Meeting date: Thursday, December 23, 2021
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 23 December 2021
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Point of Order, Decision Time
General Question Time
Good morning. I remind members of the Covid-related measures that are in place and that face coverings should be worn when moving around the chamber and across the Holyrood campus.
The first item of business is general question time. In order to get in as many people as possible, I would be grateful for short and succinct questions and responses.
Railways (Priorities in 2022)
To ask the Scottish Government what its priorities are for Scotland’s railways in 2022. (S6O-00582)
Our priority remains the continued delivery of passenger and freight services to ensure a fair and green recovery from the Covid pandemic. We will mobilise ScotRail Trains Ltd, which will provide ScotRail services within the public sector, under Scottish Government control.
We must ensure that passenger services reflect changing passenger needs, and we must restore the financial sustainability of rail services. Our successful support for rail freight will continue as rail freight volumes grow. We will continue delivery of our rail decarbonisation action plan.
If the Scottish Government wants to grow passenger numbers in the new year, hiking fares is the wrong way to go about it. Further to my topical questions to the minister this week, which were not answered, I ask why the 3.8 per cent hike in fares is being introduced in January, when even the Tory Government is raising fares only in March. Why did the minister tell me on 16 December that rail fares remain “under consideration” and then, on 17 December, announce the biggest fare hike in over a decade?
We covered this subject the other day. It is a matter of deep regret that we have had to introduce the fare increase. The fact that it is taking place in January simply reflects that that was when we were due to introduce an increase if that was what we were going to do. We looked in very great detail at whether it was possible to introduce an increase that was below the retail prices index and at whether we could have no increase. We worked on that over an extended period and late into the day.
Can the minister assure us that there will continue to be investment in the railways? For example, I think that a hydrogen-powered train was trialled during the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26. Will the Government continue to invest in order to maintain, improve and decarbonise Scotland’s railways?
The hydrogen train is an exciting opportunity for us to develop as part of the decarbonisation agenda.
We are proud of our record of investment in our railways. Indeed, our budget for 2022-23 shows an increase from £173 million to £247 million—an increase of £74 million, or 42.8 per cent—in the investment to support the improvement of rail infrastructure, including through implementation of aspects of our decarbonisation action plan. Overall, the rail budget has seen a 4.3 per cent increase from 2020-21, which underlines our commitment to this important public service.
We have fare hikes and service cuts, and infrastructure projects have been scrapped. Does the minister have anything positive to say about the future under a nationalised ScotRail?
I am glad to see that Mr Simpson is entering into the Christmas spirit, as ever. The infrastructure project that he is alluding to has not been scrapped at all. The project is proceeding and it will deliver the capacity that is required.
Mr Simpson and I exchanged views on this earlier in the week. I regret the fare increase, which is parallel to the increase in England, but that is the financial reality that we face, as we have to make rail services sustainable in the short, medium and long terms.
Question 2 was not lodged.
Oil and Gas Workers (Green Skills Retraining Opportunities)
To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to ensure that opportunities for retraining in green skills are available to workers currently employed in the oil and gas sector, to enable them to assist in reducing Scotland’s carbon emissions. (S6O-00584)
The Scottish Government published the climate emergency skills action plan in December 2020, identifying the immediate and long-term actions needed to ensure that our workforce has the skills required to support Scotland’s transition to net zero.
As a priority action, and within the first 100 days of the parliamentary session—in August 2021—we launched the green jobs workforce academy, providing individuals of all ages with advice, support and training opportunities to help them to enter into, or progress in, good green jobs. Through the academy, we are committed to supporting workers in energy transition, including in oil and gas, onshore and offshore wind, hydrogen, electricity, and carbon capture and storage. That includes the delivery of a skills guarantee for workers in carbon-intensive sectors such as oil and gas that will be designed with stakeholders as part of our initial response to the just transition commission.
In the Highlands and Islands, we have the highest level of fuel poverty. Added to that, very few companies retrofit, because microbusinesses do not have the resources to register for approved status, which would enable them to carry out work that is grant funded. What is the cabinet secretary doing to attract oil and gas workers to retrain in the area and to enable them and other local contractors to register as approved contractors, in order to ensure a supply of local contractors who are available to retrofit in the areas in which they are most needed?
I thank Rhoda Grant for those very important points, with which I certainly identify in my own constituency of Moray, in the north of Scotland. That is one of the reasons why we set up the green jobs workforce academy. I am told that nearly 3,400 people—unique users—have already visited that website in the first couple of months since it was set up. That resource is available for anyone who works in the oil and gas sector, in addition to the official initiatives, many of which are in the north-east of Scotland, for finding out about the opportunities in renewables and how to retrain and get accredited for some of those sectors that are important for the transition, as Rhoda Grant has mentioned.
However, I absolutely accept that there is a long way to go. That is why we are working with our colleges and our further education sector. The minister for green skills, Lorna Slater, is also working hard on those issues.
Thank you. I need a little more brevity, please.
The United Kingdom’s £16 billion North Sea transition deal, which launched last March, aims to transition 40,000 oil and gas jobs in the next eight years. The Scottish Government has allocated just £20 million to a just transition fund. What precisely is the £20 million for, and what are the stated year 1 outcomes?
I say to Liam Kerr that I am delighted that the UK Government is investing resources into the North Sea after taking out more than £300 billion over the past few decades. It is good to get something back for the north-east of Scotland. It is an important initiative.
When it comes to the Scottish Government’s transition fund for north-east Scotland over the next 10 years, we are working hard with stakeholders and will make further announcements in the new year on the first £20 million of that fund, which is in the draft budget that is before the Parliament just now.
Energy policy remains reserved to UK ministers. Will the minister advise on the opportunities for green skills and green jobs that have been lost through terrible decision making by UK ministers? While they have invested billions in expensive nuclear power, they have underinvested in what the tidal industry needs, they have shamefully chosen not to award track 1 status to the Scottish Cluster carbon capture project and they have cut subsidies for renewables.
Be brief, minister.
Neil Gray has highlighted the massive potential for creating hundreds of thousands of green jobs in Scotland. The recent decision by the UK Government not to place the Acorn carbon capture project in track 1 is, of course, a blow to the creation of those green jobs. More than 15,000 jobs are expected in the early stages of that project alone, and it is really important that the UK Government reverse that decision. There is massive potential. I do not have time to quote the many different reports that outline the potential for hundreds of thousands of new green jobs in Scotland.
Local Bridge Maintenance Fund (Local Authority Applications)
To ask the Scottish Government what the total value of applications received from local authorities was, as part of the £32 million local bridge maintenance fund. (S6O-00585)
The Scottish Government received 131 applications for funding from the local bridge maintenance fund, at a total estimated value of £107.7 million. A total of 74 applications from 19 local authorities have been approved.
The collapse of several bridges in rural Stirlingshire has caused significant disruption for residents and businesses. Given the oversubscription to the bridge maintenance fund that the minister has just outlined, and the urgent need for bridge repairs in many regions, what assurances can he provide that more funding will be available in the future to carry out necessary repairs?
Within this financial year, £12 million has been allocated, and £20 million will be allocated next year.
It is also important to look at the wider context. The local government capital grant for next year will increase by £62.5 million, which is a 10.1 per cent cash increase or a 7.2 per cent real-terms increase. There is additional capital resource for local government; it is for local authorities to decide—based on their own priorities—how to deploy that capital resource, including for local bridge maintenance.
Does the minister agree that bridge repairs have been impacted by shortages of skills and labour and by problems with building supplies, which have been exacerbated by the Tories’ hard Brexit, which was pushed through against Scotland’s democratic will?
Evelyn Tweed has made an important point. We are all aware of the increasing costs of capital and investment as a consequence of skills and supply shortages. A number of factors have created that problem, a key one of which has been the United Kingdom Government’s reckless hard Brexit.
Pets for Christmas
To ask the Scottish Government what measures it has taken to prevent the casual purchase of pets for Christmas. (S6O-00586)
We understand why some families might be tempted to get a puppy as a gift at Christmas, but we encourage people to think carefully about doing so. Christmas is probably the worst time of year to bring a puppy into a household, because it needs a calm environment and an established routine to help it to adjust to its new life and surroundings. We also know that unscrupulous puppy farmers seek to cash in on increased demand in the lead-up to Christmas, which makes the chances of buying an illegally bred or sick puppy even higher than usual.
In the run up to Christmas, and in support of the ongoing campaign by the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, we have released social media messaging to discourage prospective owners from buying a puppy for Christmas. Our messaging also provides advice on how to spot the signs of an unlicensed dealer. There are key checks that can help to ensure that people are buying safely. They include meeting the puppy’s mother with her litter and ensuring that all the correct paperwork is in place. If something does not feel right, buyers should walk away and report their concerns to the Scottish SPCA.
Campaigns and advice have their place and are very important. However, as the cabinet secretary has said, illegal trading from horrendous puppy factory farms and online purchasing continue. Those practices often involve sick animals and cause a great deal of distress and unhappiness for owners.
Will the cabinet secretary support, in principle, my new welfare of dogs (Scotland) bill—a version of which fell during the previous session of Parliament because of time pressures—which I intend to introduce early in the new year in order to encourage, in law, responsible dog ownership? A “Yes” from the cabinet secretary would make my Christmas.
I know that Christine Grahame is passionate about animal welfare and has pursued the matter for some time. The Scottish Government welcomes any proposal that seeks to improve animal welfare in Scotland. We will carefully consider the content of her bill. I look forward to discussing in due course the measures that will be set out in it, and to working with her on the measures that she hopes to introduce.
ScotRail (Public Ownership)
To ask the Scottish Government how its plans to bring ScotRail into public ownership are progressing. (S6O-00587)
On 8 December, I provided the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee with an update on arrangements to mobilise a wholly owned company, Scottish Rail Holdings Ltd, and its wholly owned subsidiary, ScotRail Trains Ltd. ScotRail Trains will operate ScotRail services from expiry of the current franchise. Scottish Rail Holdings will provide oversight and management of ScotRail Trains.
The appointments of the chief executive officer and finance director of Scottish Rail Holdings were announced on 10 December. I will, of course, update Parliament as mobilisation arrangements progress and as significant milestones are reached.
I am also looking into the possibility of providing MSPs with access to an additional informal briefing session in order for them to hear directly from some of the senior appointees and to ask any additional questions that they might have.
The minister will agree that reliable and efficient railways are the backbone of the transport system. My constituents have raised concerns regarding the impact of the proposed changes to the trains on the Milngavie line. There is also no doubt that the pandemic has had a significant impact on passenger numbers. What assurances can the Scottish Government give that the views of my constituents will be fully considered by ScotRail?
I understand that ScotRail has been actively analysing about 3,500 responses to the recent consultation on services and will in due course inform stakeholders, including MSPs, about the consultation outcomes, together with its response. I anticipate that that will happen early in the new year. However, as the member will, I am sure, appreciate, ScotRail’s immediate focus is on delivering services and mobilisation.
I reassure Marie McNair that Transport Scotland will seek assurances from ScotRail that the views of all respondents to the consultation have been appropriately considered. I am aware that ScotRail has developed a proposed timetable that seeks to offer service patterns that meet passenger forecasts, but it will, in the light of evidence that arises from the consultation, consider adjustments to that proposed timetable.
It was heartening to hear about the plans for public ownership of Scotland’s railways. Will the minister commit to full worker representation on the board and governance structures that he has just outlined?
As I have said previously, the intention is to have staff representation on the board.
Mental Wellbeing Link Workers
To ask the Scottish Government how it will ensure that every general practitioner has access to a dedicated mental wellbeing link worker. (S6O-00588)
The Scottish Government is making significant investment in the development of mental health and wellbeing services in primary care services. That includes the implementation of our manifesto commitment to provide 1,000 additional dedicated roles by 2026 to help to grow community mental health resilience and to increase use of social prescribing.
The new services will be established in areas that are served by a group of general practices and will be made up of multi-agency teams providing assessment, advice, support and similar forms of treatment for people who have mental health distress or wellbeing needs. Every service will ensure that it provides access to a link worker for mental wellbeing.
The Scottish Government recently allocated £1.5 million of funding from the mental health recovery and renewal fund, and has issued local planning guidance to health boards and integration authorities to support early planning for those services.
LGBT+ people have a higher need for mental healthcare, due to inequalities that are ingrained in our society, particularly in rural communities such as mine, where a natural support network is often not available. We lose such constituents to larger cities that have greater LGBT+ resources and support.
Does the minister agree that mental health workers are essential in ensuring that we can offer support to such individuals and reduce some of the inequalities in our rural communities?
Please be brief, minister.
I agree with Karen Adam that when such services are established they are often the first port of call for LGBT+ individuals who are accessing mental health support and treatment. People will be able to access those services quickly and easily in order to prevent mental ill health from escalating.
The guidance requires health and social care partnerships to carry out equality impact assessments of their local plans, which will be based on the specific needs of their local populations, including LGBT+ individuals.
We recognise that in remote and rural communities in particular we have to ensure that we have high-quality sustainable healthcare services. Our plans in relation to mental health will go a long way towards helping people in such communities.
I am afraid that we have to conclude general questions at this point. I apologise to members whose questions we have been unable to take today.