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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 24, 2022

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

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, World Tuberculosis Day 2022, Point of Order, Portfolio Question Time, Retail Strategy, NHS Scotland (Pandemic Pressures), Child Poverty, Child Poverty, Building Safety Bill, Good Food Nation (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Decision Time, Correction


General Question Time

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

The first item of business is general question time. In order to get in as many members as possible, I would appreciate short and succinct questions and answers.

Census 2022

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the next steps in collating Scotland’s census data. (S6O-00918)

Scotland’s census day was Sunday 20 March, and I am pleased to say that census returns are currently in line with our expected targets. I thank everyone who has taken the time to participate. The aim of the census is to deliver a set of questions and associated guidance that enables all of Scotland’s people to access, understand and complete the census. Every household in Scotland has a legal obligation to complete a census return, and National Records of Scotland has ensured that people are able to access a range of help and support to do so.

Although census day was on Sunday, will the cabinet secretary take the opportunity to highlight the importance of completing the census and outline what scope there is for people who have not responded yet to send back returns, now that census day has passed?

Scotland’s census 2022 is the official count of every person and household in the country, and it is the only questionnaire of its kind to ask everybody the same questions at the same time. We have relied on the information from censuses for more than 200 years. It remains the best way to gather vital information for Government, councils, the national health service and a range of users in the public, private and third sectors.

There is still time to submit responses. Although census day was last Sunday, National Records of Scotland is still accepting submissions. Support is available to all households to help them to complete their census, online or via a free helpline. For people who need the number, it is 0800 030 8308.

There were difficulties across my region for individuals who were struggling to get paper copies. What assessment has been done to ensure that they received their paper copies on time? If they did not, what outcomes are expected from that?

The feedback that I have had on the work of the contact centre, which is where people called to secure a written census questionnaire, is that it has been going well. As with any large-scale operation—there are more than 1.2 million households in Scotland—there will always be administrative shortcomings. If the member would forward me any specific details on the cases that have been raised, I would be happy to look at those.

What has been reported to me is the efficient working of the contact centre. There were obviously large numbers of calls at the beginning of the census operations, but, since then, waiting times have reduced significantly and people who require paper copies of the questionnaire have been receiving them.

Constituents have contacted me because they were unsure what was meant by Scots in the question on how and when they use Scots. The Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body recognises that Scots includes Doric and Lallans as well as Glaswegian, Shetland, Orcadian and so on. Does the cabinet secretary share my concern that the data may not be accurate because people wrongly believe that they do not use Scots?

Christine Grahame and any other members who have constituents who are uncertain about any of the questions that have been put to them should please draw their attention to the fact that there is very extensive guidance on the Scotland’s Census website. There is also a free helpline on the number that I have given: 0800 030 8308. If people have questions about Scots or anything else, they should please raise them directly and receive the guidance that they require to complete the census to their satisfaction.


To ask the Scottish Government what action it can take to demonstrate the viability of apprentice programmes as an alternative to a university education, in light of a Universities and Colleges Admissions Service report published in 2021 reportedly showing that young people are advised against apprenticeships. (S6O-00919)

In Scotland, we have committed to maximising apprenticeship opportunities as a key way for employers to invest in their workforce, providing the skills that the economy needs now and for the future.

We recognise that apprenticeships are demand led. It is critical that we promote their benefits and the fact that undertaking apprenticeships is a key way for individuals to learn while they earn and for employers to ensure that their workforce has the skills that are needed now and for the future.

Skills Development Scotland’s all-age career service and our developing the young workforce school co-ordinators, as well as events such as Scottish apprenticeship week, are ensuring that young people are aware of all the options that they have and are supported to make an informed choice about their post-school destination.

Does the minister accept that some schools appear to overemphasise university? Although going to university is a tremendous achievement for many young people, apprenticeships are the right way forward for others.

Fundamentally, the answer is yes. I refer back to Mr Mason’s question with regard to the concerns arising from the UCAS report. That report did not cover Scotland’s perspective. I perceive a change in schools in that they are doing more to promote apprenticeships as a good destination for young people. We need to do more in that regard, and we will continue to promote apprenticeships as a very good option for all young people through the array of activities that we are undertaking through developing the young workforce.

Through meeting apprenticeship providers, I have heard that small and medium-sized enterprises need to upskill. However, accessing the available funding can be difficult for micro SMEs because they do not have the time or the resources to look for funding or complete applications. The red tape results in fewer people being taken on. What action will the Scottish Government take to simplify the process for taking on apprentices or upskilling current staff?

On the suggestion that fewer apprentices are being taken on, that is not the case. The most recent set of statistics shows 1.8 times the number of modern apprenticeship starts this year, and there were nearly twice the number last year. It is important to place those statistics on the record. Nevertheless, I recognise that it is incumbent on us to hear that feedback. I have discussed the matter with SDS previously, and my clear position is that the organisation should continuously consider the process for applying for support and that I expect it to undertake work when improvements are needed.

I appreciate the minister’s answers so far. Can he comment more widely on any Scottish Government plans to strengthen the partnership working between secondary schools, businesses and colleges, particularly on trade apprenticeships, to ensure that young people have a chance to get a taster of trades and make fully informed career choices?

Can the minister comment widely and briefly?

I will do my level best to square that circle, Presiding Officer.

I agree that there is a need to improve young people’s experience of workplace learning. Fundamentally, that is what our developing the young workforce initiative is all about. It is making progress and will continue to do so.

Social Care

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the current levels of unmet need and staff vacancies in social care. (S6O-00920)

The Scottish Government is aware that the social care sector at present faces significant pressures, including because of high levels of unmet need, and the situation is under constant review. We recognise that the number of staff who are unavailable due to absence and the number of vacancies are key challenges in addressing that unmet need. The cross-sectoral adult social care gold group meets fortnightly, providing strategic national oversight on system pressures and resilience, alongside key partners.

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care and I have recently restarted fortnightly meetings with reps from local areas that face the most acute social care pressures, and our discussions focus on reducing system pressures.

A series of “lessons learned” events are being planned with health and social care partnerships at which to explore learning and share best practice in responding to recent system pressures. The first such event is scheduled for 25 March 2022.

Could you please conclude, minister?

In October, in response to anticipated system pressures, the Scottish Government announced £300 million in winter pressures funding to increase social care capacity.

The minister did not say what the current assessed level of vacancies is. I can tell him that, in Dumfries and Galloway, there are more than 100 vacancies and 3,000 hours of unmet need at the moment, which is causing significant levels of delayed discharge. The minister will surely accept that, several months after the Government announced what the level of pay for carers would be, it is clearly not managing to fill vacancies. Unless the Government increases the pay rise, we will continue to have a crisis of unmet need and a huge number of vacancies.

We are well aware of the vacancies, and we have done a lot to get more folk into social care and retain the staff that we have. In recent times, we have got 1,000 additional folk into health and social care posts.

The Scottish Government is fully committed to the principles of fair work, which is why we announced the two recent pay rises. We pay more here than is paid in Wales, which is Labour run, and south of the border.

We know that there is more to do, and we are committed to national pay bargaining in our national care service proposals. However, we will do more before then, in partnership with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and others.

Food Banks

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the consultation on a draft national plan to end the need for food banks. (S6O-00921)

No one should have to rely on charitable food provision, which is why we are developing a national plan to end the need for food banks. There have been more than 400 responses to our consultation, which will now be independently analysed to inform our final national plan.

My aim is that the plan will further progress our human rights approach and strengthen our cash-first response. There are early indications that the approach is making a difference, with the Trussell Trust reporting a marked reduction in the number of emergency food bank parcels in Scotland between April and September 2021 compared with 2019.

I welcome the Scottish Government’s announcement that it plans to increase eight Scottish social security benefits by 6 per cent from 1 April. I hope that that will help to support my constituents who have been impacted by United Kingdom Government welfare cuts.

Does the cabinet secretary share my concerns about the growing demand for food banks and the impact that UK Government welfare cuts have had on the most vulnerable people in our society?

Yes, I do. That is why I am committed to publishing a plan that will use the powers that we have to make food banks the last port of call. We have been doing all we can to mitigate the impact of cuts and, last year, we invested more than £2.5 billion to support low-income households. However, we do all that with one hand tied.

Colin Beattie referred to benefit cuts. The devastating cut to universal credit was the biggest overnight cut to benefits since the welfare state was established. Yesterday, the chancellor’s statement was a missed opportunity that completely failed to help people in need, as evidenced by devastating analysis that has been carried out by the Resolution Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Homes for Ukraine Scheme

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding matching Ukrainian refugees with households in Scotland that have registered under the homes for Ukraine scheme. (S6O-00922)

We continue to work closely with the UK Government on the design and operation of the homes for Ukraine scheme. We are focused on ensuring a smooth and early flow of data to support the operation of the Scottish Government’s supersponsor programme and to meet our objectives for a warm and well-delivered welcome for all those who arrive in Scotland. Just yesterday, I met Lord Richard Harrington to emphasise that need.

I thank the minister for his response and his engagement on issues that have arisen at local level in Orkney over recent weeks.

Although 150,000 people—me included—have signed up to the homes for Ukraine scheme, only around 12,000 Ukrainian refugees have so far been given permission to come to the UK. As the barbaric shelling of cities such as Mariupol continues, an estimated 10 million Ukrainians have already fled their homes. When does the minister expect the matching of refugees to individual households in Scotland to begin? What further support is being provided to local councils to ensure that they can meet the needs of people arriving from Ukraine?

Obviously, we are still reliant on the UK Government’s immigration system to work at pace to get through visa applications and ensure that that data comes to the Scottish Government. We are maintaining pressure on the UK Government to ensure that that happens at pace, given everything that Liam McArthur said about the situation on the ground.

We have provided more than £13 million of support that will be distributed to local authorities to acknowledge the work that will be required of them. That is over and above the £10,500 that the UK Government has committed to provide to local authorities for each person who arrives from Ukraine.

General Practitioners (North East Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what assessment it has made of general practitioner numbers and surgery provision in the north-east. (S6O-00923)

Health boards and health and social care partnerships are responsible for assessing the needs of their patients and ensuring that GPs are contracted or otherwise engaged to meet those needs. The Scottish Government funds GP practices in the north-east and elsewhere, of course, based on their estimated share of overall national workload.

Last week, the people of Aberdeen learned that the Great Western medical practice, with 10,000 patients, might have to take drastic measures because of a lack of GPs in the north-east. When I asked about similar situations at Carden medical centre, I got weasel words and fudge. Combined with the situation at Great Western, that means that 18,500 patients could be affected.

The people of the north-east do not want the cabinet secretary’s standard pivot to what is happening in England or how many GPs there are in the central belt—they want a clear answer. What is he doing to increase the number of GPs in Aberdeen and the north-east, and in what year does he project that there will be enough?

A lot is happening in Scotland, particularly in the north-east. For example, the rediscover the joy programme is being piloted in four rural health boards in the north of Scotland. It has also been expanded to Tayside. On top of that, we have the golden hello scheme operating where there are GP shortages.

The member says that he does not want me to pivot, but he cannot hide away from the fact that the Government is committed to increasing GP numbers by 800 by 2027. We are four years into that commitment, and we have increased GP numbers by more than 250.

The member might not want to hear this, but in Scotland we have more GPs than they have in the rest of the United Kingdom.

What is he doing?

The member might not want to hear it, but he should listen. In Scotland, we have 94 GPs per 100,000 people, but in England, where his party is in charge, that number is 76 GPs per 100,000.

I will take a brief supplementary from Mercedes Villalba.

One of the key reasons that was used to justify the tendering of Old Aberdeen medical practice was to improve the sustainability of GP services in the city, but many of the city’s practices are now facing closure and unsustainable GP to patient ratios, which poses a threat to patient care. The last time that I asked cabinet secretary to meet those who are affected, he said that he would consider it, but when I followed up with him I was told that he did not have time. Three months have passed, so I am asking the cabinet secretary once again whether he will meet staff and patients to hear their concerns.

Of course, I will consider meeting Mercedes Villalba. The last time that she raised the issue with me, I gave her the details of the health and social care partnership where the issues are being taken forward.

I have looked at the Old Aberdeen medical practice, which she raised a moment ago, and my understanding from my conversations with the board is that more skills and more resources are now available, and that is of course good for the patients of the practice.

There were many pressures on my diary at that time, but I say again to Mercedes Villalba that, when my diary allows, I will be more than happy to meet her and campaigners.

Women’s Safety

To ask the Scottish Government how it is making the streets safer for women and girls. (S6O-00924)

The Scottish Government is taking a broad range of actions to ensure that women and girls are and feel safe within our communities. We are improving our laws and investing in policing, and we have proposed a new national planning policy embedding human rights and equality in decision making to deliver better places for everyone.

Our public health approach to reducing violence, including the equally safe strategy, continues to focus decisively on preventing violence and tackling the underlying attitudes that perpetuate it. Our new two-year delivering equally safe fund will award £38 million to projects that focus on early intervention and prevention.

I am particularly interested to ask about the excellent “Don’t be that guy” video campaign, and how it has been rolled out to reach the target audience of, I imagine, young men. Are there plans for any future campaigns and materials? Specifically, how are we assisting those who work with our young people with materials that can help them to tackle male behaviours that intimidate women and girls and ultimately put them at risk?

Police Scotland recently launched the “Don’t be that guy” public awareness campaign asking men to challenge their own and, importantly, each other’s behaviours and attitudes towards women. It is an important message for Scottish society, including for policing as individuals and as a service.

The campaign has generated a lot of interest and seems to have been very well received. It will be good, in time, to see what impact it has.

Police Scotland has advised me that more than 6 million people worldwide have seen the “Don’t be that guy” film and more than 80,000 people have visited the website. Government organisations and police services across the UK and beyond are changing the focus of their public communication on sexual violence to align with the “Don’t be that guy” strategy.

Police Scotland is developing a number of public campaigns for the forthcoming year that target men and which, under the “Don’t be that guy” banner, are related to different aspects of men’s violence.

That concludes general question time. Before we move on to the next item of business, I invite members to join me in welcoming to the gallery Liesbeth Homans, Speaker of the Flemish Parliament. [Applause.]