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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 23 March 2021

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Covid-19 (Reflections and Next Steps), Topical Question Time, Motion of No Confidence, European Charter of Local Self-Government (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, European Charter of Local Self-Government (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill, Business Motion, Tied Pubs (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Tied Pubs (Scotland) Bill, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Motion Without Notice, Decision Time, Churches (Support During Lockdown)


Topical Question Time

College Staff (Industrial Action)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had regarding planned industrial action by college staff this week. (S5T-02721)

My most recent discussions were with Colleges Scotland yesterday and were about the latest round of negotiations, which is taking place as we speak. My officials have been in regular contact with Colleges Scotland to keep me up to date with all the negotiations.

I understand that, as part of the discussions, the EIS further education lecturers association has accepted that there is no national plan to replace lecturers with tutors, assessors or instructor roles or any other support staff roles. I encourage the employers and unions to continue the current negotiations in an attempt to resolve the situation without the need for industrial action, which is absolutely not in our learners’ best interests, especially against the backdrop of the pandemic.

Given that students are trying to maintain their studies in spite of the pandemic, strike action in colleges is undesirable and in this case unnecessary. Equally, this is no time to attack the terms and conditions of college staff.

More than a week ago, the national joint negotiating committee agreed the principle that there is no national plan to replace lecturers with instructor-type posts to do the same job. The trade union EIS-FELA ratified that agreement in its national executive and suspended action, but Colleges Scotland refused to ratify the agreement, even though the agreement was based on an employer-side proposal. That seems to be a matter of bad faith. Will the minister intervene now to ask Colleges Scotland to stand by its words, ratify the agreement that it made and stop the need for strike action?

As Iain Gray knows, the matter is to be resolved between the employers and the trade unions. Much progress has been made in the past few weeks and months with the joint statement, of which I am sure Iain Gray is aware. It was agreed that there is no national plan to replace lecturers with other roles, as I said earlier, but there was disagreement over a separate part of the statement that relates to the responsibilities that make up the definition of a lecturer.

As the negotiations are on-going, I hope that constructive progress will be made today that leads to an agreement and to the strike that is planned for later this week being called off. As we all agree, and as Iain Gray agrees, a strike is unnecessary and would not be in learners’ interests against the backdrop of the pandemic.

I appreciate the minister’s desire for strike action to be avoided, but an agreement on all points was reached in the negotiating committee. The trade union side ratified that agreement, but the employer side has reneged on it and refused to ratify it. Does the minister think that he really should speak to Colleges Scotland, ensure that it ratifies the agreement that it made, end college staff’s fear of an attack on terms and conditions and remove the need to strike?

As I explained to Iain Gray, I spoke to Colleges Scotland yesterday evening. I encouraged Colleges Scotland—just as I encouraged the trade union—to reach an agreement to prevent the strike action. It is a staffing matter between the employer and the representatives of the employees. As Iain Gray says, the employer did not ratify the joint statement. I hope that the two parties can settle their differences in the negotiations that began this morning, were adjourned and have reconvened this afternoon, in order that we can avoid strike action, which is in no one’s interests, least of all those of our learners.

Although we all want to avoid industrial action, we cannot ignore the fact that the sector has seen real terms funding cuts of £80 million since 2008, which has forced colleges to consider restructuring as a cost-saving exercise. Does the minister accept that those cuts have put tremendous pressure on our colleges and that we must do everything that we can to support them in the vital role that they will play in a post-Covid recovery?

The colleges budget has increased by 30 per cent since the SNP Government came to office in 2007. Indeed, the most recent budget settlement was welcomed by stakeholders, as was the one-off Covid consequentials payment.

Things are tough for further and higher education at the moment, largely as a result of the pandemic—as Jamie Greene is aware. That is another reason why I hope that both sides of the dispute can reach an agreement today and call off strike action that has been planned for later this week. I am sure that both sides want that to happen and I hope that they stay in the negotiating room until they reach a settlement.

I suggest that strike action is in the interests of college lecturers if it saves their jobs. Of course, no one wants it to come to that.

In a sense this has become an annual event: the union representing lecturers believes that an agreement has been reached in good faith, only for management to go back on that and for the situation to escalate to industrial action or the threat thereof. Does the fact that that happens on an annual cycle not raise serious questions about college management’s ability to negotiate in good faith?

Ross Greer may be interested in the statistics that were published today that show that the number of full-time permanent college teaching staff with a recognised teaching qualification in Scots colleges increased by 2.1 percentage points in the last year for which the figures are available. There has been an increase in the number of staff with those qualifications in our colleges.

I want both sides to reach an agreement today. That is in the interests of our colleges, employees and, most of all, our learners. We are talking about a particular dispute between one trade union and the college employers—although depending on the outcome of today’s negotiations, it could affect other unions, too. I accept that we have to pay close attention to the issue. However, it is the responsibility of the employers and employees to reach agreement today.

Mossmorran Ethylene Plant (Independent Review)

To ask the Scottish Government how the regulation of Mossmorran ethylene plant will change following the independent review. (S5T-02719)

As the member is aware, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency published the outcome of the Irish Environmental Protection Agency’s peer review of its regulatory approach at Mossmorran on Friday 19 March. SEPA and the Scottish Government are clear that compliance with Scotland’s environmental laws is non-negotiable.

SEPA has published a detailed response to all 20 recommendations made by the review, which cover technical site recommendations, regulatory approach, community liaison, communications, monitoring and modelling. Key recommendations that will be taken forward by SEPA include extending the environmental monitoring programme with community participation in its design, enhanced visibility of regulatory monitoring results, and investment in a refreshed online community information hub. SEPA already has specialist staff involved in work at Mossmorran. In response to the peer review, it has committed to strengthening further regulation and monitoring across the forthcoming investment at the site.

After five years of highlighting the misery of communities living in the shadow of Mossmorran, I welcome the progress that has been made and pay tribute to local campaigners who kept the pressure on SEPA and the plant operators. Many of the 1,500 people who complained to SEPA last year did so because they could not sleep for days on end due to noise pollution. Will the cabinet secretary urge SEPA to set revised noise limits as part of the operator’s permit and to expand noise monitoring in the community?

I am glad that Mark Ruskell considers that there has been progress—I believe that a great deal of progress has been made. I pointed to the 20 recommendations of the independent evaluation. SEPA has accepted eight of those recommendations, nine more are currently under way, one will be considered and two are not being taken forward.

Specialist monitoring, compliance and enforcement support staff are already involved in all work at Mossmorran. As I indicated, in response to the peer review, SEPA has committed to further strengthening regulation and monitoring throughout the investment period. The issue that Mark Ruskell has raised will be part of that consideration.

I welcome that response. Although the regulatory improvements are welcome, Mossmorran remains Scotland’s third largest climate polluter, and it will be impossible for us to meet climate targets without serious and urgent action being taken at the plant. Will the Scottish Government take the word of ExxonMobil—an organisation that is responsible for climate change denial—when it comes to future plans at Mossmorran, or will it lead the discussion with the operators and the community on what a just transition for the plant should look like?

There is constant discussion within Government and between the Government and a variety of partners in different sectors of the economy on how we go forward. We are tasking individual companies with looking very carefully at their proposals with respect to a just transition. The same task is being suggested to ExxonMobil, with which I have had recent correspondence, as Mark Ruskell is aware.

Ensuring a just transition is a vital part of the work that we need to do over the next 10 years to meet our interim targets, and Mossmorran will be very much a part of the discussion about that just transition.

The Irish EPA’s recommendations on enhanced air quality monitoring and wider community engagement are very welcome. Indeed, I have been calling for such action to be taken for many years. Will the cabinet secretary confirm that the recommendations will be implemented at pace? Will she also confirm that the Scottish Government will make it clear to the operators of the site that the flaring that will apparently result from the need to shut down the plant in the weeks ahead so that upgrade work can go ahead will be kept to the bare minimum, to ensure that the least disruption to affected communities is caused?

I know that Annabelle Ewing has been closely involved in the matter for some time, and I value her constructive engagement on it. As I have indicated, work on nine of the 20 recommendations from the peer review is already under way, and SEPA has accepted a further eight of those recommendations. Recommendations that have already been taken forward include those relating specifically to air quality monitoring and community engagement. SEPA is finalising a project plan to take forward implementation of the other recommendations, including work on communications, monitoring of volatile organic compounds and modelling.

SEPA has been clear that the flaring was unacceptable and that such flaring must become the exception, rather than the routine. The Scottish Government will continue to impress upon the operators the need to minimise disruptive flaring during the forthcoming shutdown and restart process. The forthcoming £140 million investment in the site should improve reliability. Unplanned elevated flaring, with its associated impact on the local community, should become a less frequent occurrence and, when flaring is required, its impact should be reduced. That is the basis on which we are having conversations with ExxonMobil.

SEPA has indicated that the plant now has a clear pathway to compliance, but the community is still sceptical, after years of disruption and misery that have been caused by failures and flaring. What assurances can the cabinet secretary give to local residents, given that SEPA has rejected proposals to install a suitably qualified and experienced expert at the site to ensure compliance and to monitor progress on the day-to-day installation of the new low-noise flare tip?

I think that Alexander Stewart is referring to the recommendation on having a dedicated site agent, which is one of the two recommendations that SEPA is not taking forward. The fact is that SEPA already dedicates significant resources to Mossmorran—more than it does to any other single regulated site in Scotland. SEPA also gains additional expertise by working with partners, including the Health and Safety Executive, and by bringing in specialist technical expertise when needed.

The site agent recommendation is not being pursued. Although SEPA can see that there might be benefit in deploying a site agent at other sites, it does not consider that a site agent would add value at Mossmorran. SEPA currently reviews permits in line with the process that is set out in the Pollution Prevention and Control (Scotland) Regulations 2012. SEPA will assess its supporting guidance to ensure that it is clear what criteria are used to decide when a permit review is required. However, at this point, SEPA does not consider that a dedicated site agent is a necessary or appropriate response.

That concludes topical questions. Before we move on to the next item of business, I remind all members that, if you are coming in and out of the chamber, the guidance is to use the same seat. If you change seats, please use the wipes that are available to wipe down the desk and chair beforehand.