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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, April 27, 2023


General Question Time

Good morning. The first item of business is general question time. In order to get in as many questions as possible, we must have short and succinct questions and answers to match.

Unpaid Trial Shifts

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on whether businesses that make use of unpaid trial shifts should be disqualified from receiving public sector grants and procurement contracts. (S6O-02156)

The Minister for Small Business, Innovation and Trade (Richard Lochhead)

The Scottish Government opposes the use of unpaid work trials. If a trial period is offered, it should be paid, whether it leads to permanent employment or not.

Although employment law powers are reserved to Westminster, we are using all levers at our disposal to promote fair work and to tackle worker exploitation, including measures adopted through our public spend. Our fair work first approach asks employers who are in receipt of public sector grants, contracts or other funding to commit to adopting fair work criteria, including no inappropriate use of zero-hours contracts, and payment of the real living wage.

We are now strengthening our conditionality approach by requiring recipients of public sector grants awarded on or after 1 July 2023 to pay all employees at least the real living wage and to provide appropriate channels for hearing effective workers’ voices.

Ross Greer

I welcome the minister’s opposition to unpaid trial shifts. I am proud to have worked with the Scottish Government on the fair work section of the Bute house agreement, which delivered the real living wage conditionality.

Employment law powers might be reserved to Westminster for now, and our options here are limited, but the living wage conditionality for grants and contracts demonstrates that we can go a bit further. Given the Scottish Government’s robust opposition to the injustice of unpaid trial shifts, will it consider adding a new fair work condition that would ban companies that engage in such exploitation from accessing public sector grants and contracts in Scotland?

Richard Lochhead

Ross Greer highlights an important issue. We were very disappointed when the Conservatives in the House of Commons talked out attempts by Stuart McDonald MP to introduce a private member’s bill to ban such practices.

In Scotland, we are determined to go as far as we can within our current powers to tackle the most significant issues in the labour market and to drive fair work practices by using the powers that we have, as set out in the Bute house agreement, which Ross Greer referred to. I say to him that we will continue to examine how we can strengthen our approach to conditionality. I will certainly ask my officials to consider the issues that he has raised today, including by highlighting our opposition to unpaid trial shifts as an example of good practice, in any future update of our fair work first guidance.

Ivan McKee (Glasgow Provan) (SNP)

Payment of the real living wage is a key tool in tackling poverty. I am glad to recognise Highlands and Islands Enterprise as the first of our agencies to make all grant awards contingent on payment of the real living wage. That is also now a requirement for all businesses located in Scotland’s green ports. When will the requirement be rolled out to other agencies, as is called for in our national strategy for economic transformation?

Richard Lochhead

I thank Ivan McKee for raising the importance of the real living wage in tackling poverty and low pay in Scotland. Some 91 per cent of Scots are now paid the real living wage, which is the highest rate across the United Kingdom. We are working alongside our enterprise and skills agencies to develop our stronger approach to conditionality. From 1 July this year, as will be the case with grants provided by the Scottish Government, public sector grants issued by such agencies will require payment of at least the real living wage and provision of appropriate channels for hearing effective workers’ voices. I join Mr McKee in congratulating HIE for being ahead of the game and proactive on the issue.

Katy Clark (West Scotland) (Lab)

The guidance on fair work first does not make trade union recognition a requirement for bidders; instead, it permits alternative arrangements. It also stipulates that there should be

“no inappropriate use of zero hours contracts”

instead of ruling them out completely. Will the Scottish Government commit to addressing those discrepancies?

Richard Lochhead

I assure the member that we are committed to addressing the discrepancies by arguing for more powers for the Scottish Parliament over employment law in Scotland, which is the best way to strengthen the guidance and the law in this country. We do not have the powers to go much further than the position that we have outlined in our current guidance, according to which we have to demonstrate proportionality in our regulations.

That is not very far.

Richard Lochhead

I think that we have gone very far in Scotland. Since 2019, more than £4 billion of public sector investment has been subject to fair work first criteria, which has made a real difference to tens of thousands of workers across this country.

Inequality (Fiscal Measures)

To ask the Scottish Government what additional fiscal measures it will put in place to reduce inequality in Scotland. (S6O-02157)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

Tackling poverty and protecting people from harm is one of the three critical and interdependent missions for the Scottish Government, and it is only with the full fiscal powers of a normal independent nation that ministers can use all the levers that other Governments have to tackle inequalities. However, our income tax policy decisions for 2023-24 are estimated to add £519 million to the budget, ensuring that we make the best use of our limited tax powers. We have allocated almost £3 billion this year to supporting policies that tackle poverty and protect people as far as possible during the on-going cost of living crisis.

Richard Leonard

On the morning that he was elected leader of the Scottish National Party, under a headline that said, “I’ll hammer the rich”, the First Minister declared himself to be a socialist. Can the cabinet secretary tell us whether the First Minister’s new-found socialism will extend to a proposal for a wealth tax to be brought to Parliament before the end of the year—yes or no?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

With the greatest respect, the issue is more complex than a yes or no answer, so I will set out the principled position of the Government.

We have always prioritised a fair and progressive approach to income tax policy. As I said in my original answer, that was demonstrated by the decisions that were taken in the past budget, which built on the progressivity that we have within the powers that we have. The recent work for the Institute for Fiscal Studies, for example, has shown that our progressive attitude has enabled more support to be delivered to less well-off households.

Of course, we will consider—and the First Minister has made clear that he will consider—further measures that we can introduce. I look forward to the constructive discussions that we can have with Scottish Labour on that, not just at the anti-poverty summit, but as we move forward with our deliberations on taxation policies ahead of the next budget.

Highly Protected Marine Areas (Engagement with Communities)

3. Karen Adam (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it has taken, in addition to its public consultation, to engage with the fishing industry and the coastal communities that could be affected by highly protected marine areas. (S6O-02158)

The Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero and Just Transition (Màiri McAllan)

It has always been our intention to develop these ambitious proposals hand in hand with those who are impacted by them. The member asked about action aside from the consultation. Prior to the consultation, we met with more than 20 stakeholder groups representing a wide range of marine industries and users. Those meetings included fisheries organisations such as the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation and the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation; aquaculture groups such as Salmon Scotland; environmental non-governmental organisations such as Scottish Environment LINK; community representatives such as Coastal Communities Network; and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

Feedback from those meetings fed directly into our consultation. Since then, from February to April, we have run 10 online information sessions to help anyone wishing to provide a response to the consultation. We have also provided additional targeted events with regional fishing industry groups such as the Western Isles Fishermen’s Association and the north east whitefish forum, and I will meet with coastal and island MSPs next week.

Karen Adam

I thank the cabinet secretary for that comprehensive answer. In recent weeks, I have spoken to a number of fishers across my constituency, who have expressed their concerns around highly protected marine areas. I welcome the First Minister’s commitment last week not to impose on any community a policy to which it is vehemently opposed. Will the cabinet secretary reassure the fishers whom I spoke to and make the same commitment?

Màiri McAllan

I am happy to reiterate the First Minister’s commitment. I firmly believe that you do not impose policies in communities—you work hand-in-hand with them to make those policies work. I want our island and coastal communities to help to shape the creation of those areas, which is why we chose to consult so fully and so early in the process.

As I have committed to from the very beginning, site selection will be a participatory process, with meaningful community engagement at every stage.

Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

The fishing industry and the communities built around it have been crystal clear in their opposition to this Government’s HPMA proposals, and we stand squarely behind them. However, their concerns have been cast aside by this Government time and time again. Is the dismissal of those concerns based on any sort of economic impact assessment that the Government has undertaken, or is the Government simply blind to the damage that the policy could do?

Màiri McAllan

It is astonishing that I can read out the level of consultation that has been undertaken so far and point to a full consultation right at the beginning of the process yet still be accused of what the member was narrating.

The truth of the matter is that, despite progress in improving the state of our marine environment, evidence tells us that we need to do more. The Scottish marine assessment of 2020 showed that a number of marine species were in decline, and the most recent United Kingdom marine assessment showed that, across the UK, good environmental status was not being achieved.

However, as I have said right from the beginning of this process, we recognise the strength of feeling on this and we are committed to working hand in hand with communities to make this policy work right around the country.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

Does the Scottish Government recognise that the lack of detail for communities up and down Scotland’s coastline whose livelihoods depend on the sea has caused distress and concern? When will the cabinet secretary visit Shetland to meet with the fishing and aquaculture sectors?

Màiri McAllan

I have narrated some of the interaction that we have already had with the fishing and aquaculture sectors. I have personally committed to spending some time in the summer meeting communities with particular views on the issue, and I would be happy to speak with Ms Wishart on that point. However, what I do not accept is the accusation that consulting early has been problematic. We could have cherry picked areas to pilot, as other Governments have done, but I did not think that that was right. I wanted meaningful engagement right from the beginning.

Sunday Train Services (West Central Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with ScotRail regarding improving Sunday train services in west central Scotland. (S6O-02159)

The Minister for Transport (Kevin Stewart)

Transport Scotland regularly engages with Scottish Rail Holdings on improving ScotRail timetables, including Sunday services in the west of Scotland and beyond. Delivering a Sunday timetable has traditionally relied on overtime working. However, as part of the recent ScotRail pay deal, there is an agreement to bring Sundays into the working week within the next five years. That should end the current reliance on overtime for Sundays and present an opportunity to enhance Sunday services, not only in the west of Scotland but across the ScotRail network. In the meantime, we continue to improve the timetable, where possible.

Pauline McNeill

I declare my interest as a member of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers.

Does the minister agree that it is critically important to improve Sunday services across Scotland in order to give people more choices in public transport? Even in central Scotland, services can be as infrequent as one every two hours. As the minister said, it is a six-day service that is run on the seventh day—Sunday—entirely by the workforce volunteers, who are paid overtime.

Will the minister commit to rebuilding trust with all four rail unions, which is necessary in order for them to enter into discussions about the other conditions that would be necessary? Further, does the minister accept that those other conditions include investment in the new staff who would be required to improve services on Sundays for the public?

Kevin Stewart

Obviously, I want to have a good relationship with all the trade unions that are involved in our rail network. I want to take a collaborative approach to all that we do, and, as I outlined in my initial answer, I think that we have already seen that change.

At the moment, ScotRail operates around about half the number of services on a Sunday that it does on a weekday. The Glasgow and west of Scotland area is comparatively well served, with all suburban and urban routes running a minimum of one train per hour. However, that is a reduction from the two trains per hour that operate on most services during the week.

We will move forward on this issue, and I assure Pauline McNeill and the chamber that I will do everything possible to co-operate and be collaborative with trade union colleagues.

NHS Fife (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met with NHS Fife and what was discussed. (S6O-02160)

Ministers and Scottish Government officials regularly meet with representatives of all health boards, including NHS Fife, to discuss matters of importance to local people.

Annabelle Ewing

I thank the cabinet secretary for his answer and welcome him to his new post.

I have raised consistently the issue of a new medical centre for Lochgelly, and, indeed, I have written again to the cabinet secretary just this week to report that the current premises are dilapidated and unfit for purpose. Will the cabinet secretary therefore agree to visit the medical centre in Lochgelly with me to see for himself the awful conditions that staff and patients face? Further, will he agree to review the decision not to make that project the priority that it should be?

Michael Matheson

I recognise the local member’s long-standing interest in the replacement of the Lochgelly medical centre, and I support the replacement of the centre. Annabelle Ewing will be aware that that is one of the areas of priority for health capital funding. However, as things stand, the capital budget is already fully committed. It has also been impacted by a reduction in our capital allocation by the United Kingdom Government and the significant level of construction inflation that projects face. That has all resulted in a lack of flexibility within our existing capital funding arrangements, which is having an impact on projects such as the replacement of the Lochgelly medical centre. However, I hear Annabelle Ewing’s concerns about the particular issue and her invitation to visit the facility, and I would be more than happy to undertake that visit with her.

Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (Vacancies)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to tackle the vacancies in child and adolescent mental health services. (S6O-02161)

The Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care (Michael Matheson)

The Scottish Government remains committed to improving the mental health and wellbeing of Scotland’s population and to ensuring that everyone receives the best possible care and support from our health and care services. Delivering that can be achieved only with the right workforce capacity and capability. We have invested heavily in staffing in recent years, which is why the CAMHS workforce has more than doubled under the Government.

Responsibility for the recruitment of CAMHS staff lies with national health service boards. In “NHS Recovery Plan 2021-2026”, the Scottish Government committed to providing sufficient funding for around 320 additional staff in CAMHS over the next five years, with the potential to increase capacity for CAMHS cases by over 10,000.

Meghan Gallacher

Since December last year, 190 vacancies have been listed. Eighty-nine of those were left unfilled for three months or longer. Public Health Scotland figures that were published last month showed that 70.1 per cent of children were seen by CAMHS within 18 weeks of referral. That is almost 20 per cent below the Scottish Government’s own target.

Those figures are unacceptable. When will the Scottish National Party Government make child and adolescent mental health services a priority? How will it attract people into a profession that is stretched to breaking point?

Michael Matheson

I recognise the concerns that Meghan Gallacher has raised and assure her that child mental health services are a priority. To underscore that fact, we have more than doubled the CAMHS workforce in the Government’s time in office. I mentioned that we are in the process of recruiting around 320 additional staff in CAMHS over a five-year period, for example. We are already at some 67 per cent progress on that recruitment programme.

We want to continue to see that workforce increase, which is why we are putting in additional investment. Meghan Gallacher will be aware that we are now seeing more people through the CAMHS network than we have ever seen before. We want to ensure that children get the right services in their local communities in the way that best meets their mental health needs. That is why we are continuing to invest in CAMHS.

Neurology Physiotherapy (Waiting Times)

To ask the Scottish Government what the average waiting time is for neurology patients who are seeking an appointment with a physiotherapist. (S6O-02162)

The Minister for Public Health and Women’s Health (Jenni Minto)

Information on physiotherapy waits for people with neurology conditions is not held centrally by the Scottish Government. However, Paul Sweeney may be interested in some of the work that we are taking forward to support those with neurology conditions.

In 2019, we published “Neurological Care and Support in Scotland: A Framework for Action 2020-2025”, which aims to ensure that everyone with a neurological condition can access the care and support that they need. The aims include improving the provision of co-ordinated health and social care, developing sustainable workforce models and ensuring high standards of person-centred care.

Since October 2020, we have also invested £2.1 million with national health service boards and partner organisations to fund innovative projects to achieve better outcomes for people living with neurological conditions.

Paul Sweeney

The minister will be aware that this week is multiple sclerosis awareness week. I commend the work of the MS specialist physio service that is based at the Queen Elizabeth university hospital, which works hard to support neurology patients across NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde. However, research by the MS Society has found that there is extreme pressure on physiotherapy services in Glasgow, with patients waiting for an average of 17 weeks for an appointment and 107 of 931 full-time-equivalent physio posts lying vacant. Will the minister please set out how she plans to fill those vacancies and cut the backlog of physiotherapy appointments for neurology patients so that they can access that vital support?

Jenni Minto

I thank Paul Sweeney for his question and join him in acknowledging the importance of this week being MS awareness week, with the hashtag #MSMakesMe. We want everyone who is waiting for physiotherapy, including those with a neurological condition, to be seen as soon as possible, and NHS boards are working extremely hard during challenging times to support that.

The most recent statistics show that the number of patients seen in the quarter to December 2022 was at the highest level since March 2020 and last year over 1.2 million out-patients were seen, an increase of 8 per cent since 2021, which demonstrates the progress that we are making. I recognise that it is extremely challenging and I am determined to work with health boards to ensure that we improve the current situation, as well as with third sector groups, which are also providing very worthwhile support to MS sufferers.

The Presiding Officer

Thank you. That concludes general questions. Before we move on to First Minister’s question time, I invite members to join me in welcoming to the gallery His Excellency José Alberto Briz Gutiérrez, Ambassador of Guatemala. [Applause.]