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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, May 11, 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, International ME Awareness Day, Keeping Children Safe Online, Standing Orders (Rule Changes), Decision Time


General Question Time

Income Tax

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on what the top rate of income tax should be. (S5O-00969)

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution (Derek Mackay)

In February, the Scottish Parliament endorsed the Scottish Government’s proposal that the additional rate of income tax should be maintained at 45p for the tax year 2017-18.

Analysis produced by the Scottish Government showed that there is a revenue risk associated with raising the additional rate. However, the First Minister has asked the Council of Economic Advisers to consider how and to what extent that risk can be mitigated. If we are sufficiently assured that the risk can be mitigated, we will consider raising the additional rate from 45p to 50p from 2018-19 onwards as part of our budget considerations.

Anas Sarwar

Last week, the First Minister said that she would support a 50p tax band as long as it was across the United Kingdom, but not if it were just in Scotland, in case people chose to leave. Yesterday, the Scottish National Party voted against a pay rise for low and middle-income earners in the national health service. Why does the cabinet secretary think that low-income earners in a competitive market—they are wanted across the globe—will not choose to leave Scotland, but that high earners, who would have to pay a little more tax, would leave Scotland? Is that not a very Tory argument?

Derek Mackay

Where we have the powers, our position is to make taxation fairer and more proportionate to the ability to pay, while raising additional revenue to invest in our public services. That is the point of taxation and that is what we want to achieve. That is why we are taking a methodical approach.

There is some irony in a Labour Party member talking about low and middle-income earners, when it was the Labour Party that wanted to increase the basic rate, which would have had an impact on those very people.

We will take the right decisions on tax to make the system balanced, fair and progressive while ensuring that we raise the necessary revenue to invest in our public services.

Would the cabinet secretary agree that there might be behavioural change if we adjust the rates too much, and that a difference from the UK rates of an additional 2p might be a good starting point?

Derek Mackay

I thank John Mason for his advice. I am not setting any parameters at this stage in the parliamentary cycle. I agree that there are issues around behavioural responses as they relate to tax, and that is why we are taking the methodical approach.

The First Minister has asked the Council of Economic Advisers to consider the matter so that we can take our tax decisions in the light of all the available evidence. Behavioural change and issues around tax avoidance are things that the Scottish Government—and, indeed, the whole Parliament—should consider when we use the economic levers at our disposal.

Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

Does the cabinet secretary accept that there is a high risk of less money being raised by increasing the higher rate, as a result of behavioural change? That would not necessarily be through higher earners leaving Scotland, but by them re-ordering their affairs so that, for example, they are paid through dividend income, rather than salary. Will the Council of Economic Advisers take all those issues into account when it considers the proposals?

Derek Mackay

I agree with Murdo Fraser that there is a point around behavioural change and how people deploy various ways to engage in tax avoidance. That is a concern, and that is why we have to understand all those issues when we consider tax. The Council of Economic Advisers will consider all the available evidence; its members will also bring their own expertise to the table.

Murdo Fraser’s question allows me to make the additional point that it would be better if the Scottish Government were to have full control of all those matters so that people would not have added opportunities to avoid paying tax in Scotland.

Ivan McKee (Glasgow Provan) (SNP)

Does the cabinet secretary agree that if the Scottish Parliament does not have powers over dividend and savings income taxes or taxes impacted by incorporation—including capital gains and corporation tax—and the power to police tax avoidance, any changes to the top rate of income tax run the risk of reducing, rather than increasing, funds available for public services in Scotland? Does he agree that Labour MSPs would be better joining us in arguing for the full transfer of those powers to the Scottish Parliament?

Derek Mackay

I agree with that analysis. The Government has made that case around the transfer of all powers in relation to tax, to ensure that we can close any loopholes and take a co-ordinated approach to tax in order to maximise the revenues to invest in our public services.

The point is well made, and I look forward to seeing what all the parties have in their manifestos for the UK general election in relation to tax, although I suppose that, thanks to the leak, we have an understanding of what the Labour Party might be able to do, which shows the irony of its position in the UK and in Scotland. We are not following the Tory proposition of just passing on tax cuts to the rich; we want to raise the necessary revenue to invest in our public services.

Question 2 has not been lodged.

Trainee Teacher Recruitment (University of Aberdeen)

To ask the Scottish Government what measures it will take to ensure increased recruitment of students from the north of Scotland to train as teachers at the University of Aberdeen. (S5O-00971)

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

We have taken a series of actions to help address issues around teacher recruitment. Those include increasing student intake targets for the sixth year in a row, taking steps to maintain teacher numbers as a central part of our priority to improve education, launching a new teacher recruitment campaign in February this year and developing, alongside Scottish universities, a package of innovative routes to teaching to help encourage more graduates to become teachers.

We are very happy to work with the local authorities to help tackle teacher shortages in the Aberdeen area. Currently, we are supporting the University of Aberdeen’s distance learning programme, which allows local authority staff to train as teachers while remaining in post, and we are funding an extension to that programme so that it covers secondary teaching and is available to all local authorities. We are committed to considering whether a second cohort of professional graduate diploma in education internships can be supported through the transition training fund.

Lewis Macdonald

Clearly, some of those steps are very welcome. The cabinet secretary will be aware of the evidence that Willie MacLeod gave to the Education and Skills Committee yesterday, in which he highlighted the steps taken by Western Isles Council to recruit and retain trainee teachers from its local area. As the cabinet secretary clearly recognises the need for further action to address the recruitment crisis across the north of Scotland, will he have further discussions with the University of Aberdeen about what more can be done to enable such imaginative and innovative local schemes not just in the Western Isles and Aberdeen but right across the north and north-east of Scotland, where recruiting and retaining trainee teachers is such a critical and pressing problem?

John Swinney

I welcome Lewis Macdonald’s comments and the thoughtful approach that underpins them. The problem is not just in Scotland or just in the north-east of Scotland; it is widespread. Just before the Easter recess, I was at the international summit on the teaching profession, where I heard that, across about 20 jurisdictions around the world, including some highly respected ones, there are increasing shortages of teachers. We have to be innovative and creative about the approaches that we take to encourage people to join the teaching profession. I assure Mr Macdonald that the Government will work closely and jointly with the University of Aberdeen and the local authorities in the north-east of Scotland on solutions that will deliver objectives that we all share.

Benefit Reductions (Dumfries and Galloway)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to mitigate the cumulative effect of United Kingdom Government benefit reductions in Dumfries and Galloway. (S5O-00972)

The Minister for Social Security (Jeane Freeman)

The UK Government will have cut £1 billion a year from welfare spend in Scotland by 2022, with £0.25 billion coming through changes introduced last month alone. We have taken a number of actions to protect the poorest and most vulnerable from the worst excesses of the UK Government’s austerity agenda and welfare cuts. Those include spending more than £350 million since 2013-14 to fully mitigate the bedroom tax, so that 70,000 households save around £650 per year, and helping 241,000 individual households in crisis through the Scottish welfare fund. There has been a further investment of more than £1 billion in the council tax reduction scheme. As members will know, we have not imposed a two-child cap on that scheme. At the local level, Dumfries and Galloway has received more than £30.5 million of that mitigation funding.

It has to be said, however, that the Scottish Government should not have to mitigate cuts and policies that the Scottish Parliament has not voted for and, I believe, would not vote for.

Joan McAlpine

One of the most recent stories about the on-going cuts has been about the effect on Motability vehicles. The charity Muscular Dystrophy UK found that 900 people are losing their Motability vehicles every week, due to the reassessment of personal independence payments. That is having a devastating effect on people in rural areas such as Dumfries and Galloway, where the vehicles give people a vital lifeline for everyday life, including getting to and from work. Does the minister agree that that is completely unacceptable?

Jeane Freeman

The Conservative Government tells us that its welfare policies are designed to help people into employment. Even in its own terms, and even if we believe it, the significant impact of the loss of Motability vehicles on individuals is considerable, particularly, as Joan McAlpine said, for those living in rural communities such as her own and, indeed, mine.

Whether it is about austerity or welfare cuts falling on the backs of the poor, we know that the Conservative Government has no care for and no recognition of the damage that is caused by its policies. In Scotland, we are doing things differently. We are working with Motability to ensure that its service will continue to be available when we take on the delivery of those benefits in our rights-based social security system, which will be a system that is based on dignity and respect.

Edinburgh City Bypass (Capacity)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on plans to increase the capacity of the Edinburgh city bypass. (S5O-00973)

The Minister for Transport and the Islands (Humza Yousaf)

The Scottish Government is committed to undertaking improvements on the Edinburgh city bypass and announced the preferred option for the upgrade of Sheriffhall roundabout on 3 April. Transport Scotland is now taking forward the detailed development and assessment of the preferred option, in line with the statutory process.

Miles Briggs

Recent studies have suggested that the city bypass is among the most congested stretches of trunk road anywhere in the United Kingdom. The Scottish Government’s figures anticipate 10,000 more vehicles per day using the bypass by 2022. Although the long overdue improvements at Sheriffhall are welcome and must be constructed without further delay, can the minister set out to Parliament in detail what specific plans the Government has and is working on to increase capacity along the length of the bypass, and whether it supports the use of smart motorway technology to allow hard shoulders to be used during peak times?

Humza Yousaf

The improvements will make a big difference to people coming into and leaving Edinburgh and the surrounding south-east of Scotland area. We have been making improvements since we came into power and became the Government in 2007. In 2008, there was a £2.2 million lane-widening project for Sheriffhall and the £30 million construction of the Dalkeith bypass, which included the Millerhill interchange at the A720.

Smart technology is a big component of what we do in infrastructure improvements. In 2015, we installed road-stud lane markings, which illuminate in conjunction with traffic lights, so we are already doing some of that. Looking at where else we can do that on the A720 will be part SESplan’s cross-boundary study, which we are taking forward with the local regional transport partnership and the local authority.

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

With reference to the proposals to improve the Sheriffhall roundabout, will there be provision to allow cyclists to traverse that roundabout safely? Many cyclists from my constituency travel using the A7 into Edinburgh. At the moment, anyone on a bike takes their life in their hands trying to go round the Sheriffhall roundabout.

Humza Yousaf

Yes. Suitable provision for all users, including cyclists, is an important part of the proposed improvements to Sheriffhall roundabout. That will be developed in further detail as we progress with assessment of the preferred option in consultation with local interest groups. The issue has been raised by many organisations representing the cycling lobby, and it is one to which we are giving careful consideration.

Veterans (Homelessness)

To ask the Scottish Government how many veterans it has recorded as homeless in each of the last three years. (S5O-00974)

The Minister for Local Government and Housing (Kevin Stewart)

In 2015-16, official statistics record 922 homeless applications in which the main applicant applied directly from armed services accommodation, or the application included a household member formerly in the armed services. That is the lowest number recorded to date. It represents 2.7 per cent of all homeless applications. In 2014-15 the number was recorded at 959, and it was 1,008 in 2013-14.

Maurice Corry

I understand that much of the housing that is provided to veterans is through charitable organisations—Scottish Veterans Residences, Houses for Heroes and others. We are very grateful to those charities for their relentless efforts to keep veterans off the streets. However, charities do not have the funds to be the main providers of housing for veterans. Veterans housing is at full capacity, there are waiting lists and there is little effort being made by the Scottish Government to encourage local authorities to offer more housing to veterans. It is reported that Scottish veterans are 10 per cent more likely to be homeless than veterans in England. Will the Scottish Government therefore look into working more closely with charities and local authorities to close that gap, and to be at least the same or better than England in its treatment of veterans’ resettlement and housing?

Kevin Stewart

The Government has worked closely with veterans charities, and has given £1.3 million to the Scottish Veterans Garden City Housing Association. We are also working with local authorities to improve homelessness services for all, and we have our target of 50,000 affordable homes.

I read with interest yesterday’s Daily Record, in which Calum MacLeod from Who Dares Cares said that the treatment of veterans is

“a horrifying indictment of modern Britain.”

The Tory Government has presided over a rise in insecure employment, welfare cuts and ideologically driven austerity, all of which have contributed to the major increase in the need for additional homelessness services and food provision across the United Kingdom.

However, with the Scottish Tories being apologists for the rape clause, people should not hold their breath waiting for them to stand up to Theresa May or anyone else, even when it means that veterans, families and pensioners are being pushed into poverty and crisis due to their policies.

Automation and Artificial Intelligence (Economic Impact)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on any assessment it has made of the potential impact of automation and artificial intelligence on the economy. (S5O-00975)

The Minister for Employability and Training (Jamie Hepburn)

The Scottish Government continues to monitor the emerging evidence base around automation and artificial intelligence and its implications for Scotland’s economy.

In April, Scottish Enterprise published a research report on the potential impacts of automation on Scotland’s construction industry, the food supply chain and financial and business services. The research found that it is likely that, by 2025, automation will contribute to net employment growth, that new industries will be formed to provide and service new automation solutions and that, within user sectors, the company growth that will be realised by automation will require increased employment.

Technological change and issues such as automation will have a significant impact over the next few decades, in creating both challenges and opportunities for businesses and employees across Scotland. As is highlighted in “Scotland’s Labour Market Strategy”, we will carry out analysis of such issues in the future and will help employers and employees to respond to them positively, with the support of the strategic labour market group.

Tom Arthur

The minister will be aware of the recent report from the Institute for Public Policy Research, “Scotland skills 2030: The future of work and the skills system in Scotland”, which highlighted that

“over 46 per cent of jobs (1.2 million) in Scotland are at high risk of automation.”

Can the minister outline what action the Government is taking to ensure that Scotland’s skills system can continue to support Scotland’s workforce as automation changes the nature of work?

Jamie Hepburn

I am, indeed, aware of the IPPR report. I view it as a welcome addition to our understanding of these matters. As I have said, I know that automation and technological change will have profound impacts on how we work in the future, and our labour market strategy recognises that. We do not understand entirely what the impact will be, which is why a range of research has been commissioned. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which takes a different approach from the IPPR, has estimated that about 12 per cent of jobs in the United Kingdom might be affected by automation. That is a rather smaller figure than that which has been given by the IPPR.

I recognise that automation may pose challenges in respect of how we work in the future—in particular, for people in low-skilled jobs. Scotland’s workforce is, of course, highly educated, flexible and adaptable and is already responding well to the challenges of the 21st century. Through our enterprise and skills review, we aim to create a coherent enterprise and skills system that can ensure that that continues to be the case. The IPPR report discussed “mid-career provision” to allow people to progress in the workplace. Our enterprise and skills review will play a role in that. The flexible workforce development fund and individual training accounts can also help, and we will always be willing to consider what else we can do.

Dean Lockhart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

In January this year, the UK Government published a draft industrial strategy containing a series of measures to capitalise on emerging technologies in the economy, including automation. Leading organisations including the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Scotch Whisky Association have called on the Scottish Government to participate actively in that industrial strategy. Can the minister explain what steps have been taken by the Scottish Government to participate actively in it?

We will always be willing to engage with the UK Government on such matters. I know that the Cabinet Secretary for the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work has been doing precisely that and will continue to engage.

Teacher and Classroom Assistant Recruitment (West of Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government how it will support the recruitment of additional teachers and classroom assistants in West Scotland. (S5O-00976)

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

The Scottish Government is taking a number of actions to help to recruit teachers. We are spending £88 million this year to ensure that every school has access to the right number of teachers, we have increased student teacher intake targets for the sixth year in a row, and we are setting targets to train teachers in the subjects in which they are needed most. We are also supporting innovative new routes into teaching, including through work with the University of Glasgow and the University of Strathclyde.

The recruitment and deployment of support staff is a matter for education authorities in the light of local circumstances and priorities, including their statutory duties.

Mary Fee

I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer. Recent Scottish Government figures have highlighted a worrying trend across West Scotland, with class sizes rising and teacher numbers decreasing. In Renfrewshire, the percentage of pupils in primary 1 to primary 3 in classes with 18 pupils or fewer has declined from 33 per cent in 2010 to 13 per cent in 2016, while the average class size for P5, P6 and P7 in Renfrewshire is more than 26 pupils.

Furthermore, over the past decade of Scottish National Party rule, teacher numbers have declined significantly. In North Ayrshire, teacher numbers have fallen by 105 since 2007, while Inverclyde now has 175 fewer teachers than it had a decade ago.

With those statistics in mind, I ask the cabinet secretary what specific plans the Scottish Government has in place to reverse the worrying trend of larger class sizes and fewer teachers across West Scotland, which results in an increased workload for teachers and decreased contact time between teachers and pupils?

John Swinney

The Government has attached high priority to maintaining teacher numbers. We had to do so because we faced a number of Labour local authorities that were absolutely determined to reduce teacher numbers and I would not have it. [Interruption.] I am delighted that as a result of the Government’s strong action in this respect, we are seeing an increasing number of teachers in our schools and our classrooms. I am delighted that the £120 million that the Government has made available directly to the schools of our country, which Labour Party members—every single one of them—voted against, is now recruiting more teachers in our classrooms and assisting in delivery of education. I would have thought that Mary Fee would have welcomed that. [Interruption.]

I am glad that the Deputy First Minister has warmed us up. [Laughter.] The First Minister and others do not need to follow that example. We turn now to First Minister’s question time.