Meeting date: Wednesday, May 11, 2022
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 11 May 2022 [Draft]
Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Ferry Problems, Violent Crime, Business Motion, Point of Order, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Approval of Scottish Statutory Instruments, Decision Time, Alcohol Services (LGBTQ+ People)
- Portfolio Question Time
- Ferry Problems
- Violent Crime
- Business Motion
- Point of Order
- Parliamentary Bureau Motion
- Approval of Scottish Statutory Instruments
- Decision Time
- Alcohol Services (LGBTQ+ People)
Portfolio Question Time
Justice and Veterans
Good afternoon. The first item of business is portfolio question time, and we start with justice and veterans. If a member wishes to ask a supplementary question, they should press their request-to-speak button or enter R in the chat function during the relevant question. I make the usual plea for succinct questions, and answers to match.
Scottish Solicitors Bar Association (Boycott)
To ask the Scottish Government what impact the boycott announced by the Scottish Solicitors Bar Association will have on the number of outstanding trials in Scotland. (S6O-01054)
Section 1 of the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018, which criminalises coercive and controlling behaviour, has been in operation for more than three years. Last year, section 1 cases accounted for 5 per cent of all domestic abuse cases. The latest data from the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service shows that accused in recent DASA cases have been represented using current capacity of the Public Defence Solicitors Office and private providers who continue to work on such cases. As has been the situation throughout, we still aim to seek an appropriate and affordable resolution to the issue in the interests of vulnerable victims and those accused of such crimes, who are barred from defending themselves.
I thank the minister for that rather strange answer, in which she appeared to say that there will be no impact. Perhaps she can clarify that and give a clearer response to this question.
Solicitors are clearly saying that they have had enough. Does the minister agree with the Law Society of Scotland that a long-term legal aid fee review needs to be established as soon as possible? In the meantime, what is she doing to support the victims of crime who will be anxious about the lengthy delays that they are set to face as a result of the action being taken?
Not much time has elapsed since the start of the action that some solicitors are taking on DASA cases. I am therefore sure that members will accept that, at this point in time, it is quite difficult to predict what impacts, if any, it will have.
The Scottish Government has taken a large number of actions. Most recently, we set up a fee package that was targeted specifically at areas of concern that the profession had raised with us. We also made an additional offer of an across-the-board fee rate rise to legal aid rates of 5 per cent, but that has not been accepted so far.
We are working at pace to put in place measures to address any shortfall and, as I outlined to the member, there does not seem to be a shortfall at the moment, but we will continue to monitor the situation to make sure that we address any shortfall that occurs in the availability of solicitors.
We are committed to continuing engagement to seek a resolution with the profession. However, I remind members that the profession’s demand is for an increase of 50 per cent in addition to the increases that the Scottish Government has already made, which amount to a significant investment of more than £20 million in the past few years. That would add an increase of about £60 million per year to the legal aid budget and, unfortunately, that is not affordable.
I will take a brief supplementary from Jackie Dunbar.
What has the Scottish Government done to increase the capacity and capability of the legal aid profession?
Again, as briefly as possible, minister.
One of the main things that we have done to address the issues that the member has raised is provide £9 million of grant funding during Covid. Some of that money was specifically for business resilience and to help businesses adapt to the situation in which they found themselves, so that they could invest to find solutions to any issues that they might have.
The profession has approached us on capacity. To help to resolve that situation, we set up and invested £1 million in a fund for trainees that is co-run with the Law Society of Scotland. More than 40 trainees are in that system, and 75 per cent of them are women, because we recognise that gender was a potential issue. That is another way in which we have attempted to resolve the issues that the profession has raised.
Custodial Sentences (16 and 17-year-olds)
To ask the Scottish Government when its policy on ending custodial sentences for 16 and 17-year-olds will be implemented. (S6O-01055)
The Scottish Government is committed to reducing and, ultimately, ending the placement of under-18s in young offenders institutions. In line with our commitment to keeping the Promise, we aim to deliver that by the end of 2024. Resourcing and legislative reform will be needed first, but we will move forward without delay. A consultation on legislative proposals was published on 30 March, and views are invited until 22 June. Sentencing decisions will, of course, remain with the independent courts. When 16 and 17-year-olds require to be deprived of their liberty, they should be placed in age-appropriate settings.
In recent years in Scotland, there have been multiple instances of 16 and 17-year-old murderers. Their place should absolutely be in jail. Will the cabinet secretary confirm that 16 and 17-year-old killers, rapists and other serious offenders will still go to prison once the proposed change has been implemented?
It is obvious from my initial answer that we agree with the idea that people who commit such serious offences should be deprived of their liberty and that public safety should come first, but we also believe that they should be in age-appropriate settings.
The Conservative United Kingdom Government’s own analysis shows that prisoners who receive custodial sentences of less than 12 months without supervision on release are associated with higher levels of reoffending than prisoners who receive sentences that are to be served in the community. Instead of trying to appear tough on crime, we need policy that actually works. With that in mind, does the cabinet secretary agree that community sentences and an evidence-based approach to justice will better serve victims of crime, by working to reduce offending?
I absolutely agree. The Conservatives are not interested in reducing crime and the number of victims in society. If they were, they would support community justice alternatives, which, as Karen Adam said, drive down reconvictions. We know from national statistics that individuals who are released from a custodial sentence of 12 months or less are reconvicted about twice as often as those who are given a community payback order.
We are focused on what works. Our firm focus is on prevention, effective community interventions and rehabilitation in communities and custody, which helps to reduce victimisation. Although no sentence—whether it is a custodial or a community sentence—can eliminate the possibility of individuals reoffending, reconvictions and overall crime in Scotland are at historically low levels.
Convicted and Incarcerated Persons who Own and Control Property
To ask the Scottish Government whether it is considering any reforms to the justice system in relation to convicted and incarcerated persons who own and control property in Scotland. (S6O-01056)
As I know that the member knows, it is not appropriate for the Scottish Government to comment on individual cases, but I assure him that Scots law prevents someone who has unlawfully killed another person from inheriting that person’s estate. Although a murderer cannot inherit from their victim’s estate, they can assume the role of executor. The function of the executor is to represent the deceased and is fiduciary in nature, which means that there is an ethical relationship of trust. Until such time as the estate is distributed, they have control of the deceased person’s property.
I raise the disturbing local issue whereby a convicted and incarcerated murderer retains ownership and control of a house that is falling into disrepair, with no maintenance being carried out and access being denied to family members; they are also exempt from paying any council tax. Will the cabinet secretary consider what might be done to resolve such a problem? Neighbours are having to live beside such a mess and immediate family members cannot resolve what is a humiliating and embarrassing situation for them.
I have said that I cannot comment on individual cases, but I know the case to which the member refers. The Scottish Government has previously met the family and heard about the personal toll that the lack of closure has had on them. I sympathise with the family and the situation that they find themselves in.
It is important to make it clear that, under Scots law, someone who has unlawfully killed another person cannot inherit from the estate. However, they can—as in this case—assume the role of executor. The overarching role of an executor is to distribute the estate to those persons who are entitled to it, not to keep property indefinitely.
When the Scottish Government consulted on whether a convicted murderer should continue to be able to assume the office of executor, there was some support for reforming the law. We continue to keep the matter under consideration, with a view to taking forward such a reform. I will be happy to take the matter away and consider it further. Perhaps my colleague the Minister for Community Safety, who has responsibility for civil law, can agree to meet the member to provide him with further information about what might be done in future to resolve such situations.
To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the latest recorded crime statistics. (S6O-01057)
The statistics show that recorded crime remains at one of the lowest levels since 1974 and is down 41 per cent since 2006-07, with non-sexual violent crime down 36 per cent over the same period and homicides at their lowest level since 1976.
Incidentally, last November, the member retweeted an accusation that I had misled this Parliament on homicides. I hope that he will take the opportunity today to either repeat that accusation or to apologise for it, because it is entirely false.
The Scottish crime and justice survey shows that adults in Scotland were less likely to experience crime in 2019-20 than those living in England and Wales. Although that progress is very encouraging, the levels of crime over recent years highlight that there is more to be done. We have increased the policing budget, with a total in 2022-23 of almost £1.4 billion.
Police officers work tirelessly to keep our communities safe, but in East Lothian, reports of antisocial behaviour have skyrocketed. Residents in Prestonpans have reported cars damaged and homes egged, and youth-related antisocial behaviour is a growing concern for residents of Haddington town centre. With data revealing that the number of bobbies on the beat across Scotland has plunged to its lowest level since 2008, will the minister join me in calling for more community police in East Lothian?
First, members will note that Craig Hoy rejected the idea of either confirming or apologising for the allegation that he made last November.
On the policing situation, of course we have—[Interruption.] The Tories get very animated when they hear this. We have in Scotland substantially more police officers than England and Wales have, and they are paid substantially more here—a constable starting in the police force is paid around £5,000 more in Scotland.
We know what the Tories do when they have the chance to set levels of policing: it is substantially less than what the Scottish National Party does. We will continue to invest in police services.
I note, in passing, that the Conservatives made no amendment to our budget to ask for increased funding for police costs. They made no amendment when they had the chance to do so, so they must, despite what they say today, be very pleased about the higher levels of policing here in Scotland, under the Scottish National Party.
I encourage members to ask their questions and ministers to respond to the questions. There should be no sedentary interventions, nor should members on the front bench respond to sedentary interventions.
In the latest available statistics for reconviction rates, although the baseline rate is 28.3 per cent, the reconviction rate for those with a custodial sentence is a staggering 43.8 per cent. What is the Scottish Government doing to ensure that prison gates are not revolving doors?
By contrast, that is a fair question. We acknowledge the point—[Interruption.] Again, we get interventions from a sedentary position. It is the case that short sentences are associated with increased reconviction levels, as the member says. We are looking to increase the community disposals that can be used in the judicial system because, as I said in my answer to a previous question, they have lower reconviction rates.
I am sure that the member shares with me the ultimate aim of reducing the number of crimes and, therefore, the number of victims in Scotland. He makes a fair point, and I hope that he will agree that that is the Government’s direction of travel.
Question 5 has not been lodged.
Poppyscotland (Support for Veterans)
To ask the Scottish Government when it last corresponded with Poppyscotland regarding support for veterans. (S6O-01059)
I last met Poppyscotland to discuss veterans issues on 29 September 2021. Since then, my officials have engaged with it regularly on a range of topics including the poppy appeal, the festival of remembrance, preparations for events to mark the 40th anniversary of the Falklands war, promotion of the veterans question in the 2022 census and veterans’ employment and health.
The most recent engagement by Scottish Government officials came last month, when Poppyscotland was invited to comment on the current draft of our upcoming refresh of the veterans strategy action plan.
On 20 April, in response to my question on veterans’ mental health and wellbeing, the minister stated that the United Kingdom Government should fund the commissioner in Scotland, based on comparison with the commissioner in Wales. However, Poppyscotland highlighted to me that the minister neglected to mention that the UK-funded Welsh commissioner is limited to commenting on areas that are reserved to the UK Government.
As the Scottish veterans commissioner was set up and is funded by the Scottish Government, and reports only to the Scottish ministers on devolved areas, why does the minister believe that the commissioner in Scotland should now be funded by the UK Government? Does he believe that the UK Government should be involved in the appointment to and operation of that role, if it is to fund it?
I do not agree with that. I simply drew to the member’s attention the fact that different rules are being applied by the UK Government in relation to Wales and Scotland. The UK Government does not fund the commissioner in Scotland; we set up the post ourselves and pay for it through funds in Scotland, none of which is associated with any part of the Barnett formula.
This Government does a great deal of work on veterans and has done so for many years, and we have dragged the UK Government with us to do more. We think that the work that we do on veterans should be recognised in the funding formula.
I would have thought that the member would agree that we should have more funding for veterans in Scotland, and that the UK Government should stand behind that and help our veterans wherever it is possible to do so.
In light of the successful Poppyscotland and Royal British Legion campaign to include a new question on service status in the census, will the cabinet secretary take this opportunity to highlight the importance of completing the census, so that we can better understand our veterans’ needs?
It is good to have that supplementary question, which relates to the substantive question about Poppyscotland. As I said in our news release with Poppyscotland back in March, I strongly encourage all veterans in Scotland who have not already done so to take the opportunity to complete the census, including the question on previous service in the armed forces, before the extended deadline of the end of May. That will help us to develop a more complete picture than we have ever had of our veterans population. It will give us an insight into the ages and circumstances of veterans throughout Scotland that will be vital as we continue to improve the provision and targeting of support for armed services personnel and their families.
Fatal Accident Inquiries (Deaths in Custody)
Presiding Officer, I apologise for not being present at the beginning of portfolio question time. I was late returning from a committee visit.
To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to improve the effectiveness of fatal accident inquiries into deaths in custody. (S6O-01060)
As the member knows, the Lord Advocate is constitutionally responsible for the investigation of deaths.
The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service has put in place many improvements to systems and processes to ensure that all deaths are investigated thoroughly and within a reasonable timescale. Funding for the overall COPFS budget has been increased in recent years to support the progress of such investigations.
A specialist investigation team will be established during 2022, which will investigate all deaths that occur in legal custody.
Separately, the Scottish Government has accepted in principle the recommendations of the “Independent Review of the Response to Deaths in Prison Custody”. External chair Gill Imery has been appointed to oversee recommendation implementation, including that of the key recommendation of an independent investigation into every death in custody. That will not replace the fatal accident inquiry or any of the current inquiry processes; it will complement the independent investigation of COPFS into the circumstances of the death.
The public inquiry into the death of Sheku Bayoh has commenced, more than seven years after his death in custody. An inquiry would probably not have happened if his family had not fought for it.
Research suggests that only 31 per cent of families are represented at fatal accident inquiries. Will the Scottish Government review the rules, particularly the legal aid rules, to do with representation of families where there has been a death in custody?
The member’s question touches on areas that would best be responded to by the Lord Advocate, although it also raises questions for the Scottish Government.
The taxpayer funds the very substantial legal costs of public inquiries, which, as I am sure that the member is aware, can last for many years and involve senior legal representatives. For my part, I am happy to look at the issue; I will do so in conjunction with the Lord Advocate.
The response to a freedom of information request that I made to the Crown Office showed that the average time taken to complete an FAI in Scotland is about three years. Last year, more than five FAIs had taken more than five years; the longest took more than 4,000 days. The cabinet secretary can imagine the pain that that causes the families of victims after there has been a tragic death. Has he had a proper, sensible and robust conversation with the Crown Office about those elongated timescales? Can the cabinet secretary confirm that the FAI into the tragic deaths of John Yuill and Lamara Bell will commence this year, as was promised?
On the latter point, I think that Jamie Greene will have had that undertaking from the Lord Advocate; it is right that she should respond to that point.
We—the law officers, the Minister for Community Safety and I—have had not just one conversation but a number of conversations on the issue. I accept the member’s point that, when things take a very long time, that can have an effect on not just victims’ families but the quality of evidence. He will be aware of recent efforts to reduce the timescales. The member will also be aware of the increasingly specialist nature of some inquiries. For example, the inquiry into the helicopter crash in the North Sea required all sorts of expertise so that it could be done properly—and it is important that such things are done properly.
To conclude, during the two reporting years from April 2020 to March 2022, despite the effects of the pandemic, including restricted court availability, the Crown Office successfully concluded 53 FAIs relating to deaths in custody, and 31 of those related to deaths that occurred in 2019 or 2020.
What developments have been made following the publication of the “Independent Review of the Response to Deaths in Prison Custody”?
As briefly as possible, cabinet secretary.
We are committed to making improvements while providing more prompt answers. In February, I held a round-table discussion with the inspector of prisons, the review co-chairs and stakeholders to ensure that the review recommendations are implemented swiftly.
I hope that the member takes some comfort from the fact that we have already appointed Gill Imery as external chair to oversee progress against the recommendations. A range of progress is under way, including a round-table discussion with UK and Irish counterparts to learn lessons and the instigation of a working group of key agencies and the Scottish Government.
Veterans (Mental Health Needs)
To ask the Scottish Government what discussions the veterans secretary has had with the minister for mental wellbeing regarding any urgent action that can be taken to meet the mental health needs of veterans. (S6O-01061)
The Minister for Mental Wellbeing and Social Care and I are committed to ensuring that veterans can access appropriate mental health support wherever they live in Scotland. At the debate in March, we jointly supported the principles in the veteran mental health and wellbeing action plan, which was published in December 2021. As a first step, we are providing £50,000 to the see me campaign to tackle the stigma that veterans have told us that they experience.
We have appointed Dr Charles Winstanley to establish a veteran-led implementation board to take the plan forward, and we continue to fund Combat Stress and Veterans First Point to provide veteran mental health services during implementation.
The Scottish veterans commissioner recently raised concerns that the mental health needs of our ex-servicemen and women are being forgotten about as the national health service recovers from the Covid pandemic. In the chamber on 1 March, before the publication of the commissioner’s report, “Positive Futures: Getting Transition Right in Scotland—Employment, Skills & Learning”, the cabinet secretary endorsed and committed to the 38 recommendations that are set out in the veterans mental health plan. Will the cabinet secretary outline what progress is being made towards implementing the recommendations? How does the Government respond to the concerns that have been raised by the veterans commissioner?
I mentioned some of the other recommendations in my initial answer, and I am happy to write to the member with a full account of the progress that we have made on them so far.
On the point that the member raises about what we are doing, £1.4 million has gone to Combat Stress and £666,000 has gone to Veterans First Point to provide services in 2023; in turn, that funding has been matched by six local health boards.
Through the veterans fund, we also fund organisations that help veterans, such as HorseBack UK and a number of others. We treat the issue very seriously, and we are putting in and have put in substantial sums of money to address it. The action plan that has been mentioned, and on which I will write to the member, details the further progress that we intend to make.
What has been the impact on the sector of the £2 million funding boost that was announced in March for services that provide mental health support for veterans?
The question allows me to say that the funding has allowed Veterans First Point and Combat Stress—this will be of interest to Pam Duncan-Glancy, as well—to take on two specialist veteran mental health service providers to continue to provide advice and support to veterans across Scotland. The funding is also being used to commission the see me campaign to design and implement a campaign to address stigma. It is appalling that veterans should suffer stigma in this day and age, but we will address the issue, which has been experienced by veterans and their families.
That concludes portfolio question time on justice and veterans. I thank colleagues and the ministerial team for allowing us to get through all the questions.
Finance and the Economy
The second portfolio is finance and the economy. Any members who wish to ask a supplementary question should press their request-to-speak button during the relevant question. I ask for succinct questions and answers.
Food Prices (Impact of Brexit-related Trade Barriers)
To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on a recent report by the London School of Economics Centre for Economic Performance that states that Brexit-related trade barriers have resulted in a 6 per cent increase in United Kingdom food prices. (S6O-01062)
The Tory cost of living crisis has its roots in the Tories’ disastrous Brexit policies. The Scottish Government, alongside many others, has repeatedly warned that Brexit would be damaging to business and trade, and we see that play out right now. The UK Government holds levers to address the cost of living crisis but refuses to use them. We are using all the powers and resources that we have to tackle poverty and help people who are struggling to make ends meet.
It is clear that Brexit has made the cost of living crisis worse for the UK and Scotland. Despite Scotland voting against Brexit, we are still living with the consequences of the Tory UK Government’s hard Brexit deal. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the LSE report clearly shows how Scotland faces a cost of living with Westminster crisis?
The member is right: it is the Tories’ cost of living crisis, the Tories’ Brexit and the Tories’ failure to lift a finger right now to help anybody in Scotland who is contending with the challenges of rising inflation and costs. We repeatedly warned that Brexit would be damaging. Scottish businesses have experienced record increases in input prices in 2022, with firms citing Brexit as a contributing factor, as highlighted by S&P Global statistics. That has fed through to the 17th monthly rise in prices charged by businesses. That damage to trade reflects the reckless approach that the UK Government has taken.
The minister is right: there is no doubt that the Conservatives’ policies, including Brexit, have contributed to rising food prices and the cost of living crisis. It is important that we learn the lessons of Brexit. Is the minister aware of any research on the potential impact on food prices of Scottish independence-related trade barriers?
Trust the Liberal Democrats to defend the Conservatives on the challenges that Scots are facing right now when it comes to the cost of living and the result of Brexit. We know fine well that, if the powers to combat the cost of living challenges were in the hands of the Scottish Government, we would take a very different approach.
Structural Funding Replacement
To ask the Scottish Government what its latest engagement has been with the United Kingdom Government regarding programmes to deliver a replacement for European Union structural funding. (S6O-01063)
Since last month’s launch of the UK shared prosperity fund—which confirmed that the UK Government has reneged on its promise that EU funding would be replaced so that Scotland would not lose out financially from Brexit, and its promise that devolution and the Scottish Parliament would be respected and strengthened post Brexit—the UK Government has made no effort to make contact or engage with the Scottish Government at either ministerial or official level on the fund.
The Scottish Government previously made decisions about how best to spend EU structural funds based on local priorities. Now, a UK Tory Government, which Scotland did not vote for, is cutting Scotland’s elected Government out of the decision-making process. Does the minister agree that that Tory UK Government poses a fundamental threat to devolution?
Yes, I do. The shared prosperity fund exemplifies the UK Government’s encroachment into devolved policy areas. The United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, which was passed despite the devolved Administrations not consenting, enables spending in devolved policy areas with no recourse for the Scottish Government. That raises significant constitutional questions and undermines the role of the Scottish Parliament.
The lack of decision making for the Scottish Government in the governance of the fund completely undermines devolution. The terms of reference for a joint ministerial board make it explicit that UK ministers will always have the final say. The devolved Governments have been invited to join the board as advisers. However, we were not elected to advise Westminster; we were elected to lead, make decisions and take responsibility for Scotland’s future wellbeing.
The UK Government should fully devolve control of the fund to the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government and immediately increase its value to £549 million, which reflects the amount needed to replace EU structural funding.
Question 3 was not lodged.
East Kilbride (Economic Support)
To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to support the economy in East Kilbride. (S6O-01065)
The Scottish Government is supporting the economy in East Kilbride in a number of ways, not least through its inclusion in the Glasgow city region deal, which the Scottish Government will fund with £500 million over 20 years. It is delivering a programme of investment to stimulate economic growth and create jobs.
Projects in East Kilbride include the £62 million Stewartfield Way project and the £25.7 million Greenhills Road project. East Kilbride has also been identified as one of the four community growth areas in the deal.
Furthermore, we will support retail stakeholders within East Kilbride to respond to the work that is emerging from the city centre recovery task force and, with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, to the town centre action plan review. That includes promoting town and city centres as places to live and as retail and cultural destinations, and repurposing vacant units.
Last Friday marked East Kilbride’s 75th anniversary as Scotland’s first new town, and I want that to create a lasting legacy for the town and its economy.
The minister may know that Mage Control Systems was recently accredited as East Kilbride’s first living hours employer. Does the minister agree that good employment practices are essential to delivering a sustainable economy in East Kilbride and across Scotland? Can he outline the schemes that are available for employers, and how they can apply for those accreditations?
I agree whole-heartedly that good employment practices are essential for delivering a sustainable economy. That is why fair work is one of the pillars of our national strategy for economic transformation. In 2022-23, the Scottish Government is providing £380,000 to the Poverty Alliance to expand the real living wage employers accreditation scheme, the living hours employer accreditation scheme and the making living wage places scheme in order to increase the number of workers who are receiving the real living wage and benefiting from secure contracts. I encourage all employers to pursue real living wage and living hours accreditation, and to engage directly with the Poverty Alliance, which will support them through the accreditation process. Additionally, groups of employees can seek support from the Poverty Alliance to form local partnerships to pursue recognition from the making living wage places scheme.
In his original answer, the minister referred to the Stewartfield Way project, which is a frankly ludicrous scheme under the city deal to create a new dual carriageway around East Kilbride. It is a scheme that nobody wants that will create no jobs and harm the environment. Can the minister give us an update on where we are with that scheme?
The member raises an interesting point. Decisions about the selection of projects are taken by the city region cabinet, which is where they should be taken, rather than distantly in Whitehall—which we are observing is the United Kingdom Government’s approach to levelling up. That is what community empowerment, economic regeneration and supporting local economies are about, and that is what we are doing by giving the city cabinet the autonomy to take the decisions that are right for its particular area.
The milestone of 75 years since East Kilbride achieved new town status—the first in the country—is cause for celebration. Looking to the future, people who live and work in East Kilbride are keen for investment, particularly in infrastructure and jobs, to continue. What progress has been made to put the dualling of the EK rail line back on track?
As the member will be aware, we are delivering electrification of the railway line to East Kilbride, as we are doing in Barrhead as part of that project. That commitment was fully considered and appraised through due process, and it is one that the Government is delivering.
National Strategy for Economic Transformation
To ask the Scottish Government what progress has been made on implementing the delivery of its national strategy for economic transformation. (S6O-01066)
We have made good early progress on implementation since the publication of the strategy. On 21 March, we published the technology sector export plan, and on Monday we announced the establishment of a centre of expertise in equality and human rights, which will help to tackle structural inequalities and support our vision of a wellbeing economy. An announcement will be made shortly on the new NSET delivery board, as well as the new chief entrepreneurship officer. The board will hold the public sector, business and third sector partners to account.
We undertook to work collaboratively with all sectors, and with individuals and communities, to develop delivery plans and agree key metrics. Those plans will be finalised. Since the launch of the strategy, Ivan McKee and I have met more than 150 stakeholders across all sectors.
Ensuring that businesses in Scotland can benefit from the opportunities of digitalisation will be central to delivering economic transformation. Can the cabinet secretary today provide an update on the steps that the Scottish Government is taking to support businesses, including those in my constituency of Midlothian North and Musselburgh, to access such opportunities?
We fully understand the benefits that digital technologies bring to businesses, and I am clear that economic transformation needs to be digitally driven. That is why, since January 2021, we have invested almost £50 million to help businesses of all sizes across sectors and geographies to take advantage of digital technology. The commitment to support the digitalisation of businesses is reinforced in the national strategy for economic transformation, which includes ambitious commitments, including the introduction of a digital productivity fund and the development of new digital support programmes to complement what already exists.
The Scottish Government’s work to establish a new centre for expertise in equality and human rights is welcome. It is certainly important that equality and human rights are embedded in the economic policy-making process. Can the cabinet secretary provide any further information about how the centre will help to put human rights and equality at the heart of economic policy development?
The centre of expertise in equality and human rights will build knowledge, skills and understanding among economic policy officials in order to help embed equality and human rights within the economic policy-making process, and it will help to shape the work that we do to build a fairer and more equal society, including actions to remove barriers to employment for disabled people, women, those with care experience and minority ethnic groups. We are continuing to develop the centre in partnership with stakeholders.
The centre will ultimately meet the strategy’s ambition to build a strong economy and tackle structural inequalities and, critically, will try to embed that thinking on equality and human rights in the development of policy, rather than trying to retrofit policies once they have been developed.
To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its plans for income tax. (S6O-01067)
The Scottish Government will set out its plans on income tax policy and other devolved tax policies in future budgets. Engagement is one of our core principles of effective tax policy making, as set out in our tax strategy document, “Framework for Tax”. Engagement is crucial, and is integral to the Scottish Government’s budget process. We will engage with a wide variety of stakeholders on tax policy ahead of the budget for 2023-24, and we will update the chamber as per the usual budget process.
The Scottish National Party’s income tax changes have seen Scottish income tax payers pay an extra £900 million over the past three years. According to the Scottish Parliament’s researchers, that has resulted in a net benefit of just £170 million. Will the Scottish Government therefore learn from that mistake and allow Scots to keep more pounds in their pockets?
The member should perhaps consult the record and learn the fact of the matter, which is that the majority of people in Scotland pay less in income tax than they would if they lived in other parts of the United Kingdom. Further, they enjoy a range of benefits that people in Tory-controlled England can only dream of. They do not have to pay tuition fees or prescription charges and they benefit from a range of other measures that this Government has delivered, and which we know that, if they had even a sniff of power in this Parliament, the Tories would cast away in order to give tax cuts to the wealthiest.
It is welcome that the Scottish Government’s priority continues to be delivering a fairer and more progressive tax system. At a time when living costs are rising, people on lower incomes should not be paying more tax. Can the minister confirm that the majority of people in Scotland will continue to pay less income tax this year than they would if they lived elsewhere in the UK?
I think that you have already set out your view on that matter, minister, but you can repeat it for the record.
The member is absolutely correct to raise that point, particularly in the context of the cost of living crisis. I am happy to confirm that the majority of Scottish taxpayers—54 per cent—will pay less income tax in 2022-23 than they would if they lived elsewhere in the UK.
Renewables Sector Innovation (Argyll and Bute)
To ask the Scottish Government how the just transition will support Argyll and Bute’s local economy through innovation in the renewables sector. (S6O-01068)
There is no doubt that growth and innovation in the renewables sector present significant opportunities in Argyll and Bute. Upcoming projects include the repowering of existing onshore wind farms, the 2GW potential from the ScotWind project, MachairWind, and harnessing tidal energy off Islay. ScottishPower Renewables, the developer of MachairWind, has committed to supporting maximum Scottish content for the project and will work with the enterprise agencies to identify Scottish suppliers with potential to fulfil subcontracted scopes of work.
In addition, we have committed to invest up to £25 million over 10 years in the Argyll and Bute growth deal, which will further drive our sustainable economy and support a just transition in the region.
Scotland’s renewable energy industry continues to move from strength to strength, and growing this part of our economy will form a vital part of realising our net zero goals. In the near future, the Minister for Business, Trade, Tourism and Enterprise is planning to visit Argyll and Bute, where manufacturers such as Renewable Parts in Lochgilphead play a vital role in the supply chain for the renewable energy industry. Can the minister provide further information about the steps that the Scottish Government is taking to equip Scotland’s workforce with the necessary skills for the green jobs of the future?
We are taking several steps to ensure that people across Scotland have the right skills to support our just transition to net zero. To give an example, the climate emergency skills action plan remains central to our ambitions to develop a workforce that can support the transition. Developments to date include the launch of the green jobs workforce academy platform in August 2021, as well as a suite of green skills training initiatives, which are delivered through the national transition training fund. In addition, we are investing £100 million over five years to help businesses create new green jobs as they transition to a low-carbon economy.
To meet our net zero targets and achieve a just transition, we have to change the way in which we heat our homes. However, air source heat pumps, which seem to be the focus of Government policy, are totally inappropriate for tenemented properties. Can the minister set out the Scottish Government plans to invest in municipal heat networks, so that those who live in tenemented properties can change the way in which they heat their homes?
I am afraid that that question is not relevant to the support of Argyll and Bute’s local economy through innovation in the renewables sector. As the minister does not wish to offer a response, we will move to the next question.
To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to address reported shortages in the labour market. (S6O-01069)
The Scottish Government recognises that employers across many sectors are experiencing significant challenges in attracting and retaining workers. As the member knows, I spend a considerable amount of time engaging with businesses across all sectors that are covered by my portfolio and beyond. In almost every engagement that I have with business, the issue of labour market shortages is raised. The Tories’ hard Brexit, which removed freedom of labour, has adversely impacted on many sectors, because many people from the European Union have left Scotland. Now, because of Tory immigration policies, they are not coming here in large numbers. That has resulted in a reduction in the labour market and a loss of skills as a consequence.
We have called on the United Kingdom Government to establish a joint task force on labour market shortages but, so far, it has failed to engage with us on that, just as it has failed to engage with us on our calls to devolve immigration. We believe that devolving that area is the right approach, so that the Scottish Government can make the most appropriate decisions in order to supply the labour market with the necessary skills to support Scottish businesses across all those sectors.
We continue to work with businesses and sectors to do all that we can to mitigate those shortages, with a focus on employability, skills and our important fair work agenda.
The sector that I want to focus on is health and social care, which is a public service that is delivered directly through public provision and through the private sector. There is a major recruitment and retention problem in the sector, and older people up and down Scotland are suffering as a result.
I have met many people who work in the private sector and many private sector companies, and they tell me that they simply cannot recruit and retain staff because of the poor terms and conditions and poor wages. Health and social care is a public service and you have the powers over it in this Parliament so, instead of trying to deliver care on the cheap, will you put the money into the sector that is needed in order to address the retention and recruitment problems?
I remind members that they should speak through the chair.
That issue is identified across a range of sectors. Health and social care is a very important part of that, and that sector has experienced significant challenges as a consequence of the tight labour market, which is primarily due to the Tory Government’s approach to Brexit and immigration. We continue to call for devolution of those powers to allow us to bring more people into Scotland to fulfil those roles.
The member will be aware that in the sector, the terms and conditions are significantly better than they are in other parts of the UK, which is something that the Scottish Government believes is important and has acted on.
I am sure that the member talks to businesses in his constituency. Only yesterday, I had discussions with the tourism, leisure and hospitality sector, which is facing the same challenges, as is the construction sector and every other sector across Scotland’s economy, due to a shortage of labour. As I indicated, we continue to call on the UK Government to address those challenges by removing barriers to immigration, because sectors are calling for sector-specific or wider visa systems to allow that to happen.
With regard to the aspects over which we have control, the Scottish Government is also taking action to increase supply into the labour market. If the member has read our new 10-year strategy for economic transformation, which I am sure he has, he will know that labour market availability and tackling those challenges form one of the projects that is set out in the strategy. It talks about what we are doing to understand the labour market inactivity statistics in Scotland and what we can do to enable more people of working age who are not in the labour market and are not currently registered as unemployed to take part in the labour market. We can do that through childcare provision and a range of other measures—
Minister, you need to wind up your response. There are a number of supplementaries that I want to get through.
Keep going, keep going.
I will stop there, but I am sure that the issue will be picked up in the supplementaries.
Thank you, minister. Leave the chair to manage the time. If I need you to talk us through to the end of portfolio question time, I will let you know.
In his answer to Alex Rowley, the minister mentioned skills. In January, Audit Scotland set out a number of failings of and a lack of strategic direction from the Scottish Government on skills alignment. Given the importance of reskilling and upskilling, and a restricted labour market, will the minister outline what work the Government is undertaking to ensure that reskilling and upskilling become a reality, and what planning is taking place to ensure that skills provision is well targeted to the needs of Scotland’s economy?
The member is right that skills provision is hugely important across all sectors. If he has read our 10-year economic transformation strategy, he will be aware that there is a pillar in it that is devoted to skills and ensuring that we work on our skills provision. Across Scotland—in schools, colleges and universities—we are focusing on ensuring that individuals have the skills that they need for the jobs and sectors of the future and are able to transition from employment in fossil fuel sectors to sectors in the renewable and green economy. A whole range of measures and significant funding are being applied to deliver on those challenges.
The Scottish Government’s work to attract people to Scotland is very welcome because expanding Scotland’s talent pool will play an important part in meeting our economic ambitions. However, does the minister agree that the UK immigration system is failing to meet Scotland’s needs, and that the best way to ensure that we can expand Scotland’s talent pool is by having the necessary power in our hands?
The UK Government’s immigration policy fails to address Scotland’s distinct long-term demographic and economic needs, which highlights the need for a tailored approach to migration. The Scottish Government will continue to develop practical, deliverable, evidence-based migration proposals that suit Scotland’s needs.
I call Christine Grahame.
Thank you. I had given up hope, Presiding Officer; not in relation to you, but of getting to ask a question. I am digging a hole, so I will stop.
I noted the exchange between the minister and Alex Rowley regarding the impact of Brexit on certain labour markets. I have raised the issue of the shortage of bus drivers across the Scottish Borders, and no doubt elsewhere, due to the impact of Brexit. However, drivers are not on the shortage occupation list, and it is disheartening to hear that the UK Government is not discussing the issue with ministers in Scotland. Is there any hope that lorry drivers and bus drivers will be put on the shortage occupation list in early course?
As the member indicated, we have, so far, failed to persuade the UK Government of our case. In that sector, as in many other sectors across Scotland’s economy, there are significant labour challenges. We will continue to press the UK Government to put those occupations on the shortage list.
That concludes portfolio question time. I thank members and the ministerial team for allowing us to get through them all.