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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, February 21, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 21 February 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Delivering Sustainable and Renewable Transportation, Budget (Scotland) (No 3) Bill: Stage 3, Decision Time, Correction


General Question Time

Bus Operators (Renfrewshire)

To ask the Scottish Government when the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity last met bus operators that serve Renfrewshire. (S5O-02899)

I last met Stagecoach on 5 February 2019. I also met First Bus on 26 November 2018.

I thank the cabinet secretary for his answer. McGill’s Bus Service Ltd, which is the main operator that runs as a monopoly in many parts of Renfrewshire, has recently announced changes to its services, including axing the 907 service that links Glasgow and Renfrewshire to Dunoon. The company originally proposed fare increases of up to 62 per cent for peak-time journeys between Erskine and Glasgow, but has since backtracked. It now proposes fare increases of up to 30 per cent, which local MSP Derek Mackay has championed as a win for passengers. Does the cabinet secretary agree that extortionate fare increases are a win only for bus operators, and that they show the need to regulate the bus industry across Scotland?

I know from my discussions with Derek Mackay that he was concerned about the increases that were proposed by McGill’s for some of its routes, and that he has been making strenuous representations to the company to address the matter. I welcome the reduction in McGill’s proposed increase.

Mary Fee will be aware that we have set out a range of options in the Transport (Scotland) Bill to strengthen the role of local authorities in provision of bus services in their areas, including through bus service improvement partnerships, in order to ensure greater recognition of local need in the services that are provided by bus operators. I believe that the measures will strengthen our ability to ensure that bus services are delivered in communities in a way that reflects the communities’ needs; I hope that the Labour Party will support the bill when it comes before Parliament.

I, too, have concerns about price increases in West Scotland. The cabinet secretary spoke about the Transport (Scotland) Bill’s potential to address issues by enabling local authorities to set up franchises, but I have not met a single local authority that is interested in doing so—or, indeed, one that has any money to do so. How many local authorities have expressed to him interest in setting up local bus franchises?

Jamie Greene seems to be trying to characterise our bill as having franchising as its only element. As a member of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, which is considering the bill, he will be well aware that it provides a range of measures to allow local authorities to take options that are not currently available. The committee has suggested that we add more options to the bill, and we are actively considering that for stage 2. It is important that the member not characterise the bill as offering only one option; it offers a suite of options that will allow local authorities to consider what will best meet the needs of their communities.

Singapore (Links)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to forge greater links with Singapore. (S5O-02900)

Scotland’s international framework sets out how our international work supports the Scottish Government’s central purpose of creating a more successful country. The Scottish Government values and appreciates the long and positive relationship that we have built with Singapore, which has been an important trading partner for Scotland for many years. The year 2019 marks the 200th anniversary of trading between the UK and Singapore, which began with the arrival of Stamford Raffles and William Farquhar, who was a Scot.

Scottish Development International’s south-east Asia office has been based in Singapore since 2001, which demonstrates our commitment to a strong relationship. In fact, the value of Scottish direct exports to Singapore rose from £585 million in 2016 to £655 million in 2017—an increase of £70 million. We will continue to promote Scotland’s trade capabilities in areas including oil and gas, food and drink, and renewable energy, as well as encouraging inward investment in data analytics, life sciences, energy, manufacturing and tourism. We will also continue to welcome exchange between Scotland and Singapore in education and culture.

The cabinet secretary acknowledges the bicentenary of the founding of modern Singapore in January 1819. It is notable that two of the three main founding fathers were Scottish: Major William Farquhar and John Crawfurd. Given those significant historical ties, the renewed memorandum of understanding between the British Council and the National Arts Council of Singapore, and the greater need to forge links across the world, will the cabinet secretary support the establishment of an MOU between Creative Scotland and the NAC Singapore?

I would be very pleased if an MOU between Creative Scotland and the National Arts Council of Singapore were to be signed. In July, we will welcome 70 technology leaders from Singapore and south-east Asia to the ConnectGov leaders summit in Edinburgh, which is very positive.

Does Rachael Hamilton not consider that it is a bit rich for the Conservatives to come to Parliament asking the Government to encourage more trading links, but also to say that we cannot leave the country to do so and that our First Minister should not visit other countries? She is encouraging us to help to support the 14th-largest export partner for Scotland, but not to work with our third-largest partner.

The First Minister was championing Scottish business in France this week, as she has done in the US and Canada. Can Rachael Hamilton get Maurice Golden to apologise for attacking the First Minister? Is it not about time that we all came together to support Scotland and our business trading partnerships? Let us ensure that our First Minister and the Scottish Parliament can fly the flag for Scotland.

Members: Hear, hear.

Following reports of cancelled trade talks with China and of souring relations with Japan as a consequence of the “high-handed” approach of the United Kingdom Government, which has been described as “gunboat diplomacy”, can the cabinet secretary outline the Scottish Government’s approach and how it benefits Scotland, in contrast with the reckless and incompetent approach that we have seen being taken by the UK Government?

In answer to that considered question, I want to explain to Parliament that we are currently working on “A trading nation: our plan for growing Scotland’s exports”, which we expect to publish in spring 2019. In relation to diplomatic activity, it is of serious concern that not just the Secretary of State for Defence, but—this is very important—Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, have jeopardised important trade discussions.

As we know, the European Union and Japan have signed an agreement on customs, exchange and exports that has just been implemented and is very important to businesses across the UK and Scotland, in particular. The cack-handed approaches that have been made by the UK Government are symptomatic of how it treats the Brexit situation in general, which is very worrying indeed. It is important that we all get behind our export companies at this difficult time, when things are so fragile. That needs leadership from the top, rather than the bumbling diplomacy that we have seen from the UK Government.

Universal Credit Recipients (Importance of Food Banks)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the importance of food banks in supporting people in receipt of universal credit. (S5O-02901)

Even the UK Government has finally recognised, after years of mounting evidence, that rolling out universal credit has increased the need for food banks. Universal credit has caused huge damage and has pushed people into debt and hardship. We will continue to call for no one to be migrated to universal credit until its fundamental flaws have been fixed and it works for people, rather than against them.

In recognition that people have been badly hit by UK Government welfare cuts and in order to protect vulnerable communities against the economic damage of Brexit, last month I announced a further £500,000 investment in FareShare, which will support organisations that are responding to food insecurity. That is in addition to our £3.5 million fair food fund to tackle food insecurity. It is shocking that we have to take such measures, but we want to reach more of the people who will most need help.

In my constituency, Kirkcaldy Foodbank has seen a 90 per cent increase in use between December 2017 and December 2018. Does the cabinet secretary agree that Amber Rudd’s recent acknowledgement of the link between roll-out of universal credit and increased use of food banks is too little, too late? Does she also agree that the cruel and callous actions of the UK Government have caused untold misery for thousands of families across Scotland?

Yes, I do. The acknowledgement from Amber Rudd is long overdue, but acknowledgement alone will not help families in Fife, Scotland or the rest of the UK. Amber Rudd needs to act now to change the failed system. That means reversing the benefits cap, the benefits freeze and the abhorrent rape clause. We will then see progress that does not leave people reliant on food banks for the most basic of needs.

The cabinet secretary is clearly aware of the increasing necessity of food banks. That necessity is shocking: we should not need Victorian-style charity in 21st century Scotland. Does she therefore agree that the £5 child benefit top-up that Labour has been calling for would make a big difference to many families, including families who are in receipt of universal credit?

That is why we are currently working on an income supplement, as Elaine Smith knows. She should recognise that we need to work together to put pressure on the UK Government to acknowledge that universal credit is a failed system and to recognise the impending cliff edge that many people will face if there is a no-deal exit from the European Union, which will punish most those who are least financially resilient.

Does Elaine Smith agree that we should unite on that message, especially given that we have had to announce £500,000 to prepare for Brexit in tackling food insecurity, which we know will happen if there is a no-deal exit from the EU? That is, to be quite frank, ridiculous and is testament to the reckless actions of the UK Government, which will punish most the people in society who have the least. That is an absolutely shocking indictment of the UK’s approach to welfare reform.

Kirkcaldy Sheriff Court (Modernisation)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to modernise facilities at Kirkcaldy sheriff court. (S5O-02902)

This question relates to operational matters that are the responsibility of the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service. The service is currently creating a two-court criminal annexe within Kirkcaldy police station to hear sheriff and jury cases and custody hearings, which is due to be fully operational by autumn 2019.

I welcome the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service’s investment of £3.7 million to modernise facilities at Kirkcaldy sheriff court in line with recent recommendations from HM inspectorate of prisons for Scotland.

In the context of the new Vulnerable Witnesses (Criminal Evidence) (Scotland) Bill, is there now an opportunity for Kirkcaldy sheriff court to lead the way in developing a pilot suite for child witnesses to give evidence by commission, with the ethos of the barnahus approach at its heart?

I am glad that Jenny Gilruth mentioned the bill. I am aware of the detailed consideration that she and her colleagues on the Justice Committee have given to the important reforms in it.

The Scottish Government is investing in facilities. It has already provided £950,000 of funding to support the creation of new child and vulnerable witness-friendly hearings suites in Glasgow and has made another £1.1 million available to the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service to upgrade other venues and information technology. As part of that work, the service is procuring portable recording equipment and hiring camera operators, which will allow some commission hearings to take place in sheriff court buildings across Scotland.

We are exploring how the barnahus concept could operate in Scotland and we have asked Healthcare Improvement Scotland and the Care Inspectorate to develop Scotland-specific standards that will set out a road map for developing our approach.

Falkirk Growth Deal

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met Falkirk Council to discuss the proposed growth deal for the district. (S5O-02903)

My officials last met representatives of Falkirk Council to discuss the development of its growth deal proposal on 16 January this year. The next meeting is scheduled for 20 March, when progress with the growth deal will feature on the agenda for a meeting of the Falkirk economic partnership. As part of our aim for 100 per cent coverage of Scotland with growth deals, the Government fully supports Falkirk’s deal proposal. We look to the United Kingdom Government to join us in that common purpose and ensure that as much progress as possible is made towards that goal in 2019.

I am aware that the leader of Falkirk Council is meeting the Secretary of State for Scotland today to discuss the proposed growth deal. I hope that there will be a positive outcome to those talks.

Given the significant investment plans by the private sector—not least the seven national-scale developments that are under way or are being considered for Grangemouth—will the cabinet secretary highlight to the secretary of state when he next meets him that the gross value added from the proposed growth deal would be in excess of £330 million across Falkirk district and that the deal would set a new course for sustainable and inclusive growth?

Yes, and I will continue to highlight the potential benefits of the growth deal for the Falkirk area. When I last met the Secretary of State for Scotland to discuss growth deals, which was at the end of January, I asked again that the UK Government give a formal commitment to 100 per cent coverage of Scotland with growth deals. I am conscious that Falkirk Council is one of only three local authority areas that still does not have a formal commitment from the UK Government in that regard. Working in partnership with the Scottish Government to achieve that would mean benefits for local communities right across the Falkirk Council area, generating the investment that Angus MacDonald highlighted and helping to create new jobs and wider economic prosperity in the area.

As already mentioned, the secretary of state will today meet representatives from Falkirk Council to discuss plans. I am sure that we all agree that the city region deals that have thus far gone through have been beneficial for Scotland. Will the cabinet secretary assure me that any potential growth deal for Falkirk will include the regeneration of the town centre and not just, as is currently on the table, the area going east towards Grangemouth?

I am aware that the Secretary of State for Scotland will meet Falkirk Council representatives today. At the end of the meeting with Cecil Meiklejohn, the leader of the council, I hope that David Mundell will give a commitment on the part of the UK Government, which it has not provided to date, to support a Falkirk Council growth deal.

Alison Harris will recognise that the various issues that are highlighted in the growth deal are for the partners, not the Scottish Government, to determine. The content of the growth deal will be shaped in partnership with the different agencies that have an interest in developing it, and will not be directed by the Scottish Government. They will no doubt look at a whole range of regeneration projects that can help to support and sustain the Falkirk economy in the years ahead.

Stirling and Clackmannanshire City Region Deal

To ask the Scottish Government what progress has been made on the Stirling and Clackmannanshire city region deal. (S5O-02904)

The Scottish Government and its agencies have on-going constructive engagement with regional partners as we seek to progress the Stirling and Clackmannanshire city region deal to the final deal signing.

The investment of £45.1 million from the Scottish Government and £45.1 million from the United Kingdom Government is a welcome and transformative opportunity for Clackmannanshire and Stirling.

As the cabinet secretary is aware, the UK Government pledged £8 million to Clackmannanshire as part of the deal that is to be developed collaboratively with Clackmannanshire Council and other local partners. What is the cabinet secretary’s view on reports that the UK Government is actively considering bids for that fund from outwith the agreed formal governance structures, despite the risks to proper partnership working and the viability and sustainability of projects?

I seek the cabinet secretary’s assurance that, when considering bids for the Scottish Government funds, he will ensure that the integrity of the local decision-making process is maintained.

I am aware of those concerns. The leader of Clackmannanshire Council raised them with me and I raised them with the Secretary of State for Scotland when I met him earlier this year. The secretary of state acknowledged the need for proper governance and assurance around the process. He assured me that he was dealing with Clackmannanshire Council’s concerns about the competing bids for projects that are to be funded through the Clackmannanshire fund. My officials understand that a constructive meeting has taken place between Clackmannanshire Council and the UK Government to discuss those concerns, and we expect to get feedback on that in the coming days.

I assure Keith Brown that I am clear that regional partners need to be at the very centre of any city or growth deals. Stirling and Clackmannanshire councils have already established a city region deal joint committee to oversee and direct the implementation and delivery of the deal. The Scottish Government is clear that that committee must be an integral part of any decision-making process; that is part of the agreement that we have in place for that particular city deal. I will continue to assert that view as we go forward with that deal and any others in the country.

Does the cabinet secretary welcome the investment of more than £45 million from the UK Government in the Stirling and Clackmannanshire city deal, including £10 million for the establishment of a new national tartan centre that will create jobs and boost tourism in the Stirling region?

I welcome any investment alongside the Scottish Government’s £45 million investment, which I am sure that the member also welcomes, to ensure that we do everything that we can to support the regional economy in Stirling and Clackmannanshire. Equally, it is important that that funding is utilised in a way that sticks to the agreement, which is to recognise that our regional partners, particularly local authorities, are key to the decision making on how that funding is used. I hope that the UK Government will ensure that that process is adhered to with that particular growth deal.

Thank you. That concludes general questions. Before we move on to First Minister’s question time, I invite members to join me in welcoming to the gallery His Excellency Mr Wegger Strømmen, Ambassador of Norway. [Applause.]

Please also join me in welcoming to the gallery His Excellency Mr Dan Mihalache, Ambassador of Romania. [Applause.]