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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, February 24, 2022

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 24 February 2022 [Draft]

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Torness Nuclear Power Station, Portfolio Question Time, Ports, Ukraine, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, 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 questions. In order to get in as many people as possible, I would be grateful for short and succinct questions, and responses to match.

Island Ferry Services

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reported warnings from residents, business and advocacy groups that the current quality of ferry service represents a real threat to island life. (S6O-00780)

The Scottish Government takes seriously the views of those groups. The aim is to make communities across Scotland, including island and remote mainland communities, attractive places to live, work, bring up families and move to, so that Scotland’s population profile provides a platform for sustainable and inclusive economic growth and wellbeing.

The importance of transport links, including ferry services, is fully recognised as a key factor for island communities, to assist individual residents in, for example, their access to services and enjoyment of fundamental human rights.

As part of our commitment to our island and remote communities, the Scottish Government has announced investment of £580 million in ports and vessels to support and improve Scotland’s ferry services over the next five years, as part of our wider infrastructure investment plan.

Will the minister at least accept that the failure of the shipbuilding programme for Caledonian MacBrayne has played a key part in harming the quality of life for islanders and marginalised communities in Scotland, and will she commit to a national shipbuilding strategy and a continuous shipbuilding programme that is centred around the public sector procurement contract for Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd, in order to build a proper, sustainable shipbuilding industry in Scotland that will help provide lifeline services for communities in the islands?

I mentioned the investment of £580 million in ports and vessels over the next five years. We are working constructively with key partners on that. This afternoon, I will meet CalMac Ferries. I will also meet island MSPs and the chair of the community board at CalMac.

In 2018-19, we invested in a resilience fund to look at ferry services to ensure that there was future reliability and availability of vessels, which I recognise as a challenge, given an ageing fleet. The member asked me to commit to a national shipbuilding plan. I will not do that in the chamber; however, I am meeting Mr Sweeney later, on a separate issue that relates to my portfolio responsibilities, at which meeting I will be more than happy to discuss that in further detail.

As someone who lives on Islay, I have experienced the vagaries of the ferry service. However, the quality of island life is overwhelmingly positive. Yet again, Labour has cast life on the islands in a negative light, while the Scottish Government is actively taking steps to tackle depopulation throughout the islands. Does the minister therefore share my view that that latest example of Labour rhetoric, which may potentially discourage people who are considering moving to the islands, is both entirely partisan and extremely unhelpful in the image that it portrays?

Be brief, minister.

We need to make our islands attractive places to live in, as Jenni Minto has alluded to. She lives on Islay, so she recognises some of the challenges, more so than I. However, there have been extended periods of extreme weather, recently, which have directly impacted on the viability of a number of services. As I mentioned to Mr Sweeney, I will be speaking to CalMac about those issues later today—as I will to Ms Minto and a number of other colleagues who represent island communities. It is absolutely essential that we get those services right for the people who live in our island communities.

Home Insulation Programmes (North East Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the roll-out of the home insulation programmes in the north-east. (S6O-00781)

In the financial year 2022-23, we will invest £336 million in our heat, energy efficiency and fuel poverty programmes.

Since 2013, we have allocated £61 million through our area-based schemes to tackle fuel poverty in North East Scotland. Those projects have benefited more than 18,000 fuel-poor households. Vulnerable families in the north-east will also benefit from the home insulation delivered through our warmer homes Scotland service, and we continue to provide free and impartial advice through our Home Energy Scotland service, which includes advice about relevant grant and loan schemes to help to meet the costs of improved home insulation.

I thank the minister for his response and the information that he provided. Given the cost-of-living crisis that we face, and the significant role of rising energy bills in that, can he outline how the Scottish Government can maximise insulation and other measures to keep bills as low as possible, and what more we can and should all be doing in the longer term to tackle issues in the retrofit supply chain?

The heat in buildings strategy, which we published recently, goes into those issues in great depth. The strategy has to be seen in the new context of the cost-of-living crisis. The Scottish Government is doing what it can to support people through the current cost-of-living crisis in a broader sense, including through our winter support fund and other aspects of our social security spending, which go beyond the resources allocated by the United Kingdom Government.

On the longer-term development of the supply chain, we believe that there are some 16,400 good-quality jobs for Scotland that can be created through the zero-emissions heating agenda. That will go hand in hand with the regulatory approach that we are taking to make sure that all housing, in all tenures, achieves a good band of energy performance, as well as conversion to zero-emissions heating.

In December, I asked what the best and most cost-effective way was to insulate traditional granite homes, such as are found in the north-east, in Aberdeen. The minister responded that Aberdeen home owners could install solid wall insulation and suggested that loans of up to £10,000 were available.

I assume that the minister researched the answer before giving it, so can he give me an indicative ball-park price for installing solid wall insulation in a traditional granite home in Aberdeen? Given the extreme disruption and building work required, how long, roughly, does it take?

I am afraid that I do not have that precise data with me at the moment, but I will write to the member and see whether we can answer the question in detail.

Dentists (National Health Service Patients)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it can take to encourage dentists to continue treating national health service patients. (S6O-00782)

We are doing everything that we can to support NHS dentistry and we will put patients at the centre of a sustainable public service. We are rapidly moving forward with NHS dental recovery and aim to return to more normal levels of activity as soon as infection prevention and control restrictions allow.

I thank the minister for that answer, but it was not clear what support the Government is providing. Does the minister understand why a third of dentists who were surveyed by the British Dental Association are considering leaving the profession, despite what the Government said? Every day, I have constituents who are being told, for example, that they have to wait months for NHS treatment, when they could get the same treatment in days if they go private.

Does the minister accept that, in the short term, reducing Covid support will exacerbate the problem and, in the long term, it is clear that the model is broken and we need a comprehensive review of dental services, with far greater integration with our NHS?

In the short term, we need to focus on recovery. We need to get more patients seen by more dentists. In the longer term, I do not disagree; I think that there is a need for reform.

I would dispute that there has not been good support. I will reiterate, as I did in the chamber yesterday, that we are looking at a 9 per cent increase in the budget for NHS dental services this year. Just this month, there has been an additional sum of £20 million through increased fees to provide enhanced examinations. We have provided £50 million of support for dentists and £35 million for personal protective equipment. We have provided £5 million for ventilation improvements and £7.5 million for the purchase of new drills. We have also assured the profession that we are not looking at a cliff edge at the end of this year, in terms of withdrawing support; we are looking at a soft landing, where we rejoin the link between financial reward and seeing patients. We need dentists to see more NHS patients.

Key to returning NHS dental services is the recruitment and retention of dental nurses. In Orkney, that is proving exceptionally difficult under the current funding model, with staff even being poached by the public dental service, due to the disparity in pay and conditions. Will the minister agree to look at that specific issue and even at whether dental nurses providing NHS dental services can all be brought under the same pension provision?

I am certainly willing to look at that. The last thing that we would want is the displacement of a problem that is happening in one part of the dental provision to another part. We need the whole dental service to recover. If the member is willing to write to me with the specifics of that inquiry, I will be more than happy to look into it and try to sort it.

Island Ferry Services

To ask the Scottish Government how it plans to ensure that islanders are not left without food supplies due to the reported lack of resilience of the ferry fleet. (S6O-00783)

The Scottish Government works with CalMac Ferries Ltd to ensure that islanders are not left without food supplies and that essential welfare provision is maintained. During periods of disruption, CalMac will assess all the options to maximise available capacity across the network. CalMac will prioritise traffic to ensure that food and other lifeline supplies and services are available on the islands.

EY’s project Neptune report into the flawed tripartite structure for procuring and running ferries has been with Transport Scotland for five months. Will the minister commit to publishing it now and making a statement to Parliament?

I am more than happy to give Mr Simpson that assurance and to make a parliamentary statement.

Our island communities have always had to contend with bad weather, but fortunately they have not also had to contend with a Tory Government—instead they have had the benefit of a Scottish National Party Government, which has invested more than £2.2 billion in the Clyde and Hebrides and northern isles ferry services, bringing new routes, new vessels, upgraded harbour infrastructure and the roll-out of significantly reduced fares through the road equivalent tariff scheme. Does the minister agree that it is disingenuous and likely to cause undue alarm for Mr Simpson to suggest that the food security of Scotland’s island communities is in jeopardy?

In the event of disruption to supplies having an impact on the health or wellbeing of island residents, we will work with local resilience partnerships and our established multiagency response teams to develop solutions. Our ferry operators, in very difficult circumstances, take every opportunity to exploit those weather windows where they have arisen, with the option of running amended or additional sailings if needed in order to prioritise supplies and to prevent such a situation from arising.

The period of weather disruption that I mentioned previously, combined with some issues with vessel resilience, brings into sharp focus the essential nature of the lifeline connectivity that our ferry services provide to our island communities. That is why Scottish ministers have committed to investing £580 million in our ferry infrastructure over the course of the next five years.

Fish Processing Industry

To ask the Scottish Government what support is available to ensure that more fish caught by Scottish vessels are landed and processed at Scottish ports. (S6O-00784)

The Scottish Government is due to introduce amended economic link provisions in January 2023 to help to ensure that greater amounts of quota stocks are landed in Scottish ports. We will also be producing a new seafood trade strategy, which will set out our vision to ensure that Scotland has a thriving, sustainable and diverse Scottish seafood industry that revitalises coastal communities.

Through the marine fund Scotland, £6 million has supported Scottish processing facilities to upgrade their premises and improve automation, to help to enhance the opportunity for Scottish-landed catches to have value added in Scotland.

The Scottish Government has a strong track record of supporting the fishing industry on the Banffshire and Buchan coast, most recently with the additional £1.8 million of funding for ports and harbours, which was announced last year, which benefited Fraserburgh, Peterhead and Macduff.

However, given that Scotland is entitled to receive at least £62 million annually to replace the European maritime and fisheries fund, can the cabinet secretary tell us what impact Brexit has had on funding for the vital projects and infrastructure that support our fishing communities, such as those in my constituency?

The impact of Brexit has been significant, not only because of the losses and dislocation of markets, but also because of the reduction in quota available for Scottish vessels. The member is right in what she has said. Following EU exit, we provided clear evidence to the UK Government for a multi-year allocation for marine funding of £62 million per annum, given that that is what we could have accessed as an EU member. However, instead, the UK Government has allocated only £14 million a year to Scotland. That fails to recognise the value and importance of Scotland’s seas.

In addition, it appears that the yearly £5.5 million top-up that was previously provided to Scotland on the basis that the EU maritime and fisheries fund allocation was insufficient will not continue. That means that, in real terms, the funding available to support the seafood sectors, enhance the marine environment and improve biodiversity has received a 28 per cent cut compared with that in the previous three years.

Ultimately, a reduced funding pot means that there is reduced opportunity to realise the benefits for coastal communities, marine businesses and the marine environment in Scotland. However, we will continue to use the limited funding that we have to deliver maximum effect through the marine fund Scotland.

Food Waste (Climate Change)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to reduce any adverse effects of food waste on climate change. (S6O-00785)

The Scottish Government’s 2019 “Food Waste Reduction Action Plan” set a target of a 33 per cent reduction in food waste by 2025. The delivery of that plan is on-going and is supported by Zero Waste Scotland.

I am taking action. Yesterday I launched phase 2 of our food waste marketing campaign to highlight links between food waste and climate change, and to encourage people to buy what they need and eat what they buy and recycle food waste that they cannot prevent.

A review of the plan will be published this year. That will identify additional areas of action that are required to meet the 2025 target.

The minister will be aware that, if food waste were a country, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter behind China and the USA. In fact, food waste contributes four times the amount of greenhouse gas that the global aviation industry does. Does the minister agree that not enough emphasis has been put on tackling food waste and that we must stop vilifying our food producers?

Brian Whittle is absolutely right that we must not vilify our food producers, that everybody can work together to tackle food waste, and that food waste is an important contributor to climate emissions.

ME and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

To ask the Scottish Government what steps are being taken to ensure access to care and support planning by a specialist team for people with ME and chronic fatigue syndrome, as recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. (S6O-00786)

The Scottish Government welcomes the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guideline on ME and chronic fatigue syndrome, which was published last October. We have commissioned an independent organisation to engage with the third sector, people with lived experience and clinical stakeholders to discuss how we can move forward in implementing the NICE guideline recommendations in Scotland and, on a broader front, identifying and practically addressing priorities for service improvement in care for people with ME/CFS.

I look forward to meeting #MEAction Scotland representatives on 3 March, which is next week, and directly hearing their views on improving the access to care and support for people who are affected by ME/CFS.

The emergence of SARS-CoV-2 and all its variants has caused significant damage to people and families throughout Scotland, and we know that ME/CFS can be triggered by infection in patients, although susceptibility may have a genetic element. Does the minister therefore agree that access to care and specialist support is essential for those who are currently diagnosed? What work is being undertaken to identify any lasting effects from Covid infections that may lead to the development of ME/CFS?

We are committed to ensuring that everyone who is living with ME/CFS in Scotland is able to access the best possible care and support and benefit from healthcare services that are safe and effective and put people right at the centre of their care.

Our approach in responding to long Covid is to support national health service boards to develop models of care that will be of benefit to the management of other long-term and complex conditions. Our chief scientist office is supporting nine major research projects through £2.5 million of funding. They are expected to contribute significantly to the clinical knowledge of the long-term effects of Covid-19, including to understanding more fully the nature of long Covid and possible treatments for it.

Distress Brief Intervention Programme

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on how the distress brief intervention programme is supporting people experiencing mental health crises. (S6O-00787)

The award-winning distress brief intervention programme is a flagship programme that provides personalised compassionate support to people who present to front-line services in emotional distress and do not require emergency clinical services. DBI provides practical support that helps people to understand and manage their distress. As such, it forms a core element of the Government’s work on improving responses for people who are experiencing mental health crisis.

The distress brief intervention programme was, in part, introduced to create a coherent approach to addressing mental health crises. With that in mind, will the minister say what is being done to ensure that access to mental health services is consistent across Scotland, and in particular for those living in rural or island communities?

Ms Roddick asks an important question. DBI is available nationally through NHS24. In the Highlands and Islands, Inverness is one of the pilot areas for DBI. The programme is also now available in Moray and Orkney and is expected to go live in Argyll and Bute and in the Western Isles in the spring.

More generally, mental wellbeing support can be accessed through an individual’s general practitioner or from NHS24 or the Breathing Space service. Anyone who feels that they might cause immediate harm to themselves can reach out for help by dialling 999.

That concludes general questions.