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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) [Draft]

Meeting date: Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Business Motion, Motion without Notice, Business Motion, Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Motion without Notice


Topical Question Time

The Presiding Officer (Alison Johnstone)

The next scheduled item of business was to be business motion S6M-07320, in the name of George Adam. However, amendments to the motion have very recently been submitted, and in order to ensure that all members have adequate time to look at those amendments, I will move to topical questions at this time, and then we will return to the item on the business motion.


Budget 2023-24 (Education)

1. Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

I am glad that so many members have turned up to listen to my very important question.

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reported comments by the general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, that a reduction in budget will lead to class sizes increasing, subjects being removed from the curriculum and a reduction in the number of teachers. (S6T-01060)

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

I have my own perspective on how pleasing it is to see so many people here, Presiding Officer.

This Government has delivered the highest school spending and more teachers per pupil than in any other United Kingdom nation. In Scotland, we have the lowest overall pupil teacher ratio in the UK at 13.2, compared with 18 in England and 18.5 in Wales.

In our budget, we have sought to protect councils by providing more than £13.2 billion in the local government settlement for 2023-24. That funding package represents a real-terms increase compared with 2022-23 and enables the continued delivery of high-quality education for our children. As part of that, we will continue to provide local authorities with specific funding of £145.5 million per year to support the school workforce. Investment in education is at a record high, with resource and capital spending up almost £200 million this coming financial year, which is one of the biggest rises in the history of the Scottish Parliament.

Willie Rennie

I do not think that the minister heard what Jim Thewliss said on Sunday. He was clear—and this is direct evidence from the classroom—that teacher numbers would be cut, class sizes would increase and subjects would be removed. Is the minister saying that Jim Thewliss is wrong?

Jamie Hepburn

I do not think that Mr Rennie listened to my answer. His question was predicated on the spending in the budget that we have laid out, and as I have laid out very clearly, there is a real-terms increase. The education and skills resource budget is up from £2.9 billion to just over £3 billion, and the education and skills capital budget has increased from £506 million to £566 million. The budget delivers a funding package that represents a real-terms increase compared with this financial year and enables the continued delivery of high-quality education for our children.

Willie Rennie

I want to know what that means for the election promises that were made by the minister’s party last year. Will there be an additional 3,500 teachers and classroom assistants; will the poverty-related attainment gap be substantially eliminated in primary and secondary schools; and finally, will teaching contact time be reduced by 90 minutes each week?

Jamie Hepburn

We have laid out our manifesto commitments, and we look to take them forward. The member mentions the Scottish attainment challenge, which is raised regularly in the Parliament, rightly, because it is an important issue. We will continue to invest £1 billion through the Scottish attainment challenge in this parliamentary session, which represents a substantial increase on the previous session’s £750 million. That is specifically designed to tackle the attainment gap and drive education recovery. As I have mentioned, we are providing more than £145 million of additional annual funding to ensure the sustained employment of additional teachers and classroom assistants. We are doing what we can to make sure that we deliver for Scotland’s young people at school.

I welcome the continued investment in our education system. Can the minister advise how education spending in Scotland compares with that in the rest of the UK? [Interruption.]

Jamie Hepburn

I can hear the groans already, so it is clear that the Tories already know the answer. Education spend in Scotland is £1,758 per person, which is over £300 more per person than that in England. The figures are £1,439 in England and £1,680 in Wales.

We continue to support the recruitment of students into initial teacher education courses. The number of teachers per 100,000 pupils is 7,573 in Scotland compared with 5,734 in England and 5,636 in Wales.

Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

Thank goodness for record block grant levels. It is not about inputs; it is about outputs. Scottish education ought to be the gift that we give to Scotland’s young people, with a promise of a better future. However, under the Scottish National Party, there are now 900 fewer teachers; subject choice is down; presentations at highers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics are at a five-year low; and there is a dramatic fall in modern languages education. There is now talk in the councils in Central Scotland of shorter periods, shorter school days, a shorter school week, and even fewer subject choices. There are rising class sizes as ratios are ditched, and teachers are more worried than they ought to be about their safety in the classroom. It is hardly sunlit uplands, is it? Is the minister as embarrassed as he should be?

Jamie Hepburn

Actually, I am very proud when I go out to see the many achievements of young people throughout this country, supported by first-class teachers. That is what I am proud to say that we have in Scotland. Mr Kerr did not mention that, of course. Maybe he has not been out there encountering what is happening on the ground.

I have already made a point about our support for young people and the number of teachers, which I will reiterate—I thank Mr Kerr for giving me the chance to do so. We are investing £145.5 million of additional annual funding to ensure the sustained deployment of additional teachers and classroom assistants. That is why we have the best pupil teacher ratios in the entire UK.

Michael Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

I have listened carefully to the minister’s responses, and it is clear that he has dodged the core question, which was about the manifesto commitments on which the Government was elected—it was about the 3,500 additional teachers and reductions in classroom time. Is it not right that the pledge on 3,500 teachers is dead in the water under the budget?

I have fully responded to that question. We have laid out our manifesto commitments, and we will work to take them forward.

Oliver Mundell (Dumfriesshire) (Con)

Rural schools have already seen whole subjects removed from the timetable. Surely the minister cannot be proud of the fact that, in parts of Scotland, people cannot take whole subject areas. That is not educational opportunities for all. How can it be right that my Dumfriesshire constituents, in the likes of Moffat academy, have fewer opportunities today than I had when I was at school? The minister cannot be proud of that.

Jamie Hepburn

I cannot attest to Mr Mundell’s education, but I can go back to a point that I have already made. If people go out and see what is happening in our schools and consider the area that I have responsibility for, they will see that a much wider array of subject matter is available in terms of technical qualifications at the senior level. I am very pleased to see an increased range of subject matter and an increased range of choices available to young people. Frankly, although I do not know about Mr Mundell’s time at school, those were certainly not available when I was at school.

Budget 2023-24 (Local Government)

2. Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the statement by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities expressing council leaders’ extreme disappointment with the proposed budget settlement for local government and its presentation lacking consistency with a partnership approach, and their invitation to the Deputy First Minister to attend a special meeting. (S6T-01061)

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Covid Recovery (John Swinney)

Despite the spectacularly difficult current fiscal context, the Scottish Government has increased the resources available to local government next year by over £570 million. I have also invited council leaders to work with us and other partners to design our services around the needs and interests of the people and communities of Scotland. That is how we will deliver sustainable public services in partnership.

In addition to funding from the Scottish Government, local authorities enjoy a range of revenue-raising powers that are not available to other public services, including newly devolved powers over empty property rates relief.

Mark Griffin

I did not hear clearly whether the cabinet secretary has agreed to join the special meeting with COSLA leaders; I hope that that will be clarified now. The Government’s claim on Thursday that local government would get £500 million, and its promotion of a partnership approach, unravelled within hours. As I said at the time, that was little more than smoke and mirrors.

The unanimous response of COSLA leaders across all parties—and, most significantly, of council leaders from the Deputy First Minister’s party—is that the budget represents another massive real-terms cut in councils’ core funding, which will lead to socially harmful job losses. That could not be more serious.

Services as we know them will cease to exist. On Thursday, I asked the cabinet secretary whether he had assessed the cost to the national health service of cutting preventative services, but he did not answer. What is left to cut? Where is the impact assessment of what such austerity will do to the rest of Scotland’s public services?

John Swinney

The proper comparison of budgets that Parliament expects of me, as the acting finance minister, is between one budget and the next budget. From last year’s budget to this year’s budget, the local government finance settlement has increased by £570 million.

In the dialogue that I had before the budget statement, local government asked me for an increase of £1 billion in its budget allocation. I was clear with local government that £1 billion could not be delivered in the current fiscal context. Local government was expecting a flat cash settlement; it expected no more money next year in comparison with this year, because that is what it was encouraged to believe from the resource spending review, but in fact, I have delivered £570 million more. That is a welcome settlement for local government.

Mark Griffin

There is still no answer on the wider impact of the cuts on Scotland’s public sector landscape. I heard the Deputy First Minister’s comments on Sunday about the need for reform. Where has the Government been for the past decade? Councils have been salami slicing in the face of 10 years of real-terms cuts. The days of salami slicing are over; it is now wholesale cuts—services ended.

Officials in Scottish National Party-run Aberdeen City Council have started looking at everything that the council does—social work, council tax collection, free school meals, dog control, health and safety and even the welfare fund. That could all be privatised and outsourced. Given what Aberdeen—along with all other councils—is considering, is the budget being used not to reform but to dismantle local government?

John Swinney

No. The budget has been designed to create sustainable public services, with an increase of £570 million in the local government budget that was not expected. I have offered local authorities the opportunity to be partners in how we take forward the reform of the public sector. That was exactly what I did when we designed the Covid recovery strategy, which was agreed with local government. I look forward to building on that as we take forward the local government settlement, which I stress is £570 million higher than local authorities expected it to be.

Paul McLennan (East Lothian) (SNP)

The proposed uplift of more than £500 million in the local government settlement is a welcome real-terms increase in investment in our public services and local democracy, amid the most challenging budget circumstances since devolution. The Deputy First Minister referred to the additional revenue-raising powers that are available to Scottish councils, which are important. Will he underline how local authorities are set to benefit even more significantly in the coming year, if they engage meaningfully with the Scottish Government on a new deal for local government, which could provide new sources of revenue and unlock fiscal reserves?

John Swinney

I am keen to take forward that approach, as is the social justice secretary, who is sitting beside me. We have embarked on such discussions with local authorities and we look forward to developing that work into the new fiscal framework. Local authorities have other tax-varying powers, such as those in relation to empty property relief. In due course in this parliamentary session, we will legislate on a visitor levy. Local authorities have at their disposal other measures, but they can rely on a £570 million increase in their budget that they were not expecting.

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

COSLA has put it on the record that, between its written response to the national care service proposals and the National Care Service (Scotland) Bill’s publication in June,

“There was no meaningful engagement between the Scottish Government and Local Government”.

In combination with the concerns that Mr Griffin outlined, does that represent a serious situation for so-called partnership working between the two forms of government and for the effective delivery of local services?

John Swinney

Frankly, I do not recognise the world that Liz Smith talks about. [Interruption.] Well, okay. Let me explain the dialogue with local authorities. I had several discussions with local government about the preparation for the budget, right up until the eve of the budget. I had discussions with all the political leaders in COSLA of all shades of political opinion. My colleagues who are involved in the work on the national care service have been involved in dialogue with local government, but I stress that local government has made it quite clear, because of its opposition to the national care service, that it does not particularly want to take forward dialogue with the Scottish Government on those questions.

When it comes to wider partnership working, I cite to Liz Smith the work that the Scottish Government did, in partnership with local government, that resulted in the Covid recovery strategy being agreed—it was a jointly agreed proposition. With the president of COSLA, I chair a delivery board to take forward such priorities. I wish that members of Parliament would reflect the reality of what is going on, not the invention of reality that we get from the Conservatives.