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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 2, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 02 March 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Scottish Apprenticeship Week 2017, Child Protection Improvement Programme, Scottish Patient Safety Programme, Criminal Finances Bill, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


General Question Time

Attainment Gap

I remind members that I am the parliamentary liaison officer to the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills.

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it has taken to close the attainment gap. (S5O-00720)

The Scottish Government has committed £750 million during this parliamentary session through the attainment Scotland fund to provide targeted support for children, schools and communities to close the poverty-related attainment gap. In 2017-18, £120 million will be allocated directly to headteachers on the basis of the numbers of pupils in primary 1 to secondary 3 who are known to be eligible and registered for free school meals, at a rate of £1,200 per pupil. That funding, as well as a number of national programmes, is on top of the existing £50 million attainment Scotland funding that will continue to provide targeted support to specific Scottish attainment challenge authorities and schools in the communities with high levels of deprivation.

Across the water in the glorious kingdom of Fife, the Labour Party proposes to cut 100 front-line teaching staff from our schools. In Leven, it plans to cut speech and language provision in Mountfleurie primary school. In 2015, it closed Tanshall primary school in Glenrothes. Does the minister agree that it is high time that the Labour Party got its act together when it comes to closing the attainment gap and put kids before its cuts?

I certainly revel in the glory of Fife with Jenny Gilruth.

Those are decisions for Fife Council, but we seek to make further progress on closing the attainment gap, are working with local authorities towards that end through the developing the young workforce strategy and have provided around £11 million to Fife through the innovation fund, the schools programme and the pupil equity fund. That shows that we are up for the challenge of reducing the attainment gap in Fife, as we are throughout the country. However, achieving that requires all our partners to work with us towards that end.

At yesterday’s Education and Skills Committee meeting, a number of additional support for learning professionals raised serious concerns that made it clear that there are weaknesses in the teacher training for additional support. What is the Scottish Government doing to address those concerns?

We are investing in a range of activities to support the upskilling and training of professional teachers throughout the country. There has been a significant increase in the intake this year. We will continue to invest in that and, if any concerns are brought to our attention about specific matters, it is incumbent on us to consider them. We will, of course, consider any evidence that the Education and Skills Committee gathers.

Suicide Prevention Strategy (Evaluation)

To ask the Scottish Government what evaluation has been made of its previous suicide prevention strategy, and how this will underpin its updated mental health strategy. (S5O-00721)

No formal evaluation has been made of the “Suicide Prevention Strategy 2013-2016”. However, over the past three years, the Scottish Government’s suicide prevention strategy implementation and monitoring group met on seven occasions and advised on progress on the various commitments. Adjustments have been made as appropriate to actions arising from the commitments in light of that discussion and advice.

The engagement process for the mental health strategy included discussion about suicide prevention. We have also undertaken some engagement with key stakeholders from the national health service, the third sector and academia to help to inform us about which areas we should focus on in a future suicide prevention strategy or action plan. Therefore, we have evidence from those processes about stakeholders’ views on suicide prevention. Later in 2017, we will undertake some wider engagement to allow stakeholders the opportunity to feed in their views.

Members will be well aware that suicide still represents the leading cause of death among men under the age of 50 in Scotland. Nearly 15 years has passed since the choose life initiative was launched. That resulted in an 18 per cent reduction in suicides in the country, which shows that policy focus can have a positive impact on the matter. To that end, will the minister indicate when the most recent suicide prevention strategy, which expired last year, will be replaced and what measures a new strategy may contain?

As I indicated in my answer, we continue to monitor the effectiveness of the current suicide prevention strategy, which continues until a new one is published. As the member is aware, at the moment we are concentrating on the mental health strategy, but we will review the current suicide prevention strategy in due course.

From 2011 to 2015, the rates of suicide in Ayrshire and Arran, Grampian and Tayside were significantly lower than the rates in the rest of Scotland, while the rates in Lothian and Highland were significantly higher, even when deprivation and other factors are considered. Have the reasons for those differences been examined in order to learn lessons that can help to reduce suicide rates elsewhere in Scotland?

As Kenneth Gibson knows, suicide is a very complex phenomenon with a wide range of determinants. Any assessment of difference between rates of suicide in local areas must be treated with caution, because the absolute numbers in local areas are much smaller than national numbers.

We are investing in research such as the Scottish suicide information database, which is helping to cast new light on factors behind individual deaths by suicide. That includes consideration of suicide trends in NHS board areas. That research will inform our engagement later this year on future priorities for suicide prevention.

As the member knows, the provision of services is a local responsibility and individual NHS boards work with their partners to tailor local suicide prevention work to fit locally assessed needs and circumstances.

There is clearly a link between deprivation and suicide rates. What work is the Government doing to tackle inequality in Scotland, which has been rising in the last 10 years?

Secondly, following on from Alex Cole-Hamilton’s question, I note that males are three times as likely to commit suicide but only half as likely to access mental health services. How can we get the message across to the most deprived communities and to the hardest-to-reach males that they should access those vital services?

Across the Government, we are doing all we can to reduce inequality and that is certainly a key factor in the health directorates. On the point about hard-to-reach people, that is why it is important that the provision of services is a local responsibility so that local partners can work to fit the needs of their local communities.

The minister has recognised that there is a need to refresh local suicide prevention action around the country. Will she update Parliament on how local suicide prevention schemes will be supported as the national strategy is developed?

As the member has indicated, I am aware that MSPs have had a number of emails on that issue—as have I—and that will be taken into account when we develop the next strategy.

Retail Banking (Branch Networks)

To ask the Scottish Government what recent discussions it has had with retail banks regarding branch networks. (S5O-00722)

Scottish Government ministers regularly meet the retail banks to discuss a wide range of issues, including branch closures. I appreciate Mr Gray’s concerns over the closures that were recently announced in his constituency, which will have an undoubted impact on communities there. Those concerns are shared by many as banks continue to change the way in which they choose to deliver services to their customers, albeit that we also recognise that the shift to digital banking is having a significant impact on footfall in some branches.

Although we recognise that declining branch activity may be a driver for banks today, we urge banks to avoid acting precipitately and to see branch closures as a last resort. Before closing a branch, we urge banks to consider consultation with local stakeholders and communities to explore all practical options to retain branches where viable to do so, and to consider alternatives to reflect the needs of many customers who have a strong preference or need for face-to-face contact.

Prestonpans in my constituency recently lost its last bank—a branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland—and now nearby Tranent is down to one bank with the TSB closing its branch there. I appreciate that, as the minister made clear, those decisions are not in the control of the Government, but I ask him and his colleagues to take every opportunity to go a little further than he did in his answer and impress on those banks that they have benefited from a great deal of public money and that the public deserve better in return.

I recognise Iain Gray’s point. It is a point that has been made to me by a number of members and I know that Iain Gray, Kenneth Gibson and other members have all been proactive on the issue and have raised similar issues in their constituencies. I give Iain Gray and other members from across the chamber who have expressed an interest in the area an undertaking that I will work with the banks to identify what we can do to tackle the challenge. We must recognise that fundamental changes are taking place in banking but I hope that we can find ways to preserve branches where possible and to work with the United Kingdom Government where reserved powers intervene to make sure that we have the right environment to protect branches. I take the point entirely that banks that have a significant public stake in them, which is controlled by the UK Government, could do more to protect the branch network.

Oil and Gas Industry (Redundancy Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to assist people in the oil and gas industry who are facing redundancy. (S5O-00723)

The Scottish Government has done everything it can to minimise redundancies in the oil and gas industry. Where this has not been possible, we have supported affected employees through our initiative for responding to redundancy situations, partnership action for continuing employment—PACE. It has focused significant efforts in the north-east, with four large events attended by around 3,500 people. A fifth employee support event will take place in Aberdeen on 29 March.

Furthermore, the energy jobs task force has brought together key partners to maximise employment opportunities; and we have set up a £12 million transition training fund that has, so far, enabled more than 1,600 former oil and gas workers to receive support for training. Training programmes procured by the fund will look to create 755 employment opportunities through two procurement rounds. The fund is also supporting 12 individuals to retrain as teachers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects in the north-east.

I recently found evidence that many companies are not even considering giving interviews to applicants who have come from an oil and gas background. Since I revealed that evidence publicly, I have been inundated with emails from constituents and workers all over Scotland who say that they have felt discriminated against. I contacted the United Kingdom employment secretary about the issue more than a month ago and I have had no response to my request for guidance and action. Will the minister outline the Scottish Government’s response to the issue, which is affecting many skilled people who genuinely wish to move into other sectors for employment?

It is deeply concerning to hear reports that people are being discriminated against and it is absolutely right that Gillian Martin has raised the issue with UK Government ministers who have responsibility in this area. While not entirely surprised, I am disappointed that Gillian Martin has not yet received a response to her correspondence, but if she is willing to get permission from those who provided the information to share it with me, I undertake to take up the issue with my colleague Jamie Hepburn and UK ministers.

The Scottish Government is fully committed to promoting fair work practices throughout Scotland and we will continue to lobby the UK Government for the full set of powers around employment law so that, regardless of party, the Scottish Parliament can adopt a more proactive role in addressing the kind of issues that Gillian Martin has raised on behalf of her constituents.

The minister will know that John McDonald, the interim chief executive of the Offshore Petroleum Industry Training Organisation, gave evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee last week in Aberdeen about the Scottish Government’s approach to the apprenticeship levy in relation to the oil and gas industry. He raised concerns that the unintended consequence of the Scottish Government’s approach might be to incentivise oil companies to conduct training in England rather than in Scotland because of the different ways in which the levy will apply. Given his evidence and his call for a rethink by the Scottish Government, will the minister give an undertaking to carry out such a rethink?

First, I put on record our concern—which I know my colleague Jamie Hepburn has mentioned in the chamber a number of times—that we were not consulted on the imposition of the apprenticeship levy, which clearly has a big impact on major employers in Scotland. There was a fundamental failure on the part of the UK Government to engage with the Scottish Government on its responsibilities.

I take on board the member’s serious point that we have to make sure that we have sufficient training support for oil and gas employers. I know that there has been good engagement between Mr Hepburn and OPITO, but I will continue to have dialogue myself with OPITO and Mr Hepburn on how we can ensure that the training packages that are available to the oil and gas industry are as good as they can be.

I also point out that the funding that came with the apprenticeship levy announcement merely replaced funding in the block grant. We are concerned that it is not new funding, which shows again why it was such a failure on the part of the UK Government not to consult the Scottish Government in the first place.

Rural Communities (Empowerment)

To ask the Scottish Government how it works with rural community councils to develop community empowerment, devolve powers locally and help reform local government. (S5O-00724)

It must always be remembered that the statutory oversight of and responsibility for community councils rests with local authorities. That said, the Government welcomes the approach of those community councils that already undertake a wide range of roles and activities for the benefit of their communities. In recent times, the Government has been working with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Improvement Service and Edinburgh Napier University to support community councils in their role across Scotland.

In addition, the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 will create opportunities for communities and community councils to enter into dialogue with public authorities about local issues and local services on their terms and, through our community choices programme, we have been supporting communities and community councils in the Highlands and across Scotland to be able to make decisions on local spending priorities.

In my constituency of Caithness, Sutherland and Ross, many communities feel that they are on the periphery of decision making by councils. Although progress has been made on participatory budgeting, many rural communities in my constituency feel that their voices are not being heard by those on the council. Does the Scottish Government have any plans to allow communities to take a more proactive approach in future?

I am pleased that Gail Ross referred to the use of participatory budgeting, which has the potential to make a real and positive contribution to communities’ involvement in decision making. I point the chamber to Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s ambitious programme in Barra and the Uists, where a £500,000 budget was up for decision making by the communities there. I would like other authorities to follow suit.

We set out our intentions to decentralise local authority functions and budgets, to democratise oversight to local communities and to review local government in our programme for government, and we continue to work with local government to develop the scope and timing of that review.

Fishing Industry (Negotiations on Leaving the European Union)

To ask the Scottish Government what the impact would be on the fishing industry of the United Kingdom Government considering it a medium priority in its negotiations on leaving the European Union, as suggested in a recently leaked memo. (S5O-00725)

I have asked UK ministers repeatedly for an assurance that Scotland’s fishing industry will not be expendable, as it was in the 1970s. UK ministers have failed to give such a guarantee. The memo, if it is genuine, serves only to increase my concern that, once again, the UK Government is not taking seriously the importance of the fishing industry to Scotland. It also indicates why it is vital that Scotland be fully involved in all negotiations relating to Scotland’s future in Europe. Scottish waters are among the most valuable in Europe and, with the right management and policy approach to support both offshore and onshore interests, they can help us to build growth in Scotland’s rural and coastal communities.

In the light of the silence from the UK secretary of state, I suspect that I know the answer to the question that I am about to ask, which is whether any guarantees have been given about the funding levels that support fishing communities and which are an important part of the support that flows from the current arrangements with the EU.

Last week, I and my colleagues met Andrea Leadsom and her fellow UK ministers. I cannot say what she said at that meeting, because of the rules under which it was conducted, but I am able to state that I asked for an assurance that the pre-referendum pledges made by Andrea Leadsom and George Eustice that EU funding of £500 million a year to our rural economy would be matched. Those were the pre-referendum pledges.

Since the referendum, there has been radio silence. I specifically asked Andrea Leadsom to confirm that she would meet her unequivocal pledge that the UK Government would match the funding of the EU. We are still waiting for a reply, but we shall fight and fight again for a fair deal for Scotland’s fishermen. We will fight to prevent them from being sold out now as they were in the 1970s, when it emerged after the referendum that an internal Whitehall memo said that the Conservatives regarded the Scottish fishing interests as “expendable”.

In light of the cabinet secretary’s previous answer, is the Scottish Government in favour of Scotland remaining a part of the common fisheries policy?

In our alternative paper, “Scotland’s Place in Europe”, we put forward how we would be able to come out of the common fisheries policy. [Interruption.] It is in our paper. I suggest that Conservative members read it; they might educate themselves.

Sadly, despite Mr Russell’s frequent meetings with Mr Davis, the UK Government has said precisely nothing whatsoever in response to that very serious paper, which sets out proposals that would protect Scotland’s interests. The paper makes clear the importance of single-market membership to our economy as well as the point that we would not be happy to remain constrained by the CFP, or see it as an acceptable option, outside the EU.