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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 08 June 2022 [Draft]

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Urgent Question, Economic Priorities, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Falklands War


Portfolio Question Time

Covid-19 Recovery and Parliamentary Business

Good afternoon. The first item of business is portfolio question time. The first portfolio is Covid-19 recovery and parliamentary business. If a member wishes to request a supplementary question, I invite them to press their request-to-speak button during the relevant question or by entering the letter R in the chat function. I make the usual plea for short and succinct questions, and for responses in a similar vein.

Spoilt Ballots

To ask the Scottish Government what analysis it plans to undertake into spoilt ballots at the 2022 local government elections. (S6O-01182)

At the recent local government elections, 1.85 per cent of ballot papers were rejected by returning officers. That was an improvement on 1.95 per cent in 2017. The most common reason for a ballot paper being rejected was that the voter had marked more than one first preference. It is a matter of great concern if any voter loses their vote.

We will continue to work with the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Management Board to explore what more can be done to support voters to further reduce the number of rejected ballot papers, so that every vote counts.

Subjective evidence seems to suggest that spoilt ballot papers in multimember wards may have arisen from postal ballots, given the incredibly hard work that polling staff undertook to remind in-person voters of the ranking system. Is the Government aware of that view, and will it, along with the Electoral Management Board for Scotland, undertake a review, given the challenges of identifying spoilt papers in postal votes?

I have not been made aware of that specific issue, but I am quite happy to have a look into it and to work with the Electoral Management Board and the Electoral Commission to make sure that every vote does, indeed, count.

We have a number of supplementary questions. I will try to get through all of them.

I am a real fan of the single transferable vote, but having one ST vote every five years is a problem when all the other votes are marked with an X. Unlike Martin Whitfield, I realised that people were marking their ballot papers with multiple Xs, despite what polling station staff were doing. Does the minister think that we can continue with STV once every five years?

As John Mason will be aware, the STV system takes us away from the traditional cross on the ballot paper. He will also be aware of the many benefits of STV. Although it has been in place since 2007, it is a less familiar process for voters. I agree that it is vital that people do not lose their vote, which is why I will continue to work with the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Management Board to explore what can be done. I would encourage all of us who are involved in the political process to engage with the public on the many benefits of the STV voting process.

There were more than 50 candidates in Midlothian, and there are such small margins between the winners and the losers in these votes. I noted that some returning officers were explaining the system to each voter who walked in, even if they said that they understood it. However, that was not happening at every polling station. Will the minister consider the instructions that were given to people who were working at the polling stations about what to say to explain the system to voters as they came in?

People at polling stations were well aware of how the system works. As I said, we have had the system since 2007. I say again that we have a responsibility, as members of political parties, to make sure that members of the public are aware of how the system works in the future.

Does the minister agree that it is time to have randomisation of ballot papers so that the influence of the alphabet is not as strong as it has proven to be over the past 15 years? In the current system, people whose name is higher up the ballot paper have a clear, distinct advantage—particularly new candidates who are standing for the same party. Therefore, Alasdair Allan could easily defeat Willie Wallace if the two of them were standing for the same council ward. The Scottish National Party has randomisation of ballot papers in its internal structures. Surely, it is about time the Scottish Government brought in randomisation for local government elections.

I think that you are mixing up your island communities, Mr Gibson.

Yes, Presiding Officer. I may have some skin in the game, as does my sister, who is a councillor in Renfrewshire, but I believe it is not as big a problem as many have made out. Again, it is down to us, as those who are involved in the political process, to ensure that the public are aware of how the system works and to think about how political parties can make sure that the vote is to the full capacity.

As I have said to everyone else, I am quite happy to work with anyone to see whether we can get a better system. I will work with the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Management Board to see whether there is anything else that can be done. However, until that day, we have a system that gives us a result that everyone agrees with and that everyone believes is the correct result. That is more important than just about anything else in the democratic process.

Covid-19 Recovery (Cross-Government Policies)

To ask the Scottish Government how its cross-Government Covid recovery policies can reassure clinically vulnerable members of the public. (S6O-01183)

The highest risk list ended on 31 May 2022, as we have strong clinical evidence to show that, as a result of the vaccination programme and new medicines, most people who were on the list are at no greater risk from Covid than the general population. The Scottish Government has written to those who were formerly on the highest risk list to provide advice and guidance.

The Scottish Government continues to promote the distance aware initiative, which helps people to feel more comfortable in public spaces, and we strongly recommend that people still follow basic mitigations such as ensuring adequate ventilation and wearing face coverings where appropriate. Our approach to testing in different groups of the population will also continue to be informed by clinical advice.

Alongside our evolving response to the pandemic, the Scottish Government’s Covid recovery strategy will continue to focus effort and resources on those who were most impacted during the pandemic, to ensure a fairer recovery.

Many constituents in the Highlands and Islands who have pre-existing conditions that make catching Covid—even now—more dangerous than it is likely to be for others have been in touch with me to seek better protection from the virus. How can people, particularly those who are not eligible for boosters, remain safe now that restrictions have been lifted but Covid is still circulating?

I whole-heartedly sympathise with the point raised by Emma Roddick on behalf of her constituents and those who are more vulnerable to Covid. The Government’s advice, which I set out in my initial answer, is that people should follow sensible precautions. There is also an obligation on others within society to respect the position of people who feel more vulnerable. Those precautions would include the wearing of face coverings where that is appropriate, ensuring adequate ventilation and maintaining good hygiene.

We will, of course, continue to monitor the situation in relation to Covid, and, should there be any requirement for us to either change or intensify the advice, those steps will, of course, be taken.

We will have a couple of brief supplementaries and brief responses.

Asymptomatic testing has ended for carers and those who are cared for, antivirals are restricted, the platform adaptive trial of novel antivirals for early treatment of Covid-19 in the community does not apply in Scotland, and people aged over 80 who have Covid are being asked to travel distances—from Helensburgh to Oban in one example—to get antiviral treatment.

Those on the shielding list and carers feel abandoned. They were not reassured by a meeting that they had with the Scottish Government. With the BA.4 and BA.5 variants now causing concern, why has the cabinet secretary withdrawn or limited the very things that provide the vulnerable with reassurance?

A range of different measures remain in place that are designed to support those with vulnerabilities. Jackie Baillie mentioned the availability of antiviral medicine, and I know the effectiveness of that for people who are clinically assessed as being the ones who will benefit from it. [Interruption.]

Jackie Baillie continues to assert her question from a sedentary position, but my point is that a clinical assessment is undertaken, and I do not think that Jackie Baillie would be at the front of the queue to doubt the clinical assessments that have to be done.

There is a combination of the precautions that I talked about in my response to Emma Roddick a moment ago and the availability of focused treatments to support individuals, should they be in a position of clinical vulnerability. Of course, there is also the protection that is offered by a range of provisions in the vaccination strategy, which has insulated the population so effectively from the serious effects of Covid.

Public Health Scotland’s findings from its most recent survey of people on the high risk list shows that socioeconomic vulnerability remains the strongest association with on-going caution and fear of Covid-19 infection. Is there any further information on how cross-Government Covid recovery policies will respond to that?

Fundamentally, the Covid recovery strategy is focused on tackling inequality that existed before and that was exacerbated by Covid. Our efforts are now focused on ensuring that the socioeconomic inequalities that Stephanie Callaghan highlighted are addressed as a consequence of our cross-Government work on Covid recovery.

Net Zero (Parliamentary Debate)

To ask the Scottish Government when it will next propose a parliamentary debate on reaching net zero. (S6O-01184)

That is a matter for the Parliamentary Bureau. However, I note that, yesterday afternoon, the Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport gave a statement to the chamber—and responded to members’ questions—on progress towards Scotland’s statutory emissions reduction targets.

I thank the minister for that answer, but, given the Scottish National Party’s awful environmental record, this Parliament needs more opportunity for scrutiny. Just yesterday, as the minister alluded, we heard the cabinet secretary all but confirm that he expects next year’s emissions target to be missed. The flagship deposit return scheme has been delayed twice, the recycling rate is going backwards, and one in nine species is at risk of extinction. Can the minister see how that lack of debate looks like the Scottish Government is trying to hide from its failures?

It is hardly hiding when the Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport answered questions yesterday and said that we have hit our annual targets. However, should the member wish to explore those matters further, I suggest that he talk to Stephen Kerr, who is sitting on his right-hand side, and get him to bring the matter up at the Parliamentary Bureau, so that we can discuss it in the usual manner.

Karen Adam joins us remotely.

Covid-19 Recovery (Banffshire and Buchan Coast)

To ask the Scottish Government what policies and actions across Government will support people in the Banffshire and Buchan Coast constituency to recover from the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. (S6O-01185)

During the pandemic, the Scottish Government provided more than £4.7 billion in support to businesses in Scotland. Most recently, our £80 million Covid economic recovery fund is providing funding that affords local authorities the flexibility to target support for their businesses and communities. Aberdeenshire Council and Moray Council have been allocated £3.7 million and £1.3 million, respectively.

Further, since 2020, Aberdeenshire and Moray have benefited from the £6 million of additional support that the Scottish Government has provided to town and community partnerships and business improvement districts.

I thank the cabinet secretary for his answer and I welcome that investment. As the cabinet secretary will know, Banffshire and Buchan Coast is a rural, coastal constituency that has had unique challenges related to its geography and local industries. Covid has exaggerated the existing issues, which are compounded by Brexit and now the cost of living crisis. The fishing industry and ports are key to recovery because, when they thrive, the area and the people benefit. Will there be bespoke support, which is fitting for various specifics, rather than a blanket approach to recovery?

In providing the material that I have already given in my answer, I hope that I have reassured Karen Adam that the Government is targeting funding to particular localities where there is demonstrable need. Aberdeenshire and Moray councils have been funded appropriately in that respect.

The Government will continue to look at all funding streams, to make sure that they are relevant and will meet the challenges of different localities in the country. Specific funds, particularly in relation to the transition to net zero, are available only in the north-east of Scotland, which will be of relevance to the communities that Karen Adam represents.

Covid-19 (Booster Vaccination Programme)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the role that an autumn/winter Covid-19 booster vaccination programme will play in its Covid recovery strategy. (S6O-01186)

Since its beginning, the Scottish Government’s Covid-19 vaccination programme has been guided by expert advice, provided by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.

The JCVI’s interim advice in May recommends an autumn/winter 2022 booster programme for those people who are at higher risk of severe Covid-19. We are already working closely with national health service boards in line with that advice. The protection of the most vulnerable people in society continues to be of primary importance, and we stand ready to act on any further advice that recommends boosters for additional groups.

Alongside our evolving response to the pandemic, our Covid recovery strategy continues to focus effort and resources on bringing about a fairer future, particularly for those who are most impacted by Covid-19.

I appreciate that we await the final advice from the JCVI on the autumn/winter booster vaccination, but people in my Cowdenbeath constituency, and across Scotland, would like to know whether they will get the booster. Can the cabinet secretary provide an update on when that information is likely to be forthcoming, and can he confirm that the timing will be sufficient for the Scottish Government to put in place the necessary arrangements should the JCVI widen out the list of those who are eligible?

At this stage, I am unable to give Annabelle Ewing a definitive timetable, but I quite understand the concerns that she raised and the points that she has articulated on behalf of her constituents in Cowdenbeath.

The JCVI is an independent committee and it is, correctly, taking time to review the emerging clinical evidence including, crucially, the information on vaccine waning, infection rates and hospitalisation. I am certain that, once the JCVI has had the opportunity to do that, it will publish its findings accordingly.

I reassure Annabelle Ewing that, as we have demonstrated over the past 18 months or so, the Government and our health boards are ready to deploy vaccination activity. The vaccination programme has been an extraordinary success, given the scale at which it has been carried out, and I pay tribute to those who have organised and delivered the programme. I assure Annabelle Ewing and her constituents in Cowdenbeath that the same arrangements will be in place if required on the basis of the JCVI’s advice.

I have been contacted by a constituent who received an invitation by letter to attend for a spring booster vaccination. After he registered at the vaccination centre on 22 April 2022 and made his way to the vaccination cubicle, the nurse advised him that she could not administer the booster because he was ineligible. The staff at the centre said that they had been turning away people with appointment letters all day because the wrong letters had been sent out.

Will the cabinet secretary advise why that blunder in the administration of vaccinations occurred, and can he provide reassurances that that error—which, no doubt, wasted valuable staff time and NHS costs, and which wasted patients’ time in having to travel—will not occur again?

The vaccination programme has been an extraordinary success and it has been undertaken at an extraordinary scale. Therefore, I will not stand in Parliament and say that a process at that scale will be error free. For members of Parliament to expect it to be error free is on the ambitious side, if I can put it delicately.

Every effort is made to ensure that vaccinations are delivered timeously and conveniently to members of the public. If there is an error involved, I apologise for that—I want nobody to be inconvenienced and nobody’s time to be wasted—but, given the scale of the vaccination programme that we have undertaken, the number of errors that have occurred has been kept to an absolute minimum, which is a tribute to everyone who is involved in running the programme.

The booster programmes are vital in Covid recovery, as they protect the most vulnerable and, crucially, give confidence to many unpaid carers who feel left behind as things move forward.

The interim guidance for the coming winter booster programme does not include unpaid carers. From speaking to carers, I know that that is of great concern, particularly with the advent of the BA.4 and BA.5 variants and the impact on those for whom they care.

Will the Deputy First Minister commit to working with the health secretary to deliver winter boosters for unpaid carers? What further action is the Government taking to support unpaid carers, many of whom feel abandoned, in the recovery from Covid-19?

As I explained in my answer to Annabelle Ewing, guidance on the distribution of any booster vaccination is given to the Government by the JCVI. Governments of all political persuasions have followed the advice of the JCVI in undertaking vaccination programmes over many years, and the Government will listen very carefully to the advice that we receive from the JCVI, which will specify which groups should be eligible for the vaccination.

Carers are in receipt of much greater support in Scotland than in other parts of the United Kingdom, given the carers allowance supplement that is available here. Mr O’Kane will be familiar with the details of that, and he is welcome to promote it to carers, just as the Government promotes awareness of that benefit to carers. Carers do a phenomenal amount of work to benefit our society. I express my warmest thanks to them and hope that those who are eligible for that support are able to access it.

Freedom of Information Requests (Scottish Government)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the Scottish Information Commissioner’s progress report on its handling of freedom of information requests. (S6O-01187)

I have written to the Scottish Information Commissioner, welcoming the report. I am pleased that the commissioner has recognised a number of areas in which the Scottish Government has made improvement. However, I also recognise that the report identifies significant areas in which further work is needed. Work is currently under way to develop the next phase of our improvement plan, in response to the commissioner’s recommendations. We will share that publicly in the coming weeks.

I will ask the minister about one of those areas that requires improvement. I accept that the pandemic was a strain, but the complacency in two thirds of Government desks remaining empty shows no ambition to improve FOI response times. Presiding Officer, SNP special advisors are interfering with FOI responses, leaving no record of their involvement. SNP special advisers are evading accountability, remaining anonymous on official SPAD email accounts. Those are not my words but the findings of the information commissioner. Will the minister, in the spirit of the answer that he gave me a few moments ago, commit to immediately ending the SNP dark arts approach to public scrutiny?

As I have already said, we will undertake the extra work that we need to do to make things better. I recognise that there is a journey of improvement for us to complete. However, we should bear in mind that, in the nine months prior to the pandemic, the Scottish Government hit its target of 95 per cent. We are currently making improvements when and where they are needed, and we will work with the commissioner to ensure that that happens.

Does yesterday’s limited publication of the legal advice on an independence referendum not show a degree of contempt for the information commissioner? The legal advice that is of little interest to the public was released, while the legal advice that is in the public interest was kept secret. When will the Government honour its commitment to openness and publish the legal advice on whether it has the power to hold such a referendum?

We have released the legal advice that is required under the commissioner’s decision, as that does not merit the time and expense that would be required for an appeal. However, we disagree strongly with the commissioner’s reasoning and consider that there would be good grounds for a successful appeal to the Court of Session.

The United Kingdom and Scottish Governments observe a long-standing convention that Government does not disclose legal advice, other than in exceptional cases. In this case, we have released the information as required.

Question 7 was not lodged.

Covid Recovery Strategy (Local Authorities)

To ask the Scottish Government what assistance it is providing to local authorities as part of its Covid recovery strategy to help them resume normal services and manage staff absences. (S6O-01189)

The 2022-23 local government finance settlement of almost £12.7 billion provides local government with a fair and affordable settlement, even in challenging circumstances. As long as councils act lawfully and first fulfil their statutory obligations and jointly agreed national and local priorities, it is a matter for each council to manage its resources and use the total budget that it has available on the basis of local needs.

The Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities have agreed shared priorities for recovery that focus on targeting support for those who were most affected during the pandemic. Alongside the COSLA president, I chair the Covid recovery strategy programme board, which brings together a range of partners to co-ordinate activity, increase financial security for low-income households, enhance the wellbeing of children and young people, create good green jobs and fair work and deliver person-centred public services.

Some local authorities are really struggling with high absences due to Covid-19. What discussions has the Scottish Government had with COSLA and/or individual local authorities that are still heavily impacted by staff absences?

Local authorities are independent corporate bodies, separate from the Scottish Government. They have the means and sustainability to manage their own workforces. However, I regularly engage with COSLA on a range of issues, so, if there are any concerns on that question that local authorities wish to draw to my attention and to discuss through COSLA, I would be happy to discuss those issues.

In her statement to Parliament last week on the medium-term financial strategy, the finance secretary set out that local authorities will face an 8 per cent cut in their funding over the next four years. How does that level of cuts help them with Covid recovery?

There are, of course, a range of financial instruments available to local authorities in addition to the measures that were announced last week by the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy. The Government has always given a fair and affordable settlement to local government.

It is available to Mr Fraser to bring forward any alterations to the Government’s budget that he wishes to advance. We hear a lot of rhetoric on this question from the Conservatives, but we see absolutely no action or substance whatsoever. Until we get some action from the Conservatives, we will continue to deliver fair and affordable settlements for local government that enable them to deliver the public services on which we all depend.

Net Zero, Energy and Transport

The next portfolio is net zero, energy and transport. If a member wishes to ask a supplementary question, they should press their request-to-speak button or enter the letter R in the chat function during the relevant question.

Again, I appeal for succinct questions, with answers to match. Question 1 has not been lodged.

Offshore Wind (Leasing Process)

To ask the Scottish Government for what reason a maximum bidding price has been applied to commercial-scale ScotWind projects, but not to 100MW innovation projects looking to progress through the forthcoming innovation and targeted oil and gas leasing round. (S6O-01191)

Unlike ScotWind, innovation projects are likely to vary considerably in their design requirements, including sea-bed location. That presents significant challenges in setting an appropriate price cap. Therefore, Crown Estate Scotland has used an approach that allows the market to establish a fair price.

The ScotWind leasing round for large-scale commercial projects used a price cap to enable delivery of competitive projects that could maximise supply chain opportunities for Scotland, particularly in the deployment of emerging floating wind technologies.

I am not sure that the cabinet secretary actually explained why that cap is not in place elsewhere. Does he not recognise that having one rule for the ScotWind round and a different one for innovation projects means that companies that are focused on using innovative technology and largely Scottish supply chains were at a disadvantage compared with the big companies that have the deepest pockets and which are leasing Scotland’s sea beds on the cheap and will, inevitably, be using existing technology and largely global supply chains? That is bad news for Scottish jobs and for innovation.

I am not sure whether Colin Smyth has entirely recognised the purpose of the innovation and targeted oil and gas—INTOG—process. The INTOG scheme is specifically designed to support innovation projects for decarbonisation of oil and gas installations. Those projects do not use the same spatial parameters that we have for the ScotWind programme. INTOG is a very different type of programme that is targeted at decarbonisation of oil and gas installations and at helping to support innovation in achieving that. In addition, many of the INTOG programmes will not connect to the grid, but will serve directly only installations that they are decarbonising and other projects, as well.

Alongside that, I note that the leasing round was the first of its type in the world. As I set out, Crown Estate Scotland, in trying to establish a clear commercial narrative and cost around INTOG, has used an approach that it believes allows the market to determine costs. That approach also ensures that we get the innovation that we want and speeds up decarbonisation of the oil and gas sector.

Will the final decision on scoring criteria and weighting for INTOG leases for floating offshore wind projects be taken by Scottish ministers or by Crown Estate Scotland, and when will that decision be made?

The decision will be taken by Crown Estate Scotland.

Solar Energy Scotland (Report)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the Solar Energy Scotland report, “Scotland’s Fair Share: Solar’s role in achieving net-zero in Scotland”. (S6O-01192)

The Scottish Government recognises the importance of energy generation from solar photovoltaics in contributing to decarbonisation of Scotland’s energy supply and in helping us meet our targets for a net zero emissions society by 2045.

In support of that, the Scottish Government will this year work closely with Solar Energy Scotland representatives to support the development of a solar vision for Scotland. That work, done in consultation with the solar sector, will establish a vision for the future of solar energy to be included in the forthcoming energy strategy refresh and in the just transition plan.

The United Kingdom Government’s energy strategy presents a false choice between nuclear energy proliferation and continued reliance on Russian gas. New nuclear power will take 10 to 15 years to get up and running, at exorbitant costs, but simply cannot address the current energy and cost of living crises. Does the cabinet secretary agree that we should be fully focused on increasing our renewable energy outputs, including solar energy, which can be done in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost?

There is absolutely no doubt that anybody who knows the nuclear industry knows that it will not play a part in helping to tackle the current cost of living crisis and the very high costs that are associated with energy production at present. In fact, there is a risk that nuclear electricity production will actually push up domestic energy costs even further.

If we want to reduce energy costs, it is important that we do so in a way that is targeted at helping to reduce people’s energy demand through insulation programmes and the move to decarbonised energy systems, while speeding up decarbonisation of our energy sector overall. That is why moving much further towards renewables, pumped-storage hydro and battery storage are critical to ensuring that we reduce the costs of energy overall and that we do so in a speedy way—a way that nuclear energy would not be able to provide.

I note that Jesse Norman, who is a former energy minister, pointed out just this week that the UK Government’s proposal to build a new nuclear power station year is highly unlikely to happen any time in the next decade.

Will the work that the cabinet secretary talked about doing with the solar sector cover planning and taxation? On planning and taxation grounds, the UK Government has lifted the limit to beyond 50kW for roof solar schemes. Scotland imposes higher taxes and greater planning restrictions. Is not it time to stop putting barriers in the way of businesses that want to do their bit for the climate?

I am not entirely sure what Willie Rennie’s point was in relation to tax. If he is referring to VAT, he will be aware that it is reserved to the UK Government.

Planning and how to make greater use of solar power will, of course, be among the issues that we consider as we take forward the work. I am sure that the member will want to be generous in recognising that Scotland has been leading the way in pushing forward with renewable energy. He can be assured that the new energy strategy will reflect that, and that solar will be an important part of it.

Marine Environment (Protection)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to ensure that the marine environment is protected. (S6O-01193)

The Scottish Government’s vision is for clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse seas that are managed to meet the long-term needs of nature and people. Our programme for government sets out measures to continue protecting and enhancing our marine environment, including via species protection.

Already, 37 per cent of our seas are designated as marine protected areas, which exceeds the global target of 30 per cent by 2030 that is currently being negotiated. We will implement the remaining protective management measures for sites by 2024 and will, in line with the European Union’s ambition, introduce highly protected marine areas covering at least 10 per cent of our seas by 2026, which is also ahead of global commitments.

Next week, all marine protection vessels will be tied up because mariners are on strike because of an imposed pay deal. Marine Scotland has refused to negotiate and has thrown striking workers off the vessels, leaving them homeless. That is the Scottish Government using P&O tactics against its own workers. In the meantime, our waters are not being policed and our protected areas are unprotected. What steps is the minister taking to protect our valuable fishing grounds and protected areas during the strike action? What steps is she taking to resolve the situation and negotiate with the rightly aggrieved workers?

It is inaccurate to draw any comparison whatsoever between the Scottish Government and Marine Scotland’s activities and P&O’s activities. A number of constructive meetings have taken place between Marine Scotland and Unite, and various options have been explored in trying to resolve the dispute, including proposed commitments on future reforms to pay structures, which would address a number of Unite members’ concerns. Although an agreed way forward has not been reached to date, the Scottish Government remains committed to collective bargaining and further dialogue in order to resolve the matters.

Renewables (2030 Target)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on whether its target of generating 50 per cent of energy use from renewables by 2030 is sufficiently ambitious in light of new opportunities arising for Scotland. (S6O-01194)

The 2017 Scottish energy strategy set out a target for generating and supplying the equivalent of 50 per cent of energy for heat, transport and electricity in Scotland from renewable sources. A review of the 2017 targets will be considered as part of the forthcoming energy strategy refresh and just transition plan, which will be published for consultation in the autumn.

The strategy will also take into account the role of alternative fuels such as hydrogen as means of providing low-cost energy security and export opportunities for Scotland, given the current global situation.

The current capacity of renewables is just over 12GW, and there are plans for a further 15GW. In addition, the ScotWind leasing round is expected to deliver 25GW. That will represent a more than fourfold increase in Scottish renewable energy production and will meet all Scotland’s current energy demands. That will be far in excess of the 2030 target. Does the cabinet secretary agree that that represents a huge opportunity for Scotland? Will he ensure that every chance is taken to help everyone in Scotland to understand that that is a bounty that will serve us and all our futures, in perpetuity?

I agree that we are in a strong and robust position to move forward with development of our renewable energy sector in Scotland. That has been the case over the past decade, and I have absolutely no doubt that it will continue to be the case in the years ahead.

As Michelle Thomson will be aware, we have the ambition of tripling our capacity for renewable energy generation by 2030. We want to do everything that we can in order to achieve that and to remove barriers, including transmission charges, that continue to limit the capacity and development of some areas in the renewable energy sector.

I assure the member that we want to maximise what we are doing not only for domestic purposes but to capitalise on the growing international desire for expansion in areas such as renewable hydrogen. Countries like Scotland can play a major part in supporting the decarbonisation of major European economies that consider that green hydrogen will be a major source of their energy use in the decades ahead. Scotland can play a big part by supplying those markets, which will generate economic and social benefits here in Scotland.

Last week, I asked a junior minister from what source Scotland will get the 38 per cent of firm power—not power that is dependent on the weather or batteries—that the Climate Change Committee says will be required, but their script did not even begin to answer the question. Will the cabinet secretary provide a straight answer? From what source will the firm power come?

Everyone recognises the importance of firm, or dispatchable, power in our network. The Conservatives think that nuclear power is the best approach, but nuclear power generation is one of the most inflexible forms of energy generation. We will ensure that we have dispatchable energy through hydro pumped storage and battery storage; those are the main ways in which it can be delivered.

Liam Kerr should recognise that one of the inhibitors to Scotland’s realising some of that potential is that the United Kingdom Government, which controls access to the market, does not have a market mechanism to allow the development and expansion of hydro-pumped storage in Scotland. Maximising that storage would deliver the dispatchable or firm source that we require, and it would avoid the unnecessary costs, including environmental costs, of nuclear power.

Railway Stations (Accessibility)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to make railway stations accessible for disabled people. (S6O-01195)

Even though accessibility remains a reserved matter, Transport Scotland continues to seek to improve accessibility as part of wider rail enhancements and the decarbonisation programme. New stations at Inverness airport and at Hairmyres, on the East Kilbride route, and the two on the Leven line, will be fully accessible. The Scottish Government will also provide funding for step-free access at Aviemore, Pitlochry, Nairn and Kingussie stations. Additionally, six stations secured funding from the access for all programme, including Anniesland, Croy, Dumfries, Johnstone, Port Glasgow and Uddingston.

I welcome the Scottish Government’s position. It is important that train stations are safe and fully accessible to all. A number of constituents have contacted me regarding difficulty in accessing Clydebank train station. Does the minister support my position that accessibility arrangements need to be renewed and improvements made that help meet the needs of disabled people who use the station?

Absolutely. We need greater accessibility at our rail stations across the country. To that end, I was pleased to meet Disability Equality Scotland this morning to discuss some of the challenges that its members face in relation to the rail network.

In the second strategic transport projects review, there is a recommendation relating to

“Infrastructure to provide access for all at rail stations”,

which involves

“a review of station accessibility across Scotland to identify barriers and improve access for all to the rail network.”

It is worth reiterating that rail accessibility currently remains a matter that is reserved to the United Kingdom Government. In the light of that review and in order to progress that recommendation, my officials in Transport Scotland have been working closely with the Department for Transport on an accessibility audit of all Great Britain’s rail stations to ensure that maximum benefit is derived from all available funding.

Accessibility improvements for Clydebank station will form part of the considerations of the recommendation that is set out in STPR2. I hope that that reassures the member on that point.

That was a very encouraging answer from the minister. I was going to ask her whether she would commit to conducting such an audit, and she has. What is the timescale for that? Having that information would be extremely useful for disabled people across Scotland.

I do not have a note in front of me of the timescales that are involved, but I am happy to write to the member with more detail.

Road Infrastructure (North East Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on future road infrastructure projects in the north-east. (S6O-01196)

The Scottish Government remains committed to improving infrastructure in the north-east, as is evidenced by the recent opening of improvements at Haudagain on 16 May. We remain committed to making improvements to the A96 with a transparent, evidence-based review of the corridor that is under way, which will report by the end of 2022. Additionally, we continue to progress proposed improvements at Laurencekirk junction through the statutory process.

For the longer term, the second strategic transport projects review sets out recommendations for strategic roads, which focus on safety, climate change adaptation and resilience.

Earlier this year, the Scottish Government released its national transport strategy and, as my colleague Liam Kerr identified, the document failed to mention the notorious Toll of Birness junction. Upgrading that junction and the wider A90 will not only make a huge difference to the lives of those people who live and work in the north-east, and serve as a catalyst for economic growth, but come with the potential of dramatically reducing the number of horrific accidents and saving lives. Traffic assessments that were done nearly five years ago show that the junction will be almost unusable in the future. With that in mind, will the minister commit to upgrading the junction and bring much needed safety to commuters in Aberdeenshire?

Of course, consideration of safety improvements on the A90 at the Toll of Birness and Cortes junctions can now be undertaken as part of the wider STPR2 road safety recommendation, which is recommendation 30. That recommendation focuses on

“trunk road and motorway safety improvements”

to progress towards vision zero. Where junction upgrades are needed to support that development in line with Scottish planning policy, developers need to mitigate their impact, which might include upgrading junctions where a safety issue arises as a result of that development.

I recognise the member’s interest in relation to that issue particularly, and I am more than happy to write to him with more detail in relation to the time that has elapsed since that issue was first raised, and more broadly in relation to the recommendations that sit within STPR2.

Bearing in mind that the question is on road infrastructure projects in the north-east, I call a supplementary from Paul McLennan.

Cars will continue to have a role to play in the travel arrangements of people in our rural communities for some time. Given that we know the role that cars play in our transport-related emissions, and given that the world is on course to exceed the 1.5°C of global warming threshold, does the minister agree that decisions that regard the building of our future roads and infrastructure projects throughout Scotland must be considered in terms of their potential environmental impact?

That question was not really to do with road infrastructure projects in the north-east, but if there is anything you could offer by way of response, I invite you to do so, minister.

We are committed to zero emissions from transport and to decarbonising all modes of travel, including by road and in the north-east of Scotland. Our commitment to achieving net zero in transport is clearly set out in the vision and the outcomes of our national transport strategy.

Railway Stations (Safety)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to improve safety at train stations. (S6O-01197)

Keeping passengers and staff safe on Scotland’s railways is our absolute priority. ScotRail has one of the largest closed-circuit television networks in the United Kingdom, with more than 6,000 cameras monitoring more than 350 stations. There are also help points on every platform that allow passengers and staff to connect to a customer information adviser, 24 hours a day. The team speaks through the intercom and uses the CCTV cameras to view passengers and staff in the station. The team is trained to report any antisocial and threatening behaviour to British Transport Police, which is responsible for monitoring safety at our stations.

In recent months, there have been a number of deeply distressing and serious incidents at train stations in my constituency. In some of those incidents, people have lost their lives, which can be very upsetting for the community as a whole. Does the minister share my view that we need to do everything possible to assure the public that they can travel by train with confidence and enjoy the benefits of using Scotland’s environmentally friendly and publicly owned trains?

I whole-heartedly agree that passengers and staff should all feel safe to travel on the rail network without fear of antisocial behaviour. However, I must state that the railway in Scotland overall is a safe environment to travel in, notwithstanding some of Mr MacGregor’s points this afternoon. This was one of several topics that I raised with the chief constable of British Transport Police and the chief superintendent of British Transport Police Scotland when I met them recently. BTP has confirmed that patrols are being redirected and officers are being deployed to known hotspots to prevent antisocial behaviour and other associated crimes. It is also piloting joint patrols with ScotRail Trains to provide a travel safe team in those areas.

It is hoped that an extension of the travel safe teams’ abilities will be further provided and that that will increase the number available in terms of support.

That concludes portfolio questions. There will be a slight pause before we move to the next item of business and I encourage members who have just come into the chamber not to begin chatting as soon as they have done so.