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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, February 22, 2024


General Question Time

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

“Read Write Count with the First Minister"

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the “Read Write Count with the First Minister” programme. (S6O-03110)

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

The “Read Write Count with the First Minister” programme is an important part of the Scottish Government’s commitment to raising attainment by building parents’ confidence and encouraging families to include reading, writing and counting activities in their everyday lives. The programme provides literacy and numeracy materials to pupils in primaries 2 and 3 and, last year, 248,000 books were provided to children across Scotland. The Scottish Government is working with the Scottish Book Trust to finalise arrangements for the provision of materials in 2024.

Collette Stevenson

East Kilbride has more than 20 recognised reading schools, including the gold-accredited St Andrew’s and St Bride’s high school. Initiatives such as the reading schools and the read, write, count programme are helping with attainment by building parents’ confidence and by ensuring that books and activities are supplied to children.

However, despite the Scottish Government doing that good work, the Labour-run South Lanarkshire Council is threatening to close Greenhills library and the Greenhills community hall, which are widely used by reading groups and toddler groups. In my view, that would potentially increase the poverty-related attainment gap. Does the minister share my concerns and those of the 1,700 locals who have signed a petition against the closure of those facilities that the Labour-run council’s proposals will be bad for the community? Can he reiterate the benefits of the Scottish Government’s budget for South Lanarkshire Council?

Graeme Dey

I understand the member’s concerns and those of her constituents, which she has articulated. Library services are a vital and valued community resource.

In relation to the budget question, South Lanarkshire Council will in 2024-25 receive £742.7 million to fund local services, which equates to an extra £45.9 million—an additional 6.6 per cent—compared to 2023-24 to support vital day-to-day provision. Although such decisions are ultimately for the council to take, the Government is, despite the cuts to our budget, providing a fair funding settlement.

College Operational Expenditure Budget 2024-25 (Impact on Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

2. Rachael Hamilton (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the potential impact of the £58.7 million reduction to the college operational expenditure budget for 2024-25 on the Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire constituency. (S6O-03111)

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

The Scottish budget allocates funding to the college sector as a whole. Indicative funding allocations for colleges are expected to be set out by the Scottish Funding Council in spring 2024, as is normally the case. Once allocations are published, each college will know its position and will therefore be able to consider any impact, although I know that individual colleges are already working on their projections based on a working assumption that there will be flat cash, or a slight reduction in funding. The SFC is endeavouring to deliver a core teaching funding allocation that is as close as possible to the core teaching funding that colleges received in 2023-24.

Rachael Hamilton

Colleges such as Borders College in my constituency play a vital role in communities by upskilling future generations. As a direct result of the resource spending cuts, students will now see their learning opportunities diminish, with colleges having to make tough choices about what subjects they can offer, which staff they can keep and, crucially, how many students they can offer places to. The minister can make all the excuses that he wants, but it is clear that the Scottish National Party has either forgotten about the importance of colleges or just does not care about them. Which is it, minister?

Graeme Dey

We have the usual crocodile tears from the Tories. Let us not forget where the budget problems are coming from: Westminster. We are involved in detailed and direct discussions with the colleges about future budgets and their impacts, as is the SFC.

Through the reform agenda, there is detailed engagement with colleges on the long-term future to try to ensure that future provision meets the needs of employers, the economy and learners, not only at national level but more locally, and that we take account of the fact that delivering in areas such as the Borders can come at a greater cost than delivering in other parts of the country. A considerable amount of work is going on directly with colleges.

Let us keep our questions and answers concise, please.

Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

Despite a challenging and difficult financial climate that has been created by irresponsible and reckless Conservative fiscal policy, I welcome the fact that the Scottish Government has increased investment in the education and skills budget by £128 million. In respect of college budgets, can the minister share how the starting position for 2024-25 compares with the end position for 2023-24?

Graeme Dey

As I said a moment ago, the aim is for the funds available to colleges at the start of the 2024-25 financial year to be very similar to the funds that were actually invested in colleges in the current financial year. That is despite an incredibly challenging set of financial circumstances. We are doing everything that we can to support our colleges and universities, recognising their extraordinary impact on our economy and society and the pivotal roles that we see for both sectors.

Parole Board for Scotland

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to review the operations of the Parole Board for Scotland. (S6O-03112)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs (Angela Constance)

I recognise the critical role that the Parole Board for Scotland plays in our justice system. The Scottish Government works with the independent Parole Board to support its statutory functions, including, for example, reviewing and updating Parole Board rules to ensure that they remain fit for purpose.

The rules were updated in 2021 and 2022, and there are no current plans to review them further at this stage, but I am keeping the matter under close and careful consideration. As the member will appreciate, decisions that the Parole Board makes in the exercise of its statutory functions are taken independently of Scottish ministers.

Kevin Stewart

The Parliament recently updated the rules for the Parole Board, giving, in that update, victims certain rights that dictate what the board must do. However, the Parliament also gave the board wider powers that it could use. Is the cabinet secretary content that the board is doing everything that it possibly can for victims instead of limiting itself to what it must do?

Angela Constance

It is critical that the views of victims are heard at all stages in the justice system, and that includes parole. No part of the justice system is beyond scrutiny or challenge, particularly when it comes to what more we can do to support victims.

As has been highlighted, the Parole Board rules were updated in 2021 and 2022, as a result of which victims or their family members can now apply to the board to observe hearings. Of course, that is a matter for the legal chair, but the chair has facilitated that on many occasions.

The update also builds on the existing rights of victims to make representations in writing or verbally to members of the Parole Board before decisions are made. Valuable work is also undertaken by the victims team that sits within the Parole Board. I am conscious, though, that I have correspondence outstanding with the member in relation to victims’ rights vis-à-vis the wider powers to which he refers.

Local Authorities

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of its current relationship with local authorities. (S6O-03113)

The Minister for Local Government Empowerment and Planning (Joe FitzPatrick)

The Scottish Government recognises the value that local government contributes in delivering vital services across the country. Since the Verity house agreement was signed in June last year, good progress has been made, and there are a number of positive examples of collaborative working between central and local Government.

Through my monthly relationship meetings with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities presidential team, we jointly review the progress on our collaborative working on an on-going basis. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister met the COSLA presidential team last week to discuss the importance of our relationships, and the DFM and I met COSLA political leaders just yesterday.

Stephen Kerr

Well, that was an optimistic response from the minister, because everybody knows that the Verity house agreement is dead in the water. We have all seen the letter from the Deputy First Minister that was sent at some point yesterday; true to form, it was leaked to the Daily Record. So much, then, for the Government’s fully funded council tax freeze. If the minister and the Deputy First Minister think that that shows a functioning working relationship between the Scottish National Party Government and local government, they are mistaken.

Some councils are setting their budgets today, and some set their budgets last week. Does the minister agree that, by the chaos that his Government has created through the Scottish Government budget process—[Interruption.]


—he and the rest of the Government have shown their complete disdain for local democracy?

Joe FitzPatrick

No, I do not. I am surprised by Stephen Kerr’s question about the council tax freeze, because I thought that the Conservatives supported it. I certainly know that the people of Scotland support it. The Scottish Government believes that, at a time when rising prices are putting significant strain on household finances—a situation largely caused by the actions of his United Kingdom Government—the freeze will give some certainty to households over the coming years. [Interruption.]


Joe FitzPatrick

It is really important to remember that council tax payers on the lowest incomes will proportionately, relative to their incomes, benefit the most from the council tax freeze. Taken alongside our income tax policies, that is independently recognised as being progressive.

Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab)

In an attempt to repair the damaged relationship with local government, it has been reported, as Mr Kerr has said, that the cabinet secretary has offered to restore the £63 million that was previously cut from council budgets. Is that restoration of funding dependent on councils agreeing the council tax freeze?

Joe FitzPatrick

The Deputy First Minister previously indicated that, subject to the UK budget next week, £45 million of consequentials will come from the UK Government’s decision to give some additional ring-fenced funding to local government. She has since announced that she wants to increase that to the full amount of nearly £63 million. The big challenge is in ensuring that that money is real, and I call on colleagues across the chamber to demand that the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer makes sure that the budget on 6 March protects services and does not give more tax cuts to the wealthy.

Railway Infrastructure

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to ensure that railway infrastructure is safe and fit for the future. (S6O-03114)

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport (Fiona Hyslop)

Safety of the railway is a key priority for the Scottish ministers, although it is ultimately a matter that is reserved to the United Kingdom Government. The Office of Rail and Road, which is the independent rail regulator, is responsible for ensuring that Network Rail meets its safety responsibilities and determines the appropriate funding. The Scottish Government has fully funded Network Rail Scotland in line with the ORR’s recommendations, and it is investing record sums in rail, with total funding of £1.6 billion for the rail sector in Scotland in 2024-25. That compares with pre-pandemic levels of £0.9 billion to £1 billion.

Paul Sweeney

Springburn railway station does not offer step-free access, which makes it inaccessible to wheelchair users. The Scottish Government must do all that is within its gift to ensure equal access to Scotland’s railways. Will the minister make representation to the Department for Transport to press for access for all scheme funding for control period 7, so that much-needed improvements can be made at last to Springburn railway station?

Fiona Hyslop

I understand that Paul Sweeney has just written to me, and I think that I have just replied—it might have been a written question. As he recognises, the accessibility programme and funding that he alluded to are the responsibility of the UK Government. Like him, I will ensure that accessibility is a key priority in my discussions with Network Rail, the ORR and others. Indeed, I will leave the Parliament this afternoon to have a meeting with mobility and access groups.

Tragically, a train derailment at Carmont on the Aberdeen to Dundee line in 2020 resulted in the loss of three lives. What work has been done to improve safety and resilience on the Aberdeen to Dundee line?

Fiona Hyslop

Our thoughts remain first and foremost with all those who were affected by the tragic accident at Carmont.

Although, as I have said, rail safety is reserved to the UK Government, Scottish ministers are committed to doing everything that we can to prevent accidents and ensure that passengers travel safely on our rail network. Network Rail, which has overall responsibility for the network, is addressing the infrastructure recommendations that are set out in the Rail Accident Investigation Branch’s report, which followed that tragic derailment.

For example, there is better management of civil engineering construction activities by Network Rail and its contractors, and operational responses to extreme rainfall events have improved through the use of the full capability of modern technology and a detailed understanding of the risks that are associated with extreme rainfall, as well as other matters. As I set out in my previous answer, we are fully funding maintenance and future proofing.

The report into Carmont showed that the class 43 high-speed trains were thought to be partially responsible for the consequences. When will the class 43 be replaced?

Fiona Hyslop

The question on infrastructure covers the network infrastructure. The member is referring to the fleet itself, so I refer him to the reports on Carmont.

I have had discussions with the unions and ScotRail about future provision. As the member might be aware, we are looking carefully at the timing and when, in relation to other matters, the fleet will be replaced.

Scottish Parliament Powers (Referendum)

6. Ash Regan (Edinburgh Eastern) (Alba)

To ask the Scottish Government, as part of its work to further the case for Scottish independence, and in light of the Supreme Court ruling that the Scottish Parliament cannot legislate for a referendum on Scottish independence, for what reason its position is that there should not be a referendum at this stage on the powers of the Scottish Parliament. (S6O-03115)

The Minister for Independence (Jamie Hepburn)

In line with the mandate that was secured democratically at the 2021 Scottish Parliament election, the Scottish Government wants to hold a referendum on Scottish independence that would lead to Scottish independence, rather than a referendum on the powers of the Scottish Parliament that would fall short of that. For that reason, we do not plan to hold such a referendum at this stage. When any proposal for such a referendum emerges, we will give it proper consideration.

Through our “Building a New Scotland” series of prospectus papers, we continue to set out the positive case for independence as an alternative to the broken Brexit Britain—now in recession—that the Tories, Labour and Liberal Democrats support.

Ash Regan

This year it will be 10 years since the independence referendum—10 years of a majority Government. With respect, minister, papers can be produced by anyone. What the independence movement wants at this point is action. Time is of the essence, and the Government should embrace the opportunity to give Scots the power to tell the world that they want the Scottish Parliament to negotiate and legislate for independence. If they do not, this entire five-year parliamentary term will have been wasted. The minister can perhaps enlighten us: what is the point of a pro-independence majority if it is not used to pursue independence?

That is exactly what we are doing—[Interruption.]


Jamie Hepburn

We do not even have a draft proposal with the consequential consultation, let alone a final proposal before the Parliament. However, and with respect to Ms Regan, I have literally just said that if such a proposal emerges, we will give it full consideration.

Of course, the manifesto that I stood on—which she also stood on—said that we should have a referendum. We have that mandate, and that should be respected.

We have also set out that we would take forward the work that we are doing through the “Building a New Scotland” series of prospectus papers. I have brought four debates to the chamber on the BANS paper—on the written constitution on 27 June and on migration on 14 November last year, and on Scotland’s place in the European Union on 30 January and on social security on 20 February this year. I know that the member has not been able to take part in any of those debates, but the good news is that she and all members of this place will have the opportunity to do so in the future, because we will continue to take forward that work.

Young People (Care)

7. Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of the First Minister’s reported comments that it “has to go further” to ensure that plans to radically reform how young people are cared for in Scotland are realised, whether it has identified what steps it will take to achieve this. (S6O-03116)

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

The Scottish Government is clear in its commitment to keep the Promise. We have made good progress but, of course, we can always go further. Action is under way across ministerial portfolios, including progress to stage 3 of the Children (Care and Justice) (Scotland) Bill, engagement on our commitment to a £2,000 care leaver payment, and investment in prevention through whole family wellbeing.

In the past year, I have seen many great examples of transformational activity across Scotland in education, justice and children’s services. I have been clear that, where it is required, I want to see that best practice shared and replicated across Scotland.

The Scottish Government will publish a review of our Promise implementation plan this spring to update on the actions and commitments that are under way.

Martin Whitfield

Last Friday was care day, which is the biggest celebration of care-experienced children around the world. However, a recent report by Who Cares? Scotland assigns at least amber, if not red, to some of the things that we are trying to achieve. There was an absence rate of 83 per cent among social workers in one local authority and concerns have been expressed about restraint, informal school exclusions and data. Scotland will keep the Promise, but when will Scotland see the illuminated path to achieving it in the time that we have promised?

Natalie Don

I thank the member for that question. Equally, I am thankful for the Who Cares? Scotland report, which highlights the areas where further work is required.

We are determined to drive forward the transformational change that is required to keep the Promise. I fully believe that the actions that the Government has taken, is taking and will take will help us to achieve that.

As well as the areas that I have already mentioned, and specifically in relation to Mr Whitfield’s points, we are seeing clear progress across a number of areas, such as an increase in the number of virtual headteachers across Scotland, which is a model that is showing real progress in reducing exclusions. We have also seen the publication of the hearings system working group’s redesign report “Hearings for Children” and I am sure that the member will be aware of the Government’s response to that. We have also seen progress on data. I am willing to discuss any areas of concern with the member.

The Presiding Officer

That concludes general question time.

Before we move to First Minister’s question time, I invite members to join me in welcoming to the gallery Hanna Naber, President of the State Parliament of Lower Saxony. [Applause.]