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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, December 16, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 16 December 2021

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Edington Hospital, Portfolio Question Time, Parliamentary Procedures and Practices, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Point of Order, Decision Time


Contents


General Question Time

Good morning. 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.


Red Meat Industry

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to support the red meat industry. (S6O-00548)

The Scottish Government has a strong track record of supporting Scotland’s red meat industry. We campaigned for years for repatriation of the red meat levy, which was eventually implemented through a United Kingdom act. That will generate about £1.5 million annually to promote our red meat sector. We recently supported Quality Meat Scotland’s Scotch lamb campaign around St Andrew’s day. In response to on-going issues in our pig sector, we have provided a hardship support scheme and have recently opened a private storage aid scheme to take pressure off the industry.

Finally, unlike other parts of the UK, we continue to provide additional support for suckler beef and sheep producers, with payments due to start under the latter scheme in April and May 2022.

We are now down to 26 red meat abattoirs in Scotland and shockingly, only 15 female butchers. What does the cabinet secretary say to the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, which says that her Government has failed to address the local abattoir crisis in Scotland?

I understand the importance of local slaughter provision in the red meat sector. We have relatively good coverage, but we recognise that there might be occasions when local slaughter needs are not immediately met. There are several reasons for that, including greater costs. Appropriate throughput is vital for abattoirs to ensure that they have a viable future. Unfortunately, that is not the case when there is low local demand, which can sometimes make long-term viability an on-going issue.

The Scottish Government and Food Standards Scotland would be happy to have discussions with any organisation that is considering operating an abattoir in Scotland.


“Achievement of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) Levels 2020/21”

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the “Achievement of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) Levels” statistics. (S6O-00549)

I refer Michael Marra to my statement on Tuesday 14 December, the accompanying national improvement framework plan, which was published earlier this week, and the Government’s actions on education recovery, which were published in October.

This is a defining moment for Scottish education. The statistics show the lowest attainment on record under curriculum for excellence and an increase in what was already a staggering attainment gap. In response, the cabinet secretary has cut attainment challenge funding this year to the levels of 2017 and plans to return teacher numbers to what they were when the Scottish National Party took office in 2007. There is nothing in the plans to respond now to this urgent situation. Can we really have confidence that a failing pre-pandemic plan can protect the life chances of a pandemic generation?

I point Mr Marra to the fact that, before the pandemic, the year-on-year trend in the ACEL data was positive. We are already taking action to ensure that we are supporting children and young people during this difficult time, for example through the increase in the Scottish attainment challenge funding from £750 million in the previous session of Parliament to £1 billion in the current session. Statistics that came out on Tuesday pointed to there being an additional 2,000 teachers since 2019 and a low pupil to teacher ratio.

We are determined to carry on with that. That is exactly why we made a manifesto commitment of 3,500 additional teachers and 500 support staff. As I said to Mr Marra, we are already on track to deliver that.

Our schools went into the pandemic underprepared after the SNP cut teacher numbers to the bone. Does the new announcement on teacher numbers amount to a recognition that the SNP got this wrong?

We have made it absolutely clear as we move towards recovery and continue to deal with the pandemic that we are working to ensure that we are supporting our schools and local authorities to be able to support children and young people through additional teachers. That will, of course, ensure that we continue to assist children and young people at this very difficult time and that we assist them in the longer term. With the baselining of the money for the additional teachers, we will see greater opportunity for permanent contracts—and rightly so—for our teaching workforce.

What lessons can be learned from across the United Kingdom and around the world about the impacts of the pandemic on our education system?

The cabinet secretary should be brief.

Kaukab Stewart has raised a very important point. The challenges that we face, which were shown in the ACEL statistics, are not unique to Scotland. Indeed, recent reports from the Office for Standards in Education, the World Bank and others show that there will be an impact on many, if not most, children. That is exactly why we have taken action on teacher numbers and increasing attainment challenge funding.


Hunterston Port and Resource Centre

To ask the Scottish Government what recent discussions it has had regarding the Hunterston Port and Resource Centre development. (S6O-00550)

I refer Katy Clark to questions S6W-04431 and S6W-04432, from Jamie Greene MSP, in answer to which I set out that Scottish Enterprise continues to engage with Peel Ports and North Ayrshire Council under a memorandum of understanding to secure the delivery of regional and national investment objectives at Hunterston. There have been no visits by senior Scottish Government representatives to the site since 1 January 2021, but Scottish Government planning officials attended an online meeting with Peel Port representatives about the Hunterston PARC development in November 2020.

As the minister will know, the site, which is now owned by Peel Ports, was designated for industrial reuse many decades ago, but it is a beauty spot, an area of environmental importance with many diverse biodiversity issues and a site of special scientific importance, and it is very close to communities. Hunterston B has stopped generation, and North Ayrshire Council has set up a task force, but its ambition was always that the Scottish Government should be involved with a ministerial task force to look at the development of the site. Would the minister be willing to consider a ministerial task force that would also involve North Ayrshire Council, the trade unions, the landowner, employers, community representatives and community councils in particular, with a view to ensuring job creation and delivering on our environmental commitments?

Katy Clark is correct to identify the importance of biodiversity and sites of special scientific interest. Of course, each planning application in relation to the site is considered on its merits, and biodiversity matters would be considered as part of that process.

On the substance of Katy Clark’s question, I would be very happy to meet the stakeholders that she—[Inaudible.]—the best way to move forward with the site, given that, as I said, Scottish Enterprise is working with Peel Ports under a memorandum of understanding, and work is progressing in that regard. On wider stakeholder engagement, I would be happy to have appropriate meetings and to determine the best way to ensure ministerial engagement.

Does the minister agree that Hunterston Port and Resource Centre, which is in my constituency, is vital to the economic regeneration and green transition of North Ayrshire? Will the Scottish Government and its agencies redouble their efforts in pursuit of potential investors who will bring skilled and well-remunerated employment to the area?

I recognise the strategic importance of Hunterston as a proposed national development in draft national planning framework 4, which has been laid in Parliament and is currently being consulted on. Hunterston has also been selected as one of the projects in the Ayrshire growth deal to drive sustainable and inclusive growth.

As I have said, Scottish Enterprise continues to be closely engaged with Peel Ports and North Ayrshire Council, and they are collaborating under a memorandum of understanding to advance and secure the delivery of national and regional investment objectives in the Scottish Government’s inward investment strategy and the Ayrshire economic strategy. As I said in my answer to Katy Clark’s question, I am very happy to engage with other stakeholders to ensure that the work that is being done moves forward as quickly and effectively as possible.


Town Centres (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what measures it has taken to support town centres. (S6O-00551)

We have been working with partners, including local government and Scotland’s Towns Partnership, to build on the success of the town centre first principle and the 2013 town centre action plan, supported by the regeneration capital grant fund, the £50 million town centre fund and business improvement districts.

In 2020 we commissioned an independent review of the town centre action plan to build on that strong platform and in light of the climate emergency and the pandemic. We are working with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to respond to the recommendations in the review report, “A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres”. Since 2020 we have provided more than £6 million of additional support to town and community partnerships and business improvement districts. Earlier this year we launched the £10 million Scotland loves local programme to support local businesses and town centres.

All of that is underpinned by our £325 million place-based investment programme over this session. It builds on the town centre action plan and the regeneration capital grant fund to accelerate our ambitions for place, 20-minute neighbourhoods and town centre revitalisation.

I appreciate the desire to provide comprehensive responses, but I would prefer more succinct questions and answers.

You have pre-empted my preamble, Presiding Officer, which was to say that that was a very comprehensive answer.

I want to move on from funding, which is welcome, and give two examples from my constituency of Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale: Galashiels and Penicuik town centres. There are far too many large empty retail stores there—they have been empty for years—and it is difficult to trace the owners. Is current compulsory purchase legislation sufficient to permit a local authority to take ownership and redevelop, possibly for a mix of town-centre housing and smaller commercial outlets? That does not seem to be happening.

I thank Christine Grahame for her further question, and I will be as brief as I can. Acquiring authorities are expected to carry out thorough land referencing in order to ascertain the ownership of land that they intend to include within a compulsory purchase order. However, the inability to trace all owners is not necessarily a barrier to the use of compulsory powers. Current Scottish Government guidance covers that situation.

We have committed to a review of compulsory purchase legislation, which will provide an opportunity to consider whether the current procedures are fit for purpose.

My question is in the same vein as Christine Grahame’s. What further action could be taken to improve the appearance of our town centres, where many shops lie empty and are deteriorating, along with derelict land and buildings?

I thank Siobhian Brown for her question and I congratulate her on her appointment as convener of the cross-party group on towns and town centres.

It is, of course, vital that we repurpose and reimagine our town centres, broadening their offer and ensuring diversity so that they are not overreliant on one sector. That is supported by the independent review of the town centre action plan, which published its report in February and advocated long-term sustainable actions built upon local partnerships. We are considering the report’s recommendations with our partners, and we are working collaboratively to take forward our response. I would be happy to meet the member and the cross-party group to discuss the outcome of that process in due course.

Question 5 was not lodged.


Community Heat and Power Networks

To ask the Scottish Government what support and advice it plans to provide to enable the establishment of community heat and power networks to deliver net zero targets. (S6O-00553)

As set out in the heat in buildings strategy, we will invest £400 million over this session to support the development of heat networks and low-carbon heat infrastructure at scale in Scotland. We will also launch a heat network pre-capital support unit in 2022, which will help to nurture opportunities for new networks and to expand existing ones. In addition, the Scottish Government’s community and renewable energy scheme—CARES—utilises the Local Energy Scotland network of regionally based development officers to provide advice and financial support to local communities that are looking to decarbonise their energy consumption.

I thank the minister for that answer. Will the minister confirm that local authorities and community groups need advance finance to establish those community heat networks, so that they can access expertise, risk assessment and feedback from what has worked in previous projects, so that the Scottish Government directly funds development work to enable local authorities and community co-operatives to get going on the new projects that we need across Scotland to deliver the low-carbon heat and power that we need, and for the profits to be reinvested locally?

The Scottish Government is clear, across the whole heat in buildings strategy, that a huge scale of investment is needed. That is why we will create a green heat finance task force to look at the wide range of options for increasing that investment. We are committed to supporting local communities and local authorities that want to maximise the deployment of heat networks, and we will work collaboratively with local government and across the political spectrum to ensure that that happens.


Sheriffhall Roundabout

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the proposed works at Sheriffhall roundabout as part of its £300 million commitment to the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal. (S6O-00554)

As I advised members in the chamber on 27 October, we remain committed to delivering the grade separation of Sheriffhall roundabout. Following the publication of draft orders, a significant number of objections were received. Transport Scotland is currently trying to resolve those objections, but a public local inquiry may be required if they cannot be resolved.

That area of my constituency is heavily used, by my constituents and those in the surrounding areas, every day. A bottleneck situation often develops because of the volume of traffic, which is frustrating for road users. What specific action can the Scottish Government take to address the delays to beginning the works at the Sheriffhall roundabout? Can he provide any reassurance to my constituents that the matter is in hand?

I reassure the member that Transport Scotland is focused on trying to resolve the significant number of objection responses that were received following the publication of draft orders for the scheme. For example, replies have now been issued to nearly all the objectors. However, as I said, given the number of objections that have been received, a public local inquiry may be needed to consider objections that are not—[Inaudible.]—withdrawn. That would disappoint and frustrate me almost as much as it would Mr Beattie. Nonetheless, I am sure that he would recognise that, having put in place the opportunity for communities and stakeholders to have a say and an involvement in key decisions on such infrastructure, it is incumbent on us all to respect that process and engage with it to the best of our abilities.


Dog Control Database

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will publish a timeframe for the implementation of the Scottish dog control database. (S6O-00555)

I call the Minister for Community Safety, Ash Regan.

As there is a connection issue, we will move to question 9 in the meantime. I call Richard Leonard.

I ask colleagues to bear with me.


Scottish National Investment Bank

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the Scottish National Investment Bank’s investment portfolio. (S6O-00556)

The Scottish National Investment Bank is building its portfolio and making commercial investments in line with its missions, which relate to net zero, place and innovation. Since its launch last year, the bank has committed to £137 million of investment and is on track to provide £200 million to Scottish businesses in the current financial year. It is growing that investment pipeline in order that it can apply at least another £200 million next year. That is a huge achievement for a new body that began operations only just over 12 months ago

I know that the minister always says that these investment decisions are matters for the board, and I am all in favour of planting more trees. However, does the Government not have a view on the fact that the biggest investment by far—more than a third of the money that has been allocated by this public bank—has been handed out to a private fund manager, Gresham House, which specialises in tax avoidance schemes for wealthy millionaires, to plant trees rather than invest in the jobs and the industries that our people and our communities need?

The member is right when he reminds the chamber that investment decisions are operational matters for the bank and are taken independently of ministers. The Opposition would call for those decisions to remain independent, so it is slightly strange when members question ministers about decisions that they do not agree with.

The bank has been set up specifically to invest commercially and generate investment and returns. It needs to invest alongside the private sector in order to deliver its purpose and have the impact that is required of it. The majority of the bank’s investments so far have net zero as a primary mission. The bank’s board determines how it invests. That investment independence is part of the important arrangements between the bank and the Scottish Government.

The bank’s ethical investment policy and the fair work direction issued to the bank in August inform the bank’s approach and underpins the covenants that it puts in place when it makes an investment. The bank invests only in businesses or projects that meet its ethical standards or are willing to commit to adopt those.

Ms Mackay, unfortunately we are unable to make contact with the minister at the moment, but I am sure that a response will be provided.