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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, December 22, 2022

Agenda: Presiding Officer’s Rulings, General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Point of Order, Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill, Business Motion, Portfolio Question Time, Point of Order, Climate Change Committee Reports, Decision Time, Maternity Services in Moray


General Question Time

We now move to general questions.

Road Network

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what it is doing to improve and maintain the road network in Scotland. (S6O-01732)

The Minister for Transport (Jenny Gilruth)

The Scottish Government continues to invest in the motorway and trunk road network. Our future investment priorities are set out in the recently published second strategic transport projects review and focus on improving safety, climate change adaptation and resilience on the road network.

Scotland’s 32 local authorities are responsible for the operation and maintenance of their respective local road networks.

Rhoda Grant

As the minister said, local authorities are responsible for their road networks, but it was recently reported that Highland Council might slash its road maintenance budget by more than half, from £20 million to £9 million, next year. If that goes ahead, the amount will be completely inadequate, especially given that Highland Council manages the largest road network in Scotland. Those roads are considered to be some of the worst in Scotland, so will the Scottish Government intervene and ensure that roads that are a lifeline in remote areas are adequately maintained in the Highland Council area?

Jenny Gilruth

As Rhoda Grant will be aware, I cannot, as a Scottish minister, intervene in relation to local roads. Local authorities have a duty under the Roads (Scotland) Act 1984 to maintain local roads in their area. Their duties, which are specified in the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984, include a duty

“to secure the expeditious, convenient and safe movement of … traffic”.

Neither the Scottish ministers nor the Scottish Government can become directly involved in the day-to-day duties in that respect.

As I alluded to in my initial response to Ms Grant, the vast majority of funding that flows to local authorities from the Scottish Government is provided via the block grant. We do not stipulate how local authorities should use their allocations, so it is the responsibility of each local authority, including Highland Council, to manage its own budget and allocate the financial resources that are available to it on the basis of local needs and priorities—having first, of course, fully fulfilled its statutory obligations and the jointly agreed and set out national and local priorities.

Jackie Dunbar (Aberdeen Donside) (SNP)

It was recently announced that the Scottish Government intends to invest approximately £5 million in additional road safety measures for the A9 between now and 2025. What does the Government anticipate that it will achieve through that welcome investment?

Jenny Gilruth

There have been a number of fatalities on the A9 recently. Every one of those deaths—any death on Scotland’s roads—is one too many. Having spoken with Police Scotland and officials on a number of occasions about safety performance on the road in recent months, I know that there is a wide range of underlying reasons for the accidents that have occurred and that a combination of engineering and enforcement will be needed to influence driver behaviour.

In light of the recent poor safety performance on the A9, I commissioned Transport Scotland to develop a series of short-term measures that could be used to improve safety on the A9 in advance of its dualling. Those measures, whose funding totals £5 million, were announced last week.

The recently announced road safety investment is made up of a series of targeted improvements that include lining, signing and actions at key junctions on the A9. That will also improve driver information for single carriageways and involve road safety awareness campaigns, which will initially be on fatigue and awareness about driving on the left. I am also undertaking work with car hire companies, particularly in relation to foreign drivers, who might not be familiar with the road.

Such measures are expected to help to address the causes of the tragic accidents that have occurred on the A9 this year.

Thank you. I will require more succinct responses, minister.

Will the minister accept that it is underfunding of Scotland’s councils that is leading to the deteriorating road network?

Jenny Gilruth

I do not accept Mr Simpson’s assertion. We have had questions today about local roads, which are the responsibility of local authorities. I invite Mr Simpson to critique his own party’s record in recent months in relation to financial responsibility. His party’s recklessness has caused serious concern for this Government about our ability—[Interruption.]

Let us hear the minister.

—to provide a reliable and informed service to our local authority partners, who are of course responsible for local roads.

Games Industry (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what consideration it has given to supporting the gaming industry in Scotland during the cost of living crisis. (S6O-01733)

The Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture (Angus Robertson)

The current climate is extremely difficult for all businesses, but the Scottish Government is actively working to support the gaming sector. We want to build on the recent success of Scottish games week by working with the sector to leverage the best support from the opportunities and assets that are available, such as our national tech scaler network, which is a £42 million investment that will widen access to entrepreneurial opportunities and support founders, including those in the gaming industry.

Michelle Thomson

The cabinet secretary will be aware that, since 2014 and until 2021, which the most recent survey data covers, global surveys have suggested that the number of women who are employed each year in gaming industries is low. The peak, which was in 2021, is only 30 per cent. Given the importance of the sector and of women to our economy, will the cabinet secretary consider reviewing and monitoring regularly the gender divide in the gaming sector in Scotland?

Angus Robertson

Michelle Thomson raises an extremely important aspect of the gaming sector’s success and is reflecting on its room to grow—I think that we are all in favour of a growing part of that sector coming from the female workforce. It is fair to say that the Scottish Government and everyone with an interest in building up and boosting Scotland’s games sector is keenly aware of the existing gender imbalance; I note that that imbalance exists across the digital economy more widely and is, sadly, not unique to gaming.

A recent paper entitled “Scotland’s Games Ecosystem—The State of Play: challenges and opportunities”, which was written by academics from the University of Glasgow and the University of Stirling in collaboration with the Scottish Games Network and InGAME, makes similar points in calling for the collection and publication of metrics that will evidence progress towards an open and inclusive games sector in Scotland. I commit to Michelle Thomson that I will pay close attention to that.

Food and Energy Security (Solar Arrays)

3. Graeme Dey (Angus South) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government how it will seek to achieve a balance between food and energy security, in relation to permitting the use of productive agricultural land for the deployment of large-scale solar arrays. (S6O-01734)

The Minister for Public Finance, Planning and Community Wealth (Tom Arthur)

Our land and the natural capital that it supports are one of our most valuable assets and are critical to our ambitions for Scotland to be a global leader in sustainable and regenerative agriculture. A series of global shocks in recent years—the most recent is the illegal invasion of Ukraine—is having an undeniable impact on global food security and all aspects of our domestic food and drink supply chain. Our recent vision for Scottish agriculture sets out our intention for the proposed agriculture bill to be adaptive in supporting farmers, crofters and land managers in the near, medium and long-term future to reflect the situation, while recognising the wider need for bold actions to tackle the climate emergency.

Given that Scotland has some of the most extensive renewable generation capabilities in Europe, the revised draft national planning framework 4—if it is approved by Parliament—will limit most types of development on prime agricultural land. However, it will allow for renewable energy developments, such as solar, on prime agricultural land, provided that the layout and design of proposals minimise the amount of such land that is required.

Graeme Dey

My Angus South constituency is the subject of multiple planning applications for solar arrays, specifically in the area of the Sidlaws. I recognise that the minister perhaps cannot comment on applications in particular localities, but can he offer me some reassurance that the issue of cumulative impact is something that can and will be taken account of in such circumstances?

Tom Arthur

As I know that Graeme Dey will fully appreciate, it is the decision maker for each proposal who will be required to consider the planning merits of each case, taking full account of all the information that is submitted by the parties involved, including members of the local community.

Current Scottish planning policy sets out that, although considerations will vary relative to the scale of the proposal and area characteristics, they are likely to include consideration of cumulative impact. In due course, our national planning framework 4 will replace SPP and become part of the statutory development plan, meaning that its policies will inform decision making around day-to-day planning.

Our revised NPF4 sets out that potential impacts on communities, nature and other receptors remain important considerations in the decision-making process—

Briefly, minister.

The revised draft NPF4 energy policy 11 includes the need for consideration of cumulative impact, which I hope provides some reassurance for the member.

Autism Spectrum (Employment Gap)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to close the autism spectrum employment gap. (S6O-01735)

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

There are no official statistics available on autism spectrum employment gaps, but Scottish Government policies and approaches—supported by our key stakeholders, including disabled people’s organisations—are person centred and focus on what a person can do and wants to do, and what they may need support with, irrespective of what their impairment may be.

The Scottish Government’s focus is on reducing the overall disability employment gap, in line with our commitment to at least halve the gap to 18.7 percentage points by 2038, compared with the figure for 2016.

Our latest figures show that, in the past five years, the disability employment gap has reduced by 6.2 percentage points to 31.2 percentage points, which means that we are showing progress.

Colin Smyth

At a time when businesses are facing real labour shortages, one of the most important actions that we can take to close that employment gap is to raise understanding of autism among the non-autistic population—in particular, among many businesses.

I am sure that the minister is aware of The Usual Place project in Dumfries and its outstanding autism awareness project, which is funded through the Government’s increasing understanding of autism programme. Will the minister give an assurance that increasing understanding of autism programme is not being axed by the Government and that such projects will continue to get support, so that local businesses can benefit from the talents of the amazing young people who are supported by those projects?

Richard Lochhead

I agree with the sentiments that the member expresses. Of course, projects such as the one that he cites are excellent projects that are making a huge contribution in relation to this issue.

The Government is taking a number of measures with employers across the country to support breaking down barriers, with funding through our workplace equality fund and other sources. We want to continue to support as many projects as we can within the financial constraints that we face, because many of the projects—such as the one mentioned—are doing a valuable job.

Energy Bills Support Scheme (Payment Delays)

To ask the Scottish Government what engagement it has with the United Kingdom Government regarding reports of delays of payment of energy bills support scheme vouchers. (S6O-01736)

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

The Scottish Government is fully aware of the challenges that consumers with prepayment meters are having in accessing the energy bills support scheme vouchers. That is why we are continuing to call on the UK Government to ensure that the correct measures are in place to guarantee that everyone in Scotland is receiving the support that they are entitled to.

I would urge anybody who is struggling to access their support scheme vouchers to contact Advice Direct Scotland, which will be able to help in the first instance.

Colin Beattie

I am receiving correspondence from constituents who are Scottish Power customers and also correspondence from park home residents about the delays in receiving energy bill relief. What support is available to my constituents who are affected by those delays?

Michael Matheson

Mr Beattie might be aware that, on Monday, the UK Government announced that the £400 energy bills support scheme alternative funding will be distributed early next year to all consumers without a direct relationship with energy suppliers, including those who are park home residents. I hope that that will help with the unprecedented level of delay that has been experienced by constituents such as Mr Beattie’s.

Mr Beattie will also be aware that, just last week in the budget, we announced a continuation of our uprated £20 million fuel insecurity fund to ensure that there is support for those in the greatest need right through 2023-24.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

Given the delay in issuing the vouchers, what can the cabinet secretary say about local reports that customers who are eligible for off-grid, oil and alternative fuel support will have to sign up to an online portal for the fuel payment on top of the unacceptable delay? Considering the large number of off-grid customers in Scotland, including in Shetland, will the cabinet secretary indicate whether he has had any discussions with the UK Government, including to offer assistance in distributing the funds?

Michael Matheson

We have made continued representations to the UK Government on those matters due to the bureaucracy that some households are experiencing with the existing scheme. UK ministers have given us assurance that they are pressing energy providers to speed up the payment of the vouchers and to ensure that they are issued as quickly as possible. However, the existing system is still not working in the way in which it should for many consumers, including those in the member’s constituency who have off-grid systems.

I assure the member that we will continue to press the UK Government to make sure that the system operates in a much fairer and much more consistent way across the country.

Colleges (Governance)

To ask the Scottish Government how it ensures good governance in Scotland’s colleges. (S6O-01737)

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

The Scottish Government works with the Scottish Funding Council, Colleges Scotland and college boards to ensure good governance. We also engage with regional strategic boards, trade unions, student associations and the College Development Network, through the good governance steering group, to ensure the implementation of governance improvements.

Graham Simpson

The minister will be aware of the situation at South Lanarkshire College, where the highly respected principal, who had been looking into serious allegations of theft and malfeasance, has been suspended on full pay for 13 months. That is not due process in anyone’s book. The college board has still not taken a decision, and the costs are just going to rise.

Does the minister agree with the comments of the college principals group in a letter to the education secretary, which said that

“This raises fundamental issues about good governance and the process relating to how college principals are treated in such circumstances”?

Jamie Hepburn

I recognise that Mr Simpson has been pursuing this issue, as is right given that it is a constituency matter for him. The Government is aware in broad terms of some of the detail of the situation at South Lanarkshire College. I should be very clear that, given that the Lanarkshire regional board is also the board of my local college, I have recused myself from direct involvement in the matter. Therefore, I am, quite rightly, not as close to the specific details because that could constitute a conflict of constituency and ministerial interests. However, I can say that our paramount interest at all times is in safeguarding the quality of learning at every college, including South Lanarkshire College.

The Scottish Funding Council is the body with the responsibility for investigating governance issues. It will monitor the situation and provide updates to the Scottish Government. I know that Mr Simpson has a meeting with the cabinet secretary next month to discuss these matters, and he will have the opportunity to speak to her then.

Ferries (Working Life)

7. Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government how many vessels operated by CalMac, NorthLink or Scotland’s local authorities will be operating past their working-life expectancy by the end of the current parliamentary session. (S6O-01738)

The Minister for Transport (Jenny Gilruth)

All vessels in the Clyde and Hebrides and northern isles fleets undergo regular maintenance and meet all regulatory requirements.

I am sure that Mr Halcro Johnston welcomes the procurement this year of two new Islay vessels and the more recent procurement of two further such vessels. In addition to the MV Glen Sannox and vessel 802, that means that six new major vessels will be delivered between 2023 and 2026, with plans to begin replacing small ferries from 2025.

We will issue our draft long-term plan for vessels and ports for consultation next year. Council ferry replacement is, of course, a matter for those local authorities.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

I would actually welcome the delivery of vessels rather than their procurement.

It has been estimated by the local council that the cost to replace the ageing interisland ferries fleet and upgrade infrastructure is around £443 million for Orkney alone. Although it is welcome that the Government is finally discussing that with Orkney Islands Council, I hope that those discussions will lead to more than just talk.

However, there are also vital ferry services operated by Shetland, Highland and Argyll and Bute councils in my region alone. Given the importance of those lifeline routes to the communities that they serve, and the painful lessons that are being learned on the west coast of the devastating impact that ageing and increasingly unreliable ferries have on local people and local businesses, can the minister tell me what discussions the Scottish Government is having with those councils on what investment is needed in their fleets and infrastructure and how that investment will be supported by the Scottish Government?

Jenny Gilruth

I recognise the challenge for local authorities that have responsibility for their ferries. The Scottish Government, it is worth saying, has provided more than £136 million over the past five years alone to support the running of those services, and the funding distribution of support for the specific interisland ferries grant for 2023-24 will be confirmed in due course.

I am very aware of the growing need for local authorities to replace their ageing ferry fleets and infrastructure, and, although responsibility for funding that replacement infrastructure remains wholly with councils at the current time, I am committed to continuing engagement with Transport Scotland and local authorities. I understand, of course, as the member alluded to, that Mr Swinney has been engaging with Orkney Islands Council on that, and I will continue my engagement as transport minister with those local authorities in relation to our role. However, I put on record that local authority ferry services are, at the current time, the responsibility of local authorities. We will see what more we may be able to do within the current financial constraints in front of the Government.