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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 01 June 2022 [Draft]

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, Portfolio Question Time, Business Motion, Decision Time, Cannabis-based Products for Medicinal Use


Contents


Portfolio Question Time


Justice and Veterans

The next item of business is portfolio questions, and the first portfolio is justice and veterans. In order to get in as many members as possible, I would prefer short and succinct questions, and answers to match. If a member wishes to request a supplementary question, they should do so by pressing their request-to-speak button during the relevant question or by entering the letter R in the chat function.


Courts (Backlog of Cases)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is supporting the courts system to clear the current reported backlog of cases. (S6O-01150)

In 2021-22, we provided £50 million to support the recover, renew, transform programme for the criminal justice system, which included setting up 16 new solemn and summary courts. For 2022-23, we have committed a further £53.2 million, including £26.5 million for the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service to help it to maintain enhanced court capacity. We have also extended funding for remote jury centres for an additional three months, to support the transition back to having juries in court, and we have increased the SCTS resource budget by 3.5 per cent.

The latest statistics that the SCTS has published show that those measures are having an impact, but justice agencies have been clear that it will take several years to address the backlog. We will continue to support that work.

One of my constituents has been waiting for several months for an update on his case, and the local procurator fiscal office has been unable to give any indication of when his case will be processed, as it says that that is done centrally. Are there any plans to allow for more local processing of procurator fiscal cases, which might help to ease some of the waiting times?

The member will know that the processing of cases is a matter for the Lord Advocate as part of her independent role as head of the prosecution system. I therefore recommend that the member contact the Lord Advocate, both on the specific case and on his suggestion about more localised processing. The Lord Advocate should be able to advise on the member’s query.

Yesterday’s spending review is devastating for the justice sector, with legal aid, the judiciary and the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service all receiving real-terms cuts over the next five years. The Scottish Police Federation described yesterday as

“A bad day for the public, a good one for criminals.”

A prominent solicitor has said that the spending review is a

“nail in the coffin for legal aid”.

Will the substantial cuts to the justice system over the next few years help or hinder the Government in getting through the massive backlog of 40,000 cases that is currently in the system? More importantly, what effect will that have on victims?

There is no question but that a 5.2 per cent cut in the Government’s budget will have an impact on all services in Scotland, and it is regrettable that the Conservatives cannot find it within themselves to condemn that cut and to seek a more beneficial settlement for Scotland.

Of course, yesterday was not a budget; it was a spending review, and the budget will come forward in due course. During the process of deciding on the budget, I will of course put the case for continued investment in justice services, whether that is the police or the court service.


Justice System (Involvement of Victims)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to involve victims more in the justice system. (S6O-01151)

Enabling victims to take a more prominent role in the justice system is a key commitment in our recently published justice strategy. We are consulting on potential legislative reforms, including the establishment of a victims commissioner for Scotland, to strengthen victims’ rights and improve their experiences. An independent review of the victim notification scheme is under way to ensure that it is serving victims effectively, and we are committed to creating restorative justice services and expanding the use of victim impact statements in court. The victims task force, which is co-chaired by me and the Lord Advocate, is directly informed by victims’ voices and is progressing work to develop a more victim-centred and trauma-informed justice system.

A couple of weeks ago, a man was sentenced to three years in prison for repeatedly threatening to kill me and my wife. On one of the many times that he was arrested, he was on the next street, two minutes from our front doorstep, and I pay tribute to Police Scotland officers for their actions in apprehending him. Even though the man has been to court, had his sentencing deferred for background reports and has now been sentenced, to this day not once has anyone in the criminal justice system reached out to me or my wife. In fact, it was through a colleague in the Parliament that I learned that the man had appeared in court, because my colleague had read about it in a newspaper.

What truly worries me is that many of our constituents have had the same experience and have not known where to turn for help. Will the cabinet secretary agree to give proper consideration to supporting my colleague Jamie Greene’s victims bill, which will put victims at the centre of the justice system, where they rightly belong?

First, I sympathise with Stephen Kerr’s experience. I had a very similar experience, with my family being threatened with having the house burned down by somebody who was subsequently convicted for burning down a house. I know how troubling such experiences can be.

I concede that not enough is being done to ensure that victims—in this case, victims of a threat—are acknowledged by the criminal justice system in its various forms. We are trying to ensure that victims are recognised throughout the whole criminal justice system, although it is worth acknowledging that it is not necessarily a system in that sense; it includes lots of independent parts.

Some of the points that Stephen Kerr has raised relate to the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service and to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, and I am sure that what he has said will be heard by them.

On the matter of supporting Jamie Greene’s bill, I was told that the bill would be introduced in the first 100 days of the parliamentary session. I have not yet seen the bill, so I do not know how I can be expected to say that I will support it until I have seen its provisions. From what I know about the bill, and from previous discussions, I think that many of its provisions are covered by activity that the Government is already undertaking. However, I restate my commitment to look at the bill in good faith when it is introduced to see whether there are things that we can work on.

I acknowledge the experiences that have been articulated by Stephen Kerr and the cabinet secretary.

The Scottish Government has stated that it will introduce pioneering new restorative justice services through the launch of restorative justice hubs. That has been welcomed by stakeholders. Does the cabinet secretary share my view that the introduction of such services represents a critical step towards putting victims at the heart of the justice system?

I very much welcome that approach, which relates to the points that were made by Stephen Kerr. If we are to provide meaningful justice for those who come up against the justice system, the system has to be about more than a judicial process that ends with somebody being found guilty or innocent.

Therefore, I very much welcome the launch of the pioneering hubs, which will pave the way for restorative justice services to be rolled out across Scotland. Yesterday, I was delighted to meet staff and hear from survivors. I know that some groups, including women’s groups, have real concerns, although there has been general support for the restorative justice hubs. From talking to victims and survivors of sexual assault and rape, in particular, it is clear that those hubs could meet a need by providing a more meaningful justice outcome at the end of the process, although such an approach could be undertaken only with the consent and active support of victims and survivors.


Police (Consultation on Complaints, Investigations and Misconduct Legislation)

To ask the Scottish Government what role local authority scrutiny will have in relation to the recently published consultation document on police complaints, investigations and misconduct legislation. (S6O-01152)

Each local authority has established its own scrutiny arrangements to align with local requirements. I commend the work of local scrutiny committees and the work that they have undertaken with Police Scotland to review arrangements in line with Dame Elish Angiolini’s recommendations.

The public consultation on police complaints, investigations and misconduct launched on 24 May, beginning our 12-week public consultation period in which we welcome views on our plans for future legislation. The Government has invited local authorities via the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to discuss our plans for legislative change in December 2021 and again following the launch of our consultation, and we are keen to engage with local authorities directly to hear their views.

As the cabinet secretary has said, local authorities have various scrutiny bodies and arrangements in place throughout Scotland. How will local authority and regional feedback on issues be addressed in the response if there are specific regional or local authority issues at that time?

It is vital that the needs of local communities are understood and reflected in the planning and delivery of police services, so the Scottish Police Authority engages with local authorities, COSLA and local policing teams to understand how policing is delivered locally.

COSLA, Police Scotland and the SPA recently completed a review of the local police planning process, and the revised joint approach was approved by COSLA and presented to the SPA in March 2022. Work has begun to progress implementation. Local police plans are developed by Police Scotland’s local area and divisional commanders, who engage with local authorities. I am happy to ask the chief constable to write to the member on the specifics of the matter.

A female officer’s career destroyed by a boys-club culture, a disgraceful Rangers Football Club malicious prosecution scandal, senior officers quitting to dodge investigation, more than seven years to learn how a man died on a Fife street—when is the consultation expected to fix the Scottish National Party’s broken police complaints system?

I appreciate that there was a focus on the role of local authority scrutiny, but the cabinet secretary could perhaps respond nonetheless given the seriousness of the issue. The question was not a direct supplementary question, but would the cabinet secretary mind responding on this occasion?

None of the cases bear on the substantive question, which was about local authority scrutiny and local policing plans, but I am happy to respond to the member directly if he wants to raise the matter again—[Interruption.]

Could we have less sedentary commentary? I am in the chair, and I have decided that Mr Findlay’s question was not relevant to the overarching substantive question. That has become a feature in recent weeks. There are ways to link a question to make it a supplementary, and that one did not meet the mark. The cabinet secretary has indicated that he will respond to the member in writing.


Police Officers (Retirements)

To ask the Scottish Government how many Police Scotland officers have retired in this financial year. (S6O-01153)

Police Scotland has informed me that 169 police officers of various ranks have retired from Police Scotland between 1 April 2022 and 26 May 2022. A further 265 police officers have intimated their intention to retire before 30 June 2022. Therefore, Police Scotland expects a total of 434 police officers to have retired at the end of quarter 1 of this financial year.

There are fewer than 17,000 police officers in Police Scotland for the first time ever. It is suggested that one in 10 officers are considering leaving Police Scotland after the introduction of the pension arrangements. The recent pay offer has been branded as disgraceful and the general secretary of the Scottish Police Federation says that the spending review will mean “flat cash for police” and that officer numbers will “plummet”. What action will the Scottish Government take to prevent a mass exodus of police officers who are biding their time until retirement?

It is hard to know where to begin with a question like that. It is simply not the case that there have never been fewer than 17,000 police officers in Scotland previously, but it is true to say that the pay rise, which was awarded this year from the Scottish Government, was matched by a United Kingdom pay offer of zero—no pay increase last year.

It is also true to say that we have substantially more officers per head in Scotland and that police officers start in Police Scotland on a salary of £5,000 more than they do in England and Wales. The idea that the Conservatives should be lecturing the Government on properly funding Police Scotland is a bit rich.

It is also true to say that we have seen the results of that investment in Police Scotland over the years, as we have some of the lowest crime levels that we have seen since 1974—certainly lower than in England and Wales. We of course want to continue to prioritise policing and we will do so against a background of a 5.2 per cent cut from the UK Government.

Would it not be useful if, for once, the Conservatives could congratulate the police officers of Scotland on the work that they do, and talk to their bosses in London about improving the grant to the Scottish Parliament so that we can look after our police officers and all our other public services? I will not hold my breath waiting for that to happen.

Scotland has a significantly more police officers than elsewhere in the UK. Statistics from the Scottish crime and justice survey show that approximately one in eight adults in Scotland experienced crime in 2019-20 compared to one in five in 2008-09. The rate in Scotland remains lower than the rate in England and Wales, where the equivalent figure is 13.3 per cent. Does the cabinet secretary agree that, although the Tories talk tough on justice matters, it is the Scottish National Party that is trusted to tackle crime and protect communities, which is why we were resoundingly re-elected little more than a year ago?

I absolutely agree. It is interesting how animated the Conservative members become whenever we point out the differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK. I wonder why that is. It could be because of their embarrassment.

I agree with the member. Scotland is a safer country since the SNP Government took office. Recorded crime remains at one of the lowest levels since 1974, and it is down 41 per cent since 2006-07. I have yet to hear any recognition of that from the Conservatives.

As a member rightly points out, we have 32 officers per 10,000 population in Scotland compared to around 23 per 10,000 in England and Wales. More generally, we are investing an additional £188 million across the justice system in 2022-23, which is more than three times what the Conservatives asked for.

We are looking after Police Scotland, and we will continue to do so in a very difficult budgetary situation.

To summarise a letter from Police Scotland to the Criminal Justice Committee about the impact of recent changes to pension computations, it says that the result could be up to 1,300 of our police officers taking advantage of those changes. I know that the cabinet secretary is aware of that, but is he also aware that the Scottish Police Federation is saying explicitly that that is not the reason why so many police officers plan to leave? It says that its members are overworked and undervalued and that the constant disruption of rest days and cancellation of annual leave is taking a toll on police officers physically and mentally. Will the cabinet secretary acknowledge that he is aware of that letter? Surely that is the most critical issue that is facing the police service. What is he thinking about doing to address it?

What we have to do is make sure that we provide the resources to Police Scotland. Of course, some of the things that Pauline McNeill talked about are not within the gift of the Scottish Government to change; they are operational decisions for the chief constable, and it is right that they should be. I do not know whether anybody is suggesting that we should change that so that the Government becomes directly involved. I do not think that that would be a good idea.

It is also true to say that we have a situation with retirement. I have spoken to the Scottish Police Federation, the Scottish Police Authority and the chief constable, and, at the top of the list is retirement caused by the change in pensions that underlies the figures that I have just given. Of course, we have an interest in the wellbeing of police officers and we will continue to talk to the Scottish Police Federation and do whatever we can to make sure that services and resources are provided to look after our police officers.


Women’s Safety (Abortion Clinics)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions the justice secretary or community safety minister have had with ministerial colleagues regarding action to ensure the safety of women attending abortion clinics in Glasgow. (S6O-01154)

The cabinet secretary and I are kept up to date on the discussions held in the buffer zones working group, which is chaired by the Minister for Public Health, Women’s Health and Sport. We will make the chief constable aware of issues that have been raised when that group next meets.

The rights to peaceful public assembly and freedom of expression are rights that we are committed to uphold, but they should never be used to promote hatred or justify intimidating or otherwise criminal behaviour.

Operational policing decisions are a matter for Police Scotland, as is decision-making on appropriate action to safeguard public safety.

While the Government fails to take direct action, women are being victimised when they should be receiving support. Protests are not just undermining patients; they are also undermining staff. We have heard the Government say that it supports buffer zones, and we have heard the First Minister say that protesters should protest outside the Parliament, not medical settings, but women are still being harassed. What conversations is the Government having with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities about how local authorities can be supported to introduce laws? What discussions are being held with Police Scotland on the action that it is able to take to protect women?

I thank the member for that question. She raises some important points, and I am very sympathetic to the intention behind the question.

On the recent incidents at the Sandyford clinic, I can confirm that Police Scotland was called on both occasions on which protests took place. The police asked the protesters to stop using voice amplification devices and took formal statements from members of staff.

Of course, Police Scotland has available to it existing powers to deal with any disorder or criminality that arises from such protests. The Scottish Government has made it clear that the intimidation and harassment of women as they access healthcare is completely unacceptable. Scottish Government officials have already made Police Scotland aware of concerns that have been raised with them and, in particular, the concerning reports about the protests at the Sandyford clinic. I know that Police Scotland has taken statements with regard to what went on there.

The Minister for Public Health, Women’s Health and Sport, Maree Todd, has convened a working group, with partners such as COSLA, Police Scotland and affected councils and health boards, to look at how to address vigils and protests that take place outside abortion clinics. I commit to keeping the member updated on progress.

Question 6 was not lodged. Question 7 comes from Rhoda Grant, who joins us remotely.


Sexual Exploitation

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to end sexual exploitation in Scotland. (S6O-01156)

Commercial sexual exploitation is recognised as a form of gendered violence within “Equally Safe: Scotland’s strategy for preventing and eradicating violence against women and girls”. As part of the delivery of the strategy, the Scottish Government supports a range of measures, including the provision of more than £400,000 through the delivering equally safe fund to address commercial sexual exploitation and support people who are affected. In addition, our victim-centred approach fund provides the TARA—trafficking awareness-raising alliance—project with £622,000 to support women who are trafficked for that purpose.

We are also progressing the programme for government commitment

“to develop a model for Scotland which effectively tackles and challenges men’s demand for prostitution.”

It is still permissible to buy sex in Scotland, even though we recognise that it is gendered violence, and that is feeding demand for trafficking. We know that there are people who are actively trying to traffic Ukrainian women and children to Scotland because they know that those who are fleeing from war situations are very vulnerable.

Is there a timeframe for the implementation of the A Model For Scotland policy, in order to close the loophole that allows those exploiters to operate in our midst?

I thank the member for raising a very important issue. The Scottish Government has a multi-agency group that is continuing to make as much progress as possible on the topic of commercial sexual exploitation because, as the member has outlined, there are some such activities going on at the moment.

I say to the member that I am committed to progressing work on this agenda. As she will know, much work is being done behind the scenes here. Unfortunately, I am not able to tell her today what the timeframe is on the issue that she has raised, but I commit to keeping her updated on that work.

Question 8 comes from Sandesh Gulhane, who joins us remotely.


Veterans (Data on Mental Health and Drug and Alcohol Abuse)

To ask the Scottish Government what data it collects on any difficulties faced by veterans in Scotland, including on the prevalence of mental health issues and drug and alcohol abuse. (S6O-01157)

Improving veterans data continues to be a priority for the Scottish Government. The member will be aware that, for the first time, Scotland’s census 2022 included a question on previous service with the armed forces. We have also identified additional sources of regular data collection, for example by including the same question in the Scottish household and health surveys.

In addition, there is a veterans marker in the new drug and alcohol information system, which is a national database that holds data that relates to specialist drug and alcohol treatment from services across Scotland.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer, although it seems that the new census is £150 million over budget, and that it might not provide us with the information that we need. It is also clear that there is a lack of data related to specific issues for veterans. Without such data, we cannot fully understand veterans’ needs and provide the correct help for them.

In view of the need for that data, what steps will the Scottish Government take to ensure that future statistical releases include specific data on issues for veterans such as mental health waiting times, so that we can more accurately assess the scale of such problems?

I have mentioned the steps that we are taking. I have tried for years—over a decade—to get information from the UK Government on this, but I have been refused at virtually every turn. If the member could perhaps have a word with his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence and ask them to provide data about veterans in Scotland, that would be helpful.

I mentioned how we can get information from the census and DAISy—the drug and alcohol information system—on addiction services. We have published the veterans mental health and wellbeing action plan, and its implementation board, which has been mentioned previously, will have on it representatives from the Scottish Veterans Care Network. That and all the veterans organisations that we deal with can help us to get a more rounded picture of the needs of veterans across Scotland.

In March, services that provide mental health support to armed forces veterans were given an important funding boost when the Scottish Government announced £1.4 million for Combat Stress and a further £666,000 for Veterans First Point.

What improvements does the Government expect to see to the lives and experiences of our veterans as a result of that funding?

The improvements to the lives and experiences of veterans will be not just because of the funding that Graeme Dey mentioned, but substantially down to the work that he carried out as veterans minister.

The funding ensures that Scotland’s veterans can access appropriate support and it includes funding for specialist veterans peer support workers, who understand the experiences of those who have served and ensure that veterans and their families are directed to the help that they need when they need it.

We are providing funding to support the implementation of the veterans mental health and wellbeing action plan, including the recently announced £50,000 for the See Me campaign, which will challenge mental health stigma and discrimination experienced by veterans, and hopefully change attitudes and behaviours, so that veterans with experience of mental health problems are respected, valued and empowered. I expect those developments to deliver significant improvements to the lives and experiences of veterans in Scotland.

That concludes portfolio questions on justice and veterans. There will be a very short pause before we move to the next item, which will be portfolio questions on finance and the economy, to allow front-bench teams to change positions if they wish.


Finance and the Economy

The next portfolio is finance and the economy. If a member wishes to ask a supplementary question, they should press their request-to-speak button during the relevant question or put an R in the chat function, if they are joining us remotely.


Just Transition (Grangemouth Refinery)

I remind members of my entry in the register of interests.

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions the finance ministers have had with ministerial colleagues regarding support for a just transition for the Grangemouth refinery, including any future investment. (S6O-01158)

Through the Grangemouth future industry board, the Scottish Government and partners have initiated work to develop a just transition plan for the wider Grangemouth industrial complex, of which the refinery is an integral part. As we work to understand how to deliver a just transition for the whole country, ministers will—as one would expect—engage with ministerial finance colleagues, as appropriate.

In line with the principles of the just transition, the plan for the Grangemouth complex will be built up collectively, in consultation with a wide range of stakeholders, including industry. The just transition plan will outline an ambitious and clearly defined vision and will identify and provide evidence for specific activity that will form an action plan to support its realisation.

Just two weeks ago, I met Unite trade union representatives in Grangemouth. Speculation that PetroChina is withdrawing its 50 per cent stake from the refinery is causing anxiety, unrest and uncertainty among the workforce.

The Grangemouth refinery remains a vital strategic national asset. It provides security of supply, and in previous quarters the site has generated as much as 10 per cent of Scotland’s total gross domestic product. Yet we know, and the workforce knows, that its fate lies in the hands of a billionaire tax exile and an overseas-owned corporation.

Scottish National Party Government ministers, including a First Minister, have intervened previously with Ineos. Will the current Government and First Minister intervene and hold urgent discussions with Ineos, PetroChina and Unite the union about the site’s long-term future, including future jobs, future investment, future diversification, future decarbonisation and future ownership?

Ministers agree with Richard Leonard’s assessment of the strategic importance of the asset to Scotland, as well as its importance in maintaining local jobs.

I am sure that the member will understand that I cannot comment on media speculation. He mentioned Unite the union, which has been in contact with Scottish ministers. My colleague Michael Matheson—the Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport—has responded on behalf of the Scottish Government to Unite’s letter.

I assure Richard Leonard and other members that there is regular ministerial contact with the refinery’s operators. That contact will, no doubt, continue in the coming weeks and months.

We very much recognise the importance of addressing the just transition aspect through the future industry board, which I mentioned. The creation and maintenance of new green jobs will be important for the future of the whole site.


Scottish National Investment Bank

To ask the Scottish Government what lessons can be learnt from Reform Scotland’s recent publication about the future of the Scottish National Investment Bank. (S6O-01159)

At the outset of my answer, I record my appreciation for all Reform Scotland’s reports, which play an important role in widening debate. We certainly welcome the paper that Liz Smith mentioned and support its aim of stimulating debate on the bank’s future activities.

The bank is, in essence, a start-up. It has had 18 months, and in that period it has built—from scratch—an operational structure. It has recruited more than 50 staff and it has delivered investment commitments of more than £200 million to 16 projects across all three of its missions, and has leveraged more than £450 million of additional private funding. That is pretty remarkable for a start-up, by any standard.

Professor Ross Brown is very supportive of the principles of the Scottish National Investment Bank, but he said that the bank is “shackled”, that its mission is “vague” and that its impact is “limited”. He concluded that the current strategy is ineffective for a publicly owned bank. What will the cabinet secretary do to address that?

As I said, the bank is on a journey. For example, it is putting more focus on origination and enabling scale-up, and it is working to obtain Financial Conduct Authority status, which will enable it to leverage in more private investment.

Crucially, the bank is operationally independent of ministers. That independence is hugely important and needs to be protected. The list of investments that the bank has made, from Aberdeen to Edinburgh, demonstrates that the range of investments all align with the bank’s missions.

There are a couple of supplementaries.

In yesterday’s spending review, we saw that the profile of investment for the Scottish National Investment Bank has fallen to £9 million, through to £1 million in 2025-26 and zero in 2026-27.

That will leave investment in the bank at £610 million, I believe. Will the cabinet secretary clarify what the protected capitalisation will be as a result of the spending review? I ask because, by my analysis—I am happy to be corrected—that £610 million is well short of the £2 billion that was promised. What will be the impact on the number and value of projects in which the bank will be able to invest?

Daniel Johnson will forgive me if I have misunderstood him. I think that he was quoting the figures for the bank’s operational resource requirements. Of course, the bank is on a journey towards being self-sustaining.

On the capital side, we are committed to capitalising the bank with £2 billion. I think that, in the targeted capital spending review, the member will see a trajectory that honours that commitment to £2 billion of capitalisation.

As I understand it—if I heard correctly, he said £9 million—the member was referring to the operational resource costs. The bank has an aim ultimately to be self-sustaining and to leverage in private investment to increase the overall investment from £2 billion.

As we know, the Scottish National Investment Bank has focused on long-term missions to deliver a range of environmental, social and economic returns. Can the cabinet secretary provide any more information on the bank’s latest investments and how they will fit with its mission to achieve a just transition to net zero carbon emissions by 2045?

One of the many investments that the bank has made is a £9 million investment in Circularity Scotland Ltd, which is a not-for-profit company that is responsible for delivering Scotland’s deposit return scheme. That investment leveraged in £9 million in additional private finance, which again demonstrates the bank’s role in using public sector funding to leverage in private sector finance.

In addition, the recent £30 million investment in the expansion of Aberdeen harbour will increase land and water access for offshore wind developers, and it will strengthen Aberdeen’s position as a key port hub for our large-scale energy transition effort. Those are just two examples among many.


Superfast Broadband

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the roll-out of superfast broadband. (S6O-01160)

With regard to the roll-out of superfast broadband, Alexander Stewart will be aware of our commitment to reach 100 per cent of properties. The latest Ofcom figures show that more than 2.6 million homes and businesses across Scotland can access superfast broadband speeds of 30 megabits per second and above. It is worth reminding members, including Alexander Stewart, that the matter of telecommunications is entirely reserved to Westminster.

With the R100—reaching 100 per cent—roll-out being delayed from 2021 to 2027, the Scottish Government has a long way to go to convince communities. The voucher scheme for R100 has also been disappointing in the extreme, with only 497 households in my region having applied from the more than 41,000 that are eligible. How can the Scottish Government address connectivity problems when it is clearly failing communities the length and breadth of the country?

I think that communities are convinced that if they were to wait for the United Kingdom Government to reach them, they would be waiting for an awfully long time. As of 30 April 2022, more than 9,600 connections had been delivered through the R100 contracts and vouchers, the majority of which are full fibre, with a further 9,500 connections in build. I wait to see what the UK Government will do with regard to connecting those households.

The Scottish Government has made substantial progress in improving digital connectivity in Scotland, despite the fact that telecommunications is a matter that is wholly reserved to Westminster—

No, it is not—the delivery is not.

Can the cabinet secretary provide any further information about steps that the Scottish Government is taking to encourage the roll-out of 5G in Scotland?

Before the cabinet secretary answers, I encourage Tory members to listen to the question and the answers without making interventions from a sedentary position.

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

I remind members that broadband and telecoms are 100 per cent reserved.

In Scotland, the 5G roll-out is commercially led, but we have taken a series of actions that are designed to try to create the conditions in which mobile network operators can roll out 5G infrastructure much more easily. That includes changes to planning legislation and our innovative infralink project to help with site rental guidance. In addition, we have acted on input from a wide range of stakeholders, including the mobile telephone industry and other partners in the public sector, to try to progress that as quickly as possible.

Lastly—and most important—is the £28.75 million Scottish 4G infill programme, which tries to ensure that there are future-proof masts in areas that would not otherwise have masts built through commercial build. Again, all that funding comes from our own budget, because we are not willing to wait for the UK Government to fund it.


Small Business Bonus Scheme (Evaluation)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is responding to the findings of the evaluation of the small business bonus scheme that it commissioned, which was carried out by the Fraser of Allander Institute. (S6O-01161)

We welcome the Fraser of Allander Institute’s report and the work that it has carried out, and we have been considering the contents of the report carefully. We are convening a short-term working group that will help to inform our consideration of the recommendations in full.

It is important to note that the report also found that there was no empirical evidence that the small business bonus scheme is supporting enhanced business outcomes. Businesses perceive there to be benefits, but that is not the same as evidencing that there are benefits—not least because limitations on the available data, which are highlighted in the report, make evaluation challenging, with problems in identifying businesses’ turnover, employment and investment as well as inconsistency in data collection and management.

Will the Scottish Government commit to regular and comprehensive assessments of the small business bonus scheme and other business support policies and to taking a more thorough and standardised approach to data collection, which would allow comparison with other business support schemes?

Just for clarity—I think that this was implicit in Ms Baker’s supplementary question—the Fraser of Allander Institute did not say that the scheme has had no effect; rather, it highlighted that data limitations have limited the institute in relation to evidencing that there is an effect. When we speak to small businesses, they recognise the importance of the scheme. To quote the Federation of Small Businesses,

“the small business bonus has been a lifeline for many firms.”

[Interruption.] If members find that funny, that is up to them. I reiterate that this Government has committed to the small business bonus scheme. Indeed, if we include all non-domestic rates reliefs this year, the total reliefs are worth an estimated £802 million.

We have invited representatives from a range of business organisations and local authorities to join the short-life working group that we are establishing, and we hope to convene its first meeting shortly. The issue of data in relation to the small business bonus scheme will be a priority of particular concern for the group.

It is vital that we use every lever at our disposal to respond to the climate emergency. Can the minister provide an update on the steps that the Scottish Government is taking through rates relief to help us to reach our net zero ambitions?

The Scottish Government provides a generous and comprehensive non-domestic rates relief package to support net zero ambitions. We provide up to 100 per cent renewable energy relief for projects that are used for the purpose of the generation of heat or power where the scheme also provides community benefit. Small-scale hydro schemes are eligible for 60 per cent relief, which has been guaranteed to March 2032. In April, we expanded the business growth accelerator relief to include the installation of solar panels as a qualifying improvement that is eligible for relief. That ensures no rates increase for 12 months after the qualifying property improvement. On 1 April 2021, we increased the relief for new district heating networks powered by renewable energy to 90 per cent.

Question 5 has been withdrawn.


National Records of Scotland (Funding)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on how much additional funding it has allocated to the National Records of Scotland. (S6O-01163)

To date, no additional funding has been allocated. Additional funding will be considered during the budget revision process and will be based on the actual additional costs incurred.

The NRS is, of course, the body that is responsible for the census. As a result of the Scottish National Party’s decision to delay the census by a year, as well as the recent extension of the deadline to the end of May, the census not only has failed to reach its 94 per cent uptake target but has cost taxpayers £30 million more than it needed to. Given that phenomenal waste of taxpayers’ money, will the minister make a commitment today that the next census will take place in sync with the rest of the United Kingdom, to prevent this costly shambles from ever happening again?

I take it as a vote of confidence that Mr Cameron thinks that I will still be a minister in 10 years’ time, when the next census occurs. Decisions around the timing of the census will be taken at the appropriate moment.

In relation to the substance of the question, the particular points that the member raises regarding funding will, of course, be confirmed through the usual processes.


ScotRail Services (Financial Impact)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment the finance secretary has made of any impact on Scotland’s financial outlook as a result of the reduction to ScotRail services. (S6O-01164)

There is no doubt that the current temporary timetable is causing significant inconvenience and frustration to travellers, especially people who need early and late services to get to and from work and those sectors and businesses in the economy that depend on people being able to travel in the evenings. We are engaging with stakeholders in sectors that may be affected by disruption to services, and we will continue to do so in the coming weeks.

The latest transport trends show a downturn in travel by rail compared to previous weeks, but they are also showing a slight uplift in concessionary bus travel, which is welcome. However, the sooner that we can get back to a full timetable, the better it will be for passengers, for businesses and, of course, for employees.

The well-respected economist Tony Mackay said that the estimated cost to the Scottish economy that is due to the cuts to ScotRail is between £75 million and £80 million every week, from the combination of the fall in economic output and the extra money that is being spent by travellers to get to their destinations. Does the minister agree with that analysis? After yesterday’s announcement, will the Scottish Government hit reset and properly invest in our public transport and economy?

I note Professor Tony Mackay’s comments with interest. As the member would expect, we have given them some consideration. However, we are aware that those estimates were produced rapidly and, crucially, before the revised timetable was introduced. We are monitoring the situation and, as I say, we are engaging with stakeholders to understand the impact on their sectors.

Just over a week ago, Richard Lochhead told the BBC’s The Sunday Show that he hoped that the ScotRail crisis would be sorted soon. However, we have learned in the past hour that the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen has rejected ScotRail’s pay offer. Instead of being sorted soon, the disruption that is being experienced by rail users across Scotland could get a lot worse.

The minister must be aware of the impact that the disruption is having across Scotland and on regions such as mine, the Highlands and Islands, particularly at the start of the tourist season. What regional analysis—if any—is being conducted of the economic impact that the crisis is having on businesses and communities? What support might be made available by the Government?

As I said previously, we are engaging regularly with businesses and we will take any particular issues that are identified by them, whether those are national or specific to a particular region, into account when we consider how we respond.


Green Jobs Fund

To ask the Scottish Government how many green jobs have been supported since the introduction of the green jobs fund. (S6O-01165)

The green jobs fund is a five-year, £100 million capital fund that will support businesses and their supply chains to better transition to a low-carbon economy. The support that will be provided by the fund aims to create green employment through investment in equipment, premises, research and development. Between the enterprise agencies and Scottish ministers, 57 projects have been supported, with grant funding of £16.8 million through the green jobs fund. Figures that have been provided by the recipients of those awards estimate that that fund will support up to 3,886 jobs over the life of those individual projects.

The Scottish Government had pledged that there would be 130,000 green jobs by 2020, but the Office for National Statistics estimates that employment in the low-carbon and renewable energy sector dropped from 21,700 to 20,500 in 2020. That is the fourth consecutive year in which we have seen a reduction in green jobs. What plans do ministers have, alongside industry, to bring forward a new and updated strategy, to make sure that we can realise the potential that green jobs have in the renewable energy and the carbon neutral retrofitting sectors?

Scotland is making significant progress in creating green jobs. Indeed, the most recent PricewaterhouseCoopers green jobs barometer shows that Scotland is the best-performing part of the United Kingdom for green jobs created and that Scotland is well positioned to maximise the benefits of green investment. The member referred to the ONS definition of green jobs, which the organisation is looking at, because it accepts that that definition is far from ideal. It provides a very narrow definition of green jobs.

I am convinced that many green jobs are being created throughout Scotland at the moment. Indeed, the Scottish Government’s hydrogen policy statement says that that policy could create up to 300,000 green jobs in Scotland. The Acorn project, which the UK Government is not supporting, could have created 20,600 jobs if the UK Government had given it the go-ahead, as it should have done. Our heat in buildings strategy could potentially create 16,400 green jobs, and we hope that the renewables projects in “The onshore wind industry prospectus” could create 17,000 jobs.

Scotland is on course to create hundreds of thousands of green jobs in the coming years, if we put our plans into practice and support them, and if, where appropriate, those projects have UK Government support. I ask Miles Briggs to ask his UK colleagues to get behind the Acorn project and others and to reverse the decision about its support of the Acorn project, in order to create even more green jobs for Scotland.

Creating and supporting green jobs through initiatives such as the green jobs fund and the just transition fund for the north-east and Moray will play an important part in securing our transition to net zero. However, the Scottish Government’s ambitions do not seem to be matched by the UK Government’s. Does the minister agree that it is high time that the UK Government stepped up and committed to properly supporting a just transition, matching the Scottish Government’s £500 million just transition fund?

I thank the member for that question, which gives me the opportunity to remind the chamber that the first tranche of the just transition fund for Moray and north-east Scotland—which amounts to £500 million over the next 10 years—opened for expressions of interest on Tuesday of this week. We would be very grateful if all members in relevant parts of the country would advertise that and make people aware of it, as it will help our transition toward a net zero economy.

Audrey Nicoll is right in saying that the UK Government should play a much bigger role in this. After all, it has extracted hundreds of billions of pounds from the North Sea in oil revenue. If it were to match the £500 million commitment from the Scottish Government, that would go a long way to ensuring that we have a just transition in the north-east of Scotland and Moray in the years ahead.

I gave the example of the Acorn project, which would have created thousands of new jobs from next year onwards. It was the project that was best positioned to get the go-ahead in the UK, but the Conservative UK Government said no to it, which caused a lot of anger in the industrial community in Scotland.

As Audrey Nicoll said, the UK Government could do a lot more to match the Scottish Government’s ambition for a just transition.

That concludes questions on finance. There will be a brief pause while the front benches change.


Education and Skills

The final portfolio this afternoon is education and skills. If a member wishes to ask a supplementary question, they should press their request-to-speak button or enter the letter R in the chat function during the relevant question.


South Lanarkshire College (Governance)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the Scottish Funding Council in light of the reported on-going governance concerns at South Lanarkshire College. (S6O-01166)

I meet regularly with the Scottish Funding Council and it continues to provide me with the assurance that due process is being followed and that arrangements are in place to secure good governance, sound leadership and positive outcomes for the students of the college.

Minutes from meetings of the college board of management refer to allegations of systematic bullying and intimidation of a number of staff, and potential financial irregularities. They also show that South Lanarkshire College failed to comply with the code of good governance. What steps is the Scottish Government taking to resolve those on-going issues with South Lanarkshire College and to address the issues that the Educational Institute of Scotland—Further Education Lecturers Association has raised around the governance structure?

The Scottish Funding Council, as the responsible organisation for overseeing investigation of those matters, acted immediately to understand and stabilise the situation. The Funding Council commissioned an independent review of governance and relationships at the college to establish the nature of the issues raised and what further action, if any, was required. The college has published an action plan to address the key findings and recommendations in relation to governance improvements—including complaints handing and relationships—that stem from that review.

The regional strategic body is responsible for investigating complaints of the nature that the member referred to in her question. Investigations into those complaints remain on-going, and the Funding Council continues to seek regular assurances from the regional strategic body that the investigations are progressing in an appropriate manner.

The Funding Council will continue to keep the Scottish Government updated on progress. Ministers’ paramount consideration is the safeguarding of the quality of learning at South Lanarkshire College, and high standards are crucial in ensuring that.

What has been going on at South Lanarkshire College is a scandal. There are allegations of private businesses operating from college premises, using college materials and lecturing staff time.

In my view, the new principal, Aileen McKechnie, was cleaning up the mess. She was suspended, and she should be reinstated. The local EIS-FELA branch had a vote of no confidence in the board. I was at a branch meeting last week, and it was announced that the national executive is backing the branch on that, which is quite unprecedented.

Much of what happened allegedly took place while the head of human resources at the college was Kirsten Oswald, who is now the Member of Parliament for East Renfrewshire. People have told me that she knew what was going on. Has the cabinet secretary had any discussions with Kirsten Oswald about that, and does she agree with me that, as a public figure, Kirsten Oswald should say what she knew and whether she was asked to do anything?

I understand and appreciate that members will have concerns over the issues at the college. However, I urge caution about naming individuals in the chamber and casting aspersions on them, particularly while due process is on-going at the college.

In my answer to Gillian Mackay, I said that there are a number of on-going investigations. It is very important that, as a Government minister, I do not prejudice those. The member pointed to the fact that the principal has been suspended, which was a decision for the board and not for the Scottish Government. That decision was part of the due process, to allow the investigations to take place, and the principal and the interim board clerk were suspended without prejudice.

I take the accusations at the college very seriously, and I am in regular discussion with the Scottish Funding Council to receive reassurances about the situation. Investigations are on-going and there is an official process. It is important that members take note of that and accord the process the significance and importance that I think that it deserves. No doubt it will conclude in due course.


School Counsellors

To ask the Scottish Government how it is monitoring and tracking the outcomes of the roll-out of school counsellors. (S6O-01167)

Local authorities provide six-monthly reports to the Scottish Government on the impact and effectiveness of school counsellors. A summary of the reports is published on the Scottish Government website.

Officials are also working closely with the counselling co-ordinators network to ensure on-going engagement with education authorities on the provision of school counsellors.

School counselling is just one of a range of services that schools might have in place to support the health, emotional and social needs of children and young people.

Additional funding is being delivered by the Scottish Government to local authorities for school counsellor provision. Post-pandemic, that early intervention tool is needed more than ever, as borne out by the evidence of many of the witnesses to the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee’s inquiry into the health and wellbeing of children and young people.

Does the cabinet secretary have a sense that counsellors are all now in place Scotland-wide, and that there is consistency in their training and job descriptions across all 32 local authorities?

All local authorities have confirmed that counselling services are in place across Scotland. There is a variation in how the services are being delivered—for example, some authorities are providing a specific resource in schools, while others are providing an authority-wide service according to needs across the region.

The guidance is clear that counselling support should conform to agreed professional standards that are provided by a professional counselling body, and it also makes clear that education authorities are responsible for establishing the way in which their services work, which includes the training, recruitment and employment of school counsellors.

As much as anything else, this is a question about monitoring and tracking outcomes.

Audit Scotland has repeatedly made it clear that the Scottish Government’s performance in monitoring and tracking outcomes is dismal. When will the Scottish Government publish the measurement of the outcomes of the £1 billion that has already been spent on the attainment gap funding?

I am not entirely sure what that has to do with the roll-out of counsellors, which is funded in an entirely different manner. I provided information on how those outcomes are reported in my original answer.

Mr Kerr will be well aware that responsibility for the delivery of the attainment challenge funding is a matter not only for national Government but for local government.

How is it measured?

We measure it in a number of ways: through achievement of curriculum for excellence levels statistics; through the information that is in the national improvement framework; and through the on-going work to gather data. More data is gathered in education now than in previous years, precisely because the Scottish Government wants to see the outcomes that are being delivered through the £1 billion-worth of attainment funding—which I thank Mr Kerr for raising—and the additional 2,000 teachers that we have in our schools across Scotland compared with pre-pandemic levels.

That is not a measurement—

Mr Kerr, given that your supplementary question was tangential to the original question, if I were you, I would not shout from a sedentary position.


School Buildings

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the condition of school buildings. (S6O-01168)

School buildings across Scotland are in their best condition since recorded figures began.

The proportion of schools in good or satisfactory condition has increased from 61 per cent in April 2007 to 90.2 per cent in April 2021.

Modern, safe and innovative school buildings play a vital role in improving attainment and outcomes for school pupils. How does the state of school buildings in Scotland compare with that in other United Kingdom nations?

Although we cannot draw on direct, like-for-like comparisons, I am aware, from recent media reports, that Department for Education officials are calling for further funding in order to increase the number of schools that are built, due to the deteriorating condition of buildings. Indeed, through the media, we received information last week about leaked UK Government documents, which revealed that schools posed a risk to life. We can compare that with the on-going work in the Scottish Government and our continued investment in schools through the £2 billion learning estate investment programme, which will benefit around 50,000 pupils across Scotland.


Cost of Living (University and College Students)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what action it is taking to support college and university students impacted by the cost of living crisis. (S6O-01169)

I understand that this is a tough time for many students, who are facing higher energy bills and increased financial hardship as a consequence of the current cost of living crisis.

Since June 2021, the Scottish Government has provided more than £37 million of hardship funding to colleges and universities to support students who face financial hardship throughout the year, including over the summer months.

Students in further or higher education who are currently experiencing financial hardship should apply to their college or university for support from discretionary funds.

Earlier this year, the National Union of Students Scotland warned that 54 per cent of students will find coping financially over the summer months difficult and called it “a cliff edge” for students in relation to the cost of living, rent, food, utilities and essential travel.

Twelve months ago, the Scottish Government committed to reviewing support for students over the summer months. When will that review be completed? Will the Scottish Government put in place similar discretionary support to that which was available last summer?

As I have already laid out, the discretionary funds are available over the summer. As the member would expect, I meet representatives of the National Union of Students regularly, so I have been able to discuss those matters. On the back of a previous discussion with them, I wrote to all college and university principals to ask them to make sure that they were expending the remaining hardship funds in response to the cost of living crisis. That is still my expectation.

The review of summer support is under way. I continue to take that review forward and look forward to concluding it and reporting back to Parliament.

Last week, I met representatives from Glasgow University Students Representative Council in my constituency, who raised concerns about the levels of student hardship that are being experienced because of the cost of living crisis.

Will the Scottish Government consider working with universities and colleges to find ways of further mitigating student hardship as a matter of urgency? Will the minister agree to meet me to explore potential additional supports for students at this hugely distressing time?

Ms Stewart asked me to consider working with universities and colleges to tackle the challenges that we face. I will not just consider doing that; I will continue to do it in relation to the hardship funds that we distribute, including the new international students hardship fund. I have already made the point about writing to principals to urge them to make sure that they are using the funds that they have in response the cost of living crisis.

In tandem with universities and colleges, we will continue to work on our student accommodation strategy, our student mental health action plan and the plans that we have to enhance student support more generally. I will not just consider that; I will do it. I will, of course, be happy to meet Kaukab Stewart to discuss that further.


School Assessments (Impact of Covid-19)

To ask the Scottish Government how it plans to support the so-called Covid generation of young people who have not received full assessments at school. (S6O-01170)

Schools and colleges are best placed to provide the tailored support that individual learners need. In response to Covid, Education Scotland put in place a package of support, which includes the national e-learning offer, which, with partners, supports teaching and learning by giving access to a wide range of live, recorded and supported resources. The Scottish Government also provided £4 million of funding to boost Easter study support locally, particularly for those from the most deprived backgrounds.

In addition to significant course modifications and revision support, the Scottish Qualifications Authority will take a more generous approach to grading than in a normal exam year and the appeals approach goes further than that used in the years before the pandemic.

Those measures are expected to give learners affected by the pandemic the best chance to demonstrate their potential and receive the grades that they deserve this year.

What plans does the Scottish Government have to carry out an independent review into the impact of Covid on education to identify gaps and lost learning and to understand the challenges to education recovery? How can the Government start to rebuild and combat lost education if it does not know the losses that have been suffered?

I thank the member for that question, but I urge caution when talking about the concept of lost learning, because that is not only about the lost learning but about the health and wellbeing of children and young people, and we need to see a holistic approach in that regard.

I am afraid that I would disagree with the premise that we do not know about the impact of Covid. A number of documents were published during the pandemic, including an equality assessment. We also recently published the achievement of curriculum for excellence levels statistics. Those will also be published again later in the year.

Those are the key measurements that we had before the pandemic, and that we will continue to have after the pandemic, to analyse the impact. ACEL looks at the impacts around lost learning. Importantly, of course, the Scottish Government is also keen to gather data on a number of other issues around health and wellbeing. The health and wellbeing census is so important, because it will make us aware of the wider impact of Covid.


Further Education (Funding)

To ask the Scottish Government what impact any real-terms cuts to funding for further education are having on the college sector. (S6O-01171)

The Scottish Government is investing almost £2 billion in Scotland’s colleges and universities in 2022-23, and the Scottish Funding Council has worked hard to extend budget flexibilities to colleges where possible, to provide greater planning certainty.

Our expectation is that colleges will prioritise spend within their allocations on the most impactful provision and skills alignment, and consider wider economic, local community and learner needs.

Despite what the minister has just said, the reality is that, due to an 8 per cent real-terms cut to its funding, Forth Valley College has taken the decision to close its Raploch campus in Stirling, with the resulting loss of more than 40 jobs. That decision, which will no doubt be replicated across Scotland as a result of the severe funding cuts, proves once again that education and skills are nowhere near being a priority for this Scottish National Party Government. What message does the minister have for those who have lost their jobs as a result of his funding cuts?

My understanding of the background to that decision is that it was driven not by financial considerations but by the best utilisation of the estate. The college has an excellent estate, which the Scottish Government has invested in over the years.

I would also say to Mr Lockhart that, contrary to his assertion around funding for Forth Valley College, in this current year, we have actually been able to increase its total funding allocation. Last year, its baseline teaching funding was £24.5 million; this year, it will be £25.6 million. That is in common with all colleges.

Is that a real-terms cut?

Let me remind Mr Lockhart and, indeed, all Conservative members that their Government at United Kingdom level has delivered a 5.2 per cent real-terms cut for the Scottish Government. They do not like to be reminded of that, Presiding Officer, but that is the reality and that is what we must deal with.

I have a number of supplementaries.

Instead of Dean Lockhart fighting with the minister about the figures, which the minister has outlined, does the minister agree that Mr Lockhart should lobby his colleagues in the Treasury to deliver a fair settlement for Scotland?

First let me say that I am entirely relaxed about Mr Lockhart fighting with me. I appreciate Ms Tweed’s concern for me, but I will be able to cope with that—there is no need to worry.

However, she makes a fair point. It re-emphasises the point that I just made about the real-terms reduction in spending leeway; this Government has issued a comparison to last year. I would be delighted if Mr Lockhart would make representations on that to his colleagues in the Treasury, but I do not hold my breath.

I can assure the minister—although I know that he is also having these conversations with the principals of our colleges across Scotland—that colleges across the land are facing cuts in the number of staff that they can have as a result of the budgets that have been put in place this year. They have also received letters from the Scottish Funding Council asking them to do the same job that they did last year, on all the same metrics, with less money.

First, will he give assurances that the regular clawback processes will not be put in place by the SFC if targets are not met, given that budgets have been cut? Also, can he speak to the SFC to ensure that there is a realistic conversation with colleges about what they can deliver given the budget that he has presented them with?

Mr Marra is correct that I speak with the colleges regularly. I am not suggesting for a moment that there are not tough decisions for college principals.

However, he asks for increased flexibilities for colleges, and those have already been built in this year by the SFC. For example, there is a 2 per cent tolerance threshold for core credit targets. Colleges can claim additional credits in instances where personal learning support plans are in place to address the loss of learning that was caused by the pandemic. Colleges will also be offered additional discretion in delivering short courses to people who have been adversely affected by the pandemic. We are building in additional flexibility.

I also meet with Colleges Scotland and the SFC on a regular basis. If we can go further, I will be delighted to do so.

Can the minister say how Scotland’s college sector is faring compared with England’s? We are following successive Labour, coalition and Tory Governments. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that the cuts to education spending in England over the last decade are

“effectively without precedent in post-war UK history”.

Does the minister also share my surprise that Mr Lockhart seeks more money for the college sector, when this year our resource budget has been cut by the UK Tory Government by 5.2 per cent and our capital budget by 9.7 per cent?

I cannot say that I am too surprised by Mr Lockhart’s stance. It is entirely consistent with that of the Conservatives in all debates, in that they deny the reality of the real-terms cut being delivered to this Government’s budget by their Government in London.

I can say that of course it is difficult to offer direct comparisons between cost centres. However, since 2008-09 over 700,000 full-time college students have successfully completed their courses here in Scotland. Despite the pandemic, nearly 85 per cent of college leavers in 2019-20 moved on to positive destinations. That is a real story of success for Scotland’s colleges.

A final supplementary is from Stephen Kerr.

Will the minister undertake to speak to the principal of Forth Valley College before he makes any more public statements about why what Dean Lockhart describes is happening?

I am happy to confirm that I speak with the principal on a regular basis.


University Funding (International Students)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to review and address any university funding gap, in light of reports of increasing numbers of international students being offered places, compared with Scottish-domiciled applicants. (S6O-01172)

International students and students from other parts of the United Kingdom are not eligible to access the funded places that have been protected for eligible Scottish and European Union students.

For 2022-23, we are providing over £1.1 billion to our universities to support their continued financial sustainability, overcome the challenges of Covid-19 pandemic and strengthen our economic recovery, including by supporting our young people to gain the skills and knowledge that they need to be successful.

Over the past couple of months, I have been contacted by several constituents who have been rejected from university courses despite having exceptional grades. They tell me that the feedback that they are getting is that it is due to a lack of funded places.

In one instance, a constituent from a local high school informed me that she had achieved six As and one B in her national 5 exams and in fifth year four As and one B. She was currently completing another two highers, as well as modules in law and mental health. She was also the school captain. Despite that, she found herself rejected for law at the universities of Strathclyde, Dundee and Edinburgh, and declined for law and business at the University of Edinburgh also.

Fortunately—there is good news—she did get another placement in the end, but there are similar stories. My concern is the message that such rejections of high-achieving students can send to other pupils in deprived areas, such as Coatbridge. I welcome the recent report from the commissioner for fair access saying that Scotland is setting the pace in the UK and that we are way ahead of the other nations when it comes to students from deprived areas getting into university, which the First Minister referred to earlier.

Ask your question, please, Mr MacGregor.

What more does the minister think that universities can do to further widen that access and ensure that all our young people have an equal chance?

I am glad that, despite the challenges, Mr MacGregor’s constituent has got a place at university. Our institutions are highly regarded, and the selection process for places in the most sought-after courses can be extremely competitive.

To go back to Mr MacGregor’s original question, I should say that there should be no sense that Scottish students are being pushed out by others. In 2020-21, the number of Scottish students was at 37,520, which was 10 per cent up on the figure two years earlier. According to data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service covering 2020-21, of the total number of students who got a place at a Scottish university, 73.6 per cent were Scottish-domiciled students, which was up by nearly 2 per cent from two years before.

On the very important point about widening access, I highlight the recent report from the Scottish Funding Council on that, which shows that, in 2020-21, 16.7 per cent of Scottish full-time first degree entrants to Scottish universities were from the 20 per cent most deprived areas. That is hitting our target. Of course, yesterday’s report from the commissioner for fair access noted that

“Scotland continues to set the pace in terms of fair access to higher education among the UK nations.”

We are running ahead of time, and I am keen to get in all the supplementary questions and the final question, but the questions and answers will need to be brief.

With Universities Scotland highlighting funding cuts due to the spending review, can the minister guarantee that the current student numbers cap will be lifted further, allowing more Scottish students the university places that they deserve?

The member talks about a cap on places. Of course, we have to lay out a budget and, in doing so, we have to have a number of places at university—that is the reality. If, heaven forfend, the members on the Conservative benches were in government, they would have to do the same.

I did not hear from the member any word of welcome for the fact that we had a 10 per cent increase in the number of Scottish-domiciled students in a two-year period. Of course, those students are attending universities in Scotland without having to pay fees, unlike students elsewhere in the United Kingdom, who have to pay up to £27,750 for the privilege of attending university.

With regard to international students, what is the status of Ukrainian students who are here as refugees and who wish to continue their study in Ukraine remotely but who are not being granted home status, unlike other Ukrainian students who take places at our universities?

That question is probably on the back of an email similar to one that I have received. I take that issue seriously. We have put in place an international students hardship fund so that students who are already studying here can benefit from that. However, I am aware of the cohort that the member is talking about, and we are looking at that issue actively.


Sexual Consent (Education of Young People)

To ask the Scottish Government what work it is doing to ensure that young people are educated on the issue of sexual consent. (S6O-01173)

Relationships, sexual health and parenthood education is an important part of the school curriculum that enables pupils to build respectful, responsible and confident relationships as they grow older. It is for schools to decide how to deliver RSHP education, based on the needs of the pupils in their classrooms.

Learning should be presented in an objective, balanced and sensitive manner within a framework of sound values and an awareness of the law. A wide range of teaching resources are available to support delivery of RSHP education, including a resource on key messages on healthy relationships and consent.

We know that many men who commit sexual crimes first do so at a young age. Does the cabinet secretary agree that that indicates that early intervention and education on what constitutes consent at a young age are required to challenge the normality of young women and girls experiencing rape and sexual assault?

We absolutely have to tackle the underlying issues and attitudes in our society that, unfortunately, perpetuate the behaviour that Emma Roddick talked about. Our curriculum in Scottish education covers those aged three to 18, but learning about consent and healthy relationships commonly takes place in the broad general education phase. Within that, Education Scotland produces experiences and outcomes on relationships, sexual health and parenthood education that provide clear and concise statements for pupils’ learning progression at each level of the curriculum. The right education is provided to children according to the stage of their learning. That, of course, includes discussions on respect, boundaries and consent. The Government expects schools to deliver an inclusive and supportive learning environment for their pupils, so that pupils right across Scotland receive high-quality relationships, sexual health and parenthood education.