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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, May 9, 2024


General Question Time

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

Teacher Contracts

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what work it is doing to ensure that teachers get permanent contracts. (S6O-03412)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

Although the employment of teachers is a matter for local authorities, we are providing local authorities with an additional £145.5 million in this year’s budget to protect teacher numbers. That will provide assurance of dedicated funding and should remove any uncertainty that is a barrier to councils employing staff on permanent contracts.

Marie McNair

I raise the issue on behalf of one of my constituents. I welcome the cabinet secretary’s acknowledgement of the importance of the matter in ensuring that we have the best possible teacher resource in our schools. Scotland has the lowest pupil teacher ratios in state-maintained schools and the highest starting rate for qualified teachers in the United Kingdom. Does the cabinet secretary agree that such matters need to continue to be prioritised to ensure that teachers get the support that they need to provide an excellent teaching environment in our schools?

Jenny Gilruth

I agree with the sentiment that is behind the member’s question. As the member has alluded to, the Government continues to value our teaching profession, which is why Scotland has the best-paid teachers in comparison with anywhere else in the UK and, of course, the lowest pupil teacher ratio. However, we need to do more. I am determined that we will make progress in closing the poverty-related attainment gap. That is why we have provided an additional £145 million in this year’s budget to protect teacher numbers.

For the member’s information, I have just come from an instructive meeting with the Educational Institute of Scotland where we talked about the issue and some of the solutions that it has suggested for how we might provide better protection. I know from experience that there are various practices in relation to teacher recruitment across the country. It is really important that our teachers, who are supported through their training by the Scottish Government, can flourish in their teaching careers. That is why the issue remains a focus for me. I have asked the strategic board for teacher education to provide me with further advice, and I would be happy to write to the member with more detail to provide to her constituent.

Public Health Approach (Justice)

To ask the Scottish Government how a public health approach to justice can reduce crime and make communities safer. (S6O-03413)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs (Angela Constance)

Our vision for justice emphasises the importance of the public health approach to justice and community safety. Evidence shows that community interventions can be more effective in reducing reoffending and assisting with rehabilitation, which leads to fewer victims and safer communities.

Health considerations are also key. We know that those in the justice system often present with high levels of vulnerability and have complex needs. Ensuring access to health and other support services at each point in the justice system is therefore vital and requires a holistic, multi-agency approach, as well as a focus on prevention and interventions that facilitate those links.

Ruth Maguire

Justice is largely devolved. However, Scotland is limited by Westminster law and policy on some of the most challenging issues that society faces, such as drugs, gambling and organised crime, so creative, focused approaches can be stifled. Does the cabinet secretary agree that that is just one of the many reasons why the people of Scotland would be best served by the restoration of Scotland’s independence and the full powers and responsibilities that that would bring?

Angela Constance

Well said, Ms Maguire. Independence would allow us, for example, to further embed and extend our public health approach to justice and violence reduction into areas that are currently reserved, such as gambling and drug policy reform. As an example, with full powers under independence, a future Scottish Government could consider a range of measures to tackle gambling-related harm, such as raising the legal age of gambling or reviewing how gambling appeals to young people.

In relation to drug policy reform, a future Government could consider the creation of a statutory framework for supervised drug consumption facilities; review the drug classification system; clarify the law so that services can provide drug paraphernalia legally; and enable a wider range of treatment options, such as introducing drug-checking facilities, as opposed to having to apply to the Home Office.

Glasgow Low-emission Zone

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of any reduction in the number of taxis in Glasgow as a result of the introduction of the low-emission zone in June 2023. (S6O-03414)

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport (Fiona Hyslop)

The number of licensed Glasgow City Council taxis reduced from 1,390 in May 2023 to 1,347 in January 2024. However, that reduction can be attributed to declining public demand for taxis rather than being a direct result of the low-emission zone, because Glasgow City Council offered its taxi fleet a 12-month exemption, from June 2023 to June 2024, from LEZ penalty charges. Glasgow City Council has announced that it will offer a further extension to the exemption for some taxis beyond June 2024, if taxi operators can demonstrate a commitment to retrofit vehicles or purchase compliant replacement vehicles.

Annie Wells

The fact is that hundreds of black taxis are still non-compliant with the Scottish National Party’s low-emission zone in Glasgow, which means that they risk going out of business when the exemption ends next month. In February, Brian O’Hara of the Glasgow Taxi Trade Credit Union said that the lack of an exemption for taxis risks putting 400 small businesses out of business. That could all be prevented if the exemption continues for taxis that are not compliant.

I have one simple question for the cabinet secretary. For the sake of Glasgow’s black taxi drivers, will she back the extension of the exemption for those taxis—not the 76 that are already exempt?

Fiona Hyslop

If the member was listening, she would have heard that that is exactly what Glasgow City Council is doing. It is offering a further exemption, should there be a demonstration that retrofitting is planned.

Unlike other major cities in Scotland, Glasgow City Council does not have an age limit on taxis, so there is a higher proportion of older, non-compliant taxis, specifically in the Glasgow fleet. Annie Wells will be aware that the LEZ retrofit fund is open for applications and provides up to £10,000 towards the cost of retrofitting a taxi.

Bob Doris has a brief supplementary question.

What are the preliminary indications for the impact of the Glasgow low-emission zone on air quality in Glasgow, in contrast with the level of air pollution in the city prior to its introduction?

Fiona Hyslop

Because it takes many years for fleets to adapt to LEZ entry standards, the improvement is spread over a long period ahead of LEZ enforcement, rather than happening overnight, when enforcement commences.

In 2018, Glasgow Hope Street recorded an annual average nitrogen dioxide level of 61 micrograms per cubic metre. In 2023, it recorded an annual average nitrogen dioxide level of 39 micrograms per cubic metre, which is below the air quality objective limit. Furthermore, the highest daily average level at Glasgow Hope Street fell from 108 micrograms in 2018 to 72 micrograms in 2023, and the highest hourly level there has fallen significantly—from 310 micrograms in 2018 to 124 micrograms.

Paul Sweeney has a brief supplementary question.

Paul Sweeney (Glasgow) (Lab)

The reality is that the cost of renewing a taxi to be compliant can be £60,000 to £100,000. The £10,000 grant is simply not sufficient, particularly when a lot of the affected taxi drivers are approaching retirement age or are in their 50s and cannot take out that huge amount of finance. Will the cabinet secretary review the financing arrangements that are available for people to scrap or retrofit their taxis?

Fiona Hyslop

We are paying a lot of attention to the four LEZ local authorities—the three that are about to commence their LEZ and Glasgow City Council, which has commenced its LEZ. The plans for that have been in place for some significant time. I mentioned that there is more of an issue in Glasgow, because it does not have licensing rules like other councils, which have insisted on improvement in their fleets.

As I said, Glasgow City Council has announced that it will offer a further extension to the exemption for some taxis beyond June 2024, if taxi operators can demonstrate a commitment to retrofit vehicles or purchase compliant replacement vehicles. On the finances for individuals, I am sure that engagement with Glasgow City Council will help to scope out requirements.

RAAC (Colleges and Universities)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to address any issues in relation to the presence of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete in the college and university estate. (S6O-03415)

The Minister for Higher and Further Education; and Minister for Veterans (Graeme Dey)

The Scottish Government has confirmed, via the Scottish Funding Council, the extent of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete in the college and university estate, including information on planned remediation and related costs, the measures in place to ensure the safety of staff and students and any plans implemented to ensure that students’ welfare and learning are not affected. We continue to work alongside the SFC to provide advice and support to institutions as they undertake necessary works.

Michael Marra

The minister is aware that RAAC was found in the Kingsway campus of Dundee and Angus College last year and that vital safety work to replace RAAC panels and make buildings safe could cost as much as £12 million, with work having to be completed within three to five years.

In a letter from the minister to the college principal in December last year, he revealed that the Scottish Government would not commit any money whatsoever to the replacement of RAAC in the college estate. The minister knows that colleges have no means by which to borrow or raise money. Amid the chaos of the past two weeks, the publication of the Government’s infrastructure investment plan has been delayed yet again. What on earth does the minster suggest that Dundee and Angus College does?

Graeme Dey

I met the principal and chair of Dundee and Angus College a couple of weeks ago, which allowed me to gain an initial broad understanding of their thinking on future estate provision, taking account of RAAC and the age of the buildings, which, as Michael Marra knows, is an issue at Kingsway. I look forward to the college progressing those aspirational and creative plans for possible consideration by the SFC and the Government, although Michael Marra will appreciate that, given my constituency interest, I would not be involved in any such process.

Let us pick up the pace, colleagues.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

Seven of Scotland’s colleges have RAAC. Audit Scotland’s 2022 report said that colleges are already £321 million short of what they need in capital funding, and no funding has been provided to date to rectify the RAAC issue. Can we take it from the minister’s answer that Scotland’s Government will provide no financial help to Scotland’s colleges to deal with RAAC?

Graeme Dey

That is a brave and bold question from Mr Kerr, given that, despite his Government stating that it would spend whatever it would take to address RAAC, we have heard not a whisper from it. There is no indication of any money being provided to this Government in order to tackle this very substantial issue.

Rapid Charge Points (Electric Vehicles)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on how it is working to increase the number of rapid charge electric vehicle points. (S6O-03416)

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport (Fiona Hyslop)

Thanks to investment by this Government, Scotland has almost 5,000 public EV charge points and is on target to have 6,000 by 2026. That is in addition to the 20,000 domestic and business chargers that were funded by the Scottish Government as part of the wider charging mix. Scotland also has the most rapid charge points of any region in the United Kingdom per head of population.

In 2023, I announced the publication of Scotland’s vision for public EV charging, highlighting the need for a transition towards a network that is largely financed and delivered by the private sector. In 2024, the private sector is forecast to invest £40 million to £55 million in public EV charging in Scotland. The Government is investing £30 million through our EV infrastructure fund and is prioritising areas of Scotland that are less likely to attract private investment, including rural and island communities.

On 1 May, I was pleased to launch BT’s first ever pilot in the UK, in Haddington, using converted green telecom cabinets on our streets to support on-street charging points for houses without drives and in outer areas of town. That is another great example of partnership work with the private sector on EV chargers.

Stuart McMillan

In Inverclyde, we have access to very few rapid charge points. Some of them are currently out of use, which puts people off moving to electric vehicles, in addition to the issue of the limited available parking in the constituency, which also has an adverse effect on people with electric vehicles.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that we need to increase the number of EV charging points, particularly rapid charge points, to show that the infrastructure is very much fit to manage the expected increase in the use of electric vehicles over the coming years?

Fiona Hyslop

Indeed. Reliable and convenient rapid charging is critical to supporting EV adoption. We are already seeing significant growth in rapid charging across Scotland and, thanks to the Scottish Government’s early interventions, Scotland has one of the largest public EV charging networks in the UK.

We need to build on that strong foundation at pace and scale in order to meet future needs. That is why, through our EV infrastructure fund, we have been supporting local authorities, including Inverclyde Council, to continue to increase the number of EV charge points that are available. Local authorities such as Inverclyde Council understand their local needs best and will play a crucial role in the future expansion of EV infrastructure.

Last year, the UK Government introduced regulations requiring all public charge points to meet specific reliability standards. I encourage all charge point owners to ensure that they comply with the regulations so that they provide EV drivers with the reliable services that they have the right to expect.

Let us keep questions and answers concise, please.

I call Pauline McNeill.

Mobile Phone Use (School Guidance)

To ask—[Interruption.]

Give me a minute, Ms McNeill. Can we have Pauline McNeill’s microphone on, please?

To ask—[Interruption.]

Bear with us, Ms McNeill.

Third time lucky. To ask the Scottish Government whether it plans to issue guidance to schools encouraging them to prohibit the use of mobile phones by pupils. (S6O-03417)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

As I confirmed in my statement to the Parliament on 12 December 2023, the Scottish Government will shortly publish updated guidance for schools regarding the use of mobile phones by pupils. As a starting point for that guidance, headteachers should be empowered to take any action that they deem to be necessary, including banning mobile phone use, should they see fit. Indeed, many headteachers have already chosen to do that in their school communities.

Pauline McNeill

In secondary schools, the behaviour that is most commonly reported by staff as having the greatest negative impact is pupils using mobile phones when they should not be. People commonly assume that smartphones are a problem only in secondary schools, but one of my constituents has raised concerns about his child’s primary school, which has had problems with inappropriate content being circulated on WhatsApp groups and bullying via smartphones.

Is the Scottish Government looking into the extent of cyberbullying taking place in Scottish schools? What policies are being considered to beat the problem?

Jenny Gilruth

Pauline McNeill is right to highlight the issue in relation to primary schools. That was a key finding from the behaviour in Scottish schools research that the Government published in November.

The Government has a number of policies on anti-bullying, which we take extraordinarily seriously. It is worth putting on the record that, in the coming weeks, following the publication of the mobile phone guidance, we will publish an updated national action plan to address some of the challenges with behaviour in our schools. Through that work, we will seek to ensure that our anti-bullying policies are updated.

It is worth recording the real challenge that exists with mobile technology, and I would observe that the issue relates not only to schools but to our discourse in the Parliament.

Historic Environment Scotland Properties

To ask the Scottish Government what percentage of Historic Environment Scotland properties remain partially closed subject to safety checks. (S6O-03418)

The Cabinet Secretary for Constitution, External Affairs and Culture (Angus Robertson)

The work on the properties in care is on-going. Consequently, the position is constantly changing. In order to provide the member with the most up-to-date figure on the percentage of sites that remain partially closed, I have asked Historic Environment Scotland to write to the member directly with a full response.

Finlay Carson

I thank the cabinet secretary for that response. Last week, I was told that 90 per cent of Historic Environment Scotland sites have reopened fully or with partial access. We are all aware of such sites in our constituencies. Of the 30 sites in Dumfries and Galloway, five currently have no visitor access, which has a significant effect on the tourism economy.

A whistleblower in HES disputes the 90 per cent figure, claims that more than 200 sites still have serious high-level masonry issues that would pose a real threat to the public and has expressed concerns about the long-term future of the buildings. The whistleblower insists that the work is not even halfway through. Can the cabinet secretary provide evidence of where the 90 per cent figure came from and provide reassurance around public safety?

Angus Robertson

I hear the concern that Finlay Carson has raised. As I mentioned in my previous answer, Historic Environment Scotland will write to him directly. Should he have any further issues or concerns, I have assured him that I would welcome a follow-up discussion on the matter. We are all committed to safety at historic sites and to their speediest reopening, and having accurate information serves us all in that purpose.