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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 20 April 2022 [Draft]

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Ukraine (Displaced People), Cost of Living, Ferries, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Sexism in Football


Contents


Portfolio Question Time


Justice and Veterans

Good afternoon. The first item of business is portfolio question time, and the first portfolio is justice and veterans. If a member wishes to ask a supplementary question, they should press their request-to-speak button or enter R in the chat function during the relevant question. I call for succinct questions and answers to match.


Community Justice Interventions

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to support greater use of community justice interventions. (S6O-00958)

For nearly 15 years, this Government has delivered bold and effective justice reforms with a firm focus on early intervention, prevention and rehabilitation. We are currently consulting publicly on a revised national strategy for community justice, which seeks to build on progress to date and encourage a further shift towards greater use of community-based disposals.

Will the cabinet secretary share how the commitments in the Promise implementation plan and the recently launched consultation on policy proposals for the children’s care and justice bill support greater use of community justice among children and young people?

As the question implies, we owe it to Scotland’s young people, as well as to victims and communities, to promote an evidence-led, progressive and continually improving approach. Both the Promise implementation plan and the consultation on the children’s care and justice bill, which will be the responsibility of Clare Haughey, demonstrate our determination to support children who come into conflict with the law through age-appropriate systems and services.

Our Promise implementation plan makes clear that we will end the placement of 16 and 17-year-olds in young offenders institutions without further delay. We are committed to funding care-based alternatives to custody and we are consulting on new legislation. Our proposals for the children’s care and justice bill include raising the maximum age of referral to the principal reporter to ensure that when a child requires the support and intervention of formal systems, age-appropriate support is available through the children’s hearings system.

We also intend to enhance the offer to victims and ensure appropriate protection, support and information. Taken together, those actions build on the clear synergies between our youth justice vision, which was published in June 2021, and the justice vision that was published in February. We look forward to expanding the successful whole-system approach and focusing on intensive residential and community alternatives across Scotland.

Prison is often more appropriate than community service for some criminals, but sheriffs’ hands are being tied. Retired sheriff Douglas Cusine described the “frustrating inadequacy” of Scottish National Party sentencing policies, which he says will be weakened further with plans to automatically release some prisoners even earlier. On occasion, he has passed community service orders when he thought that prison was necessary. Will Keith Brown back our plans to end automatic early release so that criminals can be jailed when a judge deems it appropriate?

Criminals can be jailed when a judge deems it appropriate. In addition to attacking the independent Lord Advocate, the independent Parole Board for Scotland and the independent police service, the Tories are now attacking the Scottish Sentencing Council. It is quite clear that there is a broad-based attack on the justice system as a whole in Scotland, perhaps prompted by the headlines that we have seen down south, which say that the justice system in the rest of the United Kingdom is in complete free-fall. That might be the motivation, but if Russell Findlay looks at the figures, he will see that community disposals are far more effective in reducing reoffending.

Surely all of us, including victims, want to see a reduction in crime, and the most effective way to achieve that is to use community-based disposals where we can, and we will continue to do that.


Veterans (Health and Wellbeing)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the Scottish Veterans Commissioner’s most recent report on the health and wellbeing of veterans. (S6O-00959)

I have written to the commissioner thanking him for advance sight of the report on veterans’ health and wellbeing. Over the coming weeks, we will consider carefully its recommendations. In due course, I will write to the commissioner again, although it will be the new commissioner at that point, to provide a more detailed response, and our action plan for taking forward the recommendations will be included in that response.

I again take the opportunity to thank Charlie Wallace for all his hard work and dedication to the veterans community, and I wish him all the best for the future.

I have been in contact with Poppyscotland, which, once again, highlighted the importance of veterans’ mental health. It mentioned the Scottish Veterans Commissioner’s report, which states that mental health is the most common “unmet need” that has caused frustration among veterans.

Last November, the Scottish Veterans Care Network published its “Veterans Mental Health and Wellbeing Action Plan”. However, the Scottish Government has yet to provide a timeline for the delivery of its recommendations. Can the cabinet secretary provide the timeline today, please?

We are establishing a veteran-led action plan implementation board, which will be led by Charles Winstanley. I am not sure whether that information was in the public domain. The first meeting of the board is scheduled for 19 May.

In the meantime, we continue to fund Combat Stress and Veterans First Point, which will allow existing services to continue over the next few years as a Scotland-wide implementation plan is developed. Support for the board is currently being reviewed by the Minister for Mental Wellbeing and Social Care.

In addition, we have commissioned See Me Scotland to run a veterans anti-stigma campaign this year. Veterans Scotland and other third sector partners will contribute to the work to ensure that the experience of veterans can help to shape and influence the campaign.

Given Sandesh Gulhane’s question, it would be useful if he were able to support the Scottish Government’s call for the United Kingdom Government to pay some money towards the establishment of the commissioner’s office. It has done so in Wales, so I do not know what the logic is for the Tory UK Government to say that it will not fund veterans’ activity or the commissioner in Scotland. If he is willing to say that he will support that, that would be most welcome.

How will the £2 million funding that was announced last month for services that provide mental health support to armed forces veterans be put to use?

The Government is committed to ensuring that veterans have access to the right support and help when they need it. The Government works with a wide range of organisations and provides funding for the provision of mental health services for veterans. I mentioned in my previous answer that we have continued to fund Combat Stress by providing £1.4 million to it this year. As the member knows, it provides a range of specialist and community-based services for veterans who are resident in Scotland.

We, along with six health boards, continue to provide joint funding for the Veterans First Point Network, which will offer a one-stop shop for veterans, no matter what their need is. The future funding of veterans mental health services will be determined by the implementation of the “Veterans Mental Health and Wellbeing Action Plan”, which was published late last year.


Police Officers (Mental Health Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what work it and Police Scotland have undertaken to ensure that police officers have access to additional trained mental health workers. (S6O-00960)

Action 15 of the mental health strategy commits to fund 800 additional mental health workers in key settings. As at 1 January 2022, we have achieved 95 per cent of that target. That includes more than 26 whole-time equivalent posts to support those held in police station custody suites.

Police officers and staff can access mental health support, including a 24/7 employee assistance programme—EAP—which offers professional support via a team of trained wellbeing and counselling practitioners. Also, the trauma risk management—TRiM—process supports officers and staff affected by potentially traumatic incidents at work.

A survey found that 29 per cent of officers were experiencing moderate burn-out, a further 16 per cent endured high levels of burn-out and one third of officers went to work when they were mentally unwell.

As the minister has just mentioned, Police Scotland has an employee assistance programme that aims to help officers with their mental health. If officers need more support than the six one-hour sessions on offer, they are told that there is nothing more for them. Why have the worst-affected officers been left without the support that they deserve?

That is the direct responsibility of Police Scotland, although, as I am sure that Willie Rennie would say, it is the Government’s responsibility to help to fund such things.

Police Scotland works with a range of local and national service providers to provide care and assistance to those in distress. We fund a wide range of mental health services that can be accessed by first responders.

I mentioned the £2.1 million fund to expand the NHS 24 mental health hub, which will be available to the public 24/7, and the funding of £1 million to roll out the distress brief intervention programme on a national basis. It is also worth saying that there are additional supports for officers, which can take on further assistance—I mentioned EAP and the TRiM process.

Beyond that, it is always open to officers to speak to those who are designated within the force in their area about issues that they have. Those can include not just issues with mental and physical health and wellbeing, but all sorts of other issues that might cause stress, such as those related to money or traumatic incidents that officers have had to endure. We will continue to fund those services for police officers. At the same time, of course, we have more police officers than virtually anywhere else in the United Kingdom and those officers are paid substantially more than anywhere else in the UK.


Crime (Victims and Survivors Services)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it is making available to specialist services for victims and survivors of crime. (S6O-00961)

Our victim-centred approach fund is providing £48 million to 23 organisations across Scotland over the period 2022 to 2025. That will fund specialist services for people who are bereaved by crime. It will extend support and assistance to victims of human trafficking. It also includes £18.5 million for specialist advocacy support for survivors of gender-based violence.

We are also providing £38 million to more than 120 projects through delivery of the equally safe fund to tackle violence against women and girls and to support front-line services that maximise their safety and wellbeing.

I think that that underlines our commitment to victims and survivors, which is a key priority in our recently published strategy for Scotland’s justice sector.

I know that many valuable organisations are receiving funding, and I am sure that it will provide essential support to many victims of crime. However, in speaking with organisations and in my own personal dealings with constituents, it has been highlighted to me that there is concern about support for and stigma among people who are victims of facial disfigurement and facial scarring. Can the cabinet secretary provide any information or assurance on how that funding could be used for those victims?

I am happy to do so, but I would say to Natalie Don that she might be interested in, or already aware of, the fact that, in Baroness Helena Kennedy’s recent report on misogyny, she has recommended action that can be taken in relation to people who purposely disfigure others, and women in particular.

On this important issue, in recognising the profound impact that arises both where someone receives a facial injury as a result of crime and where those with facial disfigurements are very unfortunately on the receiving end of abuse, we would expect that funded organisations will be able to provide practical and emotional support but also that they will refer to more specialist support, including through health services, where that is available. We will continue to work with funded organisations as a community of interest to ensure that those issues are recognised. We would welcome any specific suggestions from Natalie Don as to how that might be done most effectively, including on how we might build a better understanding and evidence base around those concerns.

Victims tell us that where the system is currently letting them down is in the horrifying scenario in which they bump into an offender in their community after the offender’s release from prison. It is a fact that far too few victims have been notified of the release of an offender. Is the cabinet secretary willing to address that by supporting two principles in my proposed victims bill? The first is to ensure that more victims are notified about the release of prisoners. The second is to further empower victims by enabling them to request exclusion zones around their communities to ensure that they are not further traumatised by simply bumping into someone in a supermarket.

I think that Jamie Greene has made those suggestions before, and I do not want to dismiss them out of hand. I am happy to consider them and to look in detail at Jamie Greene’s victims bill when it is introduced.

I think that we have to increase the level of notifications and make sure that notification is being consistently applied. I am happy to concede that point, and we are doing things now that will address that. It is also true in relation to other aspects that Jamie Greene has raised in the past, such as notifications of Parole Board for Scotland hearings. I am happy to take on board those points and to continue those discussions. Notification is taking place, but we should make sure that it is being done more comprehensively. I am happy to have that discussion.

Some victims of sexual assault have said that they feel like criminals in the trial process. I welcome the commitment in “The Vision for Justice” to improve communication with complainers through having a single trauma-informed source of contact. Can the cabinet secretary confirm that that will be treated with some urgency by the Scottish Government? Would he also consider the inclusion of some legal representation in that process? One thing that concerns me is that a person needs to have an understanding of the legal system when they talk to victims and complainers. Katy Clark and I have been proposing that measure.

Pauline McNeill makes a very important point about people’s ability to understand legal processes. We have had discussions in the chamber about the not proven verdict in which it has been conceded that judges are not even allowed to explain to a jury the difference between not proven and not guilty. If the people the system is meant to serve do not understand it—even if all the lawyers understand it—that is a major problem.

I have some sympathy with what Pauline McNeill says. There are some compelling arguments In relation to legal representation for complainers. There are also some concerns, including from the legal profession, but we are looking at that urgently and will publish our thoughts shortly. I am looking for additional suggestions. We are not ruling that out, but it is a complex area. I am happy to continue those discussions.

How will the sexual assault response co-ordination service—SARCS—help those who have experienced a sexual crime?

SARCS is a dedicated service provided by the national health service that can offer healthcare and support in the days after rape or sexual assault if a person is not ready to report that to the police or is unsure whether to do so. That is known as self-referral. Through the chief medical officer’s rape and sexual assault task force, we have invested £11.7 million in the four years up to 2022 to support implementation of the Forensic Medical Services (Victims of Sexual Offences) (Scotland) Act 2021 and to either enhance or create SARCS across Scotland.

We know from listening to survivors that access to self-referral is an important way of giving control back to people. It is also a fundamental aspect of the forensic medical examination facilities that we are looking to roll out. Those services may have a positive influence on a person’s decision to report a crime to police, while ensuring that they are also able to access health services following an incident.


Scottish Solicitors Bar Association (Court Appointments)

I remind members that I am a practising solicitor.

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the Scottish Solicitors Bar Association’s announcement that criminal solicitors will no longer take on court appointments for those accused, without lawyers, who are not allowed to represent themselves. (S6O-00962)

We are, of course, very concerned about the effect of the boycott on court users and on justice partners. Officials met the president and chief executive of the Law Society of Scotland on 13 April to discuss wider issues with legal aid fees, in light of the profession’s call for a further increase of 50 per cent to all legal aid fees. Although the budget for legal aid cases is demand led, the Scottish Government allocates a budget to the legal aid fund. In 2021-22, that was £138 million, so a 50 per cent uplift would add £69 million per year to the fund, which is unaffordable, given the current pressures on public finances.

I have been informed that the meeting was constructive and that it is hoped that the Law Society will report back on that soon. The Scottish Government will continue engaging with the Scottish Solicitors Bar Association and with the Law Society of Scotland on a package of proposals worth £3.8 million, which was offered to target specific areas of solemn and summary legal aid fees that had previously been raised by the legal profession as being the most pressing of the fee-related issues.

The action that the SSBA has been forced to take because of Scottish National Party Government neglect will lead to some of those who have been accused of sexual or domestic abuse being unrepresented. That means further trial delays for victims of the most shocking crimes, who may have to wait years for justice. Criminal defence lawyers tell me that, after 15 years of SNP government, the system is collapsing and there has been a fundamental failure to address shortages in their profession. When will the Scottish Government actually start listening to the profession in those meetings that the minister describes? When will it invest properly in legal aid to address the shortages and finally start tackling Scotland’s huge court backlog?

I do not accept the member’s characterisation of the situation that we are in. I say to him that I listen to the legal profession regularly and often and that I take great care in listening to all the arguments that are put forward and in trying to address the profession’s issues.

The member raised the issue of capacity in the system. I remind him that the Government recently invested £1 million in the traineeship fund. There was also a 5 per cent rise in legal aid fees in 2021 and a further 5 per cent rise in place from this month, representing a rise of more than £10 million in legal aid fees in the past year alone. The Government is listening to the profession and is continuing to invest.

I am concerned about the current situation and recent developments, and I assure members that my officials and I continue to discuss further fee reforms with representatives of the profession. However, the situation in Scotland, in relation to eligibility levels and the wide scope that remains, is different from the situation in England, where the Conservatives are in charge of the legal aid system. That system has been cut, cut and cut again, so there is a stark difference between the situation in Scotland and the one that Conservatives are presiding over in the rest of the country.


Cybercrime

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what measures it is taking in response to the reported growing threat of cybercrime. (S6O-00963)

We continue to work closely with Police Scotland and other cyber Scotland partners, including the National Cyber Security Centre, to protect the public and organisations from cyber threats.

In addition to the on-going activity that I highlighted to the chamber on 26 January, given the current heightened cyber risk, the Scottish Government is working with the National Cyber Security Centre to deliver a national cyber aware campaign that will seek to educate the public on the following two actions that everyone should take to keep themselves secure online.

First, the campaign will underline the point that someone’s email is where they keep their most personal information, including financial information, and everyone should ensure that they have a strong and separate password for their email address. The recommendation is that three random words should be used that cannot easily be guessed.

The second action is to enable two-step verification on people’s accounts so that criminals cannot access them, even if they have people’s passwords.

Further information on those measures and other relevant information is available on the cyberscotland.com portal. Victims of any crimes should phone Police Scotland on 101.

I am very grateful for the cabinet secretary’s response, particularly what he said about the response that individuals should take. Recent years have shown that our cyber infrastructure has been tested by cyberattacks, such as the attack on the Scottish Environment Protection Agency back in 2020. With the war in eastern Europe raging on, will the cabinet secretary say what steps have been taken to audit and improve Scotland’s cybersecurity and to protect the country from the possibility of Russian state-sponsored attacks or attacks from criminal organisations that are based in Russia, which might use the conflict as a reason for attacks? What discussions has the cabinet secretary had with his counterpart in the United Kingdom Government?

As Martin Whitfield would expect, there has been substantial discussion with the UK Government and very good collaboration.

We have invested an additional £1.5 million to set up the centre that I mentioned, and that is on top of the £1.16 million that we will invest in furthering the vision of the strategic framework for a cyber resilient Scotland. That investment is building on what is being done with the UK Government in collaboration. That work has to be done in collaboration, because many of the powers are reserved, so it makes sense to do that. There is a very effective relationship.

Martin Whitfield mentioned the attack on SEPA. There have also been attacks on public authorities in Ireland. That is a big concern for the Scottish Government, so we are ensuring that our public authorities are as secure as they can be. Much of the Government’s work in that regard is led by the Deputy First Minister. We take the matter extremely seriously, and I assure the member that there is a very effective relationship with the UK Government on the issue.


Water Safety Action Plan

To ask the Scottish Government how measures in the water safety action plan will support awareness of water safety among school pupils. (S6O-00964)

We are working with stakeholders to improve water safety on several fronts, including awareness. Some measures, such as work to improve signage, should benefit all age groups, but other measures focus specifically on children and young people. For example, coinciding with the National Fire Chiefs Council’s be water aware campaign, next week will see the launch of age and stage-appropriate water safety education lessons, which have been developed by Education Scotland and Water Safety Scotland. The resource, which is to be hosted on the Education Scotland national improvement hub, aims to support those between the ages of three and 18 to develop valuable life-saving knowledge, skills and understanding.

As people continue to take advantage of the great outdoors, what work has been undertaken on Scotland’s drowning prevention strategy to support safe open-water swimming?

The 2018 to 2026 drowning prevention strategy is a collaborative piece of work between Water Safety Scotland and its members, and the strategy is complemented by the stakeholder action plan that I launched last month. Both approaches are informed by an appreciation of the challenges of open-water swimming, which are very different from those of indoor pools because of the risks that are posed by currents, obstacles and, importantly, cold-water shock.

A key focus has to be on education and raising awareness, and both documents set out the work that is being done in that area. There is always value in practical experience, which is why one of the actions that the action plan identifies is for a sub-group of Water Safety Scotland to review the scope for developing expanded opportunities for young people to experience being safe in open water environments.

The Scottish Government has enhanced the funding that is available to RoSPA, which supports Water Safety Scotland, so that such work can be progressed as quickly as possible. In the meantime, relevant authorities are undertaking a range of site-specific work—for example, the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority’s water safety campaign will highlight the importance of wearing buoyancy aids or life jackets when participating in all water sports and focus on being visible in the water for open water swimmers.

I ask the Scottish Government for an update on the roll-out of the new water safety promotions, which target high-risk areas such as the lochs and reservoirs in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs national park in my constituency.

You may have dealt with some of those points already, minister, so please answer briefly.

The member raises a pertinent question given the tragedies that have occurred in that national park in recent years. The national park authority has developed a water safety policy and an accompanying risk assessment procedure, which formalises its approach on its owned and managed land. It has now upgraded and installed public rescue equipment and signage sites around Loch Lomond. I saw some of that myself when I was at Balloch for the launch of the action plan this past month.

The follow-up phase involves assessing and addressing issues on sites outwith the immediate Loch Lomond area.

I can squeeze in question 8 if I have brief questions and answers.


Prisoners (Assessment)

To ask the Scottish Government what role prisons have in the assessment of prisoners, including of their mental health, prior to their release. (S6O-00965)

People in custody are subject to a range of assessments while in prison, including talk to me and general wellbeing. The national health service provides access to appropriate mental health support and assessment, including more specialist care when that is appropriate. The Scottish Prison Service works collaboratively on pre-release arrangements with community partners, which facilitates access to people in its care to support multidisciplinary assessments, for example to access throughcare services.

In December 2019, Stuart Quinn was released from HMP Peterhead and, the next day, murdered devoted dad Alan Geddes in Aberdeen. I keep in touch with Alan’s sister Sandra, who strongly believes that her brother would still be alive today if Quinn’s previous convictions and psychopathic behaviour had been properly assessed. Lessons need to be learned to ensure that something like that never happens again. Will the cabinet secretary meet me and Alan’s family to discuss what more can be done to improve the system when a prisoner with a serious, unresolved mental health issue is released from prison?

First, I extend my condolences to Mr Geddes’s family. Of course, I am willing to meet the member and the family.

Such assessments are extremely difficult to do, but we should always continue to improve the system over time because, as in this case, people’s lives can depend on it.

That concludes portfolio questions on justice and veterans.


Finance and the Economy

The next portfolio is finance and the economy. Any member who wishes to request a supplementary question should press their request-to-speak button or enter R in the chat function during the relevant question.


Four-day Working Week

To ask the Scottish Government whether it has had any feedback from businesses that are making use of financial support to trial a four-day working week. (S6O-00966)

The pandemic has intensified interest in flexible working practices. We have seen the positives of adopting alternative working practices for a better work-life balance, and we recognise that the four-day week has many other benefits. Therefore, the Government has committed to the establishment of a £10 million fund to allow companies to pilot and explore the costs and benefits of moving to a shorter, four-day working week. We are committed to developing a comprehensive design for the pilot over the next year, supported by initial funding of £500,000.

Does the minister agree that United Kingdom employment policy is not fair for workers and that, rather than our relying on a callous Tory Government that cares little for those who bear the brunt of its outdated, race-to-the-bottom policies, which harm workers and deregulate an already skewed market, the pilot, which puts welfare and the mental health impact of a good work-life balance at its heart, demonstrates that Scotland could do better if we had powers over employment law?

Yes, I agree with everything that Emma Roddick said. The recent P&O scandal highlighted the fact that UK employment policy should be dramatically improved.

Having employment law powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament would allow us to protect and enhance workers’ rights by, for example, making the minimum wage a real living wage and tackling the inappropriate use of zero-hours contracts. We are doing what we can within our limited devolved powers, such as piloting a four-day working week, to bring the benefits that Emma Roddick has talked about.

It is clear from the trials that a four-day working week benefits workers and businesses, with a better work-life balance and greater productivity. The Scottish Government has the power to introduce a four-day week in the public sector, so can the minister confirm when the Government will expand four-day working week trials in the public sector and whether workers in non-unionised workplaces, such as many of those in the hospitality sector, will be covered by future trials?

As I said in my response to Emma Roddick, we agree that there could be many benefits from introducing a four-day working week, and that is why we are taking the ambitious and radical step of conducting, at a cost of £10 million, a pilot to look at the costs and benefits of a four-day working week in Scotland.

Indeed, several Scottish businesses have already chosen to switch to a four-day working week with no cut in pay, and officials from the Government have been meeting with and gathering information from those companies. Pilots are also under way elsewhere in the UK and in other European countries. We will get evidence from those pilots and take into account the points that the member has raised as we take forward the arrangements for the pilot.

Question 2 is from Gillian Mackay, who joins us remotely.


Construction Industry (Fair Work)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to implement the Fair Work Convention’s recommendations on building fair work into the construction industry. (S6O-00967)

The Scottish Government is supporting plans for a more sustainable, productive, innovative and diverse industry. We very much welcome the results of the Fair Work Convention’s construction industry inquiry, and we thank the convention and its construction industry inquiry group for the extensive research that they have undertaken.

The inquiry makes a range of recommendations about how to enhance fair work in the sector and remain competitive, making it more appealing to workers. Those recommendations are being considered by ministers.

The vision is for Scotland to be a leading fair work nation by 2025, and a place where fair work drives success, wellbeing and prosperity for people, businesses, organisations and society. We look forward to considering the report’s recommendations.

Given the extent of subcontracting in construction, has the Scottish Government considered mechanisms to go further in ensuring that fair work criteria are implemented throughout the construction supply chain and not just for those who are employed directly in public procurement?

Gillian Mackay has raised an important theme. We are considering further how subcontractors and contractors can be subject to fair work first criteria and so on.

The Scottish Government is already asking participants in tender submissions questions about fair work. The intention is that the delivery of any such commitments, including fair work criteria, will be monitored throughout the construction projects that are taking place in Scotland and in the forthcoming civil engineering framework. The Government will also be trialling a performance monitoring regime that will regularly review prompt payment and community benefits in all projects awarded under the Scottish Government’s civil engineering framework, which will be tendered later this year.

The minister will be aware of the convention’s observations that the existing labour force in the sector is ageing and around 85 per cent male, with low numbers of ethnic minorities and people with disabilities represented. If the sector is to be expected to support significant goals such as meeting housebuilding targets and net zero commitments, a new generation will have to be brought in. What is the minister doing, and what cross-Government work is being done, to promote the sector and build in the skills that are needed for the future?

My colleague, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, regularly meets the trade association bodies for the construction sector, as do other ministers. We also meet the training providers as well as those in the further and higher education sector to discuss some of the challenges facing the construction sector in Scotland. Like many other sectors here, it has had to cope with the fallout from Brexit as well as the pandemic. I assure the member, therefore, that right across Government, we are considering how to help not just the construction sector but many of our other sectors with recruitment and some of the labour challenges that they face.


Ferry Port Upgrades

To ask the Scottish Government how much it has allocated in its budget for port upgrades ahead of hulls 801 and 802 being completed. (S6O-00968)

The over £580 million of investment to support and improve Scotland’s ferry services that was announced as part of our wider five-year infrastructure investment plan in February 2021 includes £306 million for improvements to piers and harbours and incorporates the Ardrossan and Skye triangle infrastructure projects. The majority of that investment is driven by the replacement of life-expired infrastructure and supports the delivery of the two new vessels and future vessels, which will enable increased flexibility across the ferry network.

In order for the Glen Sannox to use Ardrossan, the port needs to be upgraded, but the process has been stuck for four years—even though a ministerial task force has been in existence for four years, the scheme has still not gone out to tender. That process will take six months, because the overall package of funding is yet to be agreed. Once work starts, it will take another two years. Why is the project still marooned?

The Ardrossan project has faced a number of challenges in the planning and design phase, notwithstanding the legal and commercial discussions between the statutory harbour authority, Peel Ports Group, and Transport Scotland, which continue. It is welcome that the project is now entering the tender stage, as was confirmed at the recent Ardrossan task force meeting on 23 February this year, and we remain committed to finding a solution at Ardrossan that can deliver in a cost-effective way and meet the needs of all the partners involved.

Does the minister agree that the reason that the upgrading of Ardrossan harbour has dragged on for years is the difficult on-going negotiations with Peel Ports, which he has just touched on, and that such a scenario would not exist if the Tories had not privatised Clydeport, which ultimately led to the Scottish Government having to deal with a company for which the bottom line is paramount?

The member makes a very interesting observation. It is absolutely the case, as I mentioned in my initial answer, that we are committed to finding a solution at Ardrossan, but there have been significant delays, and the legal and commercial discussions with Peel Ports have taken a considerable amount of time.

However, as I said, we are happy that the project is now entering the tender stage and is moving forward.

Rhoda Grant joins us remotely.

The alternative arrangements that will be in place while Uig harbour is adapted will mean that there will be a third less freight capacity for Uist. That is unacceptable, especially as the closure will last for six months. It will impact on everybody on those islands and will put businesses in jeopardy.

Will the minister ensure that there will be no decrease in freight capacity during the closure period? Will he do everything in his power to speed up the timeframe for the works?

As I indicated in my earlier answers, the Scottish Government is investing significant sums to support the upgrading and improvement of infrastructure across Scotland’s ports. In relation to the specific question that the member raises, I will ensure that my colleague the Minister for Transport responds to her with the detail that she has requested.


Levelling Up Funding (Local Authorities)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it is offering to local authorities to help them maximise the amount of levelling up funding that they receive from the United Kingdom Government. (S6O-00969)

As the UK Government continues to develop and implement the levelling up fund without the consent, agreement or engagement of this Parliament or the Scottish ministers, the Scottish Government has been excluded from meaningful or formal involvement in the process. The lack of respect for devolution has been further exacerbated by the fact that the fund enters into devolved areas, which means that the UK Government is encroaching into areas in which the Scottish Parliament was elected to deliver.

We will, of course, work with our regional partners in all their endeavours, building on the close partnerships that we have established since devolution.

I would have liked to hear an answer to my question in the minister’s response.

In Falkirk, there has been very welcome investment by the UK Government that has funded what I call the magic roundabout at the Helix, which will open up investment opportunities at junction 6 of the M9. There is a new regional growth deal in the offing, as well as the hope of landing one of Scotland’s two free ports at Grangemouth. At the same time, the Scottish Government has cut the funding for flood prevention and has frozen the council’s capital grant. Are local authorities such as Falkirk Council to rely solely on the support of the UK Government to level up and power up their local areas?

If the Conservative UK Government had stuck to its pledges and promises that it made to the people of Scotland to—unsuccessfully—persuade Scotland to vote for Brexit, a lot more resource and money would be flowing into Falkirk, Central Scotland and the rest of the country. Instead, we have had broken promises, with the UK Government trampling all over devolution and threatening democracy in this country. If Stephen Kerr requires more investment for his areas, he should be making strong representation to his good friends in the UK Government.

What is the Scottish Government’s response to the UK Government failing to replace European Union funding, as promised, which will see South Ayrshire short-changed by £3.1 million?

The UK Government has clearly failed to provide an appropriate replacement for EU funding, as we were promised if Brexit was to go ahead, not only in South Ayrshire but across the whole of Scotland.

For the record, Stephen Kerr is laughing as I make that point. It is worth noting that our communities and our economy are losing out due to the broken promises of the Government that he supports. The overall Scottish quantum for the UK shared prosperity fund, which was earmarked to succeed the European funds, is only £212 million over three years, with only £32 million in the first of those three years. In anyone’s book, that is an insufficient replacement for EU structural funds. Indeed, £36 million of that funding that has been announced has already been ring fenced for the UK Government’s multiply programme. Therefore, the UK Government has let down Scotland, South Ayrshire and communities the length and breadth of the country.

Does the minister agree with me that the UK’s so-called shared prosperity fund will distribute just £32 million around Scotland this year, whereas it is estimated that EU membership would have seen communities around Scotland benefit from funding of £183 million? Does he further agree that that adds financial insult to democratic injury for the people of Scotland?

The Tory Government’s betrayal of Scotland over this issue is, indeed, an insult to democracy in this country, this Parliament and this Government. I ask members on the Conservative benches, in particular, to remember that they are here to represent their constituents, not the UK Government in London.

It is, indeed, the case that we are getting only £32 million as opposed to the £183 million that we were expecting to replace the EU funds that we are losing out on because of a Brexit that Scotland did not vote for.


Cost of Living

To ask the Scottish Government what financial resources it has allocated to help those across Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders who are most impacted by the reported cost of living crisis. (S6O-00970)

The Scottish Government is taking a range of actions within our devolved powers to help people who are facing the impacts of higher energy bills, the increased cost of the weekly shop, the United Kingdom Government’s national insurance hike and interest rate rises. Our £290 million cost of living package builds on existing support, giving £150 to each household that receives a council tax reduction irrespective of what band their property is in and £150 to every other household in properties in bands A to D by the end of April. That equates to almost £7.3 million in Dumfries and Galloway and £5.4 million in the Scottish Borders.

In 2021-22, we allocated £80.75 million to local authorities for Scottish child payment bridging payments worth £520 in both 2020-21 and 2021-22, reaching more than 144,000 school-aged children as of December 2021. Our second child poverty delivery plan sets out how we will continue to tackle and reduce child poverty in Scotland, which includes investing up to £10 million each year to mitigate the UK Government’s benefit cap.

The cost of living crisis has been a decade in the making, with rising costs compounded by damaging Westminster austerity. Does the minister agree that the UK Government should reverse the regressive national insurance tax hike and the £20-a-week cut to universal credit, that it should match the Scottish child payment UK wide and that it should introduce a real living wage of £9.90 per hour? Can he outline what representations have been made to the UK Government on those matters?

Given that most of the relevant powers are reserved, I agree that the UK Government must do more to help households to cope with the cost of living crisis. The Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy wrote to the chancellor ahead of his spring statement with vital proposals to address the cost of living crisis using those reserved powers, including a call to reinstate the £20 universal credit uplift. However, they were largely ignored and the chancellor failed to take the opportunity to address the biggest challenges that are currently faced by households.

I also agree that all workers should be paid at least the real living wage. Having employment powers in the hands of the Scottish Parliament would enable us to protect and enhance workers’ rights, including by making the minimum wage a real living wage. We will continue to call on the UK Government to take action to devolve those crucial powers.

In the meantime, we are already using the powers that we have. On 14 October 2021, we began mandating payment of the real living wage in Scottish Government contracts, where it is a relevant and proportionate requirement. Through the Bute house agreement and subject to the limits of devolved competence, we will also make it a requirement that grant recipients pay at least the real living wage.

Alexander Burnett joins us remotely.


R100 Broadband Programme

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the roll-out of the R100 programme in rural areas. (S6O-00971)

As of 31 March, 6,629 connections were delivered through R100 contract build and 1,875 were delivered through the Scottish broadband voucher scheme, which ensured that every address across Scotland, regardless of location, had the ability to access a superfast broadband connection.

As Audit Scotland recognises, R100 contract build is hugely challenging, with many premises in the hardest-to-reach locations. Instead of pursuing a lower-technology solution, we chose to focus on delivering full fibre broadband, which will underpin economic growth and connectivity for decades to come. Weather permitting, deployment of 16 subsea cables to service 15 islands will begin shortly.

The finance secretary recently wrote to the Economy and Fair Work Committee, stating that the Scottish Government has

“delivered”—

delivered!—its

“commitment to ensure that every home and business could access superfast broadband by the end of 2021.”

It is utterly ludicrous to expect people to believe that after the Government failed to meet its own targets and delayed the R100 roll-out by six years. Certainly, thousands of those in Aberdeenshire who are without a reliable broadband connection will not fall for that.

In an answer to me, the finance secretary confirmed that only 15 per cent of the £3.3 million for the voucher scheme has been handed out, and less than 0.5 per cent of eligible properties in the north-east have made applications. Will the minister commit to extending the scheme so that the remaining 85 per cent of the funding goes to those who need it?

As the member will be aware, the main scheme is still available. The interim scheme was extended to 31 March. There was an extensive local and national advertising campaign to promote the interim scheme, but take-up ultimately did not reflect the level of demand that would necessitate its continuation.

More broadly, the commitment to deliver R100 by the end of last year was not solely about contracts but was about commercial undertakings and the voucher scheme, which is still in place, as I said. I remind the member that, as part of R100, the Government has committed £600 million of investment, compared to—if I recall correctly—£33.5 million of investment from the UK Government.

The interim voucher scheme, which closed last month, was intended to plug the gaps in the communities with the lowest coverage in the country, which are predominantly in the north of Scotland. Not only has the take-up of that scheme been low, but Government figures have demonstrated that the poorest amount of money has gone to those in the north, compared to those in the south and central regions. Can the minister explain the logic of that?

The member is familiar with the intention behind the interim scheme. We extended the interim scheme. The original deadline was 31 December last year and we extended it to March. However, as I explained in my answer to Mr Burnett, ultimately, we judged that demand was not of a sufficient level to justify the continuation of the scheme.

I have been contacted by constituents who have been informed that they may have to wait until 2026—as has already been said—before getting connected to fibre broadband.

Community fibre broadband and the voucher scheme, which has been alluded to, are currently not viable options for them. How is the Scottish Government engaging with Openreach and other stakeholders? What further opportunities are being considered to support rural communities to connect to fibre broadband?

As part of our on-going dialogue with Openreach, we continue to look for opportunities to accelerate contract build, particularly in rural areas, where possible. Commercial investment also continues to play a key role in supporting digital connectivity. Our full fibre charter for Scotland is providing a platform for the Scottish Government and operators to work together to maximise full fibre coverage, including through the recently announced extension of 100 per cent non-domestic rates relief to March 2034, which surpasses a key charter commitment and offers the most extended period of rates relief in the UK.

Given that the area of telecoms is wholly reserved to Westminster, we continue to push the UK Government for greater flexibility on its plans for Scotland through project gigabit, as we believe that, once again, its current approach is likely to leave behind some areas that need improved connectivity the most.


High Streets and Businesses (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the support it is providing to high streets and businesses. (S6O-00972)

On 13 April, we published, with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, our joint response to the independent report “A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres”. It is a call to action for all who have an interest in the future of our towns, setting out some of the ways in which we can all play our part in rebuilding, re-energising and reimagining our towns. Since the start of the pandemic, businesses have benefited from over £4.6 billion in support from the Scottish Government. That includes Covid-19 non-domestic rates relief, which has saved businesses around £1.6 billion since 1 April 2020. In the first three months of 2022-23, we are continuing to provide 50 per cent relief for retail, hospitality and leisure, which will be capped at £27,500 per ratepayer. That business support includes our £80 million Covid economic recovery fund for local authorities to support local economies and £6 million for the city centre recovery fund and our Scotland loves local programme.

Following years of neglect by the Scottish National Party-run council, which has been exacerbated by Covid-19, Glasgow’s high streets are in need of rejuvenation. We all know that many small businesses were forced to suffer endless delays in accessing Covid-19 grants. Does the minister agree that it is time that we brought together a Glasgow City Council business forum that can address current issues in conjunction with businesses, as opposed to taking a top-down approach, so that Glasgow’s businesses can engage effectively with the council?

I believe that at the heart of town and city centre regeneration is a place-based approach, which involves bringing all partners to the table. Businesses of all kinds—retail, hospitality and leisure—are key to vibrant and dynamic city centres, as are local authorities, economic development departments, chambers of commerce and government. We have taken that partnership approach through the city centre recovery task force and the Government’s continued engagement with other partners. Glasgow is a dynamic and thriving city with a huge amount to offer. Anyone who walks around Glasgow will see that, although it faces the challenges that many city centres face due to the changing nature of retail, its potential is boundless.

All of us in the Parliament have a duty to talk up our city and town centres and not talk them down to make cheap political points.


Digital Single Market

To ask the Scottish Government whether it has estimated the cost to Scotland of being removed from the European digital single market. (S6O-00973)

The Scottish Government understands the importance of the digital single market to Scotland’s economic ambitions. One of the endless downsides of Brexit is that Scotland was taken out of the digital single market against our wishes, which has resulted in a less stable environment for our businesses.

The European Parliament estimates that the potential gains of a digital single market could be in the region of €415 billion to €500 billion per year as a result of higher productivity due to the faster flow of information, greater efficiency in traditional economic sectors and higher levels of e-commerce. Our most recent analysis suggests that, for Scotland, a 1.9 per cent boost to gross domestic product would be equivalent to £2.9 billion.

Will the minister outline what the Scottish Government can do to overcome that ridiculously stupid and damaging decision, which was taken by the Tory Government, and help Scottish businesses to access the increasingly important digital markets that Europe provides?

We will continue to work to influence, where we can, the UK Government’s misguided policies to ensure that Scotland stays as close as possible to our European trading partners through digital and other means. We will continue to push to reverse the idiocy of Brexit and will campaign for an independent Scotland to take its place at the heart of Europe.

That concludes portfolio questions on finance and the economy.