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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, December 8, 2022


General Question Time

Health Portfolio Ministers (WhatsApp Messaging)

1. Sandesh Gulhane (Glasgow) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will confirm whether WhatsApp messaging by the health secretary and his ministers are covered by freedom of information legislation and the processes that are in place to archive these to prevent them being inadvertently lost or otherwise deleted. (S6O-01668)

The Minister for Parliamentary Business (George Adam)

All recorded information that is held by ministers or officials that relates to the business of the Scottish Government is subject to freedom of information law, irrespective of its format or the platform on which it is held.

The Scottish Government has in place a robust information management policy that governs how we retain documents of record for Government business. The policy covers any exchanges on WhatsApp, or any other form of digital communication that Government ministers undertake. Any policy or business discussions must be transcribed or copied into an email or text document using the SCOTS platform and stored in the central corporate record.

Sandesh Gulhane

Given that the First Minister had no minutes of her meetings regarding ferries and that the cabinet secretary is potentially conducting ministerial business by text, we are obviously concerned that there is no paper trail and that things are hiding. I hear the minister’s answer, but we feel that business should be conducted via Government emails or by official correspondence. We are concerned that we keep seeing secret Scotland under this Scottish National Party-Green Government.

Will the Scottish Government commit to releasing all WhatsApp messaging, with any personal messages being redacted by an independent party?

George Adam

It would perhaps be helpful for Dr Gulhane if I explained the process again. Given his supplementary question, I feel that I probably did not articulate the situation.

Substantive Government business and communications among ministers and officials are normally conducted using email and the SCOTS information technology platform. Scottish Government policy is clear that staff and ministers who use any digital platform have a responsibility to consider issues such as security and general data protection regulation compliance.

Mobile messaging apps can be a useful tool, but there is a clear expectation that any information that relates to the substance of Government decision making should be transposed into the official record and retained.

Public Financing (Assessment of Financial Health of Businesses and Viability of Projects)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment is made of the financial health of businesses and the viability of projects prior to the award of a grant of public funds. (S6O-01669)

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

The Scottish Government has established extensive guidance and processes that are available to Scottish Government staff to ensure that adequate due diligence is conducted around all organisations that receive public funds via public sector grants.

The guidance also requires all projects to be assessed for viability via a business case to ensure that the regularity, propriety and value-for-money principles of the Scottish Government are adhered to. Public bodies are also expected to observe the guidance in the Scottish public finance manual in relation to grants and adhere to the principles of value for money, regularity and propriety.

Murdo Fraser

In September, the company Recycling Technologies went into administration with £22.8 million in liabilities and just £1 million in assets. In 2018, the company was given a grant of £1.7 million of taxpayers’ funds by Zero Waste Scotland. However, according to Companies House, accounts for the company that were lodged on 11 October 2017 raised concerns about the company’s ability at that point to continue as a going concern. Why was the grant of £1.7 million of taxpayers’ money paid to a company about which there were concerns over its on-going viability, will any of that money be recovered for the taxpayer, and what lessons have been learned from this sorry episode?

Ivan McKee

As I have already indicated, processes and procedures are in place in the Scottish public finance manual in relation to grants. Those processes adhere to the principles of value for money, regularity and propriety.

If the member had been serious about getting an answer to that specific question, he would have let me know in advance, so that I could have come prepared with the answer. Of course he does not expect me to know the ins and outs of every company that has been awarded a grant. If he seriously wants an answer, I will take that on board, find out the information and reply to him with the specifics in regard to that business—the situation that applied, why that grant was made and the background work that was done to check the business case under the principles that I have just outlined.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

The recent Audit Scotland report on the consolidated accounts was quite revealing. The Scottish Government wasted £50 million of public funds in return for zero jobs at BiFab. If the Government had its time again, would it make the same decision about BiFab?

Ivan McKee

When we go into any situation, we are not sure what the outcome will be. That is the whole point and why the public sector steps in. If a win was easy and clear-cut, the private sector would be investing and there would be no need for public sector involvement.

The public sector gets involved where we think that there is a case and that public money can be used adequately to support an economic outcome. In addition, we would have a strategic intent that said that it would be important to Scotland’s economy for a situation to be pursued. We do that within the bounds of the public sector finance manual and the other regulations and business case requirements that are in place.

We will not go through all such scenarios and come out the other end with them all being financially successful; that is absolutely and obviously the case. However, the Government will not be in a position in which we will not intervene for fear of failure. We will win some and lose some; that is what it is all about. It is important that we intervene where we think that the numbers make sense but, of course, the outcome is not guaranteed in any scenario.

Dementia Strategy (National Conversation)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the next steps for the national conversation to inform a new dementia strategy, which closed to responses on 5 December. (S6O-01670)

The Minister for Mental Wellbeing and Social Care (Kevin Stewart)

I am grateful to all the organisations and individuals who have taken the time to input into our national conversation. We have heard the priorities of people who are living with dementia, their families and carers, and of individuals and organisations that are interested in dementia policy. Final engagement events are continuing throughout this week. We will take the responses and, working with our national dementia lived-experience panel, the strategic advisory group and other key stakeholders, we will develop an outcomes-focused strategy, with publication planned for spring 2023.

Kaukab Stewart

The discovery of the breakthrough drug lecanemab is exceptionally welcome news and offers real hope for Alzheimer’s sufferers and their families. Professor Tara Spires-Jones and the research team at the University of Edinburgh are to be congratulated on that development.

However, is the minister familiar with childhood dementia, a condition that is caused by more than 70 genetic disorders that, together, account for almost as many deaths in children as cancer? There is no cure and there are very few treatments that can even slow it down. Will Kevin Stewart commit to taking cognisance of that devastating but little-known condition when developing the new dementia strategy?

Kevin Stewart

Childhood dementia is a term that is sometimes used to describe a very rare group of neurodegenerative disorders that require referral for specialist paediatric assessment and then care within specialist neurodegenerative disorder services as required. The national health service will always use the best international clinical evidence and research to inform best practice. I am grateful to the member for raising awareness of this very important issue in the chamber.

Social Care Staff (Retention and Recruitment)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress it is making on addressing the reported care staff retention and recruitment challenge within social care. (S6O-01671)

The Minister for Mental Wellbeing and Social Care (Kevin Stewart)

The Scottish Government acknowledges the pressures that are faced by the social care sector at present. To address those pressures, we plan to launch an adult social care recruitment campaign in January next year, and we have approved funding for the recruitment website to enable all organisations to advertise vacancies free of charge. We continue to push the United Kingdom Government for an improved migration system, and we are working with stakeholders to develop resources and support to recruit international workers. We also plan to host further job fairs with the Department for Work and Pensions across Scotland, and we continue to work with employability partners and the Scottish Social Services Council to deliver career events that target young people.

Alex Rowley

The fundamental problem at the heart of our retention and recruitment issues is the gap between what care workers are paid in the private sector and what they are paid in the public sector. The private sector’s low pay and poor terms and conditions mean that workers walk out of the sector, which makes the matter more difficult. All care is paid for by the Government, so does the minister agree that that gap is the fundamental issue? If he agrees, why is he not addressing it? Unless we address the poor pay and poor terms and conditions of care workers who work in the private sector, which is paid for by the public sector, we will not address the problem.

Kevin Stewart

The Government recognises the pay and conditions issues in the care sector, which is why it has given not one but two pay rises to adult social carers in the past year. We are looking to see what more we can do on that front.

I highlight to Mr Rowley and to other members that adult social care workers in Scotland are paid much more than those in Labour-controlled Wales or Tory-controlled England are paid.

Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)

I refer to the Scottish Government-commissioned research entitled “The Contribution of EU Workers in the Social Care Workforce in Scotland 2022”, which was published in August. Further to those findings, although I accept that Covid has had its impact, does the minister agree that Brexit has made the situation relating to the retention and recruitment of European Union workers worse?

Kevin Stewart

I completely agree with Christine Grahame. The sector is deeply concerned about the impact that the post-EU exit loss of freedom of movement is having on recruitment to critical front-line social care roles. The UK Government’s immigration policy fails to address Scotland’s distinct demographic and economic needs, and it completely disregards the key sectors on which we have relied during the pandemic, including social care.

We believe that Scotland’s social care services benefit greatly from the staff who join the workforce through international recruitment. I wish that we had control over immigration policy, so that we did not have a situation in which some services have lost loads of staff—I talked to one service that had lost 40 per cent of its workforce because of Brexit—which is not good enough.

Agricultural Support Schemes (Argyll and Bute)

5. Jenni Minto (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what its latest assessment is of the potential impacts of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 and the Subsidy Control Act 2022 on future agricultural support schemes in areas such as Argyll and Bute. (S6O-01672)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands (Mairi Gougeon)

Our farmers and crofters face challenges that are not found elsewhere in the United Kingdom, so we have tailored our current agricultural support to help to address those through schemes such as the less favoured area support scheme.

The deeply damaging United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, which was imposed on Scotland without our consent, allowed UK ministers to introduce the Subsidy Control Act 2022. We have serious concerns about that, not least because the principles that are set out in schedule 1 to that act risk constraining our ability to tailor support to the specific needs of Scottish farmers and crofters in the future.

Jenni Minto

In 2021, 739 businesses in Argyll and Bute received LFASS payments. Those payments provide vital investment for hill farmers and crofters, who are a crucial part of our agricultural sector. NFU Scotland has noted that 97 per cent of the Scottish Government’s budget for agricultural schemes is derived from Westminster. The legislation that I have mentioned has left the door open to future policy decisions threatening the Scottish Government’s ability to offer focused support of that nature.

What would the cabinet secretary say to the hill farmers and crofters whom I represent, who are concerned that the Tory Government in Westminster would be prepared to sacrifice necessary support, such as LFASS, in pursuit of its mission to undermine devolution?

Mairi Gougeon

I absolutely agree that that UK legislation could threaten our ability to support farmers and crofters in constituencies such as Jenni Minto’s through vital schemes such as LFASS. We are committed to maintaining the support for the people who farm and steward the land in our most challenging areas, but that will depend on getting certainty of UK Government funding and on the guarantees being honoured in the future.

European Union exit means that we no longer have long-term certainty of funding, and the unilateral choices that are being imposed by the Treasury provide insufficient replacement EU budget. We have been clear and consistent in our position: we expect full replacement of EU funds to ensure that there is no detriment to our finances, and we expect the UK Government to fully respect the devolution settlement in any future arrangement. However, as it stands, I have no clarity about the future budget, and we already face a shortfall of £93 million because those guarantees have not been honoured.

Let us have more succinct questions and responses, please.

Swallow Roundabout Dundee (Development)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the reported delays to the development of the Swallow roundabout in Dundee. (S6O-01673)

The Minister for Transport (Jenny Gilruth)

Transport Scotland is working with representatives of the developer on a minute of agreement, which will provide the Scottish ministers’ consent to make changes to the A90 trunk road in the vicinity of the Swallow roundabout in Dundee. That work is not straightforward, but every effort is being made to bring matters to a conclusion.

Michael Marra

Residents in Dundee’s western gateway have been waiting for more than seven years for those vital upgrade works on the Swallow roundabout. At long last, the minute of agreement that the minister referred to is sitting on a desk at Transport Scotland. Will the minister say when the agreement will be signed? What more can the minister do to lock down a timetable for those vital safety measures?

Jenny Gilruth

I know that Mr Marra takes a keen interest in the issue and that he has previously been in correspondence with Transport Scotland on the matter. Delivery of the improvements that are needed is a planning requirement, and the developer is obligated to deliver junction improvements at the Swallow roundabout, which will address the impact of the development on the trunk road network for which Scottish ministers have responsibility.

I have discussed the issue with my officials in Transport Scotland, who advise that they are in regular contact with the developer on the matter. They will continue to work constructively with Springfield Properties to progress the outstanding issues, which include the completion of the minute of agreement as soon as possible. In the interim, I am happy for my officials to meet Mr Marra and other interested parties to ensure progress on the issue. I recognise that it has been going on for a number of years, as he has said, and that there is a need for the local community to have a timetable.

Great Risk Transfer Mitigation (Engagement with United Kingdom Government)

7. Audrey Nicoll (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government, with regard to flooding in Scotland, what engagement it has had with the UK Government to mitigate the great risk transfer, as described in a recent David Hume Institute report. (S6O-01674)

The Minister for Environment and Land Reform (Màiri McAllan)

The DHI report explores risk and where it falls between individuals and institutions. The report highlights Flood Re, which is a re-insurance scheme to help people to access affordable flood insurance, and sets out that it is a best practice example of how institutions can underwrite risks that are not realistically within individuals’ control. The scheme now benefits 16,500 properties in Scotland.

Flood Re supports the build back better approach, whereby home owners install property flood resilience measures when repairing their properties after a flood to ensure that they are better prepared. The Scottish Government is working with Governments across the United Kingdom to ensure that flood insurance remains widely available and affordable.

Audrey Nicoll

With several areas of Scotland, including my Aberdeen South and North Kincardine constituency, now at increased risk, the Flood Re scheme to which the minister referred offers some hope to householders. However, too few people are aware of the scheme, and it excludes properties that have been built since 2009. What steps is the Scottish Government taking to publicise the Flood Re scheme and ensure that home owners are aware of the possibility of affordable insurance through it?

Màiri McAllan

We will continue to work with Flood Re, the insurance industry and others to promote flood insurance. Since 2009, we have funded the Scottish Flood Forum, which works with communities and advises people about property flood resilience and insurance issues such as Flood Re. I am always happy to work with and speak to Audrey Nicoll about ways in which we can ensure that her constituents know that they have access to that support.

The majority of homes in areas with a high flood risk are eligible for Flood Re. Properties that have been built since 1 January 2009 are not covered, but that is because it is important not to incentivise home building in areas with a flood risk. Scottish planning policy takes a precautionary approach to ensure that new properties are built outwith areas of significant flood risk, and the revised draft national planning framework 4 includes updated policy on flood risk, which aims to strengthen resilience to flood risk and reduce the vulnerability of existing and future development.