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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 02 February 2022 [Draft]

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Prevention of Homelessness Duties, Scottish Income Tax Rate Resolution 2022-23, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Storm Arwen (Response in Stirling) and Resilience Planning


Portfolio Question Time

Covid-19 Recovery and Parliamentary Business

Good afternoon. I remind members of the Covid-related measures that are in place and that face coverings should be worn when moving around the chamber and the Holyrood campus.

The first item of business is portfolio questions on Covid-19 recovery and parliamentary business. If a member wishes to request a supplementary question, they should press their request-to-speak button or type R in the chat function during the relevant question.

Covid-19 Recovery (West Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government how its policies across Government will support people living in the West Scotland region to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. (S6O-00692)

The Covid recovery strategy sets out an ambitious plan for Scotland’s recovery that is focused on creating a fairer future, particularly for people who have been most affected during the pandemic. Our plan for recovery includes supporting the recovery of our public services to ensure that they meet the needs of people across Scotland. For example, our national health service recovery plan is backed by over £1 billion of investment.

We are also focusing on creating good green jobs and fair work to support our recovery. Regional economic partnerships are central to achieving that. The West Scotland region benefits from a range of regional economic partnerships and deals, including the Glasgow city region deal, the Ayrshire growth deal and the Argyll and Bute rural growth deal. Those will see transformational investment in projects to support long-term, sustainable and inclusive growth as we recover from the pandemic.

As the cabinet secretary knows, the west of Scotland has some of the worst poverty and deprivation in Scotland and the United Kingdom. The pandemic has taken away hope and opportunities, particularly for young people. What can the Scottish Government do to bring high-quality apprenticeships, particularly to those in some of the most-deprived areas?

I agree with the analysis and focus of the Covid recovery plan that Katy Clark has put forward. At the heart of the Covid recovery strategy is the tackling of endemic poverty, particularly child poverty. During the pandemic, those issues became worse, and the people who were suffering prior to the pandemic suffered more during it. Therefore, they must be the focus of our attention after the pandemic.

I assure Katy Clark that the heart of our strategy is about supporting young people to achieve good outcomes. One of the best outcomes that they can achieve is an apprenticeship, so we are supporting a range of different companies and organisations, and we are working through Skills Development Scotland, to ensure that apprenticeships are available in all localities in Scotland, particularly in areas of deprivation.

I recognise that some young people who have experienced poverty might require additional support to gain access to some of those opportunities. Support will be available through ventures such as MCR Pathways, on mentoring, and others that can support young people to achieve their potential.

This morning, I was delighted to attend the official opening in Largs of a new 122-home council housing development, which is backed by a £7.3 million grant from the Scottish Government. Does the cabinet secretary agree that constructing new council housing helps to drive economic recovery in the west of Scotland and that the £68 million that was granted to North Ayrshire Council over the past five years alone, with more than £81 million to be granted over the next five years, is in sharp contrast to the sum of precisely zero that was provided by the Labour-Liberal Democrat Executive during its entire eight years in office?

I agree with Kenneth Gibson that the construction of affordable housing in the local authority sector is an essential part of our approach to recovery. Since 2007, the Government has demonstrated a commitment to that agenda, with more than 105,000 affordable homes having been delivered in that period, of which more than 73,000 were for social rent and nearly 17,000 were council homes.

The Government is committed to delivering 110,000 affordable homes by 2032, of which 70 per cent will be available for social rent and 10 per cent will be in our remote rural and island communities. Those commitments are part of an ambitious investment package of around £18 billion that will create 15,000 jobs each year, some of which will be in the sectors that Katy Clark has just asked me about.

Many small and medium-sized enterprises in the West Scotland region are experiencing severe skills shortages, which is partly due to a lack of capacity to oversee and fund training and apprenticeships. The Scottish Government claims success on its reskilling initiatives, yet the number of modern apprenticeships in East Dunbartonshire and West Dunbartonshire dropped by almost half from 2019-20 to 2020-21. Why has the Government decided to cut college funding at a time when reskilling is so important to the recovery from the pandemic?

First of all, I think that it would be helpful if I put on the record that the number of modern apprenticeships fell in the years that Pam Gosal mentioned because of the pandemic and the fact that the country was in lockdown. It was very difficult to enable those opportunities to be taken up in that context.

Of course, over the preceding four years, we had seen steady, incremental growth in modern apprenticeship numbers. The Government would have achieved the target of 30,000 modern apprenticeships for the financial year 2020-21 had it not been for the pandemic. We had reached more than 29,000 apprenticeships in the previous year.

That explains the situation. However, the Government is committed to sustained investment in the sector because—Pam Gosal’s point to me is a fair one—SMEs need access to a reliable stream of new entrants, with appropriate skills, and that is very much the focus of the apprenticeship programme. We are taking that forward with Skills Development Scotland and the college sector, which do superb work in making sure that every young person is able to fulfil their potential. That is our objective.

Question 2 has been withdrawn.

Covid-19 Strategic Framework (Consultation with COSLA and Local Authorities)

To ask the Scottish Government what consultation it will undertake with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and individual local authorities on the Covid-19 strategic framework that is currently being developed. (S6O-00694)

The strategic framework is the means by which we set out our overall approach to the Covid-19 response. It explains what we are doing and why.

The update that the First Minister announced in Parliament will be published in the coming weeks. That first update will set out the detail of our approach to managing the virus in the medium to long term, as the virus starts to exist at more manageable and consistent levels.

We will engage with COSLA, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers and individual local authorities on the development of the strategic framework in advance of its publication to Parliament.

The cabinet secretary will know that local authorities have played and will continue to play a vital part in our recovery from the pandemic. How often will the guidance be formally reviewed, and what will the process be for doing so?

I will make two points in response to that question. First, we have worked very closely with local authorities on the formulation of the Covid recovery strategy. Essentially, the strategy has been developed between the Government and local authorities. A programme board, which I co-chair with the president of COSLA, monitors the progress on the plan. I hope that that reassures Mr McLennan and Parliament that the Government is working closely with local authorities in that regard.

Secondly, in the strategic framework, we hope to achieve a document that lasts for a sustained period. We hope to be moving into a period in which the handling of the Covid pandemic is more consistent, so the document will require limited revision. Obviously, however, we will have to keep that point under review, and it will be the subject of updates to Parliament.

Question 4 has not been lodged.

Local Government Elections (Support for Disabled People to Vote in Person)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its plans to support disabled people, including people with a visual impairment, to vote in person during the 2022 local government elections. (S6O-00696)

The Scottish statutory instruments for local government elections support greater inclusion. New measures include spending exemptions so that events are more accessible to disabled voters. We also recently placed a statutory role on the Electoral Commission to report on the accessibility of elections. In the longer term, Scottish Government officials are developing an electronic ballot solution for those with sight loss and exploring how other technology may help.

The minister will be aware of the issues raised by members and by representatives of the Royal National Institute of Blind People Scotland in relation to ensuring that people with a visual impairment can vote independently at all elections, starting with the coming council elections. Will he provide an update on the planning for the commencement of the new technology and on training that will be delivered to local returning officers and key staff?

Technology will be important in overcoming barriers that are faced by the sight loss community. Mr McMillan and I attended an excellent event on audio devices at Forth Valley Sensory Centre in 2021. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, it was not possible to undertake all the in-person trials and training that would have been required to introduce the technology at the upcoming local government elections.

However, we are committed to introducing solutions that enable all voters to vote independently. We will take action to implement solutions as soon as possible by continuing to work in partnership with people with sight loss and the electoral community.

The minister’s predecessor committed to running some pilot schemes at by-elections to see which scheme would work best. Can he update Parliament on whether those pilot schemes have taken place yet and, if not, when they will take place?

The honest answer at this point would be to say that I do not have that information right here and now, but I will endeavour to get it to Mr Balfour. He and I can possibly meet at a later date to discuss the matter.

Covid-19 Certification Scheme

To ask the Scottish Government whether the Covid-19 certification scheme allows people who have received vaccines and boosters in different parts of the United Kingdom to demonstrate that they are fully vaccinated, to meet requirements for travel or visiting events where it is a requirement of entry. (S6O-00697)

Yes, that is the case. Our Covid-19 certification scheme allows people who have been fully vaccinated elsewhere in the United Kingdom to show either their NHS Covid pass or Northern Ireland Covid certificate for entry to events or travel from Scotland. If someone has received one of their coronavirus vaccinations outwith Scotland, they can upload official proof of vaccination from that country to their Scottish vaccination record through NHS Inform. That will allow individuals to receive a combined fully vaccinated status on Scotland’s Covid status app to show for travel and domestic purposes.

The Deputy First Minister will be aware that I raised the same issue with him on 12 January. If someone goes to the NHS Inform website, it tells them how to log a vaccination that they got in England, which is by contacting the venue where they got the jab and putting in their Scottish passcode. If that does not work, they are to phone the helpline.

However, it does not give information about Wales or Northern Ireland. Can the Deputy First Minister confirm that a four-nations approach is being taken and that what he has just suggested will work for my constituents who, as it happens, had their vaccinations in Northern Ireland or Wales? That is still not what the NHS Inform website actually says.

If Sarah Boyack would like to drop me a note with the details of that particular case, I will have it specifically looked into. The logic of my answer is that, if people have had vaccinations in other parts of the United Kingdom, they can have that confirmed on their Covid status app in Scotland.

The NHS Inform system should enable that to be uploaded. If that is creating a difficulty in those circumstances, I will have it explored and remedied at the earliest possible opportunity. If Sarah Boyack will be so good as to give me that information, I will pursue that.

Will people who have received both vaccinations abroad be able have them verified on the Scottish Covid status app, as they can in England?

I think that the only caveat that I need to put into my answer to that is that it will be subject to the nature and approval of the vaccine that the individual has had. Providing that the vaccine has been approved by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, I do not see there being an issue with that.

This does still seem to be a problem. My constituent had one vaccination in Wales and another in Scotland. Because Wales does not provide a QR code for a single dose, he is still classed as unvaccinated for travel. He has followed the Scottish Government guidance. He has filled in the form. I have been in touch with the directorate, which said that he should fill in the form again, which he has already done. He is at his wits’ end. What can the cabinet secretary advise that he do?

Again, the best thing that I can suggest is that Mr Rennie drops me a note with all the details, and I will have it looked at immediately. The logic of Mr Rennie’s point is that the gentleman concerned has had two vaccinations, which should be enough to satisfy the requirements for certification through the Covid status app. If Mr Rennie would be good enough to send me a note with the details, I will have the matter addressed and remedied.

Volunteers such as me who took part in the Novavax vaccine trial still do not have the correct vaccination status displayed on the app. Volunteers who have been boosted are showed as having only one vaccination rather than three. Will the Scottish Government look at that urgently, given that being fully vaccinated now means having three vaccinations? At present, volunteers are being disadvantaged.

First, I express my thanks to Mr Lumsden and people like him who have volunteered for such programmes. Frankly, we would not be where we are today without their generosity of spirit in doing that. It is therefore imperative that individuals who have made that commitment should be properly certificated for this purpose. I give Mr Lumsden the commitment that I will seek information on the issue and resolve it as quickly as possible.

Face Coverings (Places of Worship)

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of the lifting of some Covid-19 restrictions, whether it will provide an update on when it anticipates the requirement to wear face coverings in places of worship will be lifted. (S6O-00698)

Face coverings remain an important measure in reducing the spread of Covid-19, and they are required in most indoor public settings. However, an exemption from wearing a face covering applies for those who are leading an act of worship, and for performers. The exemption applies if the person is separated from other people by a screen or maintains a distance of at least 1m from other people.

We understand that many people are keen to see restrictions regarding face coverings removed entirely in places of worship, and we continue to engage closely with faith and belief organisations on the issue, most recently on 26 January. We are required by law to regularly review all protective measures that are currently in place, and our most recent review concluded that the regulations on face coverings remain proportionate. We will continue to review that regularly and have been clear that protective measures in places of worship, as in other settings, will not be in place for any longer than is necessary.

I think that churches and others would totally accept that they should not be given any privileged position. However, given that many sectors, not least schools, are arguing that the restrictions should be lifted for them and people should not have to wear masks, I would like reassurance from the Deputy First Minister that churches and places of worship will not be forgotten about.

I give Mr Mason that assurance. I express my warm thanks to those in our faith communities who have been assiduous in applying the necessary restrictions that we have had in place and who, as a result, have enabled members of the public to participate in public worship, which I acknowledge to be immensely important for many people in our society.

I assure Mr Mason of our determination to continue to engage with faith and belief organisations. I give the assurance that we will not keep the restrictions in place for any longer than we judge to be appropriate and necessary for the continued suppression of Covid.

Individuals attending places of worship are often seated in rows and facing in one direction, and are very often socially distanced from one another. Should we not soon be getting to the point where it becomes an issue of personal responsibility and people can choose to wear face masks in such settings rather than being required in law to do so? That is particularly the case given that we know that, in some cases, having to wear a face mask discourages people from attending places of worship.

I certainly hope that that last point is not the case. My answer to the question might help to address some of those issues. I want members of the public who wish to take part in public worship to feel confident about doing so, which brings me to Mr Fraser’s first point. The matter cannot really be left to individual choice, because we are trying to create an environment in which it is safe for people who wish to take part in public worship to do so. As I said in my answer to Mr Mason, I acknowledge that to be a significant commitment of individuals in our society. I assure Mr Fraser that these issues are looked at carefully and that we engage closely with the faith communities.

The faith communities have been marvellous at working with us to apply the regulations in places of worship around the country. I thank them warmly for doing so and assure them that the restrictions will not be in place for any longer than is necessary.

Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill

To ask the Scottish Government how measures in the Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill will support the Covid recovery strategy. (S6O-00699)

The bill supports the Covid recovery strategy by embedding reforms in Scotland’s public services that, though necessitated by the pandemic, have delivered improvements for people who use public services. It also addresses systemic inequalities that have been made worse by Covid.

The bill maintains the possibility of remote registration of deaths and stillbirths and gives licensing boards the flexibility to hold remote hearings. It extends provisions that allow virtual attendance at court or tribunal hearings. The option to communicate digitally might help people with limited mobility who cannot travel or who encounter difficulties in doing so. The bill also provides additional protection for debtors with unsustainable debt and maintains provisions that have supported tenants and prevented evictions.

Will the cabinet secretary confirm that, as every part of society and the economy has had to transform rapidly in the light of Covid, some measures—such as those on new digital legal transactions—may need a permanent statutory footing that will enable such widely welcomed improvements to be maintained as part of the Covid recovery? Ensuring resilience and readiness for any future pandemic, severe variant or emergency will be part of every country’s response in the Covid recovery.

The bill that is before Parliament aims to do two things. It aims to embed necessary and practical steps that have been appropriate to sustain public services in the pandemic and to make them permanent when the case for that is arguable.

The bill is designed to update the statute book so that we can respond quickly to any development of the pandemic that could be acute and threatening to public health. The bill contains the appropriate safeguards and caveats to ensure that such measures are used only in exceptional circumstances. It is designed to equip Scotland with the necessary legislation to take into account the experience from the pandemic of dealing with an emergency situation and with practical issues and consequences that arose from the implications of our decisions.

Net Zero, Energy and Transport

The next set of portfolio questions is on net zero, energy and transport. Any member who wishes to request a supplementary question should press their request-to-speak button or indicate so by entering R in the chat function during the relevant question.

Strategic Transport Projects Review 2 (Consultation Responses)

To ask the Scottish Government what level of response there has been to the public consultation on STPR2. (S6O-00700)

As of 9 am, there had been 82 completed responses to the public consultation on STPR2. I encourage everyone with an interest in how we invest in transport infrastructure to get involved in the consultation. I am aware that every member will have received details of the consultation, and I encourage members to share them with their constituents. The consultation is open for 12 weeks, with a closing date of midnight on Friday 15 April.

I was pleased to see how the Scottish Government’s strategic transport projects review 2 will benefit people and communities in my constituency. I understand that STPR2 relates to national projects and programmes and not to rail enhancement programmes, so potential initiatives such as the reopening of disused railway lines in Renfrewshire and Inverclyde have not made the final list of recommendations, but such transport projects would bring significant local benefit. How might such projects be taken forward? What role can the Scottish Government play in supporting that activity?

The recommendations on rail that are set out in STPR2 focus on the decarbonisation of the remaining diesel network, measures to increase the amount of rail freight and improving connectivity between our seven cities. However, there remains a pathway for regional and local rail projects to come forward, which is subject to a strong business case being developed and to suitable funding being available. A recent example comes from the project to reopen the Levenmouth rail line.

In addition, the Clyde metro recommendations represent a multibillion-pound investment that, when completed, could better connect more than 1.5 million people to employment, education and health services in the Glasgow city region, including those who live in the member’s constituency.

The response to STPR2 in the north-east has been one of disbelief, disappointment and dismay. Despite the cabinet secretary’s weasel words, STPR2 ducks out of dualling the line at Usan, dispenses with the promise of a 20-minute reduction in journey times to the central belt and fails to provide new stations at Cove and Newtonhill. Crucially, there is nothing in STPR2 about the re-laying of rail to Ellon, Peterhead and Fraserburgh.

I ask the cabinet secretary a straight question: will the Government re-lay any rail lines north of Dyce during the period of STPR2—yes or no?

I will try to be constructive on those matters for Mr Kerr. The focus of STPR2 is national strategic projects. It sets out the national picture that it will take with regard to strategic transport investments. As I mentioned, local and regional projects, including those in the north-east to which the member referred, can pursue a different pathway, subject to their business cases, and that has happened in the past. That pathway would not sit within STPR2 because those projects are not national strategic projects—

Yes or no?

That is a no, then.

Excuse me, cabinet secretary. Will you resume your seat for a second? I do not want all this second guessing of the answer. The question has been put to the cabinet secretary. Let us listen to his answer.

That is why a process is in place for local and regional projects to be considered outwith STPR2, which is a national strategic project programme. The projects that the member mentioned have a route through to be considered in the way that has been the case in the past.

The cabinet secretary is aware that considerable sums and efforts have been expended to develop business cases for the reopening of railway stations in communities such as Beattock, Eastriggs and Thornhill. Those cases were submitted to Transport Scotland three years ago, but it refused to consider them. It said that the projects would be a matter for STPR2. It is therefore astonishing that new railway stations do not feature in the recommendations. The cabinet secretary seems to suggest that they were never going to feature in them. Why do they not feature in STPR2? Why were communities left in limbo for three years, waiting for STPR2, when no intention existed of those cases being taken forward as part of it?

The characterisation that the member presents is not correct. In these past years, a detailed programme of work took place that considered a whole range of potential interventions across the country that would be seen as national strategic projects. Some of those interventions were ruled out on the basis that they were not viewed as being national strategic projects. However, the schemes to which the member refers still have a route through to be considered, subject to the development and presentation of a robust business case for local and regional projects, in the way that I mentioned to Mr Kerr.

In light of what the minister has said, the sooner we get to firmer proposals, the better. I am keen to advance the proposal for a train station at Newburgh, which is strategically important for Newburgh as it is disconnected from many other parts of Fife and Tayside. A vibrant community campaign is backing the bid. Will STPR2 make the construction of that train station more likely?

I am in danger in repeating myself. Mr Rennie must have heard my previous answers. A process is in place for local and regional projects, just as it was for the St Andrews railway station development and for Levenmouth. Those projects were not in STPR1. They went through the normal process for local and regional developments. Robust business cases were put together and the projects were considered appropriate for investment.

Levenmouth represents a £70 million investment in not just several new train stations, but the reopening of a line. There is a clear history to how such regional and local projects are taken through. They do not sit within STPR2, but a route exists for such projects, including for the station that the member mentioned in his constituency.

The cabinet secretary will be aware of the excellent Campaign for North East Rail and its ambition to connect Peterhead and Fraserburgh to the rail network. Those are currently the two largest towns in the United Kingdom without rail links. I heard the cabinet secretary’s answers to the previous questions and I understand that those towns are not explicitly included in STPR2. Does he agree that such links are regionally strategic and that they will be invaluable for the economic transformation of the north-east? Will he support plans to develop those links?

I recognise the member’s interest in those developments. It is important that any rail connectivity project that is proposed, be it in the north-east or any other part of Scotland, has a robust and detailed business case to support what would be a significant financial investment. There is a process for considering proposals of that nature. I would certainly encourage any member, the stakeholders and those who have been involved in the Campaign for North East Rail to make use of the existing process for considering local and regional transport investments of this nature. Given that it has been successful in a number of other parts of the country in recent years, I see no reason why it cannot also be effective for those in the north-east of Scotland.

Clyde Metro Project

2. Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what oversight role it plans to take over the Clyde metro project, in order to support its timely delivery. (S6O-00701)

The delivery of the Clyde metro will be transformational for the city of Glasgow and communities, towns and cities in the Clyde area. It is of national significance and is one of this Government’s strategic priorities, as set out in the strategic transport projects review 2 recommendations, which are currently out for public consultation.

Following the consultation, one of the early decisions that will be needed will be on the delivery model for the medium to longer term. Senior officials representing organisations that are likely to become involved in the delivery process are already working together to explore suitable governance and oversight.

A programme steering group will meet for the first time this month, chaired by Transport Scotland’s chief executive.

Last September, Glasgow City Council leader Susan Aitken confirmed that the metro was part of the plan to decarbonise Glasgow, and indicated that it was a multibillion pound project that would be partly funded by private investment. Last month, we learned from the publication of the STPR2 that there is no final design for the metro, no date is attached to its completion and there is no known funding. When will we see genuine progress on this matter? Is there a timetable for the first phase, which I understand is for the air link?

Having lived in Glasgow for a number of years, I recognise some of the challenges with connectivity in the city. As the member will know, Glasgow has one of the lowest levels of car ownership in the United Kingdom and some of the highest levels of pollution. It is therefore really important that we get this right.

STPR2 contains a number of recommendations on mass transport projects, and, as the member knows, this project could be an opportunity for transformational change, particularly for poorer communities.

The member asked a specific question about costings, and the early estimated cost of the metro project is somewhere between £11 billion and £16 billion, based on the outturn cost of other comparable projects, with a timescale of 25 to 35 years to completion. The project will need longer-term political leadership and a new approach to delivery, but, as I mentioned in my initial answer, that delivery model has not yet been agreed. I cannot therefore give her a definitive answer to the timescale question, but she will recognise from my answer to her original question that the chief executive of Transport Scotland will meet the programme steering group this month, and I hope that we will get the timescale that the member seeks at that meeting.

I listened to the transport minister’s earlier answer. When I look at the map of the Clyde metro, it is all rather vague. There is a kind of random squiggle coming out to East Kilbride, with a loop around the town, and I am not sure where that is or what the exact route is. When will we get some level of detail on all this?

Graham Simpson is asking about the specifics of something that has yet to be decided. However, I want to make clear that the metro project is an umbrella project that looks at the level of public transport provision to serve and improve connectivity in the Glasgow city region. It will look at a vast range of transport modes that exist under the term “metro” in the GCR context including, of course, subway, tram way, tram, train and bus rapid transit.

I do not want to prejudge the outcome of the initial meeting of the programme steering group, which will take place later this month, in relation to the specifics that Graham Simpson asked about. However, as I mentioned in my answer to Pauline McNeill, I hope that we will get further clarity and detail on some of those specifics at that meeting later this month.

Given that some 56 per cent of households in Glasgow do not have access to a car and rely on walking, cycling and public transport, does the Government hope that a Clyde metro scheme will reduce inequalities and help people get to work and education more easily?

I am pleased to say that I share John Mason’s optimism. The Clyde metro will create the opportunity to connect people, businesses and the communities of Glasgow and the surrounding areas like never before. Most important, it will connect poorly served areas, which tend to be in the more deprived parts of the city. That prospect is significant and exciting for us as a nation, for our major cities and, most important, for all the people who live in Glasgow who might feel disconnected from public transport opportunities.

By developing a thorough and accurate picture of social and economic needs across the region, we will ensure that the phasing of the project is designed in such a way as to maximise its positive impacts on reducing inequalities and improving people’s lives.

Safety and Resilience of Roads and Bridges (North-east Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to improve the safety and resilience of roads and bridges in the north-east. (S6O-00702)

The trunk road network in Scotland is subject to an annual road safety review, and measures are prioritised where they are expected to contribute to the Scottish Government’s 2030 casualty reduction targets.

Our network is made up of route corridors that are of strategic importance to the economic stability and growth and social wellbeing of Scotland. We work closely with local groups and stakeholders in engaging with local resilience partnerships, key businesses and interest groups.

The minister might wish to see an ambitious strategic transport projects review, but my constituents will be far keener to see existing issues resolved.

Transport Scotland has said that it will review the dangerous Huntly Tesco A96 junction by August 2022. Can the minister confirm that that date will be met? Will she visit the site to understand the dangers that my constituents face on that rural road network?

Alexander Burnett will know that it is the responsibility of individual local authorities to manage their own budgets when it comes to allocating the total financial resources that are available to them on the basis of local need. However, I note that the north-east has benefited from roads investment in recent years. In addition, there has been £745 million of investment in the Aberdeen western peripheral route.

Alexander Burnett asked a specific question about a road in Huntly. I would be more than happy to meet him on that issue and to seek an update from officials regarding the outcome of the report to which he referred.

The Scottish Government has a strong record of investing in roads in the north-east. The city of Aberdeen bypass, which opened fully to traffic in February 2019, was the longest length of road under construction in the United Kingdom at the time, and the programme for government commits to the development of a programme of wider enhanced public transport improvements in the north-east.

Will the minister set out some of those improvements and outline the differences that they will make to the lives of people in the north-east?

One of the recommendations of STPR2 is on rapid transit for the Aberdeen city region. We awarded £12 million from our bus partnership fund to enable work to begin on the development of the rapid transit system and on bus priority measures on key transport corridors.

On rail, we have committed £200 million to deliver improvements between Aberdeen and the central belt by 2026. We will also look at opportunities to improve the reliability and efficiency of the Aberdeen to Inverness rail corridor, alongside our commitment to decarbonise the rail network. That will build on the work that has been undertaken in recent years, including the opening of a new station at Kintore.

Taken together, those improvements will improve region-wide connectivity and increase capacity for freight and passengers.

Bus Service Improvements (West of Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to improve bus services in the west of Scotland. (S6O-00703)

The Transport (Scotland) Act 2019 provides local transport authorities with enhanced options to improve bus services according to their local needs. Following consultation last year to inform the development of the necessary secondary legislation and guidance, we will publish the analysis report in due course.

The new community bus fund will support local transport authorities to explore the full range of options that is set out in the 2019 act. We are also committed to providing more than £500 million of investment in bus priority infrastructure to tackle the negative effects of congestion on bus services.

Today, I met council-owned Lothian Buses, which provides the best bus services in Scotland and achieves some of the highest levels of passenger satisfaction. It costs just £1.80 for a single ticket for a 16-mile journey from one end of Edinburgh to the other. Yet, in greater Glasgow and the west, a journey of just two miles can cost £2.50. Does the minister think that that is fair and acceptable? If not, will she support councils in the west to use new transport legislation powers to take control of bus networks so that we can make bus travel in the greater Glasgow and west area as affordable as it is in Edinburgh?

To respond to the specifics of Mr Bibby’s question, the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019 provides an enhanced suite of options for local transport authorities, including those in the west, to improve bus services according to local needs. Local transport authorities asked for flexible options so that they can put in place what works for their areas. I note some of the differences between different parts of the country that Mr Bibby highlighted. The act provides for viable options for partnership working and franchising, replacing underused powers in the Transport (Scotland) Act 2001. It also provides wider powers for local transport authorities to run their own buses, sitting alongside their existing ability to subsidise services. The act is not restrictive in relation to the way that local transport authorities can provide their own bus services, be that the running of services directly or through an arms-length company.

Clare Adamson joins us remotely.

This week, around 930,000 young people across Scotland became able to benefit from free bus travel. The scheme will have a positive impact on young people in my constituency, particularly those travelling to college or university. In welcoming the minister to her post, I ask her to provide an update on the number of applications that have been received and the number of cards that have been issued.

Obviously, we are looking at the west of Scotland here, minister.

Ms Adamson asked a specific question with regard to an update on the under-22 scheme. I seek the Presiding Officer’s guidance on whether I am permitted to respond.

Please go ahead; however, if there is anything that you can say about the west of Scotland in particular, that would be most helpful, because that responds to the question.

By close of business on 1 February 2022, the improvement service reported that 123,038 applications had been submitted via online platforms. Applications can take up to 10 working days to process and not all of them have yet been approved. However, as Clare Adamson will be aware, the scheme has been open for applications from all eligible young people since 10 January. We had the formal launch of the scheme on Monday, when I visited young people in the city of Glasgow in the west of the country.

Paul Sweeney joins us remotely.

In Glasgow, the recently published transport plan described how the effort to set up a franchising scheme would rely on untested legislation, cost the local transport authority £4 million to £15 million to build a business case and take at least seven years to implement. I was rather disappointed to hear that lack of ambition from Glasgow City Council officers. Would the minister like to engage with Glasgow City Council and other stakeholders, including parliamentarians in the city, to ensure that we can achieve a franchising system for greater Glasgow without those rather unambitious timescales?

I am more than happy to meet Paul Sweeney and to engage with wider partners on the point. However, I refer to some of the points that I made in response to Neil Bibby’s question with regard to powers that already exist in the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019.

Nuclear Energy Sector (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met representatives from the nuclear energy sector, and what was discussed. (S6O-00704)

Together with Scottish Government officials, I met representatives of EDF Energy Nuclear Generation and EDF Energy Renewables on Thursday 16 December 2021. Various issues were discussed, including the end of generation at Hunterston B, the move into defuelling the continued operation of Torness and the place of nuclear in the just transition. Further discussions might take place in future, as required.

Hunterston B has shown what nuclear power can provide for Scotland—clean and reliable power to keep the lights on and prices low. As our nation is in the midst of an energy crisis, will the cabinet secretary confirm that the Scottish Government will invite official representation from the nuclear sector to be part of the just transition energy commission?

When Martin Whitfield makes reference to the just transition energy commission, I presume that he is referring to the energy just transition programme, which will go alongside our energy strategy and will be a wider engagement. If members of the nuclear energy sector wish to engage with us in helping to shape the just transition report that will go alongside our energy strategy, I am more than happy to give the reassurance that they will have an opportunity to feed into that particular process.

Island Communities (Connectivity)

To ask the Scottish Government how it supports island communities with their connectivity to the mainland or other islands. (S6O-00705)

The Scottish Government supports the transport connectivity of our island communities through the procurement and management of the Clyde and Hebrides and northern isles ferry services contracts. In addition, funding to local authorities operating their own ferries was increased by £7.7 million to £19.2 million for the current financial year.

The Scottish Government also provides significant support to air services in the Highlands and Islands, including the air discount scheme, and it continues to directly subsidise the air services from Glasgow to Campbeltown, Tiree and Barra, to enable their continued operation.

I look forward to meeting the member soon, when we are due to discuss further matters relating to the island communities that she represents.

I thank the minister for that answer and look forward to meeting her soon.

Making sure that people are proactively engaging in the process is crucial to shaping how island communities are able to travel to the mainland and other islands—that has been raised with me this week by Jura community council and the Isle of Jura Development Trust. How is the Scottish Government encouraging community organisations to fully involve themselves in consultation processes?

Jenny Minto is absolutely correct. We need to ensure that communities’ views on ferry services input into decision making. I know that there are a number of existing opportunities for feedback and consultation on services, including twice-yearly consultations by CalMac Ferries on timetable changes and regular engagement by Transport Scotland with local elected members, including through twice-yearly ferry stakeholder groups and local ferry committees.

Transport Scotland is also working with CalMac and the ferries community board to see how the current timetable consultation process could be improved, and I will be more than happy to discuss that with Jenni Minto, whom I was due to meet recently. If she has views on how we might do that better for island communities in her constituency, I would be more than happy to listen to those and take on board actions in that regard.

Including free ferry travel in the under-22 bus travel scheme would level the travel playing field for young islanders and their counterparts on mainland Scotland. If the emphasis is to encourage more young people to use buses, what consideration is the Scottish Government giving to connecting and joining up island communities with fixed links?

Beatrice Wishart raises a valid point. This week was extremely important in terms of the roll-out of the provision for under-22s. However, I recognise that she represents an islands community and therefore her constituency will have different challenges from others.

There are no plans at this time to widen the scheme, but I will take away her points and the issues that she has raised, because I recognise that bus provision in her community might be a wee bit different from bus provision in other parts of the country.

What support is available to Orkney Islands Council and Shetland Islands Council, which provide interisland ferry services? Their fleet is ageing, and the cost of replacing ferries is beyond their reach.

We have supported local authority ferries and we will continue to engage with councils, including Orkney and Shetland. The Scottish Government has been clear that although responsibility for internal ferries sits wholly with local authorities, we recognise the funding pressure that that can bring. I note that Shetland Islands Council has bid to the levelling up fund to replace ferry infrastructure for which it is responsible, and the Scottish Government is committed to continuing to engage on those important issues.

Net Zero Targets (Financial Assistance for Local Authorities)

To ask the Scottish Government what additional financial assistance it plans to provide to help local authorities meet their net zero targets. (S6O-00706)

The Scottish Government works with local authorities to support and fund climate action across a number of key areas, including, for example, the £2 billion learning estate investment programme, which is delivering digitally enabled, low-carbon schools and campuses; the £200 million green growth accelerator programme, which is supporting investment in low-carbon infrastructure; and funding, which we announced only last week, to unlock £60 million for local authorities to invest in electric vehicle infrastructure over the next four years.

Some councils, including the Scottish National Party-led Glasgow City Council, have stated that it will cost billions of pounds to bring housing in line with expectations. It appears that the Scottish Government wants councils to get the private sector to help foot the bill, but in smaller and more rural council areas, where massive industry and service sectors are less prevalent, how is that possible?

In South Ayrshire, retrofitting plans alone could cost as much as £575 million. I ask again: what will the Scottish Government do, actively, to help to ease the burden, beyond the low level of support that has been offered?

We recently published our heat in buildings strategy, which sets out a range of actions that we will take to support decarbonisation of the council and social housing sectors. Record investment of £1.8 billion over this parliamentary session will assist that programme of work.

However, as we set out at the time, the level of investment that will be required to achieve that outcome far exceeds what the public purse is able to provide. That is why we have set up the green heat finance task force, which is looking at a range of options for levering in additional private sector investment to support what is a hugely ambitious programme of decarbonising 1 million domestic premises and 50,000 non-domestic premises between now and 2030.

That hugely ambitious programme will require both public and private finance, and the measures that will be put in place in the context of the strategy and the task force will help to address the type of issue that the member highlighted.

Net Zero (Implications of Hybrid Working)

To ask the Scottish Government what implications the announcement of a hybrid model of working could have for Scotland’s net zero ambitions. (S6O-00707)

Any significant shift in how we work could have an impact on emissions. Research commissioned by the Scottish Government’s centre of expertise on climate change shows that the emissions outcome of home working at an individual level depends on the person’s home type and commuting behaviour. In most instances, replacing a long car commute with working from home will reduce emissions, but that also depends on the heating system at home.

The lowest-emissions future is one in which our homes, workplaces and transport networks are low or zero emission. We are committed to supporting the transition that is needed to achieve that outcome.

Hybrid working during the pandemic forced a necessary shift in working practices in the public and private sectors. The shift triggered flexible thinking about the challenges and opportunities that hybrid working presents. Given that so many emissions are wrapped up in the daily work commute, will the cabinet secretary give detail on the steps that the Scottish Government plans to take to monitor, quantify and evaluate the potential of hybrid working to contribute to this Parliament’s bold and ambitious net zero targets?

From dialogue that I have had with a range of businesses, including at national level, there is no doubt in my mind that many businesses will continue to utilise a hybrid working model beyond the pandemic, given that they have had to put in place structures and arrangements to enable them to continue to operate during the pandemic.

At this stage, the exact nature of the impact that that will have on overall climate change targets is still unclear. Potentially, there will be a positive impact, but a number of mitigating factors could influence that. At this stage, we do not understand the full details, largely because we have experienced unique events over the past two years and we need to build up data and understanding in that regard.

Another impact that we need to understand is the significant impact on our public transport system of a significant change in travel patterns, given that the system is geared up to move a large number of people around on any given day. When those numbers drop back, there is a significant financial impact on the fare box.

As a result of the change to hybrid working and as people continue to operate that model, a number of factors will impact on our public transport system and our climate change targets. We will have to identify those factors and model their impact, so that we can get a better understanding of the overall impact on our climate change targets.

That concludes portfolio questions. There will be a short pause before we move on to the next item of business.