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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, January 11, 2024


General Question Time

Good morning. The first item of business is general question time. In order to get in as many members as possible, I would greatly appreciate succinct questions and responses.

Male Suicide Rates

1. Meghan Gallacher (Central Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what work it is undertaking to reduce the rates of male suicide in Scotland, in light of the issues raised in the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s “Equality and Human Rights Monitor” report for 2023. (S6O-02950)

The Minister for Social Care, Mental Wellbeing and Sport (Maree Todd)

The Scottish Government and Convention of Scottish Local Authorities suicide prevention strategy, “Creating Hope Together: Scotland’s Suicide Prevention Action Plan 2022-2025”, takes a targeted approach to reaching and supporting people who are at higher risk of suicide, including men. Through the likes of targeted work with partners in the west Highlands and Skye and the “Changing room—extra time” programme, we are continuing to understand more about what helps men to reach out for support and what type of support works best. Another key part of our strategy is the building of peer support groups right across Scotland as a way to prevent suicide, which we know works well for many men.

Finally, our gender-balanced suicide prevention lived-experience panel allows us to continue to benefit from the insights of men affected by suicide. That is invaluable in helping us to prevent male suicide.

Meghan Gallacher

I welcome the minister’s answer, because the suicide rate for boys and young men aged five to 24 is two times higher than that for girls and young women in the same age group. One of the recommendations in the report is that the Scottish Government sets a national equality outcome to reduce the suicide rate among five to 24-year-olds, particularly in males. Will the minister commit to implementing that?

What other recommendations from the report could be implemented to provide support to boys and young men and prevent more lives from being lost to suicide?

Maree Todd

I agree with Ms Gallagher that we need to very carefully target our support for teenage boys and young men. However, when we look at suicide as a whole, the curve is U-shaped and the highest rate is in middle age, so we cannot take our eyes off any age group. We need to ensure that we have strategies that meet the needs of every age group, and we are doing that very carefully, working with partners. The programme in Skye and the west Highlands, which I mentioned, looks particularly at rural communities, where we know there is a particularly high rate and people are susceptible. We also have work going on in LGBT communities.

I am confident that we are doing the right things. We need to do more. Every suicide is preventable and every suicide has absolutely tragic consequences, so we will absolutely remain focused on tackling the issue.

Ivan McKee (Glasgow Provan) (SNP)

Can the minister provide an update regarding work that is under way to raise awareness about suicide and to improve understanding, particularly in sectors that support groups with higher rates of suicide, which include, as we have heard, men and boys?

Maree Todd

In implementing our “Creating Hope Together” policy, we are working with partners that represent high-risk groups, such as the LGBT community and other known marginalised groups, to develop tailored approaches to suicide prevention, awareness raising and support. We have taken a targeted approach to learning so that people in the workforce who are most likely to be supporting people who feel suicidal are supported. That includes people in health and social care, education, the emergency services and third sector organisations that work in local communities. We are going to extend that approach further into other key services, including homelessness support services.

The community-based supports that we fund for children and young people and adults also have a focus on distress prevention and support. Through our “Time, space, compassion” approach, we have worked hard to identify and connect services and communities that are already doing important work to support communities that are at higher risk of suicide.

Electric Buses (Glasgow)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to support the roll-out of electric buses across the Glasgow city region. (S6O-02951)

The Minister for Transport (Fiona Hyslop)

Since 2020, £62 million of Scottish Government investment has supported operators to acquire 315 zero-emission buses and supporting infrastructure to serve the Glasgow area. Of those buses, 305 are already on the road, as the remaining 10 will be by the end of March. The final phase of the Scottish zero-emission bus challenge fund is currently live, offering a further £43 million to transform the market for zero-emission buses so that they are affordable to all operators, without subsidy.

Kaukab Stewart

Electric vehicles go a long way in improving inner-city air quality and public health, as well as contributing to meeting the net zero target. Naturally, therefore, the decision not to award Strathclyde Partnership for Transport ScotZEB 2 funding for a new fleet of electric buses has been met with disappointment. What support can the Government offer organisations such as SPT to help them to meet their electric vehicle ambitions?

Fiona Hyslop

Organisations such as SPT can contact the remaining lead bidders to discuss joining their consortia ahead of the deadline for best and final bids on 19 January. Information is available from the Energy Saving Trust, which administers the scheme. I encourage all bus and coach operators and organisations to explore the range of information packs, how-to guides and case studies that have been produced by our bus decarbonisation task force, which is hosted on the Confederation of Passenger Transport website.

Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

Given the budget announcement that there will be no direct funding for the bus partnership fund next year, what will happen to work by the Glasgow city region bus partnership, and other partnerships, to progress bus priority measures?

Fiona Hyslop

That does not necessarily relate directly to the roll-out of electric buses and the ScotZEB fund. Graham Simpson will be aware that there has been progress on bus partnerships, to support bus priority lanes. I add that his Conservative colleagues in Aberdeen have been highly critical of the work and investment that are already taking place in Aberdeen to encourage such bus lanes.

I remind Graham Simpson that we cannot have the United Kingdom Government introducing budgets, such as the one that was made by Liz Truss and her Chancellor of the Exchequer, that decimate the public finance system and introduce a capital reduction of almost 10 per cent at a time of increasing construction costs, then have him come to the chamber to ask for more money that literally does not exist because of his Conservative colleagues at Westminster.

Business Support (Highlands and Islands)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to support businesses across the Highlands and Islands region. (S6O-02952)

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

Our economic development agency for that region, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, provides advice, training and funding to help businesses to grow and innovate. It invested £20.1 million in 272 small businesses across the region during 2022-23, supporting 478 jobs and an increase of £122 million in turnover.

Our investment of £242.5 million in the four city region and growth deals across the Highlands and Islands will deliver significant and lasting economic benefits for businesses.

The 2024-25 Scottish budget ensures that businesses across the Highlands and Islands will continue to benefit from a competitive non-domestic rates relief package, which—according to the latest figures—includes 23,000 business properties paying no rates at all, thanks to the small business bonus scheme.

Donald Cameron

Last October, HIE’s chief executive, Stuart Black, told the Economy and Fair Work Committee that a projected cut of 4.8 per cent to HIE’s budget would affect its

“ability to work with communities at local level”.—[Official Report, Economy and Fair Work Committee, 4 October 2023; c 7.]

Given that HIE’s total budget is now at its lowest level in more than a decade, following a cut that was three times as great as was previously forecast, does the cabinet secretary not recognise the serious damage that will be done to business confidence across communities in the Highlands and Islands?

Neil Gray

As our delivery agent, HIE will continue to make a key contribution to achieving the Government’s objectives through support for businesses and communities in strategic economic development. The budget provides investment of almost £67 million in 2024-25 as the first part of the Scottish Government’s commitment of up to £500 million to anchor a new offshore wind supply chain in Scotland. We expect HIE to play a key role in delivering our ambitions for that supply chain and in maximising the economic benefits therein.

I will also continue to work with HIE to ensure that it can prioritise the funding that it has received to maximise the opportunities that are available.

However, at a time when our budgets are under attack from the United Kingdom Government, I respectfully say to Donald Cameron that it is incredible that he comes here asking for more money but does not come up with an answer on where it is supposed to come from.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

Before Christmas, it emerged that the Lerwick-Kirkwall-Aberdeen Serco NorthLink ferry service costs would be hiked by an eye-watering 8.7 per cent from April 2024. That is obviously above inflation, and it will hit businesses with increased freight costs. Does the cabinet secretary consider such cost hikes on the lifeline service to be supportive of island businesses?

Neil Gray

We will continue to work with Serco NorthLink to ensure that it provides a sustainable and supportive environment for the lifeline services that it provides. I declare an interest, having travelled on NorthLink ferries over the Christmas period in order to visit family. I will be happy to meet Beatrice Wishart to discuss the issue that she has raised.

Ariane Burgess (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

I welcome the Government’s commitment to supporting business in my region. There are now more than 1,200 social enterprises across the Highlands and Islands, which is the highest density in Scotland. A third of all of Scotland’s social enterprises are in rural areas, and they contribute 88,000 jobs and more than £2.3 billion to the economy. What specific support can be offered to the growing social enterprise sector in the Highlands and Islands?

Neil Gray

We recognise the unique importance of social enterprises to business and community life across Scotland’s Highlands and Islands. Our social enterprise action plan recognises the different challenges that they face.

The Scottish Government directly funds the rural social enterprise hub, and social enterprises from the Highlands and Islands can access business support from Just Enterprise, which is a Government-funded national business support service. That support is delivered locally, often through partners such as Impact Hub Inverness. Since April 2022, we have awarded more than £600,000 of financial support directly to social enterprises in the Highlands and Islands through our delivery partner Firstport.

Question 4 was not lodged.

Cost of Living Crisis

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what steps it is taking to address the cost of living crisis. (S6O-02954)

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

Despite the difficult financial settlement from the United Kingdom Government, this Government is doing everything that it can, with the powers available to it, to support people and communities through the cost of living crisis.

We are investing a record-high £6.3 billion in social security benefits and payments. That is £1.1 billion more than the level of funding that is forecast to be received from the UK Government through the social security block grant adjustments, helping low-income families and disabled people with their living costs.

Stuart McMillan

Earlier this week, I visited Advice Direct Scotland, which is funded by the Scottish Government. According to its stats, more people from my constituency than from any other constituency in the country have contacted it for energy advice. I believe that its outreach work across the country, including in my constituency, has led to some of the increase. It will also be attending a session at 7 1/2 John Wood Street in Port Glasgow tomorrow.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that it is vital that people reach out for support when they need it? Does she also agree that, in energy-rich but fuel-poor Scotland, we see yet another damning indictment of Scotland’s place in the union?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I agree with Stuart McMillan’s assessment. It is deeply concerning that we see so many people still in poverty. That is why the First Minister made an announcement about the fuel insecurity fund very early on when he came into post. He recognised its importance within the limited powers that we have to try and tackle poverty. The vast majority of those powers lie with Westminster, which has walked away from supporting people with the cost of living, particularly those who are living in fuel poverty.

We will do everything that we can, which includes funding Advice Direct Scotland and others who provide such valuable advice to people at times of crisis.

Paul O’Kane (West Scotland) (Lab)

One thing that will not help with the cost of living crisis is slashing the affordable housing supply budget by more than a quarter in real terms in the coming year. Anti-poverty charities such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have used words such as “disappointing”, “brutal” and “baffling” to describe the decision. Surely access to affordable housing is the bedrock of dealing with cost of living pressures. When will the Government recognise that there is a housing emergency on its watch and take action—including by reviewing its budget decisions, which are exacerbating the cost of living crisis?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I would be more than happy to meet the member to discuss the matter—as would the Minister for Housing, I am sure—so that he can tell us in detail how we are supposed to deal with a 10 per cent cut to the Scottish Government’s capital budget while still increasing budgets, as he has demanded. Paul O’Kane is of course absolutely within his rights to come to the chamber and ask for more money. If he wants to get into a genuine discussion about how to help with housing and homelessness, my door is open—and the Minister for Housing’s door is open—so we can discuss where the money would come from, and get past the headlines and into the details.

Household Incomes (Rutherglen)

To ask the Scottish Government how its budget will support household incomes in the Rutherglen constituency. (S6O-02955)

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Finance (Shona Robison)

The heart of our budget is the social contract between the Scottish Government and the people of Scotland. People in Rutherglen will continue to benefit from our long-standing commitments to free prescriptions, free access to higher education and the game-changing Scottish child payment. The Scottish budget commits a record £6.3 billion in social security benefits and payments to deliver on our national mission to tackle inequality. It sets aside £144 million to support a council tax freeze for this year, protecting household incomes across the country.

Clare Haughey

The Scottish Government’s budget ensures that a majority of people in Scotland pay less income tax than elsewhere in the United Kingdom. In the midst of a Westminster cost of living crisis, the budget will freeze council tax, as the cabinet secretary has said, and increase the Scottish child payment. It will also provide the most generous early learning and childcare package across the UK, saving families thousands of pounds each year. Does the minister agree that the UK Government must now step up to protect incomes, and that it should do so by tackling rising food prices, mortgage payments and energy prices?

Shona Robison

I do agree with that. Our values-based budget prioritises what matters, supporting people through the cost of living crisis and investing in our front-line public services.

The oversight and regulation of mortgage lenders is a reserved matter. We have repeatedly called on the UK Government to increase support for those who are being most impacted by increasing inflation, interest rates and living costs. In June 2023, Scotland became the first nation in the UK to publish a plan to work towards ending the need for food banks. That includes a new £1.8 million programme to improve urgent access to cash in a crisis. We continue to repeat our calls on the UK Government to provide more targeted support for vulnerable consumers. That includes pressing for the urgent introduction of a social tariff mechanism as a much-needed safety net for priority energy consumers—which, unfortunately, the UK Government has so far chosen not to progress.

Alcohol and Drugs Policy (Budget)

7. Carol Mochan (South Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on whether its proposed budget spend increase of £0.1 million for alcohol and drugs policy, which is reportedly a real-terms reduction, is sufficient to address the challenges faced in this area. (S6O-02956)

The Minister for Drugs and Alcohol Policy (Elena Whitham)

The 2024-25 alcohol and drugs budget has remained the same as that for 2023-24. The minor change seen in the published 2024-25 budget is not a proposed budget spend increase; rather, it shows funding being formally baselined into the alcohol and drugs budget line. The £13.6 million budget increase from 2022-23 to 2023-24 includes an additional £12 million to deliver the cross-Government plan, which was published in January 2023. The remaining £1.6 million increase covers portfolio operating costs for drug and alcohol staff, the funding for which was previously held centrally. Funding for drugs policy has increased by 67 per cent in real terms from 2014-15 to 2023-24, according to Audit Scotland figures published in 2022.

Carol Mochan

We need to get some reality here. The Scottish Government declared alcohol harm as a public health emergency in its 2022-23 budget. Since then, the number of people losing their lives to alcohol has tragically increased while, since 2016-17, the number of people with alcohol problems who are accessing treatment has fallen dramatically.

Is it time for the Scottish Government to stop tinkering on the edges and instead put forward a comprehensive strategy to ensure that fewer people experience problems caused by alcohol and that people get the support and treatment that they need when they need it?

Elena Whitham

I thank Carol Mochan for that question, which gives me the opportunity to inform the Parliament that, in the coming weeks, we will have a debate in the chamber on alcohol harms and how the Scottish Government is seeking to address the matter. I look forward to having Carol Mochan and others participate in that debate with me.

That concludes general questions.