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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Wednesday, June 26, 2024


Portfolio Question Time

Constitution, External Affairs and Culture, and Parliamentary Business

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

Good afternoon. The first item of business is portfolio questions. The first portfolio is constitution, external affairs and culture, and parliamentary business. I remind members who wish to ask a supplementary question to press their request-to-speak buttons during the relevant question.

Scotland’s Constitutional Future (Engagement with Third Sector)

1. Bill Kidd (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government, as part of its work to further the case for Scottish independence, what recent engagement it has had with third sector organisations regarding Scotland’s constitutional future. (S6O-03621)

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

As part of our work to provide the people of Scotland with the information that they need to make an informed choice about their future, Scottish Government ministers and officials have met a range of third sector organisations throughout the course of the publication of the “Building a New Scotland” series. We will continue to engage with the people of Scotland and our civic organisations positively and respectfully to set out the case for an independent Scotland in the European Union, and how that could make Scotland a wealthier and fairer place for all who live here.

Bill Kidd

Due to the cost of living crisis that was induced by the UK Government, we are seeing an increasing reliance on third sector services. Can the cabinet secretary provide his assessment of the impact of 14 years of Tory austerity on the third sector, and say how an independent Scotland could better support those important organisations?

Angus Robertson

The Scottish Government appreciates the work of the third sector, which often provides lifeline services to our most vulnerable communities during the current cost of living crisis. Recent research by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations demonstrates that more organisations are feeling the impact of rising costs, inflation and other financial pressures, which is in turn impacting on their ability to deliver their vital services. An independent Scotland in the European Union would create opportunities for a fairer and wealthier country away from the Brexit-based economic model of low growth and high inequality.

Edinburgh International Book Festival (Viability)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the Edinburgh International Book Festival, in light of reports that the Fossil Free Books campaign has threatened its viability. (S6O-03622)

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

The Scottish Government has on-going dialogue with all our major arts festivals, including the Edinburgh International Book Festival. The decision to withdraw from corporate sponsorship is a matter for the festival itself. However, as I have stated publicly on a number of occasions, sponsorship plays a crucial role in supporting culture in Scotland. We are committed to working with sponsors and sector organisations, including the Edinburgh International Book Festival, to help to maintain those valuable relationships.

Sue Webber

As the cabinet secretary knows, Scotland is host to world famous events, including the international book festival and the Edinburgh fringe festival. However, because of the Fossil Free Books campaign, literary festivals across the country now have huge holes in their budgets. Last week, the First Minister highlighted the damage that disinvestment campaigns are doing to the arts sector and I know that he has spoken with Baillie Gifford to offer reassurance about the role that those campaigns play in the economy and culture sector.

Other than financial help, what specific support might the cabinet secretary be looking to offer to the book festival and the fringe festival to give them the security that they need, so that they will not feel the pressures of some of those campaigns?

Angus Robertson

The issue of disinvestment and the risk of contagion—there is a real risk that, in addition to Baillie Gifford, other sponsors will feel that they are under pressure to consider or reconsider their existing arrangements—are detrimental to the cultural and arts sector. It behoves us all to explore ways in which we can safeguard and protect the private sector in philanthropic giving. We are working closely with the festivals and others to explore that. We are also working with Governments elsewhere in the United Kingdom, because the difficulty that Edinburgh International Book Festival is facing is being felt by book festival organisers elsewhere in the UK, including in Wales and England, and I believe that a four-nations meeting will be held with representatives from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport tomorrow.

I do not think that there is a simple solution, but we are open-minded. If the member and her colleagues, or members from across the chamber, have any ideas, I would be very open to hearing them.

A couple of members want to ask supplementaries. I will take both of them, but they will need to be brief, as will the responses.

Neil Bibby (West Scotland) (Lab)

Last week, I asked the First Minister whether he would convene an urgent meeting to ensure on-going sponsorship of the arts and culture sector. He said that he would consider it. For months, I have been calling for an urgent summit to discuss funding for festivals, many of which are due to take place this summer. This is the last opportunity before recess for the Government to put its intentions on the record. I ask the cabinet secretary to give reassurances and to update the chamber on whether he, the First Minister or, indeed, the Deputy First Minister intends to take up our proposal and hold an urgent summit on festivals in Scotland.

Angus Robertson

I have given reassurance to Neil Bibby on that issue a number of times. We regularly meet the arts sector, including the festivals—I venture to say that we do so on a weekly basis. However we want to badge them, I assure him that such meetings are taking place, and that issues such as disinvestment and sponsorship are matters of very high priority for me and for my officials.

Obviously, as the MSP for Edinburgh Central, I am recused from day-to-day decision making in relation to this question, but, in general terms, the issue is one of very high priority. Meetings are being conducted with the Edinburgh festivals and with others to make sure that the challenge is being confronted head on.

Maggie Chapman (North East Scotland) (Green)

Baillie Gifford holds billions of pounds’ worth of investments in fossil fuel industries and in companies with links to Israel’s occupation and its genocide of Palestinians. Fossil Free Books is a collective of more than 800 book workers, including authors and illustrators, whose campaign seeks to persuade Baillie Gifford to divest from those destructive companies. Members will recall how Baillie Gifford divested from Russian firms in 2022, in response to political pressure.

Will the cabinet secretary join me in recognising the work of Fossil Free Books and applauding it in its aim of highlighting how cultural events and institutions are used to launder corporate reputations? Does he share its vision?

That was not a brief question.

Angus Robertson

As the member does, I have concerns about climate change, and I have very severe concerns about what has been happening to Israeli hostages and to the people of Gaza. However, I do not think that disinvestment from cultural events such as the Edinburgh international book festival furthers those aims. It should be the aim of everybody involved that we have ethical support, ethical philanthropy and ethical giving. I know that Baillie Gifford is committed to that, and I know that the festivals are committed to it. We need to find a way of giving assurance to people who are concerned about issues such as climate change and the situation in Gaza, but we need to do that in a way that does not fundamentally undermine our arts and culture sector.

A number of colleagues want to ask supplementaries to question 3, but they will need to be brief, as will the responses.

Glasgow Citizens Theatre (Redevelopment)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre about the future of its redevelopment project. (S6O-03623)

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

The Scottish Government has been in regular discussion with Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre regarding the future of the redevelopment project and the significant challenges that it is facing. We have invested £6 million in the redevelopment, in recognition of the importance of the Citizens Theatre as one of Scotland’s leading cultural institutions both locally, through its community engagement in Glasgow, and internationally. Sadly, since it got under way, the project has been hit by an unprecedented combination of events, from Brexit to the pandemic to high inflation costs, following the war in Ukraine, which has led to soaring costs.

Annie Wells

The redevelopment of Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre is expected to act as a regeneration boost to the Gorbals area, and I welcome Glasgow City Council’s announcement of its commitment to provide additional funding, but that will not be enough to enable the project to be completed. In addition, it has been reported that the council will not release its share of the funding until the other money has been secured. If the project collapses, its benefits will be lost to the local community. What discussions has the Scottish Government had with Glasgow City Council about its continued support for the project?

Angus Robertson

I thank Annie Wells for her timely question. Only yesterday, there was a meeting of funders that are involved in the project. I assure her that the people who sat around that table are extremely committed to Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre. On the other hand, we all need to be aware and have an understanding of the scale of the financial challenge that is faced.

The Scottish Government has sought clarification on the shortfall that exists. I know that there has been an issue to do with accessing levelling up funding during the election period. Everybody is very invested in trying to find a solution, but I put on the record our recognition of the seriousness of the challenge that is faced by the Citizens Theatre and of the fact that a significant financial gap remains.

Clare Haughey (Rutherglen) (SNP)

I understand that rising construction material costs have significantly delayed the redevelopment of the Citizens Theatre. Will the cabinet secretary provide his assessment of the impact of the cost of living crisis on our culture and arts sector and particularly on the infrastructure and maintenance of art spaces, such as through the Citizens Theatre redevelopment project?

Angus Robertson

The cost of living crisis has had a significant impact on the culture sector, specifically on infrastructure and maintenance, with increased costs being compounded by disrupted supply chains. We are having to work within the most challenging budget that has been delivered under devolution. The situation is particularly acute in our capital budget, with the block grant for capital funding expected to reduce by 8.7 per cent in real terms between 2023-24 and 2027-28. That will be a cumulative loss of more than £1.3 billion, based on the latest forecast after the spring statement.

The scale of the challenge should be obvious to everybody. That does not mean that we will not try to be as supportive as we can be, but the level of constraint needs to be better understood.

Paul Sweeney (Glasgow) (Lab)

The risk to the Citizens Theatre is real, with the company under imminent threat of liquidation. On that basis, will the Scottish Government actively participate in the steering group that consists of representatives of Glasgow City Council, the Citizens Theatre and the contractor, Kier? There is a major discrepancy between the estimated cost of the project according to the theatre’s consultants and the estimated cost according to the prime contractor. As the Scottish Government—

I call the cabinet secretary.

Angus Robertson

I acknowledge Paul Sweeney’s sincere interest in the matter, which is a concern for members across Glasgow. The Scottish Government was involved in discussions that were held yesterday on funding for the Glasgow Citizens Theatre. If we can participate in other fora in order to secure a solution to the funding challenges, I am open to those, and I am happy to discuss the matter further with Paul Sweeney.

Creative Scotland (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met with Creative Scotland. (S6O-03624)

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

As part of normal management relations with directly funded public bodies, Scottish Government officials regularly meet Creative Scotland, with the latest meeting having taken place on 18 June. I last met Creative Scotland on 22 May, and my next meeting is scheduled for next Monday.

Sarah Boyack

At that meeting, will the cabinet secretary be able to promise to add to Creative Scotland’s budget any of the additional £100 million that was promised by the First Minister, given the arts industry’s fears that the funding environment is extremely precarious, which could lead to devastating decisions for arts groups unless there is enough money when Creative Scotland makes its funding decisions in October?

Angus Robertson

Sarah Boyack is aware of the normal Scottish Government funding procedures that take place in the Parliament. The Government has already committed to a £15.8 million uplift in this financial year and to providing an additional £25 million next year. Discussions with Creative Scotland and the rest of the sector about additional financial support will continue.

I would be delighted to have the support of other political parties for the £100 million uplift in culture funding. That stands in contrast with the decline in funding in England under the United Kingdom Conservative Party and the cut to funding for culture and the arts in Wales by the Labour Party.

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

At his meeting with Creative Scotland next Monday, could the cabinet secretary raise the issue of funding for projects for people with disabilities? There is still concern in the disability community that the appropriate methodology is not being used. Will he report back to the Parliament on his conversations with Creative Scotland on that issue?

Angus Robertson

I am happy to give Mr Balfour that undertaking. The timing of his question is very good—if he wishes to get in touch with me before Monday, I will be happy to raise that issue. I am aware that services that are provided by the likes of Euan’s Guide are very helpful for people with disabilities in allowing them to better understand which facilities are accessible. I give Mr Balfour a commitment that, if he gets in touch with me before Monday, I will raise the issue that he has raised in the Parliament today.

Arts Sector (Talent Retention)

To ask the Scottish Government how it prevents a loss of talent when considering any reduction in funding to the arts sector. (S6O-03625)

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

The Scottish Government is not considering any reduction in funding to the arts sector. The First Minister has reaffirmed the commitment to growing investment in culture and screen by £100 million over the coming years. We want to ensure that people who are motivated to realise their aspirations of a career in the creative sector are supported to do so. A wide range of support is already in place and being delivered by our agencies, including Creative Scotland, Screen Scotland and the enterprise agencies.

Graham Simpson

I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer, but I wonder what he would say to the director of Culture Counts, Lori Anderson, who wrote to the First Minister:

“Large-scale contraction will have a systemic effect that can’t be predicted or easily undone. Our artists, performers and freelancers are vulnerable, and some are choosing to leave the sector seeking more stability. Our reputation and ambitions as an international cultural leader are now at serious risk.”

What is his response to that?

Angus Robertson

I have regular discussions with Culture Counts and other cultural organisations about plans to increase funding for culture in Scotland. There are areas of the sector that should be hugely exciting for young people who want to begin a career in the arts. I point the member to the boom in the screen sector, which we are very supportive of.

I give him the commitment that we have no plans to reduce culture spending. We are planning to increase culture spending, and we are doing so; that is in contrast to the Conservative Party, which is cutting it in England.

Citizens Assemblies (Rural Scotland)

6. Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government how citizens assemblies can help to ensure that the views of people in rural communities are taken into account in decision-making on matters of importance to rural Scotland. (S6O-03626)

The Minister for Parliamentary Business (Jamie Hepburn)

We want public participation in our democracy and we want people to be involved in the issues that they care about and the decisions that affect them. Citizens assemblies are one method of achieving that, as there are many instances when involving people in an important decision is better approached differently.

For example, we fund Scottish Rural Action to deliver the Scottish Rural and Islands Parliament. That democratic assembly takes place every second year and ensures that rural voices are heard in policy making. The most recent event was held in Fort William last November and attracted more than 500 participants from across rural and islands Scotland.

Emma Harper

I have been contacted by constituents and organisations across rural Dumfries and Galloway who are concerned about decisions that are made about their communities, particularly in relation to energy and infrastructure projects and delivery of rural healthcare. Can the minister comment on how the Scottish Government listens to rural areas on such matters more generally, and can he provide assurance that the views of people in the south-west of Scotland are treated with equity with those of people in urban areas?

Jamie Hepburn

I can certainly give that assurance and, more generally, assurance on the importance of listening to the voice of rural Scotland, which is important to me. I represent a largely urban constituency, but it contains rural communities, so the issue is as important to me, as a constituency representative, as it is to me as a minister, and it is important for the Government.

I referred to the work of the Scottish Rural and Islands Parliament: Scotland is the only jurisdiction in the United Kingdom with a rural Parliament. With regard to the part of Scotland that Ms Harper asked about, last summer we held, in Newton Stewart in Dumfries and Galloway, a community workshop that was focused on the land use and agriculture just transition plan. We also continue to support rural communities in Dumfries and Galloway through our community-led local development funding programme.

Humanitarian Aid (Gaza)

7. Kevin Stewart (Aberdeen Central) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government, in relation to its humanitarian aid funding, what discussions it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding the distribution of humanitarian aid to Gaza, in light of recent developments including Ireland’s, Spain’s and Norway’s recognition of the state of Palestine. (S6O-03627)

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

We have continued to urge the United Kingdom Government since October 2023 to use its influence to ensure that the barriers to aid getting into and distributed throughout Gaza, which are in contravention of international humanitarian law, are removed.

We have also called for the UK Government to recognise the state of Palestine, end the licensing of arms exports to Israel and reinstate funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. It is now critical that all parties step up their efforts to agree to the ceasefire deal that has been tabled by the United States, so that the unimaginable suffering that is being caused by the conflict can finally end.

Kevin Stewart

Will the cabinet secretary outline whether he shares the view that distribution of humanitarian aid to Gaza would be easier if Palestine was recognised by all of the international community as an independent state?

The cabinet secretary has given us a flavour of the asks that he has already made of the UK Government. Can he outline what the Scottish Government’s will ask of the new UK Government in relation to Gaza and Palestine?

Angus Robertson

The distribution of humanitarian aid to Gaza could be more efficient and effective if Palestine were universally recognised as an independent state, because that would facilitate more robust diplomatic relations and establish clear legal frameworks for the operation of international agencies. It could also provide a Palestinian state with more control over its borders and open the door for direct development aid and investment from other countries.

We will continue to push the next UK Government to use its influence to bring about an immediate ceasefire, the release of all hostages and unfettered access for humanitarian aid going into Gaza.

International Development Fund (Malawi Emergency Medical Projects)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update regarding the status of its international development fund and its funding for emergency medical projects in Malawi. (S6O-03628)

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

We have worked closely with our partner-country Governments on the design of new health, education and equalities programmes, with stakeholders kept informed throughout the process.

Our new health programme has been closely aligned to national priorities and it has been informed by our extensive research and elements that are already launched. That includes live competitive grant-funding rounds for Zambia and Rwanda, and will also include a health partnership programme that will support national health service staff partnerships with our partner countries Malawi, Zambia and Rwanda in sectors including emergency medicine.

Michael Marra

In 2010, with support from the Scottish Government’s international development fund, a team of Scots—including medics from NHS Tayside—helped to set up the first dedicated adult and emergency centre at Queen Elizabeth central hospital in Blantyre, Malawi.

The work of the Scottish emergency medicine Malawi project was described to me as

“the exemplar of emergency care in Malawi.”

It was delivered under budget and was a great success. It was agreed that that Scottish Government funding be paused, at the start of the pandemic. Yesterday—I believe as a result of this question—project leaders were finally told that the funding will not be reinstated. The funding backed a promise to some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world—it was a moral commitment. The loss will be measured in lives. No reasons have been given. It is, in the words of the dedicated doctors, “an utter travesty.” For what reasons did the cabinet secretary approve the cancellation?

Angus Robertson

I think that Mr Marra has received letters about that case in the past.

On the question that was asked of me, the Scottish Government will support better health outcomes in Malawi, Zambia and Rwanda through three core portfolio strands. First, there will be a health partnership programme, which will be a platform to facilitate partnership working between Scotland and our partner countries to respond to existing and emerging health challenges.

Secondly, there will be a multilevel programme on non-communicable diseases through a funding partnership with the World Health Organization; a new competitive project for Zambia and Rwanda; and a new multipartner health service joint fund, at the request of the Malawi Government.

We also have our long-standing relationship with, and investment in, the Kamuzu University of Health Sciences in Malawi and its current partner, the University of Glasgow.

Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

The strong relationship between Malawi and Scotland is more important than ever. Can the minister provide an assessment of how Malawi will benefit from the Scottish Government’s recent investment in the World Bank’s foundational learning compact inclusive education policy academy?

Angus Robertson

It is estimated that around 15 per cent of children in Malawi are disabled. According to recent estimates half of those children are out of school. Those children need support, which is why the Scottish Government is committed to supporting inclusive education across our partner countries.

As part of our support this year, we launched the World Bank’s foundational learning compact inclusive education policy academy. The project is supporting Malawi’s Ministry of Education and its Ministry of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare, as well as representatives from organisations of persons with disabilities, in making better policy to provide access to education for those who need it most.

Alexander Stewart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

Following Covid and the world’s worst cholera epidemic in 20 years, the emergency medical service in Malawi requires—now more than ever—that robust and resilient emergency systems be in place. What action can be taken to ensure that the funding that was awarded in the past can be replicated?

Angus Robertson

As I outlined to Mr Marra, three core portfolio strands relate to the question that was put. I am happy to write to Alexander Stewart with more details about all of them. Further funding announcements will be made during the course of this year in relation to the issues that Alexander Stewart has raised.

That concludes portfolio questions on constitutional affairs.

Justice and Home Affairs

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The next item of business is portfolio questions on justice and home affairs. Again, any member who wishes to ask a supplementary question should press their request-to-speak button during the relevant question. There is quite a bit of interest in supplementaries, so they will need to be brief, as, indeed, will the responses.

Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme

1. Ariane Burgess (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding the potential impact on the emergency services mobile communications programme of the roll-out of BT’s Digital Voice to rural and island areas in Scotland, in particular in relation to areas without adequate mobile phone provision. (S6O-03629)

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

Telecommunications, including the security and resilience of networks, is reserved to the UK Government. The Scottish Government is working closely with the UK Government, Ofcom and the telecoms industry to ensure that risks that are identified by our rural and island communities are resolved ahead of the introduction of the new digital services.

Although the telecoms industry has made the decision to replace the traditional land-line telephone service with a digital service by the start of 2027, there will be no change to the statutory responsibilities that apply to telecommunications providers. The roll-out of the emergency services mobile communications programme and the introduction of the emergency services network will not be impacted by the introduction of new digital services such as BT’s Digital Voice, as those digital services do not rely on the mobile network.

Ariane Burgess

Constituents on Skye have been in touch to raise their concerns about emergency services communication during power cuts once Digital Voice is rolled out. Can the cabinet secretary confirm that the ESMCP will ensure that emergency services can communicate with one another as well as with residents where there is no analogue land-line and patchy mobile coverage?

Angela Constance

I very much appreciate the question that Ms Burgess has posed, because that point is of fundamental importance. Although the programme is a UK-led one by the Home Office, the Scottish Government contributes to it, of course, and we will continue to engage closely with the UK Government on it.

We have been keen to see the milestones for the programme. There are many advantages of the programme for the emergency services but, as I said in my original answer—I can write to Ariane Burgess in more detail—there are statutory obligations on telecoms providers, particularly in relation to power outages. There is a bit of a technical issue in and around the migration, and those in the sector have particular obligations in and around any transition. There are separate programmes in place, but I reassure Ariane Burgess that we will work with partners to ensure that the issues of power outages and the impact on those statutory responsibilities that have to remain in place are covered.

Thank you, cabinet secretary. I am going to need shorter responses.

Prisons (Illicit Material) (Use of Drones)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the use of drones to fly illicit material into Scottish prisons. (S6O-03630)

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

The Scottish Prison Service and the Scottish Government are fully aware of the negative impact of drones being used to introduce illicit items into our prison estate, and we understand the threat that that has for the operational stability of our prisons.

A technological response to support the identification of drones within SPS airspace is currently being piloted. That should provide vital evidence to support wider use of that technology throughout the rest of the prison estate. The health and wellbeing of those who live and work in prisons remains a priority for the Government.

Craig Hoy

It is quite clear that not enough is being done. Through a freedom of information request, I have obtained information that reveals that, between January and May, there were 22 cases of drones being intercepted at Edinburgh prison and Barlinnie prison, with seven being intercepted at HMP Edinburgh in January alone. Those devices drop drugs, weapons and cash into the hands of some of Scotland’s most notorious prisoners. In a week in which ministers are opening the doors to release violent offenders, does the sharp rise in smuggling by drones not confirm that the Government is asleep at the wheel when it comes to the security of Scotland’s prisons?

Angela Constance

Craig Hoy would not have needed to have put in a freedom of information request if he had asked the Government about his concerns about the issue, because that is no secret. I will give him further information. Between January 2023 and December 2023, there were 67 sightings or recoveries of drones across the prison estate.

Craig Hoy may also be interested to know that we received no contact from the United Kingdom Government when it introduced its measures to England and Wales only. Aviation and airspace are reserved. I will pick that up with the new UK Government, because I would have been very interested in those measures on aviation and airspace.

Nonetheless, the Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Act 2021 gives increased enforcement capability to the police. It also provides for prison officers to retrieve equipment and gives police officers stop-and-search powers when they believe that they are detecting the use of unmanned aircraft in the commission of offences.

I will need briefer responses. Stuart McMillan has a brief supplementary question.

Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

Substance use has long been a concern in relation to the health and wellbeing of people in Scotland’s prisons, and it remains one of the most prominent challenges to Scotland’s prison system. Will the cabinet secretary provide an update on the Scottish Government’s continued work with partners to support the needs of people who use drugs in prisons?

Angela Constance

During my visits across the Scottish Prison Service estate, I have seen first hand a strong and committed recovery agenda in our prisons. It is clear that the on-going collaborative work with partners such as the Scottish Recovery Consortium, Sustainable Interventions Supporting Change Outside—SISCO—and the Scottish Drugs Forum has a positive and profound effect on individuals throughout their recovery journey while they are in the care of the Scottish Prison Service.

“HMICS Strategic review of the Scottish Police Authority”

3. Gordon MacDonald (Edinburgh Pentlands) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland’s “HMICS Strategic review of the Scottish Police Authority”, which was published earlier this month and sets out the progress made by the Scottish Police Authority in providing oversight and scrutiny of policing in Scotland. (S6O-03631)

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

The HMICS report highlighted the considerable progress that has been made by the Scottish Police Authority in its role of providing oversight and scrutiny of policing. In particular, the report notes that improved leadership and direction at the SPA has greatly enhanced its work. Chief Inspector Craig Naylor stated that the SPA has

“clearly demonstrated a significant difference in the approach and effectiveness of the SPA as a corporate body since”

the 2019 inspection.

I am grateful to the current SPA leadership, which has guided the organisation to that positive position, and I will continue to support it as it goes further to address the report.

What steps is the Scottish Government taking to ensure that the SPA continues to fulfil its role in the scrutiny of Scottish policing?

Angela Constance

It is for the SPA to action the issues that have been raised by HMICS. Nonetheless, the Scottish Government will support the SPA to do so. There was one recommendation, and the areas for further development include self-evaluation, leadership, performance and outcome measures, streamlining plans and reporting.

The Scottish Government will continue to support the SPA, particularly as it carries out its vital role in holding the chief constable to account. I meet the SPA and its chief executive regularly.

Russell Findlay (West Scotland) (Con)

Contrary to the Scottish National Party’s spin that we have just heard, the HMICS report is not all positive. It reveals that Police Scotland currently reports 17 strategic risks, 11 of which are at the most serious red status. However, the inspector identified a failure to take responsibility and no timescales to fix those, and added that the SPA must “demonstrate much stronger governance”. Specifically, what discussions has the cabinet secretary had with the SPA about tackling those strategic risks?

Angela Constance

As I said in my earlier answer, I meet the SPA and other policing partners very regularly. I refute the allegation that this matter has anything to do with SNP spin. Chief Inspector Craig Naylor said:

“There have been real improvements in leadership, governance and accountability—the core statutory role of the Authority. Planning, capacity and capability have all been improved. These improvements have also been acknowledged by external auditors.”

Early Release of Prisoners (Notification)

4. Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government, further to its decision to grant early release to prisoners currently in custody, whether all victims and their families will be duly notified of the early release of any prisoner. (S6O-03632)

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

I want to ensure that victims are able to access information about the release of the prisoner in their case if they want to receive it. It is important to bear in mind that providing unwanted or unrequested information can retraumatise victims.

Victims who are already registered with either of the two statutory information schemes will automatically be informed of the release of the prisoner in their case. In cases of emergency release, we have added two further ways of receiving information. Victims can go through one of four named victim support organisations, which can request information about a prisoner’s release on their behalf; alternatively, a victim can contact the Scottish Prison Service directly to receive information about the release date of the prisoner in their case.

Jamie Greene

I am not convinced that enough has been done to communicate that information to victims. In fact, Victim Support Scotland warned us that this early release will simply create more victims. Sadly, on day 1 of the first tranche of hundreds of prisoners being released, victims are already being created. This morning, I read in the media a horrendous report that victims are being contacted by prisoners—from inside prison, before their release. Can we check whether that is true—and what is being done about it?

If anyone is caught contacting a victim before their early release, will that release be blocked—vetoed—using the prison governor’s veto powers? In addition, if someone is released under the early release programme, then harasses a victim, will they face an immediate recall to prison?

Angela Constance

When I spoke to the chief executive of the Scottish Prison Service about an hour ago, she had not been made aware of any specifics other than what she had read in the media. Nonetheless, she will proactively contact victim support organisations, as members would expect.

From my perspective, whether prisoners get early release or planned release, the behaviour that Jamie Greene has outlined is utterly unacceptable. If any victim experiences that, they should immediately contact the Prison Service and the police so that it can be looked into.

In addition, phone numbers for prisoners have to be scrutinised as part of core procedures, in that the phone numbers of people who receive calls should be on an approved list.

The governor veto provides an additional safeguard, because governors can use it to prevent harm to an individual or group of individuals who are at risk.

Not only do the responses need to be briefer, but piling multiple questions within a question does not help. There are two brief supplementary questions.

Michelle Thomson (Falkirk East) (SNP)

The cabinet secretary mentioned that, over and above the existing victim notification scheme, there are additional ways for victims to find out whether someone has been released through emergency release. For the record, will she briefly outline what those are?

Briefly, cabinet secretary.

Angela Constance

I will do so briefly.

Following representations that were made to me by victim support organisations, amendments were made to the Bail and Release from Custody (Scotland) Bill so that victim organisations could be named in the regulations relating to emergency release. Victims can get the support of victim support organisations, who can receive information on their behalf if victims so wish.

Under the other scheme, people can contact the Scottish Prison Service directly.

Katy Clark (West Scotland) (Lab)

SISCO has described the current releases as “shambolic”, with prisoner release services being “overwhelmed”. Last month, the cabinet secretary said that there would be improvements to victim notification, and she may have outlined what those are. However, we know that most victims will not be notified that an offender will be released earlier than expected. Can the cabinet secretary confirm the exact number of offenders who are being released, and the number of victims who will receive notification? If she does not have the number of victims, will she obtain it and share it in the chamber?

Angela Constance

The current projection is that 514 prisoners will be released over the four tranches. The first tranche of 110 will be released today and tomorrow. The number of inquiries regarding the victim notification scheme remains low, at 12. Nonetheless, we continue to engage extensively with community partners and victim support organisations.

Reporting of Sexual Crimes

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to make the process of reporting sexual crimes easier on survivors of these crimes. (S6O-03633)

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

We all want complainers to have the confidence to report sexual crimes and we are committed to improving the justice system to better respond to victims’ needs.

Police Scotland has made significant improvements in its approach to tackling violence against women and girls and has an on-going commitment to improve its organisational culture, with zero tolerance for any form of sexism, misogyny or discrimination.

In addition, the Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill aims to improve complainers’ experiences, with a particular focus on ensuring that complainers in sexual offence cases have confidence in the justice system.

We also recognise the important role that front-line services play in helping survivors to come forward. Through the equally safe fund, we have invested £19 million to support 123 organisations.

Emma Roddick

Could the cabinet secretary speak to the engagement that has been going on with justice partners to understand and respond to the potential impact of the Lord Advocate’s recent references regarding a victim’s distress or a statement made shortly after an alleged crime being used as corroboration and, more generally, to how corroboration presenting an unfairly high bar for sexual crimes is being looked at?

Angela Constance

I take seriously the concerns that some stakeholders have with how the corroboration rule can affect access to justice for survivors of crimes that are committed in private.

I was interested to see the Court of Appeal’s judgment in October 2023, and I note that the Lord Advocate commented that the decision

“will improve access to justice for ... victims”


“has the potential to transform”

the way that the Crown Office prosecutes all offences, particularly sexual offences.

The Lord Advocate’s further references are currently being considered by the Court of Appeal, and it would not be appropriate for me to provide a view on issues that are live before our independent courts.

Those are recent and on-going developments, so it is not yet possible to model their potential impact.

Sharon Dowey has a brief supplementary question.

Sharon Dowey (South Scotland) (Con)

During stage 1 of the Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill, one survivor told us that the Crown Office treated them like a witness in their own case. Another survivor told us that their case was just short of four years long, while others spoke of their difficulties in getting information about their cases.

What will the cabinet secretary do to reduce trial delays and improve the standard of communication, to ensure that victims are not discouraged from reporting sexual crimes?

Angela Constance

It is imperative that victims and witnesses are, first and foremost, treated as people and not as pieces of evidence. That end-to-end journey time is being more closely monitored, with the publication of data for full transparency, and the investment in the court recovery programme is paying dividends.

In due course, we will respond to the independent review of the victim notification scheme. The core of that is how and when we communicate with victims. An important strand of work on that has been undertaken by the victims task force, which the Lord Advocate and I chair.

Hate Crime Strategy (Online Radicalisation)

To ask the Scottish Government, as part of the delivery of its hate crime strategy, what action it is taking to tackle online extreme right-wing radicalisation. (S6O-03634)

The Minister for Victims and Community Safety (Siobhian Brown)

Our hate crime strategy delivery plan, which has been informed by people with lived experience of hate crime, is focused on building communities that are cohesive and alert to extreme right-wing divisive narratives, both online and offline, supporting its victims and improving the data to understand hate crime.

The ways in which people can be radicalised are continuously evolving, and we recognise that there is no single pathway or set of factors. That is why we must remain alert and flexible, and ensure that our wider efforts across multiple policy areas build inclusive communities that are resistant to radicalisation and equipped to challenge extremist narratives.

Patrick Harvie

The far right is a growing threat across many European countries. It is in government in countries such as Italy and the Netherlands, and it is on the rise in France and Germany. In the United Kingdom, some Conservatives are now openly debating a merger with the far right after the current election.

Does the Scottish Government share the concern about the threat that is posed not only by extremist far-right rhetoric but by the homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, racism and anti-migrant rhetoric that comes with it, which is now a core part of the business model of a number of social media platforms? What is the Government’s view on the role of regulation of those social media platforms?

Siobhian Brown

The Scottish Government takes the threat of extremism very seriously and will continue to work with partners to ensure that we can identify and tackle it effectively. We share the concerns that Mr Harvie raised regarding right-wing extremism globally.

On the point about online behaviour, hate crime is hugely damaging and corrosive to families and communities. Our Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act 2021 covers online and offline hate crime, and the UK Government plays a role in the reserved matter of the Online Safety Act 2023, which provides protections for children and adults online.

Will the minister please tell us whether there is a need for the hate crime strategy to be updated now, given the recently published 2023-24 hate crime statistics?

Siobhian Brown

The hate crime strategy was published in March 2023, followed in November by the delivery plan, which sets out our immediate actions over the next two years to implement the strategy.

Recent statistics are a reminder to redouble our efforts to tackle hate and to confront prejudice wherever it occurs. Our strategy remains relevant, and one of our key aims is to seek to improve the availability of data in order to more fully understand the nature, characteristics and extent of hate crime in Scotland, and to use it to inform future policy development.

Foysol Choudhury (Lothian) (Lab)

During the most recent meeting of the cross-party group on challenging racial and religious prejudice, the Minister for Victims and Community Safety stated that the Scottish Government was looking to overhaul the reporting of hate crime. Will the minister provide an update on what measures the Scottish Government is planning to make it easier to report hate crimes?

Siobhian Brown

I acknowledge that the recording of non-hate crime and hate crimes is an operational matter for Police Scotland. That is unchanged by the implementation of the 2021 act. Police Scotland is aware that the College of Policing has released guidance and, as far as I am aware, it is considering the recommendations.

Question 7 has been withdrawn.

Racism (Justice and Community Safety Bodies)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what action it is undertaking to tackle racism in justice and community safety-related public bodies. (S6O-03636)

The Minister for Victims and Community Safety (Siobhian Brown)

I want all our public bodies to be free from racism and discrimination and to reflect the society that they serve. We will continue to work in partnership with all our justice organisations to eradicate racism. For example, Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority are committed to ensuring that our police service is diverse, with a workforce that is reflective of the communities that it serves. Through its policing together strategy, initiatives are under way to improve the diversity of Police Scotland.

The Scottish Government supports the commitments contained in the race equality framework and immediate priorities plan. Through our cross-justice group on race data and evidence, the Government continues to improve our understanding of the experiences of minority ethnic people in the justice system.

Maggie Chapman

The public inquiry into Sheku Bayoh’s death in police custody heard that officers could reasonably have assumed that Bayoh was a terrorist solely because of the colour of his skin. Neither the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner nor the Crown Office considered the role that racial prejudice might have played in his death, despite human rights law requirements to do so.

What assurances can the minister provide that our justice system is addressing institutional racism? Will she commit to providing regular updates on the actions and cultural changes that are needed for compliance with human rights laws and the provision of anti-racist services?

Siobhian Brown

First, I say that my thoughts are with the family and friends of Mr Bayoh.

As the member highlighted, the inquiry is examining the immediate circumstances leading to Mr Bayoh’s death, the police handling of the case and the investigation into the death, and whether race was a factor. The inquiry can also make recommendations to prevent deaths in similar circumstances.

Counsel for the inquiry has confirmed that the question of whether Mr Bayoh’s race played a part will be examined at every stage. As it is a public inquiry and is independent of ministers, it would not be appropriate for the Government to comment on the inquiry proceedings now that they have commenced.

That concludes portfolio questions on justice. There will be a brief pause before we move to the final portfolio, to allow members on the front benches to change over.

Education and Skills

Additional Support Needs Teacher Numbers

To ask the Scottish Government what consideration it has given to the impact of a reduction in teacher numbers in some areas on pupils with additional support needs. (S6O-03637)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

We remain fully committed to protecting teacher numbers and are offering local authorities £145.5 million for that purpose in this year’s budget. Councils are responsible for providing a complement of teachers and support staff to deliver the best outcomes for all pupils, and I expect them to prioritise that. Spending on additional support for learning by local authorities also reached a record high of £926 million in 2022-23. We have 17,730 pupil support staff, which is also a record high. That is a result of our continued annual investment of £15 million to councils. We also provide £11 million each year to directly support pupils with complex additional support needs and services for children and families.

Pam Duncan-Glancy

The cabinet secretary will know that the Education, Children and Young People Committee’s report on additional support for learning says that, regardless of that funding, the situation is still intolerable. The cabinet secretary will also know that having fewer staff in schools impacts the experience of pupils with ASN. Hundreds of people took to the streets to tell Glasgow City Council that on Monday, and the Education, Children and Young People Committee has recognised that in its report, too. However, the Scottish National Party-Green Glasgow City Council did not carry out an equality impact assessment on its cuts to staffing or to MCR Pathways.

Does the cabinet secretary believe that staff and teachers are key to supporting pupils with ASN? Does she think that an equality impact assessment should be carried out before decisions to cut teachers are taken?

Jenny Gilruth

The member alluded to the committee’s report on additional support for learning. It is worth saying on the record that I have paused the Government’s update to the additional support for learning action plan in order to take cognisance of that report and to respond to the challenge that it presents to ministers. I look forward to sending that update to the committee soon.

The member made specific reference to some of the recent challenges in Glasgow. As I alluded to in my initial response, we are making available to local authorities an extra £145.5 million to maintain teacher numbers. I know that the Glasgow Labour group’s plans would have cut those numbers further—its budget proposals for Glasgow included £30 million of cuts to education and could have meant the loss of up to 650 teachers. We have offered Glasgow City Council funding of £16.5 million in 2024-25 to maintain teacher numbers, which is its share of the £145.5 million.

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. The member who asked the previous question is well aware that the SNP is the administration in Glasgow City Council. Is it in order for her to misrepresent that fact?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Mr Harvie will know that that is not a point of order. There is a mechanism, which is known to all members, for correcting the record, and that can always be pursued by the member, should they wish to do so. However, the point is now on the record.

Liam Kerr has a supplementary question.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

The Education, Children and Young People Committee’s report suggests that a reduction in teacher numbers has an impact on pupils’ behaviour, whether or not they have additional support needs. What measures has the cabinet secretary taken in response to that report’s publication on 15 May specifically to address the behavioural impacts of the reduction in teacher numbers?

Jenny Gilruth

I thank the member for his interest in the issue. As I intimated in my response to Ms Duncan-Glancy, we are protecting £145.5 million in this financial year to maintain teacher numbers, because, as cabinet secretary, I think that it is hugely important that we do so. We also provide additionality in relation to support for additional support for learning staff. This year, we have more than 725—I think—extra additional support for learning assistants.

The member asked a question about the report. I have not yet formally responded to that report, but I look forward to doing so in due course.

Foysol Choudhury (Lothian) (Lab)

A constituent in Lothian has a son who was entitled to extra time during an exam due to his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder but had his eligibility for assessment arrangements repeatedly questioned and missed his extra time, which my constituent believes caused stress for his son and impacted his ability to complete his exam. How is the Scottish Government working to ensure that every person with additional support needs is supported during their exams? Will the cabinet secretary look at that case?

Jenny Gilruth

I listened to the member’s question in detail. I am a bit rusty on the specifics of how support is administered in schools, but in a previous life I had to administer support for my pupils in terms of extra time and support mechanisms that they might require for their qualifications.

I am happy to look at the detail of that case, but I want to put on the record and respond to the member that the statutory responsibility for the delivery of education rests with local authorities. It would therefore be a matter for the local authority. In my experience, it is usually a matter for the headteacher in the school, but I am happy to look at the detail and to provide support if that would be appropriate.

Further Education (Industrial Dispute)

2. Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to end the reported disruption to students in further education, in light of the on-going industrial dispute between College Employers Scotland and the Educational Institute of Scotland Further Education Lecturers Association over pay and conditions. (S6O-03638)

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

Although there is no direct role for the Government to intervene in the dispute, I have made it clear to the college management that they must do everything in their power to ensure that students are not adversely impacted by industrial action, while at the same time doing their best to conclude the dispute.

All appropriate mitigations and support must be in place to minimise disruption to students and provide them with timely information on their options. I have also called on the employers and EIS-FELA to work together to find a way of suspending the marking boycott in order to allow positive progress to be made on settling the dispute and to ensure that students receive the qualifications that they have worked so hard to achieve.

Monica Lennon

I am grateful to the minister and I have listened carefully to his response, but students and college lecturers are already adversely affected.

The Scottish Government’s fair work credentials in further education are in tatters. We are seeing anti-worker deeming, threats of compulsory redundancy and the threat of closure of the trade union education centre at City of Glasgow College. The question from picket lines across Scotland, including South Lanarkshire College in my area and New College Lanarkshire, is this: when will the minister intervene to ensure that we see a funding package that will deliver a decent pay settlement for college lecturers that is consistent with the public sector pay policy, while protecting jobs and ensuring the continuity of course provision for our students?

Graeme Dey

Let us be clear—as Monica Lennon actually has been, and I welcome that—about what Labour means by “intervention”. It means shaking the magic money tree and giving colleges whatever moneys they need to satisfy the demands of the lecturers in this dispute, with no financial detriment to any other part of education delivery.

A pay rise is not even the totality of what is being sought in the dispute and the negotiations. It is not just about committing to a pay uplift for 2025-26 at a stage when the budget that will be available to the Scottish Government—and the colleges—is a complete unknown. It is also about colleges committing to an open-ended, no compulsory redundancies approach and returning all pay that was lost via striking during the present dispute. The price tag for delivering all that would be extremely significant.

The question for Labour is this: when it calls for intervention to settle the dispute, is it expecting all those demands to be met? If so, where would it have us find those sums?

Aberdeenshire Council (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government when the education secretary last met with Aberdeenshire Council, and what was discussed. (S6O-03639)

I last met representatives from Aberdeenshire Council on 16 May. We discussed issues around teacher recruitment and retention and the teacher induction scheme.

Alexander Burnett

The cabinet secretary was quick to point out in a reply to me on 3 June that Aberdeenshire Council had welcomed 20 newly qualified secondary school teachers for the coming school year. However, she failed to point out that the council had requested 44 teachers and that this is just the latest case, in a years-long problem, of a rural council not being sent enough teachers. What is the Government going to do to recruit teachers, particularly for our rural communities?

Jenny Gilruth

I thank the member for his interest in the issue. The issue that he raises is not specific to Aberdeenshire; there are challenges in Highland Council and a number of other rural parts of the country. I have worked closely with officials in Aberdeenshire Council and elected members who are in the member’s party to provide support. For example, this year, we have been able to increase the number of probationers allocated to that area, and the local authority welcomed that in my engagement with it.

More broadly, as the member knows, in answering recent parliamentary questions, I have said that I am keen to look at the probationer scheme and how it is supporting local authorities such as Aberdeenshire Council. We know that, post-pandemic, many probationers are opting not to tick the box to go anywhere—there is a reticence to do that. We need to look again at the probationer scheme, which is fully funded by the Scottish Government, and ensure that it is better meeting the needs of local authorities such as the member’s.

Funded Childcare (Orkney)

4. Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the delivery of 1,140 hours of funded childcare in Orkney, in light of the specific challenges faced by island authorities in meeting this requirement. (S6O-03640)

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

The Scottish Government recognises how vital early learning and childcare are in rural and island areas, in relation to giving children the best start in life and supporting families to work. Responsibility for delivering the 1,140 hours of funded ELC that is available to all eligible children in Scotland sits with local authorities, which have a statutory duty to ensure that local provision meets families’ needs. We invest almost £1 billion a year to fully fund that offer, and the costs of provision in rural areas are taken into account in the funding formula.

The Scottish Government has a robust strategy in place for evaluating the national ELC expansion, which will look at accessibility, particularly in rural and deprived communities. We expect to provide an interim update on that this year, with the full report due to be published next year.

Liam McArthur

In recent months, many constituents have contacted me in desperation about the lack of available childcare in Orkney. Anyone who is not working fixed hours or 9 to 5 faces acute problems but, even for those who do, accessing childcare is proving to be increasingly difficult. Childminders are few and far between, wraparound care for school-age children is largely non-existent, and many nurseries do not offer extended hours or support outside of term time. As an island community with a relatively small population, Orkney faces unique challenges in delivering the Government’s commitment to funded childcare. Will the minister agree to work with Orkney Islands Council to provide any additional support that is required to ensure that my constituents have access to the affordable and flexible childcare that they need and have been promised?

Natalie Don

I absolutely recognise the particular and distinct challenges, barriers and opportunities for rural and island communities. I will continue to listen and look for solutions to the challenges that they face. Our addressing depopulation action plan, which was published in February, sets out the Scottish Government’s approach, which is aimed at supporting local communities. The plan acknowledges the important role of early learning and childcare as an important driver of population attraction and retention. The plan also sets out a range of work that is being taken forward to enhance our childcare offering in the context of rural communities, which includes the early adopter communities—I appreciate that that is not relevant in this circumstance—childminder recruitment and our commitment to phase in an expanded national offer for families with two-year-olds.

Over and above that, I am more than happy to meet the member if he would like to discuss the specific challenges further.

Question 5 has not been lodged.

Fife College (Pay Dispute)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it can take regarding the on-going Fife College staff pay dispute. (S6O-03642)

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

I appreciate that the on-going industrial action at Fife College will be of particular importance to the member and his constituents. Continued industrial action is in no-one’s interests, and I continue to actively urge the employers and the Educational Institute of Scotland Further Education Lecturers Association to work collaboratively to find a resolution to the dispute as a matter of priority. Formal talks last Friday saw movement on the part of the union. I understand that further informal discussions have continued since.

David Torrance

I believe that there is a genuine desire on all sides to end the present dispute. I understand that lecturers at Fife College have been warned that their wages might be docked in response to on-going industrial action. Does the minister agree that that is not in the spirit of the National Joint Negotiation Committee? Will he urge the college management to reconsider such actions?

Graeme Dey

I assume that the docking that Mr Torrance refers to is what is known as deeming and relates to a particular aspect of the industrial action—namely, the refusal of some lecturers to upload the marks of students, thereby impeding their progression. As the issue concerns the fulfilling of contractual requirements, it is a local rather than a national matter, as evidenced by the fact that one college is not resorting to deeming, and some others are taking localised approaches.

As I have said before, however, the work of students going unmarked and the response of colleges to that is detrimental to the interests of learners and represents an unhelpful escalation in the dispute. Employers and trade unions must work together to find a way to suspend that element of action short of striking and remove the threat of deeming, not only to take students out of the firing line but to create a better atmosphere in which to try and resolve the wider dispute.

As an aside, I recently met college chairs groups, and I emphasised the importance of their role in seeking to improve employee relations in their colleges. The decision to dock pay is a significant one; as significant is the decision to pursue a marking boycott. I would expect all relevant college boards to be involved in the approval of the suggested approach, particularly in relation to proportionality.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I have a number of supplementary questions, and I will take that of Martin Whitfield. I would caution you, Mr Whitfield, that your question is to be supplementary to the question in the Business Bulletin, which relates to the on-going Fife College staff pay dispute.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

I am grateful for your guidance, Deputy Presiding Officer. As the minister has said, the approach that we are discussing has been taken not just in Fife but more widely. Does the minister feel that the approach that has been taken by Fife College, and indeed other colleges, with a battle over legal advice, displays an appropriate tone at this moment in the dispute? Is calling out and docking pay in essence the best way to pursue a settlement, rather than the objective of sitting round the table and discussing the matter?

Graeme Dey

As Mr Whitfield knows, one side in an industrial dispute does something, the other side reacts and the situation escalates thereafter. I do not think that either course of action—either the one that prompted the steps that have been taken or the reaction to it—has been in any way helpful for resolving the dispute. As I said in an earlier response, it does not matter which order things are done in: both sides should get together, park this matter and get on with resolving the dispute.

Question 7 has been withdrawn.

Erasmus+ (Replacement)

8. Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government, regarding any specific measures or alternative programmes it is considering as a replacement to Erasmus+ in Scotland, whether it can provide a timeline for any support that may be available for Bishopbriggs academy and other schools. (S6O-03644)

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

In 2023-24, the Government funded a test and learn project to re-establish some of the opportunities that Erasmus+ provided, which the Turing scheme does not. Despite being smaller in scale than Erasmus+, the project supported student and staff exchanges, helped to develop stronger international partnerships between educational institutions and delivered a key action from the international education strategy. We have committed to take the project forward in 2024-25, working in collaboration with education stakeholders. We are planning to use the learning from 2023-24 to develop a programme that provides opportunities for all parts of our education system, schools included.

Can the minister assure Bishopbriggs academy, in my constituency, of support to continue its German educational trainee programme, given the impact of Brexit, the withdrawal of Erasmus+ and visa challenges?

Graeme Dey

I understand that Bishopbriggs academy has an excellent languages department, which has benefited from the GET programme and from other programmes such as “Schools: partners for the future”—the PASCH initiative. The Scottish Government is aware of the challenges facing the GET programme, and officials are working with partners to find pragmatic solutions.

Brexit has caused great damage to such programmes. We need an immigration that meets Scotland’s needs, and we urge the UK Government to create better opportunities for young people to enjoy the benefits offered by mobility.

Pam Duncan-Glancy (Glasgow) (Lab)

It has been almost four or five years since the Government removed the Erasmus+ scheme—or since we came out of the Erasmus+ scheme—and the Scottish Government has delayed any action on it. In the time that the Scottish Government has taken to set up a far smaller scheme, 6,000 students in Wales have gone across to 95 different countries. Why has it taken the Scottish Government so long to set up a replacement for Erasmus?

Graeme Dey

I know that the member did not mean to mislead, but she gave the impression that it was this Government that backed out of the Erasmus scheme; it absolutely was not. Let us just get that on the record.

Would I wish that we had been able to move quicker on this matter? Of course I would. We are working very closely with our partners in education—I had a meeting just last week—and particularly with the university sector, on what we have learned from the first year of the test programme and on the asks of the university sector and the college sector and wider asks. I do not just want to have a programme for the sake of having a programme; we want a programme that reflects the needs of the sector.

I have engaged directly with elements of the sector on some of the test work that they did last year, and I have been hugely impressed with it. We will build on that in the coming years.

Liam McArthur

My former Liberal Democrat colleague Kirsty Williams, who was the education minister in Wales who introduced the Taith scheme, was able to do so at pace and, as Pam Duncan-Glancy has indicated, to the benefit of thousands of young people in Wales. Why has the approach taken by the Scottish Government been so different and so much slower than that of its counterpart in Wales?

Graeme Dey

Again, we are looking back the way, but I am trying to look forward, and that is not just out of convenience. We are where we are. As I said in my earlier answer, we are developing a scheme that reflects the aspirations and the asks of the education sector and our young people, and we will seek to build on that in the next few years.

Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I seek your guidance. At question 6, the minister was asked a very direct question about what action the Scottish Government can take regarding the on-going Fife College staff pay dispute, and that question built on my earlier question at question 2 on what action the Government could take. In response to my question, the minister Graeme Dey asked what the Labour Party would do and, in response to question 6, he gave no answer at all. Is the minister unable or unwilling to take meaningful action to resolve the industrial dispute at Scotland’s colleges?

Could we have a point of order, please?

What can members do to get proper answers from these ministers?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Thank you, Ms Lennon. That is not a point of order, as I am sure you are well aware. There are many routes by which members can pursue answers from the Scottish Government ministers, and I would recommend all those means of procedure to the member to pursue.

That concludes portfolio questions on education and skills. We will turn to the next item of business after a short pause to allow front bench teams to change position, should they so wish.