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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, February 10, 2022

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 10 February 2022

Agenda: Point of Order, General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Online Pimping, Portfolio Question Time, Professional Qualifications Bill, Budget (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Health and Care Bill, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

Constitution, External Affairs and Culture

Good afternoon. I remind colleagues of the Covid-related measures that are in place and that face coverings should be worn while moving around the chamber and the wider Holyrood campus.

The next item of business is portfolio questions. On this occasion, the portfolio is constitution, external affairs and culture. As ever, if a member wishes to ask a supplementary question, they should press their request-to-speak button or place an R in the chat function during the relevant question.

International Development Programme (Climate Change)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had regarding how its international development programme can help to support less-developed countries that are at the forefront of climate damage. (S6O-00740)

Our climate justice fund supports communities that are on the front line of the global climate emergency. At the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26—the First Minister committed to treble the fund to £36 million over the parliamentary session and to provide support for loss and damage.

The floods in Malawi following storm Ana highlight the damaging impact of extreme weather events on climate-vulnerable communities. We have been communicating with the Government of Malawi on the floods and are exploring the most appropriate means of support for those who have been affected.

I would like to congratulate Neil Gray on his new post. We are missing him in the Social Justice and Social Security Committee. I hope that he will do his new job as well as he did his job on the committee.

The United Nations World Food Programme has just communicated that nearly 13 million people in the Horn of Africa are facing severe hunger because of drought conditions, which have affected pastoral and farming populations across southern and south-eastern Ethiopia, south-eastern and northern Kenya, and south-central Somalia. Many people are now becoming climate refugees.

What new engagement has the Scottish Government had with the United Kingdom Government about sharing information and technology for farming adaptations, not just with the Horn of Africa but with our partner countries, such as Zambia and Malawi, which have also suffered from the effects of climate change?

I thank Foysol Choudhury for his kind words at the start—flattery will get him everywhere. It is greatly appreciated.

Clearly, we have a commitment to our partner countries, but our commitment to international development and our climate justice work does not stop there. We are keen to do whatever we can, within the powers that we have, to support those initiatives worldwide. If we can support that through the work that the UK Government is doing, then we will do.

I welcome the minister to his post.

I am delighted that the United Nations children’s organisation UNICEF is to receive £1.5 million from the Scottish Government, as announced today, to support equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines and therapeutics in Rwanda, Zambia and Malawi.

Does the minister agree that Scotland could do so much more if powers over international aid and development were with this Parliament instead of with a UK Government that has broken its own manifesto commitment to invest 0.7 per cent of gross national income in helping the world’s poorest nations?

Yes. The Scottish Government believes that the cutting of official development assistance spending from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent of GNI was a deplorable decision that has hit the world’s poorest and most marginal communities at a time of huge need, as we have already heard. We will continue to urge the UK Government to reinstate spending of 0.7 per cent of GNI as soon as possible.

In contrast to the UK Government, we have committed not only to maintain our international development budget but to increase it by 50 per cent to £15 million over the course of the parliamentary session, and we have trebled our support for climate justice. Our statement of intent highlights how much more we could do with the powers of independence.

On behalf of members on the Conservative benches, I welcome the minister to his post.

Improving waste management in developing countries not only helps tackle climate change but helps improve sanitation and lower health-harming pollution levels. However, historically, waste management has attracted very little support, with UN figures showing that it got just 0.32 per cent of global funds. Does the minister agree that there is an opportunity for Scotland to take a lead by targeting our support in a space that is often ignored?

Yes, I do. I would be happy to engage with Maurice Golden on the issue and on any ideas that he has for how we can support that further.

Brexit Freedoms Bill (Engagement with UK Government)

To ask the Scottish Government what engagement it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding the potential impact on Scotland of the proposed “Brexit Freedoms Bill”. (S6O-00741)

We have had no meaningful engagement with the UK Government on the Brexit freedoms bill. I spoke to the UK Attorney General just two days prior to the UK Government announcement. The meeting gave a clear impression of being for no other purpose than to allow the UK Government to say that discussions had taken place with the devolved Governments, when what was, in fact, on offer was a vague verbal briefing with nothing in writing and no advance briefing of any sort. That was totally inadequate given the sweeping changes that are proposed to law, including law in devolved areas.

The approach that has been taken by the UK Government is all the more galling for its proximity to the publication of the intergovernmental relations review. It runs completely counter to the principles set out clearly in the review of

“mutual respect for the responsibilities of the governments”

and for

“Building and maintaining trust, based on effective communication”.

I share the cabinet secretary’s concerns. Does he share my concern that the bill is just another method, if any were needed, to undermine the legitimacy of the Scottish Parliament’s role in carrying out what it was democratically elected to do? Specifically, in areas around agriculture and subsidy control, elements of the bill have the potential to make it much harder for this Parliament to deliver the policies that work best for Scotland’s farmers.

I do, indeed, share the concern that the bill risks undercutting this Parliament’s powers and responsibilities. Although the precise provisions of the Brexit freedoms bill have not yet been published, based on the UK Government’s recent behaviour I remain concerned that Scotland’s world-leading animal welfare and environmental standards will be undermined. For example, we know that the UK Government was willing, in a recent free trade agreement with Australia, to grant Australian agri-food exporters significant market access to the Scottish agriculture market while producing at lower animal welfare and environmental standards, therefore undercutting our domestic producers.

Turning to the question of subsidy control, an effective subsidy control regime should promote a fair business landscape while facilitating targeted and effective support. The regime that is proposed in the Subsidy Control Bill is asymmetrical, giving sweeping powers to the UK secretary of state with no equivalent powers for devolved Administrations. It may also disproportionately restrict agricultural subsidies that we may wish to offer in Scotland in future.

I want to follow up on the issue, given the potential impact of the bill on the Scottish Parliament’s competences. Will the cabinet secretary provide an update on whether he has been able to have a conversation with the UK Government on the issue? Given that those new intergovernmental relations are now theoretically in place, has he asked for a meeting? It would certainly be useful for Parliament to get some feedback on progress, so that we can have transparency, and for us to be able to look at the bill when it comes forward.

As briefly as possible, cabinet secretary.

Not only has our unhappiness been conveyed to the UK Government, but, significantly, so too has the high level of agreement that exists between the Scottish National Party-led Government in the Scottish Parliament, the Labour-led Government in Wales and Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin ministers in Northern Ireland. We sat incredulous in a meeting with the UK Attorney General, who was acting at complete variance with the assurances in the agreement that had been announced only weeks earlier. It is fine and well to have agreements in principle about how intergovernmental relations should work, but, if the mindset does not change, relations will not improve. The answer is that, yes, we have communicated that to the UK Government and we are working very well and closely with colleagues in Wales and Northern Ireland, of all political persuasions, to make sure that the UK Government hears loud and clear that its approach is totally and utterly unacceptable and has to change.

Thank you, cabinet secretary. I am conscious that we have a bit of time in hand over the course of the afternoon, but I would appreciate slightly tighter questions and slightly more succinct answers from the ministerial team.

International Development Programme (Vaccines)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had regarding how its international development programme can support the sharing of vaccines and help to tackle the reported vaccine apartheid in the global south. (S6O-00742)

On 8 December, the First Minister wrote to the Prime Minister to urge the United Kingdom Government to join more than 100 countries that are now supportive of a temporary trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights waiver for Covid-19 vaccines. By waiving patent protection for Covid-19 vaccines, countries will be able to make use of all the tools that are available to increase vaccine access.

As we have announced today, the Scottish Government has provided international development funding to support vaccine preparedness and delivery in Malawi, Zambia and Rwanda. That included a £2 million contribution in December 2020 and will include a further £1.5 million this financial year.

The minister will be aware that the proportion of fully vaccinated people is 54 per cent in Rwanda, but 9 per cent in Zambia and just 4 per cent in Malawi. Those countries are the Scottish Government partner countries that the minister has mentioned, and they should and will look forward to receiving that additional support. Does the minister engage with the authorities in those countries on the reasons for such a slow roll-out? How many vaccines have been shared with those countries?

We are in constant discussion with our partner countries about those issues, which is why it has been identified that that support would be welcome. We are continuing that support, but—and this is an early priority for me—we must ensure that we enhance on-going vaccine equity support worldwide and build on the leadership that the First Minister has shown with regard to the UK Government joining up with an intellectual property rights waiver for vaccines.

I, too, welcome Neil Gray to his new position.

The announcement of funding to Malawi, Zambia and Rwanda is welcome. Will the Scottish Government give us an update on other aid that has been promised? In October, the Scottish Government pledged £120,500 from its humanitarian aid fund to help South Sudan’s Unity state, which suffered flooding across 90 per cent of its territory. How much of the funding has been spent in South Sudan, and how has the country been sent, given recent articles that said that charity teams have—

I call the minister.

I would be happy to update Sharon Dowey in writing on the work that has been done via the humanitarian effort.

Forced Adoption (Access to Records)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with National Records of Scotland and other organisations on the challenges facing people affected by historic forced adoption when seeking to access records. (S6O-00743)

The Scottish Government and its officials have had discussions with a number of organisations that are involved in adoption records, including the National Records of Scotland, as part of our initial engagement activities around historical adoption practices.

The Scottish Government is determined to improve the experience of those whom adoption has affected, and access to records is one of a number of areas that we are exploring. We are seeking a broad range of views and want to learn more about the impacts as we progress with our engagement. The information that we receive will help inform how we support those whom such practices have affected.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that helpful update, and I, too, welcome Neil Gray to his post.

As the minister and the cabinet secretary know, it is estimated that around 60,000 mothers in Scotland had their babies taken from them due to historical forced adoption practices. For many years, the campaigners have been fighting for justice, including for a long-overdue formal apology, specialist mental health support and better access to records.

I am glad that the cabinet secretary is aware that real difficulties exist for mothers, fathers and adoptees in accessing information and records. Will he meet me, campaigners who want to bring additional information to his attention and other MSPs who have an interest? Will he commit to doing all that he can to urgently improve access to records and information?

I would be delighted to meet Monica Lennon and campaigners on that issue. I am sure that, between her office and mine, we can find a suitable date as soon as possible.

The Scottish Government has already opened discussions with a number of organisations, including Birthlink, the National Records of Scotland and a number of adoption agencies through Social Work Scotland’s fostering and adoption sub-group. We will continue to meet them as we seek to expand our understanding of this complex and multifaceted issue. Meeting the campaigners that Monica Lennon has mentioned would be a good addition to that process.

This is a long-standing and complicated issue. I hope that there is agreement across the parties that we need to find remedies. We want to do that as quickly as possible, and I am happy to be advised by colleagues of all political parties about how best we do that.

I associate myself with what Monica Lennon has said. It is important for campaigners that we consider the Scottish Government’s progress in this work. I hope that ministers will take that on board. Are ministers already looking at a national record of historical forced adoption experiences? When are we likely to see announcements on that work, which campaigners really want to be progressed as soon as possible?

I commend my colleague from the Conservative benches for raising the issue of progress, because it has been a long wait for people to see the progress that they want to see. I hope that Miles Briggs understands that the complexities of the issue are such that it is simply not possible to say that there is a fix to the situation in which we find ourselves. We are moving as quickly as possible and we are trying to find remedies across the piece. There are all kinds of complications involved with the process, but I agree with him that it cannot go on endlessly without finding resolution for people. I am happy to work with him and colleagues across the chamber so that they are fully apprised of what stage we are at and when we are likely to make announcements. I am happy to continue to update him as we make progress in this important area.

Referendum Bill (Legal Advice)

To ask the Scottish Government what legal advice it has received on introducing the proposed referendum bill on Scottish independence. (S6O-00744)

The Scottish Government does not comment on the content or source of legal advice. Other than in exceptional circumstances, Government legal advice is not released and remains confidential. That reflects the public interest in the provision of free and frank legal advice and maintaining the right to confidentiality of communications between legal advisers and clients.

The law officers advise the Government about any bill that ministers introduce. That is recognised in paragraphs 2.41 and 3.4 of the Scottish ministerial code.

Once again, we hear of vast sums of taxpayers’ money being wasted on planning for another divisive independence referendum, despite the fact that no section 30 agreement is in place with the United Kingdom Government. This devolved Government cannot even share with us whether it has been told that this non-section 30 independence referendum is legal. Once again, the Scottish Parliament is being left in the dark about what advice the Government has had or how much it is spending on it.

The Government spends more on hiring civil servants to plan a referendum than on raising attainment for pupils in Aberdeen. When will the cabinet secretary get his priorities right and start focusing on the day job?

Forgive me, Presiding Officer, but I will not take lectures from a political party that lost the election on this very issue. The member should know something about that, having stood in 2019 on a manifesto commitment to oppose a referendum and then losing to the Scottish National Party, which was committed to a referendum taking place. In last year’s election in the very same constituency, who won the election? Again, it was the Scottish National Party. [Interruption.] Excuse me? I am being heckled from a sedentary position, Presiding Officer.

You should not respond to it, cabinet secretary. Please resume your seat.

I understand that emotions run high on this topic, but I would appreciate it if members who are asking questions would allow the ministerial team to respond without making sedentary interventions. Cabinet secretary, I encourage you to stick to answering the question that is in the Business Bulletin.

I have made the position on legal advice clear. There is a basic democratic principle in all of this, which is that, when the public elects a party to govern, they expect it to deliver on the manifesto commitments that it has made. This Government was elected with a commitment to hold a referendum on the future of Scotland. On that issue, surprisingly, the Conservative Party wants the Government not to deliver on its manifesto commitment. It is a very odd set of priorities.

To those members who seem determined to overlook the firm and democratic will of the Scottish people, will the cabinet secretary reiterate the ways in which the Scottish Government has secured a clear and overwhelming mandate to hold an independence referendum within the first half of this parliamentary session? Does he agree that, ahead of the referendum, the Scottish people should expect an open, bold and honest conversation about the opportunities of independence?

The agreement reached between the Scottish Government and the Scottish Green Party confirms and strengthens the clear mandate that was granted by the people of Scotland for a referendum on Scottish independence. Of the 129 members of the Scottish Parliament, 72 were elected on manifestos that commit them to a referendum on Scottish independence during the current parliamentary session.

A section 30 order has already been mentioned. It behoves the UK Government to respect the democratic wishes of the people who, in an election, returned a Government—[Interruption.] Again, Presiding Officer, we are getting interventions from a sedentary position that seek to disrespect the result of a democratic election.

The Government is committed to delivering what the people voted for, and they elected a majority of MSPs to this Parliament to do that. The honourable gentlemen and ladies on the Opposition benches do not recognise that; on these benches we do. We will deliver on the mandate that was delivered by the Scottish people.

I again encourage members not to make interventions from a sedentary position, and I also encourage ministers to ignore any sedentary interventions, should they be made.

Brexit (Impact on Policy)

To ask the Scottish Government what impact Brexit has had on its policies across Government, including how it invests in business. (S6O-00745)

The United Kingdom Government’s determination to impose a hard Brexit against the democratic wishes of the people of Scotland has caused significant impacts across society. Some of the hardest hit have been businesses, which continue to be faced with trade friction, additional checks and increased administration costs.

The Scottish Government supports and invests in businesses in a vast range of ways. Brexit is making it harder for those policies to achieve their objectives and to deliver positive outcomes for Scotland because of the permanent damage it is inflicting on our economic relationship with the European Union.

Is there any legal or constitutional reason that would explain the failure of the Scottish Government to set up the proposed and promised national energy company? Why could it not have made much more use of the powers that it currently has to ensure that Scotland benefits from the onshore manufacturing and services that are needed to supply offshore wind farms? Is there any legal or constitutional reason that would explain why the Scottish Government did not seek legal guarantees that that work would come to Scotland?

I am sure that the Presiding Officer would chide me if I did not stick with the first question that was posed. Alex Rowley has asked an important question, but it is not related to the initial question that he asked.

On legal and constitutional relations with the European Union, members know that, in the next few years, we in this country will have an opportunity to make a decision on whether we will rejoin the European Union and become part of the biggest single market in the world. I hope that Alex Rowley and his colleagues will join us in agreeing that the people should be able to decide on that question. Even though we might disagree in the vote that might take place in that referendum, I hope that, as democrats, we agree on the constitutional legal position that, having elected a Parliament and Government to deliver such a vote to the people, the people should have that vote.

Brexit (Relations with European Union)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is building on Scotland’s relations with the European Union post-Brexit. (S6O-00746)

Scotland remains an inclusive European nation. We share with the European Union a vision for Europe that embodies democratic values, rises to the challenge of the global climate emergency and supports sustainable economic recovery from the global pandemic.

The Scottish Government continues to take a proactive role in engaging with EU institutions and member states, in particular through our Brussels office and external European network. We recognise the importance of learning from others and sharing experience across Europe.

Later this spring, we will open a new Scottish Government office in Copenhagen to further strengthen our EU ties and to increase Scotland’s economic and cultural connections with the Nordic region.

Some of my constituents—in particular, students—have been in touch because they are starting to feel acutely the effects of the UK’s hard approach to EU relations post-Brexit, including through the loss of the Erasmus+ student exchange programme. Can the cabinet secretary provide an update on the Scottish Government’s efforts to set up an alternative that will benefit students in Scotland and across Europe?

It is disappointing that the UK Government’s decision not to associate with Erasmus+ prevents Scotland from participating fully in its own right. Although we remain committed to Erasmus+, in the interim we are creating a Scottish education exchange programme to support participants from across Scotland’s education system. That is a programme for government commitment, and it will help to maintain Scotland’s place as an outward-looking and internationally connected destination for work and for study.

Question 8 comes from Joe FitzPatrick, who joins us remotely.

Civil Service (Independence Policy)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reported calls for the head of the civil service to investigate and rule on the deployment of Scottish Government civil servants to develop policy on independence. (S6O-00747)

It is quite clearly the duty of the civil service to support the elected Government of the day to develop and implement its policies, including those relating to the constitution. That is widely accepted, including by previous heads of the United Kingdom civil service. Members will also have seen that a former member of the Scottish Parliament, Professor Adam Tomkins, tweeted to accept that that is a proper role for the civil service.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that that political stunt is an embarrassing and hypocritical attempt to thwart Scottish democracy by a political party whose leader, just a couple of weeks ago, accused the Prime Minister of treating Scotland with “utter disdain”?

I agree with my colleague, the member for Dundee City West. As is the case across the Government’s programme, the civil service will support the Scottish ministers in delivering commitments that are in the programme for government. We should not forget that, in 2011, when he wrote to party leaders on this very topic, the then head of the UK civil service, Sir Gus O’Donnell, said:

“It is right and proper that civil servants working to their respective administrations undertake the relevant work to support their ministers to pursue their aims, whether or not these aims are the subject of political controversy.”

A recent freedom of information request revealed that the Scottish Government has 11 civil servants working on an independence prospectus, at a reported cost of £700,000 a year. How many civil service staff are working on the independence referendum bill? How much is that costing taxpayers?

Donald Cameron must forgive me, but I did not get advance notice of the detailed question that he has asked. I would be happy to write to him.

I hope that Donald Cameron does not disagree with the notion, which is accepted across political parties, that Governments exist to deliver what they have been elected to do. That is what we intend to do, and that is exactly what will happen during the current parliamentary session.