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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, January 10, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 10 January 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, End-of-Life Carers Support, UK Immigration White Paper, Future Rural Policy and Support, Decision Time


General Question Time

Unlicensed Weirs (River Tyne, East Lothian)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress has been made on ensuring that the six unlicensed weirs on the River Tyne in East Lothian are properly authorised and provided with fish passages, and for what reason this work did not start in 2017 as planned. (S5O-02749)

One fish pass was, in fact, completed in 2016. Options are under development for three others, and two weirs have been provisionally assessed as passable for fish at present.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that helpful answer. Can she tell me whether, as in the original plan, it is still possible to complete all the work by 2021?

In a global sense—by which I mean Scotland-wide—the plan was to finish all the work by 2027. There is active work at present on three of the weirs. As I indicated, one weir has been completed and two are classified as being clear for fish, and I understand that active work is taking place on three of them and is being completed.

Although the member asked about six weirs, I have a great deal of detail on what I understand to be seven weirs. I am very happy to share that detailed information with him if he wishes to speak to me later.

Hospital Bedside Televisions (Affordability)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the affordability for patients of using bedside televisions in hospitals. (S5O-02750)

Across NHS Scotland, patient entertainment services are provided either free in house or through Hospedia’s bedside entertainment services, which are purchased by patients voluntarily and are in addition to communal telephones and televisions.

We recognise that television provides respite to many patients; we also recognise the importance of technology in enabling patients to remain connected. We are working with national health service directors of estates to establish the feasibility of free bedside entertainment, to be supplied via wi-fi, across NHS Scotland.

NHS Lothian is currently trialling free patient wi-fi services, including access to video streaming. If that is successful, we would hope to extend it to other NHS boards.

At £9.90 a day in NHS Highland, it is extremely expensive to watch television. NHS Highland entered a 15-year contract that is due to expire in June 2019. Will the cabinet secretary give me an undertaking that she will work with NHS Highland to ensure that patient television is more affordable, to allow patients to watch television during their stay in hospital, which in some cases may be for a long period?

I am happy to give Mr Mountain that undertaking. He is right that NHS Highland’s current contract expires in June. I expect all boards, on the expiration of any Hospedia contracts that they may have, to consider not only best value but the right patient-centred approach. That is a hallmark of our NHS and I therefore expect NHS Highland to be actively considering free wi-fi services. I undertake to work with the board and to keep Mr Mountain up to date as we make progress.

Universal Credit (Local Authority Rent Arrears)

To ask the Scottish Government how the roll-out of universal credit is impacting on local authority rent arrears. (S5O-02751)

Universal credit has had a devastating impact on people in Scotland. As of November 2018, there were around 135,000 people in Scotland in receipt of universal credit, of whom 15,000 were in the Fife area.

The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities’ evidence shows that the average arrears for those on universal credit are more than 2.5 times the average arrears for those on housing benefit. Although we welcome reports that the Westminster vote on universal credit managed migration regulations will now be scaled back to a vote on a pilot scheme for 10,000 people, we will continue to call on the United Kingdom Government not to commence managed migration until the fundamental flaws with that catastrophic benefit are fixed.

In Fife, the level of council rent arrears directly attributable to the roll-out of universal credit currently exceeds £1.1 million. Does the cabinet secretary agree that such an increase, which is being suffered by many local authorities, will have a devastating effect on planned housing programmes and continued investment in housing stock across Scotland?

David Torrance is right to point out the impact of universal credit on rent arrears and the impact that that will then have on local authorities. The Scottish Government introduced the council house building programme in April 2009—the first such central Government support to councils in a generation. The most recently published statistics show that a total of 10,293 council homes have now been delivered, including 1,236 council homes in Fife.

Council house building continues to be an integral part of the 58,000 affordable homes target for this parliamentary session. Mr Torrance can be assured that we are determined to meet that target despite the additional challenges posed by UK Government welfare cuts. We will deliver on our promises in housing and in other welfare areas, despite the budget cuts from Westminster and the callous welfare policies administered by the Conservative Government.

Post-Brexit European Health Insurance Card

To ask the Scottish Government whether the European health insurance card will still be available for residents in Scotland following a no-deal Brexit or during any transition period. (S5O-02752)

Under the withdrawal agreement of 8 December 2017, the current European Union regulations that apply to reciprocal healthcare, including the European health insurance card, would remain in force during the transition period. The United Kingdom Government has responsibility for reciprocal healthcare on a UK-wide basis. The UK Government believes that the Healthcare (International Arrangements) Bill could support a broad continuance of existing rights, such as those under the European health insurance card, in the event of a no-deal scenario. However, I am obliged to point out that that is simply the UK Government’s belief, and we have seen no evidence to substantiate it. In my view, it is therefore yet another reason to remove the option of a no-deal Brexit from the table.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that the Brexit mess that the Westminster Government has led us into is causing uncertainty at every level and will create more worry and expense for people in Scotland—who did not vote to leave the EU—when travelling abroad for leisure or business?

I agree with Ms Mackay that this is yet another area of uncertainty and concern for people who wish to travel overseas and into the European Union following Brexit, whether that is for business, pleasure or education. We know that many of our fellow EU citizens—as well as ourselves—have enjoyed that ease of access. It is important to recognise that freedom of movement applies two ways.

We are concerned about freedom of movement in terms of our capacity to attract the skills of EU citizens and secure the continuing contribution of those EU citizens currently living and working in our country. However, the same concern applies to our citizens’ freedom to move across Europe in the manner to which they have become accustomed. It is yet another example of inadequate planning, a poor approach and the madness that is Brexit.

Glasgow Airport Rail Link

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the potential economic impact of a direct rail link between Glasgow city centre and Glasgow Airport. (S5O-02753)

The Scottish Government has not made any recent economic assessment of the impact of a direct rail link between Glasgow city centre and Glasgow airport. The Glasgow city region growth deal includes the Glasgow airport access project, which is being led by the project team from Glasgow City Council and Renfrewshire Council. Therefore, responsibility for undertaking an assessment of the economic impact of that project lies with that team.

I thank the cabinet secretary for what I regard as a rather disappointing response. The project has been delayed time and again. Despite numerous assessments being undertaken by Glasgow City Council and the airport that demonstrate significant benefits to the wider economy of the west of Scotland, the project is once again at risk. Meanwhile, recent reports show that increasing levels of congestion on the motorway network are increasing journey times to and from the airport. Does the cabinet secretary acknowledge the significant economic benefits that Glasgow airport brings and that the case for a direct rail link between Glasgow city centre and the airport grows stronger every year? Will he provide assurances that Transport Scotland and other agencies will work together and will he now commit to the project and tell us when he hopes it could be completed?

I am sorry if the member found my earlier response disappointing. I will try to address some of the points that she has raised. I recognise the important role that Glasgow airport has in the region and in the nation’s economy as a whole. It is in all our interests to improve connectivity between Glasgow city centre and Glasgow airport. Work is being taken forward to look at the outline business case and carry out a further assessment of capacity on the existing Paisley corridor line. Those issues need to be addressed in looking at the possibility of the rail option. At the next meeting of the Glasgow airport access executive steering group, which I will chair and which includes the leaders of Glasgow City Council and Renfrewshire Council along with other business partners that have an interest in the matter, we will consider how we can make further progress on improving access to and providing greater connectivity with Glasgow airport.

If one of the problems or constraints is capacity at Glasgow Central high-level station, will the Government give consideration to Glasgow crossrail and to providing a station at Glasgow Cross, which would allow some trains that come from Paisley Gilmour Street to stop there?

The member is correct to highlight the fact that there are challenges with any rail-based link between Glasgow airport and Central station. As well as the capacity issues at the station, there are issues with the Paisley corridor, where there are particular constraints at Arkleston junction and Shields junction. Those issues would not be overcome by the Glasgow crossrail proposal. Those matters are being given due consideration as part of our overall assessment of the delivery of the Glasgow city region growth deal and ensuring that we get the right type of improved access options from Glasgow city centre to Glasgow airport.

I have a huge amount of sympathy for Johann Lamont’s question. There is growing frustration about the fact that the project seems to stall time after time. We need to improve connectivity to the airport to grow the west of Scotland economy. Given that part of the reason for the impasse is to do with the impact that the rail link might have on other services, will the cabinet secretary give a commitment that his department will fully assist the local authorities that will approve the project to ensure that the impact is minimised and that the project can make progress?

Transport Scotland officials are already engaged with the partners who are taking forward the proposal. It is important that we understand the full impact that it could have on rail services in the Paisley corridor area. Those impacts could be significantly detrimental to other service users, and that has to be properly understood. The impact would be not just on those who use services from Paisley Gilmour Street but on those who use services from Ayrshire. A wider piece of work has to be done to consider all those matters, and that is exactly what is being done at present. I recognise that some people feel that the timeframe has been too long, but there are significant complexities that have to be properly understood and considered. The meeting that I will chair later this month will give us an opportunity to consider what further progress we can make in the coming months.

Will the cabinet secretary advise me of the benefits to North Ayrshire of having less congestion on the A737 once the rail link is established? Can he confirm that work on planning the timetabling of the service is already under way, given the concerns that have been expressed to the Local Government and Communities Committee about the time that it will take Network Rail to schedule that?

I will correspond with the member to give him more specific details on some of the points that he has raised. Those are important pieces of work that are about addressing issues of congestion and improving services for passengers. Network Rail needs to have a clear indication of the timeframe for taking forward the work. I will provide the member with more specific details on the matter in correspondence.

Public Sector Equality Duty (Sex)

To ask the Scottish Government what work it is doing to ensure that all public bodies are fulfilling their public sector equality duty with regard specifically to the protected characteristic of “sex” as represented in the Equality Act 2010. (S5O-02754)

The Equality Act 2010 is largely reserved. However, a framework to help public authorities to meet the requirements of the public sector equality duty has been set by the Scottish ministers through regulations. The Scottish Government expects all relevant organisations to comply with the requirements of the 2010 act in relation to all protected characteristics. Responsibility for oversight of compliance with the 2010 act, including compliance with the Equality Act 2010 (Specific Duties) (Scotland) Regulations 2012, rests with the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The commission is independent and cannot be directed by the Scottish ministers. Private individuals may also seek to enforce their rights under the Equality Act 2010 in courts and tribunals.

Is the cabinet secretary aware of recent research by the academic consultancy, Murray Blackburn Mackenzie, that found that only seven out of the 32 local authorities in Scotland had a clear definition of sex as a protected characteristic, while others conflated sex with gender identity, which has no definition in law, or gender reassignment, which is a completely separate protected characteristic? Many Scottish Government documents also conflate those things. That undermines the Equality Act 2010 exemptions that are designed to protect women and girls. Does the cabinet secretary agree that to support women and girls we need clear data on sex, and would she consider issuing guidelines to ensure that every public authority in Scotland adheres to that aspect of the Equality Act 2010?

The protected characteristic of sex in the Equality Act 2010 relates to being a man or a woman. We accept that sex and gender are distinct concepts. The Scottish Government agrees that there is a need to have disaggregated data to allow for the impacts of policies on men and women to be demonstrated. In Scotland there is both technical guidance and non-statutory guidance on the public sector equality duty for public bodies, which is published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The Scottish Government expects all relevant organisations to comply with the requirements of the 2010 act and with the published guidance.

Attainment Scotland Fund

To ask the Scottish Government how many teachers who are employed using the attainment Scotland fund are on permanent contracts. (S5O-02755)

Of the 962 full-time equivalent teachers funded through the attainment Scotland fund, 542 full-time equivalent teachers are recorded as having a permanent employment status.

There are hundreds of teachers employed on temporary contracts under the attainment Scotland fund. In many local authorities, 100 per cent of teaching posts funded through the fund are temporary contracts. Those contracts do not contribute towards a sustainable teaching workforce. They often prevent staff from accessing opportunities for proper career progression and continuing professional development. Does the Deputy First Minister acknowledge that, although they make a valuable contribution, teaching posts funded through the attainment Scotland fund that are temporary contracts are no substitute for permanently employed core teaching posts?

I would certainly encourage local authorities to employ teachers on full-time contracts. We have given an absolute commitment about the stability of funding for the attainment Scotland fund over this parliamentary session. That is beyond dispute. In addition to that, there is obviously regular turnover within the teaching profession. Vacancies will arise, and they can be filled as and when they do. The arguments to make more of those posts permanent are compelling.

I am pleased to see the progress that has been made with the recruitment of 962 full-time equivalent teachers through the attainment Scotland fund. They made a contribution to the increase in teacher numbers of 447 that we saw last year, which was a welcome increase in the teaching profession in Scotland.

Question 8 has not been lodged.

Rail Network Improvements

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to improve the rail network. (S5O-02757)

Since 2007, we have invested around £8 billion in infrastructure and services to support Scotland’s railways. We continue to demonstrate our commitment to improving rail infrastructure through the high-level output specification and the rail enhancements and capital investment strategy, supported by a £4.85 billion investment in control period 6. An announcement on which rail projects will form the first part of the control period 6 portfolio will be made by the end of March 2019.

The cabinet secretary will be aware of the recent reports regarding train delays and cancellations. Will he outline what specific steps are being taken to improve the Musselburgh line and the Borders railway in the short and long terms?

As I stated in the chamber earlier this week, performance on our railways has been unacceptable, which is why I instructed Transport Scotland to serve a contractual notice on ScotRail to prepare and submit a remedial plan that sets out how it plans to address performance issues, including on the North Berwick route that serves Musselburgh and on the Borders railway, to the contractually required levels. I assure Colin Beattie that there is no lack of determination on my part to ensure that ScotRail keeps to the standards that are expected of it as set out in the contract. I am determined to ensure that we address the issue, and the remedial plan will assist in dealing with it.

That concludes general question time. Before we turn to First Minister’s question time, I am sure that members will like to join me in welcoming to the gallery Dr Gabriele Andretta, President of the State Parliament of Lower Saxony. [Applause.]