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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, June 13, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 13 June 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, World Environment Day 2019, Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Disclosure (Scotland) Bill, Restricted Roads (20 mph Speed Limit) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Wild Animals in Circuses (No 2) Bill, Point of Order, Decision Time


General Question Time

Higher and Further Education (Care-experienced Young People)

To ask the Scottish Government how it supports care-experienced young people into higher and further education. (S5O-03382)

The Scottish Government provided additional investment of more than £5 million in 2018-19 and 2019-20 to increase the care-experienced student bursary across further education and higher education to £8,100 per year. The additional investment funded an increase from the previous levels of £7,625 in HE and £4,185 in FE, providing a significant increase in the financial support that is available to care-experienced students. We are continuing to work on improvements that will focus additional student support funding on students who are most in need.

The minister might be aware that I recently wrote to the Student Awards Agency for Scotland on behalf of a constituent who has been told that she does not qualify for a care-experienced student bursary because her period of care was not in the United Kingdom. I suspect that such cases are anomalies in the system, and will affect only a small number of students, but will the minister commit to looking into the matter further to ensure that all care-experienced children have equal rights, regardless of where in the world they have experienced being in the care of the state?

I will certainly look into the circumstances that Fulton MacGregor has outlined. I am sure that he appreciates that there might well be anomalies in the system, which should be investigated and sorted if necessary. Clearly, we need to lay down criteria for who qualifies for student support in Scotland, but I agree with the premise of the member’s question. I hope that he will get a satisfactory reply. I will certainly investigate the circumstances of the case.

College Students (Fees)

To ask the Scottish Government what guidance it provides for college students regarding fees encountered for starting a course and then withdrawing. (S5O-03383)

The majority of colleges do not apply a fee to full-time students at higher education level who withdraw early from their course. As colleges operate independent of Government, it is ultimately the decision of individual colleges as to whether they apply charges to students who withdraw early, before the fee cut-off date of 1 December. Students are advised by the Student Awards Agency for Scotland that they could be charged a fee by their institution, should they withdraw before the fee cut-off date. However, I expect institutions to take into account the personal circumstances of individual students when applying any fees.

I thank the minister for that helpful response. I was contacted by a constituent who was forced to drop out of a higher national certificate course after a deterioration in her mental health. After she returned to Orkney, her mother passed away suddenly, which added further distress at an already anxious and difficult time. Almost simultaneously, and without warning, my constituent was informed by her college that she would face a charge of more than £400 and even the threat of court action. I am in touch with the college’s principal, who has helpfully agreed to look into the matter.

Does the minister believe that colleges could be provided with clearer advice about using discretion in levying charges in such circumstances? Does he accept that that reflects the duty of care that colleges owe their students, including those who are left with no option but to drop out early?

I am very sorry to hear about Mr McArthur’s constituent’s personal circumstances, and I understand why he is raising the case. I expect colleges to understand the reasons why a student might withdraw from a course early. It is very important that they take decisions about asking for fees to be paid after taking into account the circumstances that led to the withdrawal. I will ask my officials to look into the case that Mr McArthur has highlighted. I am pleased to hear that Mr Paul Little, the principal of the City of Glasgow College, is looking into the matter, and I hope that he will give a satisfactory response.

Will the minister clarify whether Scottish Government statistics on positive destinations take into account young people who start a college course and then withdraw after a short time?

The statistics take a range of circumstances into account. There is not a simple answer to the question, because there are different cut-off dates and different ways in which the statistics are calculated. However, I will certainly drop the member a note that will elaborate on that point.

Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (NHS Grampian)

To ask the Scottish Government what percentage of children in the NHS Grampian area who have mental health issues are being seen within the 18-week referral to treatment target. (S5O-03384)

In the latest quarter for which statistics are available, which is January to March 2019, 43.3 per cent of children and young people who were referred to the Grampian children and adolescent mental health service were seen within 18 weeks.

I thank the minister for that answer, although I am very disappointed by it. As the minister said, in the first three months of this year, only 43 per cent of young patients were seen within 18 weeks. NHS Grampian has said that it has some of the longest waiting times and it is also the lowest-staffed board, with 53 per cent less staff than other boards. It is also the lowest-funded health board in Scotland.

The consistency in missed targets in NHS Grampian shows that there is a real problem. Can the minister stop with the excuses, accept that that is unacceptable and tell me how the Scottish Government plans to address the issue?

The Minister for Mental Health has been absolutely clear that that situation is unacceptable, which is why we have taken a range of measures to support health boards in reaching the standard of 90 per cent of patients being seen within 18 weeks of referral. The Scottish Government is currently working with health boards, including NHS Grampian, to agree their annual operation plans, including how they will deliver on the standard.

To help boards and integration joint boards achieve that ambition, we have outlined a package of measures to do more to support positive mental health and to prevent ill health, which includes £0.25 billion of additional investment. That is in addition to the £54 million that has already been invested to help boards to improve their performance against waiting time targets by investing in workforce development, recruitment and retention, and service improvement support. That investment has allowed the CAMHS workforce to increase by 75 per cent—the number of CAMHS psychologists has more than doubled under the SNP Government.

Children Starting School (Costs)

To ask the Scottish Government how it helps families to meet the cost of a child starting school. (S5O-03385)

We have delivered a wide range of initiatives to help families to meet the cost associated with starting school, including the pupil equity fund and improvements to free school meals and the school clothing grant.

Our best start grant has already provided more than £3.5 million to families on low incomes at key stages in their children’s early years. Since 3 June, it has also provided a £250 school-age payment when a child is due to start primary school, which can be used for anything from school clubs, to travel costs, to days out, to clothing.

I have raised the issue with the cabinet secretary previously and have lodged a motion in a similar vein on awareness of universal credit. What is the Scottish Government doing to promote and inform the public about the new best start payment? We need to ensure that those who need support know exactly where they can get it.

Mr Paterson makes a serious point—he has made it to me on several occasions—on raising awareness of such measures to support families. A co-ordinated communications plan is being implemented with local authorities, health boards and third sector organisations that support applicants.

As we did for the launch of the previous best start grant payments, we have provided a range of guidance, promotional materials and media content for stakeholders. We hope that that will explain eligibility criteria and encourage applications.

Climate Emergency (Skills)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is ensuring that there is the skills base to deliver the transformational change required to address the climate emergency. (S5O-03386)

We established the just transition commission, which has expertise in labour market and skills, to advise ministers on the move to a net zero economy. The commission’s work plan has identified skills as a key topic. Analysis of current and future labour requirements, including skills, will form an on-going part of its considerations.

The just transition commission will be key to ensuring that Scotland’s transition from burning fossil fuels to a low-carbon economy is one in which citizens’ employment is not disadvantaged and in which they have the opportunity to gain skills for the future. As its work continues, will the just transition commission include representatives from Scotland’s colleges and universities? What role will Skills Development Scotland play in ensuring that our workforce is ready for the transition?

The commission’s membership, as laid out last December, includes representatives of academia: Professor Jim Skea, the chair; and Professor Karen Turner, from the University of Strathclyde.

Skills Development Scotland, our national skills development agency, undertakes skills planning across all sectors, across all areas of the country, and supports our assessment of current and future skills needs. When we set out our ambitions, we expect the Government skills agency to respond, and this area is no different.

It has now been two years since the Scottish Conservatives first called for the establishment of a circular economy education and skills academy, a move that could boost the skills base to tackle climate breakdown. Now that the First Minister has declared a climate emergency, does the minister agree that such an academy should be established as a priority?

We will consider all reasonable propositions that are made in good faith. We have a well-established skills system and invest considerable amounts in it. We expect that skills system to be responsive to our needs, including in this area. We will shortly be publishing our national skills action plan, which will set out how we intend to ensure that we have a skills system that is ever more responsive to all requirements. I will always be ready to consider propositions, but I will be candid in saying that we have a skills system in place and I expect it to respond to the task in hand.

Deposit Return Scheme (Glass)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the potential impact on glass recycling rates of including glass containers in its planned deposit return scheme. (S5O-03387)

As outlined in our stage 1 full business case, which was published on 8 May, we anticipate that a DRS will increase glass bottle recycling rates from the existing 64 per cent towards 90 per cent. As bottles make up the bulk of glass packaging that is used for food and drink, that will drive up the overall glass recycling rate.

The Scottish Government remains committed to supporting local authority collection arrangements for a range of packaging materials alongside DRS. Under our proposed reforms of wider packaging producer responsibility arrangements, the costs to local authorities of delivering those services will in future be met by producers.

Ardagh Glass is an important employer in my constituency and has raised concerns with me that, in other countries, an unintended consequence of including glass in deposits was that manufacturers switched to plastics. Can the cabinet secretary provide reassurance that the inclusion of glass is being considered carefully and that industry and consumers are being consulted? Will she join me on a visit to Ardagh Glass, in Irvine, to see first hand the contribution that it makes to recycling?

I am committed to working closely with industry as we progress to implementation of our proposals. I am already meeting Ardagh Glass, on 26 June, to discuss our plans in more detail. I recognise the concerns around the inclusion of glass, but I believe that those factors are more than offset by the significant increase in glass recycling and the reduction in carbon emissions that it will deliver. There is also the potential for the glass industry to directly benefit from the higher quality recyclable glass that we expect to capture through DRS.

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests.

The inclusion of glass in a deposit return scheme is a risk to local authorities and to key sectors such as Scotch whisky. For example, more than £33 million of funding has been withdrawn from Aberdeenshire Council for its new waste collection system and industry has warned about the viability of the supply chain. Will the cabinet secretary pledge to ensure that no council job losses result from the scheme and also that all resources that are collected by the scheme are recycled here in Scotland?

I had understood that the Conservatives supported the inclusion of glass in the scheme, and I hope that, given the tone of Maurice Golden’s question, they are not beginning to renege on that support. Special advisers and officials have recently met other glass industry interests, so we are aware of the concerns and I made that very clear when I made my statement. We understand the issues around the inclusion of glass, but I was clear in my earlier answer to Ruth Maguire that the issues that are connected to local authority recycling are not as straightforward as Maurice Golden is perhaps suggesting. Of course, we will continue to keep all the issues related to the scheme under consideration—that is what the implementation advisory group is for.

NHS Highland (Bullying)

To ask the Scottish Government on what date it was first made aware of bullying in NHS Highland, and what action it took. (S5O-03388)

As Edward Mountain will know from the response that he received to the same question on 23 May, a search of all records available from 1 January 2011 showed that the earliest correspondence on file relating to NHS Highland that mentioned the term “bullying” was received on 16 March 2014. That correspondence was addressed to a trade union and copied to the Scottish Government for information only. The Scottish Government has proactively engaged with the individual concerned and continues to engage to this day.

I understand that the board of NHS Highland knew about serious bullying allegations in 2010. As the cabinet secretary has pointed out, the Scottish Government knew about bullying in March 2014. If the issue had been dealt with properly then, there would not be the crisis that there is today. Does the cabinet secretary agree that a serious failure by the Government allowed the situation to develop as it has?

No, I do not agree with that. Despite Mr Mountain’s best efforts to suggest otherwise, we have handled the situation very well since the commissioning of the Sturrock report, which was prompted by allegations of a culture of bullying, not individual cases. We have handled the situation swiftly and well.

The independent report has been well received—I am sure to Mr Mountain’s chagrin—by staff and others in NHS Highland, and we continue to act on it. Indeed, a week today, I will visit NHS Highland in order to understand exactly how it is progressing its action plan. It behoves members—particularly those who claim to represent people in the Highlands—to get behind that report and give it their absolute support.

Has the cabinet secretary considered the Francis review, which looked into bullying in the national health service in England? Its recommendations included early support of whistleblowers, cultural change and the prevention of isolation and containment. Will the cabinet secretary incorporate those recommendations in NHS Highland and beyond?

As Mr Stewart knows from the statement that I made on the publication of the Sturrock review, I have made it clear that I understand well that some of the lessons in that report apply across our NHS. That is why one of the actions that I have taken has been to bring together a leadership group from across our regulation bodies, our royal colleges, our staff and trade union representatives and our boards to meet me over the summer to look at what more we need to do across our NHS to ensure that we have a positive working culture. That, of course, responds in many ways to the recommendations of the Francis review.

Jarlshof (Coach Parking)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress is being made in developing coach park facilities for the Jarlshof site in Shetland. (S5O-03389)

As the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop, explained in a letter to Tavish Scott on 2 May, discussions on the proposed improvements to visitor facilities at Jarlshof remain on-going. Legitimate questions have been raised about best value for money for the public and taxpayers, and ministers await further advice that the position has been addressed. The cabinet secretary has asked Historic Environment Scotland to ensure that matters are expedited in so far as is within its control.

Sumburgh hotel, local bus businesses and the cruise line industry have been told for three years that Historic Environment Scotland, the agencies and the Government would sort out those coach park facilities, but all that we have had has been endless buck passing. Why?

For clarity, Historic Environment Scotland is aware of the vital need for facilities at Jarlshof, as has been expressed, and that the current provision is not sustainable. It has been considering its options and has kept ministers informed of developments. However, as I am sure Tavish Scott is aware, there are legal sensitivities around the current negotiations relating to the proposals to improve parking and visitor facilities. Therefore, it would be inappropriate for me to go into any detail on those on-going discussions at this time. What is more, as would always be the case in any process of this nature, it is the responsibility of ministers to ensure that best value for money can be evidenced.

I will ensure that Historic Environment Scotland is asked to make contact with the member to further discuss these matters and to inform him of any updates, as appropriate.

Apologies to Jenny Gilruth and Bill Kidd, but our time is up.