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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, September 23, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 23 September 2021 [Draft]

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Awareness Day, Point of Order, Portfolio Question Time, Point of Order, Decarbonising Scotland’s Transport, Carer’s Allowance Supplement (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Carer’s Allowance Supplement (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


Contents


General Question Time

Good morning. I remind members of the Covid-related measures that are in place. Face coverings should be worn when moving around the chamber and across the Holyrood campus.


School Inspections

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the restarting of school inspections. (S6O-00191)

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education will adopt a phased approach to resuming its range of scrutiny activities as the year progresses, given the current Covid-19 pandemic. In carrying out any scrutiny activity, HMIE will take into account the pressures and challenges being faced by schools and settings due to the pandemic. Initially, inspectors will visit those establishments that are awaiting the outcome of a further inspection following an inspection before the pandemic. Routine inspections of individual schools and early learning and childcare settings will resume later in the academic session, from January 2022.

The inspectors are of course aware of the changing situation around Covid, and they will of course keep their plans under review.

While it is understandable that inspections were paused during the pandemic, many schools across Scotland have already gone years without inspection under the Scottish National Party Government. Can the cabinet secretary tell teachers, parents and young people how often a school should be inspected? What is the maximum number of years between inspections that the Government thinks is acceptable?

As I said in my original answer, the plans for this year very much take into account the views of the inspectors that we need to be aware that the pandemic is not over, and it is not over in our schools. Our school leaders and teachers are still dealing with the mitigations that are in place to ensure that schools are safe for staff and pupils. That is exactly why inspectors will be taking a phased approach in going through their work. They will of course keep their plans under review, as I expect members would wish them to do.

I point out to the member that the number of school inspections that were delivered over the past years had increased in 2018-19. It is certainly the case that, if it had not been for the pandemic, that number would have increased further in 2019-20. That demonstrates our willingness as a Government to ensure that we are supporting and inspecting schools and supporting the work of Education Scotland to do exactly that.


School Sports (Spectators)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on when parents will be permitted to attend school sports to watch their children play. (S6O-00192)

Our priority is keeping children, young people and school staff safe. The guidance on reducing Covid risks in schools is in line with the current advice from the Covid-19 scientific advisory sub-group on education and children’s issues. The sub-group keeps the mitigations in schools and early learning and childcare settings under constant review. It considered the issue of parental attendance at school sporting events at its meeting on Tuesday 21 September, and it will provide advice to ministers on that and other issues in due course. We will consider that advice, and we will announce the outcome as soon as possible.

I find it incredibly strange that, on Saturday morning, when my girls are playing football, I cannot watch them but, on Saturday afternoon, when we go to the local running club, I am able to go and watch them. Why the difference between a school activity and an activity run by a club? Are parents not entitled to go to both?

As I hinted to Jeremy Balfour in my original answer, that is very much being kept under review, and it has been the subject of a most recent discussion within the scientific advisory sub-group. It was also briefly discussed at the Covid-19 education recovery group—CERG—this morning. I absolutely recognise the situation that Jeremy Balfour talks about, and that is exactly why the sub-group has been assessing the evidence. I will consider that evidence in due course, when it is presented to me, and I will of course ensure that we provide an update on it as soon as possible.


Homelessness

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its efforts to prevent and alleviate homelessness. (S6O-00193)

I intend to provide Parliament, next month, with a progress report on our “Ending Homelessness Together: Updated action plan, October 2020”. That will be one year on from the publication of the updated plan, which renewed our commitment to ending homelessness and rough sleeping and placed a greater emphasis on prevention.

We remain focused on a rapid rehousing and housing first approach, and we will invest an additional £50 million over the current parliamentary session to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping. We are also committed to a new homelessness prevention duty and to the removal of night shelters. Our ambitions will be aided by a new deal for tenants in the private rented sector and the commitment to the delivery of 110,000 affordable homes by 2032.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that the Dundee housing first pathfinder project is set to end on 30 September and that the service is being mainstreamed by Dundee City Council, with Transform Community Development continuing to lead on delivery of the service. Can the cabinet secretary provide an update on discussions between the Scottish Government and Dundee City Council and its partners regarding the efforts that are being made to ensure that there is a smooth transition, particularly for those who are receiving support?

My officials are in regular contact with Dundee City Council, which is fully committed to delivering the housing first programme in Dundee. The council is investing in its housing first programme by bringing in specialist support staff and other organisations. For example, the council is funding positions to deliver gender-specific and youth-specific support as well as community social workers who will be embedded within the housing options service and will support housing first functions.

To date, the housing first programme in Dundee has been very successful, with 87 people starting housing first tenancies and receiving the tailored support that is required to meet their needs. Of those, 86 per cent are maintaining their tenancies.

In 2018, the First Minister pledged to invest in and expand housing first by supporting 800 people over a three-year period but, as of 31 July, only 540 people had received support through the pathfinder programme. What is the Scottish Government doing to speed up the roll-out across Scotland?

As part of local authorities’ rapid rehousing transition plans, they considered the development and implementation of housing first. Information that was gathered from the plans in 2020 indicated that 29 of the 32 local authorities are developing a housing first programme. We will certainly continue to work with local government to ensure that the issue continues to be a priority.


School Sports (Spectators)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it is having with local authorities regarding spectators returning to watch school sports events. (S6O-00194)

As I noted in my earlier response to Jeremy Balfour, the arrangements for attendance at school sports events were considered on Tuesday by the scientific advisory sub-group on education and children’s issues. The principal consideration remains the safety of children and young people and school staff. We will consider the sub-group’s advice and respond as soon as possible.

I listened carefully to the reply to Jeremy Balfour. The cabinet secretary will know that I am not the only member who has received, throughout the summer, a considerable number of emails from parents right across Scotland asking what the logic is behind the decision. They want to know why they cannot go to watch their youngsters taking part in school matches, when many thousands can attend football matches and last week’s TRNSMT concert. Is there any logic in that decision?

I am afraid that I probably do not have much to add to what I said to Jeremy Balfour. We are of course listening carefully to the emails from parents that are coming in to members, and directly to the Government, on the issue. As I said to Jeremy Balfour, that is exactly why the advisory sub-group has been looking at the issue again.

I hope that the chamber expects me, rightly, to listen carefully to the advice that comes from the advisory sub-group on that and on all other issues. The measures have been kept under review since schools got back. We have kept mitigation measures in place to ensure that we were, therefore, allowed to make other changes, for example, around self-isolation, but we are keeping the arrangements under review. I have said to Liz Smith and Jeremy Balfour that the matter has been looked at and I assure Liz Smith that, when I have the advice, I will respond to it as expeditiously as I can.

As a clarification, can the cabinet secretary absolutely confirm that the sub-group has looked at the issue of public and family spectators at school sports matches?

The advisory sub-group looked at a range of issues to do with visitors within school settings, and that included the aspects around sport within and outwith school settings. I hope that that gives the clarification that the member was looking for.


Short-term Lets (Licensing)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its position regarding short-term lets licensing. (S6O-00196)

Regulation of short-term lets is vital to balancing the needs and concerns that people and communities have raised with the Scottish Government, elected members and local authorities with wider economic and tourism interests.

Over the summer, we held a consultation on the legislation and the business and regulatory impact assessment. We are now reviewing the responses to make sure that we get that important legislation absolutely right. We have informed the Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee that we will lay the licensing order in November. By allowing local authorities appropriate regulatory powers through a licensing scheme, we can ensure that short-term lets are safe and address issues that local residents and communities face.

Given the contentious nature of the licensing scheme and the Scottish Government’s failure to adequately work with the self-catering sector to resolve the issues that arise, particularly with regard to rural businesses, can the minister set out how the Scottish Government or local authorities will compensate businesses—including many in rural areas such as Dumfries and Galloway—whose livelihoods could be taken away due to a short-term licence being refused on the ground of overcapacity?

I do not accept Finlay Carson’s contention, as I believe that efforts have been made to work with the sector. Indeed, I met representatives from Airbnb and the Association of Scotland’s Self-Caterers just a few weeks ago and I have committed to continuing to work with them.

I do not believe that those responsibilities are onerous. The BRIA sets out clearly that the licensing fee will not be onerous and that local authorities can recoup only the cost of providing their licensing system. In addition, local authorities’ powers will be very important in addressing issues of local concern, which I hope Finlay Carson will also listen to, because it is important that we hear local concerns. The legislation is aimed at giving local authorities the powers to use, but they do not have to use them. I hope that Finlay Carson appreciates that local authorities should have the powers to address issues of concern within their areas.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that the devastating impact on housing stock in certain areas of the Highlands and Islands due to the high density of short-term lets needs to be urgently addressed?

We know that, in certain communities, particularly tourist hotspots, high numbers of short-term lets can reduce the number of available properties and make it harder for people who work in the area to find homes to live in—a matter that I hope is of concern to members across the chamber. That is why we are taking action on short-term lets. We consider that the regulation of short-term lets—including legislation that allows councils to establish short-term let control areas, which came into force in April—and our proposals to license short-term lets will strike the necessary balance between the concerns that communities have raised and the wider economic and tourism interests.

We are also increasing the number of affordable homes. We are proud of having delivered more than 103,000 affordable homes since 2007, and we have committed to delivering 110,000 more by 2032.

Emma Roddick will note that Highland Council proposes to use a short-term let control order for the Badenoch and Strathspey area.

I am keen to use control areas for the east neuk of Fife to protect full-time residents and workers, and I am concerned that the argument over the licensing scheme might be holding that up. I am interested in the Association of Scotland’s Self-Caterers’ idea of having a registration scheme, which I know the Government is against. Will the cabinet secretary reconsider its opposition to that, so that we can get cracking on implementing the control areas?

Let me repeat: councils have had the power to establish short-term let control areas. The legislation for that came into force in April this year. City of Edinburgh Council is already looking at making the whole of Edinburgh a control area, and, as I said, Highland Council is looking at establishing a control area for Badenoch and Strathspey. It might be good for Willie Rennie and Fife Council to discuss the east neuk as well. It is a particular power that will be used by local authorities in the areas in which they decide to use it, in consultation with local people and, of course, ministers.

The idea of having a registration scheme has been discussed at length, and we do not believe that it would give the same protections, particularly given the need to have common safety standards across all short-term lets in Scotland. That is why we are bringing in a licensing scheme. We will make sure that it works for communities and that it will not be onerous for those who provide short-term lets.


Mental Wellbeing (Schools)

To ask the Scottish Government how it will assist schools to support the mental wellbeing of pupils. (S6O-00197)

The mental health and wellbeing of children and young people is an absolute priority for the Government. We continue to support our local authority partners with £16 million in funding to ensure that every secondary school has access to counselling services. The mental health in schools working group has overseen the development of a professional learning resource for school staff, which was published in June, and guidance to support whole-school approaches to mental health, which was published in August. Those resources help school staff respond to the range of mental health and wellbeing concerns that young people might experience.

In Finland, the Government is rolling out a policy that will give people who present with mental health issues access to non-clinical community support within four weeks. In addition to the early intervention of school counsellors, has the Government any plans to increase the use of social prescribing and befriending services or the use of computerised cognitive behavioural therapy as part of the strategy to assist young people with their mental health?

I thank Gillian Martin for her recognition of the need for a range of support mechanisms wider than counselling to be in place in schools.

Of course, schools and education authorities already have in place a wide range of resources to support children and young people. Those resources include, but are not limited to, telephone helplines, the seasons for growth programme, bereavement programmes, educational psychology support, virtual and telephone counselling, advice lines, family support, links to children and adolescent mental health services, and youth work, among others. The work that I set out in my earlier answer complements those approaches, which are already in place in schools and educational authorities across Scotland.

Last weekend, I visited Mikeysline in Inverness, which is an organisation that is dedicated to supporting young people’s mental health. The staff highlighted how critical early intervention is, but the Government has consistently failed on that when it comes to its mental health strategy. Will the Scottish Government carry out any consultation or analysis to consider the effects on children’s long-term mental health of repeatedly isolating them due to Covid-19? Will it tell the Parliament what plans it has to utilise early intervention as a means of avoiding such effects becoming more serious?

I can point to a number of actions that have been and will be in train to support early intervention. One example is the get into summer programme, which was very successful across Scotland. It was funded by the Scottish Government and provided by local authorities. Within the wider mental health transition and recovery plan, we have set up the mental health recovery and renewal fund to transform services with a renewed focus on prevention and, indeed, early intervention, exactly as the member has suggested we should.