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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, June 20, 2024


General Question Time

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


To ask the Scottish Government what steps it has taken to improve access to childminders. (S6O-03613)

The Minister for Children, Young People and The Promise (Natalie Don)

Childminders are a hugely valued part of the early learning and childcare profession in Scotland, and we want more families to be able to access the unique benefits that they can offer.

We have been working hard with the Scottish Childminding Association on a new approach for the sector, and I am pleased to confirm that a three-year programme of childminder recruitment and retention was launched on 5 June. Backed by more than £1 million in Scottish Government funding, the programme for Scotland’s childminding future will be available in at least 16 local authority areas during its first year.

The programme will involve the SCMA in scaling up its already successful pilots, which include a £750 start-up grant and tailored support for new childminders, as well as more practical assistance for the existing workforce.

Childminders provide a vital service but often work alone. How will the Government ensure that childminders are supported and that childminding can be a sustainable career?

Natalie Don

Evelyn Tweed is correct that, often, childminders run a business on their own, so it is important that they feel both supported and connected to others in the profession. The SCMA’s new programme will implement a range of further measures to help childminders with their workload and professional development, building on the diverse range of support that the association already provides. That will include more practical assistance to existing childminders; the piloting of a new mentoring scheme, which aims to reduce workplace isolation and create networks of support; and a trial of funded time off the floor, which will test models of funded time for childminders to undertake professional learning and networking activities.

From the feedback and engagement that I have had, I believe that those actions will help to ensure that childminding remains a valued, sustainable and fulfilling career choice.

Roz McCall (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

A few weeks ago, the Scottish Government announced plans to increase Scotland’s childminding workforce by 1,000. However, Scotland lost more than 2,500 childminders between 2012 and 2022. Does the minister accept that the plans do not really go far enough? How does the Government intend to replace 1,500 childminders as well as retain the current workforce, to fulfil the 1,140 hours of childcare flexibilities that were promised to Scottish parents?

Natalie Don

The pilot is a really positive start. However, we know that we have more to do. As I previously said, childminders are a hugely valued part of our childcare sector, so we want them to feel valued and safe in their roles. The pilot will have valuable learning; we will see how successful it is—I am very positive about that; then we will take further actions, based on that learning.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

Childminders are hugely valuable in our child services. What figure does the minister hope to get to for the childminding community by 2026-27, given that it is currently at 3,225 and, as previously stated, it was at 6,200 back in December 2012? What is the minister’s target?

Natalie Don

We aim to increase the sector by 1,000 childminders. In the first year of our programme, the SCMA aims to recruit 250 new childminders. As I have said, that is a really positive start, with big aims. Childminders are a hugely valued part of our sector and I am very positive about the campaign and the pilot, and what those will bring for the sector.

Antisocial Behaviour (Town Centres)

2. Paul O’Kane (West Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its on-going work with local authorities, Police Scotland and other partners to tackle the reported increasing antisocial behaviour in town centres. (S6O-03614)

The Minister for Victims and Community Safety (Siobhian Brown)

We support Police Scotland and local authorities to continue to invest in prevention, early intervention and diversionary activities to reduce antisocial behaviour. They have a wide range of powers and are best placed to lead on addressing those issues.

In addition, an independent working group on antisocial behaviour is currently examining our strategic approach to the issue and is undertaking widespread engagement in order to deliver its report later this year. We have also provided local authorities with more than £600 million of additional revenue funding, while Police Scotland has received an increase of £92.7 million, despite difficult financial circumstances that are due to United Kingdom Government austerity.

Paul O’Kane

The minister will be aware of the problems that antisocial behaviour causes across the country, but I want to mention specific incidents that have occurred in parts of Barrhead, which is in my region, and in particular around the Asda supermarket there. When we debated the issue last year, other members put to the minister the challenges that such behaviour presents across the country, and particularly around supermarkets. I have been engaging with the various stakeholders. I noticed that the minister mentioned that the independent working group on antisocial behaviour will report later this year. Will she agree to meet me to give me an update on that work? Can she be any more specific on the timescale for the publication of the working group’s report?

Siobhian Brown

I would be more than happy to meet Mr O’Kane. The timescale for publication of the work is the end of this year. We have seen an increase in antisocial behaviour in retail areas, and we are working on that. The member might also be interested to know that I have been visiting local authorities and seeing initiatives that operate around the whole of Scotland. I am looking to implement those and to provide good guidance to local authorities.

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

As the police are often the first line of response to incidents of antisocial behaviour, it is vital that policing continues to be a priority for the Scottish Government. With that in mind, will the minister provide further detail on the Scottish Government’s funding for policing to ensure that antisocial behaviour in communities continues to be fully addressed?

Siobhian Brown

Policing remains a Scottish Government priority. Despite the difficult financial circumstances that have been caused by the UK Government’s austerity policies, the Scottish budget for 2024-25 includes record total funding of £1.55 billion for the police, which, as I have just said, represents an increase of £92.7 million. That increase includes an additional £75.7 million in resource budget to protect and support front-line policing.

Decisions on the allocation of those resources, including those designed to tackle antisocial behaviour, are, quite properly, a matter for the chief constable, who is accountable to the Scottish Police Authority. When the 2024-25 budget was announced in December last year, Ms Farrell made it clear to the Criminal Justice Committee that

“The allocation is an important recognition of Police Scotland’s value and the contribution that policing makes to Scotland being a safe place to live and work, with historically low levels of crime.”—[Official Report, Criminal Justice Committee, 20 December 2023; c 2.]

Sharon Dowey (South Scotland) (Con)

Although I welcome the provision of free bus travel for under-22s, one unintended consequence is that a minority of young people have abused the scheme to commit antisocial behaviour outside their home towns. The Cabinet Secretary for Transport has since told us that she has asked officials to consider whether temporary digital blocking measures could be used. Will the minister tell us what conversations she has had with the cabinet secretary? Will she also provide an update on whether such measures could be used to withdraw free travel from the minority of young people who commit antisocial behaviour across our towns?

Siobhian Brown

I have had several conversations with the Cabinet Secretary for Transport. We must remember that the vast majority of young people who travel by bus behave appropriately.

Although the Scottish Government can withdraw or suspend a travel card if a person

“knowingly allows”


“to be used by another person”,

the legislation that underpins the current scheme does not provide a clear mechanism for blocking of cards in response to allegations of antisocial behaviour. The Antisocial Behaviour etc (Scotland) Act 2004 provides a wide range of measures for dealing with all antisocial behaviour, including dispersal orders, which can be considered by police, in consultation with the local authority, on an individual and temporary basis. Transport Scotland is also working closely with the bus industry to develop and implement any further measures that can be taken to deter antisocial behaviour.

Winchburgh (Railway Station)

3. Sue Webber (Lothian) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it can provide further details of the progress that it has made regarding the delivery of a railway station in Winchburgh, including the date by which it anticipates the business case and cost will be finalised. (S6O-03615)

The Minister for Agriculture and Connectivity (Jim Fairlie)

As Sue Webber will be aware, the proposal is included in the council’s development plan. It was always a developer-led proposal, and it is one that I welcome, as I note the MSP for the constituency, Fiona Hyslop, does, too. There have been calls for the Government to get involved because of a lack of progress in taking the project forward for various reasons. I am happy to respond to those calls by bringing the parties together, which will allow progress to happen.

In April, I met Winchburgh Developments, West Lothian Council and Network Rail to discuss how they can support progress towards the delivery of a station in Winchburgh. All parties agreed to several actions, and Transport Scotland officials are investigating the development of the business case. I am aware that the council has now written to the city region deal project office to explore opportunities through the funding process.

The Scottish Government remains committed to progressing the proposal, and it is supporting and encouraging the council and the developer to continue engaging with the Government on the matter.

Sue Webber

I thank the minister for that response, and I remind him that no developer has ever led the delivery of a new station anywhere in Scotland.

The economic and environmental case for a train station at Winchburgh is undeniable. Passengers will save £2.4 million, and there will be £3.5 million of decongestion benefits. There will also be almost half a million fewer car journeys every year. The list goes on, as the minister acknowledged in his letter to Edward Mountain, the convener of the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee.

There is keen interest in building a station at Winchburgh, and it remains of significant public interest. The next meeting is in five days. The people of Winchburgh deserve much more. Can we expect a positive announcement and significant progress to be made before we return to Parliament in September?

Jim Fairlie

To correct what the member has just said, East Renfrewshire Council is acting as the lead proposer for Balgray station. The council has obtained the required funding through the successful application to the city region deal and transport officials have provided East Renfrewshire Council with strategic support for the development of the outline business case and the final business case process. It is not correct to say that a council cannot lead on such a programme.

The Winchburgh proposal is a developer-led programme. The Government will support it in every way that we can, but the local authority and the developer have to get around the table so that we can make progress.

Schools (Rural Communities)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to support schools in rural communities. (S6O-03616)

The Minister for Higher and Further Education; and Minister for Veterans (Graeme Dey)

Rural schools play an important role in our communities. In Scotland, there is a presumption against the closure of rural schools. When local authorities plan to close a school, they are required to undertake a thorough and lengthy consultation process, including demonstrating the educational benefit of the closure, considering the impact of the school closure on local community and school travel arrangements, and consulting the community on alternatives to closure. That process ensures that the impact of any decision is properly considered and that options are explored. No school closure decision should ever be taken lightly.

Alexander Burnett

The cabinet secretary wrote to me on 3 June to confirm that the most recent list of rural schools in Scotland showed that there were 21 mothballed primary schools, with Aberdeenshire Council and Highland Council having the most, with four in each area. That list was from 2021, which is now three years ago. In Aberdeenshire alone, I believe that there are now 14 mothballed primary schools, and 16 more are at risk, including Tullynessle and Logie Coldstone primary schools in my constituency. That is a clear betrayal of our rural communities. Does the minister have any idea how many primary schools are currently mothballed across Scotland? What will he do about it?

Graeme Dey

We really need to admire the brass neck of the member in asking that question, given that Aberdeenshire Council is Tory controlled. Local authorities have responsibility for the school estate, and decisions on closures and mothballing of schools are for them to take. Ministers have the power to call in a local authority decision only when the closure of the school is permanent.

From the information about Tullynessle that we have been provided with thus far, that would not appear to constitute a permanent closure. However, my officials have written to the local authority to seek further information about its plans and to remind it of its responsibilities under the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act 2010. I will write to the member about the numbers that he is seeking.

I go back to my earlier point about the absolute brass neck of Mr Burnett. If he is genuinely concerned and if he shares the concerns of local residents about the two school mothballings, as they are referred to, he might want to have a chat with some of his councillor colleagues in Aberdeenshire.

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

I am sure that the minister will welcome the progress on two new-build secondary schools in my constituency—Peebles high and Gala academy—which are due to be completed next year and are funded by the Scottish Government.

Does the minister agree that it is a massive burden on Scottish Borders Council’s budget that Borders secondary schools were built under public-private partnerships and the private finance initiative in 2009 by the then Tory-Liberal Democrat administration at an initial cost of £72 million but, by the end of the contract in 2039, they will have cost £258 million, and that we should never forget the punishing continuing costs of projects funded by PPP/PFI, which, thankfully, the Scottish Government ditched?

Graeme Dey

The Scottish Government was pleased to announce in December 2020 that we would provide financial support to Scottish Borders Council for its priority projects—namely, Galashiels community campus and Peebles high school—through phase 2 of the joint £2 billion learning estate investment programme. As Christine Grahame rightly notes, that was not done through the discredited PFI scheme, which the public purse is still bearing the cost of and which limits the amount of money that we and, indeed, councils have to invest in front-line services. The toxic legacy of PFI is still being felt in Scotland, and Labour members should be ashamed of their party’s record in government.

Developing the Young Workforce (Cowdenbeath)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the developing the young workforce programme in the Cowdenbeath constituency. (S6O-03617)

The Minister for Higher and Further Education; and Minister for Veterans (Graeme Dey)

The developing the young workforce programme plays a crucial role in the delivery of the Scottish Government’s commitment to ensuring that school leavers are supported to achieve their potential. DYW school co-ordinators and regional groups, including the Edinburgh and south-east Scotland DYW regional group, which covers Fife, take the lead on planning and delivering tailored events to meet the needs of young people and employers, and they facilitate connections with a range of delivery partners.

The Scottish Government remains committed to the DYW programme, with £12.9 million being invested in 2024-25 to fund regional groups and school co-ordinators.

Annabelle Ewing

The minister will, of course, be aware that Fife has been a trailblazer in facilitating vocational training for young people, with Lochgelly high school, the Purvis Group and Babcock, among others, having played a pivotal role over the years. What can be done to embed the developing the young workforce programme throughout Scotland to ensure that all that can be done is being done to provide young people with a route into skilled and well-paid jobs?

Graeme Dey

I absolutely share Annabelle Ewing’s high regard for the work of DYW, whether that be in her Cowdenbeath constituency, across Fife or elsewhere in Scotland. I also agree entirely that there is more to do to embed DYW into our offering for young people as they consider their future career paths.

The nature of DYW provision can vary from local authority area to local authority area. That is why my officials are working with DYW to see how we might enhance its standing.

I have been clear that I see DYW as an important pillar of the improved wider careers offering that we are developing as we seek to furnish our young people with the fullest possible understanding of the options that they have at their disposal.

Question 6 has been withdrawn.

Block Grant Changes

7. Elena Whitham (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies indicating that forecast United Kingdom Government tax and spending plans would be funded by reductions in public investment, what assessment it has made of the potential impact that any changes to Scotland’s block grant resulting from this would have on Scotland’s public finances. (S6O-03619)

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Local Government (Shona Robison)

As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has highlighted, whoever wins the election, unprotected budgets face cuts of up to £20 billion by 2028-29. We do not know what that means for our budget, as the IFS has pointed out that there is absolutely zero clarity from either the Conservatives or Labour about where those cuts might fall. However, decisions by the UK Government have already cost Scotland up to £1.6 billion in potential consequentials, and it is clear that any future UK Government will deliver more of the same for Scotland.

Elena Whitham

I am deeply concerned about the scale of the cuts that we face under the next UK Government. If a more realistic position is not taken by the leading Westminster parties, will the cabinet secretary call on her next UK counterpart to seriously consider the merits of Scotland’s more progressive system of income tax, which could, if applied across the rest of the UK, provide more than £15 billion in additional tax take for vital public services?

Shona Robison

We have repeatedly called on the UK Government to use the powers at its disposal to provide the funding that is needed to invest in our vital public services. Our own decisions on income tax since devolution will result in an additional £1.5 billion being raised in 2024-25 compared with what would have been raised if we had matched current policy in the rest of the UK. Ultimately, our position is that far greater powers over taxation should be devolved so that we can design a tax system that works for Scotland and allows us to raise the revenue that is needed to invest in vital public services.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

Could the cabinet secretary outline what the IFS says about the gap in the Scottish National Party’s fiscal projections in its manifesto, which was launched yesterday, and how it intends to fill the £2 billion black hole in the Scottish Government’s financial plans that the Scottish Fiscal Commission has outlined?

Shona Robison

Labour is on very dodgy ground indeed, given that it will not clarify whether it will continue with an austerity budget if it wins the election, which will mean that cuts of up to £20 billion will ensue by 2028-29. On top of that, the leader of the Scottish Labour Party has said that Labour will reverse the decisions that we have taken using our tax-raising powers in Scotland, which have raised £1.5 billion. If that reversal happens, we will have not only austerity cuts from Westminster but a double whammy of £1.5 billion less funding for vital public services. The public need to know about those Labour plans.