Meeting date: Tuesday, December 21, 2021
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 21 December 2021
Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Point of Order, Rented Housing Sector, Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Point of Order, Covid-19 Vaccines
- Time for Reflection
- Business Motion
- Topical Question Time
- Point of Order
- Rented Housing Sector
- Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
- Point of Order
- Covid-19 Vaccines
Topical Question Time
The next item of business is topical question time. In order to get in as many people as possible, I would appreciate short and succinct questions and responses.
To ask the Scottish Government whether it will explain its decision to increase peak and off-peak regulated rail fares by 3.8 per cent. (S6T-00385)
I assure members that the decision was not taken at all lightly. Significant analysis was carried out by ScotRail and Transport Scotland to look at various options for rail fares. The cost of delivering rail services must be met at a time when passenger numbers remain well below pre-Covid levels. Fiscal prudence makes an inflation-linked fares increase necessary, unfortunately. I have heard others call for fares freeze or offers of free travel to entice people back to rail. Unfortunately, none of those suggestions comes with any recommendation on how to fund them.
Scotland faces a climate crisis, but what impact will fares hikes have on passenger growth and modal shift? Scotland faces a cost-of-living crisis, so why rule out a fares freeze to keep costs down for commuters? Why hike fares in January, when even the Tories are waiting until March? After months of industrial unrest with the rail unions, and with fares hikes about to hammer passengers, our railways face a leadership crisis under the transport minister. Will he explain how his fares hikes are compatible with action on the climate emergency and the soaring cost of living that commuters face?
As I have made clear, the situation is regrettable but necessary. Consideration was given to applying no increase or an increase below the retail prices index, but with costs of between £6.5 million and £9.1 million, those options could not be taken forward, especially as such a decision would have had a cumulative impact that would recur annually in future years. We have to ensure that rail fares are affordable for the taxpayer as well as for passengers. We need a rail service that is financially sustainable. Although the Government covers the majority of the cost of rail passenger services, fares have to contribute overall funding.
I recognise the point about encouraging people back on to rail as part of action to tackle the climate emergency; it is an important point. However, we must also make rail sustainable from a financial perspective, and we are in a difficult situation at the moment.
Scotland’s railway faces a leadership crisis under this Government. In a written parliamentary answer to a question that I asked, which was issued on Thursday, the transport minister said that his fares strategy remains under consideration. On Friday—a matter of hours later—the minister announced to the nation his brutal 3.8 per cent fares hike. When was the decision to increase fares taken? Does the minister expect the travelling public to believe that the answer that he gave me on Thursday is remotely credible?
As I made clear, a great deal of consideration was given, over an extended period, to the necessity of a fares increase. As I said, I wish that it was not necessary, but I am afraid that it is.
ScotRail’s current range of discounts to reduce the cost of travel for passengers had been working to promote train travel before the arrival of omicron. How does the Scottish National Party’s record in Government of supporting affordable travel compare with that of the rest of the United Kingdom? Given that we need trains to run over the festive period and beyond, what advice can the minister give people to encourage safe travelling?
It is a fact that the Scottish Government’s approach to rail fare costs has ensured that the average fare remains 20 per cent cheaper than fares across the rest of the United Kingdom.
I want to pick up Bill Kidd’s point about the current situation. ScotRail is doing all that it can to manage cancellations while its affected staff follow isolation rules. Unfortunately, that situation changes by the hour. We encourage passengers to plan their journeys, taking account of the latest operator updates and Scottish Government guidance. I also appeal to passengers, please, to follow all the basic Covid protection measures to protect themselves, fellow passengers and, of course, staff.
I put it to the minister that he might want to look again at how we do fare increases and at the ticketing settlement agreement, and that he perhaps pegs increases to the consumer price index rather than to the retail price index, because we cannot go on like this.
I could point out that the increase is almost identical to the one that has been introduced in England by the Conservatives, but I do not want to do that. I want to accept that Mr Simpson is trying to engage constructively on the issue. In that spirit, I would be happy to meet him to discuss these matters.
“The 2020/21 audit of the Scottish Government Consolidated Accounts”
To ask the Scottish Government what actions it will take in response to the 2020-21 audit of its consolidated accounts by the Auditor General for Scotland. (S6T-00388)
I welcome the Auditor General’s opinion on the accounts. This is the 16th consecutive year that the accounts have received an unqualified opinion, demonstrating the Scottish Government’s sound and transparent management of the country’s finances. The financial position that is reported in the accounts has been taken into account in the subsequent budget process. There are aspects on which action has already been taken and is in progress. However, the Scottish Government will consider and respond to all audit recommendations and will report on agreed actions. The report will, I understand, be considered by the Public Audit Committee in January, and the Scottish Government will respond to the committee’s interest in any aspect of the report, which is wide ranging.
Describing the Auditor General and Audit Scotland as the “Opposition” is not a good look for the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy or the Deputy First Minister. The cabinet secretary seems to have been busying herself claiming that the rest of us just do not understand the numbers. I am more than satisfied that the Auditor General understands the numbers, and I hope that the cabinet secretary does, too. The Auditor General says that there is a £580 million underspend for 2020-21. Will the minister tell us straight—because it should be an easy answer—the specific amounts of funding and which specific departments and projects that £580 million has now been allocated to? In short, where is the money?
First, I would say to Stephen Kerr that I do not recognise the remarks that he attributes to the Deputy First Minister or the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy. I would assure the member and Parliament that this Government has absolute respect for all the work that Audit Scotland carries out.
With regard to the member’s other questions, I would refer him to the statement that I gave to Parliament six months ago, on the provisional outturn, or to the budget document that was published for the current financial year, in which the majority of that underspend was carried forward. If he seeks further guidance on the matter, I suggest that he look behind him, to Liz Smith, to whom I wrote following the provisional outturn statement, providing further detail following the statement in the summer.
I note that the minister was unable to answer that specific question.
What else do we learn from the report? We learn that £45 million of European Union funds has been lost due to Scottish Government failures and that it is having to be paid from the Scottish Government accounts. We also learn that hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ pounds have been wasted by the SNP on bailout projects that have “not delivered expected outcomes” and that are
“unlikely to achieve value for money.”
The Auditor General says that it is essential that the Scottish Government learns lessons from those significant failures, so will the minister tell the chamber what lessons he has learned?
We listen closely to all recommendations that are made by the Auditor General. As I said in my answer to Mr Kerr’s original question, I understand that the Public Audit Committee will consider the report early in the new year. We will monitor, study and listen closely to what that committee has to say.
With regard to where funds have been allocated, I appreciate that Mr Kerr is relatively new to the Scottish Parliament but I restate that the majority of the underspend was anticipated. We have a process of budget revisions in the autumn and the spring, when money is allocated. Indeed, I detailed those further aspects of the underspend to which Mr Kerr refers to the Finance and Public Administration Committee last month, when I presented the autumn budget revision. Mr Kerr will find full details of that in the Official Report and in the other documents published on the Scottish Government’s website. I am sure that they will provide stimulating, engaging and informative reading for Mr Kerr during the Christmas period.
Social Care Workforce
To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to address any workforce issues in social care, in light of comments from the chief executive of Scottish Care that the social care sector is facing the biggest workforce crisis it has ever experienced. (S6T-00382)
The Scottish Government is fully committed to improving the experience of the social care workforce, as we recognise and value the work that it does. As part of the £300 million national health service care winter package, we announced an increase in wages for our adult social care workforce who are delivering direct care to £10.02 per hour from 1 December 2021. As we announced as part of the Scottish budget, we will increase those wages again next year to a minimum hourly rate of £10.50 per hour. That represents an increase of 12.9 per cent for lower-paid workers in the course of a year.
In collaboration with partners, we are working to attract more people to the sector. On 8 November, we launched a national marketing campaign, which is doing things differently from previously campaigns by focusing on social media and a younger target audience and by working with schools and colleges. The campaign links to other work that we are doing with the Scottish Social Services Council and NHS Education for Scotland on career pathways and learning and development. We have also funded the myjobscotland recruitment website, so that all social care vacancies can be advertised in one place and at no additional cost to all third and independent sector organisations.
I put on the record my thanks for the remarkable job that those who are working in social care have done throughout the pandemic. I have no doubt that they will continue to do that during this winter.
I thank Mr Stewart for his answer, and I join him in putting on the record our sincere thanks to everybody who is working on the front line in the sector just now.
Donald Macaskill, the chief executive of Scottish Care, recently warned a committee of the Parliament. He said that the sector is “haemorrhaging” staff to better paid and less stressful jobs in retail and hospitality. The coming months will see more and more providers going to the wall. Although I welcome the £10.50 per hour that has been announced, does the minister accept that that is not enough and that, if we do not increase low pay in the sector substantially, we will not tackle the problems that we are facing in social care?
The Government takes this very seriously, which is why we are funding two wage increases in a short period of time. Let me compare the situation now to when Labour was in power. At that point, the minimum pay for care workers was £5.35 an hour. The figure will be £10.50 from April under this Government. It is not as much as we would like it to be, but it is still 96.2 per cent higher than it was under the previous Labour Administration. Mr Rowley should take cognisance of that fact and ask himself why Labour did not do more to increase the pay of social care workers when it was in power.
I have already welcomed the announced increase, but I have also made it clear that I do not believe that it is enough. People will be dismayed to hear Mr Stewart playing party politics on such a serious issue. I will quote Dr Andrew Buist, the chair of the general practitioners committee of the British Medical Association Scotland. He said:
“We must do something to support the social care workforce”,
or the burden
“that that creates on the rest of the system will take down anything else that we try to do.”—[Official Report, Covid-19 Recovery Committee, 11 November 2021; c 21-2.]
Does the minister accept that, although massive progress is being made, it is not enough and we cannot tackle the problem if we do not tackle the low pay in social care? Will he therefore make representations directly to the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy to bring forward a further increase to tackle the issue?
I am glad that Mr Rowley recognises that there has been a massive change and an improvement. The Government will continue to do all that it can to ensure that we are paying people fairly—and we have done, with our fair work ministerial working group looking at pay across the social care sector. We have said, in our national care service consultation, not only that we will look at pay but that we will look at conditions in the sector. Of course, we also want to ensure that there is care progression, so that we can attract new people to enter the care profession.
As for discussions with the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy, I know that Mr Rowley often does not have much faith in negotiations with the finance secretary involving his own colleagues, but I suggest that he ask his finance spokesperson to discuss with the cabinet secretary what further ways forward there are on this front.
Carers and vulnerable people who are listening to the minister will be severely disappointed by his partisan tone this afternoon. Carers in my constituency are telling me directly that they are at breaking point. They tell me that, right now, vulnerable people are going without visits, without medication, without food and without showering. That is not a situation that we should have in a modern Scotland. What practical steps will the minister take today to deal with this crisis, which we are facing right now? No partisan politics; just practical steps.
The Government is taking practical steps every single day of the week to help health and social care partnerships and local authorities to get it right for people. Mr Rennie is right in saying that it is all about people and the care that they need and deserve. That is why the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care and I are in regular discussions with health and social care partnerships, health boards and local authorities across the country, to see what we can do to alleviate any difficulties that people experience.
I was on to Fife health and social care partnership, Fife Council and Fife NHS Board only last week to discuss issues around delayed discharge and to ensure that we get care right for people. The cabinet secretary and I will continue to have those discussions and do all that we possibly can to improve the situation for people across the country.