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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, October 7, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 07 October 2021 [Draft]

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, World Mental Health Day 2021, Portfolio Question Time, Heat in Buildings Strategy, Carer’s Allowance Supplement (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Carer’s Allowance Supplement (Scotland) Bill, Withdrawal of Scottish Statutory Instruments, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Point of Order, Decision Time, Correction


Contents


General Question Time

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

The first item of business is general question time. In order to get as many members in as possible, I prefer short and succinct questions, and answers to match.

Question 1 has been withdrawn.


MV Glen Sannox and Vessel 802 (Cost)

To ask the Scottish Government what the latest estimate is of the public cost of procuring the ferries MV Glen Sannox and hull 802. (S6O-00260)

The turnaround director of Ferguson Marine updated the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee on the delivery timetable and budget for vessels 801 and 802 on 30 September 2021. The cost to complete the vessels remains the same as was reported in the turnaround director’s December 2019 report to the Parliament—namely, between £110.3 million and £114.3 million.

The turnaround director, Tim Hair, said in his 30 September letter that Ferguson’s uses seven different data systems that do not talk to one another. In other words, no one knows what anyone else is doing. Is it any wonder that the vessels are so late and so over budget?

Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd—CMAL—has just ordered a small, slow, second-hand ferry from Norway, the diesel-powered MV Utne, at an overall cost of £9 million. It was for sale at under £6 million. Will the cabinet secretary explain what the gap is for? Is it just for livery? Why are we going for gas-guzzling cast-offs and not for the same kind of eco-friendly ferries that the Norwegians are buying?

I confess to having a constituency interest as much as a Government interest in the vessel that has just been procured, because it frees up the MV Coruisk to go back to the service between Mallaig and Armadale for which it was designed, which has been met with great celebration in the communities of Sleat and Mallaig.

It is important that the Government looks at all options for ensuing that our lifeline vessels are secure and resilient. I am sure that the member joins me in that view. When it comes to the future of the fleet, we have committed £500 million over the next few years to ensure that we invest in ferry infrastructure right across the west coast.

As the cabinet secretary knows, vessel 802 is intended to serve Lochmaddy and Tarbert. However, there have been calls from the communities of North Uist and Harris for each area to have a dedicated vessel. What consideration is the Scottish Government giving to that question, which has been raised for some years?

[Inaudible.]—know how actively he represents his constituency on those matters.

Consideration of vessel replacement and deployment options is an on-going process. My colleague Graeme Dey was pleased to meet members of the North Uist and Harris communities during his recent visit to the outer Hebrides. I understand that the future option of an additional vessel on those routes, at least during peak summer, has been identified for further assessment as part of the work on the islands connectivity plan and investment programme. I hope that that work will continue at pace, and I am sure that the member will have the opportunity to represent his constituents on those issues.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that the only way for shipbuilding at Port Glasgow and Greenock and Inverclyde to continue in future was for the yard to be taken into public ownership? The Tories’ record of hammering shipbuilding communities is there for all to see. Nobody should listen to the Tories when it comes to saving shipbuilding jobs.

The member is right to remind the chamber that, in the face of a decade of Conservative cuts, the efforts of the Government saved not only Ferguson Marine from closure but more than 300 jobs that support the communities of Inverclyde. Those efforts ultimately ensured that two much-needed vessels will be completed and that the yard has a future.

We are investing in the future: we are supporting the yard to be more efficient, more competitive and more able to win contracts on the merits of its success. We will always back the shipbuilding industry in Scotland and deliver not only for Inverclyde but for our island communities, which rely on those lifeline services.


Seagulls (North-east and Moray)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to address the problem of gulls in urban areas in the north-east and Moray. (S6O-00261)

The Scottish Government supports gull management in Moray and north-east Scotland through NatureScot and others. NatureScot’s role is to provide advice regarding gull management and, as the licensing authority, to license gull management where necessary. I understand that Moray Council has extended its voluntary nest and egg removal pilot. Similar schemes are available to local authorities across Scotland.

I recently had a meeting to discuss issues that had arisen due to the prevalence of urban gulls in Banffshire and Buchan Coast. During the meeting, it was drawn to my attention that the most recent relevant Scottish Government research on the biodiversity of urban gulls is from 2006. Will the Scottish Government provide an update on research on urban gulls and their management in Scotland?

I am aware of the public meeting that the member attended. I understand that NatureScot was represented and spoke to some of the member’s constituents, and I heard that the meeting went well.

A current United Kingdom seabird census, which was organised by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, aims to estimate the populations of species that breed in urban environments. The findings of that research will help me and officials by informing future policy on dealing with urban gull populations.


Sewage Sludge Spreading

To ask the Scottish Government whether it plans to publish the James Hutton Institute report on the impact on human health and the environment arising from the spreading of sewage sludge on land. (S6O-00262)

I am pleased to inform the member that we intend to publish the report this month.

My constituents in Falkirk East are anxious for the report to be published. The spreading of sewage sludge was raised as a concern with my predecessor, Angus MacDonald, and has now been raised with me. The smell and inconvenience generate multiple complaints, but it is the potential risk to human health that is most concerning. Can the minister confirm whether the Scottish Government has considered the risk to human and animal health of sewage sludge when it is used as a soil conditioner and advise what recent assessment it has made of the viral, heavy metal and bacterial loads in sewage sludge?

I am aware of the concerns of the member’s constituents and of the member. The Government takes matters of human health and environmental policy very seriously. A full review of the legislation and guidance that are relevant to the storage and spreading of sludge was undertaken in 2016, and the more recent piece of work that I referred to, which will be published this month, will help us to carefully consider the situation in 2021.

The spreading of sewage sludge on land is a long-established practice and an effective way of recovering value and avoiding waste. The practice is tightly regulated by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, but issues of odour, which I know the member’s constituents are concerned about, are the responsibility of local authorities. I assure the member that SEPA will never hesitate to take enforcement action against anyone who is not complying with the current regulations for storage and spreading.


Collective Rent Bargaining

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on whether the Swedish national system of collective rent bargaining through a national union of tenants would help to address any housing issues in Scotland. (S6O-00263)

We are currently considering a wide range of information and evidence on rent controls and other issues that will be part of our new deal for tenants. That will include examining international comparisons with Sweden and other countries, which will help to inform our thinking as we progress policy development in that important area of work.

I thank the minister for that response and I am pleased to note the work that is on-going.

It is clear that we have a lot of work to do to ensure that we have the right data from the right people and places, so that we adopt appropriate mechanisms for setting and reviewing rent levels. I am keen to ensure that tenants play a central role in those discussions—their voices and concerns must be at the heart of their new deal, and we need to hear from those with lived experience. How will tenants’ voices be involved in shaping the strategy? Will the minister join me in Dundee to speak to members of Living Rent and hear about their experiences of a tenants union?

Absolutely. The basic thrust of the question is really important. Tenants’ voices need to be not only heard but effective. We have begun work on gathering tenants’ views through partnership working with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. There are other examples around the country, including in Glasgow City Council, which is working to ensure that tenants’ voices are heard in its deliberations. I recently met Living Rent—one of the first stakeholder groups that I met when I took on this role. Living Rent has done extraordinary work to ensure that tenants’ voices are both heard and effective. I would be very happy to meet local groups in Dundee and elsewhere, and I would encourage the member to contact my office to arrange that.

The pandemic has caused a sharp rise in rent arrears, which now stand at more than £3 million in Dundee and nearly £8 million in Aberdeen, yet support for landlords has been prioritised—landlords have received around 14 times more in financial support than tenants have received. When will the Scottish Government start to support tenants who are facing rent arrears, given that no money has yet been paid out from its £10 million tenant hardship grant fund?

The member is probably aware that that issue was debated long and hard across a range of political parties during the previous session of Parliament as we developed the emergency legislation and that a wide range of views were expressed about the prioritisation of support. The tenant hardship loan fund has only recently been replaced with a grant fund, and I hope that the member will be willing to let that system be operational before she judges whether it is a success. [Patrick Harvie has corrected this contribution. See end of report.] Many voices—mine and others, including from the Labour Party—quite rightly criticised the idea that loans alone would meet the needs of tenants. That is why a grant fund has been agreed and put in place by the Scottish Government.

What does the minister think the Scottish Government can learn from our neighbours across Europe in its approach to fair and socially just housing?

There is a great deal to learn from neighbours in other European countries. A crucial part of our work on developing policies in this area—rent controls and the wider new deal for tenants—will be listening carefully to and learning from the experience of countries such as the Republic of Ireland, Sweden and Germany. That could include looking at the role of tenants unions, which are an important way of shifting power in the relationship between landlord and tenant. Tenants unions could play a much bigger role in that in Scotland. We are also working with academia to consider alternative approaches to rent control that could be considered in the Scottish context.

I thank the member for her interest.


Cancer Survival Rates

 

6.

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to recent comments from Cancer Research UK regarding cancer survival rates in Scotland. (S6O-00264)

Despite the recent pressures of the Covid-19 pandemic, cancer remains a priority. Our national health service staff have worked incredibly hard over the past year to ensure that the majority of cancer treatment and care has continued. We have treated more patients within the 62-day standard this quarter compared to the same time in both 2019 and 2020.

Over the next five years, we will invest £40 million to support cancer services, focusing on the most challenged cancer pathways. We are investing £20 million to support our detect cancer early programme to improve public awareness of the signs of cancer. Additionally, the £114.5 million cancer plan will roll out innovative treatments to improve services and ensure that access to care is equitable across Scotland.

The charity says that

“too many people are waiting far too long for ... treatment”

and that

“chronic shortages in staff and equipment”

predate Covid. It also says that cancer survival rates could start going down for the first time. A breast cancer charity says that more than 1,000 Scottish women are living with undiagnosed breast cancer. Cancer Research UK wants a firm commitment to tackle staff shortages and investment in equipment. Will the minister meet those commitments to ensure that no one waits too long for the vital treatment that they need?

Early diagnosis is absolutely vital, and we have invested in the NHS workforce. Staffing levels in Scotland’s NHS have reached a new record high after an increase of 5,000 full-time equivalent staff in the past year. Since 2006, there has been an increase of 87.7 per cent in consultant oncologists and an increase of 57.4 per cent in consultant radiologists. Our NHS recovery plan commits more than £1 billion of targeted investment for the recovery and renewal of our health service.

As well as investing in the workforce, we are investing in new technologies and making sure that those technologies are available around the country. This year, we have invested £5.6 million to support additional mobile magnetic resonance imaging scanners and three computed tomography scanners, which are operational throughout Scotland, and we have invested in mobile units that are located in NHS Highland and NHS Tayside to increase capacity.

We are working hard on the issue, and I expect that we will meet the demand, as the charity is requesting.

The minister will be aware that the uptake rate of cervical screening tests in Scotland’s most deprived areas is 63 per cent, compared with 74 per cent in the least deprived areas. That is totally unacceptable health inequality that leaves women from deprived areas at greater risk of developing serious health conditions.

What is the Scottish Government doing to encourage more women from deprived areas to attend their appointments, and will the minister outline today a timescale in which the Scottish Government expects to have closed the alarming gap?

The member draws attention to an issue that impacts not only cervical cancer screening but screening more generally. There is an inequality in the uptake of the screening offers, which are vital. Cervical cancer is largely preventable, so it is vital to encourage people to come along to their cervical screening in order to prevent cancer before it happens.

We have in place a programme to improve access to screening, which involves a variety of work, including specific work on access to cervical screening—for example, to help people who cannot leave their house. The work also involves looking at the barriers faced by individuals who are not accepting the offers on screening and removing those barriers.

After this session, I can update the member in writing about the range of work that we are doing. We are really focused on improving the situation because we recognise the impact that it can have on citizens in Scotland.


Bus Services (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale)

To ask the Scottish Government what assistance it is giving to maintain bus services in the Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale constituency. (S6O-00265)

While use by customers has been depressed due to the impacts of the pandemic, the Scottish Government has supported bus operators to maintain services through the Covid support grant and the Covid support grant restart.

Since June 2020, up to £210 million in emergency funding has been made available to support services across Scotland, including in the Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale constituency.

I am aware that, despite the additional support from the Scottish Government for bus companies, Covid has had a substantial and continuing impact on services, with some being cut.

As we enter Covid recovery, will the Scottish Government’s funding be conditional on the return of direct services such as those to the Borders general hospital, the Royal infirmary of Edinburgh and the Astley Ainslie hospital, which serve my constituents both as patients as employees?

I am sure that the member’s question reflects concerns that are felt in her constituency and elsewhere.

It is a condition of our Covid funding that participating operators plan services and keep them under review in consultation with their transport authorities, having regard to the services that are required to minimise public transport connectivity disadvantages, including for island and rural communities. Similar requirements would continue under any recovery funding for bus operators. However, on average, current demand for bus services is only at 65 per cent of pre-Covid levels across Scotland, and it will take some time to return to pre-Covid levels. Bus operators and local transport authorities will have to make decisions about where to deploy services to meet current, and hopefully growing, passenger demand, which might differ from pre-pandemic travel patterns.