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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 07 June 2017

Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, General Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


General Question Time

Economic Growth (South of Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to promote economic growth in the south of Scotland. (S5O-01089)

The Scottish Government is committed to promoting economic growth in the south of Scotland. Our substantial investment in infrastructure, regeneration and business support helps to deliver inclusive growth and economic resilience by creating and retaining jobs in communities across the area. We are building on our commitment to the area by establishing a new enterprise and skills vehicle for the south of Scotland that will drive economic growth.

My colleagues and I have long campaigned for a south of Scotland enterprise agency, which must be well resourced, robust and autonomous. Only if the organisation has a fully autonomous board, such as that of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, will my constituents in Galloway and West Dumfries fully benefit from the opportunities that it would present. Unlike the Scottish National Party Government, with its obsession with centralisation, the Scottish Conservatives will always make the case that decision making should happen as close to the source as possible.

The Conservative manifesto has made a commitment to bring forward a borderlands growth deal, which would include councils from both sides of the border, to help to secure prosperity in southern Scotland. Does the cabinet secretary welcome that proposal, which would bring much-needed growth and investment to the south-west of Scotland?

I find it ironic that a party that is closing jobcentres across the country and closing military bases talks about other parties being centralising. The borderlands initiative was first proposed by the SNP Government in 2013. Finlay Carson’s constituents can rely on the Tories to talk about such initiatives, but it is the SNP Government that will establish a vehicle for the south of Scotland through enterprise and skills reviews—just as we have taken other actions including establishing the Borders railway and taking action on regeneration.

It is our view that the agency that will be established in the south of Scotland should be autonomous, as Finlay Carson described, and I have given the commitment that it will be analogous to Highlands and Islands Enterprise. It is quite clear that in this area, as in many others, the Scottish National Party is delivering, whereas all that the Tories have done—over many years—is talk about it.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that the borderlands initiative is being taken forward by Dumfries and Galloway Council and Scottish Borders Council, working with Carlisle City Council, Cumbria County Council and Northumberland County Council in England, but to date there has not been a single penny from either the United Kingdom Government or the Scottish Government. It has been left to local authorities to pick up the bill, despite both Governments claiming—as the Scottish Government has claimed again today—to support the initiative.

Will the cabinet secretary tell us exactly what support the Scottish Government intends to provide for the development of a borderlands growth deal, and whether he is aware of any UK Government funding for the initiative?

I am not aware of any direct funding from the UK Government. The Edinburgh city region deal will include Scottish Borders Council, so money will come from both the UK Government and the Scottish Government for it.

We established the borderlands initiative, but it is for local authorities to take such things forward. We would be falling into the trap of being centralising if we were to decide exactly what initiatives should be taken forward. We will rely on the representations and proposals that local authorities make to us, and we will seek to support them. What we do will depend on what those proposals are.

Whether through support such as Scottish Borders Council has had for the Borders railway, or the other infrastructure and regeneration investments that we have made across the south of Scotland, including in Dumfries and Galloway, the Scottish Government will support communities across the area, and we urge the UK Government to do likewise.

Stakeholder Meetings (Minutes)

To ask the Scottish Government for what reason it does not keep minutes of all meetings between stakeholders and ministers. (S5O-01090)

I can confirm that the Scottish Government proactively publishes all ministerial engagements, with information on the date, purpose, attendees and subject of the engagement. Formal minutes are taken where there are discussions on substantive Government business, where policy decisions arise or where there are significant action points.

Why do the First Minister and cabinet ministers meet corporate lobbyists—for example, representatives of Charlotte Street Partners, including Mr Andrew Wilson, who chairs the Scottish National Party’s growth commission—but fail to publish agendas, minutes or records of that or other meetings? Does not that breach the ministerial code or the civil service code?

To be clear, the Government takes minutes as appropriate, in line with the ministerial code and civil service guidance. That is what we do, and that is what we have always done.

It is also worth saying that this Government is far more transparent than previous Governments. This Government proactively publishes information on when and where meetings are happening. That did not happen under previous Administrations.

In addition to there being concern about the lack of minutes being recorded at key meetings, journalists across Scotland have signed an open letter that raises concerns about information requests being repeatedly delayed and emails asking for updates on requests being repeatedly ignored. Surely that gives rise to a transparency problem for the Scottish Government.

The Scottish Government takes its freedom of information responsibilities very seriously. In fact, the Scottish Government has a far better record than the UK Government on releasing information. In 2016, 85 per cent of valid requests to the Scottish Government resulted in it releasing information, but only 63 per cent of similarly valid requests to the UK Government resulted in information being released.

The Scottish FOI regime is far more robust than the regime that applies elsewhere in the UK. If Alexander Stewart wants to look at how we can provide more information to journalists, perhaps he should speak to his colleagues down south who are, rather than thinking about how they can improve the FOI regime, looking at how they can tighten it up and make it more difficult for journalists and other members of the public to receive information.

Has the minister read the journalists’ letter criticising the Government on FOI? If not, maybe he can get back to me with a minute that proves that the letter was handed to him. This is really serious. It is unprecedented for journalists to feel obliged to produce such a letter. Will the minister give a more serious response to the challenges that that presents to us all?

I confirm that I have read the letter. We are, of course, looking at the matters that are raised in it. An issue that the journalists raised was timeliness in responding to requests. We are working with the Scottish Information Commissioner to improve our response times.

It is worth looking at the facts of the matter. We have a massively increasing number of FOI requests and more are being answered on time than ever before. In 2006, prior to this Government, only 684 FOI responses were answered on time. Last year, this Government answered 1,557 responses on time. We have seen an increase from 61 per cent of responses being answered on time under the Labour-Liberal Administration, to 76 per cent being answered on time under this Administration. That said, we are determined to continue to improve our performance and to look at how we can make this Government, which is one of the most transparent Governments in the world, even better.

Medical Studies (Young People)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to encourage young people to study medicine at university. (S5O-01091)

Young people at school are provided with experiences and careers advice to raise awareness of a range of available degree opportunities. There are also targeted schools programmes to encourage young people into careers in health and medicine, in particular.

We provide additional funding through the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council to universities to help to improve access to the high-demand professions. The reach programme is linked to each medical school in Scotland to support young people from low-progression schools who wish to study medicine.

In March, we announced funding of £330,000 to deliver pre-entry courses to medicine, which will be used to support secondary school students from socially deprived backgrounds to prepare them better for undergraduate medical education.

The Scottish Government announced an increase of 50 medical undergraduate places for this academic session. I understand that there will be another 40 places for academic session 2018-19. Those additional places do not make up for the reductions over the previous 10 years, nor do they match the 25 per cent increase in places south of the border. Given the chronic shortage of general practitioners in Scotland, will the minister tell Parliament what advice she has received from the medical undergraduate group? Is the capping system on Scotland-domiciled places working?

Liz Smith is correct to point to the increase of 50 medical undergraduate places targeted at students from the most-deprived areas. She will also be well aware of the workforce planning requirements that go into the analysis before any decisions on medical places are taken for universities.

I must correct Liz Smith on what she said about there being a cap on Scotland-domiciled university places: there is no cap on those places. Setting the number of medical student places is based on the workforce planning needs of NHS Scotland, which I have mentioned. Although we set the annual intake into medicine, the selection and recruitment of individual students to study medicine is, of course, a matter for individual universities. Indeed, Liz Smith—correctly—points out to me on every occasion that she can that universities are independent organisations, and that it is not for the Government to decide which places are given to students each year.

What support and encouragement is the Scottish Government giving to universities to offer places to study medicine to students from less-affluent backgrounds?

In reply to Liz Smith, I mentioned the additional 50 medical undergraduate places for the 2016 intake, which universities will use to support the Government’s widening access aims. We also have the pre-entry to medicine programme, which will be used to support secondary school students from socially deprived backgrounds to prepare them better for undergraduate medical education.

The reach programme was established to link with each medical school in Scotland. Through that outreach programme—which is aimed at secondary 4 and 5, and includes schools in Edinburgh and the Lothians where we have low progression into higher education and medical careers—pupils will be given greater insight and be encouraged and offered support in their application process.

Tail Amputation

To ask the Scottish Government how many professional veterinary bodies have indicated support for its legislative proposal to allow the amputation of tails in healthy puppies. (S5O-01092)

Only one response from professional veterinary bodies was received to the public consultation that was held between 10 February and 3 May 2016. It was a combined response from the British Veterinary Association and the British Small Animal Veterinary Association. Those organisations were not in favour of the proposal to permit the shortening of the tails of spaniel and hunt point retriever puppies when a vet believes that those dogs are likely to be used as working dogs and risk serious tail injury in later life. The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons did not tender a response to the consultation.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that very straight and very revealing answer. Organisations such as the British Veterinary Association do not support the Government’s statutory instrument because it is fundamentally anti-science. Why does it make sense to amputate the tails of hundreds and hundreds of puppies that are under five days old just to avoid the amputation of one tail in an adult working dog?

I look forward to appearing before the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee next Tuesday morning. It is dealing with the statutory instrument in question.

Although the veterinary organisations that I named do not agree with the proposal, the situation for which it provides prevails south of the border. The member is probably well aware that not all vets are of the same opinion on the matter. Research that was published in 2014 persuaded us that, in limited circumstances that involve only two breeds of dog, shortening the tail tips of the animals by one third is an appropriate way forward.

As I said, I look forward to appearing before the committee on Tuesday morning.

Negative Growth (Protection for Low and Middle-income Earners)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to protect low and middle-income earners from negative growth. (S5O-01093)

The Scottish economy was resilient in 2016—it grew by 0.4 per cent, despite continued headwinds from industry in the North Sea and the uncertainty that the European Union referendum vote caused. Scotland’s economic fundamentals are strong. Unemployment is down and employment is up, and in 2016 we secured more foreign direct investment projects than any other part of the United Kingdom outside London for the fifth year in a row. Independent forecasters predict growth in the Scottish economy in 2017 and 2018.

As well as our actions to support economic growth, we are continuing to help low and middle-income earners. For instance, we have frozen the basic rate of income tax in the current tax year and are committed to making no increases in the basic rate—subject to parliamentary approval—in the current parliamentary session. In addition, we have capped council tax increases at 3 per cent; we have made it a requirement in our public sector pay policy for employers to pay the living wage; and we are continuing with our policy of no compulsory redundancies in the public sector. The risk to Scotland’s economy comes from a hard Brexit and the continuation of Westminster’s austerity agenda.

I am sure that the cabinet secretary will be pleased to learn that it is the Conservative Government that has taken 113,000 Scots at the lower end of incomes out of tax altogether.

Just yesterday, the EY Scottish ITEM club report was quoted as saying that the Scottish economy is

“stuck in the slow lane”.

Last quarter’s gross domestic product figures show that we are already halfway to a recession, and we are shortly to find out whether that is the case. Given that all that has happened on the Scottish National Party’s watch, will the cabinet secretary take personal responsibility for the stagnation in the Scottish economy and apologise to the people of Scotland for it?

I think that Jamie Greene should apologise for again talking down Scotland and undermining it—as all Conservatives do—when it comes to attracting foreign direct investors and others to live, work and invest in Scotland, on which we have a great track record.

Jamie Greene mentioned taxation. It is really interesting that, the last time I checked, the Tory party manifesto—or what is left of it—did not refer to tax rates. We all know that the Tories propose tax cuts for the richest while hammering the poorest in our society. That is what the Tories are all about.

Scotland’s economic fundamentals are strong. We are seeing employment going up and unemployment going down; improved performance in productivity, which is better in comparative terms that that in the rest of the United Kingdom; more registered businesses; more investment in research and development; and record achievement in our exports. We have an economic strategy that will support the Scottish economy, but the UK Government, through the Tories and the Scottish Tories, is trying to undermine it, whereas they should take seriously their responsibilities to that economic strategy as part of the current governance of Scotland. Of course, that might change shortly, but the Tories should take some responsibility for their inaction on supporting the Scottish economy in their time in office.

Homelessness in Glasgow (Funding for Third Sector Organisations)

To ask the Scottish Government what funding it has provided to third sector organisations to tackle homelessness in Glasgow since 2007. (S5O-01094)

Since 2007, the Scottish Government has funded a range of third sector homelessness organisations through the housing voluntary grant scheme and other schemes, with more than £11 million being made available to homelessness projects across Scotland, including those in Glasgow. In 2017-18, funding for Glasgow Homelessness Network, which has been provided since 2008, will continue as part of helping to improve the involvement of homeless people in the delivery of services across Scotland.

The vast majority of the funding that the Scottish Government provides to tackle homelessness comes through a block grant to each local authority. The authorities have the statutory obligation to address homelessness in their areas and use those resources to fund third sector organisations that are tackling homelessness. Despite on-going cuts to the Scottish budget by the United Kingdom Government, Glasgow City Council continues to receive from the overall funding a fair share, which amounts to £1.369 billion of the figure of more than £10.4 billion in 2017-18.

I do not know what the minister’s definition of fair is, but what has happened at the hands of his Government over the last period is certainly not fair to Glasgow. I am sure that he will acknowledge that the scourge of homelessness in modern Scotland shames us all, and I trust that he recognises the importance of tackling homelessness not just by building more sustainable houses but by understanding the causes of homelessness, whether they be abuse, addiction or family breakdown.

Does the minister agree that the role of charities and homelessness organisations is crucial in ensuring the right support for those who are vulnerable to homelessness and in helping to sustain them in tenancies? Furthermore, what assessment has he made of the impact of sustained cuts to local government funding on the ability of organisations to deliver the services that homeless people desperately need and deserve?

I note that Ms Lamont did not take cognisance of the part of my response that was about the Scottish Government’s budget being cut year on year by the UK Government. We have done our very best to provide local authorities with moneys for front-line services.

We have strong rights to housing for homeless households. Our recent focus on the prevention of homelessness through the housing options approach has led to consistent falls in homelessness applications in Glasgow, including applications from those who had been rough sleeping. I certainly recognise the value of third sector organisations in delivering services. Glasgow City Council receives funding from the Scottish Government for addressing homelessness. Through working in partnership with local third sector organisations and other partners such as the health service, the council is best placed to make decisions on the appropriate funding for organisations on the basis of the local profile of homelessness.

I welcome the recent statement by the council’s new Scottish National Party administration of its intention to hold a homelessness summit in the city, which will include partners from the third sector and housing associations, in order to agree a joint approach to tackling the issue. I only wish that Glasgow had done so under the previous Labour administration.

Enterprise and Skills Review (Publication of Phase 2 Findings)

To ask the Scottish Government when it will publish the findings of phase 2 of the enterprise and skills review. (S5O-01095)

The final report, on phase 2 of the enterprise and skills review, is to be published in late June. Detail on the new strategic board that will co-ordinate the work of the agencies—Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Skills Development Scotland and the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council—was announced on 30 March.

Significant progress is being made across all other workstreams, including progress on recommendations about the new data and analytical function; an improved approach to the development of regional partnerships; and multiple actions that pertain to enterprise and business support, innovation and internationalisation, the latter of which is linked to the trade and investment strategy. Specific plans for the alignment of skills planning and a full programme for the 15-to-24 learner journey are under way. The review will enter its implementation phase, and the report will outline initial delivery plans for projects.

I look forward to the publication of the report on phase 2 of the review.

With the Scottish economy heading towards recession, enterprise policy will play an increasingly important part in turning the economy around. Will the cabinet secretary confirm how many businesses in Scotland have received assistance under the growth scheme that the Scottish Government announced last September as a central part of its programme for government? What financial assistance has been granted to businesses so far under that scheme?

I note the Tories’ increasing willingness to talk up a recession in Scotland. That goes beyond being an Opposition party; it is a deliberate attempt to undermine. The Confederation of British Industry and other business organisations have told me that they are sick to the back teeth of Conservatives talking down the economy in Scotland.

An announcement on the Scottish growth scheme will be made imminently, before the recess. Full details will be made known at that time.

It is important to recognise that the Tories have boasted about holding most of the major tools to influence the Scottish economy. If they think that the economy is doing so badly, why do they never ask themselves about the culpability of the Tory Government at Westminster, which controls the majority of functions?

Despite the neglect from the Tory Government at Westminster, we have seen record foreign direct investment again this year and lower unemployment in Scotland than in the rest of the United Kingdom. The UK Government has an increasing balance of payments deficit and a £1.8 trillion debt, and £100 billion has been added to the debt every year since the Tories came to power. I know whose record is more impressive on the Scottish economy, and it is not that of the UK Government.