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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, March 2, 2022

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

Agenda: Business Motion, Portfolio Question Time, United Kingdom Internal Market, Local Government Finance (Scotland) Order 2022 [Draft], United Kingdom Shared Prosperity Fund, National Strategy for Economic Transformation, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Epilepsy and Employment


Portfolio Question Time

Covid-19 Vaccination Certification Scheme

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on how it is ensuring that the Covid-19 certification scheme records the vaccination status of people who received their vaccine outwith Scotland. (S6O-00788)

There is an established process for individuals who have received their coronavirus vaccinations outside Scotland to upload official proof of their vaccination in an approved country to their Scottish vaccination record, through NHS Inform. That will allow those who have been vaccinated in the UK or internationally to receive a combined “fully vaccinated” status. We are currently working to increase the number of countries to which that applies.

Is the cabinet secretary aware of the issue of people who have received the first and second doses of vaccine elsewhere being unable to update their Scottish vaccination record to reflect that? People have been advised by the vaccination helpline that their record could be updated by their general practitioner, but have subsequently been told that their GP only receives vaccination records and cannot update them. The booster that they received in Scotland is showing on the vaccination app as their first dose.

It seems to be a bit of a guddle, so can the cabinet secretary look into the matter and ensure that any glitches in how vaccination status is recorded and updated can be resolved and communicated clearly to the public?

In a previous portfolio question, I answered questions from Mr Rennie and Ms Boyack on fairly similar territory—difficulties in updating vaccination status. I invited both Mr Rennie and Ms Boyack to advise me of the details, and we are working on the particular issues. If Mr Ruskell would like to do that as well, I will happily try to address the issues.

In a programme of such scale, there will undoubtedly be individual cases in which there are issues. The vaccination certification process has worked very well for the overwhelming majority—a huge number—of cases, but I accept that there might well be individual cases in which there are issues. If Mr Ruskell would like to give me more details, I will happily pursue those issues.

From Monday, the Covid certification scheme ceased to be a legal requirement, but the app remains available to support businesses that wish to implement a voluntary scheme. Does the cabinet secretary agree that although it is right to lessen restrictions as we cautiously move forward, such voluntary certification schemes are valuable tools in maintaining our vigilance on Covid?

There is a need for us to remain constantly vigilant about Covid. Although we are in a much stronger position today than we were, there are obviously dangers and risks out there for us, given the prevalence of the virus. The strategic framework, which the First Minister set out last Tuesday, sets out the type of baseline measures that we will have to have in place on an on-going basis in order to maintain vigilance. Testing infrastructure will also be required. The helpful suggestion that Siobhian Brown has made is that businesses may decide voluntarily to use the certification scheme. If they wish to do so, the strategic framework encourages them to take that decision.

Last week, the Information Commissioner’s Office said that it warned the Scottish Government and NHS Scotland last year that there were serious privacy problems with the Covid status app, but that not all those problems were fixed before it was launched. On Friday, the ICO’s deputy commissioner said:

“When governments brought in COVID status schemes across the UK last year, it was vital that they were upfront with people about how their information was being used. The Scottish Government and NHS ... Scotland have failed to do this with the NHS Scotland COVID Status app.

We require both bodies to act now to give people clear information about what is happening with their data. If they don’t, we will consider further regulatory action.”

Will the cabinet secretary give us assurance that the Scottish Government is acting as requested by the ICO?

I gave that assurance on the Government’s behalf at the end of last week. It is important to consider the matter in its proper context. The ICO has asked the Government to redraft the privacy notice in order to present the information in a concise, transparent, intelligible and easily accessible form. That is an entirely reasonable request. Mr Lumsden will be familiar with the enormous complexity that exists in relation to the general data protection regulation. It is important that the information is set out clearly and simply, so the Government will do that.

We welcome the engagement with the Information Commissioner’s Office, but there must be acknowledgement that there is a huge amount of complexity involved in wrestling with many of the questions. The Government tries to present the information as clearly and as transparently as possible.

I thank the Deputy First Minister for helping out with my constituent’s case last month. The issue has been resolved, after previous repeated attempts by the constituent to resolve it.

There seems to be a particular communication problem on the issue between Scotland and Wales that does not exist between Scotland and England. Has the Deputy First Minister got to the bottom of the problem, and can he resolve it?

I am breathing a sign of relief because Mr Rennie is able to say that the issue has been resolved. I feared that we would have a rematch of the previous portfolio question time. I am glad that it has been resolved and I am grateful to him for his engagement on the matter.

The information-sharing agreements that are in place with England are more straightforward than those that we have with Wales. We are trying to resolve the issues. There is no difficulty in working our way through them; it is just taking time. I assure Mr Rennie that we are working to resolve the specific issues in relation to the agreements.

Covid-19 Recovery Strategy (Vulnerable People)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on how its Covid recovery strategy is aiming to support the most vulnerable in Scotland’s communities. (S6O-00789)

The Covid recovery strategy is focused on bringing about a fairer future, particularly for the people who have been most affected during the pandemic. Our actions will increase financial security for low-income households, enhance the wellbeing of children and young people, and create good green jobs and fair work.

We are working closely with our partners to deliver that strategy. Alongside the president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, I chair the Covid recovery strategy programme board, which will oversee the ambitious transformation of public services. Further details on the matter are available on the Government’s website.

The pandemic has exacerbated long-standing inequalities, and hardships that are experienced by many people have been brought to the forefront of public consciousness. During the pandemic, demand has drastically increased for support from organisations such as CFINE—Community Food Initiatives North East—which offers assistance to disadvantaged, vulnerable and low-income families. The pandemic has shown what is possible when we work collectively to achieve shared goals. Does the cabinet secretary share my view that we should all resolve to apply the same energy to tackling hunger, poverty and inequality as we have applied to tackling Covid-19?

It is very clear to anyone who looks at the experience of the pandemic that the inequalities that existed prior to Covid were exacerbated during Covid. The Government is determined to address that, which is why tackling inequality, addressing hunger and work to eliminate child poverty lie at the heart of the Government’s Covid recovery strategy.

I very much agree with the point that Audrey Nicoll has advanced and I assure her of the Government’s determination to use the aftermath of Covid and implementation of the Covid recovery strategy to make the maximum impact when it comes to tackling poverty and eliminating it from our society.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that our children and young people have been particularly impacted by the pandemic. Given that problems to do with children and young people’s communication needs have been exacerbated by Covid-19, will the cabinet secretary say how the Scottish Government plans to incorporate into its wider Covid recovery strategy the recommendations in “Equity for All: Children’s Speech and Language Therapy Services in Scotland”?

I am very sympathetic to those issues, because a fundamental point that was clear to me during all my interactions as Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills is that communication difficulties lie at the heart of many of the challenges and issues that are faced by young people who have perhaps been isolated in society or have been unable to fulfil their potential as much as they should have been. Early addressing of communication difficulties is utterly fundamental to the life chances of such individuals, so I am wholly supportive of the point that Carol Mochan has made.

As I said in my answer to Audrey Nicoll, the Covid recovery strategy is designed to tackle fundamental inequalities. We are determined to ensure that equality of access to services that support people to overcome difficulties is anchored at the heart of our strategy.

Covid-19 Recovery Strategy (Ending of Self-isolation)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of any potential impact on Scotland’s Covid recovery strategy due to the United Kingdom Government’s decision to end the legal requirement to self-isolate for people who have tested positive for Covid-19. (S6O-00790)

In Scotland, self-isolation has always been set out in guidance for the general population. It is for the United Kingdom Government to decide how to tackle Covid-19 in England. Currently, the Scottish Government will continue to ask people who test positive for Covid-19 to isolate for the recommended period, and we will continue to make self-isolation support payments available to people who are eligible while isolation remains in population-wide guidance.

We will publish a detailed transition plan for test and protect in March, which will set out our priorities in more detail. As with all Covid interventions, all decisions, including those on the future of test and protect, will be informed by the latest scientific and clinical advice, as well as careful consideration of the four harms.

The Scottish Government has, rightly, plotted its own distinct course in navigating through the pandemic. Does the cabinet secretary share my concern that the end of self-isolation in England from 1 April could undermine the hard work and sacrifices that we have all put in to get us to where we are now?

As I indicated, it is up to the United Kingdom Government to decide on self-isolation policy in England.

My response to Mr Beattie is that we all have to proceed with a great deal of care. The point of self-isolation is to try to break the circulation links of the virus, and if we do not do that effectively when the virus is still a very significant presence in our society, we run the risk of cases increasing and the burdens on our national health service increasing as a consequence.

The Scottish Government intends to proceed by listening to the clinical advice and epidemiological information and taking actions that we think are appropriate for Scotland. The application of guidance to continue with self-isolation and the support arrangements is, in our view, appropriate at this time.

Mr Beattie’s question highlights the fact that there was never a legal requirement in Scotland for people to self-isolate, except in limited cases for international travellers. Nevertheless, people adhered to the rules by exercising personal responsibility. Given that people have demonstrated that they will adhere to guidance, does that not give us a model for a way forward in which we rely on people exercising personal responsibility and we therefore do not need to make draconian emergency powers permanent, as the cabinet secretary proposes to do?

I fear that, on that point, we will go round the houses regularly for the foreseeable future because, fundamentally, the issue comes down to whether our statute book is equipped to deal with all eventualities that come our way. That is the point. That is why we are doing this. On any other day, the Conservatives could be criticising the Government for not taking enough steps. I have heard them do that on countless occasions in the past, during my service in the Parliament.

We are simply preparing the statute book for difficulties that might come our way. I hope that they do not come our way, because we want to avoid them, but if they do, I want us to be prepared and ready for them. That is not an unreasonable thing for even the Conservatives on their most grudging afternoon to come to terms with.

Covid-19 Recovery (Support) (Highlands and Islands)

To ask the Scottish Government what cross-Government strategies have been identified, as part of its work on Covid-19 recovery, to support any communities and businesses in the Highlands and Islands that have not received any or substantial help throughout the pandemic. (S6O-00791)

The Scottish Government is committed to supporting a fair recovery from the pandemic, including for businesses and communities in the Highlands and Islands. Since the start of the pandemic, businesses in Scotland have benefited from £4.5 billion in support from the Scottish Government, and we have engaged extensively with businesses to ensure that our support is effective.

Last week, we announced a new £80 million Covid economic recovery fund that will target support for businesses and communities as we move into a new phase in the pandemic. Subject to parliamentary approval, councils in the Highlands and Islands will receive more than £8 million from the fund and they will have flexibility in determining how best to use the funding to support local businesses and low-income households.

I welcome that flexibility, but the cabinet secretary will be aware that the funding that was made available during the first lockdown left many businesses behind. Despite the time that elapsed, the same funding was issued subsequently. That was extremely frustrating for businesses that received no funding on either occasion, some of which are close to going under. Will the cabinet secretary consider ways in which he can help businesses that have missed out on substantial funding over the piece to start up again, to survive and to go forward in order to help the economy in the Highlands and Islands to recover?

I am very happy to engage on that question. If Rhoda Grant wishes to supply me with further examples or areas where she believes that to be appropriate, I will happily consider them.

The Government designed a host of different business support schemes, some of which applied to a particular sector, such as hospitality. We tried to design them to have as broad a reach as we possibly could, but I accept that some businesses will not have been neatly caught by any of them. That is why we put in place discretionary relief funds for local authorities to do exactly as we envisage with the £80 million fund that the First Minister announced a week past Monday. It is designed to give local authorities the ability to address the issue that Ms Grant puts to me, which is that there might be businesses that have not been reached by discrete funds that could be supported by more general provision.

I will be happy to receive some further information and thoughts from Rhoda Grant on that question, but I also encourage her to point businesses in the direction of local authorities, which have been given substantial discretionary relief funds to try to address exactly the circumstances that she puts to me.

Before we move on to question 5, I ask colleagues to ensure that questions and responses are succinct.

Covid-19 (Programme for Government)

That always seems to happen just before I get up. Thank you, Presiding Officer. It is duly noted.

To ask the Scottish Government what resource impact Covid-19 has had on the timetabling and delivery of legislation and other proposals set out in its programme for government. (S6O-00792)

It used to happen to me as well when Christine Grahame was in the chair.

The programme for government, which was published in September 2021, sets out the Government’s priority of leading Scotland safely through the pandemic. All programme for government commitments are monitored, including delivery of the legislative programme. That ensures that any delivery risks are highlighted early, and mitigations are put in place.

The enduring pandemic has, rightly, caused the Government to divert attention and resources from those plans in order to keep people safe and protect the national health service. Will the minister share whether funds have had to be diverted from other budgets to support the efforts to combat Covid-19? If that is the case, what is the ballpark figure, if he can share that with us? Does he share my view that Opposition parties should take cognisance of the scale of the effort and the cost that have been involved in getting us to this stage of the pandemic when asking questions about delays to policies—and, indeed, when asking for additional funding?

As always, I agree with much of what Ms Grahame says. Our spring budget revision last month confirmed that our total Covid-19 allocation since the pandemic began exceeds the United Kingdom Government Covid funding that was received by about £300 million, with the additional amount being made up from our central reserves and reprioritisation.

In discussing the issues that have not had prominence because of Covid and other matters, the business minister will know that the Scottish Conservatives have asked on a weekly basis for a statement about maternity services in Moray. I have also tried to get urgent questions on that. It was in the Scottish National Party’s manifesto to restore a full consultant-led maternity service in Moray. Can we have a statement or will the Scottish Government lead a debate on its response to the independent inquiry into and report on maternity services? We have now had a case of a Moray mum, Alexandra Naylor, giving birth in a lay-by. Can we have time in the chamber to debate this crucial issue so that no more Moray mums have to give birth, or fear giving birth, in a lay-by?

As always, I say to the member that there is a process in place in Parliament that we work within. The member’s business manager comes to the Parliamentary Bureau every week and we negotiate and come to a decision on what will be put forward. Only this week, we said that we would look at that very issue, and I will contact his business manager in the normal manner.

Covid-19 Recovery (Support and Resources)

To ask the Scottish Government what additional support and resources it will provide for its actions across government to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. (S6O-00793)

The Scottish Government recognises the unequal impact that the pandemic has had on our communities, businesses and public services. We are providing significant investment to support recovery, such as the £80 million Covid economic recovery fund that was announced just last week and, of course, the investment of more than £1 billion in the national health service recovery plan.

I take this opportunity to highlight a serious problem that has been encountered by businesses, including a number of gyms, that have missed out on vital funding. Dumfries and Galloway Council advised businesses that, if they had been in receipt of the strategic funding, they would be contacted. That happened in mid-January. However, the deadline for leisure businesses, for example, was 31 January. They literally had only a 10-day period. The council, which has to date an unallocated £1 million left in the funding pot, admits that the turnaround was tight. However, it has been informed by the Scottish Government that it will not be allowed any leeway on the deadline date.

If the businesses received strategic funding and the council is aware of them, they will surely still be entitled to the money, and it is money that they desperately need. Will the cabinet secretary look into that and intervene to ensure that the businesses get the funding allocated to them? It is, after all, not the council’s money or indeed the Scottish Government’s money, but money that has been promised to those businesses.

If Mr Carson would like to send me further details of that example, I will certainly look into it. He will appreciate that there are financial rules that have to be followed and there has to be appropriate scrutiny of grant allocations. With those caveats, I am happy to look at the issue.

I know that a number of local authorities are sitting on unspent allocations of resources for Covid purposes. I encourage them, provided that these are prudential decisions to take, to make sure that the financial support is available to fund recovery in the way that Mr Carson puts to me.

Local Government Elections (Support for Disabled and Partially Sighted People)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it is providing to local authorities to ensure that disabled and partially sighted people are able to participate in the 2022 local government elections. (S6O-00794)

Stuart McMillan asked a similar question last month. I refer Miles Briggs to my answer on the topic, in response to question S6O-00696, which I gave on 2 February 2022.

Returning officers have the statutory responsibility for running local government elections. Under the law, they have to make certain provisions for voters with disabilities and sight loss, including providing tactile voting devices. However, typically, much wider support is offered. I am committed to working in partnership with the community to make improvements in accessibility.

Will local authorities be asked to publicise ahead of the elections the order in which candidates will appear on the ballot paper? Blind and partially sighted people are often looking for that key piece of information, which has not previously been provided.

Given that, at its elections, the Northern Ireland Assembly is providing voter kits, including audio devices, to blind and partially sighted members of the community, what plans does the Scottish Government have to review the position and look at trialling voter kits in Scotland?

On the first question, I went to a recent meeting of the cross-party group on visual impairment, where that issue was brought up. It is an on-going issue and we are willing to look at it, in order to find solutions that will help many of the individuals for whom it is a problem.

With regard to the future and whether we are looking at pilots, as with many other public services, delivery of elections has been a real challenge during the pandemic. I have been very open with colleagues and the stakeholder community that we have not made as much progress as we would have hoped for on the issue. As I set out in my previous answer, progress has been made by the Government and our partners in local government and I intend to drive this agenda forward in the coming months and years.

I thank Miles Briggs for posing the question. The minister referenced the cross-party group on visual impairment meeting last week. I thank him for his engagement with that meeting, as well as with the event that took place last October, at which the secret ballot box proposals were put forward.

Does the minister share my belief that, as a society, we must all do more to support blind and visually impaired voters to allow them to vote in confidence and in person? They deserve to have the right to vote in the way that they want to vote—in person.

Presiding Officer, for the first time, you will hear me say that, despite the fact that I am a boy from Paisley and Mr McMillan is from Greenock, I strongly agree with him. Improving the accessibility of elections, with a particular focus on people with sight loss, is a programme for government commitment.

As Mr McMillan knows, I am in regular contact with the sight-loss community on that vital agenda. Like him, I found the event that we attended at the Forth Valley Sensory Centre last year to be valuable and instructive. The meeting of the cross-party group on visual impairment last week was another good opportunity for me to share and listen to the perspective of the members of that community.

All members, including Mr McMillan, understand that I have a reason for my commitment to accessibility of voting, which is that my wife has a mobility problem. I confirm that I will work as hard as I can to make sure that we make things better.

Local Government Elections (Covid-19 Restrictions)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it anticipates any disruption to the administration of the forthcoming local government elections as a result of Covid-19 restrictions. (S6O-00795)

Returning officers are responsible for running the elections. Preparations take account of guidance from the Electoral Management Board for Scotland and the Electoral Commission, which will reflect the strategic framework. In running the local government elections, returning officers will draw on their experience of delivering last year’s Scottish Parliament election safely and securely.

Councillors from all political parties work extremely long hours and are dedicated to helping their local communities. Although many put their careers on hold to do so, the relative lack of financial protection for local councillors could pose a difficulty in attracting people to take up the role of local councillor, which is the only paid public role with no financial protection or entitlement to redundancy. Does the minister agree that that issue might need to be addressed in order to ensure that we continue to attract people to participate in that vital aspect of our local democracy?

As a former councillor, I am aware of council colleagues who have difficulty when they end up no longer being councillors. I recognise that councillors of all political affiliations work incredibly hard to improve life for people in their communities. In partnership with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Minister for Social Security and Local Government recently announced that an independent review of councillor remuneration will take place as a step towards supporting increased diversity among councillors in Scotland. I will explore whether the issue that Mr Torrance raised can be considered as part of that on-going work.

Parliamentary candidates are entitled to one item of freepost literature to each elector, but candidates in local government are not. Such a measure would ensure that all candidates can get their message out to electors, even if public health restrictions return. Does the minister agree that it is regrettable that that disparity has not been addressed in time for the council elections in May?

That has been an on-going debate—Mr Briggs asked a similar question. We can talk about and debate the issue in the future, but we started to talk about the issue with COSLA and others far too late for the upcoming election. I am willing to talk to people, but we have to be careful about the consequences.

Ministerial Cars (Emissions Reduction)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to reduce emissions produced by its ministerial cars. (S6O-00796)

The Scottish Government is fully committed to the decarbonisation of its vehicle fleet, including vehicles that are used in the Government car service. The GCS fleet is currently made up of 28 vehicles, of which 100 per cent are ultra-low-emission vehicles. The Scottish Government has made a commitment to phase out the need for petrol and diesel cars for the wider public sector fleet by 2025 and that includes the Government car service. To support that, a replacement strategy has been implemented to replace end-of-life vehicles with fully electric alternatives wherever possible.

Sitting in a stationary vehicle with the engine idling can result in a £20 fine, yet most days, ministerial limos can be seen doing just that in the Scottish Parliament car park. Even worse, they are frequently in disabled bays. Will the minister commit to stopping those abuses?

I give the member the assurance that I will raise that matter with the Government car service and get back to him in more detail. I understand his point. He will also recognise that there is a need for a Government car service with all that we do in Government. I take some of the points that the member has made on board. I am not aware of Government cars regularly waiting for long periods in the car park, but I am happy to take those points up with the service directly and will get back to him.

While ministers benefit from Government cars, hard-pressed commuters are facing the prospect of a new tax on going to work. Does the minister agree that the best way to reduce emissions, whether from Government cars or commuters, is to back alternatives to car dependency, such as having buses under public control and a restoration of pre-pandemic rail services?

I assume that the member is referring to the workplace parking levy. Of course, the City of Edinburgh Council would need to arrive at a decision on that matter, because that power is for local authorities. It is then for employers, including the Scottish Government, to decide whether to pass the levy on to their employees.

He makes a point regarding the public control of buses. In Scotland, we have the community bus fund, which helps to support local authorities, and further powers will be coming to local authorities through the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019. With regard to public control of our railways, I am sure that the member will welcome ScotRail coming into public ownership on 1 April.

Free Bus Travel for Under-22s

To ask the Scottish Government how North Lanarkshire Council and other local authorities are supporting the roll-out of free bus travel for under-22s. (S6O-00797)

Like the long-standing older and disabled persons free bus travel scheme, the new young persons free bus travel scheme, which went live on 31 January, is delivered through the national entitlement card.

The Improvement Service is responsible for processing online applications, including through the online portal. Offline applications are handled by local authorities. Many councils have dedicated staff on hand to help applicants who might need particular support with the application process, including care-experienced young people and asylum seekers.

In some council areas, schools are co-ordinating applications on behalf of their pupils and will contact parents or guardians and pupils directly. North Lanarkshire Council is co-ordinating applications via schools for those pupils who are moving to secondary school.

I hope that, like me, the minister is looking forward to her visit to Coatbridge next week, where we will give her a Coatbridge and Chryston welcome.

She will be aware of the high levels of deprivation and low income in my constituency and in the North Lanarkshire area more generally, which mean that many children and young people may not have access to the internet, a passport or a driving licence, and so they need to apply for their entitlement to free bus travel offline.

Does she share my disappointment that it would seem that the Labour-Tory administration in North Lanarkshire is not doing more to enable more of those young people to get their entitlement through council offices and facilities such as libraries, particularly given that they stand to benefit most from accessing the free bus travel scheme?

I share some of Mr MacGregor’s reservations, although I must say that local authorities are really keen to deliver the scheme. I wrote to local authorities—I think that it was a week before the scheme launched—to ensure that those mechanisms were put in place.

The collective efforts of the Scottish Government, the Improvement Service, local authorities, the national entitlement card programme office, Young Scot and bus operators will be crucial. Those organisations are working together to deliver that landmark policy.

I look forward to the welcome that I will receive next week.

I recognise and understand that some people have found the online application process pretty complex and hard to undertake, not least because of the identification requirements. I met the Improvement Service, which manages the online application process, to discuss those issues. It is currently reviewing the process, to make it as straightforward as it can.

However, given the importance of the offline application channels that Mr MacGregor spoke about, particularly for the people he mentioned, who might not have internet access or the required documentation, I wrote to all local authorities on 31 January, as I mentioned. I pointed out in my letter that it is really important that local authorities put in place measures to support the offline application process, as well as make use of the available school option, which can be used to better identify young people who do not have access to the internet and ensure that they are signed up so that they can benefit from the under-22 scheme.

Along with those options, I welcome yesterday’s launch of the Transport Scotland app, which I think is targeted at Young Scot cardholders to enable them to migrate their existing cards over to the new under-22 entitlement. Will the minister say a little bit more about that? How many people might that benefit?

Mr Ruskell is correct to point out that we launched the Transport Scotland pass collect app on Monday. That lets existing cardholders who are aged 16 to 21 download the free bus travel card on to their current card. That will make it easier for up to 140,000 existing cardholders in that age group to start enjoying the benefits of free bus travel.

By close of business on 1 March, the Improvement Service reported that the national entitlement card programme office had dispatched 144,377 NECs or Young Scot NECs with free bus travel. That figure includes over 100,000 applications that were submitted online and just over 40,000 that were made offline.

Bus Usage

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to increase bus usage across the country. (S6O-00798)

The Government is investing more than £500 million during this session for bus priority infrastructure. From April, the network support grant will provide an additional £40 million to support services as demand recovers from Covid. We are implementing the powers in the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019 to help local transport authorities improve services in their areas and we have introduced the community bus fund to support them to do so.

To encourage children and young people to travel sustainably, we recently launched free bus travel for under-22s in Scotland. That complements our continued support for existing free bus travel for disabled people and for over-60s.

I have recently found myself in a position in which I am unable to drive, and I have become much more dependent on public transport. My journey from my home in Kelty to my regional office in Lochgelly took about 10 minutes by car. Now, making that journey by bus—the only public transport that I can use to do that—takes me at least an hour. I have to get two buses. I have to get a day ticket for the return journey, which costs £6.50. Compare that with the fares charged by the publicly owned Lothian Buses, on which I can get from one end of Edinburgh to the other for £1.80, and I can travel all day for a capped fare of £4.50.

How can the Scottish Government address the disparity that exists between different bus companies in different parts of the country? What is stopping the Government from joining trailblazers such as Estonia and Luxembourg and expanding free public transport for everyone?

There are a couple of points to unpack. First, rural provision is a challenge, and I recognise the critical importance of bus services in rural areas in particular. It would be difficult to compare the member’s experience in Fife with the experience of people who live in Edinburgh for example, where provision differs, but I recognise some of the challenges.

However, with regard to his further point on powers for local authorities, we consulted on that during the passage of the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019. We are working again with our local authority partners to help ensure that we can give them the opportunity to better serve their local areas. The community bus fund, which I mentioned in a previous response, will support local transport authorities to improve public transport in their areas. Some £1 million has been allocated to that fund, and we will work with partners on the fund’s design.

On the member’s wider point about affordability, I have mentioned some of our investments related to the under-22 scheme. Additionally, I would point to the fair fares review, which is being undertaken now and will look at transport across all modes. On his wider point about joining up journeys across different modes of transport and their affordability, I recognise that we are in challenging times with regards to the cost of living. I understand that, and I hope very much that the fair fares review will give answers to some of the points that Mr Rowley has raised.

Can the minister detail how Scotland’s young people are benefiting from the free bus travel scheme?

The extension of free bus travel to all under-22s will make public transport more affordable, which will help to improve access to education, leisure and work, while supporting people to adopt sustainable travel behaviours early in their lives.

As we have heard, affordability is a key issue for many young people. Giving that initiative on buses, which form the widest network of public transport provision across the whole of Scotland, will help in delivering our commitment to a just transition.

A student was alarmed to discover that the night buses in Edinburgh are not covered by the under-22 scheme. Given the challenges that young women are facing in the United Kingdom in relation to gender-based violence, and this Government’s commitments on that matter, will the minister consider extending the scheme to night buses?

I hope that Mr Rennie will understand that I will not give him an assurance on that point now, in the chamber, but I will take it away. He might be aware that, during a statement that I gave to the Parliament in the last week of term, before the February recess, I launched our plan to consult on the safety of public transport. That is a much broader issue than looking just at night buses, but I think that Mr Rennie’s point falls into the same area, which I am keen that we explore further, because I recognise that there is a challenge there. I apologise that I cannot give him a direct answer on the provision of the card, but I can undertake that that will be looked at and considered through the consultation. I very much recognise some of the challenges in terms of women’s safety.

A9 (Completion of Dualling)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on when it expects to complete the programme of dualling the remaining sections of the A9 between Perth and Inverness. (S6O-00799)

Determination of the optimal procurement approach for delivery of the remaining sections of the A9 dualling programme is on-going. It is a complex exercise, which is considering a pipeline of work in a form that can be delivered by industry, supports post-Covid economic recovery and minimises disruption to users of this lifeline route. It is expected that the work in progress will complete in the coming weeks to inform decision making on our procurement approach, at which time an update will be provided.

We were originally supposed to have the programme completed by 2025. I appreciate that Covid has got in the way, but I am concerned that we still do not have any definite timescales for completion of the work, given the amount of interest that communities along the A9 have in seeing what is one of Scotland’s most dangerous roads completed.

We also have an issue with owners of properties along the A9 route whose properties are, in effect, blighted at present. Until definitive plans are published for the new route, they do not know whether their properties might be compulsorily purchased. The need for certainty is acute. Can the cabinet secretary be more definitive about when the Parliament will be told when the next deadlines will be set?

I recognise the member’s point. He acknowledged and recognised that Covid-19 has had an impact on the timetabling of the completion of the dualling of the A9. The member will also be aware that the design work for the remaining eight sections is well advanced. The statutory process has commenced for seven of those sections, four of which have already completed made orders. They are already at a very advanced stage in determining the route that the road will take.

Once we have completed the procurement approach exercise that is being undertaken, that will help to inform the development of the finalised timeline for the remaining sections of the road. At that point, we should be in a better position to inform members of the final delivery timescale for the completion of the road.

Ferries (Procurement)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress has been made on the procurement of new ferries. (S6O-00800)

In February 2021, the Scottish Government announced investment of £580 million in ports and vessels as part of our wider five-year infrastructure investment plan. That investment is in addition to the delivery of MV Glen Sannox and hull 802, which are under construction. Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd is currently assessing bids from four shipyards for two new major vessels on the Islay routes, and CMAL is also progressing design work for the small vessel replacement programme, and is considering up to seven vessels for the Clyde and Hebrides routes and for Gourock to Dunoon and Kilcreggan.

In February 2021, Michael Matheson admitted to me that the Scottish Government’s purchase of the existing ferries operating on the northern isles routes had made the target that 30 per cent of public ferries will be low emission by 2032 more stretching. What has the Scottish Government done over the past year to make achieving that target more realistic? Is the minister confident that the target will still be met? Can she confirm that, when the two long-overdue vessels at Ferguson Marine are completed, they will meet the latest standards for low-emission technology?

On Mr Halcro Johnston’s point about vessels 801 and 802, both of those are really important. The latest update from the yard’s turnaround director indicated that the handover of 801 is now planned for summer 2022 and that handover of 802 is planned for summer 2023. Following handover to CalMac Ferries, it is estimated that a further three months will be required for testing, training and familiarisation before the vessel is able to enter service.

The member asked a specific question with regard to emissions. I do not have a note on that in front of me, but I am happy to write to him and give him an update on that in due course.

Does the minister agree that the small vessel replacement programme, which is essential to enhance services to islands such as Cumbrae in my constituency, should be expedited, given the increasing number of breakdowns suffered by older smaller vessels, which impact on lifeline services to some of our most fragile island communities?

Yes, I do. I recognise some of the frustration in our island communities regarding resilience at the moment, with the issues being compounded by poor weather recently. I know that the issue is hugely important for the communities that the member serves.

I am pleased to reiterate what I have just said, which is that progress is being made on the small vessel replacement programme, with design work well under way. I know that Mr Gibson and I are due to meet very soon, and I am sure that we can discuss the issue in further detail at that time.

The state of lifeline ferry services in Scotland is unacceptable and, frankly, islanders have lost faith in the Government’s handling of ferry procurement. Only last week, Cumbrae community council told me that the latest technical faults meant that children missed school, patients missed medical appointments and businesses were unable to open. What will the minister do to upgrade the CalMac fleet to ensure that we have new fit-for-purpose ferries to serve islands such as Cumbrae, because islanders are fed up waiting? Can the minister confirm that she is willing to meet Cumbrae community council to hear about the concerns directly?

I did not catch the first part of Mr Bibby’s question but, on the second part, on Cumbrae community council, I am more than happy to do that. Actually, this morning, I met Angus Campbell, who chairs the ferries community board, and we had a wide-ranging discussion on some of the points that Mr Bibby has mentioned, including of course the resilience of the fleet and contingency plans. Equally, we talked about community engagement, which is where I recognise some of the tensions play out. I think that I will be meeting Mr Bibby tomorrow, and I am more than happy to meet the community council.

Mr Bibby, would you like to put the first part of your question again?

No, it is okay, Presiding Officer. I am satisfied with that response.

Buses (Decarbonisation)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its action to decarbonise buses. (S6O-00801)

On Monday, I announced grant awards worth £62 million to support bus operators to acquire 276 new zero-emission buses and associated charging infrastructure. That means that the Government has now supported the acquisition of 548 zero-emission buses, of which 344 have been or are being built in Scotland. The investment has been well split across the country, and includes investment in the bus fleet in Dundee, which I am sure Mr FitzPatrick will have noticed in his constituency. The most recent funding has included support for several smaller and more rural operators, which is vital for a just transition to net zero and will be the priority for future funding.

Thanks to substantial Scottish Government funding, a dozen brand-new zero-emission “electric emerald” buses have been deployed by Xplore Dundee across the city, including on the number 28 route, which includes Lochee Road—the fourth most polluted street in Scotland—in my constituency. Does the minister agree that the Scottish National Party can be proud of the support that it has provided in driving forward the decarbonisation of buses in Dundee and in delivering clean, green and free public transport for young people in my city?

Absolutely. The work of Dundee City Council is a great example of what can be achieved when the SNP is in charge at both national and local government levels.

The Scottish Government supported the dozen electric buses through the £2 million award to Xplore Dundee in 2021. Under the bus partnership fund, we have awarded the Tayside bus alliance with £586,000 to support appraisal work covering improvements to strategic bus corridors in the region.

On top of that, Dundee City Council is advancing a project to deploy 12 hydrogen buses for operation in the city, with support from the Scottish Government, Scotland’s Hydrogen Accelerator and the Michelin Scotland Innovation Parc. The parc serves as a key hub that supports sustainable zero-emission mobility in Scotland, including the technology and skills that are needed to support a fair and just transition to a net zero economy.

Of the 272 buses that were supported by the forerunner Scottish ultra-low-emission bus scheme, nearly a quarter were imported from a Chinese manufacturer at a cost of more than £11 million. The minister said earlier this week that fewer than half of the new buses that will be supported by the zero-emission bus challenge fund will be built in Scotland. Will the rest of them be built in the United Kingdom, or will those orders go abroad, too?

I point out that 137 of the buses are being built in Falkirk, which means that local skilled jobs are being created.

Liam Kerr asked me to give an assurance on the future of the scheme. The first part of the ScotZEM scheme was launched on Monday. We will evaluate the impact of the scheme and look to learn lessons for the future. He is right to say that we should be investing in sustainable green jobs in Scotland. I agree with him on that point.

Net Zero Heating (Support for Rural Households)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it plans to provide to rural households to transition to net zero heating. (S6O-00802)

Rural households can face challenges in the transition to zero-emissions heating, such as those relating to generally higher costs of installation, older buildings and fuel poverty. In recognition of that, our area-based schemes provide enhanced support to rural households, and the warmer homes Scotland scheme supports those in, or at risk of, fuel poverty.

This year, we made £3 million available for Scotland’s most remote off-grid communities to upgrade their energy systems. As we develop the islands energy strategy, we are considering options for an islands uplift across our delivery programmes to provide additional support in island areas.

How will the Scottish Government ensure that households in rural and isolated areas are able to keep their homes warm in cases of power cuts that last for multiple days, as took place after storm Eunice two weeks ago and storm Arwen last November?

The answer lies partly with Scottish Government programmes and partly with the United Kingdom regulated energy system, which needs to take action to ensure that we have upgrades to the electricity grid so that it is more resilient. That factor is recognised in the Scottish Government’s “Heat in Buildings Strategy—Achieving Net Zero Emissions in Scotland's Buildings” and in our on-going work and engagement with the UK Government.

It is worth recognising that even existing fossil fuel boilers will suffer if there is an electrical power failure. People cannot necessarily rely on existing systems. Some of the challenges relating to the resilience of the electricity grid apply to existing systems, just as they will to net zero heating systems.

ScotRail Nationalisation (Discussions with Unions)

8. Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with rail unions regarding the nationalisation of ScotRail. (S6O-00803)

Engagement with staff and trade unions began in early January, and I am pleased to confirm that arrangements for the formal transfer of ScotRail staff from Abellio ScotRail Ltd to ScotRail Trains Ltd are progressing as planned. On 10 February, I met rail trade unions and welcomed their open and frank discussions on several topics. I have also arranged to meet each trade union individually over the coming weeks, starting tomorrow.

I thank the minister for meeting the unions and for her on-going engagement with them. She will then be aware of their view, which I share, that freight by rail should be increased. The rail delivery group believes that rail freight should treble in England and Wales by 2050, which would mean a reduction of CO2 emissions of 4.2 million tonnes per year. Meeting that target would require a 4 per cent annual increase and a 22 per cent increase in the next five years, but Transport Scotland’s target is just 7.5 per cent in that period. Does the minister agree that Transport Scotland’s target should be far more ambitious, and will she set out how she plans to increase freight by rail?

I do not want to pre-judge the outcome of the meetings that I am about to undertake with the trade unions, which will cover a range of issues that were rehearsed in the debate that we had before the end of term and in the parliamentary statement. Graham Simpson has touched on the freight issue, and he is correct that we need to facilitate that modal change from the road on to our railways. I am keen to support that work but, equally, I want to speak to the unions first and not pre-judge the outcomes of those discussions.

I cannot give the member the update that he has asked me on Transport Scotland’s freight targets now, but I am happy to come back to him on the specifics of that point if he allows me to do so. I recognise the challenge and I am keen to support that work.

I can take a question from John Mason, if the question and response are brief.

Can the minister confirm that the Government provided considerable extra funding to the railways for both Covid and nationalisation? Can she confirm whether Labour and the Tories acknowledged that provision or supported it in the budget?

Although it is disappointing that Labour and the Tories did not support the budget, I reiterate that, since 2007, the Government has invested more than £9 billion into our railways, hoping to reconnect communities and to improve services and the rail infrastructure all over the country.

That concludes portfolio questions.