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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 21 September 2021

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Covid-19 Update, Scottish Ambulance Service, Net Zero Nation, Decision Time, Brain Injury in Football


Topical Question Time

The next item of business is topical question time. As ever, I would like to get in as many members as possible, so succinct questions and responses would be helpful.

Gas Pricing (Wholesale)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it has assessed the impact of the increase in wholesale gas prices on food and energy availability in Scotland, particularly ahead of winter. (S6T-00160)

Scottish Government ministers and officials are in regular contact with the whole food and drink sector. Based on our discussions, the current assessment is that, although availability has stabilised, the choice of products has reduced. The Scottish Government will continue to maintain regular contact with the sector, including discussion of the availability of carbon dioxide, which has significant impacts on food production and animal welfare.

Security of gas supply is a reserved matter, on which the Scottish Government has no formal functions. The United Kingdom gas system is subject to regular assessments of security of supply through National Grid’s twice-yearly outlook publications, the biennial European gas risk assessment and other ad hoc assessments.

The Scottish Government works closely with National Grid, as well as with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets and Scotland’s gas distribution network operator, to ensure that the supplies of gas to Scottish consumers remain resilient and that Scottish circumstances and priorities are taken fully into account.

As the cabinet secretary said, CO2 is an essential component in the food supply chain. It is used in our abattoirs, to vacuum pack food products and to provide the fizz for beer, cider and soft drinks. James Withers from Scotland Food & Drink has told me that he is extremely concerned because it is estimated that Scottish pork and poultry producers have only between five and 15 days of CO2 left. In addition, Scottish small breweries and microbreweries cannot access CO2 supplies.

I understand that, without an urgent resolution, livestock will be likely to be backed up on farms, which could cause animal welfare issues, and many small breweries will go out of business. Given the serious food supply chain concerns, will the cabinet secretary outline what representations the Scottish Government has made to the UK Government and the industry about the requirement to restart fertiliser production, which is essential to the whole food supply chain?

The member is absolutely right to raise all the concerns that she has, because the issue is critical. As she said, the risk of a shortage of carbon dioxide has major implications for food production, as well as animal welfare, because carbon dioxide is used in packaging to extend shelf life. A lack of carbon dioxide would lead to increased spoilage and waste.

On animal welfare, as Emma Harper highlighted, CO2 is used for slaughter—the pig plant at Brechin and the poultry plant at Coupar Angus both rely on the gas for slaughter. We understand that both plants have supplies for the time being or can use alternative methods.

In the longer term, we need to find more resilient supplies of gas for our industry. I expect to speak to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs minister Victoria Prentis later today about a range of issues. Given the latest issues that we face, I will add to the matters that we will discuss a long-term and sustainable solution for the CO2 supply.

I would be grateful if Emma Harper and the cabinet secretary ensured that questions and answers were shorter, please.

I will try to be brief. The regulator, Ofgem, caps the energy price at a maximum that suppliers can charge customers who are on their standard variable tariffs. The cap is set to rise by 12 per cent on 1 October. Energy bills for those who use prepayment meters—they are typically the most vulnerable in our society—are likely to rise, on average, to £1,309 a year. That comes on top of the UK Government’s callous and cruel cut of £20 a week from universal credit.

Will the cabinet secretary outline what action the Scottish Government is taking to help to prevent fuel poverty? Will she join me in calling on the UK Government to stop penalising some of the most vulnerable people in our society—

Thank you, Ms Harper.

—during a global pandemic?

Again, the member is absolutely right, and I am happy to join her in that call. The cut to universal credit will only exacerbate the extreme situation that many people face right now. About a third of people live in fuel poverty and about a quarter live in extreme fuel poverty. The issues that we are facing now will only exacerbate that situation, and the UK Government’s actions will do nothing to resolve it; indeed, they will make the situation even more precarious.

By the end of this year, we will have allocated more than £1 billion since 2009 to tackle fuel poverty and improve energy efficiency, including £114 million in this year alone. In addition, we continue to fund Home Energy Scotland to provide free and impartial advice on how to reduce bills and make homes warmer and cheaper to heat. The Scottish Government will continue to do what we can, as we always do, to mitigate the worst of the cuts from the UK Government at Westminster.

With the shortage of CO2 required for the humane slaughter of pigs and the suspension of the Chinese licence due to Covid, Scottish pig producers are facing the perfect storm. Quality Pork Processors Ltd in Brechin is currently on a three-day week, with farmers choosing to divert their pigs to the north of England. What is the Scottish Government’s position on the reinstatement of the Chinese licence to help the Brechin site to return to full capacity? Will the cabinet secretary extend the pig producers hardship fund deadline beyond 26 September?

I am acutely aware of the issues that the member has raised, as the QPPL plant is in my constituency. My officials have been engaging closely with QPPL to try to resolve the issues that it faces, and I have personally engaged with the company and will continue to do so. The member rightly raises the hardship fund, which was announced earlier this month. We will continue to do all that we can to support our vital pig industry.

The cabinet secretary said that she will meet the UK Government. She will be aware that the closure of one or two factories can cripple the supplies of CO2 across the country and that the food and drink sector and the national health service absolutely rely on those supplies. Will the cabinet secretary discuss that issue with the UK Government and with the Scottish Government’s food resilience group? What discussions will there be to ensure greater long-term resilience for the CO2 supply chain?

I assure the member and other members across the chamber that we are working across Government on the issue. As has been highlighted in some of the questions, the impact relates to not just the food and drink sector but fuel poverty and social security. We are working across Government to do what we can to resolve some of the issues. As I said in response to Emma Harper, this evening, I will meet the DEFRA minister Victoria Prentis to discuss a range of issues, including CO2 and, of course, the labour shortages, which are another critical issue not just for our food and drink sector but across society in Scotland.

We have heard about welfare issues and food shortages resulting from the CO2 shortage. Will the minister consider intervening and prioritising CO2 supplies for the food sector?

As I stated, we will do everything that we can to resolve the situation, but this is another issue on which not all the levers are within our control. I believe that the business secretary in the UK Government has been engaging with CF Industries, the fertiliser supplier, in an attempt to find a resolution to the issue. We encourage those discussions, of course, because the issue is now absolutely critical to keeping our food and drink supply chains going and keeping the food on our shelves. We will do all that we can to help.

Prison Deaths

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to research stating that no recommendations to improve practice are made in nine out of 10 fatal accident inquiries into deaths in prison. (S6T-00179)

Any death in custody is a tragedy. As I set out in Parliament during portfolio questions last week, the Scottish Government takes very seriously the issue of deaths in custody.

We have commissioned an independent review of how deaths in custody are handled. As I indicated in response to a question from Pauline McNeill last week, we will consider carefully any recommendations that the independent review makes when it reports this year, whether those relate to improving the safety of prisoners or how deaths in custody are responded to.

As Liam McArthur knows, deaths in custody are subject to a mandatory fatal accident inquiry unless the circumstances of the death have been explained through a criminal trial or other inquiry. The presiding sheriff will consider the evidence led by all parties and determine whether any reasonable precautions were identified that might have resulted in the death being avoided, or whether there were any defects in any system of working that contributed to the death. If no matters are identified at the inquiry that might realistically prevent other deaths in similar circumstances, there will be no basis for the sheriff to make any recommendations.

In 2020-21, 61 fatal accident inquiries were held, including FAIs relating to a death in custody. Eighteen recommendations were made in eight of the inquiries that were held. Where recommendations are made, the priority is to ensure that they are acted on.

In 2018, Katie Allan and William Lindsay tragically died in Polmont. Almost three years on, the fatal accident inquiries into their deaths are still outstanding and lessons are still to be learned. However, research from the University of Glasgow shows that, even when FAIs conclude, improvements are unlikely to follow.

Two weeks ago, Jack McKenzie died in Polmont while awaiting trial. He was 20. Does the cabinet secretary still believe that the fatal accident inquiry system is working properly?

As Liam McArthur knows, the fatal accident inquiry system that we now have was debated and agreed in 2016. It was subsequently considered by the Justice Committee, which looked at the issues in depth and did not recommend, for example, the introduction of mandatory time limits for fatal accident inquiries.

However, we can always look to improve the situation. We have allocated new funding to the law officers to ensure that, when they are held, FAIs can be conducted more quickly. Liam McArthur will also know that, often, other inquiries must take place prior to an FAI taking place.

We will look to make any further improvements that we can. For my part, I am more than willing to listen to any representations that are made by the Criminal Justice Committee. In the meantime, we believe that the FAI system is one that works, albeit that we should always seek to improve it.

It is not only in relation to deaths in custody that fatal accident inquiries fail—the whole system is in need of reform.

In 2019, research by the Scottish Liberal Democrats found decade-long delays to investigations. The Scottish Government and the Lord Advocate promised resources and improvements in response, but reports of decade-long delays keep on coming. Why does the cabinet secretary believe that more of the same is enough?

I have just said that I believe that more has to be done. I also mentioned that additional resources were made available, and we have seen reductions in the length of inquiries. There has also been an increase in the number of inquiries over recent years. As that happens, pressures can build up, and it is up to the Scottish Government to ensure that we look at the matter afresh. However, it is not only down to the Scottish Government—we have to listen to what parliamentary committees such as the Justice Committee, which examined the issues in depth, have to say.

We will continue to seriously consider the issue, because we know the heartbreak that it can cause—Liam McArthur mentioned some of the people concerned—when a system is delayed, albeit that the delays might be for legitimate purposes.

The bottom line is that fatal accident inquiries are simply taking too long to commence and too long to conclude. The average time to complete an FAI is nearly three years, which is up from two years in just one year. That is a shocking statistic.

Conservative members support the introduction of a statutory maximum timescale for fatal accident inquiries. Why does the cabinet secretary not support that?

As I understand it, members of Jamie Greene’s party did not support that position back in 2016, when the matter was previously discussed. Maybe there is a reason why they have changed their view, and I am happy to listen to any representations on the issue. However, Jamie Greene will also know—[Interruption.] If I could just finish before Mr Kerr starts shouting from a sedentary position, as he does on a regular basis.

Of course, it is the case that the—[Interruption.] It is the case that fatal accident inquiries are conducted by the Lord Advocate, independently of the Scottish Government. I am not aware that other parties, including the Conservative Party, want to change that. If they wish to do so, they can make such a proposal.

Where the system is not working as effectively as it could be, we and the law officers want to do all that we can to ensure that things are done as timeously as possible. We have seen improvements in recent years, partly due to the resources that have been allocated to the system.

If there are other suggestions, we should keep an open mind.

That concludes topical questions.