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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, September 9, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 09 September 2021

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Mineworkers Pension Scheme, Portfolio Question Time, Deaths of John Yuill and Lamara Bell, Covid-19 Vaccine Certification Scheme, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


General Question Time

Good morning. I remind members that social distancing measures are in place in the chamber and across the Holyrood campus, and I ask members to take care to observe those measures, including when entering and exiting the chamber. Please use the aisles and walkways only to access your seat and when moving around the chamber.

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

Local Authority Funding

To ask the Scottish Government when it will next meet the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to discuss local authority funding. (S6O-00123)

I most recently met the COSLA resources spokesperson, Councillor Gail Macgregor, yesterday—on 8 September—to discuss the forthcoming resource spending review. I will continue to meet COSLA and local authorities regularly to cover a range of topics including funding up to and beyond the publication of the Scottish Government’s budget.

The cabinet secretary knows that school catering, cleaning and janitorial staff are balloting on strike action over local government pay. Those are the heroic staff who have reopened their schools, cleaned them and fed pupils who would have gone hungry. Last week, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy stated that the Government is not the direct employer of local government staff and has no role in pay negotiations, ignoring the Government’s interventions on teachers’ pay. It is vital that the Government—

A question please, Mr Griffin.

—averts strike action, so that schools and nurseries can stay open. When will the cabinet secretary get around the table and make a commitment to fund the pay award that those key workers deserve?

I agree with Mark Griffin that those workers are heroic. They have gone to heroic lengths over the pandemic and they serve our citizens day in and day out, not least our children in our schools. We are hugely grateful for their efforts. However, as I have said in the past, pay for local government staff—except the teachers—is negotiated between the trade unions and COSLA through the Scottish joint committee. We have not been a member of the SJC, we have never taken part in those negotiations and we do not intend to start getting involved now. Both I and the First Minister have met COSLA to discuss the matter, and on each occasion we have been explicitly clear that the budget has been fully deployed and that negotiating as an employer is for COSLA.

Question 2 was not lodged.

Low-emissions Ferries (Orkney)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with Orkney Islands Council regarding the procurement of low-emissions ferries to replace the current internal fleet. (S6O-00125)

I met Orkney Islands Council in Kirkwall last month and I heard about its plans to introduce low-emissions ferries. I welcomed those plans but I made it clear that, as Mr McArthur knows, the responsibility for the interisland ferry services, including the procurement of replacement vessels, sits with the local authority. We do, however, recognise the pressures that that brings, which is why the Scottish Government’s 2021-22 budget includes £19.2 million for local authorities operating ferries, which is an increase of £7.7 million on last year.

As the cabinet secretary will know from his recent visit, Orkney’s internal ferry service relies on ageing vessels. They are costly to run, damaging to the environment and no longer fit for purpose. The service already falls below the minimum standards set in the Government’s ferries plan. What people in Orkney want to know is how and when new ferries will be delivered, so will the cabinet secretary clarify how the welcome commitment in the programme for government to carbon-neutral islands by 2040 and low-emissions ferries by 2032—

Question, please.

—will pave the way to island communities in my constituency getting the ferry services that they deserve?

I appreciate the promotion. We have a record of assisting our island authorities, where possible, with issues such as this. The member will remember that in 2019 we helped to fund the replacement of the MV Golden Mariana.

As he knows, the responsibility for the replacement of vessels lies with Orkney Islands Council. I recognise, however, that, like us, the council faces budgetary pressures and that we have a shared decarbonisation agenda. I am therefore willing to explore what we could do to assist the council in the form of removal or, at least, substantial reduction of the design fee costs by virtue of creating and making available to the council a small number of standardised designs. We have had initial conversations with Orkney Islands Council in that regard.

The minister is well aware that the situation in Orkney is little different to that elsewhere in Scotland. When will we see a meaningful plan to start replacing Scotland’s ageing ferry fleet on the West coast and in Orkney?

With the greatest respect, Mr Simpson is clearly not paying attention. A ferry plan for the Government-responsibility ferries is in place, which involves, for example, the replacement of freight vessels on the northern isles route as well as ferries in the western part of the country. If he has not spotted that, I will write to him with the detail.

Not Proven Verdict (Removal)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its consideration of removing the not proven verdict. (S6O-00126)

As we set out in the programme for government earlier this week, during this year the Government will launch a public consultation on the three-verdict system.

The matter is very important for my constituents—the family of Scott French, who died horrifically last year. The people who were accused of his murder were, in effect, acquitted with a not proven verdict. Given the substantial evidence that was available, the family believes that the verdict left them in limbo and appeared to be an acceptance that there was merit in the charges without the consequences. Can the cabinet secretary therefore confirm that the views of victims of crime, particularly those who were returned a not proven verdict, will inform the consultation and ensure that the verdict is scrapped as quickly as possible?

As the member knows, it is not appropriate for me to comment on individual cases, although I am sorry to hear that his constituents feel that the not proven verdict left them in limbo as he describes. I have said in the chamber previously that I recognise that a strong case has been made for the abolition of the not proven verdict. Those issues are complex, however, and many stakeholders believe that the third verdict should be retained, or they highlight the interconnectedness of the system. It is therefore right that we consider the consultation responses carefully before we weigh all the evidence and reach a decision on those important matters.

I am happy to confirm that we will continue to take an open and consultative approach, just as a broad range of stakeholders including victims and survivors played an important role in last year’s engagement events on the findings of the independent jury research. As part of the wider public consultation, we will seek to capture the views of a broad range of stakeholders including legal professionals, the third sector and those with lived experience of the system.

A consultation is all well and good, but the Justice Committee said that the not proven verdict was on borrowed time back in 2016—five years ago. Can the cabinet secretary offer some comfort to those who feel that the not proven verdict is intrinsically unfair that this session of Parliament will finally deal with it through legislation and not kick it into the long grass? It is time that we resolved this centuries-old controversy in the Scottish legal system.

I suppose that Jamie Greene highlights the difference between opposition and government. Of course, the Opposition can demand those things, but the Government has a responsibility to take on board the views of stakeholders and to ensure that, should legislation follow from that process, it is sustainable and well founded. It is right that we take on the views of the legal profession; indeed, many of the people on the member’s own back benches and across the chamber have reservations about the abolition of the verdict as well, and it is right that we hear those views. That is the sensible way in which to proceed.

Oil and Gas Licences (North Sea)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its position on new oil and gas licences in the North Sea. (S6O-00127)

The Scottish Government’s position remains the same: we recognise that offshore licensing is reserved and call on the United Kingdom Government to commit to reassessing licences that have already been issued but for which field development has not yet commenced. The future of the North Sea must be a positive part of our just transition to net zero through offshore energy integration, including renewable energy generation, hydrogen production and carbon capture, utilisation and storage.

Our just transition plan for energy will involve working closely with the sector to seize the economic opportunities that those technologies present while playing our part in the global energy challenge and making sure that we have a just transition.

Presiding Officer:

“the hard fact is that early closure of domestic production, before we are able to meet all demand from zero-carbon sources, would be likely to increase emissions, because a significant proportion of the oil that would then require to be imported has a higher carbon intensity than UK production.”—[Official Report, 3 September 2019; c 19.]

Those are not my words; they are those of the First Minister. Does the cabinet secretary agree with her?

The member needs to recognise that the Scottish Government is not suggesting that oil and gas production should stop, but it clearly cannot be business as usual, given the climate emergency that we are facing. That is why we need an emergency response to the issues.

Key to supporting the industry in making that transition is assisting it to move towards technologies that reduce the carbon output of the oil and gas sector. A good example of that is carbon capture and storage. The Acorn project in Peterhead has been on the stocks for years now, but the UK Government has continually refused to—[Interruption.]


The UK Government has continually refused to approve it, although that project would have a leading role in helping to decarbonise the sector. That is why I hope that all those members of the Scottish Parliament from the north-east will get behind the Acorn project and call on the UK Government to take action, give it approval and allow it to go ahead.

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. The cabinet secretary pointed directly at me. I think that that is inappropriate.

Thank you. Members will be aware of the importance of treating one another with courtesy and respect at all times.

Coastal Erosion (Mitigation)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to mitigate coastal erosion. (S6O-00128)

We are making available a new £12 million capital budget for the four years from 2022 to 2023 for coastal change adaptation and resilience. I recently launched the Dynamic Coast 2 project in Montrose, which helps to identify where the greatest risks from coastal erosion and sea level rises are in this decade and into the future as we face the global climate challenge.

We are producing guidance to help local authorities respond to those risks and prepare coastal change adaptation plans at the local level.

In 2016, a major flood study said that there was a clear and present danger to Montrose roads and properties and to the railway between Aberdeen and Dundee. That study was endorsed by the cabinet secretary’s predecessor, Roseanna Cunningham.

At the cabinet secretary’s photo opp in Montrose last week, one of his local councillors stated that action needs to be taken in the next five years. What has changed since 2016 to push action back to 2026? Will the cabinet secretary confirm that the people of the Angus coast will be an urgent priority for the next round of flood risk management funding in the next 12 months?

I am well aware of the concerns in Montrose, because the local constituency member, Mairi Gougeon, has raised with me the direct impacts that the issues have on her constituents, which they also have on the member’s constituents.

That is why we commissioned the Dynamic Coast 2 project, to identify the nature and scale of the challenges that we face with coastal erosion in different parts of the country, including in Montrose. The funding that we are making available is to support a project to look at the direct action that we can take in areas where measures need to be implemented to reduce the risk of coastal erosion and the impact that that will have on flooding in areas such as Montrose.

I assure the member that we will continue to work with local authorities to make sure that the funding is used in such a way that it maximises its impacts and helps to reduce the risk of flooding in local areas.

Ferries (Capacity on West Coast Routes)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it has taken to increase capacity on the ferries on the west coast routes. (S6O-00129)

As the member is aware, passenger capacity has increased with the removal of physical distancing on 9 August. We are also actively exploring opportunities for chartering additional vessels and have secured the MV Arrow to enhance the existing fleet that provides lifeline ferry services.

We are also continuing with the procurement of a new vessel for the Islay service, as well as seven new ships under the small vessel replacement programme, and we are progressing work on new vessels for the Gourock to Dunoon and Kilcreggan services.

Our island communities in the west have suffered for a number of years from a lack of capacity and a lack of reliable ferries. This year, the additional challenge of Covid-19 has taken the service to breaking point, with many people unable to travel. That is unacceptable—it damages the economy and blights lives.

The Scottish Government has, so far, failed to increase capacity. What steps is it taking to procure additional capacity over and above that provided by the MV Arrow in the short term to alleviate those communities’ issues?

As I indicated during the members’ business debate on Tuesday evening, work on securing additional second-hand tonnage to alleviate some of the pressures that we face on the network is constant. I can share with the chamber the fact that, as we speak, senior representatives of Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd and CalMac Ferries are out of the country, actively assessing a vessel, with a view to purchase. If we get that over the line, it will have a positive cascade effect across the network and, in addition, will create the potential for us to head into the next summer season with a back-up vessel standing by to cover any issues that arise. I am sure that the member will welcome that news.

How much has the Scottish Government invested in ferry operations and infrastructure since 2007?

The Scottish Government has invested in excess of £2.2 billion in the Clyde and Hebrides ferry services, northern isles ferry services and ferry infrastructure since 2007. We have also delivered a number of new routes. However, I do not hide from the fact that we need to do more. That is why we have a £580 million funding stream to deliver new ferries and harbour infrastructure, which we are in the process of delivering.

River Bank Erosion (Monitoring and Support)

To ask the Scottish Government how it monitors the impacts of river bank erosion and what support it provides for those who are affected by the erosion. (S6O-00130)

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency is responsible for monitoring rivers to assess their ecological status, including physical habitat condition. Local authorities also monitor rivers in relation to flood risk and work with relevant transport agencies to monitor the impact of river bank erosion on transport infrastructure.

We are all responsible for protecting our land and property from the impacts of river bank erosion. The Scottish Government and SEPA provide helpful advice and guidance on how to minimise river bank erosion and how to best protect our land.

The impact of river bank erosion for some residents in Fenwick, in my constituency, is pretty severe and has been getting steadily worse over recent years as a result of climate change impacts. Their properties and gardens are literally sliding into the adjoining river, bit by bit, and the engineering solutions that are required to shore up the river banks are substantial and beyond their ability to afford. Is the Government aware of that issue across Scotland? Would it consider a scheme to help the many people who find themselves in such a situation, which is not of their making?

I entirely understand the member’s concerns about the difficulties that his constituents face and the risks to their homes and gardens from river bank erosion, particularly given the distress that has recently been caused by flooding in Kilmarnock.

As I said, the current position is that home owners are responsible for protecting their property. However, if the member wishes to write to me with more details of the situation that he raises, I will give it further consideration, given the wider implications of the issue across Scotland. I will also seek an update from SEPA on its interaction with local authorities to gauge the impact of river bank erosion on home owners in Scotland.