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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, February 20, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 20 February 2020

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Climate Change and Agriculture, Portfolio Question Time, Business Motion, Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill: Stage 3, Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill, Terrorist Offenders (Restriction of Early Release) Bill, Business Motion, Decision Time


General Question Time

Universal Credit

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the United Kingdom Government’s announcement that universal credit roll-out will be delayed until 2024. (S5O-04145)

The Scottish Government is deeply concerned by the UK Government’s decision to delay the managed migration of people on to universal credit until 2024. The latest delay will mean even more people having to move to universal credit when they have a change in circumstance and even fewer having a managed move that provides transitional protection so that they are not made worse off.

It is the second time that this has happened. Instead of penalising people, the Department for Work and Pensions should use the delay to fix the flaws in the discredited system, including scrapping the two-child cap and the abhorrent rape clause, ending the debt and poverty-inducing five-week wait and fixing work allowances for people in Scotland.

Delaying universal credit roll-out until 2024 means that more people will lose out in financial protection, saving the UK Government money at the expense of those who really need it. Universal credit has already inflicted hardship and increased food bank use on my constituency. Does the minister agree that the DWP must start providing transitional payments to anyone moving to universal credit, no matter whether they are part of natural or managed migration?

Yes, I do. The UK Government should take responsibility for the shambles that is universal credit, which is now seven years behind schedule. It is absolutely critical that the Department for Work and Pensions immediately starts making those payments for everyone moving to universal credit in order to protect people’s incomes and prevent even more hardship and poverty. As Rona Mackay pointed out, it says it all that the UK Government states that it will save money through the method that it uses—treating people in that way is not saving their lives and livelihoods.

Employment and Economic Growth

To ask the Scottish Government what action it will take to improve employment levels and economic growth. (S5O-04146)

Our employability service, fair start Scotland, is delivering personalised support to 16,130 people, helping them towards and into work, with 4,126 participants starting a job since the service’s launch in April 2018. Following the publication of “No One Left Behind: Next Steps for the Integration and Alignment of Employability Support in Scotland”, we are working with local government and the third and private sectors to develop an employability system that builds on existing services, improves alignment and integration with other support and is designed and delivered around the needs of those using services.

In 2010, the Scottish Government boasted that it could create nearly 30,000 jobs in offshore wind energy by 2020. Today’s Daily Record reports that the actual number of such jobs is closer to 1,700. We agree that the United Kingdom Government needs to reform the subsidy mechanisms to demand greater UK content in supply chains, but can the minister outline what capital investment the Scottish Government has made to ensure that our fabrication facilities are fit to win work that is being sent to the likes of Indonesia and China? Is the Scottish Government’s proposed cut to the workforce skills budget a sign that it is giving up on talk of tens of thousands of jobs?

No, it certainly is not, but I will come to that latter point in a moment. When this Government was needed, we stepped up to the plate. When Burntisland Fabrications was in trouble, we were there—we intervened and we helped save that yard—and of course, we are undertaking work to support the Scottish supply chain.

In answer to Mr Bibby’s latter point, I urge him to cast his eyes a bit more widely across the budget, because he is looking at things in isolation. He failed to mention that our fair start funding is up in the coming year. He also failed to mention that the skills and training budget lines are up and that employability funding and the skills budget are up. We are also maintaining the education maintenance allowance. He also forgot to mention that there will be over £22 million extra for higher education in the coming year and that the further education budget is increasing by over £21 million this year; and he singularly failed to mention our new parental employment support fund of £7 million.

We are therefore investing in our workforce. I would have thought that that was something that Mr Bibby would welcome.

Innovative approaches to employment support are always essential if we are to reach the people who are the furthest away from the labour market. Can the minister provide information on any new ways in which the Scottish Government is looking to support people into work?

I have just mentioned our parental employment support fund, which is a new approach to supporting a particularly vulnerable cohort of the population to get into employment, to tackle child poverty, which Aileen Campbell is also working on; this is a cross-Government approach.

On the wider approach, we are building on fair start Scotland, which is designed around the individual and takes a person-centred approach. The work that we are taking forward in tandem with local government, through the no one left behind agenda, to better align the range of employability support with other public services, such as housing, social work, the criminal justice system and health, is all designed towards that end. This Government is taking forward that work, which will make a difference to the people of Scotland.

Fishing and Farming

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the United Kingdom Government’s proposed legislation on fishing and farming and the impact of this on Scotland. (S5O-04147)

I welcome the fact that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has chosen to work with us on the Fisheries Bill. The revised version is an improvement on the original draft and largely recognises that fisheries is a devolved matter, although we still have some significant concerns in relation to the setting of fishing opportunities and failure to deal with the seafish levy.

We have serious concerns that the United Kingdom Government’s Agriculture Bill has provisions that impose unwanted policies and rules in areas of devolved competency and that the bill makes no commitment to preventing post-Brexit trade deals from allowing the import of food that is produced to a lower standard than the standards that are legislated for, for Scottish farmers.

Across both bills, I will fight to ensure that the UK Government provides adequate funding for all sectors and I will continue to resist any attempts by the UK Government to grab key powers from this Parliament that impact on fishing, farming and food production.

That is relatively good news on fishing, but on farming, it is abysmal news, building on yesterday’s announcement that we will be denied access to labour from other countries, essentially. Can the cabinet secretary assure us that he will make clear this entire Parliament’s view that we will brook no removal of powers related to farming and that farmers across Scotland have expressed grave concern about UK policies, and will he continue to champion the cause of farming in Scotland with those at Westminster who wish to see it diminished?

Yes, I will; yes, I have; and yes, we did so on Monday of this week at the interministerial group meeting, part of which took place in Northern Ireland, with the welcome return of the Administration there. We will take every opportunity to protect the devolved competence and the powers of this Parliament, which—as Mr Stevenson says—are under attack from the Westminster Government, which is surely unacceptable to all members of this Parliament.

NHS Lothian (Waiting Times)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reported extended waiting times for general colorectal surgery in NHS Lothian. (S5O-04148)

Under the waiting times improvement plan, we have made an additional £16.5 million available to NHS Lothian in this financial year.

Since the summer of 2019, NHS Lothian has progressed a programme of work to improve waiting times within the colorectal department, including improving patient pathways, recruiting additional staff and running additional evening and weekly clinics to address the long waits.

In July 2018, my constituent Margaret Simson was injured in the Western general hospital when a colonoscopy ruptured her bowel. She had to undergo emergency surgery; she had part of her bowel removed and was fitted with a stoma bag. She was placed on a waiting list to have corrective surgery that would have seen the bowel repaired and the stoma removed. She was sent home with pre-op medication to take in advance of the planned operation.

In March last year, she received a letter apologising for the fact that she had not been seen within the 12-week waiting time guarantee period. At Christmas, she had to throw out the pre-op medication because it had passed its use-by date. She is still waiting. Margaret’s life has been on hold. Given that this is an injury caused by the national health service, does the cabinet secretary believe that nearly two years is an acceptable time for Margaret to wait for the NHS to make things right?

I am grateful to Mr Cole-Hamilton for his supplementary question on the specifics of the case that he is dealing with. No—I do not think that any wait that is longer than is necessary is a sufficient response from the board. If Mr Cole-Hamilton would care to give me the details of the particular case that he is talking about, I will be happy to look at it further and see if NHS Lothian can move more swiftly to deal with Ms Simson’s particular situation.

Teachers’ Pay

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will fully fund the recent teachers’ pay settlement to be delivered by councils in 2020-21. (S5O-04149)

The Scottish Government’s agreed contribution to the costs of the teachers’ pay deal for 2020-21 is fully funded. Local authorities will receive a funding package of £11.3 billion in 2020-21 through the local government finance settlement, and included in that is an additional £156 million for the teachers’ pay deal.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer, but I was contacted by my councillors in East Ayrshire, who tell me that the settlement that they have received from the Scottish Government means that they will have to cut their discretionary budget by £2 million to fund the Scottish Government’s extra commitments, such as the teachers’ pay settlement. The Scottish Government has left East Ayrshire Council and other councils with a bill to pay for its commitments. Does the cabinet secretary believe that that is a fair burden to lay at the feet of our councils?

Local government has received a cash increase of £494 million in budget from the Scottish Government, which relates to a number of the issues that Mr Whittle has raised. Of course, local authorities are free to increase the council tax, if they judge that to be appropriate, to meet some of those costs. I remind Mr Whittle that, last year, a number of local authorities did not increase the council tax by the maximum amount that they were enabled to increase it by, which must demonstrate that the Government had fully funded local authority settlements.

We are, of course, involved in a budget process. I also remind Mr Whittle that it is a bit rich for the Conservatives to raise any issue with me about local government funding when the useless Conservative Government that he supports in London has delivered austerity on the people of Scotland for the past 10 years.

Edinburgh Cancer Centre

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had regarding the future rebuild of the Edinburgh cancer centre. (S5O-04150)

NHS Lothian continues to engage with both the cancer policy team and the capital planning team in the Scottish Government as NHS Lothian develops its initial agreement for the Edinburgh cancer centre. There was a site visit before Christmas to see the plans for the regional centre, but also to look at the enhancement work that is under way on the current site, which includes the haematology unit, a new linear accelerator, refurbishment of the cancer assessment unit, refurbishment of in-patient wards and development in ward 1. The Scottish Government plans to invest £20 million to support the provision of cancer services in a safe environment until the new Edinburgh cancer centre is ready.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer. Two years ago, I was told that the new cancer centre would be built in 2025, but the health board is now telling me that it is likely to be a decade before we see a new cancer centre. Can the cabinet secretary confirm whether patients across the south-east Scotland cancer region will have to wait five years or 10 years for a new cancer centre?

That would actually be a very appropriate question for NHS Lothian, which is the body that is charged with this. Mr Briggs really needs to understand how the health service works. He cannot have it both ways. As he knows, NHS Lothian is at level 4 on the performance framework—something that he complains about. We are busy undertaking substantive work to ensure that it has appropriate leadership—also something that he complains about.

NHS Lothian is at stage 1 of its business case, which will come in to the Scottish Government. We will turn it round quickly, provided that it is satisfactory, and NHS Lothian will then move to the outline business case. As the member knows, outline business cases can take another two years to go through the process.

That is where we are. The timetable is driven by NHS Lothian and not by this Government. Our commitment is clear. We are ready to support that and we are supporting the work that needs to be done in the interim in the existing cancer services to ensure that they are upgraded. If Mr Briggs has further ideas and suggestions to make about how I can act to improve the performance of NHS Lothian, I am very happy to hear them.


To ask the Scottish Government what treatment programmes are available to help people addicted to gambling. (S5O-04151)

In common with other compulsive and addictive behaviours, problem gambling is addressed as part of wider health issues. Anyone who believes that gambling is affecting their health, or that of a loved one, should consult their general practitioner in the first instance. Out-of-hours advice and support can be obtained from NHS24 or from Breathing Space. The NHSinform website also contains advice and signposting information.

When a person with addictive or compulsive behaviours is referred to a service for treatment, it may not be a specialist gambling addiction programme. The clinical team will work with that person, to identify the issues or problems that are important to support their recovery, and to provide evidenced-based treatment.

My understanding is that no Scottish health board has introduced a pre-planned treatment programme for gambling, and that there is in Scotland no specialist clinic to treat people with that problem. Does the minister think that there is any need for such a facility?

We will continue to consider evidence on what works best to address the issue of gambling harms in Scotland. That includes work by the Scottish Public Health Network to develop and implement a whole population approach to the prevention and reduction of gambling harms. That is currently being progressed with partners including NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, Glasgow City Council, and the Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland. People who have lived experience of gambling harms will be closely involved in co-producing a co-ordinated framework to underpin that work. The learning from the project will help to inform whole system approaches to addressing gambling harms in Scotland.

Brexit (Salmon Industry)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to support the salmon industry following Brexit. (S5O-04152)

Our vital farmed salmon sector is a global success story, generating £540 million in gross value added, and offering over 10,000 jobs, many of which are highly skilled and well paid, in some of our most remote communities.

I will continue to support the salmon industry following Brexit, but the United Kingdom Government’s lack of clarity on key issues such as market access and certification threatens that vital sector, and damages investor confidence. Extra costs, risks and bureaucracy directly result from the UK Government’s obduracy. It must heed the warning from the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation, which has highlighted the huge unnecessary burdens that will result from the Brexit deal being pursued.

Last week, the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation warned that, without a close relationship and tariff-free trade with the European Union, the industry could see £9 million lost in costs and delays to the departure of fresh fish. Does the cabinet secretary agree that trade barriers with our biggest trading partner will damage the sector and businesses, and put jobs at risk in the Highlands and Islands?

Yes, I very much agree with the way that David Stewart has set out the position.

The extra costs would result from the imposition of export health certificates and other bureaucracy. Let us be clear: at the moment, there is no need for them at all; there would be no need for them if the UK Government agreed dynamic alignment with the EU. It could remove the need for them; however, it has refused.

On Monday, I asked George Eustice whether the UK Government would pick up the tab for the extra £9 million, or perhaps more, that the trade body has estimated. Mr Eustice said that that would be a business cost. Business must pay that cost, which results directly from the policies pursued by the UK Government. Here we have the first Boris Brexit bill, which the industry will have to pay directly because of the UK Government’s Brexit policies.

Scottish Local Authorities Remuneration Committee

To ask the Scottish Government when the Scottish local authorities remuneration committee last met. (S5O-04153)

The Scottish local authorities remuneration committee was established to advise Scottish ministers on the payment by local authorities of remuneration and allowances to, and the reimbursement of expenses incurred by, local authority councillors. I understand that the committee last met in February 2012 and that it was stood down in February 2013.

Since 2017, councillors’ pay is increased annually in line with the percentage increase in the median annual earnings of public sector workers in Scotland. Councillors’ pay will rise by 2.2 per cent from 1 April 2020.

As a former councillor, I am well aware of the hard work undertaken by the majority of councillors around the country. Clearly, not all councillors receive the special responsibility allowance to top up their basic salaries, and full-time councillors on the basic level can sometimes struggle financially. I understand that this is a difficult ask in the current financial climate and I am aware of the 2.2 per cent increase, but will the cabinet secretary undertake to consider re-establishing SLARC with a view to bringing councillors’ basic salary up to a level that is fit for purpose? That would make the prospect of serving their local communities post-2022 more rewarding and worthwhile, and be in line with the effort that they put into the job.

I absolutely recognise that councillors the length and breadth of the country work exceptionally hard and are dedicated to improving their communities. The Scottish Government believes that everyone deserves to be fairly paid. In terms of that fair work, we were delighted to lay amendments to increase the flexibility available to local authorities when granting councillors paid leave of absence, which is important when encouraging councillors to take parental leave and encouraging other people to stand for council.

As I said in my previous response, since 2017, councillors’ pay has increased annually in line with the percentage increase in the median annual earnings of public sector workers in Scotland. I am happy to meet Angus MacDonald if he wants to discuss the matter further, to outline some of the work that we are doing to support our councillors and councils.

That concludes general question time. Before we turn to First Minister’s question time, I am sure that members would like to join me in welcoming to our gallery Mr Wegger Strømmen, Ambassador of Norway to the United Kingdom. [Applause.]