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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, December 8, 2016

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Doon Valley Boxing Club, Disability Delivery Plan, Intergovernmental Relations, Business Motion, Decision Time


General Question Time

Highlands and Islands Enterprise

1. Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government whether decisions regarding Highlands and Islands Enterprise economic development and social support spending will be made locally by people who live and work in the area. (S5O-00449)

Highlands and Islands Enterprise will continue to be locally based, managed and directed to provide dedicated support to the Highlands and Islands economy.

Rhoda Grant

At what level of financial assistance will HIE staff have to revert to the board for a decision? Although the Government insists that there is support for its plan for an overarching board, none of the 126 published responses shows that support. Could it be that everyone else wants major decisions relating to the Highlands and Islands to be taken in the Highlands and Islands?

Keith Brown

On financial matters, I said last week in the chamber that decision making remains with Highlands and Islands Enterprise. Issues relating to governance are being taken forward by a number of people in the ministerial review group, which includes people from the Highlands and Islands.

I disagree with the number that Rhoda Grant has given: more than 300 individuals or groups responded, and within those responses a substantial number, including from Skills Development Scotland, Scottish Enterprise and Strathclyde University, talked about the need for an overarching strategic board, so there is evidence of support for that.

It has been our view that what HIE currently does, it does very well, but it is also the case that some other things that have been brought to the Highlands, such as the first-ever Government commitment to the dualling of the A9 and the A96—no previous Government did that—and the establishment of a city deal, as well as the work that has been done by Fergus Ewing on the Rio Tinto investments, have happened in addition to what HIE has done. We want to ensure that more of that happens, so it could well be the case that HIE—far from the picture that is being painted by Rhoda Grant and others—ends up with more authority and more powers than it had at the start of the review.

Kate Forbes (Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch) (SNP)

When HIE’s predecessor, the Highlands and Islands Development Board, was first established, its founder, Willie Ross, said that the Highlands needed an agency with the powers to “deal comprehensively” with every obstacle in the way of economic and social improvement. Will HIE continue to be in a position to do that?

Keith Brown

The Government has made it clear that we will maintain the dedicated support, including HIE’s remit to strengthen communities, that is the basis of Kate Forbes’s question. That remit will be locally based, managed and directed by HIE and will protect the unique services that HIE delivers for our Highlands and Islands economy. As I said in my response to Rhoda Grant, it is our intention that HIE be more than that—not least in terms of skills, and certainly in terms of support for attracting international investment, in which we believe more can be done in respect of the activities of HIE. The vital components of what HIE has done until now will remain, but with additional powers and support from the other agencies that are subject to the review.

Donald Cameron (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

The cabinet secretary will be aware that the campaign to save the HIE board has received support from its former chairman and a member of his party, the respected Professor Jim Hunter, who not only accused the Government of committing an “assault” on HIE’s founding principles but said:

“In a country as diverse as ours ... this centralism run riot needs resisting.”

Does the cabinet secretary agree with those comments by a member of his own party?

Keith Brown

It is fair to say that the SNP is a broad church, and that we include people with different views, which is important in a democratic party and gives the lie to previous accusations from the Conservatives.

However, it is important to recognise, as I have done already, that the Highlands and Islands development agency has substantial support in the Highlands for the work that it has done over many years. That is why we have said that we intend to maintain Highlands and Islands Enterprise. It will be enshrined, as it is now, as a legal agency, and the chief executive and staff will remain, so the people who provide the vital services that I mentioned will remain. However, as I have said in my two previous responses, we think that it is possible to build on what has been done and to achieve even more.

Jim Clark Rally

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to concerns regarding the future of the Jim Clark rally. (S5O-00450)

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport (Shona Robison)

The Scottish Government recognises the importance of events such as the Jim Clark rally, but we need to balance the potential for economic benefit from such events with the imperative for a high degree of safety, both for spectators and road users.

John Lamont

I welcome the fact that progress is now being made on the investigations into the tragic events of 2014. The Jim Clark rally contributes greatly to the Borders economy, and its loss over the past few years has impacted significantly on local businesses. Thoughts are now turning to the 2017 event, which the organisers have told me is within weeks of being cancelled.

Will the Government do all that it can, alongside Police Scotland and Scottish Borders Council, to facilitate the holding of a closed-road rally event next year? Will she confirm that the holding of a fatal accident inquiry does not preclude the rally’s taking place?

Shona Robison

I am aware that the event organisers have notified the Scottish ministers of their intention to hold the Jim Clark rally in 2017, and that they have submitted a report that sets out how the promoters intend to implement the Motor Sports Association’s “Stage Rally Safety Requirements”. That report is under consideration.

As ministers, we continue to have a higher-level supervisory role. John Lamont will be aware that, as the lead road and traffic authority, Scottish Borders Council, along with Police Scotland, remains the authority that authorises the detailed arrangements for the rally.

As John Lamont said, another factor that needs to be considered is the announcement by the Crown Office on 1 December of the establishment of a fatal accident inquiry into the tragic death of a spectator at the Snowman rally in January 2013 and the deaths of three spectators at the Jim Clark rally in May 2014.

I am happy to make sure that the member is kept abreast of consideration of the report that I mentioned. I will ask the Minister for Public Health and Sport to write to him to keep him apprised of the facts if there are any further developments.

National Health Service (Blood Stocks)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to ensure that the NHS has sufficient stocks of blood for the winter period. (S5O-00451)

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport (Shona Robison)

Each year, the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service makes robust plans to raise awareness of the need for blood donations during the winter period and to maintain supplies of blood across Scotland. SNBTS employs various strategies to boost the number of donors. For example, throughout the period, SNBTS will contact existing donors in order to build up supplies of each of the eight major blood groups, and a television campaign, which is supported by a digital campaign, commenced on 28 November.

I thank all donors for their support and I encourage everyone who can to donate.

Stuart McMillan

We all accept that it is impossible, because blood stocks have a limited shelf life, to stockpile supplies. At the beginning of the week, types O negative, O positive and B negative were down to five or six days’ supply. Will the Scottish Government increase the promotional output for the annual “Give blood” campaign to encourage more people to give blood for the first time or to do so again?

Shona Robison

The Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service aims to stock a six-day supply of every major blood group. At the current time, it has six or more days’ supply of all but two of the eight main blood groups—it has a five-day supply of O positive and B negative blood. As a result, it does not have significant concerns about stock levels at present, but we will fully support its publicity campaign to encourage more blood donations over the winter period. In addition, we are supporting its efforts to encourage new donors.

As I said in my earlier answer, people who have never previously given blood could not pick a better time to start than during the festive period.

Spaceports (Licence Applications)

4. David Stewart (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to assist sites in Scotland that are preparing to apply for licences to operate as spaceports. (S5O-00452)

The Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work (Keith Brown)

We remain focused on ensuring that a spaceport is based in Scotland, and the Scottish Government and its agencies will provide advice and support to any Scottish airfield that wishes to pursue the spaceport opportunity.

The modern transport bill, which will include the spaceport legislation and the licensing process, is not due at Westminster until early 2017 and it will then take a year to become law, so the Civil Aviation Authority is not expecting to issue the licensing process until 2018. We await clarification from the United Kingdom Government regarding the infrastructure requirements that will be involved in a site becoming a spaceport. That clarity is necessary to allow sites to develop viable business models for possible spaceflight operations. The Scottish Government and its agencies will continue to support Scottish sites in any way that they can at the appropriate time. Currently, each site has the ability to have direct contact with the CAA for updates and inquiries on the process.

David Stewart

The cabinet secretary will be well aware that the UK space sector is one of Britain’s fastest-growing and most innovative industries. Discover Space UK is bidding to license Machrihanish as a horizontal-launch spaceport facility, which would make it the UK’s first commercial spaceport. Machrihanish already has a fully functioning 3,000m runway that was an alternative landing site for the US space shuttles. Will the cabinet secretary reconsider enterprise area status for Machrihanish, which outscored two existing enterprise areas in the 2011 appraisal process?

Keith Brown

As I said in my initial response, it is up to each airfield to say whether it wants to participate in the bid and to put in place the things that it thinks would advantage its application. However, we must wait until it is obvious from the UK Government’s modern transport bill what the infrastructure requirements and business models will be for spaceport bids. We need clarity on that before places that want to apply can put together infrastructure and other initiatives to support their bid. We must wait for that clarification before we can take forward commitments in relation to any bid that arises.

John Scott (Ayr) (Con)

Following the signing of the memorandum of understanding between Glasgow Prestwick airport and Houston spaceport on Tuesday, does the cabinet secretary agree that, provided that Prestwick airport can meet the licensing obligations, it is now the preferred site for horizontal take-off space launches in Scotland and that the Prestwick maintenance, repair and overhaul infrastructure could be used to support vertical take-off space launches at other Scottish sites?

Keith Brown

What I said in relation to the previous question applies to any sites, but I recognise some of the points that have been made by John Scott in relation to the work that Prestwick airport has undertaken, and I recognise—as I have mentioned—the advantages of Machrihanish in terms of its runway and so on. Prestwick airport is putting in place an awful lot of infrastructure and has, of course, some benefits already. However, as John Scott well knows, Prestwick would require further infrastructure development if it were to bid.

Again, I say that both Prestwick and Machrihanish will want to see the modern transport bill progress through the UK Parliament so that they know exactly what the infrastructure requirements will be and what the best possible business model will be, should they decide to bid.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

I hear what the cabinet secretary says, but as John Scott pointed out, Glasgow Prestwick airport and Houston Spaceport have formed an exciting new partnership that met just two days ago. Prestwick already has 3,000 aerospace engineers working there. Will the Scottish Government now finally commit itself to the bid from Prestwick—which is an airport and not, like Machrihanish, an airfield—in order to boost Scotland’s chances of securing the UK’s and Europe’s first operational spaceport?

Keith Brown

I do not want to deviate from the responses that I gave to the previous two questions on the matter. It also remains the case—this has been mooted in the past—that the airfields, or airports, might wish to work together on a bid. However, the point still applies that for any bid to be given full form—I recognise the work that has been undertaken at Prestwick and the aspirations at Machrihanish—those who are bidding require knowledge of what will be needed in terms of infrastructure. We do not yet know that, definitively. Once we know what the infrastructure requirements are, those who are keen to bid will know how to put together their business plans. We have to await that process but, at the same time, encourage those who want to participate.

Tax Policies

Back on earth: to ask the Scottish Government what impact it expects its tax policies to have on inequality of wealth and income. (S5O-00453)

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution (Derek Mackay)

The Scottish Government will set out its proposals for tax policies in its draft budget, which will be published on 15 December. The Scottish Government is committed to delivering policies that support the delivery of inclusive growth.

Patrick Harvie

The cabinet secretary has said on many occasions—and I agree—that it is wrong to give a tax break to wealthy people, particularly in the current context, when very many people are struggling. However, the cumulative effect of the personal allowance change at the United Kingdom level and the Scottish Government’s proposal to change the threshold for the higher rate will be a tax cut for high earners of about £178 a year. That comes at a time when the Scottish Government has the ability to claw back what the UK Government is giving to the wealthy and to ensure that we have a more progressive policy.

If the Scottish Government is not going to do that, what is the cabinet secretary going to spend his extra 15 quid a month on?

Derek Mackay

As I have said to members in the chamber, I look forward to setting out the budget proposition on 15 December. Patrick Harvie has raised matters in the past, citing the Resolution Foundation’s work in a number of areas including the personal allowance and the interplay with social security decisions. This Government will take forward a balanced approach on taxation to fund high-quality public services in a package that is fair and reasonable to the public and the taxpayers of Scotland. That proposition gained the support of the people at the most recent Scottish Parliament elections.

Scottish History (School Curriculum)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will consider making Scottish history a priority subject on the school curriculum. (S5O-00454)

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

Learning about Scotland’s history, heritage and culture is promoted and supported in the context of curriculum for excellence. That includes a unit on Scottish history in the national 4 and 5 and higher history courses.

Rona Mackay

In my constituency of Strathkelvin and Bearsden, we are currently celebrating the Thomas Muir festival, which is an annual event organised by the Friends of Thomas Muir to commemorate the father of Scottish democracy. Does the cabinet secretary agree that our children should learn all that there is to know about Scotland’s great pioneers?

John Swinney

I do. It is important that there is a deep understanding of the figures in Scottish history who have shaped our country, its values and its identity. There is a significant opportunity for that to be developed through our curriculum and for young people to appreciate the depth of Scottish history and the contribution of individuals such as Thomas Muir to the formation of the modern Scotland that we know today.

Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)

I think that the cabinet secretary will agree with me that our Scottish culture—both history and literature—should be embedded in our children’s learning. I raised the issue of literature with the cabinet secretary, and he stated in his letter to me of 8 November:

“Many primary schools study the works of Burns, for example”.

However, is that not the problem? In my day, a few moons ago, we “did” Burns in January. Has much changed or is it still the case that the study of Scots literature is peripheral and, if I may say so, even tokenistic?

I have to say that I was not around when Christine Grahame was at school—

Members: Oh!

John Swinney

However, from my wild speculation of what might have been going on at that time, I, too, think that it is very important that there is a broad understanding of the contribution of Scottish authors to literature, and I see a range of evidence of that in the school curriculum. The understanding of the work of our makar, Jackie Kay, is important, and within some of our certificated qualifications there is a requirement to consider a text from Scottish literature. In all those respects, I think that due account is taken.

The serious point that Christine Grahame makes is that there is a significant contribution from Scottish literature to our education system and to knowledge within our country, and it should be a central part of what young people experience as part of their education.

Obesity Strategy (Physical Literacy Programmes)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will introduce personal physical literacy programmes, such as the STEP programme, in schools as part of its obesity strategy. (S5O-00455)

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

The evidence on tackling obesity says that, for success, we must maintain activity across a wide range of actions that make it easier for people to be more active, to eat less and to eat better. As part of the review process for our strategy, we will be considering how we link our obesity strategy to other cross-Government work, including that on promoting physical activity and on developing our approach to being a good food nation.

I will be meeting Kenny Logan early in the new year to discuss the STEP programme. Along with the daily mile, the STEP programme is an example of how physical activity can be embedded into the daily life of Scottish schools, which, as we know, can have a positive impact on pupils’ health, educational attainment and life chances.

Brian Whittle

My frustration here is that the Government always talks about the importance of physical activity in tackling obesity but takes little action. The principle of the Government’s getting it right for every child policy would suggest that meeting the individual needs of every child is fundamental. The rate at which children learn physical literacy is as diverse as the rate at which they learn numeracy, literacy and language.

Given the recognition that there is an alarming decline in child activity rates, which is linked to the rise in obesity and poor mental health, why does the Government treat physical literacy as the poor relation in education?

John Swinney

Mr Whittle and I have gone round the houses on that question before. I do not recognise Mr Whittle’s portrayal of Scottish education. There is a high level of engagement and participation in activities such as the daily mile across Scottish schools: 98 per cent of schools are fulfilling their physical education commitments. As I go around the country, I see countless examples of schools making every effort to encourage physical activity and exercise, with an emphasis on health and wellbeing within the activities of Scottish education.

I am committed to action in that area and that is reflected in Education Scotland. I hope that Mr Whittle can recognise some of the achievements that have been made by Scottish schools in promoting physical activity among children.

That concludes general questions.