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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 08 September 2020

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Baroness Cumberlege Report, Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Business Motion, Decision Time, Alcohol Foetal Spectrum Disorders


Topical Question Time

Covid-19 (Increase in Cases)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the recent rise in Covid-19 cases to a level not seen since May 2020. (S5T-02368)

The recent rise in Covid cases, although not unexpected as lockdown restrictions ease, is still unwelcome. This is the experience of most countries that are impacted by Covid-19. The Scottish Government has had to take action, in consultation with some local authorities, to address that increase, and further measures may require to be taken.

Test and protect is working well and doing exactly what we need it to do, which is to identify positive cases early and trace contacts so that they can get appropriate public health advice. Fluctuations in demand have been anticipated, and we have acted immediately to bring additional testing capacity online to manage the recent surge in demand across the country. That has included deploying three mobile testing units, improving the accessibility of testing and further work to increase laboratory capacity in Scotland. Later this month, we will launch the protect Scotland proximity tracing app to complement the proven person-to-person approach of test and protect.

The Scottish Greens have strongly supported a precautionary approach to managing the Covid-19 outbreak, and so, like many, we are increasingly concerned about the public health implications of the end of the furlough scheme. Can the cabinet secretary say to what extent the end of furlough is removing the option of local restrictions to deal with outbreaks?

The Scottish Government is arguing for a continuation of the furlough scheme for a longer period. The experience in Scotland is not dissimilar to that of other countries where local lockdowns or restrictions are having to be applied that raise issues of financial sustainability for the individuals for whom furlough arrangements are relevant.

We would always take the approach that we must base decisions on the public health interest. We will continue to argue for financial support to be in place for individuals who are affected by any form of restriction that is driven by the public health advice, but I reassure Alison Johnstone and Parliament that public health considerations are uppermost in the decision making of the Scottish ministers.

There have now been a number of incidents of transmission in schools. A recent Educational Institute of Scotland survey shows that social distancing is often absent in high schools. Is the cabinet secretary concerned about the contribution that that could be making to the resurgence of Covid across Scotland? What measures are being taken to ensure that we are doing absolutely all that we can to better protect pupils and teachers?

I would challenge the premise of the question, to an extent. Although cases have emerged among the school-age population and the teaching population, there is very little evidence that those cases have arisen because of in-school transmission of the virus; they are much more to do with transmission within the community. Nonetheless, I accept that there are certain circumstances in which in-school transmission has happened to a limited extent.

Through the education recovery group, we have put out clear guidance to schools on the mitigation measures that must be in place. Alison Johnstone will be familiar with the fact that the Government strengthened those mitigations by applying the requirement that face coverings should be worn in communal areas and corridors in secondary schools and when movement is being undertaken, to minimise the risk of transmission.

I would encourage all interested parties to follow the guidance, which requires there to be physical distancing in schools among adults and between adults and young people. I hope that the measures are followed in all circumstances. I think that there has been extensive compliance on the wearing of face coverings in schools.

How is the Scottish Government expanding testing capacity, particularly as we approach the winter months, when we know that there is likely to be an increased demand due to the prevalence of symptoms of common colds and flu?

As I indicated in my original answer, we are taking various steps to expand the testing capacity around the country and to ensure that Scotland is prepared for anticipated winter pressures. Our planned maximum sampling capacity will be around 41,000 tests per day by the end of October. That will consist of mobile testing units, regional testing centres, the social care portal, home test kits, community testing and national health service testing. We also intend to have 11 walk-through centres—one of which, at St Andrews, is already operational—which will increase sampling capacity by a further 3,300 tests per day.

Can the Deputy First Minister confirm that the restrictions on liberty imposed by the First Minister in greater Glasgow are lawful?


School Leaders (Workloads)

To ask the Scottish Government how it will respond to reports from school leaders that they are facing “excessive” and “unsustainable” workloads. (S5T-02364)

I do not underestimate the extraordinary efforts that are being made by all school staff. Their work to welcome our children and young people back into schools in challenging circumstances is vital. Our guidance on school reopening, which has been developed in partnership with the Covid-19 education recovery group, makes it clear that the health and wellbeing of staff is a key principle of education recovery. Education Scotland, the General Teaching Council of Scotland and other national organisations, along with local authorities, currently provide a range of support to the workforce, including employee assistance programmes and online professional learning. We will also shortly launch a new and focused package of support for school staff that has been developed with the education recovery group. Furthermore, we have provided £80 million to local authorities, which is enough to recruit around 1,400 additional teachers and 200 support staff to bring much-needed resilience to the education system.

Does the Deputy First Minister understand the pressure that was put on heads and deputy headteachers by the sudden shift from preparation for blended learning to preparation for a full-time return? That pressure has continued as they now try to keep pupils and staff safe, keep parents informed, ensure that health measures are complied with and deal with staff who are ill or self-isolating. Does he accept that headteachers cannot do all that and lead learning in their schools as they would wish to? What real practical help can he offer them?

I accept in all circumstances the demands that are placed on school leaders as they navigate their way through the extraordinary circumstances that we have to deal with in the current context. I am confident, from my dialogue with senior education leaders and individual schools, that although the demands are significant, school leaders are committed to ensuring that schools are safe and strong places of learning and teaching. As I indicated in my previous answer, Education Scotland is providing support to schools to enhance the work that is undertaken by local authorities. We are putting in place a package of support that has been designed by the education recovery group to provide further assistance, and we are trying to ensure that there are more teaching resources on the ground to assist in the delivery of learning and teaching for young people across the country.

Headteachers’ commitment is not in question, but they are hardly helped by the failure of Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority to come up with guidance for the teaching of practical subjects and changes to curriculums and courses for exams for teachers who are already trying to teach those courses and headteachers who are trying to manage those teachers. When will the cabinet secretary get the SQA and Education Scotland to step up and play their part?

Both organisations are making their contribution to addressing those issues. For example, the SQA is wrestling with a number of very different views in relation to the consultation on the approach that is to be taken for examination in 2021, and Education Scotland is providing practical assistance to individual schools around the country and the strong digital learning platform that will be essential for young people should their education be interrupted at an individual, class or school level as a consequence of Covid. I am confident that those national organisations are making their contribution and that they will continue to contribute to the work of the education recovery group, which brings together the interests and the perspective of all stakeholders in education, including the professional associations.

How will the £45 million for schools to recruit additional teachers and the £5 million for teaching assistants and other support staff help to alleviate the pressures on senior management in our schools? What discussions has the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills had with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on the recruitment of the additional teaching and support staff?

We recognise the challenges that individual schools face, which is why we have taken steps to expand the workforce.

The most recent information that I have is that local authorities have recruited an additional 740 teachers and that plans are in place for the recruitment of another 250. We expect that number to increase over the coming weeks as schools continue to assess the needs of children and young people.

We remain in continuous dialogue with local authorities about the progress in utilising those resources to expand the teaching workforce.

It was worrying enough that, during the lockdown, many pupils struggled to access online learning because of a lack of information technology and infrastructure. We have now learned, from a survey by the Educational Institute of Scotland, that many teachers, headteachers and school staff are also struggling with IT infrastructure and connectivity. If blended learning, as a contingency, is going to work, they must be given everything that they need. It is not good enough to say that it is a matter for local councils. What leadership is Education Scotland taking?

It is a matter for local authorities, because local authorities have a statutory duty to deliver education. That might not suit Mr Greene’s political narrative, but it is what the law says.

Schools must be supported by their local authorities, which must deliver the leadership and the practical support to ensure that school staff—who are their employees—have all the equipment that they require. It is for local authorities to take that work forward.

The Government supports and enhances it. We have delivered additional devices to local authorities, to which we have added new resources to make it easier for those commitments to be deployed. It is important that every member of staff and every pupil has access to the digital technology that will enable them to fully participate in learning and teaching.

Those reports on excessive and unsustainable workloads should serve as a reminder that real people are at the other end of decisions on such matters.

On top of working throughout the pandemic, schools and their staff have had to work around U-turns from the Scottish Government. The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills waited until the last days of term to score out the first unworkable plan, after teachers had spent weeks wrestling with it. That made working through the summer inevitable.

Does the cabinet secretary know how much overtime was accrued over the summer?

The kind of terminology that Beatrice Wishart chooses to use does not help in the debate.

I do not think that it is a matter of regret that there was a significant reduction in the prevalence of Covid in May and June, which resulted in our being able to contemplate the full-time reopening of schools. I would have thought that that would have been something to welcome, as opposed to something to complain about. Members need to think carefully about the implications of some of the things that they say.

We have a perfectly robust approach to blended learning, which we may need to use if education becomes interrupted because of Covid. I do not want that to be the case.

I have just answered a question from Alison Johnstone about the increased prevalence of Covid. I do not want its prevalence to increase, but, if it does, that will increase the risk to our ability to deliver full-time education. We can deliver it; we were the first part of the United Kingdom to be able to return our schools full-time, as a consequence of commitments by members of the public to reduce the prevalence of Covid. We should welcome that rather than complain about it.

Drug Consumption (Safe Facilities Report)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding the Scottish Affairs Committee report on safe drug consumption facilities. (S5T-02371)

The Scottish Affairs Committee inquiry into problem drug use in Scotland took place in 2019 and I gave evidence on 9 July 2019. The United Kingdom Government’s response was published yesterday, and I have already put on record my disappointment that it has rejected the majority of the committee’s recommendations—of the 19 recommendations that the committee made, the UK Government rejected 16.

I am sure that the minister was as disappointed as I was to hear that the UK Government does not accept that problem drug use is singularly a health issue and that it has rejected the recommendations in the Scottish Affairs Committee report.

Given that, in Scotland, we recognise the severity of the public health emergency, will the Scottish Government continue to press the UK Government to either change the law or devolve the powers so that we can take the action that is necessary to reduce the harms and deaths associated with drug use?

The UK Government’s determination to have a justice-based focus rather than a public health focus on the matter is hugely depressing. I fully intend to continue to press the UK Government to take action on a variety of matters where it is needed in order to tackle the public health emergency that we are facing in relation to drug deaths.

For example, I want to see action taken to regulate pill-pressing machines and to amend the legislation to expand the ways in which naloxone can be distributed. We are clear that we want to tackle the issue using an evidence-based, health-focused approach. However, our ability to implement several aspects of that is being frustrated by areas in which legislation is reserved and the refusal of the UK Government to take action that will help us to save lives.

Has the drug deaths task force continued its work during the Covid-19 pandemic? What further steps will it take in the future?

The task force has continued to meet—virtually—throughout the pandemic. It has worked to implement a range of actions to mitigate the increased risks during the pandemic for those who are already at risk as a result of drug use. Action has been taken and lessons have been learned in several areas. We can make use of that learning after the pandemic to improve the support that we give to people across Scotland.

In 2007, there were approximately 352 rehab beds in Scotland. In the 10 years since then, the number has dropped to fewer than 70—282 rehab beds have been cut under the Scottish Government. Surely, the first priority should be to increase the number of people accessing treatment and to reverse the cuts to the drug and alcohol partnerships that have been made by the Government?

It is really important that we do not have the illusion that there is one silver bullet. All the support that we provide to people is important. That is why I have said previously to Parliament, and to the spokespeople when we have been discussing drugs, that we are looking at whether the pathways into rehabilitation are appropriate and properly accessible. One thing that we have been looking at during the pandemic is a national route from prison through to rehabilitation. That appears to have been successful, and we might look to expand that model.

To improve the range of options and pathways that are available, we have established a working group to consider the provision of residential rehabilitation services and make recommendations to strengthen referral pathways. That work is being chaired by David McCartney, who is the clinical lead for the Lothians and Edinburgh abstinence programme. I look forward to bringing further news on that work to the Parliament in due course.

The Tory approach to Scotland’s drugs crisis is ridiculous and a disgrace. However, there is a huge amount that we, in Scotland, can do in relation to the mental and physical health of drug users, residential rehab, policy co-ordination, care, policing and much more. Will the minister stop looking at this desperate situation through a constitutional lens and instead take the decisions that he has the power to take to save lives—not in another year’s time or in five years’ time, but now?

I have tried very hard not to look at the issue through a constitutional lens, but we have to realise and accept that there is an uncomfortable interface between the public health and justice approaches, both of which are devolved, and drugs legislation, which is reserved. There is no question but that that interface is making it difficult for us, here in Scotland, to take all the actions that we could take. No one is suggesting that the actions on which we can work with the UK Government in relation to pill presses and safe consumption places are a silver bullet; a lot of other work is going on.

Prior to the pandemic, I spent a great deal of time going around and speaking directly to service users and service providers all across Scotland. It is very difficult to do that just now, under the restrictions because of the pandemic, but it is important that we listen directly to the voices of people who use and provide such services. I am continuing to try to do that as best I can, and the task force is working hard alongside us to do that. There is a huge amount of work to do, and we are undertaking that work at pace.

The minister is correct in saying that there is no silver bullet, and I commend him for his work in pursuing the safe consumption room policy. Will he be equally strong in advocating for the Portuguese-style commissions that have helped to deal with the drug problem in that country?

There is no question but that the public health approach that was taken in Portugal some 20 years ago has led to the country going from having one of the highest levels of drug deaths in Europe to now having one of the lowest. It has been a remarkable transformation. It is clear that we cannot take a legal or health system from one country and implant it directly in another, but there are huge lessons for Scotland from Portugal, Canada and lots of places in Europe. Safe consumption facilities are just one example of a public health approach that is saving lives right across the world. I really hope that, when I meet the UK minister on two occasions later this month, he will have found a way to square that circle and to move from a justice-based approach to a public health approach, which, as international evidence shows, will save lives.

I do not have time to take all the questions today. I apologise to colleagues who have missed out.

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Earlier in the session, the Deputy First Minister confirmed to me that the restrictions of liberty that have been imposed on more than 1 million people are lawful. When I raised a point of order last week, you pointed out that no regulations to change the law had been laid and that the imposed restrictions were simply guidance or advice. As I recall, you said to the First Minister that, if the law were to be changed, regulations would need to be laid. I am concerned about whether our proper parliamentary procedures are being followed; that is what I am trying to find out.

Presiding Officer, I ask you again: have regulations to change the law to restrict people’s liberty in Glasgow now been laid before Parliament, or do the restrictions continue to be guidance or advice, as was the case last week? The reason that I ask is that, as an MSP, I for one have been approached by people who are affected by the restrictions. As a result of the intervention last week, I have been saying that the restrictions are good advice and guidance, but they are not the law. I think that there is confusion, and I want to know whether the regulations to change the law have been laid, because, according to the Deputy First Minister, the actions of the First Minister are, indeed, lawful.

I thank Mr Rumbles for the point of order. I cannot do much more than repeat the advice that I gave last week, which is that the term “restrictions” is used to cover both voluntary guidance and matters for regulations. All regulations are laid before Parliament. If a change in the law is being made, regulations are laid before Parliament, which has the chance to express its view on them. It is for the Scottish Government to clarify whether, in this case, the restrictions are guidance, statutory guidance or regulations.

That is not a point of order for the chair; it is a matter for the member to put to the minister or ministers in the form of either a written or an oral question, or to raise at other opportunities in Parliament. I hope that that addresses the point of order.

No. Forgive me, but can I follow up on that point? I am genuinely trying to seek the reality here. Regulations needs to be laid before parliamentary authorities, and they must know whether those regulations have, indeed, been laid. It would be immensely helpful if we knew. If they have not been laid, there is no change to the law. What I am trying to find out is simple, and I have not found out since I raised a point of order last week. It is important because more than 1 million people are affected. I need to know—and I think that MSPs need to know to fulfil their duties—whether this is a change in the law or simply advice, because if it is a change in the law, the police will enforce it, but if it is not, they will not.

There is nothing wrong with Mr Rumbles’s line of questioning on the information that he wishes to elucidate. However, I suggest that it is not a matter for me, as the Presiding Officer, because it does not affect the order of this Parliament or relate to the standing orders.

I am trying to clarify that the member is quite at liberty to put a question to the minister on various occasions—in fact, he had an opportunity earlier, and I am sure that there will be others this week. He can do so in writing or he may be able to approach parliamentary staff in the Scottish Parliament information centre; they would certainly be able to clarify whether any regulations have been laid. However, it might be that the regulations are delayed. The member will know that, sometimes, orders are made and the regulations come in after those orders take effect. They have to be passed by the Parliament, and there might be a delay.

It is a matter for the Government, not the Parliament, to clarify. However, the Parliament can certainly assist in providing that information. I hope that that is helpful.