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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 22 May 2019

Agenda: Business Support Inquiry, Mental Health Services (Quality and Safety), General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, Local Radio


General Question Time


To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to help boost Scotland’s exports. (S5O-03280)

The Scottish Government has embarked on an ambitious course of action to grow Scotland’s exports. “A Trading Nation” represents the most comprehensive analysis of Scotland’s export performance alongside market opportunity ever undertaken by the Scottish Government. We seek to grow the value of Scotland’s exports as a percentage of gross domestic product from 20 per cent to 25 per cent over the next 10 years.

Resources will be directed towards delivering export growth and forcing a step change in performance to deliver a resilient, internationalised and inclusive economy. We are bolstering our existing support with an additional £20 million of investment over three years. That investment will be maximised by focusing on the sectors, markets and businesses where our efforts and those of our delivery partners can have the most impact. We will monitor progress and keep our actions and the evidence under review.

Page 73 of the recently published Scottish Government plan, “A Trading Nation”, discusses the importance of air routes connecting to Scotland’s international markets, including through Edinburgh airport. It accepts that Scotland has fewer direct long-haul flights than similar-sized European nations. Will the minister comment on the effect that his Government’s U-turn on air departure tax will have on the ability to attract those routes, which are vital to increasing exports?

The Scottish Government recognises the importance of air routes to growing our economy and our exports, as clearly specified in the plan, but we also recognise the fact that there is a climate emergency. The purpose of the work that we are undertaking in the economy portfolio, with our environmental concerns to the fore, is to ensure that we deliver to meet the requirements of the climate change emergency and grow Scotland’s economy in a sustainable way, built to a not-insignificant extent on our expertise in renewable energies as exportable commodities.

The minister will be aware of the recent food and drink statistics that put the value of Scotland’s industry exports at more than £6 billion. Does the Scottish Government agree that that progress in growth is put at risk by the Brexit that both the Tories and the Labour Party are pursuing?

Indeed I do. Brexit has the capability to impact right across our economy, and particularly on our export sector. As we all know, the food and drink sector is very much dependent on short supply chains to market and rapidly getting product to customers. There is a significant risk to that sector, and many others, from the reckless behaviour of the Conservative Party and the Labour Party with regard to Brexit.

Question 2 was not lodged.

A96 (Dualling)

To ask the Scottish Government on what grounds Transport Scotland has failed to reveal which further option or options it has abandoned for dualling the A96. (S5O-03282)

As is the case for all major road projects, it is important that we maintain transparency throughout the route selection process and that we provide everyone with an interest with an equal opportunity to view our plans and discuss them directly with the project team.

The member is fully aware that public engagement events are due to be held from 28 to 31 May, which will give local communities and road users the opportunity to see and comment on the options being taken forward for further assessment.

To ensure that as many people as possible are aware of the events in advance, they have been widely advertised, with approximately 3,500 invites having been issued to everyone who has expressed an interest in our proposals, including the member.

The cabinet secretary is well aware of the environmental impact and cost of building a modern dual carriageway where no such road exists at the moment, and that most of the options that Transport Scotland has been considering involve a whole new route for the A96 between Huntly and Kintore. Given his prediction that dualling the A96 will cost the taxpayer four times as much as the Aberdeen western peripheral route cost, is it not time for Transport Scotland to look for an alternative approach that would minimise the environmental impact and command public support?

I do not know whether the member is tempting me to say that we should abandon the dualling of the A96; I am sure that that is not the case.

The environmental impact assessments are a key part of the route assessment process that is being undertaken, and they will be taken into account before a final decision is made on the preferred route.

With regard to the wider environmental agenda, as the First Minister has already indicated, we are looking at a range of policy areas across Government, including in my portfolio, in considering how we can address some of the wider issues that affect our climate change challenge.

I assure the member that the environmental impact assessments are a key part of the decision making that will inform the decision on the preferred route option.

Last month, I asked the Government whether the traffic flow resulting from the completion of the AWPR would be taken into account in the assessment of the best route for the dual part of the A96 from Kintore/Inverurie to Huntly. How long will the assessment take, and what importance will be placed on it as the preferred route decision is reached?

Given that the AWPR is now open, traffic surveys will be undertaken in the coming weeks. The data that is collated from that will help to inform the decision when a choice on the preferred route is made by the end of this year.

The cabinet secretary is well aware that there is a very strong feeling in the Inverurie area that dualling the existing road around Inverurie is the best and the most cost-effective route in upgrading the A96. Why has that option been ruled out, and why has the cabinet secretary refused to meet the group that is pursuing it?

I am aware that, when we undertake such major infrastructure projects, different groups of individuals will have different opinions on what the preferred route should be. As part of the engagement process that has been undertaken during May by Transport Scotland officials and their consultants, the details as to why they have rejected some of the proposals will be set out.

One such proposal, in terms of the online upgrade plans, which the member is aware of because he has raised the matter before, was ruled out because of the impact on existing residential premises, which would be affected by the loss of garden areas and, in some cases, the loss of the property altogether. That is why it was one of the routes that was ruled out.

I assure the member that, as a Government, we are committed to making sure that we improve the infrastructure in the north-east of Scotland, as we did with the AWPR and as we are doing with the upgrading of the rail line between Aberdeen and Inverness with our £300 million railway infrastructure investment and with the upgrading of the A96 to dual the route between Aberdeen and Inverness.

ATMs at Post Offices (Non-domestic Rates)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the National Federation of SubPostmasters regarding additional charging of non-domestic rates for external ATMs at post offices. (S5O-03283)

I recently spoke to the National Federation of SubPostmasters about non-domestic rates for external ATMs at post offices. In that conversation, it specifically commended Angus MacDonald for his support for the federation. This afternoon, I wrote to the federation regarding the valuation of ATMs in post offices, and I am happy to answer any specific queries that Angus MacDonald may have.

Although I acknowledge that, under the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, each local authority has powers to create rates relief to reflect local needs, does the minister agree that the Government should acknowledge the increasing contribution that local post offices are making in the wake of significant local bank branch closures? As post offices become, in effect, the new banking facilities for their communities, does she agree that there should be more cognisance of that and that a start would be to stop classing external ATMs as another business? That puts extra financial pressures on sub-postmasters and increases domestic rates bills when ATMs are already integral to post offices’ services.

Angus MacDonald is right about the importance of post offices to local communities and economies in Scotland, particularly in light of bank branch closures. That is why we have some reliefs in place already, particularly for ATMs in rural areas, which are exempt from rating. That includes the building in which the ATM is situated, if the building is used only for the purposes of the ATM. There is also relief for post offices in rural areas. If a post office has a rateable value of under £8,500 and is the only post office located in a designated rural area, it is eligible for relief.

I am happy to discuss any specific concerns that Angus MacDonald may have, particularly in relation to his more urban constituency.

A post office in Possilpark in my constituency required to pay rates on its ATM, which is supplied by the Bank of Ireland. Such ATMs are the only ones that customers with a Post Office card account can use—they cannot use any others. Does the minister agree that the POCA card ATM can be a lifeline for the most vulnerable in society, such as pensioners, the disabled and families on benefits? If she does, will she request an urgent review of the rateable value of such ATMs? The costs that are levied are, effectively, passed on to local businesses that provide a vital service, and if those ATMs are withdrawn, it is my constituents who will suffer.

I absolutely understand the importance of those services to Bob Doris’s constituents. If the Scottish Government can do more to help, we will certainly consider that, with the caveat that rateable values are set by independent assessors, and the Scottish Government has no remit to interfere in that process. Nevertheless, if Bob Doris and Angus MacDonald would like to meet me to discuss their specific constituency issues, I would be happy to do that.

Lomond Banks Development

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of the potential impact on the local natural environment, what its position is on whether the proposed development at Lomond Banks near Balloch is an acceptable proposal for a national park. (S5O-03284)

As I am sure that the member will understand, ministers cannot comment on the specifics of the proposed development as it is a live planning case.

Tourism does not mean that we have to have commercialisation at the expense of local residents’ quality of life. Does the minister agree that the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park Authority must put the interests of residents of Balloch and the surrounding area first and foremost, particularly when VisitScotland’s “Trends 2018” document states that VisitScotland recognises that friendly locals add to a tourism experience, and that living in a tourist area has an impact on people’s lives?

I simply refer the member to my initial answer. I am sure that the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park Authority will consider all relevant information pertaining to the case. I emphasise that it is for the national park authority, as the relevant planning authority, to determine the application, and that any development must be in keeping with the statutory aims of the national park and compliant with Scottish planning policy and the development plan.

About 20 years ago, Scottish Enterprise purchased the land for the proposed development for £2 million. I understand that it now intends to sell it for £200,000 to the Lomond Banks developers—a significant difference. Indeed, Lomond Banks is likely to receive a grant, so public funds could be used to pay it to develop the area. Does the minister regard that as an appropriate use of public resources? Will she consider with planning colleagues whether to call in the planning application, which would provide confidence in the decision-making process?

Again, I refer the member to my initial answer in which I said that this is a live planning case and that I simply cannot comment on it. On her second point, that would be a matter for the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning to consider rather than me. If there are any particular issues that Jackie Baillie would like to raise, I urge her to submit a comment to the planning process to highlight them—indeed, I am sure that she has already done so.

ME (Draft Neurological Action Plan)

To ask the Scottish Government how the draft neurological action plan will help people with ME. (S5O-03285)

We want to ensure that everyone living with ME in Scotland is able to access the best possible care and support to live well on their own terms. That is why we have made it a priority, through our programme for government, to implement Scotland’s first national action plan on neurological conditions, which has been produced in collaboration with the neurological community and will be published in final form later this year.

I have a very courageous 17-year-old constituent who, despite having been diagnosed with ME and having missed substantial periods of school, has passed six of their national 5 exams and hopes one day to attend university. They have expressed concern that ME is not included in the action plan. Will the minister take this opportunity to reassure my constituent and others that their opinions will be reflected in the final report?

First, I congratulate Maureen Watt’s constituent on their exam results and wish them the very best for the future. The national action plan for neurological conditions is not condition specific. It encompasses all conditions—including ME—and takes a broad approach with the aim of making improvements for everyone, regardless of the specific neurological condition that they live with.

We are currently reviewing the responses that were received during the recent public consultation. We want everyone to fully embrace the action plan and to recognise it as representing their condition and circumstances. We will therefore take on board the feedback that we have received and endeavour to ensure that the final plan is clear, throughout its intent and scope, that it is for all neurological conditions, including ME.

I agree with the points that Maureen Watt made.

What discussions has the Scottish Government had with ME charities and other stakeholders about how to increase the current levels of funding for research into ME? Will he agree to meet me and the charities to discuss how we take that forward?

The Scottish Government frequently meets a range of stakeholders. If Mr Briggs wants to have a discussion about that specific issue, I am sure that we could include it in the next of our regular meetings.

Health Services (Rural Areas)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to support health services in rural areas. (S5O-03286)

We are supporting rural general practice through a comprehensive package of measures, which include increased investment in recruitment incentives and relocation costs for general practitioners who move to rural posts, investment to support information technology improvements and rural dispensing practices, and investment in GP recruitment and resilience schemes.

In addition, the new GP contract that was negotiated and agreed with the British Medical Association aims to provide a more attractive career in rural and urban practices by enhancing the GP role to one of an expert medical generalist who is supported by multidisciplinary teams and can dedicate more time to patients who are most in need of their skills.

Following the Sturrock report, employees in a number of health boards are raising similar concerns about bullying. My constituents in the Western Isles are raising worrying concerns with me and are keen for their situation also to be independently investigated.

What steps has the cabinet secretary taken to investigate bullying in the Western Isles health board, and what comfort can she give my constituents about how the allegations will be dealt with in order to create a safe working environment for them?

I, of course, share Ms Grant’s commitment to the creation of an increasingly safe working environment for our staff in the health service. I am aware of the recent media reports and have had some discussion with the Western Isles health board about three allegations of bullying. If Ms Grant has other allegations from constituents that she wishes to raise with me, I will, of course, consider them very seriously.

As I said in my statement at the time, although the Sturrock report focused on NHS Highland, it raised important points for us to consider across our national health service. We will consider individual situations as and when they arise. Equally importantly, we are pursuing the work that I outlined in my statement to ensure that—in collaboration with our royal colleges, trade unions, employee organisations and regulatory authorities—we continue to take the necessary steps to promote a positive working culture across our health service.

Secretary of State for International Trade (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government when ministers last met the United Kingdom Secretary of State for International Trade and what was discussed. (S5O-03287)

The then Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work, Keith Brown, met the UK Secretary of State for International Trade on 2 November 2017. They discussed the UK Trade Bill and the involvement of the Scottish Government in developing future UK trade arrangements.

In addition, along with the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work, Derek Mackay, I am due to meet the Secretary of State on Friday of this week. We will take the opportunity to impress the importance of Scottish involvement in the negotiation and approval of any future trade deals that may be signed by the UK post-Brexit.

The Parliament’s Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee recently took evidence from expert trade negotiators, who told us that it is vital that devolved Administrations are consulted ahead of any negotiating position on future trade deals being reached. They also said that the UK Government ought to be able to exclude Scotland’s national health service from any future trade deal with the United States. Has the UK Government engaged with the Scottish Government on those particular matters? Does the minister expect it to?

The UK Government has not engaged with us on those specific matters. With regard to Scotland’s NHS, I reiterate the Scottish Government’s position that we would be strongly opposed to anything that would open up our NHS or any other aspect of our public sector to unwanted interest from businesses that might seek to privatise or otherwise challenge some of those services. That underlines and highlights the critical importance of Scottish engagement in the UK Government’s process of negotiating trade arrangements.