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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 24 March 2021

Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Point of Order, Portfolio Question Time, Greensill Capital UK (Administration), Dogs (Protection of Livestock) (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Dogs (Protection of Livestock) (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill, Motion of Thanks, Decision Time, Presiding Officer’s Closing Remarks


Portfolio Question Time

Education and Skills

Good afternoon, everyone. I remind members that social distancing measures are in place in the chamber and across the campus. I ask members to take care to observe those measures, including when entering and exiting the chamber.

The next item of business is portfolio questions, and the first portfolio is education and skills. Members who wish to ask supplementary questions should press their request-to-speak buttons or, if you are joining us remotely, indicate in the chat function that you have a question.

Digital Exclusion (Glasgow Schools)

To ask the Scottish Government what analysis it has carried out of the number of school pupils in Glasgow experiencing digital exclusion. (S5O-05138)

The Scottish Government worked with local authorities through the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers, and the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland to establish the scale of need across Scotland. Councils and schools know their learners and families best. Therefore, funding of £25 million was allocated, via a formula that is based on deprivation and rurality, for them to address local need.

Glasgow City Council received £3.1 million, through which it has distributed 7,240 devices and 4,225 connectivity packages to learners. The council has received an additional £5.8 million to further support remote learning, which can be used flexibly to deliver additional devices or connectivity where need still exists.

It was revealed at a recent meeting of Glasgow City Council’s education committee that more than one third of primary 1 to 6 pupils in Glasgow were identified as needing a digital device for home learning and still do not have access to one. Digital exclusion among disadvantaged children and young people was already a significant problem before lockdown and remote learning, and the pandemic has compounded that. I am sure that the cabinet secretary will agree that it is entirely unacceptable that, one year after lockdown, children still do not have access to the devices that they need in order to learn. The devices are not a bonus; they are central to their learning.

What further action can the Government take to address digital exclusion and ensure that young people, including the 35 per cent of Glasgow primary school children who have been identified, do not fall through the net? How will the Scottish Government focus attention more broadly on that most vulnerable group of young people, whose life chances have clearly been disproportionately affected by the Covid crisis?

I fundamentally agree with the direction of Johann Lamont’s question. I believe that we are now in an era when use of a digital device is central to the effective participation of children and young people in education. The Government has taken a number of significant steps to enhance the propositions that have already been put in place by local authorities. Glasgow City Council has a strong record on provision of devices to young people in its education system. Some other local authorities—for example, Scottish Borders Council—have opted to provide devices to all pupils.

One of the priorities that the Government has pursued throughout the pandemic has been to address the digital divide, and it has done so through the work that I recounted in my earlier answer and through the connecting Scotland programme, which has been taken forward by my Cabinet colleague Aileen Campbell, the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government. It remains a significant priority for the Government, and we will pursue it actively, should this Government be re-elected in May.

We have a supplementary question from Clare Adamson.

I beg your pardon: I had pressed the button for my own question later.

I would have thought that you would know by now. [Laughter.]

Gaelic-medium Education (Glasgow)

To ask the Scottish Government what recent discussions it has had with Glasgow City Council regarding the provision of Gaelic-medium education. (S5O-05139)

The Scottish Government has regular discussions with Glasgow City Council on matters relating to Gaelic-medium education, and we have been delighted to support the expansion of provision within the city. This month, my officials met Glasgow City Council staff and discussed the council’s management of primary 1 and 2 entry, Gaelic probationers and the support that can be offered to the high proportion of parents who do not speak Gaelic at home.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that very encouraging answer. It is my understanding that Glasgow City Council has 140 GME places available; however, 170 applications have been received to date. That is extremely encouraging, but will be disappointing for some.

Can the cabinet secretary provide an assurance that there will be support to ensure that people who seek to place their children in Gaelic-medium education in Glasgow will have the opportunity to do so?

There is a lot of encouraging news in the work that Glasgow City Council is undertaking to support Gaelic-medium education. The council has reached another high this year, with about 160 primary 1 pupils seeking entry. The council often finds that there is a drop-off in applications before places are taken up. However, I hope that the council’s expansion of its Gaelic-medium estate from three primary schools to four, with support from the Scottish Government, will reassure Sandra White and her constituents that it is planning further expansion of Gaelic-medium education in Glasgow. I pay tribute to the council for the energy and commitment that it has given to that important policy objective.

Lastly, because this will be the last time that I respond to a question from my dear friend Sandra White, I wish her well on her retirement from Parliament.

West College Scotland Campus (Investment)

To ask the Scottish Government what resources it has provided for investment in the West College Scotland campus. (S5O-05140)

Since the financial year 2014-15, there has been investment of £20,650,274 in the West College Scotland campus.

West College Scotland has not received its fair share of investment for years, and the college capital budget is being cut. As far back as 2017, the Scottish Funding Council’s estate survey identified the need for significant investment in both the Paisley and Greenock campuses, and potential plans for new fit-for-purpose buildings. However, the Scottish Government’s infrastructure strategy to 2025 gives no indication at all that there will be funding for estate development in Paisley or Greenock. When will the Scottish Government invest in a modern campus for West College Scotland students in my region?

I assure Neil Bibby that the Scottish Funding Council considers the securing of funding for replacement of the West College Scotland campuses to be a high priority. Indeed, in recent times, the college has been given more resources to progress an outline business case for those improvements.

It is well documented, and recognised, that capital budgets have been under pressure for many years. We certainly believe that the college has a strong case, and we hope that further progress can be made as soon as the resources become available and the outline business case is progressed.

I have supplementaries from Stuart McMillan and Jamie Greene. I call Stuart McMillan.

For the final time, I thank you very much, Presiding Officer.

I have met representatives of West College Scotland and have corresponded with the Scottish Funding Council about the proposed new campus in Greenock. Can the minister provide an assurance that every effort will be made to assist West College Scotland to provide a facility for future generations that can also help to stem the population decline that Inverclyde has experienced over the past 30 years, and which it continues to face?

Stuart McMillan is perfectly correct to highlight the important role that West College Scotland plays in the local economy and region. I hope that the next Parliament and Government continue to treat as a priority the college and its outline business case for improving the campuses. As I indicated in my previous answer, further funding has been made available in recent times to take forward the business case. In addition, the SFC is developing a medium-term estate strategy for the college sector, in which, I am sure, West College Scotland will have a prominent place.

I declare an interest as an alumnus of what is now West College Scotland in Greenock.

The next session of Parliament will see the 10-year anniversary of what has become college regionalisation. Will the minister and other members ensure—subject to whichever party forms the next Government—that Parliament engages in scrutiny to ensure that that work results in the reality that was anticipated for the regionalisation programme?

Jamie Greene is, of course, testament to the excellent college sector in the west of Scotland, and has illustrated that today with his excellent question.

On the role of the college regions, Jamie Greene will be aware that the Scottish Funding Council is undertaking a fundamental major review of the cohesion and sustainability of further and higher education, and is focusing on the college regions as part of that wider project. It is absolutely essential that Parliament scrutinises closely the outcome of the SFC review, because it will be fundamental to the future of Scotland and our further and higher education sector.

Lifelong Learning and Reskilling (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to support lifelong learning and reskilling. (S5O-05141)

We are investing significantly in reskilling interventions in recognition of the important role of reskilling in supporting future skills transitions, including a just transition to net zero and our economic recovery from the pandemic. That includes investment in our national transition training fund, which supports individuals to retrain in order to secure more positive employment outcomes. We have recently confirmed on-going support for the fund in 2021-22.

We have also committed to developing a lifelong learning framework that will raise the importance of adult learning and ensure that it is integrated into the wider education and school system.

I am sure that the minister will join me in welcoming publication of the Cumberford-Little report and the Open University’s prospectus, “Skills+ Scotland”, both of which call for a skills-led recovery. The OU prospectus sets out a vision to galvanise higher education to support an inclusive economic recovery over the lifetime of the next Parliament. What steps is the Scottish Government taking to ensure that higher and further education remain open and accessible to everyone at any stage of their life?

The Cumberford-Little report is an important one that we are considering closely. It aligns neatly with wider ambitions in the future skills action plan and with the wider skills realignment that we need.

The Open University is an excellent organisation in terms of its approach to lifelong learning generally. Recently, it has become involved in the flexible workforce development fund, which I have responsibility for and which has now been opened up to small and medium-sized enterprises, and it is leading on that work.

On the wider question about accessibility of higher education, we will, of course, continue to invest significantly in higher education in the coming financial year. One of the fundamental things that we will continue to do in relation to accessibility is retain our commitment to free university education. One of the questions in the coming election will be whether the other parties will follow suit.

Schools (Full-time Return of Pupils)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it will provide to schools in light of its announcement regarding the full-time return of pupils in April. (S5O-05142)

To date, we have committed more than £375 million to local authorities and schools as part of education recovery. That investment continues to fund additional teachers, support staff and, if necessary, the cost of safety mitigations in schools, such as infrastructure adjustments.

We are currently updating relevant guidance and will publish it before Easter. I have emphasised the importance of supporting young people’s wellbeing as they come back to school, and work is already in train across partners to deliver wellbeing and outdoor activities. As with all aspects of our education response to Covid, I have been grateful to the Covid-19 education recovery group for its expert advice as we have formed plans for the full-time return to school.

Since indicating the return to school, the Scottish Government has taken a less equivocal stance, particularly in relation to secondary pupils. Can the cabinet secretary confirm that he will give a minimum notice period for any changes to scheduled returns after the Easter holidays, to help parents and carers to plan? Further, can he assure local authorities that the additional costs that they face because of mitigation measures that he has recognised will be essential to enable pupils to return will be adequately supported by central Government, rather than coming out of local education budgets?

The Government’s central planning assumption is that schools will return full time for face-to-face learning after the Easter holidays. In some parts of Scotland, that will be on 12 April; in the overwhelming majority of areas of Scotland, it will be on 19 April.

Of course, all primary schools and early learning centres are back full time, and secondary schools are back for all pupils—not on a full-time basis, but with pupils supported by remote learning.

Our objective and central planning assumption is for secondary schools to return full time, but we must take into account the prevalence of the virus at that stage, and we will give as much notice as we can on the approach to return.

The advisory sub-group on education, which provides us with clinical advice on these issues, will meet on 6 April, and its views will influence our planning and the steps that we will take to reopen schools full time from 12 April in some parts of the country.

The member asked about money, and the Government has committed more than £375 million to local authorities as part of education recovery. That is a significant investment by the Government in the additional costs of the local delivery of education, and we will continue to discuss with local authorities any issues that arise from such a substantial financial contribution by the Government.

School Closures (Support for Pupils)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what it is doing to ensure that pupils are able to catch up on any learning lost as a result of school closures. (S5O-05143)

The term “lost learning” is not an appropriate description of the challenges that we face, and focusing on it does a disservice to the work of school staff across the country. Last week, the education recovery group reinforced the importance of supporting children through positive action, with a need to focus on wellbeing in learning as we move towards the full-time return to school.

Work is already under way to consider what support our young people might require over the summer term and the summer holiday. We are working with local authorities and Education Scotland, which share that ambition, and discussions are under way to understand what strategic action is needed at the national level to support and facilitate specific and meaningful local activity in schools.

I thank the cabinet secretary for his answer but, with respect, my children have lost out. There are things that they have not been able to learn in the past year because of the closure, and that needs to be caught up on at some point. The London School of Economics says that we need to invest millions of pounds into doing that, and the Conservative Party will fund £120 million, spread across two years. Can the cabinet secretary provide assurances that the Scottish Government’s catch-up programme will be similarly ambitious in scale? Will the Government allocate funding directly to schools, which are best placed to target funding where it is most needed?

I will not reiterate the comments that I made about the language and terminology that Mr Balfour insists on using in his question. I do not think that it is a particularly helpful description of the challenges that we face.

I think that young people have learned a great deal during lockdown. That is a tribute to their families and carers, who have supported them, and to their schools, for supporting their learning. A great deal has been accomplished through remote learning, which has supported young people adequately. This morning, I explained at length to the Education and Skills Committee the importance of supporting individual learning, and the education system will ensure that that such learning is supported.

The voters will have a choice on 6 May and we will see what they make of the Conservative Party’s plans. However, based on the performance of the Conservative Party at the moment and its shocking, shabby behaviour over the past few weeks, I do not expect that its message will attract much support from the public in Scotland.

Education (Attainment Gap)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it is providing to assist children from the poorest backgrounds with their education. (S5O-05144)

Our mission to reduce the poverty-related attainment gap remains central to our plans. That is why we have committed a record £200 million to the Scottish attainment challenge, including the introduction of a £20 million pupil equity funding premium for 2021-22, which emerged from the budget discussions and agreement with the Liberal Democrats. We continue to support our young people from low-income backgrounds with free school meals and a national minimum school clothing grant, and expansion of the free school meals provision was agreed in the budget with the Green party.

Our report on progress towards closing the poverty-related attainment gap, which was published on 22 March, presents a strong body of evidence showing that good progress is being made towards closing the poverty-related attainment gap.

Will the cabinet secretary confirm that the announcement of an additional £25 million to tackle poverty and inequality will not only further enhance the £100 Covid hardship payment for children and young people who receive free school meals, but enable support to be extended to children who receive free lunches in early learning and childcare settings?

Those provisions will be in place. They are part of the Government’s efforts to tackle child poverty in a number of areas—including through education expenditure and through the wider work that we take forward in collaboration with my Cabinet colleague Aileen Campbell—to ensure that we take a series of integrated measures to address the impact of child poverty, which, of course, has a significant bearing on the educational attainment of children and young people in Scotland. The provisions are part of the Government’s overall strategy to tackle the attainment gap.

Presiding Officer, I am uncertain about whether you will call members to ask further supplementaries on this question, but this is likely to be one of the last questions that you call me to answer. I extend my warmest wishes and grateful thanks to you for being a colleague over the past 22 years, particularly during the long sentence that we spent together on the Smith commission.

Thank you very much, cabinet secretary, but I am afraid that you have Iain Gray now. [Laughter.]

My apologies to the cabinet secretary for extending his sentence for slightly longer, but I promise that it will not be for too long.

For the whole of this parliamentary session, the Government has had the good will and support of the whole chamber for its top priority of closing the poverty-related attainment gap. This week’s Audit Scotland report shows that it is true, as the cabinet secretary has said, that the Government has invested hundreds of millions of pounds through the attainment Scotland fund and other funding to that end. However, the same report says:

“Progress on closing the gap has been limited and falls short of the ... Government’s aims.”

On reflection, why does the cabinet secretary think that the Government has made so little progress on closing that gap, which it called its “sacred responsibility”?

Presiding Officer, it is somewhat apposite that you have extended my handling of questions by bringing in another member of the Smith commission, who regularly bemoans the fact that I react in an uncharitable fashion to his participation on it. However, on his last day in Parliament, I will desist from such behaviour.

Mr Gray raised issues from the Audit Scotland report, which, as I told the Education and Skills Committee this morning, is a reasonable and fair report. It recounts the fact that progress has been made in closing the poverty-related attainment gap, but it also recognises that the challenges are stubborn.

The report highlights that progress has differed around the country by local authority area. That is a substantial issue that needs to be explored and which I will discuss with local authority partners, should the Government be returned at the election, to ensure that the lessons of good performance and good improvement that are being achieved in some parts of the country can be reflected in other parts of the country. That will enable the Government to intensify the work that we have always said would be a longer-term project and would last for more than one parliamentary session.

The key conclusion of the Audit Scotland report is that good progress has been made. The Government will build on that progress if it is re-elected in May.

Higher Education Students (Return to University)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its road map for higher education students to return to university. (S5O-05145)

Universities will continue to adhere to the limit of 5 per cent of students for in-person learning at any one time until 26 April. There will be some limited flexibility above the 5 per cent limit for some specialised and postgraduate courses. We will discuss with universities arrangements for any increase in the number of students beyond the 5 per cent limit after 26 April, when Scotland will move into protection levels.

I am pleased to announce today a package of further support for further and higher education students, to provide reassurance that they can complete their studies when they have been impacted by Covid-19 restrictions. The package includes eligibility for full-time HE students to receive a guaranteed one-off Covid payment of up to £1,600 for additional study of 16 weeks or less. HE students who require an extension beyond 16 weeks can apply to the Student Awards Agency for Scotland to continue to receive the standard monthly package of bursary, grant, loan and fees until their extended course ends.

Concern remains that, for the majority of higher education students, a meaningful full return to campus is not proposed until May and even then it will be only for blended learning. Under the Government’s road map proposals, students will be able to go to the pub but not to lecture theatres. Are there plans to alter the course of action and allow more students to get back on campus as quickly as possible, if the virus situation allows it?

We are taking a cautious approach in Scotland. Our objective is absolutely to allow more students to return to campus when it is safe to do so. We are paying close attention to the course of the pandemic and to the advice from clinicians and others. As I said in my initial answer, we are keeping the situation under close review. After 26 April, when the hope is that Scotland will move into protection levels, we will decide what that means for further and higher education.

Members should rest assured that we are determined to ensure that as many students as possible can complete their courses and get a degree of university experience if that is safe to do before the end of term. We hope to make such progress.

Heart Disease Improvement Plan (Financial Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what financial commitment it has made to support the delivery of the refreshed heart disease improvement plan. (S5O-05146)

We published our heart disease action plan on 23 March—yesterday—and confirmed an initial investment of £2.2 million to drive forward the actions that are in the plan. That represents a doubling of investment from the previous heart disease improvement plan. Delivery of the actions that the new plan contains will enable us to minimise preventable heart disease and to ensure that everyone with suspected heart disease has timely and equitable access to diagnosis, treatment and care that supports them in living well with their condition.

Given that 700,000 people in Scotland live with heart disease, the action plan’s publication is welcome. Adequate funding is vital to meet the needs of people across Scotland for the best treatment and care. I welcome the increased funding that the minister referred to, but funding for the plan’s previous iteration was only £1 million, in comparison with £117 million for cancer and £42 million for type 2 diabetes. What is the minister’s response to campaigners and patients who do not yet feel convinced that heart disease is a strong enough priority for the Government?

I assure everyone that tackling heart disease is a strong priority for the Government. What we have proposed is the initial investment, which represents a doubling of resource from the previous plan, as I just said. The delivery of the key actions that are in the plan, such as the effective use of data that we outline under priority 4, will ensure that resource is allocated appropriately in the future to drive forward improved patient outcomes. I hope that that assures Monica Lennon.

In 2019, I raised the fact that the British Heart Foundation had revealed evidence that, although heart disease kills three times as many women as breast cancer does, the prognosis for female patients remains much poorer than that for men. What steps have been taken in the past two years to involve medical professionals in improving that unacceptable situation?

We absolutely recognise the significant impact of heart disease on women. That is why we made a commitment in our programme for government to developing and implementing a women’s health plan, which will include cardiac disease as a key pillar. The plan will aim to reduce women’s health inequalities by raising awareness of women’s health and improving women’s access to healthcare throughout their lives. Implementation of the actions that are in that plan will align with implementation of the heart disease action plan, which highlights the importance of tackling inequities in access to diagnosis, treatment and care for people with heart disease.

Cervical Screening Appointments (Backlog)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what action it is planning to address the backlog in cervical screening appointments that has arisen because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and whether this will include offering human papillomavirus self-testing. (S5O-05147)

The Scottish Government has provided just under £1 million to support capacity in sample taking and colposcopy. The impacts of Covid-19, including the need for additional infection control measures, continue to present challenges, but those are kept under close review. There are no current plans to issue self-testing kits as part of the programme’s recovery. Although it continues to gather evidence, the United Kingdom National Screening Committee has not yet recommended that self-sampling should be incorporated into the national programme. A pilot study is under way in NHS Dumfries and Galloway and a more extensive pilot is currently being scoped.

The minister will know that there is a reported backlog of six months in the screening programme. Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust has called for a roll-out of self-testing. Screening rates are lowest among young women and in the most deprived areas. I urge the Government to push forward with a wider roll-out of self-testing, at least for those groups. I recognise the pilot that is taking pace in Dumfries and Galloway and welcome the scoping for further pilots. However, given the current circumstances and the continuing lockdown, I hope to see faster progress in using self-testing kits to increase the number of women taking part in the programme.

I understand why the member asks for faster progress. It is vital that we base our decisions on the best clinical advice that is available. Our advice is based on that of the UK National Screening Committee, which has not yet advised the use of self-testing. The pilot is important. As I said, we will scope out a further research project. That could be an important piece of work, but we must make ensure that research takes place and that we learn any potential lessons before taking further clinical advice to decide whether we should roll out self-testing.

Organised Sport (Accessibility)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to ensure wider accessibility to organised sport for children and young people once restrictions on this are lifted. (S5O-05148)

Physical activity and sport have a crucial role to play in Scotland’s recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. The active schools programme will remain a central pillar in getting young people to participate in sport. It will be vital to work with and listen to young people to rebuild their enthusiasm for sport.

The programme for government commits the Scottish Government to working with sportscotland and Scottish governing bodies of sport to rebuild membership and participation levels following the negative impacts of Covid-19. We will also build on the positive changes in sport and physical activity, such as increased walking and cycling, that we have seen during the Covid19 pandemic to build wider community participation, particularly in disadvantaged and underrepresented communities.

There is understandable concern that Covid-19 has exacerbated inequality of access to sport for children from disadvantaged communities, at the same time worsening the impact on their mental health and wellbeing. Will the minister give details about how the Scottish Government is actively assisting local authorities in ensuring that every child is able to participate in organised sport, such as swimming lessons, especially given the role that sport can play in bridging the inequality gap for those living in poverty?

The member is right. We see that as a key focus of our transition out of the pandemic, as physical activity is hugely important in improving physical and mental health.

I referred to our important work with active schools. Funding of £900,000 for sport facilities was announced today by sportscotland. That will be invested in clubs, communities and leisure trusts and will do exactly what the member is asking for, providing diverse and inclusive opportunities. It will improve community access to sport and physical activity. The First Minister today outlined a summer programme of activities, in which I hope that sport and physical activity will play a key role. I hope that all of that will address the issues that the member raises.

Covid-19 (Hospital Transmission)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to research by the University of Edinburgh suggesting that more than half of severe Covid-19 cases were as a result of transmission in hospital during the second wave of the pandemic. (S5O-05149)

The research study makes an important contribution to our consideration of all those matters. However, it is limited in that it uses a wider nosocomial definition than has been agreed internationally. That extended timeframe overestimates nosocomial Covid-19 from the “indeterminate” category. That reduces the opportunities that we have to identify areas for improvement.

However, it is an important piece of work and it adds to our overall knowledge of nosocomial infection and the additional steps that we need to take on top of those that we have already taken to reduce it as far as possible.

As we remobilise the national health service from the grip of the pandemic, can the cabinet secretary explain how the Government will prevent it from happening again?

In answering that question, I need to add a touch of realism about things happening again. As one of the report authors notes,

“The reality is that there are a number of constraints on the ability to have complete infection protection in hospital settings. The reasons for that are multifactorial and complex. One is the built environment. Some of the older hospitals do not have a lot of single rooms.”

We need to be careful in comparing wave one and wave two, given that, in wave two, we were dealing with a virus strain that was significantly more infectious than the strain that we were dealing with in wave one.

All that said, however, a number of additional steps have been taken on top of the world-renowned Scottish patient safety programme. There is additional personal protective equipment. There is now testing of all admissions to hospital settings from emergency right through to planned, including maternity. Testing of our patient-facing staff is now extended to other NHS staff, as well as social care staff. There is also, of course, the constant monitoring that our clinical advisers do, led by our chief nursing officer. The nosocomial group brings in additional academic and clinical experts to identify from looking internationally and elsewhere in the UK whether there is more that we can do, in addition to the steps that I have already outlined.

Hospital transmission of Covid-19 remains an issue, with data for the week of 28 February showing at least a further 30 cases. Staff have been raising their concerns for several months now, and the Scottish Government needs to safeguard staff. What is being done to ensure that enhanced PPE is being provided?

Presiding Officer, I take this opportunity to wish the cabinet secretary well in her retirement and thank her for her co-operation over the years.

My thanks go to Ms Baillie for those kind words.

She is right. Nosocomial infection of any virus in a hospital setting and in other institutional settings is really important. We have listened carefully to what staff have said to us about PPE. Our clinical advisers continue to look at the issue to see whether more can be done about the PPE that staff are clinically advised to use.

In a recent communication with staff, we have also stressed the importance of individual staff members undertaking their own assessment of the risk that they believe that they face and exercising their professional judgment. Guidance is important, as is the provision of PPE. At this point, I record my thanks to the NHS’s procurement exercise that ensured that we never ran out of PPE at any point during the pandemic. However, it is important to leave room around the guidance for the professionals to make their own judgment and for management to enable that clinical judgment. When there are difficulties with that, I am happy to intervene and ensure that professional judgment takes first place.

Cancer Pathway Review (Dumfries and Galloway)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the short review into cancer pathway arrangements and reimbursement of travel expenses for patients in Dumfries and Galloway, which it committed to carrying out on 24 November 2020. (S5O-05150)

As I have previously explained, the pressures of the pandemic mean that NHS Dumfries and Galloway and the board’s partners have paused reviewing cancer pathways, which is a complex piece of work. They will return to the issue in the spring. As we see case numbers come down, the pressure on Dumfries and Galloway lessens.

I have set out in the chamber that the patient travel guidance will be comprehensively reviewed and will take full account of the matters that Ms Harper raises. The review is a substantial exercise for the Government and NHS boards, which requires prioritisation alongside our response not only to the pandemic but to the remobilisation of services. Further updates will be provided as the review progresses.

I thank the cabinet secretary for everything that she has done in this Parliament and wish her all the very best for the future.

My constituent Dr Gordon Baird, on behalf of Galloway community hospital action group, lodged a petition that urges the Scottish Government to explore the creation of an agency, or a commissioner, to address the health needs of people in rural Scotland. Australia has already done that. I am due to meet Australia’s regional health minister to hear whether something like that could be established to support people across Stranraer and Wigtownshire. Is the Government, in principle, open to looking at the creation of a rural health commissioner?

I am happy to go beyond that principle. I know that Emma Harper will be familiar with Professor Sir Lewis Ritchie, who has undertaken considerable and valuable work for us in looking at remote and rural medicine, instituting a number of improvements and, importantly, listening to practitioners in those areas. I am very happy to let Ms Harper and other members know that work is under way to establish a national institute for remote and rural medicine and healthcare practice. Should the Scottish National Party be returned to Government following the election, we will take every step to ensure that that is put in place as soon as possible.

On the issue of the reimbursement of patients’ travel expenses, will the Scottish Government consider reviewing the reimbursement of chronic pain patients who have been forced to travel to England and pay privately for pain relief because Scottish national health service pain clinics were closed during earlier lockdowns? Of course, some patients are still having to go to England as waiting times have doubled.

I, too, wish the cabinet secretary all the best for the future.

Elaine Smith has been a doughty champion of that and many other issues during her time in Parliament, and I extend my wishes to her.

Elaine Smith raises a really important point. She knows that the current legislation, and the legal advice on it, prevents us from using public funds to reimburse patients where out-of-area treatment has not been on the basis of an NHS Scotland referral. However, as she will know, I hope, today we announced our intention, should this SNP Government be returned, to introduce legislation to ensure that mesh-injured women who have sought private treatment out of area can be reimbursed. I would hope that my successor will consider what other areas might also be appropriate for reimbursement.

Hospital Waiting Times

To ask the Scottish Government what action is being taken to reduce hospital waiting times. (S5O-05151)

We are working with all health boards with specific targeted actions to reduce hospital waiting times. That includes the investment of additional resources. Some £60 million will directly support elective care. That will be progressed in the context of the framework for clinical prioritisation that I published in November 2020.

There is also additional investment to increase diagnostic capacity, with three computed tomography scanners, ensuring access across all regions. We have developed Scotland’s first ever early cancer diagnostics centres, with three pilots due to come on stream by summer. There is also, as Mr Kelly knows, the continued expansion of our elective centres: NHS Golden Jubilee hospital’s phase 1 expansion, which supports eye care and orthopaedics, is complete and patients are now being treated.

I make the additional point that, as we remobilise our national health service, we must recognise that for more than 15 months many of its staff have worked tirelessly—as they are still doing—in pressured conditions that have taken a physical and emotional toll on them. As we plan the recovery of the service, we must understand that its staff are our greatest single resource and that we must allow time for them to recover so that they can continue to do the important work that we need them to do and that we ask of them.

I thank the cabinet secretary for her answer and wish her well for the future. I draw her attention to an article in this morning’s edition of The Times in which Chloe Scott, a consultant orthopaedic surgeon, highlights the unprecedented levels of lengthy waiting times for surgical operations. Even a 20 per cent increase in those would mean that it would take four years to clear the backlog. This is a really serious situation. What action is being taken to reduce such waiting times so that people waiting for surgery such as hip or knee replacements will not have to wait for four years to get relief from their pain?

Mr Kelly is quite right to say that this is a really serious issue. Inevitably, it has been considerably exacerbated by the past 15 months, during which the NHS has had to pivot. During the first wave of the pandemic, the NHS largely paused all but urgent and emergency treatment and some cancer treatments in order to deal with Covid. In the second wave we have begun to remobilise. Over the summer, we and our NHS staff did useful work to enable us to begin to catch up, but that was inevitably reduced when the second wave hit.

In addition to the work on cancer treatment waiting times, which Ms Gougeon highlighted earlier, work is under way specifically to examine those for elective procedures. When this session of portfolio question time finishes I will go straight into a meeting with the current chief operating officer of NHS Scotland, John Connaghan, to look in detail at actions in addition to those that I have just set out.

Should this Government be returned after the election—as I very much hope that it will be—I trust that it will be able to set out a comprehensive remobilisation plan. Officials’ work on that is well under way. All our NHS boards have produced their own immediate plans, which we are bringing together to consider how we might progress in order that people should not have to wait for as long as Mr Kelly has suggested, which would not be acceptable. At the same time, we must ensure that our NHS staff, who have worked so very hard and to whom we owe significant thanks, are given time to take the annual leave that they have postponed and to have the rest and recuperation that they will need in order to progress the work that we want to undertake.

Presiding Officer, I ask whether you could allow me a moment’s flexibility to say a few things, since—unless there is another supplementary for me to answer—I think that these will be the final words that I say in the chamber. I would like to make a couple of points and to thank a number of people.

I have been very privileged to be here. I have been especially privileged to have held two ministerial offices. If my voice is now shaking, it is because, unusually, members are all being very nice to me, for which I am very grateful to them. [Laughter.] I have learned a great deal, certainly from my work in establishing the social security service, and undoubtedly also from working with the health service. I am honoured to have been the health secretary and to have played my part in working with those in our health service.

In particular, I thank my constituents in Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley—undoubtedly the most beautiful constituency in the whole of Scotland, with the most talented people. I hope that Elena Whitham will follow me in representing it. My thanks go to them for electing me in the first place and also to my constituency team, without whom none of this would have been possible. My thanks go, too, to our civil servants and advisers, who—despite sometimes being maligned, albeit unintentionally—do a fantastic job, and to our team of clinical advisers, who I think are second to none.

Finally, there is a group of people who are rarely mentioned, but without whom cabinet secretaries and ministers would flounder, and that is our private office staff. I have been fortunate to have two quite remarkable private offices, to whom I owe a great deal of thanks.

Lastly, Presiding Officer, I offer my very best wishes to you in your retirement, after many years of outstanding service to the Parliament and to the people of Scotland.

Och, well, I am going to indulge myself now.

Mental Health Services (Renfrewshire South)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is supporting mental health services in the Renfrewshire South constituency. (S5O-05152)

Clare Haughey is having trouble with her camera, so we will only hear from her.

Perhaps that was not your last word, cabinet secretary—we have lost Clare Haughey. It is a very specific question; perhaps you would be able to address a little bit of it for Mr Arthur, if he asks the question again.

To ask the cabinet secretary what support the Scottish Government is providing to mental health services in the Renfrewshire South constituency.

It is a very specific question, and I will make sure that Mr Arthur gets the detail of the answer that Ms Haughey would undoubtedly have been able to give.

I can say a couple of things that I think are really important. First, the mental health transition plan that Ms Haughey has overseen provides significant additional resource to mental health recovery, focusing not only on children and adolescent mental health services waiting times but on preventative mental health and wellbeing for the entire population. Secondly, I am pleased to say that a significant number of the community wellbeing centres, which we announced in a previous programme for government, are ready to be operational from 1 April, and others will come on stream very shortly after. They provide wider support services, particularly for children, young people and their families, which certainly focus on mental health, but with a preventative and supportive focus, all of which will be of considerable benefit.

I am very happy to ensure that Ms Haughey provides a detailed answer to Mr Arthur before today is out.

Mr Arthur has waived his right to a supplementary.

Organised Sport (Participation of Women and Girls)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to encourage women and girls to participate in organised sport. (S5O-05153)

The Scottish Government appreciates the importance of sport and physical activity for women and girls and the positive impact that it has on their physical and mental health. As we look to rebuild sport in Scotland, we will have to support all women and girls to return safely to sport.

The Scottish Government is committed to working with sportscotland and the Scottish governing bodies of sport to rebuild membership and participation levels, following the negative impacts of the pandemic. To enable women and girls to undertake supported group exercise outdoors, we recently announced that, from 12 March, organised outdoor group non-contact sport and physical activity can resume. Organised outdoor contact sport for boys and girls under 12 can resume from the same date, subject to sport-specific guidance.

I welcome the action that the Scottish Government has taken to break down the barriers that many women and girls face in accessing organised sport. I believe that it is important that women and girls are well represented in the sporting community of Scotland.

What action is the Scottish Government taking at a local level, particularly in schools, to encourage girls to participate in sports at a younger age? We know that teenage girls, in particular, are increasingly likely to drop their participation in organised sport.

In the school environment, the active schools programme will remain a central pillar of our efforts to get young people to participate in sport. We have more than 400 active schools staff across the 32 local authorities. Prior to the pandemic, in a single year, more than 300,000 young people made a combined 7.3 million visits to active schools sport and activity sessions before school, at lunch time and after school. That participation was supported by 21,000 volunteers.

For us to get back to and surpass those levels, it will be vital that we work with and listen to young people in order to rebuild their enthusiasm for sport. There are 150 registered secondary schools in the young ambassador programme, and sportscotland will target those schools and support the young ambassadors to promote participation in sport in their schools.

It is important that we raise the profile of women in sport. We have some fantastic role models, and it is important to highlight that. We seem to do particularly well when it comes to sports such as football and netball. We all have a role to play in talking about the sports at which women excel and in making the most of the positive role models that we have.

Communities and Local Government

Questions 6 and 8 have been grouped.

Community Engagement

To ask the Scottish Government what progress has been made on increasing levels of community engagement since the enactment of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015. (S5O-05154)

Since we introduced the 2015 act, we have taken many positive steps to increase community engagement. We have introduced participation requests and asset transfers, which provide a powerful mechanism for enabling communities to participate in public decision making and to take control of public land and buildings. Our investing in communities fund, which was launched in 2019-20 and is backed by about £11.5 million each year over three years, enables communities to decide on their terms how to address local challenges. Our national support programme for participatory budgeting has enabled over 122,000 voters to have a direct say on the allocation of millions of pounds. In addition, we are working in partnership with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, through the local governance review, to help to further empower communities and strengthen local democracy.

I thank the cabinet secretary for her response. As this is her final appearance in the chamber, I wish her well.

The Covid pandemic has brought communities together as never before, as has been seen in the work of Broughton Village Store, Tweed Togs, the Bridge in Galashiels, Tweeddale Youth Action, Penicuik Ambassadors, Gorebridge Resilience and many others—I do not want to try your patience, Presiding Officer. Does the cabinet secretary agree that that is community empowerment and something on which the legislation allows communities to build?

I absolutely agree with all that Christine Grahame has said, and I thank her for her kind words. I am very familiar with some of the groups that she mentioned—particularly the Broughton shop, which is just over the hill from me, in Biggar. It has done a phenomenal amount of work.

If it had not been for our communities, the country would simply not have been able to demonstrate the resilience that it has demonstrated over the past year. We need to take that learning and make sure that we do not lose it, because, if we trust and support our communities, Scotland will succeed and we will meet all our aspirations in our national performance framework. I pay tribute to all the work that Christine Grahame’s constituents have done over the past year. I sincerely thank them, because, without them, we would not be where we are.

City Centre and Beachfront Regeneration (Aberdeen)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it will provide for the regeneration of the city centre and beachfront in Aberdeen. (S5O-05155)

The Scottish Government is committed to working with Aberdeen City Council and other partners as they take forward the city and beachfront master plan. The Government has demonstrated its commitment to Aberdeen and its city region through a variety of strategic investments including our £125 million commitment to the Aberdeen city region deal, the £62 million that has been committed to the energy transition fund, and the significant on-going capital funding for community-led regeneration.

The Government’s new £325 million place-based investment programme will provide further funding to Aberdeen over the next five years. The programme will help to link and align place-based investments, ensuring that there is a coherent approach to regeneration with the involvement and support of communities.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer. I, too, wish her well after her term as a member of this Parliament and a minister. She will have heard, at First Minister’s question time, about the devastating news for Aberdeen city centre and its regeneration of the proposed closure of the John Lewis store on George Street, with the loss of 265 jobs. She may have heard, since then, that a petition has been launched, calling for John Lewis to reconsider that decision. I note that the Aberdeen economic partnership has offered to engage with the John Lewis Partnership to discuss ways in which the decision can be reconsidered.

Will the Scottish Government support that offer from the Aberdeen economic partnership? Will the cabinet secretary work with all concerned to seek to persuade John Lewis to reverse the decision?

I thank the member for his question. Like the First Minister, I share the disappointment about John Lewis’s plans and I appreciate that this will be an incredibly concerning time for the staff who are involved and their families. The First Minister also intimated that support would be available through the partnership action for continuing employment initiative. However, if further developments continue, it would be wise for the Government to continue to explore all options with regard to what can be done and to identify what actions, activity and support might be helpful in this space.

I point out that, in a more general sense, we have recognised that our high streets will be critical to our recovery. Today, along with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, we have published our response to the town centre action plan review, which I commend to Lewis Macdonald. The review was led by Professor Leigh Sparks, who is esteemed in that field, and I pay tribute to him for his work in the area.

We will work across Government to look at any options and opportunities that might exist, and we will engage with Lewis Macdonald as best we can. I put on record my thanks to him for all his contributions to the Parliament’s work and for being a strong voice for Aberdeen and the north-east for many years. I wish him well in the next chapter of his life.

Orkney Islands Council (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met Orkney Islands Council and what was discussed. (S5O-05156)

I last met James Stockan, leader of Orkney Islands Council, and John Mundell, interim chief executive, on Tuesday 23 March to discuss a range of issues relating to the relaxation of Covid restrictions specific to Orkney and the islands.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that response and join other members in wishing her all the best, as I did in yesterday’s debate on the European Charter of Local Self-Government (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill.

The cabinet secretary will be aware of the disparity in funding per head of population between Scotland’s three island authorities. At present, that represents a shortfall in Orkney’s allocation of around £8 million in comparison with Shetland’s and £15 million in comparison with that of the Western Isles. That has been a long-standing concern of Orkney Islands Council, but little progress has been made over recent years. Does the cabinet secretary agree that that disparity needs to be addressed in the next session of the Scottish Parliament?

I thank Liam McArthur for his kind words. As he knows, funding is allocated to local authorities through the distribution formula, which is agreed with Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. Any changes to that would need to be made via COSLA. Whoever holds my position in the next session will be able to continue to engage with COSLA on that basis.

I point to the fact that there has recently been investment through the islands deal, which my colleague Michael Matheson has taken forward. There continues to be a recognition of the importance of our island communities to the success of Scotland.

We will take on Mr McArthur’s viewpoint. I will make sure that whoever takes up my position in the next session understands his concern, but any changes to the distribution formula would have to be made through engagement with COSLA.

Housing Strategy

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its housing strategy. (S5O-05157)

On 15 March, we published Scotland’s first long-term housing strategy, “Housing to 2040”, which is a 20-year plan to deliver good-quality, energy-efficient, zero emissions homes with access to good outdoor space, transport links, digital connectivity and community services. It includes new commitments to deliver 100,000 affordable homes by 2032; to set a single set of standards for our homes; to tackle high rents in the private sector; and to decarbonise heating in line with our climate ambitions.

However, as we have said many times before, housing is about so much more than bricks and mortar. The strategy will also contribute to our aims of tackling poverty and inequality and driving inclusive economic growth. Realising the ambition in the strategy will require a lot of hard work, but in the pursuit of a fairer, greener Scotland, that work will be more than worth it.

I very much welcome the Scottish National Party Scottish Government’s ambitious house-building plans for the next decade. Can the cabinet secretary provide any clarity to me, as the MSP for the Cowdenbeath constituency, as to what is planned at this stage for the kingdom of Fife in terms of the number of houses to be built, the jobs to be created and the investment to be made?

Scotland has led the way on the delivery of affordable housing across the United Kingdom, with almost 100,000 affordable homes being delivered since 2007. That has been driven by my colleague Kevin Stewart, who has been a great colleague to work alongside, and I pay tribute to him for his commitment on the issue.

“Housing to 2040” includes an ambition to deliver a further 100,000 affordable homes up to 2032, with at least 70 per cent being for social rent, once the current 50,000 affordable homes target has been delivered. That ambition will play a key role in helping Scotland’s economy to recover from the pandemic, including supporting a total investment package of around £16 billion and 12,000 to 14,000 jobs each year. It is not just about good homes, it is also about creating great places, and I know how committed Annabelle Ewing is to making sure that her constituents and her colleagues in Fife Council are supported. Therefore, we have made more than £150 million available for affordable housing in Fife over the session, which will deliver a range of housing and a mix of affordable tenures but will focus primarily on social rented housing, which is a key Government priority.

I commend Fife Council for its ambitious projects across the kingdom of Fife to ensure that people across Fife get access to good housing, and we will continue to keep Annabelle Ewing updated about what that means for Cowdenbeath.

“Housing to 2040”

To ask the Scottish Government how it plans to take forward the recommendations by the tenement maintenance working group in its strategy, “Housing to 2040”. (S5O-05158)

Our new long-term housing strategy, “Housing to 2040”, sets out our intention to introduce a new housing standard so that everyone can expect the same high standards of housing and accessibility no matter what kind of home or tenure they live in. The new standard will support our commitment to address common standards in tenements and take action on the recommendations of the parliamentary working group on tenement maintenance. I will take the opportunity of the last day of term to thank the members of that group, particularly my colleague Ben Macpherson, who helped found it.

If in post after the election, will the minister be bold in following those recommendations, such as those on compulsory owners associations and building reserve funds, so that our wonderful tenement buildings such as the granite ones in Torry in my constituency and across Aberdeen will restored to their former glory?

We intend to undertake research this year that will consider the need for building reserve funds for tenement dwellings and mandatory owners associations for tenements, as recommended by the parliamentary working group. The outcome of that research will allow us to make a determination on what the levels of building reserve funds should be set at and the costs for mandatory owners associations. We will take action for the benefit of Maureen Watt’s constituents in Torry and other places.

I pay tribute to my friend and colleague Maureen Watt, who has been amazing in the Parliament for her constituents. Maureen and I go back a long way—30 years—and she has been the best possible friend. The only time that she has ever feared me is when I thought that she was going to go into labour in a car that she and I were in on a snowy country road.

That was too much information, Mr Stewart. [Laughter.] We will move on quickly.

Affordable Homes

To ask the Scottish Government what action it will take to increase the number of affordable homes. (S5O-05159)

How well do you know Ms Maguire, Mr Stewart? [Laughter.]

Not that well, Presiding Officer.

As the cabinet secretary has mentioned, having already delivered almost 100,000 affordable homes since 2007, we want to deliver another 100,000 homes by 2032, with 70 per cent of those being for social rent. As our 20-year housing strategy, “Housing to 2040”, sets out, that ambitious target will begin when the current 50,000 affordable homes target has been delivered, and work to continue to do all that safely is on-going. To start on that path, we are investing an initial £3.44 billion. Delivering those homes will be beneficial to Scotland’s communities and will provide a significant economic boost, supporting a total investment package of around £16 billion and up to 14,000 jobs a year.

Within the strategy, I particularly welcome the fact that the new housing standard applies to all tenures, so that everyone will be living in good-quality accommodation regardless of whether they own it or rent it from a private or social landlord.

I have had a number of constituency cases where the local authority has delayed repairs to damp properties, including to the homes of folk who are vulnerable due to their age or medical conditions, citing the pandemic restrictions as the reason. After representations have been made to the local authority, those cases have been resolved. Can the minister confirm that such repairs are deemed essential, that all landlords have a responsibility to maintain their stock and that nobody should be expected to stay in a damp property?

I appreciate that dampness in folks’ homes can be distressing. Any house that is let by a social landlord must be substantially free from rising and penetrating damp. If problems come to light, any repairs must be carried out as soon as is reasonably possible. Repairs of that nature can be carried out under the coronavirus restrictions where the work is essential and can be done safely, and where owners’ or tenants’ permission is granted.

The current regulations set out essential work for minimum standards of habitability, safety and maintenance. Work to prevent significant problems developing, for example, should be carried out in people’s homes at this time. Of course, it is up to landlords, in consultation with tenants, to carry out a risk assessment to ensure that such work can be carried out safely.

Affordable Homes

To ask the Scottish Government how many affordable homes it has delivered since 2007. (S5O-05161)

Scotland has led the way in the delivery of affordable housing, with almost 100,000 affordable homes delivered since 2007, including more than 68,000 for social rent, of which more than 15,000 were council homes. We want everyone in Scotland to live in a warm home that is affordable and meets their needs, which is why housing, and affordable housing in particular, has been and remains a priority for this Government.

As the member knows, we were on track to deliver 50,000 homes within this parliamentary session, and we remain committed to completing that job. Unfortunately, coronavirus got in the way. We are working with partners across the housing sector to deliver the remaining homes as quickly and safely as possible.

Housing provision in rural areas is critical in ensuring that we stem rural depopulation and support communities to thrive, as the minister knows. Can he explain how the Scottish Government’s housing strategy will specifically support rural communities such as mine in Aberdeenshire East?

We make clear in “Housing to 2040” our commitment to take action so that rural and island communities have access to high-quality affordable housing in the market that has been planned alongside the economic and physical infrastructure that is required to help people live, work and thrive in those areas and to help stem rural depopulation. We have committed to continuing the £30 million rural and islands housing fund, which supports additional affordable rural and island homes as part of the wider affordable housing programme. In addition, we have announced new permitted development rights to allow for the conversion of agricultural buildings for residential and commercial uses.

This might be my last opportunity to speak, Presiding Officer, so I wish you a very happy retirement, and I wish the cabinet secretary all the best in her future endeavours. You are two cracking South Lanarkshire quines, and I will miss you greatly. [Applause.]

Thank you very much, Mr Stewart.

Covid-19 (Community Support)

To ask the Scottish Government how much it has spent supporting communities affected by Covid-19 in the last year. (S5O-05160)

We have allocated more than £1 billion to support local communities through the coronavirus pandemic. That includes over £550 million through the communities funding package, which includes more than £140 million to tackle food insecurity, £51 million to enable the continued provision of free school meals during school closures and holiday periods, and over £100 million for the third sector and community organisations.

Our 2021-22 Scottish budget includes an additional £100 million to support households through pandemic support payments, which means that low-income families could receive up to £530 additional financial support between last December and the end of the year.

The Scottish Government dashboard shows that £6.9 million of the funding in the areas that the cabinet secretary mentioned has been spent in my local authority area. What will the Government do to ensure that such funding develops in line with the positive developments that I hope we will see as we come out of the final phases of the Covid pandemic in the months ahead?

We will always seek to ensure that we learn all that we can from the support that we have put in place so that we can continue to support people during the pandemic. Our focus will be relentless on ensuring that that is the case and is what drives our recovery approach.

Covid has exposed the inequalities of our society. Recovery should therefore not be about returning to normal, as normality has failed too many. Instead, we should renew and reform our country to create a fairer, equal Scotland.

Guided by the work of the social renewal advisory board and its calls to action, my colleague Shirley-Anne Somerville and I have published our initial responses to the board’s work, and there is £25 million to take forward some of the recommended actions.

Ensuring that people and place are at the heart of the recovery will be the job of the next Government and members in the next session. I know and expect that Alasdair Allan will ensure that that will continue to be the case.

As this is my last opportunity to speak in the chamber, I would like to say a few words, which will be my final contribution in the Parliament. I am aware that I have had many final contributions of late—last night, Christine Grahame said that I had had more comebacks than Frank Sinatra. However, these are my final words. I say all this with an enormous lump in my throat as the reality of not seeking re-election to serve the constituents of Clydesdale starts to hit home. Clydesdale is, of course, the most beautiful constituency in Scotland.

When I intimated that I would not seek re-election, I said that a big part of that was about wanting to spend a bit more time with my boys, Angus and Crawford, who are growing up fast. They have never known their mum not to be a minister. When I had my youngest son, I became the first Scottish minister to take maternity leave.

Stepping back from front-line politics does not mean stepping back from my aspirations for this country and for our communities. Just as the country has relied on its communities to help to respond to the pandemic and help with our resilience, so, too, will the recovery be dependent on them—on their creativity, commitment and ingenuity. Flourishing, vibrant communities that are empowered and trusted will be central to how we reform and renew our country, with fairness and equality at its heart. It has been my privilege to serve as the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government and to get a glimpse of the glorious diversity of our communities and all the rich vibrancy that they bring. It has also been a privilege to serve in all the portfolios that I have held.

Without this descending into an Oscar-style tribute, I want to say thanks to my ministerial colleagues, the amazing group of Scottish National Party MSPs whom I have worked and campaigned alongside, and all the staff in the Parliament—the posties, the canteen staff, the clerks and everyone who keeps the Parliament ticking over. I thank my office staff in Carluke—Charlene, Euan and Jack—my long-suffering private office, and all the Government officials and special advisers who provide so much support to ministers and have done so much during this challenging year.

For now, I am looking forward to new challenges ahead, including hitting the road with my colleagues to campaign for the restoration of powers to the Scottish Parliament. I know that we do not all share that objective, but I say to all MSPs across the chamber and across the parliamentary divide whom I have worked with, chewed the fat with and had some laughs along the way with, and, indeed, to everyone: thank you for being great colleagues. All the best to you, Presiding Officer, as well. I look forward to catching up with you in South Lanarkshire sometime soon. But for me, that’s all folks. Thank you. [Applause.]

Thank you, cabinet secretary. That was a lovely way to conclude portfolio questions.