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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, June 16, 2022

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Men’s Sheds, Point of Order, Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Role of Incineration in Waste Hierarchy, Miners’ Strike (Pardons) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Miners’ Strike (Pardons) (Scotland) Bill, Point of Order, Decision Time


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 be grateful for short and succinct questions and responses.

Real Living Wage

To ask the Scottish Government what progress is being made in encouraging employers to pay the real living wage. (S6O-01239)

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

Good progress has been made in promoting payment of the real living wage in Scotland. Last month, the number of living wage accredited employers increased to just under 2,700. That is proportionately five times higher than the figure for the rest of the United Kingdom and it means that some 55,000 workers have more wages in their pockets due to employer accreditation.

Under our regionally focused making living wage places scheme, we saw Edinburgh city, for instance, announce its accreditation as a making a living wage place in November last year, during living wage week. Our living hours accreditation scheme continues to grow, with four accredited employers having achieved living hours accreditation since its launch, late in 2021.

Marie McNair

I welcome the continued efforts to promote a living wage. The minister will agree that an unambiguous commitment from employers to pay the living wage and recognise trade unions in the workplace is a strong platform for being a decent employer and providing a fair and productive work environment. Does the minister agree with me and the Scottish Trades Union Congress that the Scottish Parliament must have control over employment law in order to be able to fully embed decent employment rights by setting a real living wage and ending the exploitative use of zero-hours contracts?

Richard Lochhead

Marie McNair is right. It is, of course, timely to raise that issue, given that we have just experienced a pandemic, with its implications for many employees in Scotland, and we are now facing a cost of living crisis. Now is the time to reflect on the powers that the Parliament has to support workers and ensure that they receive a decent wage for their work.

Eighty-five per cent of Scots receive a real living wage. However, if we had employment powers, we could do a lot more to ensure that 100 per cent of Scottish employees got a decent wage. The other issues that Marie McNair mentioned could also be addressed if the Parliament had the powers to do so.

Scottish National Investment Bank (Missions)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the delivery of the missions of the Scottish National Investment Bank. (S6O-01240)

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy (Kate Forbes)

Over the past 18 months, the Scottish National Investment Bank has built an operational structure, recruited more than 60 staff, delivered investment commitments of over £200 million to 16 projects across all three of its missions, and leveraged in over £450 million of additional private funding.

Paul Sweeney

In the light of Professor Ross Brown’s warnings on 23 May that the Scottish National Investment Bank will continue to flounder and will ultimately fail if its missions remain so broad and incoherent, will the Scottish Government commit to providing the bank with a clear mission to drive high-value-added industrial growth in advanced manufacturing in Scottish-owned firms instead of investments in things such as a forestry fund that is aimed at high-net-worth clients who are seeking tax-efficient structures?

Kate Forbes

I will make two caveats. If I recall correctly, all members agreed that the Scottish National Investment Bank should retain operational independence and all parties agreed on the missions that were set for it. As a start-up, the bank has done an incredible job not just in building its operations but in ensuring that the pipeline of investments goes out the door.

In the past 18 months, the bank has made eight investments in the net zero mission, four investments in the place mission and four investments in the innovation and people mission. One question that I have for Mr Sweeney is: which mission does he think we should drop instead of adding more missions for it?

School Pupils (Free Laptops or Tablets)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on progress towards its commitment to deliver a free laptop or tablet to every school child in Scotland. (S6O-01241)

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

We are committed to ensuring that every child has access to a device and connectivity by the end of this parliamentary session. We have already provided £25 million to councils, resulting in over 72,000 pupils receiving a device and 14,000 receiving an internet connection.

We know that a number of local authorities have also invested in technology. They have indicated that, in total, almost 280,000 devices have been, or are in the process of being, distributed to learners.

This is a complex and ambitious commitment, and we are currently looking at the available infrastructure in schools to support the wider roll-out of technology. We are working in partnership with local government colleagues and have convened a joint partnership board with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to oversee the work.

Murdo Fraser

During the period of Covid restrictions, we had pupils doing home learning who would have benefited from access to a free laptop or tablet. Many of them did not have that access.

The cabinet secretary is now saying that the programme will not be completed until the end of this session of Parliament. That means that there are pupils currently in secondary 2 or S3 who will be leaving school without benefiting from the programme. Is the cabinet secretary being serious in saying that we will have to wait another four years before that commitment is delivered?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

Our manifesto made it very clear that the commitment was for the parliamentary session, and that is what we are committed to. I would contrast that with the recent Tory manifesto for the local government elections, which contains no timescales and no commitment for a device for every child. The Tories had an opportunity to lay out their alternative; they did not. In the meantime, we will get on with delivering on our manifesto commitment.

Police Scotland (Mental Health)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to support the mental health and wellbeing of officers and staff within Police Scotland. (S6O-01242)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans (Keith Brown)

It is essential that mental health and wellbeing support is provided to police officers and staff at the point of need, and I welcome the initiatives that are being undertaken by Police Scotland—the employer—to support its workforce.

The Scottish Government has provided funding to the Lifelines Scotland wellbeing programme, which provides tailored online resources for blue-light responders, volunteers and their family members. That includes the provision of £97,864 in this financial year. We are considering a proposal from Lifelines for further funding support in 2022-23.

Alexander Stewart

Official statistics indicate that officers and staff within the force have missed over 77,000 days during 2021-22, and the Scottish Police Federation has stressed that levels of officers and staff are reaching a critical stage and that officers are leaving in droves. The Scottish National Party Government has handed Police Scotland a further real-terms budget cut of 8 per cent. What action is being taken to reverse that decline and to do all that we can to maintain, retain and support our police force?

Keith Brown

Had Alexander Stewart done his homework, he would have found out that the reason for the reduction in police force numbers is to do with the 26th UN climate change conference of the parties—COP26—and with Covid, both of which have limited the police’s ability to undertake training of new officers at Tulliallan, because it was being used for other purposes. The police will tell him that.

Alexander Stewart asked what else we are doing. We are going to pay our police officers more than the Tories pay the police officers whom they have control over; we are going to have more police officers per head of population than there are in England and Wales; and we are going to oppose the Tories’ imposition of a 5.2 per cent cut in our budget this year, which limits how much we can do.

We are doing the things that help police officers—unlike the Tories, who have undermined and underresourced the police in England and Wales.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

Two years ago, one third of officers were saying that they were going to work mentally unwell. We have already heard that thousands of work days have been lost over the past two years because of mental health issues, yet ministers said that they were very satisfied with the mental health support that was being provided. This week, when I spoke to Calum Steele from the SPF, he told me that the situation is still dire. When will ministers stop being satisfied and get on with improving the service?

Keith Brown

I have mentioned the work that we have done through the initiatives that we have funded for the police for this year, which we are considering funding again for next year. Willie Rennie will know that officers also have access to Police Scotland’s 24/7 employee assistance programme—the EAP—and the trauma risk management programme.

We are not saying that everything that can be done is being done—as Calum Steele would argue, we should continually look to improve the services that we provide, and we recognise the special pressures that Covid has presented for the police. The police have done a fantastic job throughout the Covid period, and we want to continue to support them. We are not saying that we have done all that can be done—that is the responsibility of the employer, Police Scotland, with a role for the SPA. However we will continue to help them wherever we can to protect the wellbeing of our officers.

Home Energy Scotland (Support Capacity)

5. Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of interests. I am an owner of a private rented property in North Lanarkshire.

To ask the Scottish Government what the support capacity of Home Energy Scotland was before that was increased by 12,000 households. (S6O-01243)

The Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport (Michael Matheson)

In 2021-22, Home Energy Scotland had capacity to provide advice and support to more than 120,000 unique households, through more than 400,000 advice interactions. As a result of increased funding in 2022-23, Home Energy Scotland advisers have the capacity to provide support to 132,000 unique households through 440,000 advice interactions.

Mark Griffin

Although the cabinet secretary has mentioned that that figure has increased to 132,000 unique households, the capacity to reach low-income, potentially fuel-poor, clients has not increased proportionately with that increase of 12,000 households. Action will be critical this summer, with the price cap set to go up in the autumn. Has the Government written to every group that is eligible for the warmer homes Scotland grant since the cap went up in the spring, and how many installations does the Government expect to deliver from those 44,000 calls?

Michael Matheson

I think that the member’s question relates to the 440,000 calls or interactions. Obviously, that is a demand-led service that depends on the needs and the circumstances of individuals, and what the best route of support might be for them.

In relation to those who are most vulnerable, with Home Energy Scotland we have been able to augment access to the energycarers service, which specifically helps people who are most vulnerable and who may not be able to take advice and support by telephone or through online services. A care adviser will visit those people and provide advice and support to them in their homes. That service is particularly targeted at people who are extremely vulnerable, in order to meet the types of concerns that the member has.

However, if the member has a particular issue or an experience from a constituent where he believes that we could take further action, I would be more than happy to look at that in order to make sure that we are doing everything that we can to support households.

Fiona Hyslop (Linlithgow) (SNP)

The cabinet secretary will be aware that older people will be the most vulnerable when it comes to facing spiralling energy bills, as they have fixed incomes and often live in older, energy-inefficient housing. According to Age Scotland, 55 per cent of over-55s whom they surveyed were unaware of the Scottish Government’s schemes to assist with energy efficiency.

What steps is the Scottish Government taking in order to ensure that the increased resource that has been made available to Home Energy Scotland includes more proactive targeting of houses where older people live?

Michael Matheson

I am always open to looking at what more we can do to help to promote Home Energy Scotland’s work. The principal way that much of its work is taken forward is through trusted partners such as health and social care organisations, food banks, charities and local authorities. They provide the vast majority of the referral pathways into Home Energy Scotland.

As I mentioned, we have augmented the support for Home Energy Scotland to provide energycarer services to people who are most vulnerable and may not be able to take advice online or over the phone. However, again, if the member has any specific examples of constituents who have not been able to access services, or believes that there is further action that we can take to promote those services, I am always open to looking at those matters.

Transport Links (Rural Areas)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is strengthening transport links to rural areas. (S6O-01244)

The Minister for Transport (Jenny Gilruth)

The Scottish Government’s ambitions for future transport infrastructure investment in rural areas are highlighted in the 45 recommendations in the second strategic transport projects review, or STPR2. The recommendations include continued investment in ferry replacements and port upgrades to improve their resilience and reliability. We also intend to consider two potential fixed links in the Western Isles, as well as a link between Mull and the mainland. STPR2 provides the necessary evidence base that is required to help secure the future funding of those projects, including those that have potential to transform the way we travel in rural areas.

Rhoda Grant

As a result of ScotRail’s emergency timetable, it is impossible for people from Caithness to get the train to attend hospital appointments in Inverness. The reimbursement mileage is woeful, at 15p a mile, and does not adequately cover their costs. How will the minister ensure that no patient is missing out on healthcare as a result of the lack of public transport in the area?

Jenny Gilruth

As the member will know, ScotRail’s emergency timetable has arisen as a result of drivers refusing to work on their rest days. I am very grateful that the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen has since recommended that the pay deal is accepted; it will now go to members for a referendum.

I have asked ScotRail to look at how we might be able to reinstate the normal timetable as quickly as possible, noting, of course, that ScotRail has already reintroduced a number of services.

On the specific point that Miss Grant raised about reimbursement, I would be happy to address that with ScotRail and, having noted some of her concerns in that area, to write to her with more detail.

Evelyn Tweed (Stirling) (SNP)

Bus passengers across rural Stirling are experiencing last-minute cancellations, especially on services X10, 38 and 52. First Bus has advised that there is a shortage of bus drivers. Can the Scottish Government advise on what more can be done to address those shortages and other issues that are affecting the industry?

Jenny Gilruth

There is currently a shortage of heavy goods vehicle drivers for buses and lorries as a result of the pandemic creating a backlog in testing and training. That has been exacerbated by Brexit, which has prevented people from the European Union from coming to Scotland to work freely.

With regard to our representations, we have repeatedly sought a formal role in determining which occupations are on the shortage occupation list, but the UK has denied us that. Bus drivers are not included in the SOL. I understand that the UK Government will be reviewing the list later in the year, and we have asked for full involvement in that process.

The current position is clearly causing issues for local and national bus services across the country. We have provided up to £210 million of funding to support bus services during the pandemic and an additional £40 million to support recovery for this year. In addition, I have asked Transport Scotland for urgent advice on why it appears that so many services are now being cancelled as a result of shortages and on how the service changes are impacting on communities more broadly.

Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

First, I take the opportunity to congratulate the minister on her recent marriage. [Applause.]

The minister mentioned funding. The network support grant plus has been keeping bus operators afloat, in particular in rural areas, but it is due to end next month. Industry experts have said that that could lead to a cut of 20 per cent on some routes, as well as rising fares and depot closures.

Bus operators are calling for the fund to be extended at its current rate by three months, as that would allow passenger levels to recover. Will the minister agree to that?

Jenny Gilruth

I am aware of the issues that the member has raised, and I thank him for his good wishes.

Some of the funding that is associated with the support grants is related to the pandemic, and it was always due to come to an end at some point. However, I have asked officials in Transport Scotland to see what more we might be able to do to support rural bus services.

Bracken Control (Asulox)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the continued use of Asulox for bracken control. (S6O-01245)

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

An emergency authorisation for the use of the herbicide product Asulox for bracken control has been submitted for 2022. The Health and Safety Executive is considering the application on behalf of all the United Kingdom Administrations, and that process is on-going.

I have spoken to stakeholders directly over the past week, and I understand the difficulties that are associated with bracken control and the key role that Asulox currently plays. As part of those discussions, I have indicated that it is important for Government to work with stakeholders to explore options for more sustainable forms of bracken control in the future.

Jim Fairlie

I am happy to hear that the minister has met with stakeholders, and I am reassured that she is aware of just how damaging bracken is, not just to the environment but to animal health, and because of the potential for very serious accidents involving land managers when trying to manage bracken using land-based methods such as bracken busters on challenging hill land.

I have been asked by constituents to emphasise to the minister that, while the HSE continues its deliberations on whether to grant the extension, they will be looking to the Scottish Government to protect their interests, the environments that they manage and the health and wellbeing of them and their staff.

Will the minister meet me urgently to discuss what assurances she can give to my constituents, who are in the position of having a serious on-going bracken problem to deal with, but who have no safe method of doing so other than aerial-applied asulam?

Lorna Slater

I would be very happy to meet the member to discuss this important issue, and I understand the concerns that he and his constituents are raising. I reassure him that in considering the emergency application for the use of Asulox, I have sought out views from stakeholders, including those who currently use Asulox for bracken control. Last week, I met NFU Scotland, NatureScot, Scottish Forestry and the RSPB to hear their views, and they have all made their positions clear.

I will continue to work closely with stakeholders and the other UK Administrations to explore options for sustainable forms of bracken control.

The Presiding Officer

That concludes general question time. Before we move on to First Minister’s question time, I invite members to join me in welcoming to the gallery Mr Max Hiegelsberger, President of the State Parliament of Upper Austria. [Applause.]