Meeting date: Wednesday, January 12, 2022
Meeting of the Parliament 12 January 2022
Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Mental Health and Wellbeing (Primary Care), Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service
- Portfolio Question Time
- Mental Health and Wellbeing (Primary Care)
- Business Motion
- Parliamentary Bureau Motion
- Decision Time
- Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service
Portfolio Question Time
Covid-19 Recovery and Parliamentary Business
Good afternoon. I remind members of the Covid-related measures that are in place and that face coverings should be worn when moving around the chamber and across the Holyrood campus.
The first item of business is portfolio questions. In order to get in as many members as possible, I would be grateful for short and succinct questions and responses.
Covid-19 Recovery (COBR Meetings)
To ask the Scottish Government how its cross-Government co-ordination of Covid recovery policies incorporates the outcomes from recent COBR meetings to discuss the impact of the omicron variant. (S6O-00592)
Recovery from Covid remains the priority as we continue to respond to variants such as omicron. The First Minister joined four-nation Cabinet Office briefing room calls on 10 and 19 December to discuss actions across the different Governments and the co-ordination of a cross-United Kingdom response to the omicron variant. Those calls included consideration of the latest data, international travel, vaccination programmes, testing, self-isolation and the impact on public services. Funding to support additional interventions was also discussed.
Last week, the First Minister confirmed that we will publish a revised strategic framework in the next few weeks that seeks to be more sustainable, less restrictive and more proportionate as we continue to live with Covid and manage any future variants.
There has been much speculation that the UK Government will unilaterally end the free provision of lateral flow tests. Given the fact that our recovery from Covid requires us to keep the virus under control, does the Deputy First Minister agree that decisions on the continued need for LFTs must be made on a four-nation basis and not by the UK Government in isolation?
A four-nation approach on that question is essential. Lateral flow tests form a significant part of our approach to managing the pandemic and the approaches of those in the rest of the United Kingdom. The availability of those free tests has been an integral part of the way in which we have managed the pandemic. I would certainly want to see any question about the future steps that are to be taken on LFTs to be decided on a four-nation basis.
In recent weeks, we have seen a divergence in the approaches to restrictions being taken across the four different parts of the United Kingdom, but there has been very little divergence in case rates. Indeed, in the past few days, the case rates in Scotland have been higher than those south of the border, where there have been fewer restrictions. Given the fact that we are likely to see more variants of Covid coming up in the months ahead, how will the Scottish Government reflect on the experience in deciding whether to impose additional restrictions as we go forward?
As Mr Fraser will be aware, we look at a range of data to inform our judgments about the appropriateness of any restrictions that are applied, and ministers have to be satisfied that those restrictions are proportionate in relation to the evidence that lies before us.
I counsel Mr Fraser against jumping to the assumptions that underpin his question. We must also factor in the fact that variants can affect different parts of the United Kingdom at different times. For example, developments in London preceded developments here in Scotland and have no doubt completed their course earlier than they will complete their course here in Scotland. Fundamentally, the Scottish Government must take the appropriate decisions that we judge to be essential to protect public health in Scotland.
Freedom of Information Requests (Timescale)
To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its handling of freedom of information requests against the 20 working day statutory timescale. (S6O-00593)
The Scottish Government routinely publishes FOI performance statistics on a monthly basis. In November 2021, which is the most recent month for which data is available, we answered 90 per cent of FOI requests within 20 working days. The equivalent figure for 2021 up to and including November was 85 per cent.
Scottish Government response times have recovered significantly since the initial impact of the coronavirus outbreak in 2020. That has been achieved at the same time as we have handled our highest ever volume of requests. Nevertheless, we are not complacent about our performance and remain committed to achieving the 95 per cent target agreed with the Scottish information commissioner, and to maintaining performance at that level as we were doing prior to the coronavirus outbreak.
The Scottish National Party Government has a track record of hostility towards FOI. What justification is there for making de facto public bodies such as Zero Waste Scotland, which are funded by the Government and were set up to carry out Government policy, exempt from FOI? Will the minister consider widening FOI to such bodies?
We have previously used the power that we have under section 5 of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 to extend coverage of the act to further entities in significant ways. Most recently, in 2019, we extended coverage of FOISA to all registered social landlords and their subsidiaries.
The Scottish Government will soon set out its broad approach to the future use of the Scottish ministers’ powers to extend FOISA. I can confirm that we will consider all areas that were highlighted in response to our 2019 consultation on the future use of ministers’ powers, including the social care sector; transport providers; non-profit distributing, public-private partnership and private finance initiative projects; and the work of regional hubcos.
Aside from the time that it takes to respond to FOI requests, there are issues about the substance of the responses that are provided. Although I am sure that the Scottish Government is not deliberately withholding information, there are questions to be raised about the quality of its responses to FOI requests and to written parliamentary questions, which suggests that there is a lack of transparency at the heart of Government. Will the minister review the quality of responses and take action to improve transparency in Government?
Since coming into this post, I have continually reviewed how we can make these things work better. Obviously, there have been many challenges as we have worked within the constraints that have been faced during coronavirus. However, I am aware of certain situations and, with officials, I have been working to make sure that we can make things better.
Covid-19 Recovery (Cowdenbeath)
To ask the Scottish Government how its policies across Government will support people living in the Cowdenbeath constituency to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. (S6O-00594)
The Covid recovery strategy sets out how we will recover from the pandemic by working collaboratively with our partners in local government, business and the third sector.
Priorities for recovery will vary by location. We are committed to working with communities to understand those priorities and to tailor services to support them. I recently chaired the first meeting of the Covid recovery programme board with the president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. The programme board’s members include representatives from the Scottish Government, local government, business and the third sector.
The Cowdenbeath constituency benefits from the Edinburgh and south-east Scotland city deal, which aims to deliver inclusive and sustainable economic growth across the region through investment in housing, innovation, transport, skills and culture.
On Covid recovery, my sense is that people in my Cowdenbeath constituency are most focused on the need for health and social care services to be fully reinstated. To what extent will the planning for that be led nationally, given that, at present, local health boards such as NHS Fife must prioritise their resources to deal with the critical Covid winter challenges that they face?
That is a very important issue. The response must involve a collaborative approach between national and local Government. The Scottish Government has initiated discussions with our local authority partners to satisfy all of us that the necessary steps have been taken to strengthen the delivery of social care services, recognising the critical dependence on those services of people in local communities.
Last week, along with the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care and the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government, I had a discussion with the leadership of COSLA. At a follow-up session this evening, we will look at the responses of local resilience partnerships to satisfy ourselves that all steps are being taken to strengthen social care to address the priorities that Ms Ewing has highlighted on behalf of her constituents in Cowdenbeath.
Covid-19 Recovery (Strategic Reviews)
To ask the Scottish Government what consideration it gives, as part of its cross-Government Covid-19 strategic reviews, to long-term strategies to mitigate the impact of the pandemic. (S6O-00595)
Through the course of the pandemic, our strategy has changed in relation to factors such as vaccination uptake and vaccine waning, levels of adherence to Covid-19 rules and guidance, and new variants, all of which can combine to produce different outcomes requiring different responses.
In the long term, we must adapt our thinking on how to manage the virus and become more resilient to it in the future. That will mean seeking ways that are more proportionate, sustainable and less restrictive. The Scottish Government is therefore currently working on, and will publish in the next few weeks, a revised strategic framework that will set out more fully how the process of adaptation can be managed, with a view to building greater resilience.
The cabinet secretary will be aware that the pandemic has greatly reduced the public’s access to physical activity and leisure activities, which has had a significant impact on people’s physical and mental health, as well as increasing inequalities. What will the Scottish Government actively do to encourage and help the restart of those activities and ensure that all have access to those opportunities?
I recognise unreservedly the importance of the point that Mr Whittle makes and that such services and opportunities must be available to all communities. We are working with our local authority partners as part of the Covid recovery programme board, which I referred to in my earlier answer, to enable such an approach to take place and those services to be available.
However, I will add one caveat to that point, which the First Minister made reference to yesterday. We have to ensure that social care services are available for all our constituents as an absolute priority. In my answer to Ms Ewing, I indicated that we are reviewing, with local resilience partnerships, the effectiveness of service delivery. I am conscious that, because of staff absences due to omicron, there is intense pressure on the availability of social care services. The implications of prioritising social care might well be that some of the services that Mr Whittle would like restarted—for absolutely understandable reasons—might have to be restarted slightly later in order to enable us to prioritise social care. It is important that I am candid with the Parliament about that point. However valuable and important the point that Mr Whittle makes, which I unreservedly accept, we have to ensure that we prioritise the measures that will enable us to deliver social care effectively.
Numerous constituents have been in touch with me about issues to do with their vaccination status. I know that my Labour colleagues and other MSPs across the chamber have raised the issue, but boosters are now adding another level of challenge. When will the Scottish Government ensure that boosters show on the app as a booster if someone has received both doses in the European Union or another part of the United Kingdom? They are currently showing as dose 1 or 2, which makes travel to some countries impossible, and constituents have not been able to get help from NHS Inform.
As I have said to the Parliament before today, in a programme of this scale—we are talking about in excess of 10 million vaccinations—there are bound to be difficulties for some individual cases. The NHS Inform team is working hard to address any discrepancies that emerge. If members of the Parliament are having difficulty resolving those issues on behalf of their constituents, I would be happy to hear from them in order to ensure that they are addressed. I have had a number of representations directly from members of the public, which I have asked to be addressed, and which have been addressed. I would therefore be very happy to address any points that members of the Parliament wish to draw to my attention.
Parliamentary Business (Scheduling)
To ask the Scottish Government what considerations it will give in relation to its proposals for the scheduling of Government business in the chamber in order to take account of the various impacts of Covid-19 and Scotland’s recovery from it. (S6O-00596)
Responding to the impacts of Covid-19 and managing Scotland’s recovery from the pandemic is a central focus of the Scottish Government, which will be reflected in our approach to the scheduling of future Government business. The First Minister’s weekly statement to the Parliament is an example of our commitment to ensuring that the Parliament is updated on all developments.
One hundred thousand people are living with long Covid. For many, it has radically altered their lives. Thousands are also self-isolating, ill and relying on others. Covid has significant impacts on the people with whom they live, including children who are now supporting adults with daily tasks. Will the Scottish Government provide a ministerial statement or any other update on its support—financial, educational or otherwise—for those young carers?
That is probably an issue for Ms Wishart’s business manager to take up—although in her case, that would be quite difficult, right enough. It might be an idea for me to talk to other business managers and bring up what Ms Wishart has raised, which we can possibly discuss at the next Parliamentary Bureau meeting. I apologise to Ms Wishart if I have offended her in any shape or form.
That was very delicate.
Parliamentary portfolio question time rotas are available months in advance, yet we continue to see Scottish ministers answering questions on their briefs in portfolio question time virtually from their homes or even their offices. Does the Minister for Parliamentary Business agree that meeting their obligations to appear in this chamber in person allows ministers to show their respect for the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish people, whom we have been elected to serve?
The Deputy First Minister and I are here today, answering our questions, which is the way that it should be. However, we live in extremely difficult times, and now and again there will be situations where some members will answer remotely. As a rule of thumb, we tend to agree on the matter, and the member knows from our discussions at the bureau that we try to ensure that ministers are here physically in the chamber. Should there be a problem with any remote communication, there will be another minister on site, to make sure that the question can be answered. If a minister is participating remotely, there is still the option for someone to answer physically in the chamber.
Covid-19 Recovery (Meetings with United Kingdom Government)
To ask the Scottish Government when it last met the United Kingdom Government to discuss the recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic and what the outcome was. (S6O-00597)
There are frequent four-nation ministers and officials calls focusing on Covid, which take place at every level, including with the participation of the First Minister. The most recent First Minister call took place on 19 December to discuss the response to the omicron variant, and one is due to take place later today. A separate call for health ministers took place on 6 January. We will continue to engage proactively at four-nation level to protect as effectively as possible the health of the people of Scotland and to recover from the pandemic.
Mr Swinney will no doubt be aware of the impact of the pandemic, and the recovery from it covers a wide range of Government policy. Although there is much that needs to be tackled to recover from the pandemic, one of the most pressing things is the cost of living—in particular, the unsustainable rise in energy costs. Has the Deputy First Minister made representations to the United Kingdom Government regarding that? Does he agree that reducing the cost of energy will be essential to recovery from the cost-of-living crisis following the impact of the pandemic?
I understand entirely the point that Mr Rowley has put to me. Scottish ministers have raised those issues with the United Kingdom Government. I would imagine that we share Mr Rowley’s concerns about the impact of rising energy prices on household incomes, which has, coupled with the reductions in, for example, child payments under universal credit, further eroded household incomes. By doubling the Scottish child payment, the Scottish Government has taken measures to try to remedy some of the issues.
I agree with Mr Rowley about the importance of energy costs and the necessity of addressing them. Energy costs are obviously reserved, so it is entirely proper to discuss them with the United Kingdom Government. I assure Mr Rowley that Scottish ministers will continue to press those arguments to protect households in Scotland.
Covid-19 Recovery (Support Strategies)
To ask the Scottish Government what cross-Government strategies have been identified, as part of its work on Covid-19 recovery, to support communities and businesses most affected by the pandemic. (S6O-00598)
The Covid recovery strategy focuses on supporting those who have been most affected during the pandemic and complements a range of sectoral recovery plans.
Our national health service recovery plan, which was published on 25 August 2021, sets out key commitments that will support recovery over the next five years and is backed by over £1 billion in investment. Our education recovery plan, which was published on 5 October, puts improving educational outcomes at the heart of our learning recovery. The plan details key next steps, including measures to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap.
The Scottish Government has worked with a range of public authorities around the country to develop regional economic strategies. In relation to Mr Kidd’s constituency, collaboration with Glasgow City Region, which was launched in December 2021, has ensured alignment around inclusive growth, increasing productivity and net zero ambitions.
I have been contacted by small local businesses that have been allowed to remain open throughout the pandemic because they are essential, but which have nonetheless taken a substantial hit to their incomes. They did not receive the same funding as was received by businesses that were forcibly closed during the height of the pandemic.
Will the cabinet secretary say what strategies have been discussed by the Scottish Government and United Kingdom Government to strengthen the long-term viability of small to medium-sized local businesses, including those that are categorised as essential, as we continue to move out of the grip of the pandemic?
I understand the distinction that Mr Kidd made between businesses that remained open and businesses that closed. A measure that we have taken and that has affected a range of businesses has been provision for a number of sectors of business rates reliefs, which have been available on a continuing basis. The Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy has said that those reliefs will continue for part of the next financial year.
The Government makes on-going support available through the small business bonus scheme, which assists with the costs of running small businesses in all localities in Scotland.
We have a number of strategies in place to support, for example, the retail sector, and there are developments in enterprise policy that are designed to support the very companies to which Mr Kidd referred.
Local Government Elections 2022 (Preparations)
To ask the Scottish Government what preparations it is making for the local government elections in 2022 in order that people can vote safely. (S6O-00599)
Statutory responsibility for funding and delivering local government elections rests with councils and returning officers.
The Parliament has approved a number of legislative measures that are designed to help returning officers to ensure that people can vote safely.
In addition, the Scottish Government is funding the system that will electronically count the votes that are cast. My officials are in dialogue with the Electoral Commission about the arrangements for delivering the elections safely, in the context of the pandemic.
Legislation that the Parliament has passed and discussions with the elections community have been informed by the experience of successfully holding last year’s Scottish Parliament elections, and that will continue to be the case.
At the election last May, voters in Balerno in my constituency faced lengthy queues at polling stations well beyond the normal 10 pm closing time, with the last vote being cast at 11.30 pm. Will the minister say what steps will be taken to ensure that people can cast their votes and to avoid a repeat of that situation at the forthcoming local government elections in May?
The operation of each polling station is a matter for the relevant returning officer.
The returning officer in Edinburgh told me that they have reviewed polling provision in light of the experience in May 2021. That experience was largely the result of adverse weather during the day, which encouraged a large proportion of voters to delay their attendance at the polling place until the evening. All those who were in the queue at 10 pm were able to cast their votes.
For this coming May’s election, each returning officer will seek to ensure that voters can vote safely, taking into account public health advice and guidance from the Electoral Management Board for Scotland, including directions that relate to the operation of polling places.
I thank the people across Scotland who put in a power of work to ensure that the Holyrood election could go ahead safely, and I acknowledge the cross-party work of Graeme Dey to make sure that we were able to have the election. We should not undermine the work that went into that election.
I ask about two key points. Will emergency proxy votes still be in place for the council elections, in case people still have to self-isolate? Will the Scottish Government review the provision of a Royal Mail delivery for each council candidate who stands in the election?
On the point about Mr Dey, I always have difficulty giving credit to my former—or indeed, current—colleague. [Laughter.] In this case, I probably will give credit.
Provision for emergency papers is part of a Scottish statutory instrument that has already gone through; people will still be able to use that approach. On Miles Briggs’s second question, it will probably be up to local authorities to decide whether they want to do that in their areas.
We all want to see safe elections, and I associate myself with the comments that were just made about the conduct of the 2021 elections.
However, the matter is about not just the polling date, but the run-up to the election and the campaign itself. We all want candidates to be able to meet voters face to face—obviously in line with public health regulations—because we know how important that is. Is it the minister’s expectation that the campaign will be conducted more face to face, and can he explain to Parliament how the decisions will be taken about any further restrictions due to emerging variants?
I will get my crystal ball out now and try to work out where we will be when it comes to the election.
I understand where Mr O’Kane is coming from. Having been a candidate myself this past year, I know how difficult it can be for us to sit and not be able physically to go out and do anything. However, I assure the member that, should there be any changes one way or the other, I will ensure that I bring those to the chamber so that members are aware of what is going on with regard to the election, and so that we—I hope—end up having elections that are as close to normal as possible. However, I cannot make any promises. Who knows, after the past 20 months?
Net Zero, Energy and Transport
The next portfolio is net zero, energy and transport. 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.
To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on when its refreshed energy strategy will be published. (S6O-00600)
The Scottish Government will publish a draft energy strategy and just transition plan in spring this year.
As part of its approach to the refreshed energy strategy, will the Scottish Government consult a wide range of stakeholders to assess its position on nuclear as part of Scotland’s future energy mix?
The Scottish Government’s position on nuclear energy has not changed under present technologies. We do not support the building of any new nuclear power stations in Scotland. Nuclear energy will therefore not feature as part of the wider energy strategy review.
Hydrogen technology and its deployment and delivery need to be a key part of Scotland’s energy mix. Other countries are not just running pilot projects, but are markedly ahead on hydrogen mass production and deployment. In the energy strategy, will we see a step change in Scotland’s work on hydrogen development, use and deployment as an energy source?
Ms Hyslop will be aware that we published our draft hydrogen action plan on 10 November this past year, which sets out a strong strategic approach to the development of the hydrogen economy. The plan is supported by £100 million of programme investment over the next five years that is specifically targeted at accelerating the development of renewable hydrogen at scale in Scotland.
I also assure the member that, as part of our energy strategy and just transition plan, we will develop support around the hydrogen economy at pace, in order to ensure that Scotland is able to maximise the potential that comes from the development of hydrogen technology and its production.
Will the cabinet secretary update the chamber on how the cost of nuclear energy currently compares with that of renewables?
Nuclear power is a bad deal for consumers. In 2016, Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant received a contracts for difference strike price of £92.50 per MWh, which has increased by 25 per cent since then. Recent power price spikes underline the need to create better outcomes from energy investment, particularly for those struggling with household finances. Internal analysis has identified that in 2030 alone, Hinkley could add almost £40 to a consumer’s bill whereas an equivalent offshore wind farm would reduce bills by £8.
Significant growth in renewables, storage, hydrogen and carbon capture is the best way to secure Scotland’s future energy needs and meet our net zero objectives.
Net Zero Targets (UK Internal Market Act 2020)
To ask the Scottish Government in what ways the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 could impact on its ability to meet its net zero targets. (S6O-00601)
The Scottish Government is determined to take all actions within our powers to tackle the climate emergency and deliver the legally binding target that was set by the Scottish Parliament of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045.
However, the 2020 act can undermine decisions made by the Scottish Parliament, including in wholly devolved climate and environmental policy. The act means that standards that are set elsewhere in the United Kingdom must be accepted in Scotland, regardless of our regulations. It is an attack on the powers of the Scottish Parliament and poses a direct threat to our ambitions for net zero.
At today’s Economy and Fair Work Committee, it became clear that the 2020 act acts as an enabler for a raft of other legislation—for example, the UK Parliament Subsidy Control Bill is one area of concern. Professor David Bell of the University of Stirling noted in his submission to the committee that
“It is also not clear how the Bill might interact with policies that are intended to move the economy towards net zero. For example, if the Scottish government proposed to subsidise industrial plants to reduces their carbon footprints, would it be forced by the Secretary of State (BEIS) to request a CMA assessment of this action.”
To what extent does the cabinet secretary share the concerns of Professor David Bell?
Professor David Bell raises serious concerns, and the Scottish Government has consistently highlighted our concerns about the reservation of subsidy control in the UK Internal Market Act 2020 and what that means for devolved policy making. The act has sweeping implications for a wide range of decisions that are made by the Scottish Parliament. The act not only reserved state aid, which was previously a devolved matter, but gives the UK Government powers to decide how public money is spent in wholly devolved policy areas, as well as imposing new market access principles that could force us to accept standards that are set in other parts of the UK. That is an unprecedented assault on the devolved powers and responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament, which is why the act should be repealed.
Ferry Services (Support)
To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to support ferry services in Scotland. (S6O-00602)
The current ferries plan delivered transformational changes, with new routes for Gourock to Kilcreggan and for Campbeltown, Lochboisdale and Mallaig, a dedicated Barra vessel and increased sailings to Mull and Arran.
The planned investment of £580 million will improve Scotland’s ferry infrastructure. The procurement of new Islay vessels and the purchase of the MV Loch Frisa demonstrate that. Work continues on the small vessel replacement programme and on vessels for the Dunoon to Kilcreggan and Mull to South Uist routes and freighters for Orkney and Shetland.
We continue to explore possible options for second-hand tonnage for passenger and freighter purposes. Recognising the pressure that local authorities have been under since 2017, we have provided an additional £50 million of funding to help them to deliver the ferry services for which they are responsible.
Communities that rely on the Scottish Government for lifeline ferry services have been failed. The minister must involve operators, unions and communities in strategic planning to ensure that services meet their needs. Currently, there is no strategic plan, only service cuts and eye-watering continued delays in building our new ferries. Capacity has been cut due to lack of funding and no alternative services are proposed from Harris for six months while the Uig harbour is upgraded.
I could go on. The list gets longer daily. How on earth does the minister propose to deliver lifeline ferry services in the face of additional budget cuts?
I have acknowledged in the past that we must improve the delivery of ferry services to our island communities. I have never shirked that. There is a multitude of options for how we do strategic planning moving forward. For example, one that I have instigated is an enhanced role for the CalMac Ferries community board to enable the voice of communities to be heard through that body. We also engage with local authorities. Of course, we can and must do better.
I will pick up on the point about the services to Harris later this year because of the closure of Uig harbour, which is a reasonable point. The harbour is closing for an upgrade that the Scottish Government is funding. It is a substantial upgrade for a harbour that we do not own. That demonstrates our commitment—[Interruption.] I see Rhoda Grant shaking her head, but £60 million is a considerable sum of money to invest in a port that has not been maintained to the standard that we require.
To be more constructive on that point, I recognise the community’s concern and my officials are working with CalMac to determine how we can mitigate the impact of that necessary work on the community.
There are a number of requests for supplementaries to this question. Because of time constraints, I will be able to take some but, sadly, not all of them.
CalMac has admitted that some of its skippers are neither experienced nor competent enough to sail to Ardrossan or Gourock as port of refuge in moderate, not to mention bad, weather, which leads to sailings being cancelled needlessly. What discussions has the minister had with CalMac regarding the training of skippers to minimise that problem?
I stress that, as I am sure Kenny Gibson agrees, decisions on the safety of passage and berthing at various ports must lie with the masters of the vessels concerned. It would be wrong for anyone to challenge those individual decisions, which are always taken on the basis of the safety of passengers, the crew and the vessel.
Officials have been in dialogue with CalMac on the matter over the past 48 hours because what has been suggested is concerning. It has emerged that all the crews are fully trained. Experienced masters are familiar with specific routes and, in normal circumstances, will be deployed in those locations. However, given the acute circumstances at the moment as a result of Covid-related absences, there have been crews on vessels that are less familiar with particular routes to ensure that the service operates.
It is, of course, ideal that crews be familiar with alternative ports and trained in using them. CalMac looks to work towards that but, to do that, vessels need to be taken out of service. Equally, I understand the impact that the issue is having and the concerns of ferry users. I undertake to discuss the matter personally with senior management at CalMac tomorrow.
The minister will be aware that the per head of population funding settlement that Western Isles Council receives is significantly higher than the one that Orkney Islands Council receives, but ferry replacement costs on west-coast routes are covered by the Scottish Government while OIC is left to pick up the significant tab for replacing the ageing vessels on internal northern isles services. Does the minister believe that that is fair and, if not, what will he do about it?
Mr McArthur and I have had that conversation on numerous occasions. I note that he did not, just now, acknowledge the substantial amount of funding that has already been provided to Orkney Islands Council—both funding for service delivery and capital funding for the replacement of a vessel, if memory serves me. Those vessels are the responsibility of the local authority, but I am aware that there is dialogue between the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy, Orkney Islands Council and others on the subject of what future ferry replacement funding would look like.
A combination of adverse weather and a rise in Covid cases among crew and shore staff has had a severe impact on service provision in recent days and weeks. What difference will the change to the isolation rules make, and what more can be done to encourage passengers’ compliance with the relevant protective measures?
Transport Scotland continues to engage daily with CalMac on the impacts to services and to monitor the situation as we move forward. The reduced isolation period already appears to be providing some relief from those pressures, although there remains the risk of disruption as a result of further infections among crew and staff. I place on record my appreciation of the work of the crew and staff throughout the pandemic, both on the west coast and in the northern isles.
As restrictions are eased, the emphasis will continue to be on personal responsibility, good practice and informed judgment. I encourage everyone who is using our ferries to ask themselves whether the journeys that they are considering on ferry routes are necessary at this time, in order that we can best protect services and ensure that space remains available for those from our island communities in particular.
Bus Service Operators Grant (Conditions of Eligibility)
To ask the Scottish Government when it next plans to revise the conditions of eligibility for the bus service operators grant. (S6O-00603)
The bus service operators grant is currently suspended, other than in exceptional circumstances. Emergency Covid-19 support grants are in place to support operators to maintain services. We are monitoring passenger numbers closely and developing options for future financial support for bus services, taking account of the continuing impact of the pandemic.
It is clear that the bus service operators grant was no longer fit for purpose. In looking to the future, can we look at alternative ways of providing support? For example, we could look at the provisions and powers in the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019 to enable local authorities to regulate private providers of regional franchises and invest in publicly owned and accountable bus companies. Previously, operators have been provided with financial support while they continued to withdraw, extract and reduce bus services from communities across Glasgow and Scotland.
With regard to the concerns and aspirations that the member has expressed, I am not a million miles away from his views, in so far as I believe that it is imperative, as we move forward, that the bus provision in this country is tailored to meet the needs and requirements of our communities and bus users. That must be the priority. I know that Mr Sweeney has a real interest in the issue, and I am happy to meet him and discuss the matter further.
What impact does the minister think that the provision of free travel for all under-22s in Scotland might have on bus services and on the incomes and viability of the bus companies?
We are currently in a state of flux; there is no doubt about that. In the context of the provision for under-22s, we have set the reimbursement terms carefully, in line with the statutory objective of the free bus travel scheme that bus operators should be
“financially no better and no worse off as a result of their participation”.
In the short term, therefore, I would not expect the scheme to have any negative effect on services. Over time, by creating more demand for bus services and by supporting young people to adopt sustainable travel habits early in their lives, I would expect it to lead to an increase in bus usage, thereby improving services and their viability. Given the immediate impacts of the pandemic, however, it will take some time for all that to work its way through.
Chief Scientific Adviser for Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture
To ask the Scottish Government what the environmental priorities will be for the new chief scientific adviser for environment, natural resources and agriculture. (S6O-00604)
The new chief scientific adviser for environment, natural resources and agriculture, Professor Mathew Williams, will lead the integration and effective use of evidence in policy across a wide range of subjects, including the environment, agriculture, climate change, biodiversity, food security, land use and animal health.
The overarching priorities for the role include delivering a strategic approach to science across the portfolio, providing assurance that scientific evidence and advice is robust and ensuring that ministers receive the most up-to-date advice on key scientific issues.
Professor Mathew Williams has 25 years of experience of monitoring and modelling terrestrial ecosystems and the responses to global change. Does the minister share my view that Professor Williams is therefore exactly the right person to ensure that we continue to produce evidence to inform policy development and delivery at the heart of our journey towards net zero?
I absolutely do. Sound scientific advice is utterly crucial to helping us to tackle Scotland’s environment and climate challenges. As the member has set out, Professor Williams’s expertise will be invaluable in helping us to address the challenges and opportunities that we face in the coming years in order to meet Scotland’s world-leading net zero ambitions.
Fuel Poverty (Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley)
To ask the Scottish Government how it is tackling fuel poverty in Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley. (S6O-00605)
We target all four drivers of fuel poverty, but decisions about low-income benefits and regulation of the energy markets are reserved to the United Kingdom Government.
Since 2013 we have allocated some £12.4 million through our area-based schemes to improve energy efficiency in East Ayrshire. Those projects have now benefited more than 2,974 fuel-poor households. Families in Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley have also benefited from improvements delivered through our national warmer homes Scotland service. In addition, we continue to provide free and impartial advice to every household in Scotland through our home energy Scotland service.
Scotland is an energy-rich nation, yet nearly a quarter of our households are still living in fuel poverty. Scottish Government initiatives are extremely important in helping us to drive fuel poverty down, but does the cabinet secretary agree that energy price hikes, raising the fuel price cap and continuing to charge VAT will have a severe impact, particularly on the poorest people in Scotland? What can the Scottish Government do to press the United Kingdom Government to intervene in those matters before thousands more households in Scotland fall further into fuel poverty?
Mr Coffey makes a very good case about the increasing pressure that households are facing as a result of the financial pressures that are being experienced, including through the very significant increase in energy prices. Regulation of pricing in the energy markets is reserved to the UK Government and it is critical that the UK Government now takes the matter seriously and takes action to minimise the financial impact that could be experienced because of significant energy price rises once the cap is reviewed in the next few weeks. The consequence, if the UK Government does not take action, is that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of households across the UK as a whole will potentially be forced into fuel poverty.
There are a range of measures that the UK Government should consider taking, not just on VAT but through the various levies that are presently applied to energy tariffs, which can have a disproportionate impact on households that are reliant on electrical heating.
The UK Government now needs to act. I and Shona Robison have both made representations to the UK Government on the matter, and we are seeking a meeting at an early date to explore what further measures it is prepared to take to address what is a household financial crisis that is being fuelled by ever-increasing energy prices.
Tackling fuel poverty must include ensuring that homes are energy efficient. With that in mind, I ask the cabinet secretary when the Scottish Government will set embodied carbon targets at early design stages of new builds and redevelopment projects and whether those energy-efficient measures are affordable for developers and accessible for all homes.
Brian Whittle will be aware that, at the end of last year, we published our “Heat in Buildings Strategy” to make sure that we are taking forward the right measures to reduce fuel poverty and improve insulation of properties that are being retrofitted. Alongside that, we are also looking at whether the existing building regulations need to be amended further in order to ensure greater fuel efficiency going forward. All that is part of our wider work to make sure that we meet our 2030 target of 75 per cent net zero, as well as our 2045 net zero target. We continue to look at all those issues in order to make sure that residential premises, in particular, are increasingly fuel efficient and that we do that in a way that helps to reduce fuel poverty.
The next question is from Alasdair Allan, who joins us remotely.
Electricity Levy Schemes (North of Scotland)
To ask the Scottish Government what work is being undertaken to change electricity levy schemes to tackle fuel poverty in rural and island areas of the north of Scotland. (S6O-00606)
The legal powers to regulate energy markets and set associated levies are reserved to the United Kingdom Government, and we have called on the Government to take action to protect energy consumers against the significant increases that are expected in retail prices in the coming months.
We must see a review of the energy levies for social and environmental obligations, as set out in our strategies on heat in buildings and fuel poverty. That is a key ask that the Scottish Government has made of the UK Government through our own representations. I encourage anyone who is facing high energy bills to contact Home Energy Scotland for advice on how to reduce their fuel costs.
I thank the cabinet secretary for that reply. The north of Scotland region is rich in green energy but has twice the average Scottish level of extreme fuel poverty. As the cabinet secretary has recognised, part of that problem is the unfair and archaic transmission charges, which are set by the UK Government and, in effect, charge consumers by how far they are from the south. In Scotland, there is a significantly higher distribution cost levy per unit for customers in the north than in the south. Will the Scottish Government continue to lobby to get rid of that once and for all?
Dr Allan makes a very good point, and he represents a constituency with greater levels of fuel poverty. That is exacerbated by some of the environmental and social obligation costs that are applied to energy bills and end up causing a premium to be set for some customers who make greater use of electricity-based heating. The Scottish Government will continue to make representations on the matter to the UK Government, which needs to take urgent action to address the issue, because a failure to do so will simply cause more households to fall into fuel poverty. It is essential that the UK Government takes that urgent action before the review of the fuel price cap is completed and implemented in the months ahead.
The cabinet secretary is very quick to blame the UK Government but fails to mention that, by removing subsidy for liquefied petroleum gas—LPG—heating systems, through its warmer homes Scotland scheme, the Scottish Government is forcing electric-only heating solutions on fuel-poor, off-grid households, when they might not be appropriate or what the consumer needs. Will the cabinet secretary consider reinstating support for heating technologies such as LPG, which have a clear transition to renewable bio LPG, in order to give fuel-poor households meaningful choice?
The way to address that particular issue is to reduce the cost of electricity, by dealing with the unnecessary levies on electricity costs that are imposed by the UK Government through the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets, rather than continuing to sustain forms of energy technology that are not compatible with our net zero objectives. That requires a significant change in the way that energy is provided in this country. To simply tinker with the issue—in the way that Liam Kerr suggests—will not significantly address fuel poverty, because the regulation of the present market is not working effectively or in consumers’ interests.
The UK Government needs to get serious about the matter and take action before households find their energy costs increasing by almost 50 per cent in the course of the next few months, should the fuel price cap be lifted to the expected levels. It is essential that the UK Government steps in and deals with the issues. If it does not do so, its inaction and failure to properly regulate the energy markets will potentially send millions of households into fuel poverty.
Public Transport (Accessibility)
To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to ensure that public transport is accessible to disabled people. (S6O-00607)
People with disabilities should be able to travel with the same freedom, choice, dignity and opportunity as other citizens. That is why the 10-year accessible travel framework was created in 2016. Through discussions with disabled people and organisations that represent them, the framework identified 48 issues. The Scottish Government continues to work closely with transport providers and disabled people’s organisations to address those issues through a series of annual delivery plans.
The pandemic has exacerbated the challenges in accessing public transport, particularly for people with sight loss, due to, for example, timetable changes at short notice and service cancellation. Given that lots of transport apps appear to be developed separately, what work is the Scottish Government doing to ensure that information is available to passengers? As we come out of the pandemic, what support, such as access to support on trains and at stations, will be available to enable people with sight loss to access public transport services?
There is a lot to unpack in that question.
Passenger assistance and provision of information were two of the 48 issues that were identified in the 2016 framework, and I acknowledge that there is still work to be done in that regard.
Despite our best efforts, if we are coming up short on public transport in the manner that has been highlighted by Sarah Boyack—I particularly note her point about challenges during the pandemic, which is concerning—that would be a matter of concern to me. Therefore, I am happy to meet Sarah Boyack to hear more at first hand about concerns in both the immediate and longer terms, to see how we might better address them in the future.
Thank you. That concludes portfolio question time. There will be a short pause before we move on to the next item of business.