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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, February 23, 2023

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Chinese State Surveillance, Portfolio Question Time, Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, Marking One Year of War against Ukraine, Motion without Notice, Decision Time


General Question Time

Deposit Return Scheme

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the deposit return scheme. (S6O-01924)

The Minister for Green Skills, Circular Economy and Biodiversity (Lorna Slater)

Circularity Scotland is now at an advanced stage of building the infrastructure and logistics network that will underpin the scheme. Sites have been secured across Scotland to handle and process material. Counting equipment and vehicle fleets are arriving. Recruitment is under way to create 500 new jobs in Scotland in processing and logistics.

Likewise, businesses of all sizes are continuing to make good progress as they prepare for launch in August this year. The deposit return scheme is a transformational step change on our road to net zero, and businesses here in Scotland have the necessary momentum to get us there.

Donald Cameron

Small producers in the Highlands and Islands, especially craft brewers, including Fyne Ales and Glen Spean Brewing, are deeply concerned about the many unanswered questions that remain about the DRS, including how the contractor, Biffa, will collect materials from rural and remote locations that are hard to reach.

Given those legitimate concerns, why will the minister not pause the introduction of the DRS until those matters have been fully resolved or, at the very least, grant smaller producers a grace period before joining the scheme?

Lorna Slater

I take the concerns of small producers seriously, and, this week, Circularity Scotland announced a package of measures to specifically answer some of the concerns that have been raised by small producers in terms of cash flow and labelling.

The process of organisation and logistics is a matter of co-design between businesses and Biffa, the logistics partner, to ensure that the system works for everybody, and that will continue. This afternoon, I will meet small producers to find out what else we can do to support them.

Fiona Hyslop (Linlithgow) (SNP)

Although I welcome recent changes on fees for small drinks producers and other improvements to the planned roll-out of the DRS, some businesses in my constituency are still concerned about implementation at a time of other serious economic pressures, and have practical concerns about storage space and cost pressures.

Although the aims of the DRS are understood, with widespread acknowledgement of the need for it, does the minister recognise that continued uncertainty, and how does she plan to address it? What practical changes have her recent meetings with industry produced?

Lorna Slater

I understand that implementing the DRS is a big change to manage, particularly for small businesses. I have been regularly meeting industry stakeholders throughout the process. As a result of feedback from retailers, we have simplified the return-point exemption process, particularly in relation to concerns around storage, and Circularity Scotland this week announced a package of support to improve cash flow for producers, which equates to £22 million of support. That was in direct response to specific asks from small producers.

I will continue to meet businesses and listen to them, and, later today, I will meet with a group of small producers.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

Some MSPs have claimed that operating kerbside collections alongside the DRS would make Scotland unlike any other country in the world. Are those claims accurate? How would the minister like councils to respond to the DRS?

Lorna Slater

Those claims are inaccurate. Many countries that operate a deposit return scheme also have kerbside collections, including Norway, Germany, Croatia and Iceland. Our scheme will mean that local authorities will have less waste to handle, as well as reduced litter and associated clean-up costs, which is good for residents and good for council budgets.

We are supporting local authorities to prepare for the introduction of the scheme and our £70 million recycling improvement fund is supporting councils to modernise recycling services.

Free Bicycles for Children (Glasgow)

To ask the Scottish Government how many free bicycles it has issued to children in Glasgow. (S6O-01925)

The Minister for Zero Carbon Buildings, Active Travel and Tenants’ Rights (Patrick Harvie)

Our commitment to encourage our youngest citizens to make active travel choices by providing free bikes for all children of school age who cannot afford them was initially met through nine pilots that have operated since summer 2021. An independent evaluation of the pilots was published on 27 January 2023, and the total number of bikes issued is 3,650, including 52 adapted bikes.

The free bikes activity has taken place in 20 local authority areas, including Glasgow, although we do not record data at a local authority level.

Pam Duncan-Glancy

Roads in Glasgow are in disrepair, with potholes so big that some may be asking for submarines, not bikes. In addition, the avenues project, which was designed for cycling, wheeling, walking and driving, also has safety concerns. In all, the safety of our roads for cyclists is found wanting, to say the least.

Given the variation in approaches and the flexibility that is given to pilot schemes, what steps will be taken to ensure that a minimum level of safety equipment or training is provided to children who receive bikes as part of the future national roll-out?

Patrick Harvie

In order to ensure safety for everyone who travels actively, we need to reduce the barriers to active travel. We also need to continue to invest in safe infrastructure. The Government is doing that on a scale beyond anything that Scotland has ever seen.

However, as Pam Duncan-Glancy rightly says, we also need to ensure that there is a wider package of support. All the pilots issue safety equipment to the children who have been provided with a bicycle, and the range of models used in the pilots also needs to inform the design of the national scheme. That is why the evaluation of those pilots will be important in providing useful information to make sure that our national scheme is as successful as possible.

Local Authority Funding (Swimming Pools)

To ask the Scottish Government what additional funding it will provide to local authorities in response to reported concerns about swimming pool closures. (S6O-01926)

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

The Scottish Government recognises the importance of ensuring that community hubs such as swimming pools are accessible to the people of Scotland. Access to swimming pools can give children the opportunity to learn to swim, which is a life skill that can save lives.

However, we also understand the challenging financial circumstances that are faced by local authorities, largely due to the cost of living crisis. Our settlements from the United Kingdom Government have suffered a decade of austerity. In the most challenging budget settlement since devolution, we are providing more than £13.3 billion in the local government settlement for 2023-24.

Foysol Choudhury

My constituent Lewis Condy lodged petition PE1891, which sought to make swimming lessons a statutory requirement in the primary school curriculum. It was very disappointing that that petition was closed in January 2023, and now potential swimming pool closures present further obstacles to providing crucial swimming lessons to children across Scotland.

Swimming pools are vital community hubs for the population of Scotland. They provide crucial water safety skills, each week teaching more than 100,000 children the essential life skill of learning how to swim.

Swimming pools also act as part of Scotland’s natural health service by safeguarding the mental and physical wellbeing of people of all ages and abilities, saving the national health service an essential £357 million every year. Will the minister support swimming pool operators to keep those vital community hubs open to provide what is an essential service?

Tom Arthur

I agree with Foysol Choudhury about the power of the preventative impact on health of swimming and, indeed, all physical exercise.

The Scottish Government has been working with Scottish Swimming, Education Scotland, sportscotland and Scottish Water to develop interventions and approaches to provide opportunities for children to become confident, safer and competent swimmers.

On that point, under the provisions of the curriculum for excellence, schools and education authorities have the flexibility to decide on the content of their lessons at local authority level, taking into account local needs and the circumstances of all children and young people.

In addition, the Scottish Government will continue to work with sportscotland, our national agency for sport, to accurately understand current swimming pool provision and life cycle and to predict a landscape in the short, medium and long term to ensure that current and future generations have the opportunity to realise the benefits of swimming.

Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

Fifty-seven people—predominantly young people—accidentally drowned in Scotland last year. The Scottish Government’s plan to halve accidental drownings by 2026 was announced four years ago, but deaths last year rose to their highest level since 2015. What impact does the minister think the closure of swimming pools across Scotland will have on that?

Tom Arthur

I absolutely recognise the importance of doing all that we can to ensure that we promote water safety and that all people have the opportunity to be equipped with the vital life-saving skill of swimming.

Ultimately, decisions on local authority pools are a matter for local authorities. In an exceptionally challenging fiscal settlement, we are providing £13.3 billion for local government in the coming financial year. We have now passed the budget. However, as was made clear numerous times in the budget process, if members wish to see additional resource and funding for local authorities, it is incumbent on them to identify where that funding should come from. As I think members of Parliament realise, no credible alternative proposals were put forward, and Parliament subsequently passed the budget.

Thank you. Concise questions and responses would be appreciated, as ever.

Scottish Prison Service (Lifting of Covid-19 Restrictions)

To ask the Scottish Government what recent discussions it has had with the Scottish Prison Service regarding the lifting of all Covid-19-related restrictions in prisons. (S6O-01927)

The Minister for Community Safety (Elena Whitham)

The Scottish Government receives regular updates from the Scottish Prison Service on Covid-19 recovery within prisons. The only remaining restrictions are testing pathways and isolation for those who are symptomatic or who test positive, as set out in the SPS Covid-19 transition plan. In the event of an outbreak, further restrictions can be reinstated.

The Prison Service is prioritising restoration to fuller rehabilitative regimes while balancing the need to protect the health and wellbeing of those living, visiting and working in our prisons.

Pauline McNeill

I raised the question because, in November 2022, His Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons in Scotland, Wendy Sinclair-Gieben, noted in an annual report that there was no reason why prisons could not return to regimes at least as open as they were before the pandemic.

I know that the minister supports the view that that is particularly important in relation to routine access to fresh air. Today, the Scottish Prison Service website still refers to a transition plan from July 2022 that was due to be reviewed in October 2022. No statement has since been made about lifting all the restrictions, and there is no way of knowing which regimes have remained and which have reverted to pre-pandemic status. In the interest of transparency and in view of human rights concerns, does the minister agree that it is time for the Scottish Prison Service to make absolutely clear when it plans to lift all restrictions?

Elena Whitham

Despite the caution that is required around the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions, given the closed nature of prisons, we are aware of the reports that the member references. The SPS operations directorate is in the process of collating information to establish whether any further support may be required to maximise purposeful activity within each establishment, and we will seek to keep members informed.

Rail Journey Improvements (Fife)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on improvements to rail journeys in Fife. (S6O-01928)

The Minister for Transport (Jenny Gilruth)

As a frequent user of ScotRail’s Fife rail services, I am aware of the challenges with the operation of the current timetable, which have been compounded by the poor performance and availability of diesel trains in ScotRail’s fleet, on which Fife services are dependent.

ScotRail will review Fife service provision in the next phase of the “Fit for the Future” timetable exercise, to make sure that lessons are learned from the current performance. As part of the review, the member has been invited to a meeting that I am hosting with Fife members of the Scottish Parliament and ScotRail to discuss these matters in more detail.

Annabelle Ewing

I very much welcome the minister’s commitment to include Fife rail service provision within the next timetable review, and I look forward to the meeting offered by the minister. However, can the minister say to my constituents who might be listening today when my constituents, such as those in North Queensferry, will be able to get direct trains around Fife during the day and when their commute to Edinburgh will be on trains in which they are not packed in like sardines?

Jenny Gilruth

I advise members that, on my train to work this morning, we were not packed in like sardines. It had three carriages and plenty of seats. Nonetheless, the member and I had a useful conversation with my officials and Transport Scotland last year—[Interruption.]—I am being heckled from a sedentary position. [Interruption.] I use our nationalised rail services regularly, and I would encourage other members to do likewise. [Interruption.]

Members—let us hear the minister. Thank you.

Jenny Gilruth

That conversation has, in part, led to the review of Fife service provision, and I welcome the input that the member has had on behalf of her constituents.

Since the member and I met Transport Scotland, there have been some improvements to service provision. For example, ScotRail has advised that, in period 11, which ended on 7 January, 91.7 per cent of trains arriving at or terminating at Inverkeithing met the public performance measure, compared with 90.9 per cent of Fife circle trains as a whole. Notwithstanding that, I am sympathetic to the specific issue for Ms Ewing’s constituents in relation to the Fife circle line timetabling—

Briefly, minister.

I will ensure that ScotRail provides Ms Ewing with an update on that point when we meet next month.

“Hydrogen Action Plan” (Local Authority Role)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its “Hydrogen Action Plan”, including regarding the role that local authorities can play in defining demand. (S6O-01929)

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

In December 2022, we published our finalised “Hydrogen Action Plan”, which set out the actions that it will be necessary to take over the course of this parliamentary session to support the development of the hydrogen economy in Scotland. The development of a domestic hydrogen sector and hydrogen production for export, supported by a strong supply chain, will play an important role in supporting a just transition to net zero by 2045, and it also presents significant long-term economic opportunities. We continue to work with our agency partners and local authorities to deliver those actions.

Paul McLennan

What role will the support agencies that the cabinet secretary referenced, such as Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Scottish Enterprise, and South of Scotland Enterprise, together with our universities sector, play alongside local authorities in developing supply chain capacity?

Michael Matheson

Our enterprise agencies and our universities sector will play an important part in building and supporting our hydrogen supply chain and capacity within that sector. We work collaboratively to bring together all parts of the sector—public, private and academic—to support the development of the hydrogen economy. Our agencies can provide grants, loans and advice to organisations that seek to develop proposals for hydrogen projects. Our enterprise agencies work with our universities to progress key aspects of research that are critical to supporting the development of such projects.

Borders Railway (Hawick to Carlisle Extension)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the possible extension of the Borders railway through Hawick to Carlisle. (S6O-01930)

The Minister for Transport (Jenny Gilruth)

In October 2022, the Minister for Business, Trade, Tourism and Enterprise and I met Borderlands inclusive growth deal partners to discuss the growth deal commitment. The partners had separately asked for a meeting with the United Kingdom Government, but I understand that that did not happen. It was agreed that the failure of UK Government ministers to engage at that stage was hampering progress. [Interruption.] Scottish ministers subsequently wrote to our UK counterparts on 21 October, urging them to make progress on their side, and a response was received from Lord Offord of Garvel and Huw Merriman MP on 26 January—some three months later.

Regional partners are now working to prepare costed proposals for scoping work to move forward on the possible extension of the Borders railway to Carlisle. My officials in Transport Scotland will continue to provide support as needed, and the Scottish Government’s commitment of up to £5 million towards that work remains.

Rachael Hamilton

Campaigners are keen to see the railway being extended to improve transport links to the Borders and beyond, to improve our economy and to give it a much-needed boost. Would the minister agree to meet me and members of the Campaign for Borders Rail, to provide us with timetables for the possible extension of the railway and for the feasibility study?

Jenny Gilruth

I have already met the campaign group on a number of occasions. The member needs to reflect on the fact that the work is for regional and local partners to progress and to lead on. It is also worth remembering that the delay in progressing the commitment itself was directly impacted by the political turbulence within the United Kingdom Government during 2022. In practice, that meant that Department for Transport officials could not engage with Transport Scotland as they normally would. That is perhaps the reason why no DFT officials attended our meeting in October, at which other partners, including Scottish ministers, were present.

Notwithstanding that, I recognise the significant interest in the matter in Ms Hamilton’s constituency and I would be more than happy to meet the campaign group again. However, I cannot commit to a timescale, because the work is being led by local and regional partners, so it is for them to dictate the timescale.

Brexit (Impact on Investment in Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the impact of Brexit on investment in Scotland, in light of reports that Brexit has cost the UK economy £29 billion in lost investment. (S6O-01931)

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

It is not surprising that investment has underperformed since the Brexit referendum. Many businesses in Scotland continue to report additional challenges, barriers and trade costs due to Brexit, which will inevitably act as a constraint on business investment in Scotland. Previous Scottish Government analysis has shown that Scotland’s business investment could be 7.7 per cent lower in the long run due to Brexit.

Can the cabinet secretary name one benefit of Brexit to Scotland? I cannot.

Angus Robertson

No—I cannot think of any advantages, either. Before the European Union referendum, the Scottish Government warned that Brexit would cause significant economic and social harm to Scotland, and so it has proved. The fact is that there are no benefits to be had from Brexit, which was imposed on us against our democratic will. That is one reason why Scotland needs to be able to choose its own future in an independence referendum.