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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, November 9, 2023


General Question Time

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

Strategic Transport Projects Review 2 (South of Scotland Projects Update)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the second strategic transport projects review in relation to projects in the south of Scotland. (S6O-02704)

The Minister for Transport (Fiona Hyslop)

Significant action is being taken by this Government to develop, deliver and invest in Scotland’s strategic transport infrastructure for the long term. The 45 recommendations contained in STPR2 include proposals for an improved and more resilient transport network in the south of Scotland.

Work is already in progress on five of the eight recommendations that are specifically relevant to the south of Scotland or which will have particular benefits for the region. That work includes consideration of how rail journeys for passengers and freight can be improved; A75 and A77 improvements; and integrated smart ticketing.

Finlay Carson

I am sure that the minister will be delighted, as I am, by the fact that Scotland’s two Governments are working together to bring forward improvements to the A75 on the back of the union connectivity review, which highlighted the infrastructure projects that are significant to the whole of the United Kingdom, and by the UK Government’s commitment to funding the A75 projects. Given that infrastructure funding is devolved, will the Scottish Government fulfil its obligations to the south of Scotland, step up to the mark and at least match the funding from the UK Government, and bring forward other essential projects to upgrade the equally neglected A77?

Fiona Hyslop

In relation to the first part of Finlay Carson’s question, it is clear that the A75 has been designated by the UK Government as being worthy of union connectivity funding because it primarily benefits Northern Ireland. We have yet to receive confirmation of any funding from the UK Government. In the meantime, this year £3 million-worth of structural maintenance schemes and improvements on the A75 are ensuring safe operation of the route.

The second part of Finlay Carson’s question was about the A77. In response to his colleague last week, I mentioned the Haggstone climbing lane, the Glen App wide single carriageway, the Park End to Bennane project and the Symington and Bogend Toll project, all of which are on top of the funding for and the delivery of the much-needed and much-welcomed Maybole bypass. Those are all positive improvements by the Scottish Government in the south of Scotland.

Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

The UK Government’s union connectivity review recognised that the only way that the A75 would be upgraded would be through the UK Government providing the Scottish Government with the funding to make the STPR2 recommendations happen. I do not know why the Tories continually blame the Scottish Government when it has a fixed budget.

Does the minister agree that Finlay Carson’s efforts would be better directed at lobbying his UK Government bosses, including the absent Dumfries and Galloway MP and Secretary of State for Scotland, Alister Jack, so that my constituents get the road upgrades that they have been campaigning for for decades?

Fiona Hyslop

Last month, the UK Government minister for roads and local transport confirmed that funding of £8 million was available, subject to final approvals. Those final approvals have yet to come. Although that commitment is in line with our funding request, confirmation came only after a face-to-face meeting that I had with the minister in September, at which I had to press for a final decision to be made.

My officials continue to engage proactively with their UK counterparts, and we await confirmation that the funding that we have requested will be forthcoming. Indeed, we had to submit a second business case on 17 October, following our initial submission of a business case in April, because of the passage of time and the inaction of the UK Government.

Children (Care and Justice) (Scotland) Bill (Victims’ and Accused Persons’ Rights)

To ask the Scottish Government how it will balance the rights of victims with the rights of the accused in the processes developed by the Children (Care and Justice) (Scotland) Bill. (S6O-02705)

The Minister for Children, Young People and Keeping the Promise (Natalie Don)

I am very conscious of the need to ensure that the rights of victims and the rights of referred children are balanced, and I am aware of the concerns around that issue, as I have reflected in my evidence to the Education, Children and Young People Committee and my meetings with individual members. The bill’s provisions seek to balance the rights, needs and expectations of victims, and of the parents or carers of child victims, with the rights of referred children. I assure the member that amendments to further improve support for victims are being considered for stage 2.

The bill will ensure that there is scope for referral of all children to the principal reporter, removing the barriers that meant that children already had to be in the hearings system before turning 16 if they were to get support through that system. Importantly, the bill will also allow referrals for children who are themselves victims within their family home.

Michelle Thomson

I concede that the evidence tells us that it can be difficult for Government to juggle the rights of distinct groups. As the minister suggests, the Education, Children and Young People Committee has raised a number of concerns about the lack of consideration thus far of the needs of child victims within the children’s hearings process.

Just yesterday, Victim Support Scotland highlighted a father’s concerns about the lack of information and support and challenges with regard to safety planning for victims. Ian said:

“I would not wish on my worst enemy what we had to go through as a family.”

I appreciate that the minister cannot yet disclose the planned amendments to the bill, but will she reiterate that she takes seriously the significant concerns expressed by multiple agencies and by the ECYP Committee, and will she ensure that the rights of child victims are given the same focus as those of child perpetrators?

I must ask for concise questions and responses.

Natalie Don

I am really sorry to hear about the situation that Michelle Thomson has outlined and I thank her for raising a really important issue. Whether a child’s behaviour is dealt with by the criminal justice system or the children’s hearings system, we must absolutely ensure that we meet the needs of victims and their families. I again assure the member that I am absolutely alive to the issues that she raises. In fact, I have met Victim Support Scotland to discuss the bill and those issues.

As I said in my initial answer, making further improvements to support for victims will be a key consideration during stage 2 of the bill process. I would be happy to meet with the member to discuss that in more detail.

Additional Support Needs (Mainstream Education) (Central Scotland)

3. Meghan Gallacher (Central Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the support and services available for children and young people with additional support needs in mainstream education across Central Scotland. (S6O-02706)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

Our most recent figures show that local authority spending on additional support for learning has reached a record high of £830 million. We have also invested £15 million per year since 2019-20 to support the recruitment of pupil support assistants and to help them respond to the individual needs of children and young people. In addition, the Scottish Government provided more than £11 million of funding to directly support pupils with complex additional support needs and services to children and families.

We work with a number of partners across Central Scotland to ensure that advice, support and resources are available to the parents and carers of children and young people with additional support needs, the children and young people themselves and the practitioners who support them.

Meghan Gallacher

The truth is that many children are in learning settings that do not suit their needs. Parents have contacted me to say that, due to long waiting lists for ASN diagnosis, many children are being refused a transfer to ASN specialist schools and nurseries. The fact of the matter is that our school and nursery estates are not equipped to deal with the number of young people who have complex additional support needs. ASN parent councils in my region have raised that issue, but their voices are being ignored.

What will this Government do to reduce the time that families spend waiting for an ASN diagnosis? Does the minister agree that a full review of the ASN estate is long overdue?

Jenny Gilruth

The member raises a really important point, particularly in the light of the number of pupils who now have an identified additional support need. More than a third of our young people now have an identified need, which changes the types of learning and teaching that happen in our classrooms and affects the needs of our young people, their parents and carers. I am sorry to hear about the experience of the campaign group in the member’s region. I would be more than happy to engage with that group and, indeed, have engaged directly with the ASN reform Scotland group on the matter.

The member also makes a number of points about diagnosis. Under the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act (2004), no diagnosis is required for additional support to be given, but we very much recognise that having a diagnosis can help young people and their families.

In 2021, we published guidance on the national neurodevelopmental specification for children and young people. The member has asked for a review of that guidance, but I suggest to her that it might be prudent to consider that more fully as part of the education reform process, recognising that that process must reflect the recent changes in our classrooms. ASN is part of that change and I am committed to working with the member, and with members from across the chamber, on how we can better support teachers, parents and carers in relation to additional support needs.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

Presiding Officer, I apologise for being slightly late for general questions.

Cabinet secretary, should the discussion about involving parents not include involving parents and carers in the decision-making processes regarding their young person, instead of just keeping them informed?

Jenny Gilruth

I agree with the member’s suggestion in relation to decision making. As I alluded to in my response to Meghan Gallacher, we provide support to parents, but if the member has any suggestions on how we can better influence that through the education reform process, I am more than happy to listen to them.

This Tuesday, we launched the consultation on the issues surrounding the legislation that will come forward next year. There is an opportunity to strengthen that legislation, particularly in relation to parental rights, and I am more than happy to consider that suggestion through the consultation process.

Scottish Water (Industrial Action)

4. Richard Leonard (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I remind members of my voluntary entry in the register of members’ interests regarding the GMB, Unite and Unison trade unions.

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that notice of industrial action has been served on Scottish Water. (S6O-02707)

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Net Zero and Just Transition (Màiri McAllan)

Those on-going pay negotiations are, of course, a matter for Scottish Water, as the employer, on one hand and the unions on the other. However, I understand that, as Mr Leonard narrates, Scottish Water has been notified by the three recognised unions of industrial action, starting from Friday 10 November. I encourage all parties to continue negotiations to resolve the dispute.

Richard Leonard

I thank the cabinet secretary for her answer.

When the three Scottish Water trade unions—Unite, Unison and the GMB—came to Parliament on Tuesday, they were determined. Since the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service talks broke up at 2.30 this morning, they are angry.

The cabinet secretary simply cannot claim that those negotiations are solely a matter for Scottish Water. The Scottish Government wholly owns Scottish Water. The planned pay cut to the lowest-paid workers is a flagrant breach of the Scottish Government’s fair work principles. The last time we were so close to a Scottish Water strike, back in 2008, the then finance secretary stepped in—I know, because I was there. With 12 hours to go before the strike, will the cabinet secretary come out of hiding, break her silence and get this dispute settled?

Màiri McAllan

I repeat that, contrary to Mr Leonard’s characterisation, the pay negotiations are a matter for Scottish Water on the one hand and the unions on the other. He is quite right that further talks were conducted last night, and they went on into the early hours of the morning. I understand that they were positive although inconclusive. Contingency plans are in place for strike action and a further meeting is scheduled with ACAS for 15 November.

Support for Small Businesses (Mid Scotland and Fife)

To ask the Scottish Government how it supports small businesses in the Mid Scotland and Fife region. (S6O-02708)

The Cabinet Secretary for Wellbeing Economy, Fair Work and Energy (Neil Gray)

Businesses in Mid Scotland and Fife and across Scotland can access advice, guidance and financial support from a wide range of organisations across the public sector. There are more than 750 publicly funded interventions to support businesses in Scotland, including grants and loans, consultancy, research, training opportunities and self-help guides. Most of that support is available to any business anywhere in Scotland, whatever stage of growth it is at.

On non-domestic rates, the Scottish budget this year ensures the lowest poundage in the United Kingdom for the fifth year in a row and supports a package of reliefs that are worth an estimated £749 million. That includes the most generous small business bonus scheme relief in the UK, which is estimated to save ratepayers £250 million this year.

The Scottish Government is working with the enterprise agencies, local government and other public bodies to improve the way that we support businesses through the business support partnership. A range of business support is available via Business Gateway and Scottish Enterprise and can be accessed via

Claire Baker

I will ask a question about something that the cabinet secretary has not mentioned. During the Economy and Fair Work Committee’s inquiry into town centres, we spoke to Fife small businesses about their bricks and clicks model and how important the digitalboost grant funding was.

The digital strategy had committed to expanding that fund, yet the budget was reduced in 2022-23 and the Government has made no plans for it this year. Instead, it is focusing on piloting digital productivity labs. The labs pilot scheme ended in June. What progress is being made on developing an improved digital support programme, and will the popular digitalboost grant be reinstated as part of that?

Neil Gray

I thank Claire Baker for her question. I always endeavour to provide as much information as possible and to be as comprehensive as I can in answering parliamentary questions.

I am more than happy to provide further information in writing on the work that we are doing to support businesses on the digital front. It is a substantial part of the investment that is made in my portfolio, and I will endeavour to write to Claire Baker to ensure that she has the fullest information regarding the available support.

Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

This week, business organisations united in a call for non-domestic rates to be frozen in the forthcoming budget as a measure that would do more than anything else to support small business. Will they be listened to?

Neil Gray

The Scottish Government’s budget process is on-going. The Deputy First Minister’s tax advisory group is looking at areas such as that. I convene the new deal for business group, and the implementation plan that I am endeavouring to deliver on includes elements of non-domestic rate reform where that is possible.

We will be looking at what we can do to support businesses through non-domestic rates, but Murdo Fraser will know, as I do, that the business resilience information that I get and that is available through all the enterprise agencies demonstrates that the biggest challenges facing businesses right now are inflation, energy costs and interest rate rises, the responsibility for all of which lies firmly at the door of his Government at Westminster.

Learning Estate Investment Programme (Funding) (South Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government what funding it is providing through the next phase of the learning state investment programme for schools in the South Scotland region. (S6O-02709)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

The Scottish Government’s learning estate investment programme is a £2 billion investment project supporting Scotland’s school estate. Phase 3 supports a priority project in those councils that have not thus far benefited from LEIP funding, so it treats councils fairly and equitably.

Although it is the duty of councils to manage and maintain their school estates, we are supporting eight projects in the South Scotland region through phases 1 and 2 of LEIP.

Additionally, through the previous Scotland’s schools for the future programme, we awarded councils with funding of almost £171 million towards 20 priority projects in the South Scotland region.

As a result of investment by the Government, the proportion of schools in good or satisfactory condition in Scotland has increased from 61 per cent in April 2007 to almost 91 per cent in April 2023.

Colin Smyth

The question was about the next phase of the programme, not the one that happened three years ago. The short answer is that there is nothing—not a penny—for a single school in South Scotland. It was bad enough that projects were delayed and costs rose because of the dithering of the cabinet secretary in making a decision on funding, but now every project in the region has been rejected. What message does the cabinet secretary have for parents at schools such as Dumfries academy, which is classed as condition B and C, which are not worthy of funding, when schools that have been classed as condition A have had funding?

Jenny Gilruth

I remind the member of the vast improvement in the school estate that I mentioned in my previous answer. It was a vast improvement that was made necessary by his party’s pathetic record on our schools while it was in office, which left us in a situation whereby almost 40 per cent of our schools were in a substandard condition.

I want to work with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to consider how we build on the progress, but if we had gone even further with LEIP funding at this stage, as I hear the member suggesting, that money would have had to come from somewhere else. Where is the member suggesting that that extra budget should come from? What cuts would he make to the education budget to fund extra schools? That is the reality of the situation that we face, thanks to an austerity agenda brought in by the Tories, and now supported whole-heartedly by Keir Starmer and the Labour Party.

Strathclyde Pension Fund (Discussions)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met representatives of the Strathclyde Pension Fund and what was discussed. (S6O-02710)

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

Scottish Government officials attend the Scottish Local Government Pension Scheme Advisory Board as observers and are often present at other events associated with the local government pension scheme, which representatives of the Strathclyde Pension Fund also attend. Scottish Government officials also regularly communicate with representatives from the fund about administrative matters.

Collette Stevenson

The success of the fund will allow employers to reduce pension contributions for a couple of years while protecting pension payments for current and future beneficiaries. That will unlock additional resources for several local authorities, including South Lanarkshire. Will the minister outline whether useful lessons will be learned from the success of the Strathclyde Pension Fund for other public sector investments?

Tom Arthur

The Strathclyde Pension Fund might indeed be commended for its performance, and that reflects the fact that the local government pension scheme in Scotland is a success story.

A number of options exist for funds that report a surplus, and approaches might differ from one fund to the next. Clearly, the experience of Strathclyde Pension Fund in recent years is an example of good practice. However, I understand that the other 10 Scottish funds are also more than 100 per cent funded. Scottish fund authorities meet to discuss investments on a regular basis. Closer collaboration is an approach that may be a viable option for them.

More widely, we encourage an approach to investment finance that brings together individuals, businesses and organisations with relevant experience and interests to promote investment opportunities in Scotland and support growth.

The Presiding Officer

That concludes general questions.

Before we move to the First Minister’s question time, I invite members to join me in welcoming to the gallery His Excellency Teodoro Locsin, ambassador of the Philippines to the United Kingdom. [Applause.]