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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Trade (Australia and New Zealand) Bill: United Kingdom Legislation, Net Zero: Local Government and Cross-sectoral Partners, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, International Long Covid Day


Topical Question Time

Circularity Scotland

1. Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that Circularity Scotland expects to make £57 million a year by the public failing to return containers and that this is part of the company’s business model. (S6T-01253)

The Minister for Green Skills, Circular Economy and Biodiversity (Lorna Slater)

Circularity Scotland Ltd is a not-for-profit company, established by industry and made up of producers, retailers, hospitality, wholesalers and trade associations.

Everyone who pays a deposit on a drinks container will be able to reclaim the deposit in full. Any unredeemed deposits from Scotland’s deposit return scheme will be reinvested into keeping the costs of running the scheme as low as possible for producers of all sizes across Scotland. The model is in line with best practice in other schemes around the world.

Under the DRS regulations, the scheme administrator is required to meet a minimum return rate of 80 per cent in the first year and 90 per cent in subsequent years. Failure to meet those targets would result in financial penalties, establishing a strong incentive for Circularity Scotland to ensure high return rates.

Brian Whittle

The Scottish Government’s full business case for the scheme states explicitly that unredeemed deposits are anticipated to make up between 32 and 43 per cent of Circularity Scotland’s revenue. It goes on to say that modelling assumes that the

“90% capture rate of containers is achieved by year 3 of the scheme’s operating and that it is maintained for the remainder of the 25 years.”

That seems pretty clear: the higher the capture rate, the lower the revenue for Circularity Scotland. The minister surely accepts that that creates a perverse incentive for Circularity Scotland to avoid increasing the capture rate.

Lorna Slater

Brian Whittle is a little bit out of date in what he has said. When the dates for the launch of the scheme were moved forward, the dates for the recycling target were not changed. The recycling target is 80 per cent in the first year and 90 per cent in subsequent years of the scheme.

Successful deposit return schemes around the world are based on the principle of producer responsibility, and they are funded in three ways. One is through producer fees, another is through the value of the materials that are gathered by the scheme and the third is from unredeemed deposits. That is true for the deposit return scheme that the United Kingdom Government intends to introduce in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The UK Government’s response to its consultation on the scheme, which was published in January, says:

“Where a container is not returned, the value of the deposit on that container will be held by the DMO”,

which is the UK Government’s term for the scheme’s administrator. It goes on to say:

“This is an unredeemed deposit and is a potentially significant value stream for the DMO, helping to fund the operation of the scheme. This is a common funding stream found in many international DRSs.”

Brian Whittle

Even if Circularity Scotland were to increase the capture rate, we do not know how such a loss of revenue might affect it, because the Scottish Government has—in a seemingly endless quest to muddy the waters around the scheme—shrouded Scotland’s DRS administrator in secrecy, creating a private company that is immune from freedom of information legislation. Despite it being producer led, as the minister is so fond of saying, it is utterly unwilling to tell producers that sign up to the scheme what potential liabilities they are accepting responsibility for, including the terms of the contract with Biffa.

Will the minister see sense and pause this opaque, badly designed and potentially disastrous mess of a deposit return scheme now, or does she remain determined to leave us guessing about whether it will even be launched, given that that will be dependent on who wins the Scottish National Party leadership election? How is business supposed to plan a way ahead in this environment of uncertainty?

Lorna Slater

The Deposit and Return Scheme for Scotland Regulations 2020, as passed by this Parliament, call for the scheme to be industry led, and Circularity Scotland is the not-for-profit company that has been established by industry.

I have here a list of the members of CSL. It includes trade associations such as the Society of Independent Brewers, the British Soft Drinks Association, the Wine and Spirit Trade Association and many more, such as Diageo, Coca-Cola, Heineken, Sainsbury’s, Marks and Spencer, Lidl and so on. They have created CSL, and they are responsible for ensuring that it works for them.

CSL is a private, not-for-profit company whose responsibility it is to help businesses in Scotland to comply with the 2020 regulations, as passed by this Parliament, and it has reassured me that it is working towards a go-live date of 16 August, as agreed by this Parliament.

As members would expect, there is much interest in this entire session, so I would be grateful for concise questions and responses.

Fergus Ewing (Inverness and Nairn) (SNP)

Much, if not most, of the £57 million that will be lost in non-redeemed, non-claimed deposits will be paid out—and lost—by those who cannot, or cannot readily, return bulky and heavy items, bottles, tins and cans. They will predominantly include the poorest, those without a car, the elderly, the mobility impaired and rural and island dwellers who cannot access a return point. Their money will go towards the—non-disclosed, but probably telephone-number—salaries of the bosses of Circularity Scotland. Is that transfer of money from the poorest to the richest not simply immoral?

Lorna Slater

The member mischaracterises the scheme entirely. Every person in Scotland will pay the 20p deposit when they buy a drink in Scotland in the containers that are scheme articles, and they will get their 20p when they return those articles—[Interruption.]

Let us hear the minister.

The accessibility of the scheme is critical, and we are working hard with Circularity Scotland and Biffa to ensure that every person in Scotland will be able to access the scheme and to get their deposits back.

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

Accessibility is important. The Government recently took a decision to exempt small retailers from the online takeback scheme. Can the minister explain how people who are housebound or disabled, for example, will have their bottles taken back if they have bought them online from a small retailer? There is a real accessibility challenge for those people.

Lorna Slater

There are two points there. Nobody will be required to take the scheme article back to the exact store that they bought it from. Even if they buy it online from a small retailer, they can return it anywhere.

The member makes a good point about people who are not physically able to get to a return point. With the proposed change to the regulations whereby we are phasing in the online takeback, it is important that everybody in Scotland is able to access the scheme, including those who have accessibility or mobility issues. Work is under way to understand how many people that is and how we may best ensure that they can fully access the scheme.

Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

Even the Conservatives at Westminster understand that unredeemed deposits should be used to help to cover the cost of the scheme and thus reduce costs for all, as is normal for equivalent schemes across the continent.

Perhaps the real reason that the Scottish Tories and their colleague Fergus Ewing seem so desperate to bring the DRS into disrepute is that they object to the fundamental principle of the scheme: that the polluter pays, instead of the taxpayer.

Can the minister share with Parliament the cost to local councils every year of the litter that is caused by drinks containers and therefore how much the scheme will save the taxpayer in that respect alone?

Lorna Slater

Absolutely. Every year, £46 million of public money is spent on removing litter and fly-tipping from the Scottish environment. The deposit return scheme will mean that local authorities will have less waste to handle, as well as reducing litter and associated clean-up costs. That is good for residents and for council budgets.

Kat Jones, who is the director of the Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland, supports removing those costs from the taxpayer. She says:

“For too long, the costs of single-use cans and bottles have been met by local taxpayers, communities and our environment. It is high time that industry took responsibility for the waste they create, just as they do around the world.”

Free Bus Travel (Children and Young People)

To ask the Scottish Government how many children and young people it estimates have not taken up the free bus pass. (S6T-01262)

The Minister for Transport (Jenny Gilruth)

At the end of February, there were more than 590,000 card holders in the young persons free bus travel scheme, which equates to 63.5 per cent of the estimated eligible population of 930,000. That means that approximately 340,000 children and young people have not yet joined the scheme. However, uptake of the scheme is as high as 73 per cent among 12 to 15-year-olds and 75 per cent among 16 to 21-year-olds, who can use it more independently. Those who are already accessing the scheme continue to make good use of free bus travel, and more than 50 million journeys have been made since the scheme launched, in January last year.

Beatrice Wishart

Answers by the transport minister to parliamentary questions show that, despite more than £1 million having been spent on a public relations campaign, hundreds of thousands of young people are still missing out on their free bus pass entitlement. Not only is getting a free under-22s bus pass needlessly complicated, but many of Scotland’s rural areas lack reliable and frequent bus services.

Bus passes save young people money, with free journeys to education and work, but the Scottish National Party-Green Government cannot give them away in the middle of a cost of living crisis. Why has the campaign not been more effective? What lessons have been learned from it? Does the minister think that the situation is anything to do with cuts to bus services by networks across the country?

Jenny Gilruth

First, I remind Beatrice Wishart that, when I was appointed, in January last year, we were still dealing with the impact of the omicron variant of Covid. That delayed the roll-out of the marketing campaign. She will understand that, at that time, people’s usual travel behaviour was inhibited. That was the right decision.

Secondly, at the start of last year, there were a number of challenges with the processing of applications, as she has outlined. I worked with the Improvement Service, which ministers tasked with the delivery of the scheme, to improve the application process to make it easier for young people to apply. That was fundamentally important.

The member made reference to the marketing campaign that came into effect later in the year. Actually, the campaign was really effective. It managed to reach more than 97 per cent of the adult population in Scotland—who saw or heard the campaign at least three times—and more than 94 per cent of 13 to 18-year-olds. The campaign also had a positive impact on action: 79 per cent of people who had seen or heard the campaign claimed that they had taken action as a result.

Overall, therefore, the evaluation shows that the impact of the marketing campaign on the under-22s was successful. I hope that the member will support the continued successful roll-out of the scheme to her constituents.

Beatrice Wishart

Young people can travel home from university—or anywhere—on the Scottish mainland free of charge, using their pass on any bus. Why, then, can the passes not be used by our young people who travel home via ferry or on inter-island ferries, which are used like buses? If passes are going unused, why can the provision not be extended to ferries and to those young people who are crying out for such a change?

Jenny Gilruth

Beatrice Wishart has repeatedly raised that point with me, and I am sympathetic to it. I remind her that, when the under-22s scheme came into effect, we carried out an island communities impact assessment, which concluded that ferry travel should not be included in the scheme but that the issues that related to ferry fares should be considered as part of the islands connectivity plan and our wider fair fares review.

I am sympathetic to the point that Beatrice Wishart has made. In our previous meeting, earlier this year, I alluded to the fact that it would be included in the Government’s fair fares review, which we will publish later this year. I very much recognise the dependency of her constituents on ferry services as opposed to bus services, given her constituency.

Many members wish to ask questions, so I would be grateful if we could pick up the pace.

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

I commend Glasgow Life for recognising the application registration card—the ARC—to address the barriers that are faced by refugees and asylum seekers who are under 22 and who have struggled to provide age identification evidence in order to secure a national entitlement card for free bus travel.

However, the Red Cross has informed me that some local authorities do not accept the ARC and that it is not listed in national or local guidance. Will the minister look at that matter, to ensure that guidance is updated and best practice is shared across Scotland? More widely, will she also look at the lengthy waits, often of several months, for paper applications to be processed?

Jenny Gilruth

The Home Office has issued guidance for local councils, advising them on the proof that is specific to asylum seekers and refugees for the ARC, to which Bob Doris has alluded. That can be used to apply for the NEC in person, of course, or in conjunction with other information or evidence that might be available to a council, a school or a dedicated staff member within a council.

The ARC is not accepted for online applications as part of the United Kingdom proof of age standards scheme—PASS. It cannot be used as evidence of identification online, and there is no online equivalent to support applications, as it were.

My officials in Transport Scotland are not aware of any delays in application processing, but, if the member is able to provide evidence of that, I would be more than happy to raise the issue directly with Glasgow Life.

It is also worth pointing out that the Government is supporting a short-term pilot, led by the Refugee Survival Trust and third sector partners, which commenced at the end of January.

Thank you. We absolutely must have quicker—shorter, I should say—questions and responses.

Meghan Gallacher (Central Scotland) (Con)

Local councils have had to cut subsidies for bus travel because of the SNP Scottish Government’s woeful local government settlement. The fact of the matter is that, outside the major cities, public transport is unreliable and infrequent, particularly across the central region. Will the minister explain how the policy can be deemed a success, given the lack of bus services for our young people to enjoy?

Jenny Gilruth

It is worth pointing out that, as a Government, we invest more than £300 million annually to deliver free bus travel for all children and young people under 22, as well as for eligible disabled people and everyone aged 60 or over. That means, of course, that Scotland has the most generous concessionary fares scheme in the United Kingdom, with more than 2 million people eligible for free bus travel, encouraging more people to take the bus and move away from taking the car, which is hugely important in relation to reaching our net zero targets. Additionally, we have been able to award more than £25 million of funding in relation to the bus partnership fund. I would have thought that Meghan Gallacher might have welcomed that additionality in terms of the funding provided by this Government.

Neil Bibby (West Scotland) (Lab)

Scottish Government statistics that were released today show that the number of buses in service in Scotland has plummeted under the Scottish National Party from 5,400 in 2007 to just 3,700. Passenger journey numbers have halved over the same period. Young people are asking the same question that older people have been asking: what is the point of a free bus pass if there is no bus to use it on? With even more service cuts set to happen in the next few weeks, what is the minister going to do to fix Scotland’s broken bus market?

Jenny Gilruth

The member needs to reflect, as a Labour MSP, that the bus sector continues to face a number of challenges presented by Brexit in relation to staffing challenges and staffing shortages, and also in relation to fuel costs. [Interruption.] Many of those matters, as he will know, are reserved to the UK Government. I discussed them at length with the bus task force, which I convened just a couple of weeks ago, and the sector is hugely challenged by the challenges presented by those issues.

Will you take them on?

Well, Brexit—I hear the member mumbling from a sedentary position.

The Presiding Officer

Excuse me, minister. Can I just ask that there be no interruptions when ministers are responding and when members are asking questions? I am sure that we would each wish to be treated courteously and respectfully.

Jenny Gilruth

I continue to hear the member chuntering away from a sedentary position, Presiding Officer, but I will continue.

It is important to highlight the additional support that this Government provides for the widest concessionary travel scheme in the UK. More than 2 million people in Scotland can travel free of charge, and the importance of that cannot be underlined enough, given that, yesterday, we managed to hit the 50 million target for the number of journeys that have been taken through the under-22s scheme.

In relation to tackling poverty—another point that I would have thought a Labour member might have been interested in—the Child Poverty Action Group has now managed to assess that children and young people in Scotland are saving, on average, £3,000 over a lifetime compared with their counterparts elsewhere in the UK because of the investment that this Government is putting into concessionary travel.

Industrial Action (Impact on Children’s Education)

3. Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of the Educational Institute of Scotland’s vote to accept the latest pay offer, what assessment is being undertaken to understand any impact of days lost as a result of industrial action on children’s education and the school environment. (S6T-01247)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

The modifications to courses that are already in place this year will help to mitigate some of the impact of the industrial action. In addition, prior to the industrial action, the Scottish Qualifications Agency confirmed that a sensitive and evidence-based approach to grading is planned for this year.

A wide range of study support is available through the national e-learning offer, including live interactive Easter study support webinars for the senior phase that will run from 3-14 April. Local authorities and schools will continue to monitor the impact that industrial action has had on learners and whether any additional action is needed at a local level.

Alex Rowley

Teachers, parents and children are absolutely delighted that we have eventually got a resolution of the dispute. That is welcome. Over the past months, I have talked to many teachers on picket lines and in arranged meetings, and I have become quite alarmed at the concerns that teachers are raising around the decline in discipline and behaviour in schools—and, indeed, the level of violence, which is increasing. Teachers say that, post-Covid, that issue has become greater and greater. Does the cabinet secretary recognise those concerns? If so, what is the Government doing to support teachers and front-line school staff?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Mr Rowley raises a very important point. During my biannual discussions with unions, last week and this week, that area has been on the agenda. I recently had another discussion with the teachers panel about what we can do on the issue. One example of that is the review of the national guidance on the issue, to see where national Government can make changes to support teachers and support staff. It is an issue that the Government takes very seriously. That is why that review is being undertaken, why research is currently being undertaken and why Education Scotland has also just completed a thematic review of the reporting of incidents of bullying in our schools.

Alex Rowley

I welcome what the cabinet secretary has said. However, I wrote to the director of education in Fife last week, raising my concerns. She replied by saying that an increase in mental health problems is being experienced across Scotland and that poverty, trauma and the pandemic are having an impact on schools. She went on to say:

“A model of having a social worker based in a secondary school is about to be piloted in 4 of our secondary schools.”

She also said that police now play a front-line role in six schools.

We can see, from the actions that Fife Council has taken, that there is massive pressure on our schools and on education. There needs to be some kind of co-ordinated support, and resources are needed for those types of actions. Does the cabinet secretary agree? Will she continue to talk to education authorities about that?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I welcome the work that is being undertaken by Fife Council and every council that is looking carefully at the issue.

The solution will be different in different schools and local authorities, but the member quite rightly points to what we can do at a national level to support them. I would point to, for example, the presence of counsellors in our secondary schools, which we work with local government to fund. I would point also to the increased investment in child and adolescent mental health services. Social workers and community development workers and so on are examples of the wide variety of uses of pupil equity funding. We try to give support where there is a challenge around attainment or attendance at school, as well as where there are issues with behaviour.

I very much welcome the work that Fife Council has undertaken, and I am keen to continue my dialogue with the council.

Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

If I might quote a teacher:

"Behaviour is arguably the most concerning issue for classroom teachers in 2023. The rise in violent, aggressive and criminal behaviour, along with the relentless spread of low-level behaviours, is undoubtedly the most mentally taxing and serious issues in education.”

As teachers return to the classroom after the pay dispute, that is not untypical of how they view the classroom environment. We have all heard that from teachers. In no other public-facing line of work is vicious abuse tolerated. Why should teaching be any different? How long will it be before we see more industrial action as the Government fails to act? This is serious, and it requires a serious response from the cabinet secretary. Who, in the Scottish Government, is speaking to front-line teachers? Is the cabinet secretary speaking to and listening to front-line teachers? When will there be practical help?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I am not sure whether Mr Kerr was listening to the answer that I gave earlier. I just said that I spoke to the teachers panel, which is made up of front-line teachers. Last week, I met unions that represent front-line teachers, and I will continue those meetings this week, when we will be discussing this very issue.

Something that the teachers panel was keen to feed back to me was that violent incidents are exceptionally rare. One is one too many, but they are exceptionally rare. Violence, bullying and intimidation of staff or pupils is not tolerated in our schools, either by this Government or by any local authority.

We are taking the issue very seriously. In response to Mr Rowley, I went into further detail about some of what we are doing because I recognise that this is a concern among teachers, pupils and parents. We will continue to work with and support front-line teachers.

That concludes topical question time.