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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 23 December 2020

Agenda: Covid-19 (Loneliness and Social Isolation), Covid-19 (Vaccine and Testing Programmes), First Minister’s Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Brexit, Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill: Stage 3, Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill, Environmental Standards Scotland (Appointments), Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

Education and Skills

Any member who wants to ask a supplementary question should press their request-to-speak button or, if they are participating remotely, indicate that in the chat box.

Education (Attainment Gap)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress has been made on closing the attainment gap between pupils from the most and least deprived backgrounds. (S5O-04873)

The attainment Scotland fund year 4 evaluation reported that the attainment gap had narrowed on a number of indicators and that 91 per cent of headteachers reported improvements as a result of the Scottish attainment challenge.

The equity audit, which we will publish in the new year, will provide a further assessment of the pandemic’s impact on pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. In the meantime, the international council of education advisers recognised in its report last week that

“Scottish education exhibits many strengths”,

among which is the value that we place on equity as well as excellence. That is why we will continue to invest in the Scottish attainment challenge in 2021-22, including with over £127 million in pupil equity funding.

Can Mr Swinney be confident in his claims that the attainment gap is closing in areas such as Dumfries and Galloway when, according to Professor Lindsay Paterson, who is a professor of education policy in the school of social and political science at the University of Edinburgh, no Scottish national standardised assessment data has been collected in my constituency since the assessments were introduced, in 2018?

We decided not to collect the achievement of curriculum for excellence levels data, which should have been collected in June, because of the pandemic and the disruption to education. We will return to the collection of that data at the earliest possible opportunity, and I will aim to do that in June 2021. That will enable us to continue to build the data that demonstrates the progress that we are making. Of course, we have published data over a number of years to demonstrate the progress that has been made, and we will return to that at the earliest possible opportunity.

We know that the period of remote learning earlier this year compromised progress on closing the attainment gap, and we now face a further period of remote learning, which will perhaps be short, although we do not know. A few minutes ago, the First Minister referred to a tutoring scheme through e-Sgoil that is designed specifically to address that. Can the cabinet secretary give us more details and tell us how many pupils have benefited from that scheme?

Supported study activity undertaken by e-Sgoil is available to pupils the length and breadth of the country. I do not have it in front of me, but I would be very happy to provide members of Parliament with data on the extent of the utilisation of that service.

Obviously, a range of services are provided through the e-Sgoil network, which involves supported study to reinforce the work that is going on in schools. It also includes a collection of recorded lessons, to which teachers the length and breadth of the country are contributing, and the provision of direct educational delivery where we have, for example, interruptions to education as a consequence of temporary school closure.

All of that builds on the offering that is developed in individual schools to make sure that digital learning is available in all schools around the country.

Question 2 was not lodged.

Covid-19 (Instrumental Music Tuition)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to support schools in safely facilitating instrumental music tuition during the Covid-19 pandemic. (S5O-04875)

Music is an important part of curriculum for excellence. Covid-19 presents an additional challenge, but I am pleased to say that schools and teachers have risen to the challenge creatively to ensure that young people continue to benefit from music education.

In addition to providing guidelines on risk mitigations that schools should have in place, Education Scotland has worked with teachers across the country to collect and share emerging practical examples of how teachers are managing music learning under Covid-19. Creative ideas include the use of music technology apps on smartphones, running online masterclasses with professional musicians and using technological solutions to facilitate rich and rewarding physically distanced lessons.

A new version of Education Scotland’s music guidelines, which was published on 18 December, set out new thinking on how to manage brass, woodwind and voice lessons effectively, following further clinical advice.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that very positive response. Music tuition has always played an important role in the secondary schools in my constituency, with St Ambrose, St Andrew’s, Coatbridge and Chryston high schools all having a proud history. Of course, music offers one route out of poverty for people in our communities.

I have been contacted by pupils who have been impacted by current restrictions on their music tuition, and by their parents. One specific question that has been put to me is about the provision of bell covers for brass instruments, which help to stop the spread of the virus while allowing learning to continue. Has the Government given any consideration to that?

I can certainly corroborate Mr MacGregor’s points about the quality of music tuition, having witnessed that with my own eyes and ears on my visit to St Ambrose high school, in his constituency.

Guidance on Covid and music tuition that was published by Education Scotland includes advice on brass and wind instruments and is informed by expert public health and scientific advice. At present, the advice is that young people should not engage in playing wind and brass instruments with other people, given that those activities pose a potentially higher risk of transmission.

That does not mean that those activities cannot take place at all, however, and creative approaches may be taken to the provision of those lessons. The examples that have been given include the use of technology to facilitate collective participation. Brass, woodwind and singing candidates have now been given permission by the Scottish Qualifications Authority to choose to record assessment performances at home during Covid-19 restrictions.

We will keep the guidance under close review and will give consideration to any further mitigations that might help to support the safe provision of music tuition in schools.

Mary Fee has a supplementary question, but we cannot contact her, so we will move on. I will come back to her if we manage to contact her.

Questions 4 and 5 were not lodged.

Schools (Specialist Support Staff)

6. Johann Lamont (Glasgow) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the reported decreasing trend in specialist support staff in schools. (S5O-04878)

Specialist support staff and teachers play a vital role in supporting their pupils. We have continued to support the recruitment of additional teaching and support staff this year to ensure that children and young people receive the support that they need with their learning. Current figures indicate that 246 support staff have now been recruited. Our funding support includes an additional £5 million to local authorities, which is in addition to an additional £15 million every year to further enhance staffing capacity to respond effectively to the individual needs of children and young people.

In a submission to the Public Petitions Committee on the role of specialist support staff for young people with additional support needs, the Educational Institute of Scotland reported a pattern over 10 years of a decreasing number of staff and an increasing number of children with additional support needs.

The Tes newspaper recently reported that nine councils had taken on no new support staff during the pandemic and that

“in over half of Scottish councils, special schools received no additional teaching staff to help them cope with the return to school during the pandemic.”

We can see that young people with additional support needs were already being let down. That disadvantage will be magnified immeasurably by the impact of the pandemic.

What practical measures—measures that are properly resourced and focused on already hugely disadvantaged young people—will the cabinet secretary take to reverse the long-term denial of support, which is amplified by the current crisis? Regardless of the figures that he has quoted, surely it is evident that more of the same cannot be an option.

Can we have shorter supplementaries, please?

I am sure that Johann Lamont will be familiar with the fact that, as a consequence of the pandemic, the Government has announced additional funding for local authorities, which has resulted in the recruitment of more than 1,400 additional teachers and in excess of 250 additional support staff. That is added to by the previous support of £15 million that was in place for additional support for learning staff.

The number of pupil support assistants and the number of teachers are rising. The number of teachers in Scottish schools is at its highest level since 2008, and rising numbers of staff are coming in as a consequence of the pandemic recruitment. Not all of them will show up in the recent statistics, which showed a 12-year high in teacher numbers.

I acknowledge the importance of ensuring that young people with additional support needs have those needs met by the provision of high-quality learning and teaching staff. The Government is committed to ensuring that that is the case.

I will take Kenneth Gibson’s supplementary to Johann Lamont’s question before Mary Fee asks her supplementary to Fulton MacGregor’s question.

Since 2009, the number of pupils with additional support needs has rocketed from 37,000 to 208,000—to 27 per cent of primary school children and 35 per cent of secondary school children. It is no wonder that the provision of support staff cannot keep pace. Have additional support needs changed markedly over the past decade, and are they consistent across all schools and local authority areas? When does the cabinet secretary envisage that that meteoric rise in numbers will cease?

It is important that I explain that there are two main reasons for the increase in the number of children and young people who are recorded as having additional support needs since 2009. The first is that, in 2010, we changed the way in which national statistics on pupils with additional support needs are collected. Prior to then, only pupils with co-ordinated support plans or individualised educational programmes, or pupils who were attending a special school, were captured. The definition was expanded at that stage.

The second reason is that the needs of children and young people are being appropriately identified and recorded, in line with the statutory requirements set out in the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2014. That act provides a national definition of additional support for learning, supplemented by a statutory code of practice. It is important that we ensure that, in all circumstances, the needs of young people are properly recorded and then addressed as a consequence.

I will now take Mary Fee’s supplementary question to question 3.

Early in December, a report by the Incorporated Society of Musicians showed that Scotland has been the most negatively impacted country of the four United Kingdom nations in terms of the provision of music tuition across primary and secondary schools during the pandemic. Some teachers have highlighted concerns that local authorities are interpreting the guidance in different ways. I welcome the cabinet secretary’s comment about updated guidance, but what further steps can he take to ensure that music tuition takes place safely and consistently across Scotland?

I hope that my earlier answer to Mr MacGregor reassured Mary Fee that the Government attaches the greatest importance to ensuring that music tuition is part of Scotland’s curriculum and is delivered as effectively and as consistently as possible in our 2,500 schools.

It is important that music education forms part of the curriculum for young people of all ages. It is fundamental in our primary education system and, of course, as I expressed in my answer to Mr MacGregor, it can provide an important route for young people to fulfil their potential in secondary education.

Of course, there are some challenges in relation to the delivery of music education because of the need to minimise the transmission of the virus, and I very much regret that those constraints are in place. However, the guidance from Education Scotland is designed to find ways in which we can still enable, in these difficult and constrained circumstances, the delivery of effective music education. I give Mary Fee the assurance that that will be a priority for the Government in our dialogue with local authorities and schools.

School Exams Cancellation (Pupils in Socially Deprived Areas)

7. James Kelly (Glasgow) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it will take to ensure that school pupils in areas of social deprivation will not be unfairly affected by the cancellation of exams. (S5O-04879)

On 8 December, in acknowledgement of Covid-related disruption to young people’s education this academic year, I outlined to Parliament that national qualifications in 2020-21 will be awarded on evidence of demonstrated attainment, supported by local and national quality assurance processes. I have judged that that approach is the safest and the fairest way to ensure that individual learners’ achievements are recognised. The alternative certification model offers flexibility and will help to alleviate some of the impacts on learning.

Collaboration from across the education system will ensure that the assessment and quality assurance approach for 2020-21 is clearly communicated, and that appropriate support for teaching staff and learners is in place.

In considering the alternative certification model, it is important that there is no repeat of the debacle of earlier this year, when, despite assurances from Mr Swinney on the initial awarding of grades, pupils in areas of social deprivation were unfairly affected.

What steps will the Deputy First Minister take to ensure that the alternative certification model is fair and transparent and ensures that pupils in areas of social deprivation receive fair and equitable treatment?

On transparency, the details of the model have been published by the Scottish Qualifications Authority, which has led on its development. It is crucial for Parliament to recognise that the model has been developed collaboratively with directors of education, professional associations and the college network in Scotland. Its development has been led by the Scottish Qualifications Authority, which has engaged substantively with young people and the education profession around these questions. There is a transparent explanation of the model.

The application of the model will be driven by the demonstrated attainment of young people. That will be influenced by local and national quality assurance processes, which are being established and which will engage the teaching profession in taking forward those priorities to ensure that there is fairness to all candidates.

Maureen Watt, your question will be called next but your card is not showing up. The console that you are sitting at is the console that I sit at, so I am vindicated—it must be faulty. I will call you after Jamie Greene, if you move.

I am glad that my card is working, Presiding Officer.

The previous question was perfectly reasonable, because those in our most-deprived communities were twice as likely to have their grades downgraded by the national moderation scheme this year.

The devil will lie in the detail: it is not just transparency that we need—it is detail. Will the cabinet secretary tell us exactly how and why the Scottish Qualifications Authority is taking that approach? Will there be national moderation, or will the cabinet secretary guarantee that individual moderation will take place in the case of every pupil?

The member asks how moderation works in the model. Support will be provided in advance of any formulation of estimated grades by the teaching profession to enable staff to understand the standards that are anticipated in all national qualifications. Schools will then be provided with materials—which are now available—that contain assessment exercises that young people can complete in their routine school activity. Teachers can assess the completed exercises against the standards that are expected. There will be moderation by SQA appointees, who will work with individual schools, and there will be local authority support for the process into the bargain. Crucially, the model relies on the whole of the education system playing its part in delivering that moderation. From all that will come estimated assessments.

It will of course be necessary to look across the system to ensure that consistency of judgment is being applied. However, there is time to do that. I remind Parliament that I took these decisions much earlier in the academic year than was the case last year, when the circumstances made that necessary. This year, there is time for that dialogue and that moderation to take place to ensure fairness for all candidates.

Covid-19 (Testing in Schools)

8. Maureen Watt (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the Covid-19 testing measures in primary and secondary schools. (S5O-04880)

On 25 November, we committed to undertake a number of pathfinder testing programmes upon the return of schools in January. As the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport set out in her statement earlier today, we have been working closely with a group of interested local authorities and volunteer schools to develop detailed plans. The schools involved will communicate with their staff, pupils and local communities in due course to ensure that they are informed about and comfortable with the plans.

We expect those pilots to inform the development of a scalable and sustainable approach to asymptomatic testing in schools. Those plans are in addition to the asymptomatic testing route that is available for school staff via the employer referral portal.

Perhaps the cabinet secretary could tell me whether schools in Aberdeen city or Aberdeenshire are taking part in those tests.

Schools will now be returning later and via staged learning. Does the cabinet secretary believe that that will allow time to ensure that any proposed testing will be taken forward in a manner that reflects and acts on the views of teachers and parents?

I will have to return to Maureen Watt on the specific question of whether any Aberdeen city or Aberdeenshire schools are involved in the pilots. From my recollection, I do not think that any are, but I will confirm that in writing to her.

It is important that we take the greatest of care in the implementation of such a testing approach. It is crucial that the testing environment is delivered effectively and sustainably, and the phased reopening of schools in January will give us the opportunity to do some of that work.

I reiterate the importance that I attach to the commitment that the health secretary gave to the provision of an asymptomatic testing route for school staff via the employer referral portal. That is an important part of the extra provision that is available for school staff in order to provide greater reassurance.

Daniel Johnson has a brief supplementary.

Testing is an important precaution as we seek to reopen schools, but it would be made unnecessary by vaccine roll-out. Will the Scottish Government prioritise teachers and school staff to follow on from health and social care workers and receive the vaccine as a matter of priority?

I acknowledge the importance of ensuring that reassurance is provided for teaching and all other school staff, but the Government has accepted the clear advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation on the prioritisation that should determine the delivery of the vaccine. Mr Johnson will be familiar with the prioritisation that has been put in place by the JCVI.

Obviously, some teachers will be involved in the vaccination process earlier than others, because of the degree of prioritisation that has been put in place by the JCVI. The Government will at all times carefully seek to ensure that we continue the safe delivery of education in our schools. That will be an on-going priority for the Government.

That concludes questions on education and skills. Before we move on to questions on health and sport, I should point out that, because three education questions were not lodged, I could allow longer questions and answers. That is not the case for questions on health and sport. I am just eyeballing those members whom I can eyeball to make sure that they understand that. Oh dear! I don’t feel Christmassy at all, despite my little bit from the Christmas tree.

Residential Drug Rehabilitation (Impacts)

Presiding Officer, I think that we are all in shock that you are giving us more time, but the season of good will seems to have reached the Parliament.

You were not listening, Mr Briggs—I am not.

To ask the Scottish Government what impact any reduction in residential drug rehabilitation treatments has had on recovery rates and the level of drug-related deaths. (S5O-04881)

Residential treatment plays an important role in supporting recovery and in preventing drug-related harm and deaths. The residential rehabilitation working group has now provided advice on how we ensure that everyone who requires residential rehab has access when they need it. We will respond to all the recommendations made by the working group and, in the new year, set out how we will substantially increase the provision of residential treatment in the short term.

I thank the minister for her answer, and I welcome her to her position. We all must wish her well in trying to turn this situation around.

It is now widely accepted that cuts to drug rehab beds and addiction programmes have been hugely damaging to the reduction of drug-related deaths across Scotland. Will the Scottish Government now agree to review the methadone programme and undertake a review of treatment option assessment and access to treatment across the country?

Mr Briggs was the first parliamentarian to write to me, last Friday night at 10 o’clock, and he is the first parliamentarian to ask me a parliamentary question.

Let me be clear with him. I am committed to residential rehab, as I know the power that it has to change lives. I am also committed to offering a full range of treatment options to ensure that people get the right care, treatment and support at the right time. There is a substantial body of evidence that supports having a methadone programme.

We must stop talking about people whose lives are blighted by drugs as though they are one big, homogeneous group, because they are not. Different treatments and different supports will work for different people at different times in their lives. However, I reassure the member that medical approaches have their place, as do rehabilitation and services in the community.

I, too, welcome the minister to her post and am grateful for the discussions that she and I have had so far. Will she say a bit more about how she will engage with people who have experience of residential rehab and treatment, their families and service partners?

Will the minister also say something about the festive period? Some people are worried about how they are going to cope with their addiction or dependency during this time, especially in the light of the further restrictions that are coming. A lot has been done to get people online for 12-step meetings and so on, but this is a worrying time, especially for families. What can the minister say to those people?

My engagement has already started. The first people I have met in my role as minister have been people with lived experience, and I have also spoken to people whose families have been devastated by addiction and drug use.

The member made points about the pandemic and how increasing restrictions bring the danger of increasing isolation. It is that isolation that our services on the ground, including our emergency response, must overcome to reach people—and when we reach them, we must keep hold of them. We know that people with addiction problems have good times and bad times, and we have to work with them, put our arms around them and see them through both on their journey to a full and better life.

Cancer Services

To ask the Scottish Government when cancer services will be fully restored. (S5O-04882)

With your permission, Presiding Officer, before I answer the question, I will put on record my congratulations for a number of important senior appointments that have been made today in health. I congratulate Dr Smith, who has now been confirmed as our chief medical officer, Professor Amanda Croft, our new chief nursing officer, and Caroline Lamb, the chief executive of NHS Scotland and director general for health and social care. They are an absolutely excellent team who will serve us well, I am sure.

NHS Scotland has continued to provide emergency and urgent care throughout the pandemic and will continue to do so. There have been occasions when, as a clinical judgment, clinicians have wished to make changes to individual treatment plans in the light of the infection threat of the virus to a particular patient.

Cancer screening services have all now restarted. The services have resumed in a phased, careful and prioritised way as part of the remobilisation of our health service, with the initial focus on higher-risk screening participants. Good progress has been made in the first stages, with routine screening appointments now taking place for breast cancer and cervical cancer, and bowel screening home testing kits have been posted out since 12 October.

On 9 December, I announced and published the cancer recovery plan, which was devised with many of our very experienced cancer charities as well as with our clinical advisers. It includes planned investment of up to £114.5 million to ensure that cancer patients have equitable access to care regardless of where they live. The cancer recovery plan will improve patients’ experience of care and will roll out innovative treatments to improve cancer services.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that full response, and I welcome the new appointees to their roles. I look forward to working with them in the coming months.

I have been raising the issue of cancer services from the outset of the pandemic, as well as the fear about the impact that it will have on long-term cancer survival rates. Public Health Scotland’s statistics show that, between July and September, there was a 24 per cent drop in the number of suspected cancer patients being referred. Cancer Research UK also estimates that 1,560 fewer patients have started their cancer treatment compared with the equivalent three-month period last year.

We will face a tsunami of cancer cases in the next year, so I ask the cabinet secretary what statistics are being produced on the excess number of cancer deaths that we are expecting. When will we be able to have confidence that we have a fully returned cancer service at pre-Covid levels of service?

I am grateful to Mr Sarwar and acknowledge his long-standing interest in this area—more than that, his effective scrutiny and, at times, his challenge of what we are doing to make sure that we do not take our focus away from this really important area.

The cancer recovery plan—[Interruption.] I will answer the specific question that has been asked—offers a number of particular and immediate steps that will help with early diagnosis, including two new early cancer diagnostic centres that will be established within our existing infrastructure by the spring of next year and, importantly, a single point of contact for cancer patients that supports them throughout the various stages of their journey.

Notwithstanding the member’s point about statistics, our most recently published cancer waiting times, which were for quarter 3, showed that the 31-day target was being met in 98.4 per cent of cases. The member will know that the target is 95 per cent. However, our 62-day target is the key target that we are now focused on meeting in order to get people a cancer diagnosis as early as possible.

I have been very clear with health boards that, as we see increased numbers of Covid-19 cases putting pressure on particular acute settings in different parts of the country, with the trade-off often being that boards have to pause elective and planned work, the one thing that we will not pause is the cancer screening programmes. We will keep them going because they are critically important.

On the member’s specific question, we have asked Public Health Scotland to look at how it can robustly gather that data so that we have as full an understanding as possible of the scale of the challenge that we now have to address and can direct our resources accordingly.

I appreciate that these answers are very important, but I ask for briefer answers so that I can get everyone in for these essential questions.

National Health Service (Additional Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what additional support the NHS will require over the first quarter of 2021. (S5O-04883)

We have, so far, provided £1.1 million of additional funding to support the NHS in its response, and, as I have said previously, further funding will be allocated in January. Work is now under way with boards and our partners in social care to identify in greater detail exactly what is required from January onwards. Once we have concluded that work, we will make that detail clear to members and it will be covered in the statement that Kate Forbes will make later in January.

The attention of many in the national health service is, understandably, focused on the coronavirus pandemic and the efforts to protect communities across Scotland. However, as is usual at this time of year, the routine work of the health service will also be affected by seasonal issues, and increased pressure will be put on local services and health staff.

What concerns does the cabinet secretary have about the impact of both the pandemic and normal winter issues on locally delivered routine health services over the next three months? I am thinking, in particular, of those in remote and rural areas, of which there are many in my region. What further impact may routine services face as a result of any—very welcome—increased roll-out of new coronavirus vaccines over that period, and how can the Scottish Government provide additional support to minimise that impact?

That is a detailed question that deserves a detailed answer, so I give a commitment that I will write to Mr Halcro Johnston later with more information. I would point him now to two things: our NHS winter preparedness plan and, for the first time ever, our equal plan for social care, which seeks to enable us to maintain services and deal with—as far as we can—the backlog in non-Covid health and social care support and services, both of which have additional resources attached to them.

As I have said many times, there is always a trade-off. The more that we—individually and collectively—suppress the virus, the more our NHS is able to deal with non-Covid cases. Where we are not successful in doing that, pressure is put on our services to deal with Covid cases in both primary and secondary care. That inevitably reduces the degree to which we can cope with non-Covid healthcare, which is itself vitally important. As I said, I will write to the member with more detail.

I ask members not to slip in multiple questions, because they will—quite rightly—not get a specific answer. I call Alasdair Allan to ask question 4. I hope that he has learned a lesson from that. I am sure that he has.

Patient Travelling Expenses Scheme (Review)

I would not dare do anything else, Presiding Officer.

To ask the Scottish Government what issues will be covered in its upcoming review of the patient travelling expenses scheme. (S5O-04884)

The review will cover the scope and arrangements that are in place across Scotland for the provision of financial support for patient travel, where such travel is necessary. It will include consideration of specific issues that have been highlighted to me by members, including Dr Allan, in relation to constituents’ concerns. It will be undertaken early in the new year, and I will provide further updates in the chamber as it progresses.

Islanders who are going through something as traumatic as a cancer diagnosis need support. In too many cases in the past, their loved ones have not been able to be present with them. Since the patient escort working group was formed last year to examine those issues, there has been a marked decrease in the number of complaints concerning the issue. Will the Scottish Government’s review consider those issues, and will there be an opportunity for the working group to feed into that work?

I am grateful to Dr Allan because he has ensured, over this period, that I fully understand the issues that are involved. I am pleased that there has been an improvement of the type that both he and I have sought. The review will absolutely consider the issues that members have raised, and it will include the matter of escorts. I expect the work of the Western Isles patient escort working group to be considered fully as part of the review.

Grass-roots Sport (Community Health and Wellbeing)

5. David Torrance (Kirkcaldy) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government how important it considers grass-roots level sport is to the health and wellbeing of communities. (S5O-04885)

The Scottish Government fully recognises the importance of sport and physical activity in communities across Scotland. That is why the strategic framework allows sport and physical activity to take place at all levels. The Scottish Government has been working with sportscotland and sporting governing bodies to produce guidance to ensure that grass-roots sport can take place when it is deemed safe to do so. I thank the sector for its hard work and patience during these difficult times.

Lower-league football clubs are vital to our local areas. They often bring much more than just an opportunity for people to get involved in physical activity through providing communities with a hub for bringing people together. What efforts are being made to ensure that funding reaches those clubs at this critical time so as to ensure their long-term future?

I could not agree more with the point that David Torrance has made. I have seen that in my own constituency, where football clubs have played such a key role in their local communities. As David Torrance highlighted, they do much more than just provide opportunities for people to get involved in physical activities.

Football clubs are at the heart of their communities, but many of them have suffered real hardships due to the necessary Covid-19 restrictions. We absolutely recognise that. Last week, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport confirmed a £10 million grant funding package that covers the entire football pyramid, from the Scottish Professional Football League championship down to amateur and grass-roots clubs. That funding will provide a lifeline for clubs throughout Scotland.

Coronary Heart Disease (Mortality-rate Reduction)

6. Alexander Stewart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to reduce coronary heart disease mortality rates across all national health service boards. (S5O-04886)

Between 2009 and 2018, the mortality rate for coronary heart disease in Scotland fell by 32.4 per cent. We have been implementing the actions from the 2014 improvement plan, and a refreshed plan will be published in spring next year. We continue to implement our heart disease improvement plan, which identifies a number of priority areas for improvement.

Progress is being made on all of that, and there is a real focus on new ways of encouraging heart disease patients to influence their treatment, with an emphasis on specialist heart disease rehabilitation, both to reduce mortality and long-term disability and to improve the provision of supported self-management, physical activity and services. As part of the wider women’s health plan, we are developing pathways to raise awareness of heart disease among women and to take action to reduce the disparities surrounding diagnosis and treatment.

In the current heart disease improvement plan, the Scottish Government quotes the fall in mortality rates, which I very much welcome. Can the cabinet secretary share with me the measures of success relating to atrial fibrillation and heart failure, which were two conditions that were explicitly named in the improvement plan as priorities?

I apologise to the member. I do not have the specific detail to answer his question, and I would want to be certain that I was right in the information that I was giving him. Therefore, I would be happy to send him information regarding the specific reductions and improvements in those areas this afternoon.

Covid-19 Vaccine Roll-out

7. Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress it is making with the roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccine across the country. (S5O-04887)

As I hope Alex Rowley is aware, the statistics that have been published today show that, in the period between 8 and 20 December, 56,676 individuals received their first dose of the vaccine. That is a significant achievement on the part of all those involved in 13 days.

Initial difficulties around the Pfizer vaccine involving storage, transportation and the reduction of pack sizes have been resolved, as I am sure Alex Rowley is aware, so we can introduce the vaccination programme to care homes, as we did on 14 December. We will complete that and begin the second dose.

In line with advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, our first priority groups are, of course, health and social care workers and elderly and vulnerable residents in our care homes. Should we have our hope realised that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine will be authorised shortly, we stand ready to deliver it, with a start delivery date of 11 January, depending on authorisation and supplies. That will allow us to begin the vaccination programme for those aged 80 and over in the community, and it will involve using our primary care and other community settings for providing the vaccination programme.

I very much share those hopes. Perhaps we can all pray over Christmas that the vaccine can be rolled out.

On BBC Radio Scotland this morning, I heard Alison Leitch, whose mother is in a care home in Fife, say that she was advised that, even when her mother got the vaccine, the care home would still not be in a position to get visitors in.

Last week, I visited the Kinross-shire day centre, where staff are on the front line supporting more than 100 pensioners in Kinross. There seems to be a failure of information. Although I welcome the statement that was made earlier, does the cabinet secretary think that we can step up the information sharing so that care homes and centres such as the wonderful Kinross-shire day centre know what is happening?

That is an important point. I remind Alex Rowley that the third issue of information directly to members is today. Previously, that was from my colleague Mr FitzPatrick; from now on, it will be directly from me. That is up-to-date information, and it will include from today the individual board plans of local vaccination centres. I know that Mr Rowley will want to share that information with his constituents, including those care homes.

Scottish Care is part of our vaccination programme planning. I will raise again with it and other colleagues the issue of communication to their members so that the latter are all aware of what is happening.

Finally, I remind everyone that there is a national helpline for anyone, including care home providers and families, to ask for information about what is happening in their specific area. They will get that to the degree that we can definitively provide it. That is, of course, always with a caveat about the supply of the vaccines.

What plans does the Scottish Government have in place to promote high uptake of the vaccine among hard-to-reach groups and the wider population? I remind members that I am now part of Dumfries and Galloway’s vaccination team.

Ms Harper is indeed part of that team, and I am very grateful to her for volunteering to do that work.

On reaching groups that do not traditionally have a long engagement with the health service, I am grateful to my colleagues Ms Campbell, who is sitting beside me, and Ms Somerville for their support in helping us to reach those groups through faith groups, cultural groups and those whom we are reaching through our social security agency. In addition, we are looking to work locally with third sector organisations that have a great deal of knowledge in their local area.

We believe that mobile vaccination units, where it makes sense to have them, will increase our chances of people coming forward to be vaccinated. They will come into their own on that. They are not just for remote and rural areas; they are for our urban settings, too, so that we can take the vaccinations to people. The AstraZeneca vaccine will, of course, greatly assist us in doing that.

I should have made the point in response to Mr Rowley’s question that the vaccine’s two doses are really important. The first dose does not give all the protection that one needs against the virus—the second one boosts the first. Those two doses are critical, so we need to ensure that we encourage people to go back for their second dose.

Care Home Residents (Visits)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to ensure that care home residents who are unable to go outside can still meet friends and family. (S5O-04888)

That is a really important question. Along with many people across the country, I felt particularly gutted on Saturday when we took the decisions that we had to take in the face of the new strain of the virus. Up until that point, we had done a great deal of work to be ready to ensure that we could test visitors who were going into care homes, in order to open them, as the First Minister spoke about earlier.

It is important to point out that testing is not the only answer. It sits alongside good personal protective equipment and quality infection prevention and control, and we have taken a number of steps in partnership with care home providers and others to ensure that we can open our care homes to more visiting and support.

From 4 January, we will be testing visiting professionals as an additional precautionary and protective measure. We have guidance for adults who are under 65 to allow them to leave their residential setting and go out for the day or overnight with family and friends, as they would have done before the pandemic. Clinical advisers are considering what guidance we can offer for those in particular settings who are over 65, to enable them to do that, too.

At the moment, as we work to deal with the particularly infectious strain of coronavirus, that work is not paused, but we are not yet in a position to implement the improved position.

That concludes questions on health and sport. Before I move on to the next group of questions, I remind all members to make sure—[Interruption.]

Oh, I beg your pardon, Mr Arthur. I am rushing—how rude. Please ask your supplementary question.

That is not a problem, Presiding Officer.

I share the cabinet secretary’s sentiment of feeling gutted that the restrictions that are necessarily in place will mean further restrictions for care homes.

I welcome the roll-out of testing that will be taking place in care homes, and the opportunities that it will create with regard to the ability to relax restrictions further. The cabinet secretary spoke about partnership working with care homes. What support is the Government providing to ensure that families and loved ones have access to the advice and understand the guidance, which, by its nature, can change quite rapidly due to the circumstances that we are in?

Presiding Officer, I am glad that you went back to Mr Arthur. When he thought that he was not going to get back in again, his wee face was a sad sight indeed.

Before you go any further, cabinet secretary, I will just say that Mr Briggs distracted me, and I have no idea what he was trying to ask me. My apologies to both you and Mr Arthur.

Not at all, Presiding Officer. At times, Mr Briggs distracts us all, and not always in a particularly good way. [Laughter.] I do not mean that—I wish Mr Briggs the very best for the Christmas period.

To answer Tom Arthur, the support that we offer to care homes is significant. We have provided additional support. In particular, should care homes wish it, there is administrative support to allow care homes to administer the tests and do the additional work. Through our health and social care partnerships, our national health service stands ready to provide additional support when staff rotas may be compromised, as members have seen happen in particular situations. The Home Farm care home is probably the example at the forefront of people’s minds in that regard, although it happens elsewhere.

This week, I had the opportunity to bring together our directors of public health, care home providers, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and, importantly, the care home relatives group, to discuss with me what more we need to do to remove obstacles to visiting and people going outside, and to increase the confidence of care home providers in relation to their assessment of risk.

Tomorrow, I have a cross-party meeting with members from across the chamber to look at what further work we might be able to do to ensure that, if the right steps are taken, care homes are opened up to visiting as far as is safely possible.

Banffshire and Buchan Coast (Action on Poverty)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking in the Banffshire and Buchan Coast constituency to help take families out of poverty. (S5O-04889)

We remain committed to tackling poverty, as our tackling child poverty delivery plan shows. In 2019-20, our estimated spend on low-income households increased by £554 million to £1.96 billion. The Scottish child payment, which is open to applications for eligible families with children under six, will start payments in February next year.

In response to the pandemic, we have committed more than £0.5 billion, including up to £100 million through our winter plan for social protection. That includes a £100 payment for each child in receipt of free school meals, and more than £130 million to tackle food insecurity, including the provision of free school meals over the holiday periods.

Parts of my constituency are in particular poverty. Will the cabinet secretary advise how many families in my constituency—or, if necessary, in Aberdeenshire—are expected to receive the Scottish child payment?

The Scottish child payment is an investment that is unique to Scotland. It is expected to benefit families right around the country, including in the Banffshire and Buchan Coast constituency that Stewart Stevenson represents.

The Scottish Fiscal Commission forecasts that the payment could support up to 194,000 children this financial year, which is an increase of around 34,000 children since the pandemic began. Initial management information indicates that, by the end of Sunday 20 September, we had received 52,000 applications.

We are promoting the Scottish child payment via extensive communications and a marketing campaign to ensure that all those who are eligible are aware of their entitlement. I hope that that message is getting out to families in Stewart Stevenson’s constituency.

I will endeavour to write to Stewart Stevenson in the new year to provide a more detailed breakdown of the number of families who are eligible and any further information that is particular to his constituency.

Covid-19 (Community Organisations and Activities)

To ask the Scottish Government what consideration it has given to preserving community organisations and activities during the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond. (S5O-04890)

The £40 million community and third sector recovery programme provides funding for organisations as they respond to the on-going impact of the pandemic and as they adapt and restart delivery of their community services and activities. The programme also provides business support and investment to help organisations adapt their operations and income generation to increase sustainability. So far, 376 organisations have been awarded more than £7 million in funding from the programme.

I encourage community and third sector organisations around the country to consider applying, particularly in communities where the winter months will be difficult for many people. More information on the support that is available can be found on the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations website.

I know that the cabinet secretary is aware of the importance of community organisations and activities such as sport, art, music and drama, and of how they can positively impact physical and mental health. We are in a pandemic at the moment, which obviously has a huge impact on the ability of such organisations to reach out. What will the Scottish Government do to ensure that they are still there at the end of the pandemic, because we will need them then more than ever?

I absolutely agree. That is part of the reason why, early in the pandemic, I announced the £350 million package of support as a response to the pandemic. As the months went on, we realised that we had to gear up and support our third sector to move into a recovery phase. The adapt and thrive part of the support that we put in place provides third sector organisations with financial support, but also provides advice to help them to adapt to the circumstances around them, so that they can improve their sustainability for the future.

Knowing how critical third sector and community organisations are is also why, just a few weeks ago, the First Minister made a further announcement of financial support through the winter package support measures.

Brian Whittle has put his finger on a critical point: we must work hard to ensure that, beyond the pandemic, we have a thriving third sector, as it has been proved just how essential that is to the resilience of our communities and our country. We will continue to work with our third sector partners to ensure that the sector continues to thrive. Indeed, this morning, I had a call with many third sector organisation leaders and we will continue to work in partnership to ensure that that is the case.

Domestic Abuse (Housing Outcomes)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to improve housing outcomes for women experiencing domestic abuse. (S5O-04891)

We must ensure that women and children who experience domestic abuse have a secure place to live and the support that they need, which includes supporting them to stay in their own home, if that is what they want.

In October, we introduced the Domestic Abuse (Protection) (Scotland) Bill, which will provide the police and courts with powers to make emergency notices and orders to protect people who are at risk of domestic abuse by enabling a suspected perpetrator of domestic abuse to be removed from a home that they share with a person at risk. The bill also provides powers for social landlords to change a tenancy to remove a perpetrator of abuse from a victim’s home.

We welcome the recent report by the Chartered Institute of Housing Scotland and Scottish Women’s Aid, and will work with partners on implementing the recommendations to improve women and children’s housing outcomes.

As well as identifying existing barriers and providing guidance, the excellent report that the minister mentioned contains a lot of examples of good practice that is already happening. How will the Scottish Government ensure that all social landlords across Scotland use the guidance and take prompt action to improve things for women and children experiencing domestic abuse?

I am very keen to ensure that we export best practice across the piece, particularly in this area. Early in 2021, we will—[Inaudible.]—expert group to lead delivery of the recommendations and transform practice in this area. We will continue to report on progress through our annual report to Parliament on the ending homelessness together action plan. We are already taking forward some of the recommendations, some of which, crucially, we have introduced into the Domestic Abuse (Protection) (Scotland) Bill; that includes the power for social landlords to remove a perpetrator of abuse from the victim’s home.

Covid-19 (Financial Recognition of Local Government Workers)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress it has made on giving financial recognition to people working in local government during the response to the Covid-19 pandemic, as agreed at the recent Convention of Scottish Local Authorities leaders meeting. (S5O-04892)

I, along with all Scottish ministers, am hugely grateful for the heroic efforts of all key workers across Scotland, including in local government, who have risen to the challenge of responding to the pandemic and kept our essential services available. Although councils are independent bodies, which means that it is for them to decide on any additional support for the wider local government workforce, the Scottish Government regularly engages with local government on issues around pay and workforce. We have also taken decisive action to commit £382.2 million in additional funding to local authorities in Scotland.

There was agreement across all the parties in the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities that the incredible work of tens of thousands of local government staff has kept services going—from distributing food to keeping our schools open, collecting waste, and keeping our older and vulnerable constituents safe throughout the pandemic—and that those staff should be not only acknowledged, but rewarded, for that work.

Given the massive deficit that our councils face due to Scottish Government underfunding, surely it is time for the Scottish Government to step up, support those staff and enable our councils, which have kept our communities going, to be rewarded for their heroic efforts.

As I said very explicitly, I—along with the whole of this Government—recognise and am grateful for all the efforts of people across local government who have done an inordinate amount of work to help the country respond to the challenges posed by Covid-19. However, I also mentioned that councils are independent bodies and that it is for them to decide on any additional support for the wider local government workforce.

In addition, I underlined that we continue to regularly engage; indeed, my colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Kate Forbes, met COSLA yesterday to discuss issues around this, and we will continue to engage with local authorities and to support them financially. As I mentioned, we have committed £382.2 million in additional funding to local authorities in Scotland.

I do not accept the characterisation that we have underfunded local government. We have endeavoured to treat it fairly in all the funding decisions that we have taken as a Government, bearing in mind that we have also borne the brunt of austerity over a number of years. We have tried to work in partnership with local government to enable it to continue to deliver the essential services that are critical for all our communities across the country. I again put on record our enormous thanks to all of them for all that they do day in, day out.

Could we move on a bit more rapidly? I still have many questions to take.

Islands (Housing for Young People)

To ask the Scottish Government what consideration it is giving to the calls for young people living on Scotland’s islands to be given first refusal for available housing in order to tackle depopulation. (S5O-04893)

Ensuring that young people in island communities have access to housing of all tenures has a key role to play in the sustainability of those communities—[Inaudible.]—ensuring that people have access to quality, sustainable homes that are safe, warm and affordable. More than 4,800 affordable homes have been delivered in rural and island communities over the first four years of this session of Parliament.

As the statutory housing authorities, councils are responsible for assessing local housing requirements and for setting out in their housing strategies how those should be addressed. The sale of private property is, of course, the responsibility of the property owner. Deals cannot be discriminatory or violate equalities legislation.

Will the Scottish Government look at setting a maximum percentage for the number of holiday homes in any one community, and at how it could set up two different housing markets, such as there are in the Channel Islands? For example, all homes that have been built with assistance from the public purse could be the first to be transferred into a local market, and other people could have the ability to transfer their own homes into that as well. That would go some way to ensuring that there was adequate housing for young people, which would allow them to remain in their communities.

I call the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government.

Presiding Officer, I am aware of growing concern about the potential negative effects—

Mr Stewart, my apologies. I called the cabinet secretary; I should have called you.

Presiding Officer, I indicated an offer to answer only because Kevin Stewart’s reception was breaking up. However, Mr Stewart’s reception seems perfectly fine now.

Mr Stewart’s reception is always perfectly fine. I call Mr Stewart to answer, please.

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I may have to tell my father to switch off Netflix, in order to get better reception.

I am well aware of growing concerns about the potential negative effects of the concentration of second homes. We changed council tax legislation to enable councils to either grant or remove a discount in all or part of their council areas. We also operate schemes for first-time buyers, such as the open market shared equity scheme, to help young folk across Scotland. Those schemes are not being utilised on the islands as much as they could and should be, and I have asked that we do more to market them there.

I have had discussions with Ben Macpherson, in his previous role as Minister for Public Finance and Migration, to see what else we can do when it comes to taxation. We will continue to explore those situations.

South Ayrshire Council (Meetings)

6. John Scott (Ayr) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met representatives of South Ayrshire Council and what was discussed. (S5O-04894)

Ministers and officials regularly meet representatives of all Scottish local authorities, including South Ayrshire Council, to discuss a wide range of issues as part of our commitment to working in partnership with local government to improve outcomes for the people of Scotland.

We continue to work closely with local government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on our strategic approach to suppressing Covid-19 outbreaks, including through regular engagement with all local authorities about levels of restrictions and protective measures that apply.

The cabinet secretary will know that high streets across Scotland have been struggling for years—nowhere more than in Ayr—and that Covid has made the problem worse. Businesses large and small need help in both the short and the longer term. Will the Scottish Government therefore now support Conservatives’ calls for an extension of 100 per cent rates relief for hospitality, tourism and retail businesses, in order to protect jobs in 2021 and beyond?

I know that my colleague Kate Forbes regularly tries to work through what more she can do to help to support businesses that are so vital to our economy.

On a point that relates more to my portfolio, I acutely know and understand how much pressure high streets in our town centres are facing, which is why I asked Professor Leigh Sparks to revisit our town centre action plan. He will be reporting back to me fairly shortly about actions that we can take to further support our town centres and high streets. That is also why we put some investment into the Scotland loves local campaign, to encourage more people to shop locally.

During the pandemic, people have reconnected with what is on their doorsteps. We must try to harness that reconnection, to ensure that we can continue to support our high streets beyond the pandemic restrictions.

I am happy to engage further with the member on Ayr’s town centre, which I know is experiencing particular challenges. We are committed to doing all that we can to support our towns and high streets, which are so critical to our economic recovery.

Drug Addiction (Dundee)

7. Jenny Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what recent discussions it has had with third sector organisations in Dundee working in the field of drug addiction. (S5O-04895)

During the pandemic, Scottish Government officials have continued to engage with alcohol and drug partnership co-ordinators and national commissioned organisations. Scottish Government officials met alcohol and drug partnerships on a quarterly basis; meetings took place in May, September and December.

Officials have also met representatives from Scottish Recovery Consortium, Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs, Crew 2000, Scottish Drugs Forum, Alcohol Focus Scotland, We Are With You and Scottish Health Actions on Alcohol Problems fortnightly since April 2020.

Last week, we learned that Dundee lost more of its citizens to drugs than any other place in Europe or indeed the world. Officials on the Dundee drugs commission told me that we desperately need more community drugs workers, to support families, reduce harm and prevent deaths. What plans does the cabinet secretary have to invest in more community drugs workers through the third sector in Dundee?

On a more general point about communities, over the past 10 months we have seen how important it is to have community-based support in place. We have seen that when people receive community-based support, they show more resilience; they also feel that that support is far less stigmatising than the support that is offered by some statutory services. Therefore, I understand entirely the broader principle that community support is necessary. We continue to support the third sector through the £350 million fund that I announced in March and our continued funding of the adapt and thrive programme, which ensures that third sector organisations can reconfigure their work so that they can be in a sustainable position.

On the particular point about drug and alcohol addiction services, I will ensure that Angela Constance, in her new role, and I work together to support, as best we can, third sector partners that deliver addiction services. Such services are critical to the resilience and recovery of many people, particularly in Dundee, which has a particular issue, on which we need to work hard and tirelessly.

Local Authority Service Changes (Duty to Consult)

8. Dean Lockhart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what guidance it provides to local authorities regarding their duty to consult before important changes to services are made. (S5O-04896)

The Scottish Government recognises the importance of consulting communities and giving local people a voice and an opportunity to influence important decisions by their councils.

There is no universal guidance, as local authorities are independent corporate bodies. However, where councils have a statutory requirement to consult their residents, on issues such as planning, we will provide support and advice, to ensure that they follow the necessary legal requirements.

If Mr Lockhart would like to advise what policy change he is concerned about, I will ask officials to investigate and share the necessary guidance, if it exists.

Scottish National Party-led Stirling Council recently made significant changes to waste collection services, which included cuts in bin collections and the introduction of charges. In a report that was submitted to a recent council meeting, it was confirmed that no prior public consultation had been undertaken on those significant changes to a fundamental service. The failure to consult has seriously damaged the council’s standing with residents.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that local authorities must carry out meaningful public consultation where major service changes such as that one are proposed? Is it her view that it would be useful if the Scottish Government provided clear guidance to local authorities and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on public consultation?

As I said in my first response to the member, we recognise the importance of consulting and engaging with communities. On the whole, I think that that is the case for local authorities, too: because they are accountable to the communities that they represent, they want to make sure that they deliver services that reflect the needs and the context of their particular areas.

I do not know the details of what happened in Stirling to give Mr Lockhart such concern, but I am happy to engage with Stirling Council on that. Changes have been a necessity for councils adapting to the Covid situation around them, and I believe that local authorities do what they can to best meet the needs of the people who live in their areas.

If there is more that we can do around the engagement with communities to make sure that they feel that they have a voice, we will continue to work with COSLA on that. Participatory budgeting and community wealth building approaches show that we want to make sure that communities’ voices are heard in all the decisions that we take, whether at national Government or local government level. I am happy to engage further with Mr Lockhart on that point.