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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 19 April 2017

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Scotland’s Economy, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Time for Inclusive Education Campaign


Contents


Portfolio Question Time


National Parks (Designation)

To ask the Scottish Government what processes are in place to consider a proposal for the designation of a new national park. (S5O-00858)

The process for the designation of new national parks is contained in sections 6, 7 and 8 of the National Parks (Scotland) Act 2000.

In my Galloway and West Dumfries constituency, there is great support for the designation of a Galloway national park, and a report commissioned last year by Dumfries and Galloway Council found that such a national park could increase tourism, boost jobs, improve development and help bring investment to the region. Given the wealth of opportunities offered by a national park, will the cabinet secretary show her support for the south-west of Scotland and commit to instructing her civil servants to look seriously at the designation of a Galloway national park?

As I think I have already indicated to the member, the Government does not just roll out future national parks at some point. In this time of straitened financial circumstances, we consider it better to concentrate our resources on the existing two national parks. Affordability in the face of significant pressures on public finances and a number of competing priorities across the country make that absolutely vital. As I have previously done, I direct the member to the example of the successful Galloway biosphere, which we are supporting, and I hope that I hear from him his support for that.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that our two existing national parks are, like most public bodies in Scotland, already having to shoulder cuts to their annual budgets as a result of Westminster cuts and that we need to focus efforts and resources on ensuring that those parks continue their track record of success?

As I think I indicated in my previous answer, that is, at the moment, where the Government wishes to put its financial resources. We feel at this point that moving towards increasing the number of national parks will not necessarily help us. We need to ensure that the two national parks that we have are adequately funded for the very good job that they do and that, where possible, we support some of the other very good designations that exist. I am sure that the member will join me in recognising those good efforts, too.

What consideration has the cabinet secretary given to the designation of a marine national park and to its value as a model of sustainable development, given that, at the moment, we have only terrestrial parks?

In general terms, I would say that we would always like to be able to be in a position to move in that direction, although some of the same points that I have indicated in respect of terrestrial national parks would apply in that case, too. The scoping of what that proposal would cost has not actually been done; we have scoped what a likely new national park would cost if we were to go from start-up, and I would expect a considerable cost to be attached to marine national parks, too. Right now, we do not think that that is the best way of spending our resources. However, I would never want to rule these things out for the future, because obviously they would, in general terms, be a very good idea.


United States Fishery Product Import Regime

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its discussions with the United Kingdom Government and the European Union regarding the licensing of seal killing and the fishery product import regime of the United States. (S5O-00859)

The Scottish Government has already made a contribution to the UK response to the European Commission, which is co-ordinating the EU membership reply to a request for information by the US Government. We await further developments.

From answers to written questions in this Parliament and freedom of information request releases, it is very clear that, unless we take action, Scottish fisheries could lose their entire US export market in five years’ time, which would be an annual cost to the Scottish salmon farming industry of £200 million.

There is a clear choice here: we can either change the law in the next five years to ban the killing of seals in Scotland; or we can lobby Donald Trump’s Administration to weaken environmental protections. Which will it be, cabinet secretary?

As the member has indicated, the ruling that is under discussion has a five-year exemption period that means that it will not come into force until 1 January 2022. The precise implications of the regulations remain unclear in a number of areas and for many countries. As I indicated, we intend to seek further clarification, along with the United Kingdom Government and the European Union, through discussions with the US Government in response to its request for information. The EU is considering a number of approaches, including a joint response to the US, a reversion to the World Trade Organization and, potentially, a request for more time to respond to the request for information.

The current situation is that it is a matter for individual companies to decide whether to apply for a licence under the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010, and some companies already choose not to do that. Forty-four per cent of those that applied for and were granted a seal licence in 2015 chose not to use it.

Will the cabinet secretary confirm whether the Scottish Government is considering further seal conservation areas? If so, what areas have been identified?

We would always want to have under consideration the potential for further conservation areas, regardless of the animals in question. However, the member will know from experience that a great deal of care and thought have to be taken in considering where such areas might be, and he will know about the consultation that is required and that such things cannot be done overnight. Right now, we are not taking forward any more areas than are already in place, but we are looking at the situation very carefully and will ensure that we have it under regard. However, as the member knows, the matter is not as easy as simply signing a bit of paper.


Water Charges (Business Centres)

To ask the Scottish Government what the impact is of water charges on smaller organisations that operate in business centres in which they do not have their own water supply but share kitchens and toilets. (S5O-00860)

All businesses in Scotland that are connected to the public supply are liable for water and sewerage charges. Where a property is part of a much larger building that is connected to public water and/or sewerage, it may be liable for charges if it has access to services in the common parts of the building.

There are a number of businesses in my constituency that are really struggling with heavy business rates, specifically from Business Stream. They seem to be trapped, because they are not allowed to switch to another supplier while they have arrears with Business Stream and their landlords are reluctant to install a meter that would show how little water is being used. Can the cabinet secretary suggest a way out of the situation?

It is important for all customers to pay their fair share for services received and, at the moment, there are no plans to offer alternative charging arrangements for the situation that the member described.

Business Stream works hard to ensure that it takes as much account as possible of the individual circumstances that customers face. If there are businesses with very individual issues, I recommend that the member takes those issues up directly with Business Stream if he has not already done so, or writes to me about individual circumstances.


Proposed Wild Fisheries Bill (Rod Licence Scheme)

To ask the Scottish Government whether the proposed wild fisheries bill will make provision for a scheme for rod licences. (S5O-00861)

I announced on 3 February that proposals to introduce rod licences would not be taken forward. It is important that we represent the interests of all our anglers. I have listened to their concerns about increasing costs and acted on the feedback from the consultation process that a rod licence would discourage participation.

I am pleased to report that the decision has been broadly welcomed. For example, FishPal, which is an online booking and information system for all types of rod fishing, said:

“this is good news for anglers—we are receiving positive feedback across our social media channels to the news release”.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that, in Orkney, we already enjoy effective community ownership of and free access to a renowned trout fishery. The local community takes pride in the responsibility that it has for looking after that resource in the interest of all anglers. That is a model for what the Government should be looking to achieve across Scotland. Ironically, the initial proposals in the draft bill would have undermined that legitimate access and ownership structure. On the back of the announcement that she made in February, will the cabinet secretary look to extend to other parts of the country the model that has been working effectively in Orkney, to make access to angling more widely available?

I will pay particular attention to the situation in Orkney and will consider whether we can learn any lessons from it that can be applied elsewhere. I am grateful that the member has acknowledged that the decision not to impose rod licences was absolutely correct. I know that anglers across the country have expressed a great deal of interest in the matter and have had a great deal of input into the discussion.

I might be wrong, but I think that angling is a sport with one of the highest participation levels in Scotland. I am not an angler, but I have always felt that it would be manifestly unfair for the ordinary hobby angler to be subjected to rod licences.

I will look at the situation in Orkney. If the member wants to talk to me more directly about that, I will be happy to have that discussion. We still intend to take forward wild fisheries legislation later in this session.

Does the cabinet secretary share my view that the opinions of all anglers—particularly those from a less well-off background—must be taken into account in determining the best way forward in legislation?

The member will have taken from my answer to Liam McArthur that I felt quite strongly about that when I came into this job at this time last year. On wild fisheries reform, a group is dedicated to taking forward the very strategy that the member in effect refers to. The promotion and development working group’s aim is to develop and agree a five-year action plan for the development and promotion of angling, which, as I indicated, is a sport with one of the highest participation rates in Scotland. That group has a diverse membership.

The social benefits of angling are well known and I am keen for it to flourish. I am also keen for it to be available to as many ordinary people as possible.

Will the proposed wild fisheries bill make any provision for the designation of haaf-netting as a heritage fishery?

I am having active discussions with the member and with Joan McAlpine on the issue. Haaf-netting will be part and parcel of the bill. The absolute detail of that legislation has not been worked through, as the member might expect, but I confirm that it will refer to haaf-netting.

On participation, in the early 1990s, a radical young lawyer represented in court anglers who had been criminalised because of the restrictive protection order system on Scottish rivers. Is it ironic that that radical young lawyer is now the very cabinet secretary who is defending the protection order system and keeping it in place without a shred of scientific evidence to back it up? Will the process for the wild fisheries bill allow the Parliament to debate the future of those restrictive orders and the absence of an evidence base for their retention?

I am flattered that the member pays such close attention to my previous career. It would not be the first time that my ministerial office has resulted in my confronting casework that I did in that earlier career.

If the member wants to debate such an issue on his own behalf or wants to persuade his group that it is worth spending some time in the chamber doing so, I have no difficulty with that. As I indicated, there will be a piece of legislation later in this parliamentary session and I am sure that, during that legislative process, the member will take part in as many debates as he thinks appropriate.


Domestic Waste Recycling

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to encourage more recycling of domestic waste. (S5O-00862)

The Waste (Scotland) Regulations 2012 require separate collection of dry recyclable materials and food waste. As well as having introduced those regulations, we are taking a range of actions to support and encourage recycling. For example, between 2011 and 2015, funding of around £25 million was made available to councils to address the start-up costs of introducing food waste collections, and 1.95 million households—that is 80 per cent of households in Scotland—now have access to a food waste collection service, which is up from 300,000 in 2010.

In December 2015, we launched the household recycling charter to achieve more consistent local collections and improve the quantity and quality of recycling. That will make it easier for people to recycle the right things, and we have put in place advisory and financial support to help councils with that work. As at the end of January 2017, 25 out of the 32 councils had signed the charter.

I note the Scottish Government’s target for a maximum of 5 per cent of waste to be sent to landfill by 2025. In the Borders, we are a long way off the Government’s recycling targets: more than 61 per cent of domestic waste is sent to landfill, which is up from 53 per cent in 2011.

We all share the aspiration to increase recycling, but people in the Borders are being discouraged from doing so. The green bins for garden waste have been withdrawn, fewer than half of households have a food waste bin, major towns such as Jedburgh do not even have their own recycling centres and each household in the Borders has one bin for all domestic waste, whereas other council areas provide multiple bins.

Does the Scottish Government expect to get anywhere near its target with such an approach? Is it not time for a single, consistent, easy-to-use recycling collection system or for serious action to be taken to tackle recycling?

I note with interest the member’s implicit call for the Government to centralise all waste and recycling services, which are currently the responsibility of local authorities. I also congratulate him on what will no doubt be turned into a local press release, which may or may not have something to do with the current elections.

Scottish Borders Council has increased its recycling rate. Like many councils, it is dealing with significant challenges. However, we are absolutely on track to make the progress that we want and intend to make over the next number of years.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that disposable nappies contribute more to landfill in Scotland than any other single item and that 160 million are sent to landfill every year, at enormous cost to local authorities and the environment. What is the Government doing to increase the use of sustainable solutions such as reusable nappies?

The use of disposable nappies certainly creates some waste issues. However, I will be careful about what I say, because I am conscious that there will be considerable debate in many families about the matter. I hope that the member is able to indicate that, in his family, he would always have been the one to take care of issues such as nappy management.

There is an issue. We always encourage people to use reusable items where possible, whether they are nappies or anything else, and to deal with any consequential waste as responsibly as possible.

When does the Government intend to reach a conclusion on a deposit return system for plastic bottles? In the meantime, what work is being done on possible exemptions for rural shops and small retail businesses?

In a sense, the member’s question carries some of the answer in it. It is not as straightforward as people might imagine to impose a deposit return system, because particular issues need to be considered, which include the implications for small stores and the costs to smaller retailers. The interaction with local authority kerbside collection also needs to be considered, as well as the changes in customer behaviour when a deposit return scheme has been in place.

We have asked industry and retailers to evidence all the claims that have been made, and the matter is actively under consideration. We are carefully considering deposit return. Views have become relatively fluid over the past wee while, and it is clear that a number of companies and organisations are beginning to change their minds, but we need to be careful to avoid inadvertently creating difficulties for much smaller businesses. That is why we are taking time over the matter.


Impact of Bank and Post Office Closures

To ask the Scottish Government what the impact is on the rural economy of banking and post office closures in rural villages. (S5O-00868)

Bank branch closures, although they are commercial decisions, have an adverse impact on some local communities, as well as obviously affecting employees. There remains a need for face-to-face provision of banking, as digital access will not be available to or suitable for everyone. Banks must consider branch closures only as a last resort.

The Scottish Government continues to support Scotland’s post office network, with more than two thirds of post offices benefiting from 100 per cent rates relief, funded by the Scottish Government.

I wish to raise with the cabinet secretary the specific example of Gullane, which is a community that has had no post office since the previous postmaster gave up, and which is now to lose its only bank, thanks to Bank of Scotland closures—the Bank of Scotland that wrote blithely to local customers suggesting that they bank instead at the local post office. Will the cabinet secretary please contact the Bank of Scotland and Post Office Ltd to raise with them the case of Gullane specifically and directly?

Iain Gray raises a valid point. We have made it clear in a great many debates, as he knows, that closure should be considered only as a last resort, and that there should be the most detailed consideration of the views of local communities and individuals.

Paul Wheelhouse, who is sitting here with me, is primarily dealing with the matter, which is in his portfolio. I am sure that he heard what Mr Gray had to say. I read in preparation for this question that he stressed in a recent debate in March that he has regular dialogue with representatives of the retail banks—as do I. We will continue to use those opportunities to re-emphasise our approach, which I have described.

Lastly, if Iain Gray wishes to write to Mr Wheelhouse and to me, I am sure that we will give the matter further consideration, because it is serious.

The cabinet secretary may be aware that Moray has been hit disproportionately by the decision by the major banks in Scotland to withdraw from Scotland’s high streets. Indeed, in the whole of Speyside, in my constituency, there will shortly not be one high street bank left. Many constituents—in particular, more vulnerable customers—have contacted me to say that they will be unable to access banking services. Will the cabinet secretary speak first and foremost to his United Kingdom colleagues who regulate the banking sector as well as post offices, and will he speak directly to the banks to ensure that they deliver a minimum standard of banking services in our rural communities and that they understand the very serious impact that their withdrawing high street banks is having on the more vulnerable members of our society?

Mr Lochhead raises a very important point that is particularly relevant for constituencies such as Moray, which he represents. Many other rural constituencies have many towns that are, increasingly, experiencing loss of access to banks and post offices. It is a very serious matter.

I mentioned that the Scottish Government has provided rates relief to small businesses: I confirm that two thirds of all post offices receive business rates relief and that we have increased the threshold under which businesses are entitled to total relief from £10,000 to £15,000. I mention that because it is the most concrete help that is provided to small businesses by any Government on these islands, and it really helps to avoid even more losses.

Richard Lochhead made the point that the UK Government is responsible for banking, as it is a reserved matter. It is right that all members, whatever their political persuasion, encourage the UK Government to consider an approach along the lines that Mr Lochhead and other members from all parts of the chamber have suggested.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that the Royal Bank of Scotland intends to close its branches in Prestwick and Troon. It proposes that post offices provide alternative services and so does not intend to provide mobile banking services in Prestwick and Troon, although it provides them elsewhere in rural communities that are served by post offices. Can the cabinet secretary therefore encourage RBS to provide mobile banking services in Prestwick and Troon as well as in other communities in South Ayrshire, given that its action will leave open only one RBS branch in my constituency?

John Scott has raised a very fair point. If he wishes to write to me with the details, I will consider the matter further, with joint working and co-operation with Paul Wheelhouse.

Not everyone accesses digital banking services. People who are over a certain age perhaps choose not to use the internet at all because they prefer not to do so, or they may have difficulty in adapting to it. I mean no disrespect to anybody—it is something of which we are all aware. In fact, I should say that those people are not much older than I am.

There are also people who cannot access internet banking; there is a responsibility on the retail banks to take account of that. I would be happy to consider adopting the approach that John Scott suggested. In conclusion, I say that I hope that the Royal Bank of Scotland is listening to these questions and answers, and that it takes heed of the fact that members from all parts of the chamber are making points on behalf of their constituents.


Common Agricultural Policy Payments

To ask the Scottish Government what reassurances it can give that, and by what date, all outstanding 2015 pillar 2 common agricultural policy payments will be completed in full. (S5O-00869)

As Alexander Stewart will probably be aware, there is no payment window for pillar 2 payments. We have paid more than 97 per cent of all rural priorities claims for 2015, along with 93 per cent of payments under the land managers options scheme, and we have processed 85 per cent of less favoured areas support scheme 2015 claims. Furthermore, for pillar 1, we completed 99.9 per cent of payments by the European Union deadline of 15 October.

I am very aware of, and take very seriously, the potential impact of continued delays in completing payments to farmers and crofters. I regret the situation, but I assure Alexander Stewart that everyone in the Scottish Government and in CGI—our information technology development partner—is striving hard to deliver the complex IT functionality and the other steps that are necessary to complete LFASS and other 2015 pillar 2 payments as soon as possible.

The Scottish Government’s latest update to the Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee showed that 1,700 LFASS 2015 payments are outstanding, that the delays continue to cause financial hardship, and that further IT functionality is required in order to make the payments. When will the Scottish Government’s CAP IT system be fit for purpose for those long-overdue payments?

We have processed 9,667 LFASS claims worth £52.9 million, and we have approximately 1,700 more payments to make. However, we have also made £54 million of national loans available to address the known challenges in the system. The outstanding payments therefore amount to £3 million out of more than £60 million. I am sure that Alexander Stewart did not deliberately omit to mention the fact that there has been a substantial loan payments system, and that those who are entitled to payments have, in most cases, received a loan payment.

In addition, as I am sure Alexander Stewart is aware, I recently announced that there will be payments made by or around the end of May in respect of 2016 LFASS payments precisely because LFASS recipients tend, by and large, to be hill farmers and are therefore very dependent on the payments. The matter is very serious: I take it thus, and we are working extremely hard to resolve the IT difficulties that we have had.

Can the cabinet secretary inform Parliament whether the Scottish Government has received assurances about the future of agricultural payments after the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, and assurances that the powers over those fully devolved issues will return to the Scottish Parliament and not to Westminster?

I am relieved that we have received assurances that payments will be made up to Brexit but, as per the UK Government’s plans, it is not very far away—two years. We have asked for but have received no response to the question about what will happen after Brexit, which will—if the UK Government’s plans go ahead—occur in just two years, in April 2019. I have asked the question on several occasions and have suggested that a transitional arrangement should be made over a period of, say, five years, to allow clarity and certainty for people in the rural economy. I have, as yet, received no answer. I plan to meet my UK counterparts in London tomorrow, and Angus MacDonald can be assured that I will ask the questions again. I hope that, this time, there will be clear answers.


Rail Service Improvements (Central Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to improve rail services in Central Scotland. (S5O-00870)

Services in Central Scotland will enjoy new faster electric and high-speed trains as well as improved journey times and frequencies across most routes. New stations have been and will be delivered and there have been station improvements in other places.

Investment in Scotland’s railways is of course a national priority for the Government. That is why we have committed to a £5 billion programme of railway investment in control period 5, which runs to 2019, including a transformative programme of £3 billion of capital investment in rail infrastructure. Those levels of financial support I hope show members the Scottish Government’s commitment to invest in rail infrastructure and services to better connect communities, to transport freight and to help us to achieve sustainable economic growth and growth in jobs, not just in Central Scotland but, I hope, across the country.

Recent figures from Transport Scotland revealed that trains in East Kilbride are among the worst in the country. Three of the top 10 most overcrowded trains in the past year were found on the East Kilbride to Glasgow line, with occupancy on one train journey at a huge 135 per cent of capacity. Those revelations strengthen the case for investing in and upgrading the East Kilbride line, proposals for which have already been put on the table by Network Rail. Will the minister agree to Labour’s call for the enhancement and electrification of the East Kilbride line to be fully supported and funded by the Scottish Government?

Monica Lennon is absolutely right that overcrowding is an issue on railways across the United Kingdom. In fact, overcrowding is seen on railways across Europe and beyond. Certainly, however, we have an issue here in Scotland that we are keen to tackle. On overcrowding, it is worth saying that, because of the popularity of our railways, we have added 140 carriages since 2007, and we will add 200 more carriages over the next 30 months. That is 50 per cent more carriages. There is £475 million going into refurbished and new rolling stock, which will increase seating capacity by 23 per cent.

Notwithstanding all that, on the issues around East Kilbride, which my colleague Linda Fabiani has raised with me on many occasions, I have said that there will be an opportunity when we move into control period 6 in 2019. It will be for local authorities, political parties and regional transport partnerships—in this case, Strathclyde partnership for transport—to put forward proposals for infrastructure improvements, such as the electrification of certain lines, for control period 6. It is worth saying that we have many projects under way in the current control period, such as our flagship Edinburgh to Glasgow improvement programme. No proposals are off the table, and I am happy to examine and explore the issues with Labour’s transport spokespeople. There is an opportunity for the next control period, which is control period 6.

What is the minister’s reaction to the announcement last week that ScotRail has achieved a sixth consecutive period of year-on-year train service performance improvement and is now on a par with the best operators across Europe?

I am delighted about ScotRail’s improvement. When performance was not at the levels that it should be at, Opposition members were coming to the chamber every day and every week, rightly asking why it was not. It is a shame that we have heard barely anything from those members to congratulate the 7,500 hard-working railway staff who have helped to achieve that improved performance over the past six months.

It is important to say that there is still work to be done. The performance level is sitting today at about 97 per cent. That is an extraordinary level, and I thank all the railway staff for all their hard work. There is still work to do, and the performance improvement plan will stay until I am satisfied that performance and the moving annual average are at the levels that are set in the contract.


Animal Welfare (Use of Closed-circuit Television)

4. Gail Ross (Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to ensure that closed-circuit television is being installed in slaughterhouses to assist in animal welfare scrutiny. (S5O-00871)

The Scottish Government has already recommended the installation of CCTV as best practice in the monitoring of the welfare of animals at the time of killing. The Scottish Government does not consider that CCTV by itself prevents welfare failures or secures welfare compliance. We will continue to monitor animal welfare at the time of slaughter through the presence of Food Standards Scotland staff in all approved slaughterhouses, and we will consider whether there is a role for the Scottish Government to help industry to produce a set of good-practice protocols for the review, evaluation and use of CCTV.

Does the cabinet secretary share my concerns about the recent data released under freedom of information law by Food Standards Scotland, which lists 706 breaches of animal welfare regulations at Scotland-certified abattoirs, on certain farms and during transportation between 1 May 2015 and 31 January 2017? What actions is the Scottish Government taking to bring those involved to justice? Are there any plans to strengthen regulation and enforcement, to ensure that such horrible instances of animal cruelty do not happen again?

We take all animal welfare issues seriously, and Food Standards Scotland takes proportionate action in relation to breaches, which ranges from verbal advice, enforcement letters and welfare enforcement notices to investigations with a view to providing reports to the procurator fiscal.

It is fair to point out that the majority—almost 70 per cent—of the reported breaches did not take place in slaughterhouses but related to on-farm or transportation issues and were discovered by Food Standards Scotland officers when the animals arrived at the place of slaughter. It is also fair to point out that Scotland has high welfare standards at slaughter and high enforcement and regulatory standards. We should recognise that our abattoirs seek to comply with those high standards, and they should receive credit for that. From the meetings that I have had with them, I know that they are as concerned as everyone else with ensuring that the highest standards are observed.

There is no excuse to mistreat animals at slaughter or any other time. Does the cabinet secretary know how many slaughterhouses in the north-east are equipped with CCTV cameras?

An estimated 95 per cent—the overwhelming majority—of animals are slaughtered in plants where CCTV has already been installed voluntarily. I do not have a breakdown of the provision in the north-east, but it is apparent that most abattoirs have CCTV in place.

Although CCTV films what happens, it is not CCTV itself but the good practice that is employed by the managers, the workforce, the Food Standards Scotland officers and veterinary practitioners, who all play a collective role as a team, that ensures that we in Scotland continue to observe the highest animal welfare standards.


Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband Programme

To ask the Scottish Government for what reason the digital Scotland superfast broadband programme has replaced old copper wire networks in some rural areas but not in others. (S5O-00872)

The digital Scotland superfast broadband programme is currently deploying fibre broadband networks across the country, in many cases replacing copper networks. Fibre is being deployed in two ways: fibre to the cabinet, which replaces part of the copper network, and fibre to the premise, which replaces all of the copper network. Fibre to the cabinet has been deployed most widely through the digital Scotland superfast broadband programme because a high number of premises can be connected to fibre infrastructure via a single cabinet. It is a more cost-effective solution, as it utilises part of the existing copper network.

Fibre to the cabinet may indeed be more cost effective, but the cabinet secretary will be aware that it is not effective in achieving its purpose. A recent survey in Kintore, which he may be aware of, found that broadband speeds outwith the town centre were up to 140 times slower than those within a mile of the exchange, and residents of New Leeds in Buchan also have no access to superfast broadband, for the same reason of being too far from the exchange and being reliant on old copper-wire networks. Given the clear relationship between what the cabinet secretary has said is a cost-saving measure and the impact on homes and businesses, what does he intend to do to address that digital disadvantage in so many rural communities?

Please answer as briefly as possible.

In the north-east of Scotland, 114,727 premises are capable of accessing fibre broadband, and 99,321 are capable of receiving superfast speeds. That has taken place because of the investment by the Scottish Government of around £400 million despite the fact that, under schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998, responsibility for providing internet and mobile rests with the UK Government. We were not prepared to wait for the time when the UK Government would get around to a programme—we acted. Furthermore, by the end of this session of the Scottish Parliament in 2021, our further programme R100, which is directed towards the individuals Lewis Macdonald referred to, aims to provide universal access to all businesses and premises in Scotland.