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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Agenda: Topical Question Time, Point of Order, Portfolio Question Time, Point of Order, Inward Investment and Export Growth Plans, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Out-of-hours General Practitioner Services


Contents


Portfolio Question Time


Justice and Veterans

We move to portfolio question time. The first portfolio is justice and veterans.


Online Crime Reporting System (Error)

1. Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the error with Police Scotland’s online crime reporting system, which meant that between 3.00 pm on 31 August and 6.00 am on 1 September crimes reported through the online system were not recorded. (S6O-01348)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans (Keith Brown)

That was clearly a regrettable incident. However, it is important to stress that the issue only affected non-urgent messages that do not require immediate police attendance. In an emergency situation, 999 should always be called.

Police Scotland has confirmed that the issue was related to a third party supplier’s platform that stopped around 215 emails being processed. I am grateful to Police Scotland for its swift action to inform the public and for its moves to review current service provision to ensure that processes are robust against any possible recurrence.

Jamie Greene

Regrettable is one word to use, but I would say that concerning is a better description of that information technology failure. We recently learned that 2 million non-urgent calls to 101 have gone unanswered since 2018, and that a large number of calls to 999 also go unanswered. It is vital that any crimes—reported online or otherwise—are logged and acted upon because, sadly, we all know of the serious consequences that can happen when emergency call handling goes wrong; it ends in tragedy. What reassurances can the cabinet secretary offer that it is a fail-proof system and that that will not happen again, and does he share my concern that the effects of a potential real-terms budget cut on Police Scotland’s capital budget will have grave consequences for the vital IT projects that it needs to invest in?

Keith Brown

Some reassurance can be taken from the immediate action that Police Scotland took and from the fact that for the three weeks since the incident occurred the same system has worked continuously and without fault.

I have also been given reassurances from Police Scotland that work is being done to ensure that there is no recurrence of that issue. Further reassurance can be taken from HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland’s report on Police Scotland’s contact assessment model, which makes it very clear that the contribution of CAM is a significant step forward for Police Scotland. It was independently assessed.

HMICS also highlighted that the roll-out of CAM enabled Police Scotland to maintain an appropriate level of service throughout the pandemic. Figures published by the Home Office for July 2022 show that Police Scotland was well above the United Kingdom average for 999 call answer times, which the member mentioned, with 79.9 per cent of calls answered in under 10 seconds compared with 68.3 per cent in the rest of the UK.

In relation to the budget, as far as I know, the member has made no call on the UK Government to reverse the 5.2 per cent cut to this year’s budget. Also, given the cost of living crisis, the huge costs associated with pay claims and the very high levels of inflation, you would have thought that if the member was concerned about Police Scotland’s budget he would have made representations about that, but he made none at all.

As far as I can remember, there has never been an amendment from the Tories to say that they want an increase in police spending. In fact, in times past, I remember at least one occasion on which they asked for less money than the Scottish Government gave. If they are serious about it, perhaps they can make some calls on the UK Government for help to bolster some of the increased costs, whether that is through the cost of living crisis or the energy crisis that the Scottish Government and Police Scotland face because of their Government’s ineptitude.


Bella Centre

2. Maggie Chapman (North East Scotland) (Green)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the first few weeks of operation, and how many women are now resident, at the newly opened Bella centre in Dundee, the United Kingdom’s first community custody unit. (S6O-01349)

The Minister for Community Safety (Ash Regan)

The Bella centre community custody unit became operational on 1 August 2022. There are currently nine women residing in the unit with further women being assessed for eligibility to transfer to the Bella centre in the coming weeks.

Maggie Chapman

It is becoming increasingly understood that our prison system is a product of inequality, having been developed through a class-infused lens of men’s experience. Will the minister outline the specific needs of, and challenges for, women in custody and how the vision for justice will support the much needed transformational change in the women’s prison sector?

Ash Regan

The Bella centre is an example of the Government’s implementation of the transformational change to which the member referred. Women imprisoned in Scotland often present with a number of complex and interconnected needs. Broadly speaking, they disproportionately experience physical and psychological problems, which are frequently exacerbated by substance misuse, often as a result of traumatic events experienced in childhood or as adults. Through the Scottish Government’s vision for justice in Scotland, we will continue to dedicate work within the justice sector to ensuring that women get the help that they need. We remain absolutely committed to making improvements to the justice system that will benefit and empower women throughout that system.

The women’s justice leadership panel, which I chair, has been established to address gender equality and improve women’s experiences within the justice system. That panel has been examining a range of experiences of women as victims and offenders in a range of different settings, including policing, community justice, the criminal and civil courts, tribunals and prisons. We hope that its work will promote the development of strategic outcomes that can guide and enhance the scope and uptake for gender-competent policy making and the design of justice policies that can go further to help women and achieve our vision for justice in Scotland.


Policing (Accountability)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the Scottish Police Authority about improving the accountability of policing in Scotland. (S6O-01350)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans (Keith Brown)

Policing is one of the most accountable and highly scrutinised services in Scotland. An entire organisation, the Scottish Police Authority, is in place to hold the chief constable to account. In addition, several other organisations have a key statutory role in the oversight of policing, such as His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland and the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner. The Scottish Government, the Scottish Parliament and Audit Scotland also take a keen interest in matters of accountability, as demonstrated by the member’s question.

I meet the chair of the SPA regularly, as I do the chief constable and Her Majesty’s—pardon me, I mean His Majesty’s—chief inspector of constabulary. The subjects discussed are relevant to policing issues at the time.

Stephen Kerr

It will take some time for us to get used to “His Majesty” rather than “Her Majesty”.

I hope that the cabinet secretary is able to answer my next question, which has been raised with me by many concerned constituents, without being tempted to make any party-political pop. The number of incidences of drug dealing recorded by the police has fallen by 20 per cent while the number of people dying from drugs remains stubbornly high. It is no surprise that many people in my Central Scotland region come to me because they feel less safe in their neighbourhoods. Will the cabinet secretary say how those communities, which are genuinely concerned for their public safety, can hold the police accountable to keep them safe from drug dealers?

Keith Brown

The figures that the member mentioned are produced independently of the Scottish Government, so we are right to place some faith in them. They show, as the member mentioned, a substantial reduction.

The member mentioned drug deaths. My colleague Angela Constance is perhaps better placed to respond to this, but it is true to say that there is a lag between when those deaths take place and when people first start taking drugs.

It is the police’s responsibility to provide the reassurance that the member mentions. Notwithstanding the fact that members of the public have come to speak to Mr Kerr, there is some reassurance in the police figures, which show that there is a reduction in drug dealing.

However, through the different methods that I mentioned, it is possible for people to raise those issues—either with the SPA or individually, as they have done with Mr Kerr. I encourage people to do that. The police are always willing to listen and they rely on that local intelligence to find the best deployment of their force. That might also be a factor: the more information that the police have, the more effective they can be.

I hope that that is helpful to Mr Kerr, but I am happy to have a further discussion if he would find that helpful.

Stephanie Callaghan (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

How does the Scottish Government plan to further improve trauma-informed policing throughout Scotland, especially when policing vulnerable communities? What steps can be taken to ensure that officers are held accountable for actions or attitudes that negatively impact on the vulnerable communities that they serve?

Keith Brown

Our report, “The Vision for Justice in Scotland”, sets out that justice services must be person centred and trauma informed. I understand that those are almost buzzwords these days, but if they are properly realised, they can be transformative for people’s experience.

It is recognised that people in the criminal justice system can be affected by psychological trauma in many different ways, and that the system can be retraumatising. As set out in the strategic workforce plan, Police Scotland is committed to working with a wide range of partners, recognising that the majority of police demand is rooted in complex social need with the aim of protecting vulnerable individuals. To support that, all officers and staff within Police Scotland’s partnerships, prevention and community wellbeing division are trained in trauma-informed policing. Additionally, we are funding trauma specialists to develop a knowledge and skills framework to create a more trauma-informed and trauma-responsive justice system. That framework will be published later this year.


Proposed Criminal Justice Reform Bill

To ask the Scottish Government how the proposed Criminal Justice Reform bill will aim to improve the experiences of victims in the justice system. (S6O-01351)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans (Keith Brown)

The bill will progress the ambition and priorities that are set out in “The Vision for Justice in Scotland”. It will deliver reforms building on our recent consultation on improving victims’ experiences of the justice system and the recommendations from Lady Dorrian’s review on improving the management of sexual offence cases. The bill will include proposals to introduce a statutory right to anonymity for complainers in sexual offence cases and to abolish the not proven verdict—a verdict that people do not understand, that can stigmatise the acquitted and may cause additional trauma for victims.

Joe FitzPatrick

I welcome that the bill sets out to deliver legislative reform, building on the recommendations of Lady Dorrian’s review on improving the management of sexual offence cases, notably the anonymity of complainers of sexual crimes, as mentioned by the cabinet secretary.

Can the cabinet secretary advise what plans the Scottish Government has to work with the legal sector to ensure that there is a smooth implementation of those reforms in court practice?

Keith Brown

The member raises an important point, specifically on ensuring anonymity protection for complainers in sexual offence cases. The Scottish Government is engaging closely with key interested parties, including Rape Crisis Scotland, to ensure that the policy is delivered effectively.

More generally, for the various reforms that are likely to be included in the bill, we have continued Lady Dorrian’s approach of partnership working. A cross-sector governance group, where the legal sector is represented along with victim support organisations, is driving further consideration including implementation planning. That is invaluable, and will help to ensure that the reforms in court practice and procedure achieve the intended benefits.

Countless rape victims and the families of murder victims have their pain compounded by the not proven verdict. Can the cabinet secretary tell them when Scotland’s “bastard verdict” will be scrapped?

Keith Brown

In the programme for government, we have laid out the proposals to have that brought forward this year. That verdict has been used for centuries. It is also true that we resisted the member’s and other members’ pleas to scrap that verdict that more quickly, because we think that there are other parts of the criminal justice system that will have to change in order to accommodate the change.

The consideration of those matters is supported by the Law Society of Scotland, the Faculty of Advocates and the senators of the College of Justice in Scotland, and we have to take people with us on such a fundamental change. That is why it is right that we consider other aspects as well as the not proven verdict, which is what we have done up until this point and what we will continue to do. However, for the first time, a Government has said that it will abolish the not proven verdict in Scotland, which has stood for centuries. I think that that should be welcomed.


Recorded Crime Statistics

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the latest recorded crime in Scotland statistics. (S6O-01352)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans (Keith Brown)

Although the latest recorded crime statistics are at their lowest level since 1974, which shows that Scotland is a safer place since this Government took office, there is much more to do. We are investing in policing to ensure that police numbers are higher than at any time during the previous Administration, and we are ensuring that victims and survivors are supported. Our victim-centred approach fund of £48 million will provide practical and emotional support to victims over the next three years. That includes £18.5 million for specialist advocacy support for survivors of gender-based violence, in addition to the delivery of the equally safe strategy, providing £19 million per year to focus on prevention as well as vital support services across Scotland.

Craig Hoy

Any reduction in overall crime levels is to be welcomed, but the cabinet secretary overlooks the fact that the rate of sexual crimes is at its highest ever level, and that the number of domestic abuse incidents has also reached record levels. In a recent article in the justice and social affairs magazine 1919, Keith Brown boasted that

“Scotland continues to be such a safe place to live”.

Even for an Administration as complacent as this Scottish National Party Government, are those remarks not crassly insensitive to the record number of victims of those horrific crimes?

Keith Brown

Of course, we have to be—and we are—mindful of people’s experience of crime and how traumatic that can be. However, it is an utter absurdity to talk about complacency on the part of the Scottish Government. I saw a newspaper article today that said that, in Scotland, 45.1 per 1,000 people suffer an experience of crime, whereas, in England and Wales, that figure is 77.6 per 1,000 people. If we are complacent, what does that make the United Kingdom Government?

Of course, we are concerned for victims. That is why we have taken the measures that we have. Further, in relation to policing, we have far higher levels of policing in Scotland than is the case in the rest of the UK, and we have a starting salary for a police constable in Scotland that is more than £5,000 a year more than is the case in England and Wales. I also point to the success of the police in driving down levels of crime to their lowest level since 1974. We might think that we might hear the occasional word of praise for Police Scotland from the Conservatives, but we do not.


Court Backlogs (Impact on Remand for Young People)

6. Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on how it is addressing court backlogs that are reportedly leading to young people being held on remand for longer than 140 days in young offenders institutions. (S6O-01353)

The Minister for Community Safety (Ash Regan)

The Scottish Government has established a justice recovery fund of £53.2 million in 2022-23, which is supporting the courts and the wider justice system to recover from the impact of the pandemic.

Action taken to address the backlogs—including the creation of 16 additional courts—is having a positive impact on court throughput. The total number of scheduled trials outstanding has reduced each month in 2022 and has fallen by more than 7,400 since the start of the year. We are also reforming the use of remand and are ending the placement of under-18s in young offenders institutions.

Mark Ruskell

I welcome that response, particularly in relation to the justice recovery fund.

I have constituents from Fife who have been held on remand in the Polmont young offenders institution for up to a year, locked up for up to 22 hours a day away from home, without access to adequate support. That is obviously no way to treat any young person in Scotland today. How is the Scottish Government applying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in Scotland, and how will forthcoming bills ensure that young people are not unnecessarily deprived of their liberty and are treated with trauma-informed and age-appropriate support, which is important?

Ash Regan

The decision to deprive a child of their liberty is for the independent courts. We are clear that that should be a last resort and that the child in that situation should be in secure care. That is why we are committed to ending the placement of under-18s in young offenders institutions, which we will do through the forthcoming children’s care and justice bill.

I understand that there have been improvements for under-18s on remand in young offenders institutions, including access to vocational training and the realignment of a full-time inclusion officer to work with individuals to reduce social isolation and encourage participation in activities. However, I note the member’s interest in the issue, and I suggest that he might like to meet the minister in charge of the bill to discuss his concerns in more detail with her.


Victims of Military Sexual Trauma

To ask the Scottish Government what support is being provided to assist those veterans, predominately women, who have been victims of military sexual trauma whilst on duty. (S6O-01354)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans (Keith Brown)

Although, as the member knows, responsibility for military conduct is a reserved issue, the Scottish Government remains absolutely committed to improving access to support for all those who have experienced rape or sexual assault and funds a range of front-line specialist support services. For example, through our victim-centred approach fund, we will provide £48 million to 23 organisations across Scotland over the period from 2022 to 2025. That includes £18.5 million for specialist advocacy support for survivors of gender-based violence, underlining our absolute commitment to putting victims very firmly at the centre of the justice system.

Natalie Don

Does the cabinet secretary agree that, with more than 22 per cent of female veterans reporting incidences of sexual assault by their colleagues, the United Kingdom Government and Ministry of Defence should do more to stamp out that culture in the armed services and that the UK Government should recognise military sexual trauma in the same way that the US recognises it, which is as a criminal offence under federal law, meaning that trials are held in civilian courts?

Keith Brown

I certainly agree that more should be done to stamp out that culture. That has been true for many decades. When I took up this ministerial position last year, one of my first engagements was to go to a new veterans centre in Fife, where a woman, who was one of the first Wrens to be stationed on a ship, recounted some of her horrendous experience from the 1980s onwards. Much more should be done and should have been done over many years.

Of course, I agree that the more serious cases should be dealt with in the civilian criminal courts. We continue to push the UK Government to commit to the future implementation of recommendation 1 of the Lyons review. In January, I wrote to the Secretary of State for Defence to ask how the UK Government will address that important issue and how our service personnel can be assured that they will not be affected by such awful behaviour during their service. Although those were very reasonable questions, I did not receive even the courtesy of a response from the secretary of state.


Community Payback Orders (Monitoring)

To ask the Scottish Government what conclusions it has reached through its monitoring of the community payback order scheme on its effectiveness at reducing reoffending. (S6O-01355)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans (Keith Brown)

Use of community payback orders is monitored in a variety of ways, including through national criminal justice social work and reconviction statistics. We know that CPOs can be more effective than prison at addressing the causes of offending, while also delivering benefits to communities, and our justice vision includes a continued focus on shifting the balance towards justice in the community.

The reconviction rate for offenders who are given CPOs is consistently lower than for those who are given short custodial sentences. In 2018-19, the reconviction rate for offenders who had been given CPOs was 29.2 per cent, compared with 51.7 per cent for those who had been given custodial sentences of one year or less.

Willie Coffey

A key part of the vision for justice is shifting the balance from use of custody towards greater use of justice options in our communities. What action is the Scottish Government taking to achieve that and to make further progress in reducing reoffending?

Keith Brown

I assure the member that further steps are being taken to shift the balance towards a greater use of community-based disposals. A delivery plan to support implementation of the revised national community justice strategy is being developed with partner organisations; its publication will drive actions at national and local levels. In addition, we introduced the Bail and Release from Custody (Scotland) Bill to Parliament in June. We are supporting effective use of new powers to electronically monitor the use of bail. We are continuing to invest in community justice services within the parameters that were set out in the resource spending review. That includes sustaining additional investment of £15 million in justice social work services this year. Of course, public protection remains paramount as we work to reduce reoffending and assist with rehabilitation, which leads to fewer victims and safer communities.

That concludes portfolio questions on justice and veterans. There will be a short pause before we move to portfolio questions on finance and the economy.


Finance and the Economy

The Deputy Presiding Officer

We move to portfolio questions on finance and the economy. I remind members that questions 3 and 7 are grouped together and that I will take any supplementaries on those questions once they have both been answered. If any member wishes to ask a supplementary question, they should press their request-to-speak button or enter the letter R in the chat function during the relevant question.


Energy Prices and Inflation (Impact on Businesses and Jobs)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the impact of energy price and inflation increases on businesses and jobs. (S6O-01356)

The Minister for Business, Trade, Tourism and Enterprise (Ivan McKee)

We monitor closely the impact and we know that the effects are felt by traditionally energy-intensive industries and small businesses. We have engaged extensively with businesses and we support their calls for measures on energy prices, VAT reduction, staff shortages and handling business loans, which all fall within the reserved powers of the United Kingdom Government. Although the UK Government’s long-anticipated announcement this morning is welcome, it comes too late for many businesses across Scotland that are already struggling to pay bills. The UK Government needs to do more, and we have written to it to request an urgent quadrilateral meeting.

Pauline McNeill

Businesses feel that they are lurching from one overwhelming crisis to another, despite the UK Government’s intervention today. I agree with the minister that it has come a bit too late, although I am sure that it is welcome.

Hospitality businesses were here last week, and I put on record my thanks to Ivan McKee for coming along to listen to them. The businesses described the current financial situation in Scotland as being worse than it was during the coronavirus period. Many fear that they will not be able to continue trading through this winter, but they have indicated that business rates relief would make a sizeable difference to many companies. What are the detailed plans to support businesses this winter? I know that the minister is only too aware that businesses have said that they are really scared that if they do not survive this winter, they will not survive at all.

Ivan McKee

I thank Pauline McNeill for organising the recent event with hospitality businesses, which reinforced my understanding of the difficulties that businesses in that sector and others are facing, due not only to the price rises but to the uncertainty as a consequence of them.

We have seen from the UK Government a six-month-only price cap, which is clearly not as helpful as it could be to businesses that are looking to the future. I fully appreciate the difficulties caused to businesses as a consequence of that. The Scottish Government is looking at all the options for taking measures to support businesses; however, as we all know, many of the levers are controlled by the UK Government. My colleague the Deputy First Minister will be introducing measures through the budget, once we have seen the UK Government’s budget action in that regard and fully understand the fiscal scope within which we can operate. Rest assured that we understand and appreciate the impact of the current crisis on businesses.

Paul McLennan (East Lothian) (SNP)

Given that the UK Government holds the key levers to support businesses and jobs during the crisis, what engagement has the Scottish Government had with the UK Government on the matter, and what action does the minister think that the UK Government should be taking now to support businesses and people?

Ivan McKee

The response from the UK Government on the issue and more broadly has been unacceptable. With key policy levers currently being reserved, as the member rightly points out, we will continue to press the UK Government across a range of measures, including the expansion of the shortage occupation list, VAT reduction on small and medium-sized enterprises’ energy bills, and an extension of the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme.

The long-awaited business energy cap is welcome, but it must be funded in part by targeting windfall gains in the energy sector and by companies that have benefited from significantly higher profits during the pandemic and the energy crisis. We have written to the UK Government several times on those issues, most recently on 16 September, when we requested an urgent quadrilateral meeting. We will continue to press it urgently on those matters.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

Energy projections for the Shetland community bike project show unit price increases of more than 300 per cent, while the impact of energy price and inflation increases puts in question the viability of even long-established businesses in my constituency and makes planning for the future difficult. Does the minister agree that that demonstrates that we need longer-term solutions rather than the temporary sticking plaster that the UK Government is offering?

Ivan McKee

Yes, I do. It is one of the very cruel paradoxes of the current situation that, in Scotland, which is self-sufficient in energy, we are seeing rises in costs that are outwith our control, particularly in energy-rich Shetland, where, as Beatrice Wishart knows only too well, in many instances the impact is even more severe than it is across the rest of Scotland.

Beatrice Wishart is absolutely right: we need long-term solutions to the crisis. That is why Scotland must have full control over the economic and energy levers. Solutions can be delivered only if Scotland is a normal independent country that enjoys those full powers.

Douglas Lumsden (North East Scotland) (Con)

In The Scotsman this morning, the head of the Confederation of British Industry said that there is not enough dialogue with Scottish ministers, and he declared that freezing business rates is the CBI’s “top ask” of the Scottish Government. Business rates are a lever that the minster has, so will he listen to business?

Ivan McKee

I also saw Tony Danker’s comments, and he was very complimentary about his engagement with the First Minister. The Deputy First Minister, other ministers and I engage extensively and very regularly with the CBI and other business organisations in Scotland. My door is always open to any business organisation or business that feels that it is not being listened to—please come and arrange a meeting with me to discuss those or other matters.

On the steps that the Scottish Government can take, the member will be well aware that, because Scotland is not an independent country, we do not have control of our borrowing powers. Therefore, we are operating within fiscal—[Interruption.] Well, we can fund things only with the finite resources that we have because we are not able to borrow to support emergency measures in the way that the UK Government does. Therefore, we call on the UK Government to take more measures to support businesses and to give us more fiscal headroom to take the measures that the member mentioned. As I have said, the Deputy First Minister will bring forward an emergency budget as soon as we are clear what the fiscal landscape looks like.

Question 2 is from Neil Bibby, who joins us remotely.


Social Media Advertising (Scottish Government Spending)

To ask the Scottish Government how much it has allocated in the financial year 2022-23 for it and its agencies to spend on social media advertising. (S6O-01357)

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

Budgets are not allocated by the Scottish Government to agencies specifically for the purposes of social media advertising and information is not held on the breakdown of social media advertising expenditure by agency. Scottish Government spend on social media advertising from April to August 2022 was £371,993.

Neil Bibby

It is clear that the Scottish Government spends a significant amount on social media advertising. Last year, the amount was reported to be £2.3 million.

The Deputy First Minister has set out a number of options for spending cuts as part of the Government’s emergency budget review, but that does not appear to include cutting social media advertising expenditure. Clearly, cutting that budget would not offset other difficult decisions, but it is still a significant amount of money. Will the DFM confirm whether the social media advertising budget will be protected, or whether it will be considered for cuts?

John Swinney

As Mr Bibby will be aware, I have set out an initial round of reductions in budgets, which were explained to Parliament two weeks ago. I do not believe that that will be the last set of reductions that I will have to make because of the enormous financial pressures that we face as a result of inflation and public sector pay.

Currently, I am exploring a range of different aspects of public expenditure, which might be subject to further reductions as part of the emergency budget review and as part of my in-year financial management. That might have an effect on the Government’s advertising and social media costs. I will advise Parliament of what decisions I arrive at on any of those questions in due course.


Cost of Living Crisis (United Kingdom Government Funding)

3. Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what its latest engagement has been with the United Kingdom Government regarding the funding that is being provided to mitigate the impacts of the cost of living crisis. (S6O-01358)

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

The cost of living crisis is an unprecedented challenge for us all and action must be taken by all Governments, including and especially by the UK Government.

The First Minister wrote to the Prime Minister on 6 September emphasising the need to act urgently to support citizens now. Given the grave nature of the crisis, I also wrote to the new chancellor to press the need for action. The Prime Minister’s announcement on the energy price cap is welcome, but more action is required to support struggling families and businesses.

Bob Doris

Despite Scottish Government actions to mitigate UK Tory Government cuts and to provide direct financial support that is not available elsewhere in the UK, independent analysis in the Financial Times suggests that living standards continue to decline and, for instance, that

“the average Slovenian household will be better off than its British counterpart by 2024”.

Given that the Scottish Government does not have the fiscal levers of independence to borrow in order to provide additional support to households and businesses as inflation spirals, what measures would the Deputy First Minister like the UK Government to introduce to prevent a recession and reduce soaring levels of fuel poverty, food need and indebtedness, which are impacting too many of our constituents already?

John Swinney

Mr Doris will have heard my statement to Parliament two weeks ago in which I explained the financial constraints under which we are operating whereby, once we have set the tax rates for a financial year and given our inability to borrow for resource expenditure, we are essentially operating on a fixed budget.

There have been spiralling increases in inflation during this financial year. That has resulted in the necessity to settle pay demands at a much higher level than those that we had been expecting. That puts acute pressure on the Scottish Government’s budget, because we do not have the flexibility that the UK Government has, to which Mr Doris refers.

I would like to see the UK Government take forward targeted measures such as an increase in universal credit payments, because that would provide support directly to those who are most affected by the challenges that are faced in the cost of living crisis. That is why the Scottish Government has taken the steps that we have on, for example, the Scottish child payment, which will ensure that families that are really struggling are given the greatest amount of support.

I am very concerned, in reading news reports about what is expected to be in the chancellor’s statement on Friday, that more and more of the measures that are proposed to be taken by the UK Government run the risk of increasing inequality in our society and preferring the interests of those who are wealthy over those who face financial challenges and are in poverty. I appeal to the UK Government, as I have to my colleagues in Wales and Northern Ireland, to bring forward measures that will support those who are hard pressed by the financial crisis.


Inflationary Pressures (United Kingdom Government Funding)

To ask the Scottish Government what indications it has received that additional funding will be provided by the United Kingdom Government to deal with inflationary pressures. (S6O-01362)

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

Despite the huge challenges that the Scottish budget faces, the UK Government has offered no support to deal with inflationary pressures. With inflation now at more than 10 per cent and predicted to go higher, the Scottish budget is worth around £1.7 billion less than it was when it was presented to Parliament in December.

The Scottish budget is fixed, we cannot vary Scottish income tax in year, our reserve funding is fully allocated and our borrowing powers are woefully inadequate. We need to secure from the UK Government the necessary financial flexibility to enable us to address the very real financial challenges that we face this financial year.

Kenneth Gibson

Does the cabinet secretary agree that, without additional resources to match rising wage, energy and other costs, Scotland’s public sector will struggle to maintain services and staff? Does he agree that, given that poorest areas will be hit hardest, additional funding is essential if the UK Government is serious about its own levelling up agenda?

John Swinney

I have indicated in a number of responses to members this afternoon the challenges that we face, which I set out openly to Parliament two weeks ago. The effect of inflation on our budget is to undermine its value to the tune of £1.7 billion. That means that there is intense pressure on the ability to deliver public services and to afford the increases in public sector pay that are significantly higher than those that were envisaged at the time of setting the budget.

That is why I, along with my colleagues in Wales and Northern Ireland, have appealed to the UK Government to have an approach to the fiscal event on Friday that meets the needs of these days and addresses the risk that, unless specific action is taken, increasing inequality and a damaging impact on the poorest in our society will be the consequence of the UK Government’s actions.

Paul Sweeney (Glasgow) (Lab)

Will the Deputy First Minister agree that, in addition to the consequential fiscal transfers that are available to the Scottish Government to respond to the cost of living pressures, the introduction of new tax levies on wealth and assets such as land, and the issuing of sub-sovereign bonds to finance public sector capital investments, should be explored as a matter of urgency?

John Swinney

I am perfectly happy to explore those questions, although I think that the question on the issue of sub-sovereign debt would be outwith the competence of the Scottish Parliament. However, I am happy to explore that question with Mr Sweeney if he writes to me with his thoughts about how that might be done.

I welcome Mr Sweeney’s question, however, because it highlights the need to recognise the limitations of the current range of responsibilities and powers that we have to deal with the crisis that we face. Parliament as a whole needs to engage with the fact that, as we are in a situation in which during a financial year we largely have a fixed budget, unless the UK Government decides to expand public expenditure in England, we have no ability to deal with inflationary pressures or changes in dynamics other than to take money from one area of policy and apply it to another. I wrestle with that dilemma every day of the week just now, and I will have to come back to Parliament about it in the course of the next few weeks.


Workers’ Rights

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is regarding the impact in Scotland to reports that the United Kingdom Government is considering a post-Brexit removal of workers’ rights. (S6O-01359)

The Scottish Government is firmly opposed to any weakening of worker protections. Removing important European Union protections could lead to a reduction of workers’ health, safety and wellbeing outcomes.

Colin Beattie

In the Queen’s speech this year, the United Kingdom Government took the decision not to introduce an employment bill. Does the minister agree that, given the Westminster Tory Government’s poor track record when it comes to protecting workers’ rights, coupled with the emergence of a Liz Truss Government that is intent on stripping away protections and power from unions while undermining workers, it is becoming ever more evident that the only way we can safeguard workers’ rights and tackle in-work poverty in Scotland is by ensuring that full employment powers rest with the Scottish Government?

Richard Lochhead

I agree with the member’s points. I was very concerned when UK civil servants, having being asked by their political masters to look at how to use Brexit freedoms, recently confirmed that they were looking at EU regulations on issues such as working time, parental leave, the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations, agency workers and part-time workers. Given the tone that Colin Beattie refers to from the new Tory Prime Minister, Liz Truss, we should indeed be very worried. I agree that the reports that the member mentions are further evidence that workers in Scotland will get the employment protections that they need only when the levers of change are placed in the hands of the Scottish people and the Governments that they vote for.


Islands Bond (Reallocation of Funding)

To ask the Scottish Government to which budget line the £5 million previously allocated to the islands bond scheme will be reallocated. (S6O-01360)

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

The £300,000 that was allocated to the islands bond in this financial year will now support projects that will deliver on priorities that are identified by our island communities. Those projects will help to inform our future funding requirements so that we can tackle the depopulation challenges across our islands. That work complements the support that is being provided to deliver on “The National Islands Plan”, which will see a total of £8.3 million invested in critical infrastructure projects. That continues our record of delivering significant investment in key island-based projects.

Rhoda Grant

It is not entirely clear from the cabinet secretary’s response what the money will fund. He is right to highlight depopulation, which is caused by housing issues, especially in relation to housing for young people. Has he given any consideration to Jim Hunter’s suggestion of setting up a Highlands and Islands housing authority that is empowered to address housing and depopulation? The £5 million that was set aside for the islands bond would not fund that scale of initiative, but has the cabinet secretary considered making the money available to young islanders by way of grants to self-build?

John Swinney

I am always interested in the thinking and contribution of Jim Hunter on all matters, and particularly on matters in relation to the Highlands and Islands. Therefore, along with my colleague Mairi Gougeon, I will look with care at those issues. Rhoda Grant helpfully points out the significant relationship between the issues of availability of affordable housing, economic opportunity and depopulation. Without doubt, there is an interrelationship between those matters.

On the question of a new authority, I reserve my position. I would rather that we actually tried to achieve the outcomes that Jim Hunter talks about, which I am certain Rhoda Grant will support. I hope that the measures that the Government is taking in relation to our islands expenditure is of assistance in trying to support the objectives of tackling depopulation, boosting economic opportunity and boosting the supply of housing in the Highlands and Islands.

Emma Roddick (Highlands and Islands) (SNP)

The Scottish Government dropped the proposal for an islands bond on the back of feedback from islanders, whose voices are central to the future of their communities. However, the Government’s commitment to financially back initiatives to support the retention of people in our island communities is clear. How will the £4.45 million that has been allocated through the islands programme support population retention in island communities?

John Swinney

It will be allocated across 31 islands, in six island local authorities. The funding will be allocated directly to support islands that have populations in the low hundreds. The projects include the development of digital and community hubs, which will provide or safeguard key economic and social infrastructure to support healthy, thriving islands. The largest single award of £1.3 million will support a major new nursery development on mainland Orkney, which will benefit all of Orkney’s islands. The project is directly linked to population retention and growth, but it will also address child poverty and provide practical training opportunities for employment.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

I thank the cabinet secretary for that response, particularly the last element of it. He will perhaps be aware of the idea that was posited to his Cabinet colleague Mairi Gougeon about expanding the inter-isles air services in a way that would support population retention not simply on one island but across most of the north isles in my Orkney constituency. Can he confirm that that idea will be taken fully into account in the Scottish Government’s further thinking?

John Swinney

That idea was put to me in recent discussions with the leaders of island authorities. I might come on to that in a subsequent question, if we reach it. The idea will be considered as part of a range of measures that we want to take forward to improve connectivity among the islands. We want to ensure that practical measures can be taken to tackle depopulation, which I know is of concern to Mr McArthur and his constituents.

Question 6 was not lodged.


Orkney Islands Council (Budget Settlement)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met Orkney Islands Council to discuss its budget settlement. (S6O-01363)

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

Although negotiations on local authority budgets are conducted between the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on behalf of its member councils, a range of portfolio cabinet secretaries, ministers and officials have regular contact on key shared priorities with individual local authorities, including Orkney Islands Council. That has included a number of cabinet secretaries and ministers visiting Orkney over the summer, when some met Orkney Islands Council leaders and officials to discuss a range of issues. I also had extensive discussions with the leader of Orkney Islands Council on this matter and others when I recently met the leaders of the three island authorities.

Liam McArthur

Given his family connections to Orkney, I am sure that Mr Swinney will be delighted to hear that Orkney’s population has grown faster over the past two decades than the population of almost any other part of the country. It now has a population of 22,400, which is less than 500 fewer than the population of neighbouring Shetland.

However, that has only made worse the disparity in funding between island authorities. Per head of population, Orkney receives £367 less than Shetland and almost £700 less than the Western Isles. We pay £1.3 million into the floor mechanism, from which Shetland and the Western Isles gain almost £5 million and £18 million respectively. Were the same mechanism to be used for allocating funding around the United Kingdom, and Scotland found itself in the same position as Orkney finds itself, does the cabinet secretary believe that the Scottish Government would be happy to accept that as a fair deal? If not, what does he propose to do about Orkney’s on-going underfunding?

John Swinney

First, I am delighted to hear that the home of my dear, beloved late grandmother is thriving so well in population terms. I am pleased to hear that news.

I should also say that I spent a bus journey from St Giles cathedral to Parliament with the convener of Orkney Islands Council, Councillor Graham Bevan, who did not miss his opportunity to bend my ear about his council’s financial arrangements. Mr McArthur can be assured that his local authority colleagues are using every available opportunity to advance their arguments.

The funding settlement for Orkney Islands Council is a product of many variables, which are agreed in general with local government. Mr McArthur will be familiar with the fact that such questions are negotiated with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. Of course, there are specific elements that relate to islands’ expenditure, such as the special islands needs allowance. Councillor Stockan, whom I also met, and Councillor Bevan both made points to me about such questions. I will reflect on those points as we take forward discussions with local government about the funding arrangements for the next financial year.