all buildings that were constructed during that era. We need full transparency. I welcome the publication of the information, as was signalled by the First Minister during First Minister’s question time.

It is clear that the impact will stretch well beyond the school estate to include the NHS estate, general practitioner surgeries, colleges and, potentially, council housing that was built during that period. However, it is not clear from the statement what position the Scottish Government is taking and what policy and guidance will be issued to councils, health boards and the further education sector when buildings are assessed as red—in other words, at critical risk or high risk. The cabinet secretary touched on the Institution of Structural Engineers’ guidance. For public buildings that are assessed as being in the red category, is the expectation that those buildings will be closed to members of the public?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I thought that I had made it clear that our approach remains absolute reliance on expert advice from the Institution of Structural Engineers. That is important. For the sake of time, I will not go through how the institution suggests that we approach the red, amber and green categories, but that information is publicly available and I am happy to provide it to Miles Briggs should he wish to have it. That approach is being followed, and we strongly encourage councils and other public bodies to follow it in the future.

Pam Duncan-Glancy (Glasgow) (Lab)

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of her statement. Earlier today, the First Minister said that the Government has known about the issue for years, so why did it not ask councils to investigate until 17 July? The cabinet secretary was right to complain about the lack of communication and transparency from the UK Government, but the Scottish Government has failed on communication, too. Does she accept that that failure has put Scottish local authorities on the back foot and put pupils and staff in schools at risk? Will she confirm that the Scottish Government will do all that it can to equip local authorities with the resources that they need—including the skills and expertise—to fix the issue urgently?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I am not quite sure that Pam Duncan-Glancy was listening to what was on the first couple of pages of my statement, which went through the work that has been on-going in national Government and local government.

I do not have time to go into the details of the Welsh education minister’s recent statement, but Pam Duncan-Glancy will find in it exactly the same points as we are making. He shares the same frustration, and the Welsh are going through exactly the same process as we are. As I hope members would expect, we are staying close to the Welsh Government on its approach.

We will continue to work closely with councils. We have kept nothing at all from them. Indeed, we have made requests to the UK Government to be able to share everything that we get with local government. We had to make that request specifically, which delayed our giving even the small piece of information that we had to councils. That was a disappointment, but I hope that what we have done is an example of following the principle that we are working hand in hand with local government on the issue.

Evelyn Tweed (Stirling) (SNP)

I thank the cabinet secretary for the update on measures that the Scottish Government has taken since getting the guidance from the Institution of Structural Engineers. I find her comments extremely worrying, as is hearing what the Welsh education minister has said about timing and when we were made aware of the situation. Will the cabinet secretary please reaffirm when the Scottish Government was first informed by the UK Government? How can we take the matter forward?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

It is disappointing that we learned about the situation only on 31 August, and initially just through the media. It is important to have a frank conversation about how we found out about things, because we need such an approach to stop.

As I said in my statement, we have asked the UK Government—as has the Welsh Government—for further technical information, which we still do not have. If we are genuinely concerned—as, I am sure, we all are—and wishing to reassure the public, we surely want to work together on this of all issues, with no surprises and with full transparency within the Governments.

That is why it is important that, despite the disappointing way in which the change was articulated to the Scottish Government, we see a new approach whereby the Administrations can genuinely work together, share experience, share good practice and work out a way forward, although we will continue to follow the advice of the Institution of Structural Engineers, which differs from the plans that the Department for Education and Skills is taking forward.

Craig Hoy (South Scotland) (Con)

In March 2022, ministers were made aware of RAAC guidance from the Institution of Structural Engineers, as the minister has said. In July 2022, learning directorate heads first flagged the risks from RAAC, and, in May 2023, East Lothian Council took action to close parts of a local school. However, it took until 14 August for the Scottish Government to convene a cross-public-sector working group on RAAC. If the safety of occupants of buildings, including children, is of the utmost importance to the Government, why was there an 18-month delay in taking action here, in Scotland?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Again, I say that there has been no delay on this. In my statement, I spoke about some examples of the work that is being done on this at the official and ministerial levels. Although the Government is not responsible for the local authority estate, for example, we are keen to work closely with our colleagues in local government to share advice and good practice when appropriate. That is why we continue to ensure that we have the right structures in place, so that we receive the reassurance that we need.

To say that no work has been undertaken either by local or national Government is not true. It does a disservice to the people in many local councils who have been working exceptionally hard on this issue for some time and have been reassuring parents, staff and pupils in the process.

Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

One school in my constituency is affected by RAAC, and that situation long predates devolution. Will the cabinet secretary highlight that point in her discussions with the UK Government and say that it should fall upon the UK Government to fund any repairs that are required?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As I said in my statement, a number of letters on the issue that have been sent to the UK Government by various members of the Cabinet are awaiting a reply. It is important that those letters be replied to at speed. Again, I would say that our concern is shared by the Welsh Government.

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

Can the cabinet secretary confirm that 254 buildings across NHS Scotland are being surveyed? When was the survey that was commissioned by NHS Scotland Assure in December 2022 escalated beyond a desk review? When will we know the results of the survey, and will they be published? Can she also confirm that money will be made available urgently to remove RAAC and make all NHS buildings safe for patients and staff?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I have mentioned funding in my earlier answers and also talked about it in my statement. In reference to the number that Jackie Baillie identified, the desk review identified 254 buildings that have two or more characteristics that are consistent with the presence of RAAC. That does not, of course, mean that they contain RAAC, but that is why it is important that further work is done on that.

The surveys have now begun. In fact, the next phase of the surveys has commenced, with more work being done on site and not just through a desk review. Clearly, that will take some time. It will take approximately six to eight months to complete the full survey programme within the NHS, but we are looking at opportunities to expedite the process if at all possible.

Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

The cabinet secretary will be aware that, yesterday, North Lanarkshire Council revealed that the Pivot centre in Moodiesburn in my constituency is one of two buildings in that local authority area that have been identified as having RAAC. North Lanarkshire Council has been in touch with me and I am grateful for the quick action that it has taken on future plans to carry out work on the site. The council has also noted that up to 400 houses in the local authority area might be affected by RAAC. What support is the Scottish Government giving to NLC and other councils to identify such properties?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

It is very important that local authorities talk about what is happening within their school estate and in their wider public sector estate. As I said in my statement, we are keen to work alongside COSLA to ensure that all councils have published the information about their school estate by the end of this week. More work will clearly need to be done to ensure that there is transparency about what is happening within the wider council estate, including housing.

We are still in the discovery stage of awareness in the housing sector, but representatives from the Scottish Housing Regulator, the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations and the Chartered Institute of Housing Scotland have all been invited to participate in the cross-sector working group to ensure that public and private sector housing are involved in the work that is on-going.

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

If ministers were really across this problem, would Parliament and the public not have been told sooner that at least 40 schools and an untold number of hospitals contain this potentially lethal concrete? Ministers were nowhere near even understanding the issue, and no money was put aside. Instead, Liberal Democrats, not the Government, were the first to lay bare the scale of the problem. Indeed, the trigger for schools closing in England was a concrete beam failing at a school in Dunblane—a beam that was rated as safe but failed.

The Scottish education secretary said on “Channel 4 News” last night that this was an “isolated incident”. Does the cabinet secretary agree with her colleague? If so, how can she be sure that such an incident will not happen again, especially when we still do not know where this stuff is or how it has been used?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I say to Alex Cole-Hamilton with the greatest respect that one of the reasons why this has not caused the same public alarm as has been caused since the Department for Education’s change in approach last week is that national and local government have been quietly getting on with the job of ensuring that the work is done. That is exactly why some of the examples in East Lothian and West Lothian that I gave in my statement pre-date the rigmarole that we have had over the past week or so.

Parents have been being informed, as have the staff and the children. That is, rightly, done by those who are responsible for the building, through the local authority, which has been working with the local community about exactly what to do. To say that nothing has been done is disingenuous. I point to some of the projects that have already been undertaken through learning estate investment programme phases 1 and 2, which have dealt with some of the issues.

In the example of the Dunblane school, which is a Ministry of Defence school, the incident was not reported—either by the school, the Ministry of Defence or the Department for Education—to the Scottish Government or to any education authority in Scotland after it happened. The first time we found out about it, as Scottish Government ministers, was on 31 August. That is another very clear example of a disappointing lack of information sharing in relation to that school.

Keith Brown (Clackmannanshire and Dunblane) (SNP)

My question relates to my constituency interest in the school that has just been mentioned by Alex Cole-Hamilton, who does not represent Dunblane.

RAAC issues were identified at Queen Victoria school in Dunblane, as well as at the University of Stirling, which I will take up separately with the relevant minister. Both are very important institutions in my constituency. My understanding is that QVS is an MOD school, and that the responsibility for its upkeep lies with the UK Department for Education. In addition to what the cabinet secretary has just said, can she confirm that any issues that have been identified have been dealt with and that there is no on-going risk to students and staff in either of those buildings?

Given that QVS is an MOD school, was the Scottish Government made aware of the RAAC issues at QVS when they were first identified by the Department for Education?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

We understand that there was an issue at that MOD-run school in March 2023. It was investigated by the MOD in April and reported to the Department for Education for the UK in May 2023. As I said in my previous answer, the Scottish Government was informally told of the incident during a phone call that the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills had with Baroness Barran last Thursday. We have expressed our concerns about the way in which the school incident was approached.

In relation to the University of Stirling, I understand that mitigation measures have been taken in the students union, where the issue has been identified.

Ariane Burgess (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

As we are hearing, many of the buildings affected by RAAC are owned by local authorities, from schools such as Charleston academy and Forres academy to libraries and community centres. The Verity house agreement sets out a new partnership approach with local authorities, with added emphasis on working together on areas of shared responsibility. What more can the Scottish Government do to work in tandem with local authorities to give reassurance to members of the public that all arms of government are working together?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

It is a very important point that we should work together on this issue. That is why the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills and I met with the COSLA officials and some councillors at the start of this week. We will do so next week, too.

It is important not only that we publish information about schools but that local authorities provide context for it. For example, we have schools in which RAAC has been identified, but in a part of a building that has not been in use for many years. Providing context is important so that we can reassure pupils, staff and parents.

We will continue to work together, As I said in my statement, those meetings will continue, and they will be about not just the school estate but the wider council estate, too.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

In the north-east, several schools—including Mackie, Westhill and Northfield academies and Abbotswell, Cornhill and Quarryhill primaries—have been confirmed as containing RAAC.

Last weekend, Cabinet Secretary for Wellbeing Economy, Fair Work and Energy Neil Gray said that there was “no immediate risk” to people using those buildings, yet on Monday the First Minister said that the review during which councils will check buildings will take “some months”. On what basis did Neil Gray assert that there is no immediate risk? What extra funding and assistance are being provided to Aberdeen City Council and Aberdeenshire Council to perform the checks?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

The reassurance that people can be given—I say this with the greatest respect to my colleague Neil Gray and others—is that structural engineers, who are experts, have been working with the local authorities that are responsible for each school so that they can say whether RAAC is there, to what extent it is there, and what mitigation measures need to be put in place. The Government has had reassurances that those mitigation measures—where they are required, based on that expert advice—are in place.

Clearly, we will continue discussions with all councils to ensure that we are keeping up to date on the mitigation measures and any long-term work that is required. I hope that Liam Kerr will join me in the calls that we are making to the UK Government to assist all devolved Administrations with the capital expenditure that will be required in the longer term, once we need to move on from mitigations to refurbishment or changes to those buildings, and that we will get that extra funding from the UK Government as requested.

Bill Kidd (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)

There has been much discussion in the chamber this afternoon about who should be doing what and when, yet the reality is that, without borrowing powers, the Scottish Government cannot act by itself to fund wide-scale repairs, should they be found necessary.

In response to my question on Tuesday, the cabinet secretary stated that the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Finance had still to receive a response from HM Treasury

“regarding further financial support to help to deal with the consequences of RAAC”.—[Official Report, 5 September; c 8.]

Has a reply been received—I do not think so, but it would be nice to hear for sure again—and do we know how much we will be due?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As to how much any final bill will be, obviously that will not be able to be determined until all the structural surveys have been undertaken right across the estates.

In response to Bill Kidd’s earlier question, no—I can confirm once again that we have not received a reply to the Deputy First Minister’s letter of 16 August. It is very important that we receive a reply, because if the Chancellor of the Exchequer is willing to go on television and talk about spending “what it takes”, it is important that he works with the devolved Administrations to ensure that we have a plan in place to enable us to take that work forward.

Foysol Choudhury (Lothian) (Lab)

West Lothian Council has been working for several years to identify and address the problem of RAAC in schools in its area. It has now been waiting nine months for an announcement on learning estate investment programme funding to find out whether its bid for a new school in Livingston has been successful. Can the cabinet secretary advise when an announcement will be made on that funding, so that councils can actually begin to address the problem with RAAC in schools?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I thank Foysol Choudhury for that question, because it is a very important one. I appreciate that there are councils across the country that are waiting for an announcement on LEIP phase 3. As I said in an earlier answer, LEIP phases 1 and 2 have already dealt with some of those projects; indeed, the projects that councils came to us with for phases 1 and 2 that involved RAAC were funded.

Of course the Scottish ministers are now looking at the projects from local authorities where RAAC has been identified, and that will be part of the decision-making process for phase 3. As I hope that Foysol Choudhury will understand, we are having to look very carefully at LEIP phase 3 because of the global increase in construction costs. That presents a major capital challenge to us, and not just in the school estate. I hope that he and West Lothian Council can be assured that these matters are being taken into consideration when we look at LEIP phase 3.