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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, March 16, 2023

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Marie Curie’s Great Daffodil Appeal 2023, Portfolio Question Time, Ferguson Marine, Bail and Release from Custody (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Bail and Release from Custody (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Procurement Bill, Social Security (Additional Payments) (No 2) Bill, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Correction


General Question Time

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

Deaths of Children from Illegal Drug Use (Support for Families)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to support families whose children have died as a result of illegal drugs. (S6O-02020)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans (Keith Brown)

Every drug-related death is a tragedy and I offer my condolences to any family that is impacted by the issue.

As part of our national mission to reduce drug deaths and improve the lives of those who are affected, we published our framework to improve holistic support for families who are affected by substance use. That is supported by investment of £3.5 million per year in alcohol and drug partnerships and £3 million per year in vital third sector organisations. In addition, we provide the third sector organisation Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs with £160,000 per year to provide national services to support families, including through bereavement support.

Ruth Maguire

Grace Handling was 13 when she died. The individual who supplied the ecstasy that killed her was charged with culpable homicide but was, much to her family’s distress, acquitted after the jury returned a not proven verdict. Will the cabinet secretary meet me and Grace’s father Stewart to hear directly from him and to provide support and guidance on ways forward?

Keith Brown

The case that Ruth Maguire mentions is a tragedy. My sympathies go to Grace’s family and friends. I think that I am right in saying that I have previously met Grace’s father and others, but I would, of course, be happy to meet both Ms Maguire and Mr Handling to discuss suggested reform in the area.

The Government is committed to abolishing the not proven verdict and the matter will come before Parliament very soon. The Scottish Law Commission is currently looking at the more general operation of homicide law. I encourage people to pass to the Law Commission their views on how this specific area could be reassessed as part of the wider look at homicide law. Once that response comes back to Government, I would be happy to discuss it with Ruth Maguire and the individual concerned.

Sue Webber (Lothian) (Con)

I am sure that the cabinet secretary will agree that providing support for young people who are affected by drugs remains a key component of the Scottish drugs mission. In January, the Scottish Government provided £5.5 million for new programmes for children and families, including the expansion of Routes, which is a young person’s support group that is run by Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs. Routes is currently available only in East and West Dunbartonshire. Can the cabinet secretary give any detail about when that programme will be expanded and in which areas the services will be offered?

Keith Brown

I cannot provide that information at this time, but I appreciate that Sue Webber wants the information, so I am happy to speak to the minister who is responsible, Angela Constance, to ensure that she provides a full account to the member.

Paul O’Kane (West Scotland) (Lab)

Each drugs death is a tragedy for the family who are left behind, particularly for parents who lose a child. This week, we have seen that suspected drugs deaths reached the highest number recorded in a single quarter since 2021. Public health experts have said that data is vital in tackling the crisis, but Parliament’s Public Audit Committee has said that there is a significant risk that the scale of the problem is not being properly captured or understood. Data collection must be robust in order to support people and their families. What steps is the Government taking to improve the quality of data collection relating to drug use—in particular, use of potent new drugs that might account for the spike in the number of deaths in the last quarter of 2022?

Keith Brown

I will help Paul O’Kane, if I can. In 2021, 70 people aged 20 or under suffered a drug death. [Keith Brown has corrected this contribution. See end of report.] As the member said, each of those deaths was a tragedy both for the individual and the family concerned. That figure represents a reduction by 10 from the previous year, but it is still far too high. There has also been a recent decline in deaths of people aged 25 and under. As I say, however, any deaths in that age group are a real concern for everybody, including the Government.

We agree on data streams with the relevant professionals, because the Government could be criticised, quite rightly, for being too close to formulating the criteria under which data is collected. However, I am happy to pass the member’s request on to the relevant minister, Angela Constance, and to make sure that a response comes back to him with more detail.

Modern Apprentices

To ask the Scottish Government how it ensures that key sectors, such as engineering, are allocated sufficient numbers of modern apprentices. (S6O-02021)

The Minister for Higher Education and Further Education, Youth Employment and Training (Jamie Hepburn)

Apprenticeships support key sectors while providing employment. They take account of demographic change and seek to respond to employer demand.

The modern apprenticeship demand assessment comprises three phases. The first establishes a robust evidence baseline through sourcing and collating of strategic and contextual data. The second draws on the baseline to support consultation with industry and verify demand. In the final phase, the evidence baseline and consultation insight are analysed and a final assessment is produced to inform the modern apprenticeship contracting strategy. As such, the number of starts in each occupational grouping attempts to reflect employer demand and is managed in line with Scottish Government priorities.

Graeme Dey

Having visited the organisation some time back, the minister will be well aware of the fine work that is done by Angus Training Group in my constituency, and I know that he will be pleased to learn that it is experiencing an upturn in demand from employers. Unfortunately, however, it has a contract volume figure of 31 this year, which is a rollover from the pandemic, although it has the potential to take at least 40 modern apprentices. Is there any scope for the number to be increased through prioritisation of engineering as a key sector?

Jamie Hepburn

I have visited Angus Training Group with Graeme Dey and was very impressed by the work that it does on engineering, overall. I am happy to say that the latest statistics to be published for quarter 3 of the year show an increase in the number of starts in engineering and related occupational groupings. The figure is 1,658 compared with 1,256 in the equivalent period last year, so there is positive growth overall.

I understand the challenges that Angus Training Group might be facing. Of course, we do not seek to micromanage the process. I recognise the importance of engineering to the economy, and I encourage Angus Training Group to speak to Skills Development Scotland about the increased demand to see whether there is a way forward with it.

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Teachers (Recruitment)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress has been made in STEM teacher recruitment. (S6O-02022)

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

STEM teacher numbers are at their highest level since 2011. There are now 378 more STEM teachers than there were before the start of the pandemic in 2019. I am committed to recruiting more teachers and I recently set out measures to Parliament making it clear that we will provide £145.5 million in next year’s budget to protect increased teacher numbers and support staff.

Local authorities are responsible for the recruitment and deployment of their staff, and we will continue to do everything that we can to help them to maximise the number of jobs that are available for STEM teachers, including permanent posts.

Michael Marra

I thank the cabinet secretary for her answer. Our economy and our young people must have increased qualifications in vital science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects, yet the number of candidates is falling dramatically and the targets for teacher recruitment continue to be missed. Almost half of the available STEM bursaries for new teachers went unfilled this year, and the body that runs the scheme has not been told by ministers whether those bursaries will continue. How on earth is it to recruit for the next academic year without a decision from ministers? Will the cabinet secretary confirm today whether the scheme will go ahead? When will we have an effective national strategy that meets the scale of the challenge?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I pointed in my original answer to the improvements that we have seen, but I recognise that we need to do more, which is exactly why a number of working groups within the Scottish Government are looking, with stakeholders, at recruitment and retention—in particular, in the STEM teaching area.

I am happy to confirm to Mr Marra today that the STEM bursaries will, of course, continue. They have been an important part of our policy to date and will continue in the next financial year.

Audrey Nicoll (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

The cabinet secretary will be aware of the Aberdeen computing collaborative, which brings together Aberdeen City Council, the University of Aberdeen, Robert Gordon University and North East Scotland College. It aims to raise the profile of computing science and to make Aberdeen the destination of choice for computing science graduates who are entering teaching. How is the Scottish Government working with such collaboratives to build on that work and attract new graduates into computing science teaching?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I thank Audrey Nicoll for highlighting the excellent work that has been undertaken by the Aberdeen computing collaborative. It is a very important issue, on which we all work together. One of the key requirements of the Scottish technology ecosystem review programme was to attract more graduates, especially women, into teaching. That is why we formed Scottish Teachers Advancing Computing Science—STACS—which is an organisation that is for, and run by, computing teachers. I am delighted that the work will include Aberdeen. A pilot scheme is being run on computing science teachers at advanced higher level, to see what more we can do to improve and encourage teaching and teachers in an important subject.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

Six hundred and thirty-six teaching posts were readvertised last year, many of them in STEM subjects. One technical education teacher post in Aberdeenshire was advertised 11 times. There is a big shortage. I do not get from the minister a sense of urgency and that she understands the scale of the problem. Can she reassure me that she is on top of the matter?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I would be delighted to discuss at length with Willie Rennie the work that is going on with the teacher workforce planning advisory group and the strategic board for teacher education, which is looking at recruitment and retention not just in STEM but across areas—in particular, on geography, in recognition that that is an issue. However, due to the shortage of time, I will be happy to discuss the matter offline with Mr Rennie.

A90 Dualling (Ellon to Peterhead)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it plans to dual the A90 between Ellon and Peterhead. (S6O-02023)

The Minister for Transport (Jenny Gilruth)

The second strategic transport projects review, the final report of which was published in December last year, considered proposals to dual the A90 north of Ellon. However, after an extensive evidence-based process, with substantial stakeholder and public consultation, dualling was not recommended. Instead, measures were considered for improving road safety and reliability and adapting the trunk road network to deal with the challenge of climate change.

Liam Kerr

It is 17 years since Alex Salmond promised the north-east that the first decision that he would make on becoming First Minister would be to dual between Ellon and Peterhead. That is nearly two decades of Scottish National Party inaction and lack of ambition on that forgotten road of Scotland, with seven deaths and 49 injuries on that stretch in the past three years. For the safety and economy of the north-east, and to show that the Government is for more than just the central belt, will the minister promise, here and now, to at last dual that section of the A90?

Jenny Gilruth

I do not recognise some of the sentiment that is behind Liam Kerr’s questioning. The Government has invested more than £250 million in maintenance and road safety on the A90 alone since 2007, so it is not true to characterise investment from the Government in that way.

However, I recognise Liam Kerr’s interest in the route and long-standing concerns about road safety. It is worth saying that some additional safety measures have been introduced, including vehicle-activated signs. More broadly, he will be aware that, along with Aberdeenshire Council, Nestrans has recently confirmed to Transport Scotland that it intends to take forward its own study of the A90. Of course, ministers will consider that in detail.

I reassure Liam Kerr that there are requirements to improve road safety on the trunk road network through STPR2 recommendation 30, which looks at provisions on improving road safety more broadly.

Pharmaceutical Manufacturing (Employment Opportunities)

5. Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government how it plans to increase employment opportunities within the pharmaceutical manufacturing sector, in light of the recent Fraser of Allander Institute report, “The economic contribution of the Pharmaceuticals Sector in Scotland”. (S6O-02024)

The Minister for Just Transition, Employment and Fair Work (Richard Lochhead)

The Scottish Government recognises the importance of the pharmaceutical industry to the Scottish economy, including the creation of quality job opportunities across the country, including in rural and deprived regions.

Later this year, Scotland’s new innovation strategy will be published. It will focus strongly on health technologies. That will be an opportunity to boost research and development and create further job opportunities in the pharmaceutical and wider life sciences sector.

Kenneth Gibson

In December, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry and life science companies shared their frustration at the United Kingdom Government’s decision to increase payments under the voluntary scheme for branded medicines pricing and access to 26.5 per cent of sales. That money is retained by HM Treasury. By contrast, Scottish ministers reinvest those payments in the new medicines fund for innovative new treatments. What impact has the NMF had on encouraging pharmaceutical manufacturing companies to invest in Scotland, given that we allow health boards to purchase end-of-life, orphan and ultra-orphan medicines that they might have struggled to justify financially before the fund was established in 2013?

Richard Lochhead

Currently, the manufacturing of pharmaceuticals contributes just under £1.5 billion in gross value added to Scotland, supporting a total of 11,350 full-time Scottish jobs. The wider pharmaceuticals sector supports more than £.1.7 billion in GVA.

The £465.5 million that has been made available to health boards since 2014-15 via the new medicines fund that Kenneth Gibson referred to, which is dedicated to medicines for patients with rare diseases, is playing a very important role.

We are aware that there are concerns in the industry around UK Government changes to branded medicines pricing. The Scottish Government remains committed to investing the entire rebate from the voluntary scheme for branded medicines pricing and access agreement in the new medicines fund. We will negotiate the successor scheme with the UK Government.

Constitutional Futures Division

6. Sandesh Gulhane (Glasgow) (Con)

My apologies for being a few minutes late, Presiding Officer. I was stuck for almost two hours on the Scottish National Party’s nationalised ScotRail.

To ask the Scottish Government—[Interruption.]. They do not seem to like that.

For all members’ information, I say that it is important that they stick to the published text of the question. Please resume, Mr Gulhane.

To ask the Scottish Government how many civil servants are working in its constitutional futures division. (S6O-02025)

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

I refer Sandesh Gulhane to my answer to question S6W-15283 on 8 March. It noted that 24 civil servants, including one deputy director, are working in the constitutional futures division.

As well as co-ordinating work on the Government’s independence prospectus, officials in the constitutional futures division are contributing to other priority work, including on the retained European Union law management programme, devolution policy, intergovernmental relations and the provision of information for the Covid public inquiries.

Sandesh Gulhane

The work to prepare independence prospectus papers is being co-ordinated by the tax-funded constitutional futures division. However, during the SNP leadership contest, Humza Yousaf has admitted that the SNP Government’s independence prospectus sits on a website and that nobody reads it. It is a shocking for a potential First Minister to admit that public money is being wasted like that.

Does the minister agree that the tax-funded constitutional futures division must be disbanded immediately, with the approximately £1.5 million being spent elsewhere—perhaps on vaping legislation?

Angus Robertson

Let us get this right. The position of the Conservative Party is that it wishes to abolish the part of the civil service that is dealing with retained EU law management, devolution, intergovernmental relations and the provision of information for the Covid public inquiries. Is that seriously the position of the Conservative Party?

If Sandesh Gulhane is genuinely interested in freeing up civil service time, he would be well advised to speak with his Westminster colleagues about ditching, or at least ameliorating, the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, which is causing an unprecedented and unnecessary diversion of civil service time.

Independent Scotland (Migration Strategy)

7. Jackie Dunbar (Aberdeen Donside) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what its policy is for the migration strategy in an independent Scotland, including how it could address any workforce and recruitment challenges resulting from the withdrawal from the European Union. (S6O-02026)

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

The Scottish Fiscal Commission forecasts that Scotland’s working-age population will fall by an average of 10,000 a year for at least the next five years, with net migration from the European Union lower as a result of Brexit and the United Kingdom Government’s putting in place a restrictive immigration system that does not account for Scotland’s needs.

Independence would give us the power to design immigration policy that is tailored to Scotland’s needs, and to return the right to free movement in the European Union. Our approach would seek to attract working-age people and their families to live here and make a positive contribution to our economy and our communities, especially in rural areas.

Jackie Dunbar

As international condemnation of the UK Government’s atrocious and dehumanising Illegal Migration Bill continues to pour in, the need for the full immigration powers of an independent state has never been clearer. Will the cabinet secretary assure Parliament that this Scottish Government will remain committed to Scotland’s role as a good global citizen before, and after, independence?

Angus Robertson

I agree entirely with my colleague. Although immigration and asylum are reserved to the UK Government, we remain committed to providing support and assistance to all those who seek safety and sanctuary in Scotland, and we will do our utmost to support people to make Scotland their home. With independence, Scotland can leave behind the hostile environment that characterises UK Government policy.

The Presiding Officer

That concludes general question time.

Before we move to First Minister’s question time, I invite members to join me in welcoming to the gallery Ahod “Al Haj Murad” Ebrahim, Chief Minister of the Bangsamoro autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao. [Applause.]