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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 01 December 2020

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Valuing the Third Sector, Mental Health Support for Young People, Decision Time, Carers (Support After Bereavement)


Topical Question Time

School Christmas Holidays

To ask the Scottish Government what consideration it is giving to lengthening the school Christmas holidays, in light of Covid-19 concerns. (S5T-02555)

Ministers are currently seeking the views of clinicians, public health advisers, the advisory sub-group on education and children’s issues, local authority partners and other key stakeholders regarding options around the Christmas period. Ministers are aware that there is a range of views, and no final decisions have been made.

I appreciate that it is a decision that must be consulted on, but we are in December now, and parents, teachers and headteachers need to know. When will we hear?

I plan to come to a decision at the earliest possible opportunity. We embarked on and have been engaged in consultation over the course of the past 10 days or so. I discussed the issue with the education recovery group last week, and there have been further discussions with other stakeholders. I will come to a conclusion at the earliest possible opportunity.

Perhaps the Deputy First Minister could show some of his working. Could he explain to us, for example, the purpose of an extension such as the one that he is considering? Is he considering additional holidays or a period of remote learning or blended learning? Will hubs be reinstated for the children of key workers? What will the impact be on the viability of the exam diet?

With the exception of that last point, all those matters are under active consideration in relation to this issue. On the question whether or not the time for which schools are closed during the Christmas period can be extended, either by extending holidays or by putting in place requirements for remote and blended learning, my firm view is that we want to avoid any sense of learning loss among young people as a consequence of an extension of the Christmas holiday period.

There are a couple of arguments that are material, in this. In the pre-Christmas period, some schools will be rising for their Christmas holidays on Friday 18 December, while some will not be rising until Wednesday 23 December. There is some concern in the education system that teachers and headteachers, who are already very tired, might still be dealing with the implications of contact tracing as late as Christmas eve, or perhaps even Christmas day, for notifying outbreaks. There is a wellbeing issue in that for members of staff and everybody else involved.

There will, inevitably, be a degree more social interaction within household settings around the Christmas period, following the announcements that were made last week. The question, therefore, is whether it is advisable to delay the return of schools in order to avoid recirculation of the virus.

Those are some of the dilemmas that we are wrestling with, and there is no easy way through them, and no universal view across the education system. However, I will come to conclusions at the earliest possible opportunity.

I thank Iain Gray for bringing the matter to the chamber. Schools break in a matter of weeks, so it is astonishing that we are still having this discussion and that parents and teachers do not know what the plans are. If a decision is made to extend the Christmas holidays, that will be of concern to many working families, especially those of our key workers and people on the front line.

Will the cabinet secretary seriously consider proposals to reopen key-worker hubs throughout the Christmas and new year period? Will he guarantee that any teaching days that are lost over the extension will be made up for later in the academic year?

I have already answered the point on teaching days; I do not want to see any loss of teaching days. I answered Mr Gray on that a second ago.

In relation to the hubs that were put in place under previous holiday arrangements, we obviously must carefully consider the fact that members of staff are contractually entitled to a period of leave at Christmas time. To reinstitute hubs for the entirety of the Christmas holidays would require that members of staff who are entitled to holidays do not get them at that time.

Many practical issues must be wrestled with, and I have discussed the matter with local authority partners. We will, of course, come to conclusions at the earliest opportunity.

Those who pushed for increased flexibility and a relaxation of the regulations over Christmas must appreciate that something needs to compensate for what will, inevitably, cause an increased spread of infections during that period.

If Parliament is to scrutinise effectively whatever decision is made, we need all the evidence to be available to us.

I accept that we are talking about remote learning, rather than an extended holiday, but is the closure of schools earlier before Christmas, as well as a potential extension into January, being considered? Most critically, will modelling of any of the potential options be published for Parliament to scrutinise them effectively?

I think that I answered one part of Mr Greer’s question in my response to Mr Gray. For some schools, we are looking at the possibility of closing earlier than planned, before Christmas. Mr Greer will appreciate that there is variation in the school holiday dates around the country. In a large number of local authority areas, schools rise for the holidays on 18 December, but in many other areas they continue into the following week.

On publication of information, I will be happy to publish a statement that explains the basis of the decision that we end up taking. As I said in my answer to Mr Gray, the decision will be informed by the views and evidence that are produced by clinicians and public health advisers—as I listen carefully to all the thinking that they provide on issues of such sensitivity.

Even before further changes to term dates, this year was anything but normal. Every pupil and class is experiencing a different level of disruption—some have had to self-isolate multiple times, while others have not missed a minute of school. As we approach the Christmas break, will the cabinet secretary accept that pupils cannot walk into exam halls next year with an equal shot at success? Will he end the uncertainty, announce that the higher and advanced higher exams will not go ahead and establish a credible alternative that will be ready for when pupils and teachers return in the new year?

As Beatrice Wishart will be aware, I am actively considering those issues. The latest evidence that I have indicates that about 75 per cent of secondary 4 to S6 pupils have experienced no interruption to their learning—they have not had to self-isolate or been affected by Covid in that respect—which raises questions. Continuity of learning can be provided for young people and I would expect that to be the case should there be any disruption.

I am acutely focused on the issue of equity that Beatrice Wishart raises. It is material to my decision making on highers and advanced highers, because I have to be satisfied that every young person, no matter their experience of Covid, has access to the full opportunities for learning and teaching, and is therefore able to position themselves in the best place to perform in any exam diet in the spring. The issue of equity is central to my decision making on the higher and advanced higher diet.

I am gathering evidence on the subject, and I appreciate the necessity for early decision making on the question. Equally, I hope that Parliament appreciates that I have to be able to consider a sufficient volume of evidence in order to come to an evidence-based conclusion.

Clare Adamson was due to join us remotely, but there are technical issues. Unfortunately, it does not look as though we will be able to get to her question.

Burntisland Fabrications Ltd

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its involvement with BiFab, following reported comments from the company’s owner that ministers’ statements had been “inaccurate or untruthful”. (S5T-02565)

It is not for the Scottish Government to speak for JV Driver, which is the majority shareholder in BiFab. The situation at BiFab is a culmination of a number of issues, the main one being the unwillingness of the parent company and majority shareholder, JV Driver, to provide working capital investment or guarantees for the company.

As a minority shareholder, we have been exhaustive in our consideration of the options that are available to us to financially support BiFab. As requested, we have worked collaboratively with the United Kingdom Government to explore what investment was possible in terms of working capital and guarantees, but we have not identified a legally compliant way to support the business.

Speaking this morning to the Parliament’s Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee, DF Barnes’s president confirmed again that the deal that was struck in 2018 made the Scottish Government the main financier of BiFab and that the company offered to make the Scottish Government the majority shareholder of BiFab at no additional cost, but that was turned down. Was the Scottish Government aware of that financing commitment when it agreed the deal with DF Barnes? Did it understand the need for guarantees to secure contracts? Why did it turn down the opportunity to become the majority shareholder some time ago?

There are a number of very important points in that question. Clearly, one of the original issues with BiFab was concerns around the Beatrice contract. Indeed, the Scottish Government took on the main responsibility for financing that contract. We then converted our loan into equity to support the newly acquired BiFab acquisition by JV Driver. The business plan for the original agreement had a number of factors, including a commitment from JV Driver to provide working capital investment and guarantees, and to use its parent company for acquisition of bonds and assurances. That answers the point about the original aspects of the agreement.

The second point is about shares and whether the transfer of shares would have provided an opportunity for legally compliant investment. On a number of occasions, we have examined and exhausted many different ways of providing investment for the company, including state ownership, which would obviously mean the transfer of shares to the Scottish Government. Even that would not allow us to invest further in the company. The idea that somehow that would have provided the Scottish Government with more flexibility to invest further capital in the company is not the case.

On 17 April 2018, the then Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work, Keith Brown, told the chamber:

“we are confident that BiFab has a bright future”.

He also said that the

“agreement gives the workforce, the company and the Government the best possible chance of securing a vibrant future for the yards.”—[Official Report, 17 April 2018; c 80, 72.]

It is understandable that the workforce and communities in Fife and Lewis feel bitterly let down by the most recent betrayal by both Governments. The GMB union has said that there is a clear lack of political will when it comes to creating jobs in the renewables supply chain. How does the Scottish Government intend to rebuild confidence? What will it do to secure the much-needed jobs at the BiFab yards in Methil, Burntisland and Arnish?

I would say to the workforce that we want to make sure that there will be jobs for them but that has to be built on a firm foundation, with a company that is prepared to provide the working capital and investment and, importantly—as we know from contracts for renewables—the assurances that are needed.

The political will is absolutely there. I am personally committed. When you look at the statements that have been made previously, you can certainly see that there were initial contracts that could have been assured. Indeed, even as recently as this time last year, there was a prospect of Seagreen and Neart na Gaoithe contracts.

In my first answer to Mark Ruskell, I talked about the combination of factors. Obviously, the delay with a number of contracts, including Seagreen and NnG, compounded the cash-flow issues for the company, which is why, back in April, discussions took place to extend the working capital provided by the Scottish Government to £15 million, which was secured in May.

On where we go from here, we need to make sure that changes are made to procurement. The UK Government is consulting on the contract for difference, which is its responsibility. I have talked previously about how we cannot allow that to be a race to the bottom, in which we can be undercut by cheap labour from other countries.

I also have agreement from the UK Government to establish a working group. My view is that the trade unions should be part of that and that one of its terms of reference should be to look at the supply chain, not just across Fife and in Arnish but in other areas, to make sure that the opportunities are there for blade work and other aspects of renewables.

There are opportunities, and we want to secure them, but everybody has to step up to the mark. That includes the companies that are doing the procuring, on which the powers still lie with the UK Government.

I have already raised all those issues with the UK Government in relation to establishing the working group. We must have jobs in renewables. I am committed to making sure that we can do that and I will make sure that we use every part of that partnership, including working with the trade unions, to achieve it.

Since 2017, the majority shareholder, JV Driver, has failed to make any investment in the company, despite robust support and investment in excess of £50 million by the Scottish Government. Does the cabinet secretary agree that a failure of JV Driver to provide any working capital investment or guarantees for the company has proved a major obstacle in securing a bright future for BiFab, and that it should step aside to make way for someone who is willing to invest in the company?

Decisions on the future of the business, including its strategy, operations and management, are for the board of directors. Clearly, however, what we want for the yard and the workforce is a way forward to ensure that the required investment and working capital can be delivered.

I have some sympathy with the points about investment. Our perspective is that the majority shareholder would provide for some of that, particularly for working capital. Some of the issues, particularly over the past few months, have been to do with the precarious nature of the cash flow. Our concern is that decisions on further Scottish Government investment, when it came to assurances, had to be made when there were obviously severe concerns about the working capital cash-flow investment position of the company.

I am conscious that quite a few members wished to ask a supplementary question, but that session took a bit longer than I had planned. A debate is coming up tomorrow, if members wish to ask further questions.