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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, September 20, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 20 September 2018

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Marine Energy Industry, NHS Tayside Board, Violence Reduction, Decision Time, Correction


General Question Time

Non-domestic Rates Bill

To ask the Scottish Government on what date it plans to introduce its non-domestic rates bill. (S5O-02379)

We will bring forward a non-domestic rates bill to implement the recommendations of the Barclay review that require primary legislation in time for the relevant provisions to commence on 1 April 2020.

The Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans will discuss timetabling of legislation and how best to manage the existing and forthcoming legislative workload with committee conveners and business managers over the coming weeks and months.

Given the Scottish National Party’s record on legislation, by the time that the bill has been passed, Scottish businesses will have paid nearly £400 million more than those in England due to the large business supplement. The Barclay review highlighted the widely held perception that because of that policy, Scotland is not as competitive for business as England—a view that is shared by the Scottish Retail Consortium.

Ministers are prone to ducking this question, but can they today provide a concrete timetable for reducing the large business supplement to the English level?

The member will be aware that Scotland is a very competitive place to do business. Our small business bonus scheme is significantly more competitive than reliefs for small businesses elsewhere and we have committed to remove rates for 100,000 premises. Furthermore, from 1 April this year, Scotland has had the edge in attracting new and growing existing businesses. We have ensured that new-build properties pay nothing until they are occupied, and then the new tenant will pay nothing for a year.

In answer to the member’s question, Barclay recommended that we lower the large business supplement when affordable. In the meantime, we have focused on supporting small businesses and ensuring that we have measures that are unique in the United Kingdom, such as the growth accelerator, which applies to large and small businesses.

The Scottish Retail Consortium has noted that many businesses are concerned with the proposed new business rates levy, largely because of the unpredictability that it introduces to the rates system. I ask the minister specifically about the oil and gas industry and its supply chain. Many oil and gas businesses are, through necessity, based near the airport in out-of-town locations. Is it the minister’s intention that they, too, will have to pay more?

That is a good question. As the member may know, the Barclay consultation closed on 17 September, and I am currently considering and analysing the response. I have also taken it upon myself to ensure that there is separate engagement with all stakeholders and sectors that might be impacted by the recommendations of the independent Barclay review.

The member may also be aware that we established the Barclay implementation advisory group to advise on implementation of the reforms. The group includes representatives from all the key non-domestic rates stakeholder groups. I am happy to share with the member details of who is in that group.

The Barclay consultation sought views on the implementation of that recommendation in particular, including on appropriate safeguards, such as whether there should be a cap on the level of supplement. We will review the response to the consultation and I will report back in due course.

Scottish Ambulance Service (Resources)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to ensure that the Scottish Ambulance Service has sufficient resources. (S5O-02380)

We have invested almost £900 million in the Scottish Ambulance Service in the past four years. That increased investment is supporting the service to recruit 1,000 additional staff by 2021 and introduce 1,000 new vehicles over the next five years, ensuring that the Ambulance Service has the resources that it needs to deliver high-quality healthcare across Scotland.

I am sure that people throughout the chamber and, I hope, the cabinet secretary would have been shocked to read reports that some paramedics are having to work shifts of 36 hours straight. She should be aware that that is because of funding cuts, service closures and downgrades across the national health service, which is putting even more pressure on our Ambulance Service. The situation is so bad that staff are now being balloted on industrial action as a result of what they believe are dangerous working conditions.

Will the cabinet secretary please tell us not just what the ambition is for 2020-21 but what steps she is taking right now to ensure that the Ambulance Service is properly resourced and staffed?

I think that Mr Sarwar is probably referring to the situation in the north-east of Scotland, particularly around Moray. I am pleased to advise him that the Ambulance Service has agreed to introduce what it describes as a “protected corridor” for the service from Elgin down to Aberdeen. Some of the additional pressure there has been caused by the current situation with respect to maternity services at Dr Gray’s hospital in Elgin—a situation that I am actively pursuing a resolution to. That protected corridor is precisely what the local ambulance personnel and paramedics asked me to deliver when I met them on 3 August. I am delighted to say that I have been able to do that and the corridor will be introduced from early October.

On the wider context, I have to say that Scottish Ambulance Service staffing is up by 23.9 per cent—just under 24 per cent—the number of paramedics is up by 19 per cent and the number of ambulance technicians is up by 30.4 per cent. In addition, the Ambulance Service has introduced its triage system, which has seen significant improvement in the numbers of individuals who are treated effectively, appropriately and quickly when they have a life-threatening incident or accident.

I am well aware of the pressures that the Ambulance Service is under. I met some of its staff this morning when I was at NHS Forth Valley; I appreciate the significant amount of dedication and skill that those staff bring to our health service. I will continue to work with the Ambulance Service to look at where particular pressure points are and what we might do to assist.

Learning Support (Colleges and Universities)

To ask the Scottish Government what improvements it can make to learning support in further education colleges and universities to make it more effective. (S5O-02381)

Colleges and universities have a duty under the Equality Act 2010 to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that students with disabilities are not placed at a disadvantage in comparison to non-disabled students. It is an anticipatory duty, which means that education providers should continually review and anticipate the general needs of disabled people, rather than simply waiting until an individual requests a particular adjustment.

As part of the Scottish Government’s work to take forward the recommendations of the independent review of student support, we will conduct a review of non-core and discretionary support, which will include support for students with disabilities.

What is the cabinet secretary’s position on the lack of readily available oral exams in Scotland for those who receive learning support, which highlight their talents in a way that written exams often fail to do?

Fundamentally I am sympathetic to the point that Mr Corry raises. Our education system should adapt to meet the particular circumstances and requirements of individuals who have disabilities. My previous answer was designed to indicate in principle our support in that respect.

On specific examination standards, there are issues that the chief examiner for Scotland would have to consider in order to be assured that proper scrutiny was applied to assess qualifications. If Mr Corry wishes to write to me with further details, I would be happy to raise the matter with the chief examiner. She operates independently of Government, but I am happy to raise those issues with her on Mr Corry’s behalf.

Home Ownership (Public Sector Workers)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to a recent Unison report, which states that owning a home has become “virtually impossible” for many public sector workers. (S5O-02382)

I refer members to my entry in the register of interests as I am a member of Unison.

I noted the United Kingdom-wide report from Unison and acknowledge that there is an affordability issue for some public sector workers. That is why the Scottish Government operates a range of initiatives aimed at making home ownership more affordable, such as help to buy Scotland and the low-cost initiative for first-time buyers, which have helped more than 28,000 households into home ownership over the past decade. Of those who have been supported into home ownership by those schemes, three quarters are young people aged 35 and under. In addition, we have delivered more than 76,500 affordable homes since 2007, with almost 52,600 for social rent.

The report also highlights that home ownership for public sector workers is more affordable in Scotland than it is in England and Wales. We will keep it that way as we, the Scottish Government, ensure that we pay the living wage. This year we have lifted the public sector pay cap. We are committed to continuing to offer a fair deal for public sector workers that is also affordable for the public purse.

I thank the minister for that comprehensive answer. He will know that the report, entitled “Priced Out”, indicates that it would take decades for many to be able to save their money for a down payment on a property—it suggests that it would take a minimum of 14 years. The research focuses on salaries for employees in five jobs—national health service cleaners, teaching assistants, librarians, nurses, and police community support officers.

I welcome what the minister said about the help-to-buy scheme and the number of young people it has helped, but the average household income of those using the scheme is £46,000. Is it time to focus the scheme on people on lower incomes so that we can help more public sector workers to aspire to owning their own homes?

I think that we have already done a number of things that ensure that our help-to-buy schemes are aimed at those on lower pay. We have reduced the level of individual funding that we give. Some larger houses are available at great cost in the help-to-buy scheme south of the border; it is not the same here.

We will continue to look at what our help-to-buy schemes are achieving. As I said earlier, the bulk of those folks who benefit from our help-to-buy schemes are young people who are going on to the housing ladder for the first time.

As I pointed out to Ms McNeill previously, our policies here in Scotland mean that those folks working in the public sector are more able to afford to get on to the housing ladder than those in England and Wales and we will continue to ensure that that is the case.

Stranraer Waterfront (Regeneration)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its commitment to fund the regeneration of the Stranraer waterfront. (S5O-02383)

We remain committed to providing up to £6 million for the redevelopment of the Stranraer waterfront. The site investigations work at the east pier is now complete and we expect to receive further information from Dumfries and Galloway Council soon on its plans to redevelop the site.

On Monday, I facilitated a meeting with stakeholders in Stranraer, who are absolutely determined to get what is best for the town and are growing tired of broken promises. Two and a half years ago, in April 2016, Deputy First Minister John Swinney announced:

“We are committed to regenerating the waterfront in Stranraer with £6 million—bringing new life to the town”.

With the Borderlands deal on the horizon for Dumfries and Galloway, will the minister confirm whether the Scottish Government has been in discussions with Dumfries and Galloway Council? Will he give an undertaking to support the inclusion of a bid for funding for a world-class water sports and marina facility at the waterfront and commit here and now to deliver over and above the £6 million pledged in 2016 to get this project off the ground?

I understand people’s frustrations at having to wait for projects to move forward but, as I have said, the £6 million from the Scottish Government is available and will be spent on Stranraer waterfront.

Let me give Mr Carson a wee insight into what discussions have been happening. Scottish Government regeneration officials visited Stranraer to meet Dumfries and Galloway council officials over the summer. We are now in a position where the site investigations at the east pier are complete, and those findings will inform a revised strategic plan for the site and for the wider Stranraer waterfront area.

At a meeting in July 2018 between regeneration officials and council officials, a request was made for the updated plans to be provided by the end of August 2018. The Scottish Government has not yet received those, although it is our understanding that the council will provide them within the next few weeks. Once we are in receipt of those plans, we will be able to move forward.

In 2011, when the then First Minister Alex Salmond opened the new ferry terminal at Cairnryan, he made a commitment to the three Rs: regeneration, roads and rail. So far, none of the £6 million for regeneration has been delivered, there has been no meaningful investment in improvements to the A75 or A77 roads and people cannot currently get a train at Stranraer railway station. How is that commitment to the three Rs going for the minister? Frankly, it is not going very well for the people of Stranraer.

I say to Mr Smyth, who is a former member of Dumfries and Galloway Council, that the Government is reliant on the council providing the information that we require to move forward and ensure that the £6 million of investment from the Government is spent well. I am hopeful that Dumfries and Galloway Council will provide the information within the next few weeks. Once we have it, we will be able to move forward, and the £6 million can be invested in the south-west of Scotland.

Automated Teller Machines

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of reports of the number of free-to-use ATMs reducing at a record rate, whether it will provide an update on what action it is taking to support communities on this issue, particularly those in remote and rural areas. (S5O-02384)

The Government will continue to support the save our cashpoints campaign launched by Which? and the Federation of Small Businesses, although I am disappointed that such a campaign is necessary in the first place. As changes to the ATM network begin to take effect, I urge regulators and providers to be mindful of the importance of ATMs and access to cash in our communities, many of which are still dependent on cash. ATMs play a key role in local communities and economies, particularly for those on low incomes, older people and cash-based small businesses. People in remote and rural areas, with which I am particularly acquainted, that are already affected by bank branch closures are facing a double blow to their ability to access essential financial services.

The minister is probably aware that, of the protected ATMs that are not meant to be lost, some 76 have been lost. Although there may be valid reasons for that in some cases, there is an on-going investigation into at least 21 of them. Can the minister and the Government make representations to the United Kingdom Government and Link to prevent further closures of ATMs, especially in remote and poorer areas?

I unequivocally make a commitment to the member that I will make representations. As I said, the issue is particularly pertinent in light of the significant number of bank branch closures, which was debated in Parliament this week. My predecessor, Paul Wheelhouse, wrote to Link and the Payment Systems Regulator in support of protecting the ATM network. The latest figures compound the need to protect those essential services. I will happily write once again to the Payment Systems Regulator and Link to remind them that all consumers should continue to have access to an adequate ATM network.

Public Toilets (Highlands)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it provides to enable the Highland Council to service the 96 public toilets that it has in the Highlands. (S5O-02385)

The council will receive £487.5 million in Scottish Government funding in 2018-19, which, taken together with the decision to increase council tax by the maximum allowable 3 per cent, means that it will have £17.1 million more to support services this year compared to last year.

I am aware of the concerns that have been expressed about the Highland Council’s proposals to close a number of public toilets, and I discussed that with the council leader on 15 June. At that meeting, I made it clear that, although it is for the council to take decisions on its services, the council should engage with local communities before taking any decisions and should consider the potential longer-term impact on tourism in the area, rather than just short-term financial savings. [Kevin Stewart has corrected this contribution. See end of report.] The council has extended its review until 31 October to allow that to take place, and I welcome that decision.

The Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop, has gone on record to confirm that she has lobbied the Highland Council to keep open the 29 toilets that are threatened with closure. I am pleased to hear that repeated today.

However, there remains real concern throughout the Highlands that the investment in hubs means that the 29 toilets will still close on 31 October. Will the Government join me in continuing to press the Highland Council to keep the loos open? Will it consider further financial help, if that is requested?

I pointed out to Mr Mountain that there is significant additional support this year for the Highland Council, which has £17.1 million more to support services.

It is for the Highland Council, as an autonomous body, to make the decisions that it thinks are right for the Highlands. I hope that the council will listen to people across the area and make the right decision, not only for the people of the Highlands but for the many folk who visit the Highlands.