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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, May 9, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 09 May 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Pension Credit, NHS Highland (Sturrock Review), Portfolio Question Time, Business Motion, Vulnerable Witnesses (Criminal Evidence) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Vulnerable Witnesses (Criminal Evidence) (Scotland) Bill, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform

I remind members that questions 1 and 3 will be grouped.

Air Quality

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to improve air quality. (S5O-03204)

The strategy “Cleaner air for Scotland: the road to a healthier future” sets out a series of actions to further reduce air pollution across Scotland. An independent review of the strategy is under way and will identify priorities for additional action.

We are working closely with local authorities to deliver low-emission zones across Scotland’s four biggest cities by 2020, with Scotland’s first LEZ already having been introduced in Glasgow in December 2018. We provide £2.5 million of funding annually for local authorities, and we have set objectives for particulate matter that are more than twice as stringent as those that are set by the European Union.

Reducing vehicle emissions has a major role to play in improving air quality. At the moment, electric vehicles are very expensive. The cheapest such vehicle is about £21,000, and most of the smaller ones are more than £25,000. The cycle to work scheme has been a great success. Does the Government have any plans to extend subsidies to individuals who want to buy electric bikes?

In all honesty, it would probably be better to ask that question of my colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity. I hear what Neil Findlay says, and I would certainly be sympathetic to that direction of travel—that was not a deliberate pun. We will all need to look at such ideas in the future. I will direct my colleague Michael Matheson to the question, and I hope that he will be in direct contact with Neil Findlay.

Air Quality (Glasgow)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to improve air quality and reduce pollution in the Glasgow area. (S5O-03206)

Glasgow City Council has produced an action plan that contains a number of measures to improve air quality. The Scottish Government is working closely with the council as it implements the measures that are contained in the plan, and it is providing practical and financial assistance to monitor air quality and to support the delivery of measures that will improve air quality.

Glasgow was the first city in Scotland to put in place a low-emission zone, following the announcement in the 2017-18 programme for government. The introduction of the LEZ, alongside the measures that are outlined in the action plan, will contribute to improving air quality in the city.

Given that a World Health Organization report says that Glasgow is one of the most polluted cities in the United Kingdom, I am sure that the cabinet secretary agrees that working to improve air quality in Glasgow must be a priority and is a shared responsibility at all levels.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that the responsibility covers transport providers such as First Bus Glasgow, which has a fleet of more than 900 buses? It has not put forward any successful bids for Scottish Government funding to improve pollution levels. Does the cabinet secretary agree that that is not good enough? Will she discuss with her colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity the urgent need to work together with First Glasgow Ltd to look at how it can play a full role in improving air quality in Glasgow?

The latest air quality monitoring data confirms that air pollution levels continue to decline across Glasgow. There is a similar trend in most locations throughout Scotland.

However, I am aware of the situation in relation to bus operators in Glasgow. Johann Lamont might be reassured to know that I have discussed the issue not only with my colleague the transport secretary but with the leader of Glasgow City Council, because it is a matter of some concern as the council continues its work in relation to the low-emission zone. It is unfortunate that some operators have created a challenge for themselves by failing to bid for the money that was available to help them to meet the yearly targets that Glasgow City Council sets for buses. Discussions on the matter are on-going, and I will ensure that Johann Lamont is kept updated.

I remind members that supplementaries should really include only one question, not a series of questions. Those exchanges have taken up quite a lot of time, which means that other members will not be able to ask their supplementaries.

Zero Waste (Small and Medium-sized Enterprises)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the work of Society Zero, which is a Glasgow-based social enterprise that provides zero waste and plastic-free food, produce and products, and how it supports the establishment of such start-ups. (S5O-03205)

The Scottish Government welcomes the continued innovative approach taken by small and medium-sized enterprises and charities to develop a variety of zero waste initiatives across Scotland. We provide funding to Zero Waste Scotland, which can distribute grants to zero waste shops and other organisations through the zero waste town development fund and the waste prevention implementation fund. Zero Waste Scotland also runs workshops for zero waste shops and advises them on the support that they can receive from it and other agencies.

Scotland is right at the forefront of developments in the circular economy. However, we all need to work harder to lower our waste output. Will the cabinet secretary outline what steps are being taken to drive behaviour change and encourage the public to choose sustainable packaging over plastic packaging and convenience?

We are a signatory to the UK plastics pact, led by the charity WRAP—the Waste and Resources Action Programme—and set up in partnership with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The members of that coalition cover the entire plastics value chain. It has ambitious targets running to 2025 for plastic packaging that include: working towards 100 per cent of packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable; 70 per cent of plastic packaging to be effectively recycled; and an average of 30 per cent recycled content across all plastic packaging.

We work closely with WRAP, through Zero Waste Scotland, to support consumer messaging and behaviour change initiatives to help citizens to make sustainable consumer choices.

ExxonMobil Fife Ethylene Plant (Unplanned Flarings)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is responding to the latest unplanned flaring at the ExxonMobil ethylene plant at Mossmorran. (S5O-03207)

The recent flaring event at Mossmorran has created significant disruption for local residents and it is essential that the operators take steps to minimise the frequency and impact of flaring.

The plant is subject to regulation by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, which has announced a formal investigation into the latest incident. As part of a regulatory requirement imposed by SEPA, ExxonMobil has now submitted an evaluation of the best available techniques to reduce and, where practicable, prevent the impacts associated with flaring. SEPA is now considering that and we will continue to monitor developments closely.

Given that hundreds of angry residents are submitting complaints on the social and health impacts that they face as a result of the recent flaring, what is the cabinet secretary doing to address the long-term environmental and social impacts of the operation at Mossmorran?

I have been advised that, because of the on-going investigation by SEPA, I need to be very careful about making further commitments. However, I am very conscious of the issues that have arisen. I suspect that Mr Stewart may not be the only member who wants to raise the issue this afternoon.

I do not want to prejudice the formal investigation that is taking place—making progress on that is the immediate priority. However, I am concerned to ensure that SEPA and ExxonMobil communicate to keep the community updated. I know that a meeting in that regard has been organised and I think that I am right in saying that it will take place in the near future.

If supplementary questions and answers are as quick as possible, I will be able to get them all in.

I note what the cabinet secretary has said. I argue that a comprehensive inquiry should not be ruled out and must remain on the table, as that is what my long-suffering constituents want. If it is the case that the SEPA investigation that has already been launched into the unplanned flaring incident must take its course in the first instance, should it not be expedited, proceed as a matter of urgency and include an examination of the impact on public health, as I have already called on SEPA to do?

As I have said, SEPA’s on-going investigation must be allowed to make progress before any further independent inquiries are considered. As with all such investigations, I encourage swift progress while recognising that the investigation must be thorough and is likely to involve a degree of technical complexity. In the meantime, SEPA is sharing its latest information with the independent air quality review group, Fife Council, NHS Fife and Health Protection Scotland.

There are no clear signs that the plant operators are prepared to make the level of investment that is needed to secure long-term environmental compliance or to meet Scotland’s climate targets. Does the cabinet secretary agree that we need to learn the lessons from Longannet and start planning now for the long-term closure of Mossmorran? Does she see a role for the just transition commission to ensure that no worker is left behind in that transition?

I hope that the Government would always seek to learn long-term lessons. If the just transition commission feels that there is a role to play, it is able to play it. I do not want to add any more, as some of what I could say in response to Mark Ruskell’s question would simply repeat what has already been said.

I know that local tolerance of Mossmorran has plummeted. The life of the plant has already been extended, so if it breaks down this often, how much longer can it last?

That is a technical question that I admit I am not qualified to answer. I expect that SEPA would have the answer, as I will when it has undertaken its investigations, but huge issues are raised by the notion of the closure of a plant such as Mossmorran, as I am sure Willie Rennie understands. They go far beyond the immediate issue that we face.

Wild Salmon

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that levels of wild salmon in Scotland are at their lowest levels since records began. (S5O-03208)

The decline in reported catches of wild salmon is of great concern. We are determined to safeguard the future of this important species, but we recognise that the problem is down to a range of complex factors. We have identified 12 high-level groups of pressures on salmon and, in the international year of the salmon, we will continue to work in Scotland and beyond with our key partners, such as Fisheries Management Scotland, district salmon fishery boards and fishery trusts, to better understand and tackle them all, taking into account affordability and practicality.

Fisheries Management Scotland has called on the Scottish Government to make salmon conservation a national priority. In that context, what specific measures will the Government introduce to ensure that existing man-made pressures on our iconic salmon populations are reduced and new pressures avoided?

We assess the pressures continually and take action. We are already working across a range of projects to address the various pressures on salmon with the key partners that I have already listed and with Scottish Natural Heritage and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. In March last year, we committed £500,000 to help fund research and projects to better quantify and mitigate the pressures on Scotland’s salmon stocks. In addition, SEPA is leading on work to move or ease redundant barriers in rivers, utilising around £5 million of annual funding from the Scottish Government’s water environment fund. There is no quick fix on this, and action on any single pressure that we have identified is not a panacea that would resolve all the challenges.

My question follows on from those serious concerns about the decline of this iconic species. Will the cabinet secretary consider committing to taking action to ensure that the conservation status of salmon is fully taken into account in all relevant regulatory decisions, including decisions by SEPA under the controlled activities regulations and licensing decisions by Marine Scotland’s licensing operations team and SNH?

As I have indicated, there is a huge range of pressures on wild salmon, not just in Scotland but across the North Atlantic and in other countries. Any one or two things that we might think about here in Scotland will not address the overall problem. We have to look at the issue much more widely, as the Government has been doing over the past years with the recategorisation of a number of rivers. That has not always been welcomed by anglers, but the figures that were published recently are a clear exposition of why it has been necessary.

Single-use Plastic Packaging (Elimination)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to eliminate using single-use plastic packaging. (S5O-03209)

Yesterday, I announced ambitious plans for a deposit return scheme for single-use drinks containers. That scheme will play an important role in our efforts to increase the amount of packaging, including plastic packaging, that is recycled, so I look forward to working with partners on its implementation.

The on-going United Kingdom-wide consultation on packaging producer responsibility is another important development. That consultation includes proposals to incentivise the use of easier-to-recycle packaging by businesses across the UK. Our expert panel on environmental charging has an important role to play in shaping future plans and we look forward to receiving its recommendations in the summer.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that, following the First Minister’s declaration of a climate emergency, supermarkets need to act immediately to stop selling fruit and vegetables in plastic packaging, as well as use recyclable packaging for their own-brand products?

As I indicated, we are already consulting on the reform of packaging producer responsibility arrangements—I should say that all Governments in the UK are involved in that consultation. Under the principle of extended producer responsibility, businesses that place packaging on the market should be required to meet the costs that are associated with the management of that packaging at the end of its life.

The consultation commenced on 18 February and runs until 13 May. We encourage anyone who has an interest to submit a response.

Supermarkets are a key part of any future solution, and we are engaging directly with them on packaging reform, while ensuring that the food waste agenda is considered as part of the equation.

Data on single-use plastics in Scotland has been in short supply. For example, when the announcement on single-use plastics was made last year, the cabinet secretary confirmed that it was not known how many plastic straws were being used. What steps have been taken since then to ensure that reliable data is available to inform policy?

I will ask the expert panel to look at that and I will get back to Maurice Golden.

That is the kind of short, snappy answer that we need.

We know that communities around Scotland have been working to reduce the use of single-use plastics. How many communities have applied for funds from the action on plastic zero waste towns initiative, which the cabinet secretary announced nearly a year ago? How much of the £500,000 fund has been allocated to date?

Checking quickly through my briefing, I cannot see the figures straight away, so I undertake to get back to Elaine Smith.

Landfill (Environmental Safety Standards)

To ask the Scottish Government how it ensures that environmental safety standards are met in landfill sites. (S5O-03210)

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency is responsible for regulating the environmental impacts of landfill sites within the framework that is set by legislation.

I have previously raised with the Scottish Government the issue of the Tarbolton landfill site going into administration. Pumping and flaring ceased at the site at that point and there has been subsequent contamination by leachate and gas emissions. I am yet to establish which organisation is responsible for the clear-up of the contamination and for making the site safe, despite meeting SEPA and local council—

Will you get to your question, please?

Will the cabinet secretary please clear up the matter of accountability? Can she bring pressure to bear to have the site cleared?

As I indicated, SEPA is the regulatory authority, and it is actively involved in the situation at Tarbolton, which is an extremely unfortunate one. As I understand it, there is a complicated legal scenario that is not easy to resolve, but SEPA is looking at that. As soon as there is a way forward, we will communicate it.

Local councils should be thinking about the role that they can play. There is a bit of uncertainty around the readiness of some councils to help with regard to such issues, and I hope that that can be looked at, too.

An official receiver has been appointed. At the moment, legally, the environmental obligations relating to the site fall to the official receiver, but that is a changing scenario.

How long have local authorities had to prepare for the implementation of the ban? Where can the local authorities that feel that they might not be meeting their obligations access appropriate advice and support?

I think that Fulton MacGregor is probably referring to the ban on landfill, which is scheduled to come in in 2012. Sorry—it was set in legislation in 2012; I feel as if I am in a time warp.

There has been significant time to prepare, so it is disappointing that not all councils have solutions in place. Fourteen local authorities have long-term solutions and others have interim solutions in place. At the moment, we are focused on working with local authorities that do not have solutions in place, so that we can move them forward to comply with the ban as soon as possible. Extensive engagement is going on in that regard.

Private Water Supplies (Grounds for Grant Refusal)

To ask the Scottish Government on what grounds a local authority can refuse to provide a grant for the replacement or improvement of a private water supply, where there is no access to mains water. (S5O-03211)

A local authority can refuse an application for a grant under the Private Water Supplies (Grants) (Scotland) Regulations 2006 where the applicant is not an eligible person or is a public body or office-holder, or if the premises are a new building or the proposed work has already begun or has finished before the application was submitted. An application can also be refused if the premises are subject to certain orders or notices under housing and buildings legislation or do not meet the tolerable standard.

I notice that there was no mention of requiring a shared supply in circumstances in which one property is still occupied and the other is not. Private water supplies are often in areas of rural depopulation. Does the cabinet secretary agree that councils should act in such a way as to stem rural depopulation in making such grant decisions?

Lewis Macdonald is probably dealing with a case that is in that particular circumstance. Local authorities consider each case on its own merits. Given the costs of upgrading private water supplies, they would ideally look for a joint approach by householders where possible, rather than each residence having its own water supply. That would become extremely expensive, and councils must manage the situation when looking at grants for private water supplies.