Meeting of the Parliament
Meeting date: Wednesday, March 8, 2023
Official Report 1086KB pdf
Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, International Women’s Day 2023, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, Save Loch Lomond
- Portfolio Question Time
- International Women’s Day 2023
- Business Motion
- Parliamentary Bureau Motion
- Decision Time
- Save Loch Lomond
Portfolio Question Time
Covid-19 Recovery and Parliamentary Business
Good afternoon. The first item of business is portfolio question time, and the first portfolio is Covid-19 recovery and parliamentary business. I remind members that there are a couple of groupings—questions 1 and 3, and then questions 2 and 4—so I will take supplementaries on those after both questions in the group have been answered. There is quite a bit of interest in this portfolio and the next, so I make my usual request for questions and responses to be as brief as possible.
Parliamentary Scrutiny (Ministers)
To ask the Scottish Government whether it will propose scheduling parliamentary time to debate strengthening the scrutiny role of the Parliament in holding the Scottish ministers to account. (S6O-01964)
The Scottish Parliament is responsible for all matters relating to its functions and internal operation, and it is for the Parliamentary Bureau to recommend the plenary business schedule to the Parliament.
The Government encourages any member wishing to propose reform of current parliamentary procedures to raise such proposals with the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee. The Government stands ready, if invited, to discuss any reform proposals. Earlier today, I met Donald Cameron to discuss his proposals for parliamentary reform in what was a very productive meeting.
Parliamentary scrutiny is so important in a democracy, because it means that we get to challenge the Government on its failings—and, as we know, there are too many to count with this Scottish National Party Government. We know that the SNP does all that it can to suppress scrutiny, as we have seen from its attempt to prevent the public from viewing its leadership hustings. To disprove that notion, will the minister make a commitment today that his Government will not take away any Opposition debating time?
Minister, will you move the microphone slightly towards you, please?
Yes, no problem, Deputy Presiding Officer.
With the greatest respect, most of what the member has just said is complete and utter nonsense. As I mentioned in my previous answer, I had a very constructive meeting with Donald Cameron regarding his proposals, and I look forward to hearing more proposals from him in the future. Mr Cameron approached that in a very constructive manner. If Dr Gulhane wants to work with the Parliamentary Bureau, I ask him to talk first to his business manager and to take it from there.
Parliamentary Scrutiny (Ministers)
To ask the Scottish Government whether it will propose time for a parliamentary debate on the effective scrutiny of the Scottish ministers. (S6O-01966)
As I just confirmed in my answer to Dr Gulhane on the same question, I reiterate this Parliament’s responsibility for all matters relating to its functions and internal operation.
I know that the minister is a committed and passionate parliamentarian and that he is as keen as I am to safeguard the reputation of the Scottish Parliament. I also know that he is very familiar with the obligations of the ministerial code. Yesterday, minister Lorna Slater made no serious attempt to answer a question that was asked of her four times. There are other examples of ministers reverting to scripted answers even when those answers bear no relation to the questions that were asked. As the Parliament’s man in the Government, will the minister remind his colleagues—as was highlighted by the Presiding Officer yesterday—that there is an obligation born more of respect than anything else to fairly and squarely address the questions that are asked of them in this chamber?
On many an occasion, Mr Kerr and I will have had entirely different interpretations of answers and discussions. It is down to the individual as to what they interpret the answer to be. However, I take my role in the Parliament very seriously—as do my colleagues, including Lorna Slater.
Voter Identification Requirements
To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of any potential impact on turnout at future Scottish Parliament and local authority elections of the introduction by the United Kingdom Government of voter ID requirements for elections to the UK Parliament. (S6O-01965)
The requirement for voter identification was introduced by the UK Government for reserved elections. Voters at devolved elections in Scotland for the Scottish Parliament and local government do not require voter ID. The Scottish Government remains strongly opposed to it and has concerns about the potential for confusion and disenfranchisement of voters. We will look closely at the operation of voter ID in local government elections in England this May. My officials and several electoral administrators from across Scotland will attend some of the polling places as observers.
Given that the incidents of voter fraud that the measure purports to tackle are extremely rare, as far as anyone can establish, does the minister believe that the measure has been introduced in good faith, or is it simply a way for the Tories to try to cling on to their final remaining seats at the next UK election?
Mr Allan has made his point clearly. The introduction of voter ID will make it more difficult for some voters to participate, which is why the Scottish Parliament has rejected going down that route for all elections. Any policy that risks excluding voters should be opposed.
Voter Turnout (Scottish Parliament and Local Government Elections)
To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to increase voter turnout in both Scottish parliamentary and local government elections. (S6O-01967)
Turnout at the most recent Scottish Parliament elections, in 2021, was 63.5 per cent, which was an increase of 7.7 per cent from the preceding election. At the local government elections in May 2022, turnout was 44.8 per cent, which was a 2 per cent decrease from 2017. Changes in turnout are the result of a range of factors and, as we have seen in the past, voters turn out in greater numbers when they are engaged. The Government cannot wholly influence that, but our on-going consultation on electoral reform seeks views on how to improve voter registration and how to make voting more accessible.
Votes must not only be cast in large numbers; they must also count. That is a concern that I have about the Canal ward in my constituency, which had more ballot papers rejected than any other council ward in the 2023 elections, equating to three times the national average. I have raised those concerns constructively with the Electoral Commission. Will the minister meet me to discuss my suggestion that the Electoral Commission has a statutory duty to make an impact or to reduce the number of spoiled ballot papers, as well as my other ideas on ensuring that voters’ votes are cast and counted rather than being inadvertently spoilt?
As always, I am happy to meet Mr Doris to discuss any of his proposals. I reiterate what I said previously to him in the chamber, which is that I agree that we must do whatever we can to ensure that no one loses their vote because they do not understand how to complete a ballot paper. I am pleased to hear that Mr Doris has constructively engaged with the Electoral Commission and others that have a key role to play in supporting and educating voters. I will consider what more can be done on the issue and what measures we can take forward after the electoral reform consultation closes.
Covid Recovery Strategy (Key Services)
To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on how its Covid recovery strategy is supporting the tackling of health inequalities, including in relation to accessing key services such as dentistry. (S6O-01968)
The Scottish Government’s Covid recovery strategy is addressing the systemic inequalities that were exacerbated during the pandemic and includes a focus on the wellbeing of children and young people.
Following restrictions on dentistry during the pandemic, we introduced a new enhanced examination from February 2022 that targets oral health inequalities, particularly in children. The latest statistics show that more than 1.6 million national health service examination appointments were completed between April and October 2022, which includes 440,000 child examinations from February 2022. That means that we are on course for more than 3.5 million contacts in the 2022-23 financial year, which is an increase of 40 per cent in NHS dental activity compared with the previous financial year.
I have been inundated by constituents who were not able to see a dentist during the Covid period and have now found that their NHS dentist has gone private. Those dentists have not left or stopped practising, but they see patients only if they pay. Does the Deputy First Minister recognise the health inequalities that that perpetuates? Will he use his cross-governmental role in co-ordinating the Covid response to see what more can be done in the time that he has left in post?
Mr Mundell has raised an important issue. It is important that people have access to NHS dentistry services. Obviously, in some circumstances, people opt for private dental care. In other circumstances, we have to ensure that that care is provided.
In relation to the points that Mr Mundell has raised about his constituency, I know that NHS Dumfries and Galloway is focusing on improving registration levels through the work of the local dental task force. I understand that, since the new year, up to 4,000 additional NHS registrations have been made available in the board’s area. That is an encouraging first step, but I recognise the importance of ensuring that an effective NHS dentistry service is available in all parts of Scotland, including in Dumfries and Galloway.
A number of members wish to ask supplementary questions, and I want to get them all in, so members should make their questions and answers brief.
Can the Deputy First Minister confirm when the Scottish Government will provide the British Dental Association with the costings that are associated with the revised determination 1, so that formal negotiations on payment reform can commence?
I am afraid that I do not have that information to hand, but I will write to Mr Sweeney about it.
Given that more than 60 per cent of the dental workforce is European, we must face up to the reality of Brexit. Before the European Union referendum, consistently well over 500 dentists who trained in the EU registered in the UK each year. Will the cabinet secretary outline the measures that have been taken to mitigate those challenges, with a view to sustaining our rural dental workforce?
There is a general issue in our society about the availability of skills in the post-Brexit environment. Some of the hard realities of the contraction in the working-age population in Scotland are now presenting themselves. Those things were the substance of worries 20 years ago, but they were alleviated by our participation in the European Union and the free movement of individuals. Today, they are an acute threat to our society, and we must recognise that.
In relation to the specific points that Gillian Martin has raised, we have put in place a number of measures to assist in the recruitment and retention of dental staff, such as fiscal incentives for newly qualified and trainee dentists. Despite the workforce challenges that we face, we remain in a positive position, with the relative strength of 57 dentists per 100,000 of the population providing NHS dental services in Scotland, compared with 43 dentists per 100,000 people in England.
I recently met NHS dentists in north-east Fife who reported that they are having to work through a significant backlog, as well as a significant increase in decay because patients have been waiting for so long. However, the dentists are concerned that they will not be able to deal with that backlog because the cost of treatment is not matched by the fees that they receive from the Government. Will the minister take that up with the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care, to ensure that the new fee regime reflects the cost of treatment, so that the dentists can deal with the backlog?
Cabinet secretary, please answer as briefly as possible.
The Government reviews all those issues on an on-going basis, and I will look with care at the points that Mr Rennie has made. However, as I have said to the Parliament on countless occasions, we are operating within financial constraints. We are trying to support public services to the greatest possible effect, but there will be challenges in dealing with the recovery from Covid and the significant backlogs that will exist as a consequence of the absence of treatment for so many people for so long.
Covid Recovery Strategy (Third Sector Organisations)
To ask the Scottish Government how its Covid recovery strategy is supporting third sector organisations in rural and island communities, such as Argyll and Bute, to improve health support, including for people with long Covid. (S6O-01969)
The third sector is supported across each local authority area through third sector interfaces, which offer to meet a variety of development needs and which provide a voice into local decision-making structures, including health and social care partnerships and integration joint boards.
Increasingly, third sector interfaces are involved in brokering new services across boundaries and managing funds for local partners. For example, in Argyll and Bute, more than 200 health and social care related services are being delivered by the third sector, with support from third sector interfaces.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, we saw innovative community-led activity to support community resilience. That worked particularly well in Argyll and Bute’s rural and island communities, where people have a strong sense of community spirit and social capital. For example, they know their neighbours and who might be vulnerable or at risk. The community planning structures provided a framework for mobilising that support, but much learning can be gained from putting power into local communities. How can the role and power of communities be strengthened for future community resilience?
One of the most important points is that we need to lose none of the ways of working that were prevalent in our communities—particularly rural and island communities—and that were highlighted by Jenni Minto. I think that those services and approaches should be enabled by the work of community planning partnerships.
One of the priorities of the Covid recovery programme board has been to work with the community planning infrastructure around Scotland, which exists in every local authority area, to bring together organisations, and, through the third sector interface, to ensure that the availability of third sector activity to enhance that provision is understood and articulated.
I assure Jenni Minto that that work has a high priority in Government, as we want to ensure that the vital work of community organisations plays a significant role as we take steps to recover from Covid.
We have a number of supplementary questions. I ask that they be as brief as possible.
I hope that you will indulge me for a second, Deputy Presiding Officer, as I understand that this might be the last Covid recovery question time at which I will be shadowing the Deputy First Minister. I would like to recognise all the effort that he has put into his role as cabinet secretary for Covid recovery over the past number of years, and our mostly cordial exchanges in the chamber and in committee, which, I am sure, will continue when he is on the back benches.
The Covid Recovery Committee has heard from long Covid sufferers, including some from rural and island communities, who have made it clear that their number 1 ask is for the introduction of long Covid clinics in Scotland, to reflect what happens elsewhere in the United Kingdom. In his last few weeks in the role, will the Deputy First Minister consider whether those can be introduced?
I am grateful to Murdo Fraser for those kind remarks, and I look forward to deploying whatever contribution I can make from the back benches. I look forward to questioning Government ministers on the way in which they carry out their responsibilities and to ensuring, for the benefit of Dr Gulhane and Mr Kerr, that there is proper accountability in Parliament—I will ensure that, single-handedly, from my parliamentary perspective.
I recognise the substance of the issue of long Covid and long Covid clinics that Mr Fraser raises. Those issues are being examined to determine whether the establishment of long Covid clinics is the appropriate way forward. However, what is absolutely essential is that anyone who is experiencing long Covid should, through their interaction with the general practitioner system in Scotland, be able to access healthcare services that will meet their needs. Of course, their needs will vary depending on how long Covid has affected them. However, in all circumstances, they should be able to access the appropriate level of care and support. I assure Mr Fraser that I will use my remaining period in office to ensure that that is the case.
I can confirm that Mr Ewing has a seat safely secured for you up at the back, Mr Swinney.
Long Covid Scotland tells us that one in five Covid sufferers have been forced to go private for tests and investigations because there is a lack of access to services on the national health service. We now know that there are 175,000 people living with long Covid—that is three times more than was the case when the Government announced £3 million for specific services for that. Will the Scottish Government increase the funding? That is what is necessary to support those with long Covid.
If you will indulge me for a second, Presiding Officer, I want to make it clear that I will make my own choices about where I sit in this chamber in the foreseeable future. [Interruption.] I will certainly sit nowhere near Jackie Baillie, I can tell you that. [Interruption.] I am nothing but candid to Parliament—it is all part of my belief in parliamentary scrutiny and accountability, which I have championed all my days.
Jackie Baillie asks me to increase the funding. I wonder whether she was paying attention to the budget, because the budget increased the funding for the NHS by £1 billion, and that would not have happened if I had not taken the tough decision to increase tax—[Interruption.]
As always—this is a bit of parliamentary feedback—we again have a running commentary from Jackie Baillie, who speaks throughout the answers that Government ministers are giving carefully—
She is doing it again as I continue to give my answer, and we will continue with this farrago of nonsense for as long as it takes Jackie Baillie to stop talking while I am answering her question, so I may be here a long time—
No, you will not, Mr Swinney.
Longer than I anticipated being here, Presiding Officer.
The key point that I make to Jackie Baillie is that the funding for the NHS has been increased, and that can be deployed to meet the needs of individuals in our society, which is what it is intended to do.
I have met several constituents who are living with long Covid, some of them known as first wavers, and they told me that they felt that the support was not there when they needed it. That impacts on family life, too, with breadwinners being unable to work and children coping with the enormous change in their lives as a consequence of having a parent with long Covid. What more can be done to support people living with long Covid and those in their households?
The key point is to ensure that those who are suffering from long Covid obtain the clinical interventions that they require. As I said in answer to Mr Fraser, that will vary from individual to individual. That is why the increase in funding for the national health service is important, because it enables the health service to better meet the needs of individuals and their clinical issues.
In relation to the family context that Beatrice Wishart raised, which is very important, there will be a wide range of services available in the community. I am very familiar with some of the carer support services in Shetland, which I have always admired over the years. They are very good, community-based services that will be available to support families in those circumstances. A mix of clinical and non-clinical interventions will be involved, but, crucially, we must make sure that those focus on the needs of individuals and families, which are right at the heart of the Covid recovery strategy.
Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Act 2022
To ask the Scottish Government whether any post-legislative reviews of the Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Act 2022 are being conducted. (S6O-01970)
They are. The 2022 act includes a range of temporary justice measures, which are due to expire in November this year. Under the terms of the act, ministers must review the operation of each temporary measure before it expires, to inform a decision on whether it should be extended for a further year. In seeking any extension, ministers must lay regulations to amend the expiry date, alongside a statement setting out the findings of the review, allowing full parliamentary scrutiny.
The remainder of the act comprises permanent provisions, and no post-legislative review is currently planned.
I, too, wish the cabinet secretary all the best as he returns to the back benches.
The Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Act 2022 gives Scottish ministers the power to release prisoners early, even before they have completed their sentence. That power was used disastrously by the Scottish National Party Government during the pandemic, when it released hundreds of offenders, at least 40 per cent of whom went on to reoffend. Despite that, the SNP Government wants to give itself a permanent power to release prisoners early in the Bail and Release from Custody (Scotland) Bill. Will the cabinet secretary commit to taking that provision out of the bill until a review has been conducted of whether the power is necessary and while reform of the act takes place?
There will be full parliamentary scrutiny of the provisions that Mr Balfour has referred to, and there will be ample opportunity for that scrutiny to take place so that Parliament can determine those questions. Ministers will, of course, engage on the subject.
Compulsory Sale Orders
To ask the Scottish Government whether it plans to propose the scheduling of time for a ministerial statement on compulsory sale orders. (S6O-01971)
Any proposals for Government business in Parliament are agreed by the Scottish Cabinet, subject to consideration by the Parliamentary Bureau and, in turn, approval by the Parliament.
Ms Dunbar will have heard the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government speak about compulsory sale orders during January’s housing debate. The cabinet secretary highlighted the need for any new powers to be compliant with the European convention on human rights and the careful consideration that that requires.
When introduced, compulsory sale orders will allow local authorities additional powers to deal with vacant, derelict and abandoned land and buildings, which will allow a greater ability to tackle private absentee landowners. That will mean that the Logie shops in my constituency, which are an eyesore, could be taken over and turned into a useful community asset. Can the minister advise on a timescale for the introduction of CSOs?
As the MSP for Paisley, I feel Jackie Dunbar’s pain on the issue. As I mentioned, the ECHR implications for compulsory sale orders need careful consideration, and I suggest that Jackie Dunbar contact the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government to talk through the detail.
It might be that compulsory purchase is a suitable vehicle to tackle the issue in the meantime, but I encourage Aberdeen City Council to make contact with officials in the Scottish Government to discuss the matter further.
That concludes portfolio questions on Covid-19 recovery and parliamentary business. We will move on to the next portfolio.
Finance and the Economy
We move on to the next portfolio, which is finance and the economy. I encourage members who wish to ask a supplementary question to press their request-to-speak button during the relevant question.
Green Jobs (Definition)
To ask the Scottish Government whether it plans to define green jobs, including green energy jobs, to help ensure that investment and resources can be targeted to achieve a low-carbon economy. (S6O-01972)
The Scottish Government included a green jobs definition when the green jobs fund was launched in 2021, with the aim of supporting businesses and their supply chains to help them better transition to a low-carbon economy. The definition has ensured that suitable projects could be identified and that all green jobs created over the life of the projects could be accurately measured.
Skills Development Scotland has highlighted that we talk much about the technical and practical skills that are required for our new economy but we rarely address the lack of meta skills, such as working with people and problem solving. Those skills are in abundance in jobs that should be considered green jobs, such as those in health and social care and in culture. Those are low-carbon jobs, and they will remain the foundation of our new low-carbon economy and society.
Will the minister commit to redefining green jobs across all sectors? Will he also commit to engaging with workers—especially those with fewer opportunities for retraining and reskilling—who already possess the meta skills that are necessary for the success of Scotland’s new economy?
Maggie Chapman raises a very important point, and I will certainly reflect on the argument that she makes. As she will be aware, at the moment, there are several definitions of green jobs not just in this country but throughout the United Kingdom, Europe and the rest of the world. Indeed, at the UK level, the Scottish Government has been engaging with the Office for National Statistics, which is reviewing its definition, as the current one is out of date. With the efforts towards net zero and all the new jobs that have been created, it is really important that we have an up-to-date definition of green jobs.
I will certainly take on board Maggie Chapman’s points as we move forward with this debate.
There is a lot of interest in this question. I will try to get in all the supplementaries, but they will need to be brief, as will the responses.
The minister is well aware of my just transition report, which outlines the issues that oil and gas workers have in transitioning. Will he provide an update on the Scottish Government’s work to take down those barriers to their transitioning to low-carbon jobs?
As Gillian Martin will, no doubt, be aware, we have our just transition planning framework: the draft energy strategy and just transition plan, which is a world first and our first sector-based plan. It is being consulted on until May. I know that Gillian Martin takes a very close interest in that, given her constituency interest in the offshore industry in the north-east. I urge everyone to submit to that consultation.
We are also working with communities, businesses and workers as we develop further sector-based plans. Drafts will be published before the end of the year, alongside the climate change plan. That will cover areas such as buildings and construction, land use and agriculture, and transport.
A lot of work is taking place to address the concerns that Gillian Martin has expressed.
An independent report suggests that the Scottish Government’s approach to achieving net zero will cut Scottish oil and gas and low-carbon gross value added from £19 billion to £12 billion by 2050 as a direct result of a reduction in jobs, which it is conservatively estimated will decrease from 57,000 to 32,000 by 2030. In addition, the remaining jobs will have a far lower average salary. Rather than gaming definitions to appease the Green coalition partners, does the minister agree that the Government’s time would be much better spent revising its threadbare energy strategy?
I spend a great deal of time talking to companies in the offshore and energy sectors in the member’s North East Scotland region—perhaps more than he does—and I hear back from them that they see massive job opportunities in the journey towards net zero. Indeed, Robert Gordon University and other institutions have predicted that we could have a net gain in jobs in the north-east if we get it right in the coming decades.
Irrespective of Liam Kerr’s party’s policies or my party’s policies, the north-east province is in decline. Those jobs must be replaced—that is unavoidable. That is why it is so important that we have a just transition and ensure that, over the next 20 years, we have good green jobs for people to move and transition into, so that they can continue to be in employment.
Yesterday, the Finance and Public Administration Committee saw the spring budget review cut £68.5 million from the net zero budget due, apparently, to a lack of demand. Although the number of completions is down, the number of surveys is up by 28 per cent from last year. Does that not suggest that, rather than there being a lack of demand, there is a lack of ability to deliver on the demand, which is throttling back delivery against those vital funds to deliver net zero in Scotland’s buildings and homes?
Patrick Harvie, who is the responsible minister, is putting together a very ambitious plan for decarbonising buildings and homes in Scotland that has the potential to create thousands of new jobs across all our communities.
However, I should highlight the recently published research by Skills Development Scotland, which worked with the University of Warwick and the University of Strathclyde, that says that we now have up to 100,000 new green jobs in Scotland. Other reports say that Scotland is ahead of the rest of the UK on progress in the creation of green jobs.
I think that we are in a good place. There is a lot of work to be done, but there is evidence that we are creating good green jobs in this country.
To ask the Scottish Government what its initial assessment is of any potential impacts that the Windsor framework may have on Scotland’s economy. (S6O-01973)
The Scottish Government welcomes the framework in terms of its importance to wider relations in Northern Ireland and between the European Union and the United Kingdom. Some businesses that trade with Northern Ireland might face fewer barriers to trade, which could, for example, provide welcome relief to Scotland’s world-renowned seed potato industry, which has been harmed so badly by Brexit.
However, the framework does not resolve burdensome Brexit barriers for Scotland, while Northern Ireland will still, of course, benefit from being part of the single market. Scotland must get the right to choose our own future—one that takes us back into the EU, with all the benefits that that will generate.
For many years, many of us have supported the specific needs of Northern Ireland, recognised how precious peace is and recognised the need to restore a functioning democratic Assembly at Stormont. We welcome the breakthrough on the issue, which is needed to remedy a problem of the UK Government’s own making. However, does the minister agree that it would be blinkered not to understand that it will have a knock-on impact on Scotland’s economy? Although many of us are of the view that full access to the single market for trade is an unbelievably special position—a “prize”, as the Prime Minister puts it—are there any short-term measures that the Scottish Government can take to protect Scottish small and medium-sized enterprises from the competitive advantage that Northern Ireland now has?
The Windsor framework clearly represents a welcome improvement in conditions for the Northern Irish economy, which will now have lower barriers to trade with businesses in Britain. That could benefit the many Scottish businesses that trade with Northern Ireland. However, we should not forget that Northern Irish firms will continue to have a competitive advantage over Scottish firms in trading with the EU because of their access to the large and lucrative single market from which Scotland was forcibly removed.
That is just another of the many consequences of Brexit, the only solution to which is Scotland rejoining the EU as an independent nation. The Scottish Government continues to provide support to our businesses and is focused on delivering our 10-year export growth strategy in “A Trading Nation—a plan for growing Scotland’s exports”, which remains firmly focused on the recovery and growth of Scotland’s exports through values-based trade. Our trading relationships with the EU remain central, both now and in Scotland’s future.
Liz Smith has a supplementary question.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I indulge your patience again and the minister’s patience, as this is the first formal occasion in the chamber since John Swinney intimated his intention to step down as Deputy First Minister that I have had the opportunity to wish him well in the future. I have certainly enjoyed our feisty exchanges in the chamber, whether on education or finance, over a very long period of time, even if we have seldom agreed on anything.
In relation to the Windsor agreement, does the minister at least acknowledge that one of its benefits is a much-improved working relationship between the UK Government and the EU, which his colleague Mr Swinney has often called for?
You should be as brief as possible, minister.
I agree that that is the case, and I think that I made it clear in my answer that we welcome the agreement. It remains the case that there are still restrictions—although fewer—on trade with Northern Ireland. Of course, as the Prime Minister said, it puts Northern Ireland in a very advantageous position in having a foot in both the UK market and the EU market. We believe that that position puts Scotland at a competitive disadvantage and that it is one that Scotland should be able to realise as well.
National Planning Framework 4
To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the implementation of the fourth national planning framework since its adoption on 13 February 2023. (S6O-01974)
I was delighted to adopt NPF4 on 13 February. It is now part of the development plan, and it will be influential in all planning decisions. In just a short time, good progress is already being made on key actions from the delivery programme, and I have published a letter outlining transitional arrangements to support early implementation.
I will shortly lay regulations in the Parliament setting out the arrangements for new-style local development plans and therefore complete the reforms of the development planning system. NatureScot has recently published guidance to support application of NPF4 policy on biodiversity. Further guidance, including on 20-minute neighbourhoods and short-term lets, is in preparation.
NPF4 could be the key to making Scotland’s places more sustainable, liveable and productive, and it is, indeed, heartwarming to see progress on the effective delivery of the new policies. As councils begin to review their local development plans to align with NPF4, can the minister outline how the new planning system will accelerate Scotland’s wellbeing economy?
Our national spatial strategy will support the planning and delivery of productive places where we have a greener, fairer and more inclusive wellbeing economy. We will actively encourage investment where it is needed most, by rebalancing development and by playing to the economic strengths and opportunities of each part of Scotland. NPF4 encourages councils, in the preparation of local development plans, to allocate a broad range of sites for business and industry, taking into account local economic strategies and priorities.
That also supports the broader objectives of delivering a low-carbon and net zero economic recovery, and supporting community wealth in Scotland’s wellbeing economy. I will shortly lay regulations in the Parliament that will set the arrangements for preparation of a new generation of place-focused local development plans, which we will support with guidance on how councils can deliver on the ambitions in NPF4 through their own plans.
Will planning advice note 1/2011, which is on noise, and the associated technical advice note be updated as part of the fourth national planning framework? If so, will the update take into consideration the World Health Organization’s noise recommendations?
As substantial changes have been made through the reform of our planning system, including a new policy framework in NPF4, I recognise that there will now be some discrepancies in existing planning guidance and advice. Aspects of existing guidance will still be useful for reference through the new planning system and policy approach and, over time, we will review the historical advice as appropriate.
Private Finance Initiatives and Public-Private Partnerships (Cost)
To ask the Scottish Government what the cost to the public purse will be of private finance initiatives and public-private partnerships in 2023-24, and how this compares to 2022-23. (S6O-01975)
The latest published data shows that the total estimated payment costs of private finance initiative and public-private partnership contracts is £1.46 billion in 2023-24, and £1.41 billion in the year before that. That is an increase of around £50 million.
When it is broken down, we see a cost increase in PFI contracts of £47.6 million, a cost increase in non-profit-distributing contracts from prior to 2010 of £1 million and a cost increase in NPD/hub programme contracts of £1.8 million. The majority of PFI payments are index linked and they rise by inflation each year, but most NPD/hub payments are not, making them less sensitive to inflation.
I thank the cabinet secretary for that reply. Although he is standing down from Government, I hope that he will, indeed, soon return.
Does he share my concerns that the 75 remaining PFI and PPP schemes will now cost an additional £770 million to the termination of the contracts, all to be borne by the taxpayer? What does that say about the financial recklessness and short-sightedness of Labour and the Lib Dems, who bequeathed those schemes to the people of Scotland 16 years ago? Taxpayers will continue to pay for them for many years to come.
I sympathise entirely and agree with Mr Gibson’s point of view. As he will know, the Government brought the PFI scheme to an end because it simply did not deliver value for money, and we introduced more affordable schemes. As well as stopping the excessive profits, NPD/hub payments are largely not indexed linked. That is a crucial point that is at the heart of Mr Gibson’s question.
The folly of linking the PFI schemes to inflation, which benefited those providing the finance, has resulted, in an inflationary climate, in excess profits being made. That was baked into the contracts by the Labour and Liberal ministers who approved them. They are fiscal folly, and I am glad that we have taken the measures that we have taken to reduce the drain on the public purse if they had carried on. However, we are, of course, paying for the legacy of those mistakes.
The Scottish National Party likes to point the finger at wasted expenditure from decades ago, but its own track record on that front is not exactly glowing. What lies behind my question is the relative inefficiency and ineffectiveness of the Scottish Government’s ability to deliver projects. What is the Scottish Government doing to ensure that financial assessments are carried out to provide best value for the public purse?
I have absolutely no idea what that question was about. When I was up in Aberdeen this morning, I saw the junction for the Aberdeen western peripheral route, which we delivered—I see Mr Burnett sitting right beside Mr Stewart—but, instead of going on that route, I went to Robert Gordon University, which has a beautiful building. When I came back down the road, I went over the Queensferry crossing. Where on earth did the Queensferry crossing come from? It was delivered on time and on budget by this Government, and Mr Stewart should thank us for that.
Inverclyde Council (Financial Support)
To ask the Scottish Government what financial support, in addition to the local government settlement, will be allocated to Inverclyde Council in 2023-24, and how this compares to 2022-23. (S6O-01976)
At this stage, I can confirm that Inverclyde Council will receive from the settlement £201.9 million to fund vital day-to-day services, which is an extra £5.3 million, or 2.7 per cent, compared with 2022-23. In addition, it will receive its fair share of the undistributed sum of £329.8 million, which includes the extra £223 million that was announced at stage 3 of the Budget (Scotland) (No 2) Bill.
All councils, including Inverclyde Council, will receive additional in-year funding from individual portfolios over and above the local government settlement, but it is too early to say how much that will be or how it will compare with the current year.
The Deputy First Minister will be well aware of the economic and social challenges that Inverclyde faces. With the bid to make the Clyde green freeport one of the two freeports in Scotland narrowly missing out, what additional support will the Scottish Government provide to allow the district to attract investment? Will the Government consider a detailed business case from Inverclyde Council to help to address the 40-plus years of managed economic and social decline that my constituency has suffered?
I understand the disappointment in the Inverclyde area about the unsuccessful bid in the green freeport process, but I assure Mr McMillan that a rigorous and dispassionate process was undertaken by Scottish and United Kingdom Government ministers and officials.
A range of measures have been taken to support the Inverclyde economy. The Minister for Business, Trade, Tourism and Enterprise continues to engage with the Inverclyde socioeconomic task force, and the city region deal for Glasgow and the surrounding area delivers substantial investment in the Inverclyde area. Investment will be taken forward through the Clyde mission, which will have an effect on the Inverclyde area, into the bargain.
The Government will, of course, consider any further measures that are suggested by Inverclyde Council as we work to improve and strengthen the Inverclyde economy in the foreseeable future.
There are three more questions in the Business Bulletin. I want to get through them all, but questions and responses will need to be slightly briefer and I will not be able to take any supplementary questions.
Private Finance Initiatives and Public-Private Partnerships (Council Budgets)
To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of any cost pressure on council budgets relating to private finance initiative and public-private partnership contracts. (S6O-01977)
The Government recognises the challenging financial circumstances that local authorities and, indeed, the entire public sector currently face. Those challenges were considered and reflected in the Scottish budget decisions, which will provide local authorities with nearly £13.5 billion in 2023-24, including more than £793 million of additional revenue funding. The Scottish Futures Trust continues to work with public authorities in Scotland to assist them in making savings and improving performance across PFI and PPP contracts.
Figures that were provided to me by West Dunbartonshire Council show that, in relation to such contracts, that council alone will need to pay £15.9 million a year for many years to come. By the end of the contracts, the cost is estimated to be £437 million—going on double the council’s total revenue budget for education, social work and other services.
Does the Deputy First Minister agree that those funding mechanisms, which were imposed by new Labour, continue to be financially debilitating for councils and to drain resources that could be spent elsewhere?
Marie McNair makes a fair point. The financial burden of such contracts is a millstone around the necks of a number of local authorities in Scotland. The contracts were far too expensive. They have far too many costs over a longer period and those are now having a real effect in eroding the budgets of local authorities.
Non-domestic Rates (Revaluation)
To ask the Scottish Government by how much local authority non-domestic rates bills will increase, following revaluation of public sector properties based on rebuild costs using the 1 April 2022 tone date. (S6O-01978)
All properties will be revalued on 1 April 2023, including those in the public sector. Revaluations redistribute the tax base to reflect changes in market circumstances and ensure fairness for all ratepayers.
Many public sector properties are revalued using the contractor’s method, taking into account rebuild costs, which will have increased since the tone date for the previous revaluation took effect. A revaluation summary report, which will include information broken down by property class, is expected to be published in 2023-24 once final values for the revaluation have been made available.
The contractor’s method for determining rateable values using the real costs of recent new buildings is now passing artificially high values on to councils, which now face spiralling non-domestic rates bills. In South Lanarkshire, the bill has gone up by £2.9 million. Why is the Government using that method and passing on increased bills to local authorities at an extremely difficult time for them?
As the member will be aware, ascertaining RVs for non-domestic properties is a matter for Scottish assessors, who act independently in accordance with the legislation. The funding that has been provided to local government this year totals £13.5 billion, which is more than £700 million above what was indicated in the resource spending review.
North-east Scotland (Budget 2023-24)
To ask the Scottish Government how the Scottish budget 2023-24 will support the economic development and prosperity of the north-east. (S6O-01979)
The Scottish Government is fully committed to supporting the economic development of the north-east. The budget will reflect a continued investment to ensure a just transition to net zero that supports business growth and creates job opportunities. That includes the £500 million just transition fund, £379 million of investment in the Aberdeen city region deal and side package, £180 million for the emerging technologies fund, £100 million for the green jobs fund and £75 million for the energy transition fund. I could go on.
The Scottish National Party might claim that it is delivering for communities in the north-east, but its policies undermine Scottish business. I refer to policies such as the deposit return scheme, which will bring economic ruin to firms across Scotland. One small business in my constituency, Esson’s of Huntly, faces costs of £20,000 to implement the DRS. Why should businesses in the north-east trust the SNP Government when, time and again, it proceeds with damaging or incompetent policies?
I have just outlined to the member the unprecedented package of support for north-east Scotland that is being provided by the Scottish Government. On the other issues that he mentions, ministers will, of course, continue to listen to business.
I suggest to him that he speaks to his United Kingdom Government, which is holding back the Acorn carbon capture project. That would create thousands of jobs in his constituency in north-east Scotland. Indeed, his Government should match the just transition fund provided by the Scottish Government to the north-east of Scotland. Given that it has taken more than £300 billion out of the North Sea, perhaps it can give some of that back to invest in the north-east and Scotland’s future.
That concludes portfolio question time. There will be a brief pause to allow the front benches to change before we move on to the next item of business.