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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 22, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 22 March 2018

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Down’s Syndrome Awareness Week, Major Infrastructure Projects, Fair Work, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


General Question Time

Childcare Charges (Glasgow City Council)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that Glasgow City Council has increased charges for childcare. (S5O-01927)

The statutory early learning and childcare entitlement of 600 hours per year, which is around 16 hours per week, is fully funded by the Scottish Government, and it is free to families at the point of access.

Every council has to choose how it funds the addition wraparound hours that some parents pay for. I understand that Glasgow City Council has its own policy on when, and how much, to charge parents, depending on different factors, and that the council continues to subsidise the cost of those hours.

The Scottish Government will fully fund the expansion to 1,140 hours a year, which will reduce the need for wraparound hours, and the Government has helped Glasgow City Council, and all councils, with a real-terms increase in their revenue budgets next year to enable them to continue to support services.

That was very interesting, but it did not really answer my question. I was contacted by a constituent who reported that her childcare costs have increased by £190 a month, without consultation or any consideration of the immediate impact that that would have on her family budget.

Does the minister share my concern that many families in Glasgow are affected by that decision and that it is a direct contradiction to a commitment to early affordable childcare? Although the matter is one for Glasgow City Council, what is the minister’s view of the decision? Does it reflect a lack of commitment to affordable childcare or a lack of resources from the Scottish Government to deliver that childcare? Is the minister willing to meet parents to discuss her view, as expressed in committee yesterday, that the increase in Glasgow is fairly priced, compared with alternatives?

I am more than happy to meet the people that the member mentioned. The matter is one for the local authority. The Scottish Government has a track record of fully funding the previous expansion from 475 to 600 hours of funded early learning and childcare, and we will fully fund the expansion to 1,140 hours.

The expansion to 1,140 hours will make a significant contribution to Scottish families. We estimate that it will save families £4,500 a year. In addition, later this year we will implement a pilot deposit guarantee scheme that will aim to reduce the burden of up-front childcare costs for families, and Glasgow is one of the pilot sites.

Does the minister agree that there is still a challenge for some parents in securing affordable and flexible early learning and childcare? How will the Scottish Government help to reduce the barriers to participation in the labour market that some parents face?

I agree with George Adam. That challenge is a major part of why we are expanding the system to 1,140 hours, which will help parents to meet the costs and secure the childcare that they need. As I have said, the expansion to 1,140 hours will make a significant contribution to Scottish families—we think that it will save each family around £4,500 a year. As well as that saving, the expansion will enable parents to go on to training or work more hours, which will also improve the family’s finances.

Question 2 has been withdrawn.

Direct Rail Services (Ayrshire and Edinburgh)

3. Willie Coffey (Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the provision of more direct rail services between Ayrshire and Edinburgh. (S5O-01929)

A direct service is currently available between Ayr and Edinburgh, which offers five services per day. The introduction of an additional direct service between Ayrshire and Edinburgh has been investigated by ScotRail, but it was not considered feasible to operate a through service between Kilmarnock and Edinburgh because of the detrimental impact that that would have on other services.

The minister will be aware that, under current arrangements, it takes more than two hours to get from stations in Ayrshire to Edinburgh, and that all those journeys involve changing trains and/or stations. As the minister said, there are no direct services for a journey of only 65 miles or so. Does the minister agree that that is a significant impediment to people from Ayrshire who might wish to make use of the many job opportunities in Scotland’s capital, but who want to continue to live in Ayrshire, and that real direct express rail services could be a huge boost to the people of Ayrshire?

I have no doubt at all about the logic of what the member is saying, and I would advise him to continue to engage with ScotRail on that. He will, of course, understand that any increase in a service in one part of the network might well have a detrimental effect or impact on another part. I encourage Willie Coffey to engage with ScotRail on the challenges that it faces with regard to its timetable.

On the issue of improvements to the line, the member will be aware that we now have a local rail development fund, which means that, if the local authority or the regional transport partnership wants to consider improvements on the line, they can apply for that funding, and I would encourage them to do so.

My door is always open to Willie Coffey and other members about what is the art of the possible.

I welcome the introduction of the direct service between Ayr and Edinburgh and say how much it is valued by my constituents. I support everything that Willie Coffey says on behalf of his constituents in that regard.

Are there any plans to increase the frequency of the service between Ayr and Edinburgh and perhaps to increase the capacity of that train? Having travelled on it myself, I know that it can be overcrowded by the time that it gets to Edinburgh.

The member will be aware that we are working hard to on the introduction of the class 385 trains. Further, in May, high-speed trains will be introduced across the network, which will allow rolling stock to be cascaded across the network, which will free up capacity and introduce more capacity to the network. I will send John Scott and Willie Coffey a note about how that will affect the capacity on the service that they are asking about.

Of course, the offer that I made to Willie Coffey is also open to John Scott—I am more than happy to discuss with him where improvements can be made. However, questions about operational matters should be directed to ScotRail. If Willie Coffey and John Scott have not met Alex Hynes, the managing director of ScotRail, I encourage them to do so, because there are some challenges around increasing the frequency of services, due to the timetable that is being run. Again, the art of the possible should be explored wherever it can be.

I would also like to see more direct services to Edinburgh from Ayrshire, and also from Inverclyde and Renfrewshire. Currently, only a small number of direct trains that travel from Ayr to Edinburgh go via Carstairs—it is more like round rail than crossrail.

Progressing the long-awaited Glasgow crossrail scheme would make it quicker and easier for my constituents to travel for business and leisure to our capital city and for people to travel to the west. I urge the minister again to give serious consideration to the significant benefits of the Glasgow crossrail scheme with regard to improving connectivity.

I am aware of issues around the crossrail scheme. The member will of course know that, in 2008, the project was considered as part of the strategic transport projects review, but, for a number of reasons, a decision was made that it would not be progressed.

If Glasgow City Council, some of the other relevant local authorities and Strathclyde partnership for transport, which is the regional transport partnership, want to submit a bid to the local rail development fund in order to explore whether crossrail can be progressed in a way that is feasible, is financially viable and will make an improvement to the rail services around Glasgow, that opportunity exists, and I encourage the member to have a conversation in that regard with Glasgow City Council and SPT.

Following on from Neil Bibby’s question, I point out that one of the pinch points is Glasgow Central station. Does the minister agree that using crossrail would take pressure off Glasgow Central station and lead to quicker services, which would please Willie Coffey?

John Mason is absolutely correct to say that Glasgow Central is our busiest station. As he knows, there are some capacity issues at that station already, and, as I have just said to Neil Bibby, the crossrail project was explored before but, for a variety of reasons, was not progressed.

The local rail development fund provides an opportunity for the crossrail project to be explored again, as does the commencement of the next control period—control period 6, which will run between 2019 and 2024—in regard to which further investment decisions will be made. If SPT and other partners and stakeholders wish to re-explore the crossrail project, there are opportunities to do that. I encourage the member to have those conversations.

Concessionary Travel (16 to 18-year-olds)

4. Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to extend concessionary travel for all 16 to 18-year-olds. (S5O-01930)

The national concessionary travel scheme for young people provides discounts on bus and rail travel within Scotland for all young people aged 16 to 18 who live in Scotland. Using the Young Scot smart card, the scheme offers a one third discount off the adult single fare on any registered bus service in Scotland, one third off most rail journeys in Scotland, and a 50 per cent discount on rail season tickets. Eligible island residents also receive vouchers for four free ferry journeys a year.

In addition, the Scottish Government is discussing with our partners and other key stakeholders the best way to introduce free bus travel for young modern apprentices and for young carers in receipt of the planned young carer grant, and three months of free bus travel for recipients of the proposed job grant who are aged between 16 and 24, once those benefits come into force.

I welcome the progress that has been made, but it does not go far enough. Seventy-eight per cent of 16 to 18-year-olds are in education, and only 6 per cent of them are in full-time work. Does the minister recognise that there is a certain unfairness for people turning 16, in that their fares will double for peak fares on buses, trains and ferries, because the concessionary fares mainly relate to off-peak travel? Many of those people earn as little as £4.05 an hour, if they are earning at all. In view of that, does the minister consider that we should go further and have a much deeper policy for young people in that age group? For example, will he consider a short-term scheme of free or reduced fares on buses or trains for a period of three years, so that we can assess the benefits of such a scheme and the uptake by young people in that age group of free transport or better fares?

If Pauline McNeill has a detailed and costed proposal, I would, of course, be happy to look at it. If she can say from where that money would be found and from which budget it would come, I would, of course, be more than happy to have a conversation about that with her. It would be great to have Scottish Labour’s support for the measures that we are taking forward already and those that we hope to take forward for young modern apprentices, and for the discounts that we will bring in for those in receipt of a young carer grant or a job grant. Those are not incidental or small changes; they are significant changes that are aimed at the most vulnerable young people in society, and I am sure that we will have Pauline McNeill’s support for them.

I will, of course, have a conversation with Pauline McNeill about any pilot scheme that she wants us to explore. However, I emphasise that I would like to see details of such a scheme and the costs attached to it, as it is clear that the money would have to be found from somewhere.

Transport Scotland’s consultation on concessionary bus travel for 16 to 18-year-olds references the current scheme for concessionary bus travel for pensioners. Will the minister confirm that there is a cost to the public purse only if and when the pass is used? Will he consider that when he responds to that consultation?

Yes, I will. The consultation was extraordinarily popular: almost 3,000 members of the public and more than 100 organisations offered their views on it. We are considering all the views that were expressed and, in the coming few weeks, we will be able to give more information on how we intend to proceed. However, we understand the benefits of the national concessionary travel scheme, which is why we have funded it throughout our time in government. I hope that other members will help us come to a sustainable solution for that concessionary travel scheme and will support our wish to widen it out to young modern apprentices and others.

Mental Health (Workplace)

5. Ash Denham (Edinburgh Eastern) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to support mental health in the workplace. (S5O-01931)

Supporting the mental health of employees in the workplace is extremely important for both the individual and the organisation. Such support can lead to reduced sickness absence, improved productivity and lower staff turnover. Employers have a duty of care towards their employees and should take appropriate steps to ensure that mental health and wellbeing is protected and promoted.

Our 10-year mental health strategy aims to improve the uptake of and access to a range of services that are aimed at improving mental health in the workplace. We fund the healthy working lives programme in NHS Health Scotland—that funding is £1.6 million in 2017-18—to provide advice and support to employers on the measures that they can take. That support includes a free and confidential advice line and free training courses to equip employers with the skills and knowledge that they require.

How does the Government plan to encourage as many organisations and individuals as possible to take part in the current engagement process for the draft suicide prevention action plan?

We are seeking views on the themes and draft actions for possible inclusion in the new suicide prevention action plan, which is aimed at continuing the downward trend in suicides in Scotland. We published our engagement paper on that on 8 March and notified a wide range of organisations and individuals by email as well as issuing a press release. We invite individuals and organisations to submit their comments on the engagement paper by 30 April, through our Citizen Space website. To support discussion by interested organisations and individuals, NHS Health Scotland has arranged a number of public engagement events, details of which are available online. Those have proved popular and, if there is sufficient interest, NHS Health Scotland will consider arranging more.

Can the minister outline what work is being undertaken by NHS Health Scotland to support mental health in the workplace in Scotland’s island communities, and in particular what it is doing to engage with small and medium-sized businesses?

As I said in my previous answer, the measures and the support available online through NHS Scotland are of course available to everyone throughout Scotland. Free training courses are also available throughout Scotland.

Access to mental health support for young people has been spoken about many times in the chamber. We are all aware of the poor statistics, particularly on access to child and adolescent mental health services. That is why Scottish Labour has pledged to ring fence mental health budgets, to guarantee access to mental health support in every workplace, college and school and to develop mental health training for staff in schools and workplaces. We know what needs to be done and are committed to doing it, so why do the minister and her Government not know that?

We, too, know what needs to be done. The member might be interested to know that, just this morning, I was at Ayrshire College announcing more than a quarter of a million pounds for the National Union of Students Scotland to help it to develop more mental health help and advice in our colleges and universities.

Non-domestic Rates (2017 Revaluation)

To ask the Scottish Government how many businesses’ non-domestic rates bill increased as a result of the 2017 revaluation. (S5O-01932)

The purpose of a revaluation is to redistribute the tax burden among non-domestic properties to reflect changes in property rental markets. Following the 2017 revaluation, at least 69 per cent of non-domestic properties paid less or no more in rates than they had done previously. Of course, the impact of reliefs and appeals will increase that percentage.

I remind members of my entry in the register of members’ interests, which shows that I am a director and shareholder of a business with retail interests in Edinburgh.

Following the rates revaluation, many businesses faced large increases and are struggling as a result. I know of at least two in my constituency that closed as a direct result of the increase in their rates bills and of others, such as the Leaf and Bean Cafe, that are very worried about the future of their business because of the increases. The latest statistics show that there has been a 10 per cent increase in the number of businesses appealing the revaluation, which takes the total of those appealing to a third of all businesses. Does the cabinet secretary believe that that just shows that businesses are desperate following the large increases or, worse, that they have no confidence in the calculations that have been made in their rates bill?

No. I think that it is Daniel Johnson and the Labour Party that are desperate on the issue, and on a whole host of other matters. The serious issue here—

Tell that to my constituents, who are going out of business.

Order, Mr Johnson.

I know that Mr Johnson has not been a supporter of the many interventions that the Government has made and that the Labour Party’s position on non-domestic rates is in sharp contrast to the lobbying that Daniel Johnson has undertaken on the matter.

We should bear in mind that, in the revaluation, the valuations and what the assessors do are independent. This Government has taken the relief package to £720 million; has expanded reliefs, including the small business bonus, which has lifted 100,000 properties out of rates altogether; has capped increases for a range of businesses; has reduced the poundage measure; has committed to more frequent and quicker revaluations of business rates; has delivered the growth accelerator; has empowered local authorities; and is implementing the Barclay review. That is what the Government is doing to support businesses across Scotland, in the face of Labour and Tory opposition.

According to the Scottish Government’s own statistics, by the end of February, 73,577 businesses had appealed their 2017 valuation. Of those, more than 73,000 were still waiting for a decision. Just 0.7 per cent had had the issue resolved by the end of February. Those delays are causing a great deal of concern to businesses, particularly small businesses that are run by individuals. Is there anything more that the Scottish Government can do to try to speed up the process?

That is a very fair question. Although I recognise that the Scottish Assessors Association and the valuation joint boards are independent of Government and that it is for them to work through their work programme, I met them before and during the Barclay review and after it produced its recommendations to ensure that they are fully resourced to deliver those recommendations.

It is normal for appeals to take some time. However, I want to raise awareness of a process that can expedite appeal hearings for any business, including those that might be under some stress. I encourage those going through the system to use that if they think that it would be appropriate. It is important that I draw attention to that process, as it is all the more reason for people to support the Barclay reforms as they relate to assessors.

Assessors have come to me with the implementation plan of the recommendations that relate to them. I am particularly enthusiastic about that. I hope that, along with specific reforms around appeals, it will be a help to have quicker implementation and appeals and more frequent revaluations in future.