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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Meeting of the Parliament 18 May 2022 [Draft]

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Supporting Carers (Cost of Living), Scottish Attainment Challenge, Points of Order, Business Motions, Decision Time, Adverse Weather Events


Portfolio Question Time

Covid-19 Recovery and Parliamentary Business

Good afternoon. The first item of business is portfolio questions, and the first portfolio is Covid-19 recovery and parliamentary business. If a member wishes to ask a supplementary question, they should press their request-to-speak button during the relevant question or place an R in the chat function.

Human Rights (Incorporation of Treaties)

To ask the Scottish Government when it will provide an update to Parliament on when it plans to bring forward legislation to incorporate human rights treaties. (S6O-01086)

In line with the ambitious recommendations from the national task force for human rights leadership, the Scottish Government has committed to introducing a world-leading human rights bill during the current session of Parliament, and we are on track to do that.

The programme for government set out that we would consult on the bill in the coming year. That consultation, and the bill itself, are being developed collaboratively with a wide range of partners and stakeholders from across Scotland. We will continue to provide updates to the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee on the bill’s progress and timings.

I thank the Deputy First Minister for that answer, and I look forward to hearing what I hope will be a comprehensive update on the progress of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill in his statement next Tuesday.

Can the Deputy First Minister set out when he expects to introduce specific legislation on the four human rights treaties that the Scottish Government is committed to incorporating into Scots law, including the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women? Can he confirm that the Scottish Government will seek appropriate legal advice and work with the United Kingdom Government to ensure that future legislation is within devolved competence?

With regard to the question on legislative competence, there is an obligation on ministers to ensure that that is the case and, accordingly, to introduce bills alongside the certificates that make that point.

With regard to incorporation of other treaties, as I indicated in my earlier answer, the Government’s work on that is under way; there will be consultation in the coming year and we will keep Parliament updated on specific timings. As we set out legislative programmes year by year, further details will become clear to members during parliamentary announcements.

There is frustration about the lack of progress on incorporation of the UNCRC. I know that there will be a statement next week, but can the minister tell us that that will be the end of the process, rather than there being another consultation or review group process? We need to get the matter sorted quickly, so can the minister guarantee that?

I assure Mr Rennie that while we have been addressing issues in connection with the specific points that the Supreme Court raised—which will be the subject of my statement to Parliament on Tuesday—we have also been undertaking preparatory work to implement the elements of the bill that were uncontested in the Supreme Court judgment. That work is under way. My statement will update Parliament on where we have reached in our consideration of the Supreme Court judgment.

The Scottish Human Rights Commission has expressed concern about the UK Government’s plans to introduce legislation to replace the Human Rights Act 1998 with a new bill of rights. Can the Deputy First Minister say whether proposed reforms could take place without unsettling the current devolution arrangements, and what actions the Scottish Government will take to oppose any regressive proposals?

At this stage, I am unable to give Stephanie Callaghan the reassurance that she—understandably and rightly—seeks. The Human Rights Act 1998 is embedded in the legislation that led to the establishment of this Parliament, and the powers of this Parliament and the way in which they are exercised are inextricably linked to the provisions of the 1998 act. The fact that the United Kingdom Government is now, in essence, going to replace that legislation raises all sorts of issues about consideration and handling of human rights issues, but it also raises the danger that the devolution settlement on which this Parliament is founded might be destabilised, as a consequence.

We do not yet know the answer to the question. We know, however, that new human rights legislation is emerging. Once the bill is published, we will scrutinise its contents very carefully in order to assess its full impact, and we will update Parliament.

I assure Stephanie Callaghan that the Scottish Government will resist any attempt, in any shape or form, to diminish the human rights that are entrenched in the Human Rights Act 1998, and which are linked to the foundation of this Parliament.

I understand that Mr Whittle wishes to apologise to Parliament in advance. He has advised us that he will need to leave the chamber immediately after asking his question.

Covid-19 Recovery (Data)

To ask the Scottish Government what consideration it has given to improving data gathering and data management across Government as part of the development of policies relating to the recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. (S6O-01087)

The Scottish Government is committed to improving data gathering and management to produce high-quality and impactful research supporting our recovery from the pandemic. That includes the data and intelligence network—a community of data experts promoting best practice on sharing and use of data, in response to the pandemic. The network has produced a range of resources including a data catalogue, and has worked to improve data set quality.

Research Data Scotland provides a way of systematically organising Scotland’s data and offers researchers quicker and clearer access to data. It developed the Covid-19 database for quick data set linkage. It now holds 36 data sets and supports 68 Covid-19-related studies.

The business support partnership programme data and analytics workstream seeks to improve data set linkage abilities in order to gain a more holistic view of the business support that was offered during the pandemic.

I am sorry, Presiding Officer. I should have acknowledged the fact that I have to leave straight after my question, as I have a constituency case to deal with.

I thank the cabinet secretary for his answer. The cabinet secretary will appreciate that, throughout the pandemic, having easy access to reliable data on everything from Covid cases to details of businesses that are eligible for support has proved to be vital in protecting the public, and has allowed our response to the virus to be as targeted as possible.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that as we look to recover from the pandemic and build greater resilience against future challenges, improving how the Scottish Government gathers, stores and uses data could bring significant benefits in every policy area, from future NHS workforce planning to health outcomes to hitting education attainment targets? If he does agree, what steps is the Scottish Government taking to address the shortfall?

Data management is central to every aspect of Government policy and action. It helps us to identify the most effective targeting of support to assist individuals who face difficulties during the cost of living crisis, for example. It also helps us to manage effectively the implications of Covid in the national health service and a wide variety of other environments.

The programmes that are being done through the data and intelligence network are designed to ensure that we constantly review the approach to data management and data handling, so that we achieve all our objectives in this respect and so that we can effectively deliver Government policy.

We have learned from the Covid pandemic that we need systems that can readily deal with distribution of resources to a wide range of recipients, whether they are individuals or businesses. Such systems had to be developed at pace during the pandemic, but we are looking to entrench those approaches in order to ensure that we are equipped for any eventuality in the future. That is material to the Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill, with which Mr Whittle is familiar.

Covid-19 Recovery (Hospital Restrictions)

To ask the Scottish Government what cross-Government discussions regarding the remaining Covid-19 hospital restrictions have taken place as part of its Covid recovery strategy. (S6O-01088)

As Covid-19 infection prevention and control guidance is confined to healthcare settings, there are limited cross-Government discussions outside of health directorates regarding Covid-19 mitigations. Scotland’s hospital Covid-19 guidance is developed in conjunction with NHS National Services Scotland’s antimicrobial resistance and infection prevention and control staff, supported by the independent expert Covid-19 nosocomial review group.

The Scottish Government continues to work in partnership with NSS and with relevant policy teams on reviewing and updating Covid-19 hospital guidance in the light of emerging scientific and World Health Organization advice.

I thank Mr Swinney for that answer.

However, on-going Covid restrictions in Scotland’s NHS are causing avoidable harm to patients and are restricting patient flow, which results in on-going pressure on waiting times. Does the Deputy First Minister agree that appropriate hospital visits play an important role in patients’ treatment and recovery? Will he, as part of his Covid recovery strategy, commit to working closely with ministerial colleagues and officials to ensure that normal processes and procedures are resumed and maintained in hospitals wherever that is clinically safe and possible?

I agree on the final part of Mr Hoy’s question, that hospital visiting, when it is clinically safe to do so, is absolutely essential.

However, I rather parted company with Mr Hoy at the start of his question because it suggested that that is not the approach that we should take. Everything that the Government is doing around hospital visiting is founded on clinical analysis. We are all familiar with nosocomial transmission of Covid, so we must be careful to ensure that we are taking the right clinically advised steps on hospital visiting so that we can protect the population that is in hospital and people who are visiting hospital for legitimate purposes. Yes—we will take an approach that is driven by clinical analysis and clinical advice because we must make sure that it is safe for individuals to visit in the current context.

Question 4 was not lodged.

Covid-19 Vaccination Programme

To ask the Scottish Government what role a Covid-19 booster vaccination programme this winter will play in its Covid recovery strategy. (S6O-01090)

Vaccination remains a critical component in our response to Covid-19. Since its beginning, the Scottish Government’s Covid-19 vaccination programme has been guided by the expert advice that has been provided by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation and senior clinicians.

In February this year, the JCVI advised that an autumn/winter booster programme for 2022 is likely to be recommended for people who are at higher risk of severe Covid-19, such as those of older age and those who are in clinical risk groups.

The JCVI will continue its review, and the Scottish Government understands that the committee is likely to make a further announcement with more precise details of timing and eligibility for the anticipated autumn/winter programme in the coming weeks. We stand ready to consider any further guidance from the JCVI as it is issued.

What consultations have taken place with local authorities and health boards about possible vaccination venues for this winter?

Dialogue is on-going with local authorities and health boards about the delivery of the vaccination programme, particularly in relation to convenience and locality for individual areas. It is obviously a very complex exercise, and the vaccination programme has led to the distribution of in excess of 10 million vaccines in a relatively short space of time. When the programme operates at population scale, it opens up different opportunities around locations than if it is a more limited vaccination programme for older people and for the clinically vulnerable. Of course, if the programme is targeted at those groups, access and locality will be ever more significant. I assure Mr McLennan that those questions will be considered very carefully with local authorities and health boards as we apply the advice from the JCVI.

A constituent caught Covid in February this year and now, three months later, she has it again. She is completely vaccinated. It was bad before, but this time it has floored her. Given that waves of omicron variants BA.4 and BA.5 are on their way, I am pleased that the cabinet secretary is indicating an extension of the booster programme. Could I encourage him to look at that particularly for people aged 50 and over, including those who have underlying health conditions such as diabetes or asthma? Will he urge the JCVI to move quickly, given that both of the new strains are thought to be very contagious and there is a level of vaccine escape?

All those are legitimate points, and I am sorry that Jackie Baillie’s constituent has had that experience.

Jackie Baillie will be familiar with the fact that the Government follows, and has followed to date, as have other Administrations in the United Kingdom, the advice of the JCVI. We have made clear to the JCVI at different stages our enthusiasm for elements of the vaccination programme to be undertaken, and for it to be undertaken more quickly than might ordinarily be the case.

I will certainly discuss with the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care, who leads on dialogue with the JCVI in that respect, the issues that Jackie Baillie has raised but, fundamentally, as Jackie Baillie will understand, the JCVI operates independently of Government and provides high-quality clinical advice to Government.

Question 6 was not lodged.

Covid-19 Recovery (Testing and Contact Tracing)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what modelling it has undertaken to estimate the impact on its Covid recovery strategy of removing population-wide testing and contact tracing at the end of April. (S6O-01092)

The decision to make those changes to our testing policy was informed by the latest available evidence and advice from public health officials and clinicians, which included modelling of the epidemiological impact of the changes in testing policy. The Scottish Government continues to model the latest Covid-19 trends, and the results are published online in the “Coronavirus (COVID-19): modelling the epidemic” reports.

Alongside our evolving response to the pandemic, the Scottish Government’s Covid recovery strategy will continue to focus effort and resources on bringing about a fairer future, particularly for people who have been most impacted during the pandemic.

Given the challenge of new variants, the most recent of which are those that have been identified in Portugal and South Africa, what risk assessment has the Scottish Government done on the impact of ending routine testing, given the on-going health issues that Jackie Baillie raised, as well as the effects of long Covid? Does the Deputy First Minister agree that, without a commitment to free vaccines in low-income countries and around the globe, we will not be safe until everyone is safe?

I agree entirely with that latter point. Over the course of the vaccination programme, the Scottish Government has supported practically, and through the application of pressure, the achievement of the objective that Sarah Boyack set out.

As I indicated in my initial answer, the change to testing policy was included in the modelling of the pandemic. We continue to monitor levels of Covid in our society through the various modelling exercises that are undertaken. The modelling that we do around waste water shows declining prevalence of the virus. We also monitor hospital admissions and case numbers.

We will continue to engage with the international clinical community on the research that is emerging on new strains and new variants, and we will reflect that in the choices and decisions that we make.

Parliamentary Questions (Timescale for Responses)

To ask the Scottish Government for what reason a number of written parliamentary questions have not received an answer by ministers within the required timescale. (S6O-01093)

The Scottish Government is committed to answering all parliamentary questions as quickly as possible and within the deadlines agreed with the Parliament. In the first quarter of 2022, the Government answered 90 per cent of written parliamentary questions on time, exceeding the Parliament’s 80 per cent benchmark.

The Government produces quarterly statistics, which are available from the Scottish Parliament information centre, that show how many parliamentary questions were cleared after the substantive date and those that were still outstanding at the time of audit.

I thank the minister for that answer, but I think that the number of wry smiles around the chamber probably points to the fact that things are somewhat awry from the picture that he paints.

The problem is a growing one, and it is not experienced only by Opposition members; I have had the same conversation with Scottish National Party back benchers. There is a problem with the timeliness and the quality of answers. I have asked three questions that it has taken the cabinet secretary more than four months to answer.

In relation to quality, I had an answer from the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills that was simply a hyperlink to, as well as answers that have simply referred me to SPICe. As good as the work of SPICe is, I know where SPICe is and can ask its staff myself. I have also had answers that have just given links to previous answers, regardless of their age—some of them have been up to six months old. I want the Government to tell me what the answer is today.

Ultimately, it is not just me or other members whom the Government is letting down, but my constituents, because I am asking questions on their behalf.

I ask the minister to reflect on that, because the answers that are given should be considered to be answers to the whole Parliament. If ministers would not be happy to answer questions in the chamber in the way that they answer written questions, they should not submit written answers in that way.

Will the Government undertake to improve matters from the point of view of time and, importantly, of the quality of the written parliamentary answers that are provided?

I repeat that, in the first quarter of 2022, 90 per cent of questions were replied to in time.

The member should take into account that there are many factors that impact on the time that it takes to provide substantive answers to written PQs. Resourcing pressures for the Government mean that it has to prioritise activities such as, for example, our response to the pandemic. Delays can be caused through difficulty in interpreting the question, or by taking steps to ensure that answers are properly researched, accurate and, above all, open and helpful to members.

As always, I will try to be open and helpful to all members of this chamber at all times. If Daniel Johnson or any other member wishes to have a chat or discussion about any of the issues, my door will always be open.

The member says that with no hint of irony at all.

With any form of majority Government, it is, if anything, more important than ever that the strongest standards of transparency and scrutiny are upheld. Just this week, we heard of the SNP Government’s abysmal adherence to freedom of information laws, with shady interventions from ministerial advisers going undocumented.

Written questions are treated with similar distain by the Scottish Government, which often does not address the questions or simply states that they have already been answered, when they have not.

With the Scottish Government in the news for its secretive handling of the ferries fiasco, should Scottish ministers not be doing far more to earn the public’s trust?

Mr Kerr will understand that we had a public opinion poll only two weeks ago, and the public’s trust was with the SNP.

Once again, we have Mr Kerr’s hyperbole when it comes to interpretation of what is actually published and out there. We need to be very careful when we are discussing these matters. Mr Kerr seems to think that he can say what he likes, when he likes, shout about absolutely anything and be correct. His interpretation is not the same as everyone else’s in this room, however, so he needs to have a wee think about how he conducts himself.

That concludes portfolio questions on Covid-19 recovery and Government business.

We will move on to the next portfolio—[Interruption.] We will move on to the next item of business once everyone is in place and following proceedings.

Net Zero, Energy and Transport

The next portfolio is net zero, energy and transport. I remind all members who wish to ask a supplementary question to please press their request-to-speak buttons during the relevant question or enter the letter R in the chat function.

Invasive Species

To ask the Scottish Government what measures are available to stakeholders seeking to manage invasive species and mitigate their impact. (S6O-01094)

Invasive non-native species are a key driver of biodiversity loss. It is estimated that they cost the Scottish economy around £300 million annually. The management of INNS is fundamental to our efforts in tackling biodiversity loss. The Scottish Government provides funding streams to stakeholders seeking to manage invasive non-native species. Funding has been available through, for example, the forestry grant scheme and the biodiversity challenge fund, and there has been direct funding through NatureScot for projects of strategic national importance, such as the Scottish invasive species initiative. The new nature restoration fund also includes management and eradication of INNS in its objectives.

A survey found that there are American mink present in the Pentland hills regional park in my constituency and that their presence can have an absolutely devastating impact on native mammals and ground-nesting birds. Does the minister share my view that there is a pressing need to keep the impact of invasive species on Scotland’s ecosystem to the absolute minimum, and that steps should be taken to ensure that they do not undermine work to restore and enhance biodiversity?

I do indeed share Mr MacDonald’s view, which is why we are providing support to projects such as the Scottish invasive species initiative, which is tackling invasive plants and mink along rivers in an area of 29,500km2, which is over a third of the total area of Scotland. In the past four years, more than £1.5 million has been invested via the Scottish rural development programme to tackle rhododendron, which threatens our precious Atlantic rain forest. However, we recognise that there is always more that can be done.

There are a number of supplementary questions.

Beaver activity can have and is having a negative impact on farmland, biodiversity and rural communities, especially in Tayside, where beavers were released either accidentally or illegally. The Scottish Government’s new translocation scheme aims to help, but it lacks detail, so can the minister provide answers to the following questions? When will the new rules launch, how many trappers have been trained, how many translocation sites have been identified and for how long will the scheme be funded?

I am really excited about our beaver translocation initiative, because it is an excellent way of managing conflicts between beavers and other land users. I disagree with the member on biodiversity loss, because beavers are excellent at improving biodiversity by creating natural wetlands. [Interruption.] Beavers are a reintroduced species. When my father grew up here in Scotland, there were no beavers—they were extinct—so this is a success.

We will publish a new beaver strategy—in June, I believe—and I very much expect that it will answer the member’s questions.

I call Alasdair Allan for a supplementary question.

I think that you are mistaken, Presiding Officer—apologies.

I call Foysol Choudhury for a supplementary question.

What measures are available to the Scottish Government to ensure that invasive species are not being brought into Scotland through international arrivals at airports?

That is a live issue for us given the issues around Brexit and the delay of 18 more months to border checks, and it is a particular concern for my plant health colleagues. We are very concerned about biosecurity, and I am happy to write to the member about that in more detail.

Scottish Water (Reserves)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on using Scottish Water’s reserves to fund a £100 rebate for customers. (S6O-01095)

It is vital that Scottish Water continues to invest in infrastructure to provide a high-quality service to the people of Scotland. Revenue that is raised from customer charges is essential to deliver Scottish Water’s investment programme.

Scottish Water’s cash balance is not a surplus of funds; it is substantially allocated at any time to investment projects on a rolling basis. The average water charge in Scotland is already lower than the average charge in England and Wales.

From 1 April 2021, we increased the maximum discount available from the water charges reduction scheme—which is available to customers in receipt of full council tax reduction—to 35 per cent, up from 25 per cent. That enhanced scheme provides support to more than 470,000 customers.

At a time when Scots are experiencing the worst cost of living crisis in a generation, Scottish Water is sitting on at least £500 million of reserves, and its senior executives are getting eye-watering bonuses—not salaries, but bonuses—of £92,000, which is three times the average wage. Does the cabinet secretary believe that that is right, and will he rule out further rises of the retail price index plus 2 per cent next year, given that inflation is expected to be at least 10 per cent?

As I mentioned, the cash reserves that Scottish Water holds are not a surplus of funds; they are for identified projects that have to be delivered, and Scottish Water has to hold a working cash balance that is allocated as those investments roll out. That is what those funds are held for, and the figure goes up and down during the course of the year and over different years. It is important that the member understands how the budgeting process operates, but given her question, it is clear that she does not.

On the support that we are providing, the member will recognise that extending the council tax support scheme that we provide for Scottish Water charges means that, because we have extended the reduction to 35 per cent, households that are in receipt of the full council tax reduction discount will pay less under this year’s water rates than they did back in 2021.

As the member will recognise, targeting support to households with the lowest incomes is a key priority during the cost of living crisis. [Interruption.] That is exactly what the scheme does: it assists households that have the lowest incomes with their water charges—and this year it reduces their water charges.

Before I call a member to ask a supplementary question, I say to members that if a question has been asked it is courteous to listen to the answer.

A very rough calculation suggests that the chief executive officer and managers of Scottish Water, which is a publicly funded company, cost around £1.5 million—as well as the bonuses that Jackie Baillie talked about. Has the cabinet secretary reviewed whether the spend provides value for the public purse and considered whether those funds could be used to reduce bills?

As the member will recognise, the board of Scottish Water is responsible for the remuneration package of staff, including the chief executive.

When it comes to value for money, we just have to look at the base salary packages in some of the water organisations in England, which in some cases go up to almost £1 million. The level at which Scottish Water’s chief executive is paid is considerably lower than the level in comparable organisations in other parts of the United Kingdom.

It is important that we make sure that we use public money efficiently. I am sure that the member recognises that customers have voted Scottish Water as one of the most efficient and effective public utilities in the UK, given its progress on investment. We recognise the significant progress that has been made.

The important point is that the money that Scottish Water makes stays in Scottish Water, unlike the situation in the privatised systems that the Tories operate.

Warm Home Discount Scheme

To ask the Scottish Government how it will respond to the United Kingdom Government’s consultation, launched on 9 May, regarding the proposed expansion of its warm home discount scheme. (S6O-01096)

The warm home discount is a Great Britain scheme, which provides an annual £140 rebate to around 210,000 vulnerable Scottish households.

Last year, we proposed an expanded replacement scheme, but—sadly—that was not agreed by the UK Government. The UK’s new consultation proposes to continue the current scheme separately in Scotland, with just a £10 increase. We will urge the UK Government to listen to Scottish stakeholders and do much more to protect the most vulnerable households.

I understand that the uplift will mean that rebates are provided to an additional 50,000 families in Scotland, on top of the 230,000 who already receive payments.

Will the minister confirm that the Scottish Government will not in any way disrupt the additional payments, which could be of considerable importance to families throughout Scotland, including in Mid Scotland and Fife?

Liz Smith is correct about the figure of 50,000 more households, and it is worth putting that figure in context. The price cap rise last autumn created 50,000 more fuel-poor households, and the cap rose again in April, pushing a further 140,000 households in Scotland into fuel poverty. Further, big increases in energy prices are anticipated in October, and we fear that almost a million Scottish households will be in fuel poverty by the winter.

In the context of those figures, I hope that Liz Smith will acknowledge that extending support to 50,000 households is a pretty paltry response to the cost of living crisis that the Conservative Government is overseeing.

Although all measures, including energy efficiency measures, to support households in the context of rising energy prices are welcome, the crisis is happening now. As welcome as existing measures are, including the warm home discount consultation and the further £30 million, does the minister acknowledge that support is not being put in place fast enough or on the scale that is needed?

The Office of Gas and Electricity Markets estimates that 613,000 households in Scotland are in fuel poverty. What discussions has the minister had with the UK Government about more immediate assistance to deal with energy price increases? The wait-and-see approach that the UK Minister for Energy, Clean Growth and Climate Change, Greg Hands, set out to the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee last week is not acceptable and not good enough.

I agree with Fiona Hyslop’s characterisation of the scale and pace of the response that is required, but which is clearly lacking from the UK Government.

I mentioned in my first answer that we have repeatedly proposed improvements to the warm home discount, with an expanded scheme that would be combined with other measures in Scotland. However, the UK Government chose not to take up our proposals and delayed any confirmation of even the continuation of the scheme.

I hope that the UK Government will do more. It is clear that there is huge pressure on it, even from some of its own back benchers, to do more and to act more swiftly to support people in relation to the cost of living crisis.

The figures that I mentioned speak for themselves on the scale of response that is required. This will be a life-or-death decision for some individuals and families this year As we approach the autumn, I very much hope that the UK Government will reconsider its approach and do so urgently. Meanwhile, the Scottish Government will continue to do everything that we can with our powers and, in particular, with the energy efficiency measures that we are supporting as a way of cutting people’s fuel bills.

Although it is great that many people are getting help with new boilers under the warmer homes Scotland scheme, the decision in May 2017 to exclude non-traditional construction properties from funding for external wall insulation means that a lot of expensive energy is still wasted. Many local authority houses are affected. Would the Scottish Government consider reviewing the position, given the current cost of living crisis?

Such properties are included as part of our fuel poverty and energy efficiency schemes. For example, we have provided £64 million to local authorities to deliver external wall insulation through our area-based schemes this year.

Those local schemes target fuel poverty and benefit exactly the kind of hard-to-treat properties that the member describes. That approach has improved the homes of more than 100,000 fuel-poor households since 2013. Many of those properties are ex-local authority properties in mixed tenure blocks. They are often technically complex to insulate and they require other essential repairs, so the neighbourhood approach to improvements is often the best solution all round.

We are continuing to look at more ways to provide help with insulation and, over the coming months, we will consider all possible options to insulate and improve more homes.

ScotRail (Services)

To ask the Scottish Government what recent discussions it has had with ScotRail regarding returning rail services to pre-pandemic levels. (S6O-01097)

Throughout the pandemic, Transport Scotland officials have worked closely with the rail industry, via the rail recovery task force, to ensure that scheduled train services have met overall passenger demand.

Although passenger demand remains well below that seen prior to the pandemic, I fully expect ScotRail to keep its timetable under review, with scope to adapt where feasible to provide the most reliable service for passengers.

The minister omitted to mention that ScotRail revealed today that, from next week, nearly one third of its services will be cut. That is 600 daily services across Scotland—at this rate, they will have more ferries than trains—and will cause absolute misery for passengers up and down the country.

Does the minister share ScotRail’s view that the unions and drivers are to blame? If not, who is responsible for another calamitous chapter in the story of the Scottish National Party’s nationalised rail?

I do not agree with Mr Findlay’s characterisation of this Government’s handling of bringing rail services into public ownership. However, to reflect on some of his substantive points, I think that we have seen 225 services affected today, with 138 full cancellations, so I would encourage any passengers who are watching to please check online for the availability of services.

Mr Findlay is correct that, due to some drivers not taking up the option of overtime Sunday and rest day working, ScotRail has today announced plans to run a temporary reduced timetable from 23 May, which is next week, to give passengers a more stable and reliable service.

We know that people want certainty when they travel and ScotRail has therefore looked at how best to give that certainty during what is—I absolutely recognise—a really challenging time for passengers.

Under the temporary timetable, services will be reduced by a certain level, but it is hugely important to note that ScotRail will keep that under review. It is worth saying that an extension to the rest day working arrangements and additional payments for staff was negotiated with the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen and it will continue to be in place until October of this year.

Again, I would appeal to trade unions, which of course campaigned so strongly for public ownership, to come back to the table and negotiate an agreement so that we can deliver on the timetable expectations that should have been met last week in the new timetable.

The approach that the Tories have taken to rail relations elsewhere in the United Kingdom is a prime example of how not to engage with a workforce. The UK Government refused to increase pay during the pandemic and Network Rail’s communications chief recently said that rail workers

“should have probably worked harder at school”.

Ms Dunbar, could you please get to a relevant question?

Does the minister share my disgust at those events, and will she join me in condemning the disdainful attitude of the Tories towards rail workers?

Minister, please extract the bits that are relevant to the initial question.

Forgive me, Presiding Officer?

Could you respond to what the member was trying to get at? A supplementary must be relevant to the initial question.

Understood, Presiding Officer.

It is disappointing that the UK Government appears not to be doing more to resolve the dispute south of the border. However, in Scotland, we have ensured that our general grade, non-driving railway staff have already received their previously negotiated and agreed 2.2 per cent increase for this year, while negotiations continue with both ASLEF and the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers.

Can the minister tell us how long the devastating 30 per cent cut in services will go on for?

As I have already alluded to in my response to Mr Findlay, the situation will be kept under review. It is worth saying that, without Covid and its resultant impact on training, ScotRail would have trained an extra 130 drivers by this point. That would have eliminated ScotRail’s need for drivers to work overtime on rest days.

However, I will speak to ScotRail later this week to ask for the update that Mr Simpson has requested. I would be more than happy to share further details on that with him.

Before I turn to the next question, could I please have less commentary from a sedentary position and a bit more courtesy and respect to one another on the part of all members?

West Coast Main Line (Services)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with TransPennine Express, Network Rail and ScotRail regarding the reported frequent cancellation of rail services on the west coast main line, particularly impacting travellers using rail services at Lockerbie station. (S6O-01098)

Rail services that are run by Avanti West Coast and TransPennine Express stop at Lockerbie railway station. They are cross-border rail operators that are managed by the Department for Transport, although Transport Scotland participates in regular cross-border operator task force meetings.

For the first part of this year, TransPennine Express services in particular have been impacted by Covid-related issues and industrial action. However, recent performance data shows an improvement since February. I can advise that TransPennine Express has increased calls at Lockerbie from this week and is, broadly, offering customers an hourly service northwards and southwards on weekdays.

Passengers need assurance that services will be available and on time. I know that the Scottish Government does not have control over TransPennine Express, but does the minister agree that the sooner rail is fully devolved, the quicker we can provide certainty to passengers who are travelling to and from Lockerbie station?

Emma Harper is right that we need certainty about travelling and which services are operating for passengers. We heard that when the previous question was discussed.

Ms Harper is also right that full devolution of rail powers is a long-stated aim of the Government, as it would bring track and train together and ensure that we have the levers that we need to create a sustainable rail service in the future. However, in the meantime, passengers must be reassured that alternative options are available during times of disruption.

The Lockerbie services are not ScotRail services. I will raise the issue directly with the United Kingdom rail minister when I meet her next week, and officials will follow up with operators what we can do to help to improve on people’s recent experience of the services.

This is the worst train service in Britain, and there is a fair bit of competition for that title. The problems are not new; passengers from Lockerbie station have been treated as second class since the franchise began. When the minister meets her UK counterpart, will she join me in calling for an end to the failed franchise and for it to be brought under new management?

I will certainly raise some of the issues that Mr Smyth has alluded to regarding his constituents’ experience of the service.

I have a suggestion that the minister might find will focus the Government’s mind. Will she make a commitment that, for every day that there is rail strike disruption, the ministerial limos will remain parked, in solidarity with ScotRail passengers—yes or no?

Before the minister tries to respond to that, I say that I do not think that that supplementary is relevant at all. I appreciate that Sue Webber wishes to conflate the two issues. If the minister wishes to respond, please go ahead.

No, Presiding Officer—I do not see the relevance of that supplementary question at all.

No wonder.

Mr Kerr, perhaps we could have comments through the chair. Thank you.

Levenmouth Rail Link

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on progress with the Levenmouth rail link, including the planned reopening date. (S6O-01099)

We are committed to delivering the new railway, which will reintroduce passenger services on the line for the first time in more than 50 years and benefit communities, businesses and visitors in the Levenmouth area. Transport Scotland and Network Rail are working closely with their industry partners and currently expect to deliver this transformational project by spring 2024.

Construction activities are under way, with the first mile of track and drainage already completed. Work continues on the route structures, and site compounds are being established at key locations to provide strategic links to on-site activities.

The minister will be aware of the strong desire from the community for the rail link to be the best that it can be. What discussions has he had with Network Rail about the delay in the public consultation and the need to get that under way? In recognition of the importance of the community’s input into the station design, what flexibilities are there in the budget for a station that will meet the needs and ambitions of the community and be designed for a growing population?

The consultation is being undertaken, and it is important for it to be undertaken comprehensively. I hope that Claire Baker will join me in congratulating the communities that campaigned long and hard to ensure that we have reached the point where we can see the project’s completion in the near future.

I will happily write to Claire Baker regarding the budget issues that she raises. However, I hope that, for the time being, she agrees that consultation should be undertaken and that it is necessary to take time to ensure that the voices of people in the affected communities are heard.

It has been a dream come true for communities that campaigned for the Levenmouth rail route to now see the tracks being relaid. The route also opens up opportunities for a rail freight facility, which is being worked on with Diageo, the Malcolm Group and other local businesses. I note that it took seven years for the Highland Spring rail freight facility to be designed, developed and built. What role can Transport Scotland play in accelerating the development of a rail freight facility on the Levenmouth line, especially given the climate emergency?

Mark Ruskell is right to acknowledge the hard work of campaigners and the positive opportunities to expand rail freight. That is an economic as well as an environmental opportunity, and the Scottish Government is leading the way with a first-of-its-kind target for the growth of rail freight, as well as significant investment.

We look forward to opportunities to include rail freight in all our investment, and our approach to the Levenmouth railway is no different. We are working with stakeholders, including local businesses and Fife Council, to maximise the economic, social and environmental benefits for the area. I am sure that we will all commit to continuing to proceed with that with the momentum that Mark Ruskell’s question demands.

Before I call question 7, I say that I would like to take question 8 too, but I need brief questions and brief answers if I am to do so.

“The Environment Strategy for Scotland”

To ask the Scottish Government how the ambitions expressed in the first annual report to Parliament on progress in developing “The Environment Strategy for Scotland” coincide with the findings of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. (S6O-01100)

The Scottish Government’s environment strategy sets out our overarching response to the global climate and nature crises. As highlighted by Mr Torrance, recent reports from the IPCC highlight the increased urgency of those efforts. The environment strategy progress report, which we published in March, recognised that, although Scotland has made great progress in cutting emissions, we must go further and faster to reach our target of a 75 per cent reduction by 2030. We are considering all options on how to accelerate progress.

In the wake of the latest IPCC report, leading scientists stated that the UK Government is moving too slowly to tackle the climate emergency. Meanwhile, the UK Government’s Brexit minister has declared that he supports exploiting every last cubic inch of gas from the North Sea. Does the Minister for Environment and Land Reform share my concern that, if the Tories get their way, Brexit will become an act of environmental, as well as social and economic, vandalism?

I absolutely do. The Scottish Government has made clear our commitment to remain aligned with the European Union on environmental standards. The EU is a beacon of progress in environmental policy, which is in stark contrast to the UK Government, whose cringeworthily entitled Brexit freedoms bill seems intent on abandoning legislation that has protected Scotland’s environmental interests for almost 50 years.

Scope 3 Emissions (Local Authorities)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it is giving to local authorities to enable them to reduce scope 3 emissions. (S6O-01101)

The Scottish Government is committed to continuing to work closely with local authorities to tackle the global climate emergency. We published new climate reporting guidance to public bodies, including local authorities, in October 2021, which included specific guidance on reducing indirect scope 3 emissions.

The Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform and the Minister for Trade, Innovation and Public Finance wrote to chief officers in public bodies on 16 March 2021 with a call to action to decarbonise the public sector supply chain, which is worth £13.3 billion annually. A follow-up Scottish Government procurement policy note in 2021 highlighted the national sustainable procurement tools to support that work.

The Scottish Government has not set a target for reductions in scope 3 emissions, which are a hugely important part of emissions from local authorities, covering procurement and supply chain issues, as the cabinet secretary said. Instead of working with councils and offering support in expertise and funding, the Scottish Government simply gives them an exemption when it is inconvenient to do the work. Why has the Scottish Government abandoned the issue? Is it because it is too hard?

It is becoming a pattern in here that Mr Kerr gets things badly wrong. The Scottish Government has already issued guidance, and regulations have been set out for local authorities, which Parliament approved previously. Those regulations clearly set out the required responsibility. Through the new guidance, local authorities need to publish details on what they are doing to tackle scope 3 emissions, which is part of the procurement duty process. Importantly, I am sure that Mr Kerr will welcome the recently published data that shows that emissions from public bodies’ operations have fallen by a third since 2015-16 and that emissions from their electricity use have halved since 2015-16.

You are not answering my question.

Stephen Kerr clearly does not like the information that I am providing him with—[Interruption.]

Please resume your seat for a wee second, cabinet secretary—thank you very much. I have already said that I do not want a lot of sedentary commentary and I have already asked members if they would please listen to the answers that are given, to ensure that the question session is meaningful.

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I do not want to try your patience, but I am asking for an answer to the question that I asked—not for the text from a civil service briefing that the cabinet secretary has in front of him.

That is not a point of order, Mr Kerr. The chair is not responsible for the substance of ministerial responses or indeed anybody’s responses. I ask for some courtesy and respect across the chamber to ensure that we make these sessions as productive as possible for all.

Please resume, cabinet secretary.

I could give many other useful data points to Mr Kerr, which I am sure that he would not like to hear because they would not feed his narrative, which tries to talk down our local authorities.

My final point is that Mr Kerr will recognise—I think that he recognises it now—that the regulations have been put in place. It is for local authorities as corporate bodies to set their target dates, which means that it is our local elected members—on our councils, which were elected just over two weeks ago—who are responsible for setting out how they will meet targets. I know that those elections were not good for Mr Kerr and his party. I trust local authorities to get it right, and it is clear from their track record over recent years that they are doing exactly that, but this time, they will do it with even fewer Tories involved.

That concludes portfolio question time. Before we move on to the next item of business, there will be a short pause to allow front-bench teams to move positions, should they wish to do so.