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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 3, 2022

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 03 March 2022 [Draft]

Agenda: Business Motion, General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, International Women’s Day 2022, Portfolio Question Time, Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill, Justice (Risk Assessment), Public Service Broadcasting, Decision Time, Correction


General Question Time

The next item of business is general question time. In order to get in as many members as possible, I would be grateful for short and succinct questions and responses.

World Book Day

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has in place to support world book day on 3 March 2022. (S6O-00812)

Today is the 25th world book day, which seeks to encourage children to explore the pleasure of books and reading. The Scottish Government supports the activity of the Scottish Book Trust, which, today, is promoting a range of activity to encourage a love of reading.

Literacy is foundational to every child’s education, and reading is a fundamental skill for life, as well as a source of lifelong pleasure for many. To help young people to develop those skills, the Scottish Book Trust delivers the First Minister’s reading challenge, the reading schools programme and the read, write, count campaign. Each initiative aims to positively impact on pupils’ attainment by building and embedding reading cultures in schools, at home and in the community to support and nurture a love of reading for pleasure.

To celebrate world book day, many of the schools and nurseries across my constituency of Edinburgh Pentlands are encouraging their pupils to dress up as their favourite book character. I know that many young people will be excited to take part in world book day this year, given the impact of the pandemic on previous years’ celebrations.

With the Scottish Government-funded bookbug programme also collaborating with the charity World Book Day, will the minister commit to continuing to support the bookbug programme, which has proven to provide a range of positive benefits for children and families across the country?

I recognise the excitement of the many children who are taking part in world book day activities today, not just in Mr MacDonald’s constituency but across the country, including in my area. My son went off to school today in his pyjamas, in line with his school’s bedtime story theme to recognise the day.

Initiatives such as bookbug help to encourage an early love of books among children, while providing great opportunities for parents and their young ones to spend time together, playing, having fun and learning. In this financial year, we provided £1.66 million of funding for the Scottish Book Trust’s early years programme, which provides a range of free book packs for every child in Scotland from birth to primary 1.

To support the day this year, the Scottish Book Trust is working in partnership with World Book Day to distribute vouchers to 2,800 early years settings in Scotland, alongside its explorer resource kits; to distribute world book day digital vouchers to families who receive extra support through the bookbug for the home programme; and to distribute copies, after today, of world book day books to a further 3,000 families via bookbug for the home.

Discussions with the Scottish Book Trust to grant fund the early years programme in bookbug in 2022-23 are currently under way.

Social Housing Waiting Lists (Central Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government how many households are waiting for social housing in Central Scotland. (S6O-00813)

The latest data suggests that, in 2019, an estimated 80,000 households across the 16 local authorities in Central Scotland were on a housing list or had applied for social housing in the previous 12 months. However, we know that that figure will include households who are already living in a social home, as well as households who are looking to access the social sector.

Ensuring that everyone has a warm, affordable home that meets their needs is a priority for the Government, which is why we are committed to delivering 110,000 new affordable homes by 2032.

Is the cabinet secretary aware of changes to the system of—[Inaudible.]—long-term empty or second homes in Wales, and has the Scottish Government considered giving local authorities in Central Scotland the powers to implement a similar scheme, which could reduce the number of long-term empty homes, raise additional funds to build social housing and reduce the number of families who are waiting for a home?

I think that I caught most of that.

Tackling empty homes is a priority for the Scottish Government, and we have set out a range of actions in “Housing to 2040” to help make better use of what is essentially a wasted resource. We continue to invest in the successful approach of the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership, which has brought more than 6,000 homes back into use since 2010.

We will of course look at ideas that are brought forward in other places and are happy to look at what Wales is doing. However, we have existing measures, including, for example, the additional dwelling supplement, which second-home buyers pay, short-term let control areas for secondary letting and powers for local authorities to vary or remove the council tax discount on second homes.

We are already taking a lot of action, but I am happy to look at any other ideas that Mark Griffin or anyone else might bring forward.

How many council houses have been built in Central Scotland under the Scottish National Party, and how many were built from 1999 to 2007 under Labour and the Liberal Democrats?

Published official statistics on local authority new-build homes show that, in the Central Scotland region, which includes the Falkirk, North Lanarkshire and South Lanarkshire local authority areas, only 30 council homes were built between 1999-2000 and 2006-07, in comparison with 1,792 between 2007-08 and 2020-21. Since 2007, the Government has delivered 105,755 affordable homes across Scotland, more than 73,000 of which were for social rent, including nearly 17,000 council homes. I would have thought that everyone in the chamber would welcome that.

Shop Closures

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the recent PwC report showing that Scotland lost on average four shops a day in 2021. (S6O-00814)

We know that retail businesses have faced incredibly difficult trading conditions in the past two years, as a result of the global pandemic. That is why, since the start of the pandemic, businesses have benefited from £4.5 billion in support, and our non-domestic rates relief has saved businesses, including retailers, around £1.6 billion.

Last week, we announced an £80 million Covid economic recovery fund for local authorities and allocated a further £3 million to the city centre recovery fund to support local economies to recover. Our £10 million Scotland Loves Local programme and city centre recovery task force are supporting local communities and retail businesses in our towns and cities to rebuild our high streets.

Our 10-year national strategy for economic transformation, combined with the up-coming retail strategy and town centre action plan, will strengthen the retail sector and ensure that Scotland maximises its economic potential and becomes fairer, wealthier and greener.

I thank the minister for that reply, but it does not go far enough. The PwC report also shows that the number of shops in high streets across Scotland has declined in each of the past six years—going back to well before Covid. That is the worst performance in the United Kingdom. The Scottish Government said that it would publish its long-awaited retail strategy last year, but we still have not seen it. The Scottish Retail Consortium has called for

“a long term, coherent approach”

towards the sector. When will that happen?

We have worked closely with the retail sector, including the SRC, on the development of the retail strategy, whose publication, I assure Dean Lockhart, will be forthcoming relatively soon.

We do take a coherent approach. In my original answer, I outlined much of the funding that we have put in place. Our policy coheres across a range of areas, and I encourage Dean Lockhart to look carefully at the town centre action plan, once it is published—it was developed in partnership with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities—and to look closely at what we are doing with national planning framework 4, in which there is an abundance of policies that reflect and incorporate the review of the town centre action plan, and which puts in place the long-term structures that we need in planning to match what we are doing across a range of other areas to ensure that we have a vibrant future for retail.

Finally, I acknowledge the point that Dean Lockhart made. There are long-standing structural challenges to the retail sector. Our job is to support retail to make a just transition.

Does the minister welcome the inquiry into town centre regeneration that I understand the Economy and Fair Work Committee is undertaking? Will he look at Galashiels in my constituency, where energise Gala—the Energise Galashiels Trust—has worked very hard over the years with politicians from all parties to try to deal with the very thing that we are discussing, which is small shops disappearing after being trampled over by large supermarkets?

I absolutely welcome the inquiry that the Economy and Fair Work Committee is undertaking and I very much look forward to seeing the evidence that it takes and the recommendations of its final report. I would be very happy to discuss the matter further with Christine Grahame. If she would like, she could invite me to her constituency to see some of the excellent local examples of retail that she referred to.

Historic Sites (Managed Decline)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that Historic Environment Scotland is considering criteria that could be used to identify sites that could be left to managed decline. (S6O-00815)

It is important that Scotland’s historic properties in care are kept in a safe condition for Historic Environment Scotland’s staff and for public visitors. We are seeing how the properties’ natural processes of decay have been accelerated by climate change, and that process is likely to continue. Historic Environment Scotland is currently considering what future management approaches and strategies will be needed for care in the long term, and I will keep discussing those potential approaches with it.

HES stated recently that it might need to reduce physical access to some historic sites and accept

“the natural process of decay”

in some cases. Dun Carloway broch on Lewis has been closed since 2019, with little progress made since then, leaving local communities very worried about its future. Can the minister confirm whether HES is considering managed decline for that site? More broadly, will he confirm what historic sites in Scotland HES considers to be most at risk?

I thank Donald Cameron for his interest in this area. I understand that Historic Environment Scotland’s director of conservation has written directly to him about the matter and is in the process of reaching out to his office to arrange a site visit to Dun Carloway broch with Historic Environment Scotland’s experts.

I can confirm that Historic Environment Scotland carried out consolidation work on the broch in October and November last year and managed to stabilise a section of the upper broch, which is good news. Further programmed works are planned for the end of this month, and at the end of April HES will undertake a review that will inform the next steps and the reopening timetable. The safety of the public must always be the primary concern.

I hope that that will assist Mr Cameron on his local issues, but I am happy to correspond further if that would be helpful.

The issue is not just about reviewing sites; it is also about ensuring that there is sufficient funding for those sites to be able to remain open and be safe. As a resident of this city, I know that, just minutes away from us, in Holyrood park, we have the Radical Road, which has been closed for a long time, and the problems with Duddingston Low Road. The issue is not just about reviewing but about making sure that Historic Environment Scotland has enough resource to keep our fantastic cultural heritage alive and accessible to all of us, wherever we live.

There is not a lot that I can disagree with in Sarah Boyack’s question, but the Scottish Government has given substantially increased resource to Historic Environment Scotland: £80 million in 2020-21, £75 million in 2021-22 and over £70 million in 2022-23. We are investing substantially, recognising the Covid challenges to Historic Environment Scotland’s potential income streams. We will continue to work closely with it on the important sites that we have across Scotland, to make sure that we are protecting them as best we can from climate change erosion, which I mentioned, and the other challenges that they face.

Second Homes

To ask the Scottish Government how it is tackling any issues related to high numbers of second homes in some parts of Scotland. (S6O-00816)

We recognise that concentrations of second homes can affect community sustainability. Existing measures include the additional dwelling supplement that second home buyers pay, short-term let control areas for secondary letting, and existing powers that local authorities have to vary or remove council tax discount on second homes. In 2017-18, that meant that council tax income generated from second homes contributed £21.2 million towards the provision of affordable homes across Scotland.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that I and many in the Highlands and Islands have deep concerns about how housing availability affects depopulation. It is clear that, particularly in certain rural and island communities, second homes are contributing to that issue. Can she give an update on the Scottish National Party’s manifesto commitment to give local authorities power to manage the number of second homes in their area?

I acknowledge Emma Roddick’s background of raising this important issue in the chamber. Through the “Housing to 2040” strategy, we are committed to providing more tools and powers to local authorities to support best use of existing housing stock. During the stakeholder discussions on the remote, rural and island housing action plan, we will engage with stakeholders about proposals on what additional powers are needed. Emma Roddick mentioned the taxation review. Work on the review had been paused due to Covid, but we will recommence it this year.

Drugs Legislation (Devolution)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress it has made with the United Kingdom Government on the devolution of drug legislation to the Scottish Parliament, particularly in relation to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. (S6O-00817)

The Scottish Government has engaged, and will continue to engage, with the UK Government to reform and/or devolve the 1971 act to fully enable an evidence-based public health approach to tackling the drug deaths crisis. The UK Government remains unwilling either to review the legislation or to devolve powers to Scotland. At a parliamentary joint committee session on 1 February, Mr Malthouse refused to accept the recommendations of the drug deaths task force for legislative change. In the meantime, the Scottish Government will continue to seek solutions within the current laws and our current powers to save and improve lives by reducing harm and promoting recovery.

It is going to take a national mission to end drug addiction and drug deaths in Scotland, and the Scottish Government is doing everything within its devolved powers to tackle that. However, with the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 still reserved to Westminster, we are tackling the issue with one hand tied behind our back. Does the minister agree that the legislation should be devolved immediately, so that Scotland has all the levers available to fully address the issue and save lives?

Yes. I very much believe that we need a root-and-branch review of the 50-year-old Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and that the powers should be devolved to this Parliament.

I do not for a minute demur from the challenge of doing more with our existing powers and resources. Investment in tackling culture and reforming services is important, along with legislative powers and legislative reform.

If the 1971 act was reformed or devolved to Scotland, some of the work that we are currently immersed in, in and around drug checking facilities and drug consumption facilities, would be far easier. The crux of the problem with the 1971 act is that it impedes a full public health approach to a public health emergency. In particular, it limits the full range of evidence-led harm reduction measures. I hope that I have demonstrated to the chamber and beyond that I am fully committed to recovery, residential rehab and abstinence-based interventions, but we also need to get serious in this country about harm reduction and reach people where they are at any given time. That is, in part, what we need to do to reduce harm.

Unsafe Cladding (Remediation)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the remediation, including removal and replacement, of unsafe cladding on residential buildings in Scotland, as part of its response to the Grenfell tragedy. (S6O-00818)

We selected 25 high-priority residential blocks of flats for an initial phase to test and develop our free single building assessment. Surveys are on-going and some reports will be finalised in the coming weeks. That will allow us to understand what actions need to be taken to further support affected home owners and seek the most appropriate solutions.

Where construction is found to be unsafe, we will continue to urge other parties, such as developers, to play their part. We are continuing to discuss with the United Kingdom Government what its plans are for the establishment of its announced £4 billion fund.

The Grenfell tragedy, which claimed 72 lives, was four and a half years ago. We know that the Government has identified 25 high-rise buildings in Scotland that are affected, but it has not told Parliament where they are. We also know that, since last year, the Government has had £97.1 million in Barnett consequentials to spend, but it has not spent a penny of that. It will receive more funding, including a share of the £4 billion that the cabinet secretary mentioned. When will the cabinet secretary move beyond assessments, inspections and so-called innovations and, for the sake of the safety and lives of the residents of those at-risk buildings, including children, just get on with it?

The locations have not been made public at the request of those living in the buildings—they do not want that information to be made public. I would have thought that Richard Leonard would respect the views of those people.

Every penny of the £97.1 million will be spent. Richard Leonard dismisses inspections and assessments, but we do not know what remediation work needs to be done until the inspections and assessments of those buildings are carried out. That requires complex engineering work with specialist input to ensure that we know what remediation is needed. Many of those buildings will be deemed safe once those inspections and assessments are done. However, for those buildings that require remediation work, that £97.1 million will be spent on it.

We also need access to the £4 billion that the UK Government has talked about. Along with my Welsh counterpart, Julie James—

Please be brief, cabinet secretary.

We have just written to the secretary of state calling for our Governments to be part of any discussions with developers and that may impact on our countries.

That concludes general questions.