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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 26 January 2022 [Draft]

Agenda: Point of Order, Portfolio Question Time, Electric Vehicle Charging Network, Budget 2022-23 (Committees’ Pre-budget Scrutiny), Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Domestic Abuse, Correction


Contents


Portfolio Question Time


Justice and Veterans

The next item of business is portfolio questions. The first portfolio questions are on justice and veterans.

I point out to members that questions 3 and 6 are grouped together, as are questions 5 and 8. I will take supplementaries on those questions after the grouped questions have been answered. If a member wishes to request a supplementary question, they should press their request-to-speak button, or enter R in the chat function, during the relevant question.


Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (Repairs Backlog)

To ask the Scottish Government how it will address the reported repair backlog in Scottish Fire and Rescue Service properties. (S6O-00660)

I call the minister, Ash Regan, who joins us remotely.

Doing more to keep our communities safe and to deliver positive outcomes for the people of Scotland is a priority for this Government. That is why we have increased the SFRS resource budget in recent years to invest in service modernisation, which is a programme for government commitment. We have provided additional capital in-year over the past two years.

Decisions on the allocation of its budget are a matter for the SFRS. It is currently looking to modernise the service that it provides, to ensure that the right assets are available at the right time and in the right place to deal with the current and future risks that our communities face.

The Fire Brigades Union says that

“Some of Scotland’s fire stations are no longer fit for or meet the expectations and demands of a 21st century fire and rescue service.”

Citing the example of the modernisation in 2008 of Greenock fire station in my region, the union says that the Scottish Government must urgently take forward the modernisation of the estate on a multi-agency basis.

Will the minister investigate and report on which fire stations are no longer fit for purpose and what further plans there are to modernise the fire and rescue estate in the west of Scotland to address the Fire Brigades Union’s concern?

I thank the member for raising that important point. I stress that the draft budget, as with budgets in previous years, includes an uplift for the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. In the draft budget, there is £9.5 million of additional spending available to the service. That demonstrates that the Scottish Government continues to invest in the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and considers it to be extremely important.

On the member’s specific question, I think that we all recognise that we have a number of ageing fire stations in the service. The service is well aware of the state of its assets, and it has a plan in place to address that. Obviously, decisions on how the budget is spent are for the SFRS. However, the health and safety of firefighters while they are protecting the public in any emergency situation is obviously of the highest priority.

I note that the minister did not actually answer the member’s question, but I can help with that answer. Fourteen fire stations in Scotland currently have flat roofs that have been identified by the service as being in poor or worse condition and at risk of collapsing. More than half the stations in the fire service estate are identified as being in poor or worse condition. How have things got so bad in the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service? Do not our firefighters deserve better? What is the minister going to do about it?

I did answer the question, because I said that the fire service is perfectly aware that maintenance needs to be carried out on a number of fire stations. Much of the capital backlog, which that is part of, was inherited from local authorities when the national service was formed in 2013. The SFRS has a plan in place to carry out the maintenance. The member is right that 14 stations have been identified as having defective roof panels that need to be replaced. The SFRS has carried out remedial action to ensure that those buildings are safe to use. Decisions on each of those stations will form part of a wider review that the SFRS is carrying out of its assets.

Sharon Dowey has a supplementary question.

Sorry, Presiding Officer, but my supplementary is for question 4.

Okay. I remind members who are seeking a supplementary question please to press their button during the relevant question. That would be very helpful.


Summary Courts (Modernisation)

To ask the Scottish Government what lessons it has learned from the pilot schemes introduced at the three sheriff courts, in Dundee, Hamilton and Paisley, to modernise summary courts. (S6O-00661)

Work on the summary case management pilot courts in Paisley, Hamilton and Dundee was suspended in March 2020 because of the pandemic. In the meantime, the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service-led multi-agency workstream that has been progressing the work has been utilising the early progress that was made in the limited timeframe when the pilot courts were in operation, along with the positive feedback from the pre-intermediate diet meeting procedure that was introduced in December 2020, to determine when and in what format the evidence and procedure review pilots might be restarted later this year. Further details will be available once the group makes its recommendations.

Can the cabinet secretary provide any further information on when the scheme could be rolled out across the country and what impact it will have on the efficiency of the summary court system?

It is probably too early to make any determinations about the next stages, given the suspension of the pilots in March 2020 because of the pandemic, as I mentioned. It is important that the workstream focuses on ensuring that the circumstances are right to enable the piloting of the summary criminal model to recommence later this year and that appropriate measurement criteria are agreed and in place to enable a full evaluation to be completed at the conclusion of the pilots. As I outlined in my original answer, it is a Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service-led multi-agency workstream, and it will be very much for the operational partners to make any determinations about the next steps.

If the reform is implemented, there will be consequences for legal aid, and that is just one of the areas under question with legal aid. Will the cabinet secretary make a full parliamentary statement on the future of legal aid, particularly summary criminal legal aid?

I am not in charge of the business of the Parliament. It is for the Parliament to decide its business through discussion between the appropriate parliamentary bodies. As Willie Rennie knows, criminal legal aid and civil legal aid are live issues. The Minister for Community Safety and I are involved in discussions with the Law Society of Scotland and others. We will continue those discussions, and we will respond to any requests for statements.


Legal Services Regulation Reform

I remind members of my entry in the register of members’ interests, in that I am a member of the Law Society of Scotland.

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the reported criticisms expressed by the legal sector concerning the proposals outlined in the legal services regulation reform consultation. (S6O-00662)

The consultation was based on the recommendations of an independent review of legal services regulation, which was established as a result of calls for regulatory reform by the legal sector and others. Additional alternative proposals in the consultation were developed collaboratively with stakeholders representing the legal sector and the consumer view. The purpose of the consultation is to open debate, and a wide range of views have been gathered. We are carefully considering the responses to the consultation. The Scottish Government supports a strong and independent legal profession that upholds the rule of law, regardless of any reform that might be taken forward.

Numerous legal professionals, including Lord Carloway, the Lord President of the Court of Session, have raised concerns that elements of what is proposed by the Scottish Government amount to political “interference” with the independence of the judiciary. That is an extraordinary intervention from Scotland’s most senior judge. How did the Scottish National Party Government end up in a situation in which the judiciary are criticising it for potential political “interference” in the independent legal system?

I do not agree with the member’s characterisation. As I said in my previous answer, the Scottish Government consulted following calls for reform from within the legal sector and from the Competition and Markets Authority. The proposals considered what changes might be required to the statutory framework for the regulation of legal services in order to protect consumer interests and promote a flourishing legal sector. The fact that we are asking for views on the matter does not mean that a particular course of action will be taken.

I point out to the member and the chamber that, in England and Wales, the Legal Services Board acts as the overarching legal services regulator and is accountable to Parliament through the Lord Chancellor.

That said, in taking forward the reforms, the Scottish Government is committed to working collaboratively with the legal sector—I believe that I have shown that to be the case—and with those representing the consumer interest. We will carefully consider all views before taking any action.


Legal Services Regulation Reform

6. Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its plans for legal services regulation reform. (S6O-00665)

The Scottish Government committed in our most recent programme for government to launch a public consultation on legal services regulation reform to consider what changes might be required to the statutory framework in order to protect consumer interests and promote a flourishing legal sector. Delivering on that commitment, we published the consultation on 1 October 2021. The consultation closed quite recently, on 24 December 2021. The proposals in the consultation were developed collaboratively with stakeholders representing the legal sector and the consumer view. The Scottish Government is carefully considering the responses to the consultation, and a consultation analysis report will be published later this year.

Will the minister take the opportunity to comment on what the Scottish judiciary have said? They said that the consultation worked on the

“flawed premise that the legal profession ... regulates itself. This is incorrect.”

Moreover, the judiciary indicate that their previous attempts to raise the matter with the Scottish Government have been ignored. They go on to say that

“political regulation is simply not appropriate under any circumstances”

and, as has been said already, is

“a clear threat to the separation of powers”.

That the Roberton report does not seem to understand the whole premise of the current position on regulation in the first place is a serious accusation, especially as the judiciary raised the issue in 2019. I appreciate that the recommendations are those of the Roberton report, but surely the Government would want to address what seems to be a poor relationship. Will the Scottish Government consider that it is time to rerun that consultation?

The public consultation sought the views on what the role of the Lord President and the Court of Session would be in any new regulatory framework. Without predetermining the results of the consideration of the responses, the latter might indicate that there should be no or little change to those roles, which is perfectly legitimate.

The review made proposals that were designed to lead to improvements to transparency and accountability in how services are regulated and how the legal complaint system operates in Scotland. As I said in my previous answer, the independent oversight regulator in England and Wales, the Legal Services Board, is accountable to Parliament through the Lord Chancellor.

My constituent has recent direct experience of the Law Society of Scotland’s processes. Despite having been awarded expenses in her favour by the Scottish Solicitors Discipline Tribunal, they subsequently had to go to the Court of Session to ensure that the Law Society made payment. My constituent is now trying to establish who made decisions to withhold payment and on what basis. I will write to the minister with the detail.

Does the minister agree that that situation points to an issue of culture as well as process at the heart of the Law Society? In the light of the review that is under way, will she consider ensuring that freedom of information requests are included in any legislation?

I would be happy to look into the situation that the member has just raised, and I will look at it carefully if she writes to me.

The recent consultation on legal services regulation sought views on reform of the legal complaints process and on freedom of information in respect of those regulatory functions, so we are carefully considering all those points as part of our wider reforms.


Sentencing (Young People)

4. Sharon Dowey (South Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the Scottish Sentencing Council’s “Sentencing young people” guideline, which is due to come into force on 26 January 2022. (S6O-00663)

The independent Scottish Sentencing Council, with members comprising the judiciary, prosecutors, the police, academics and victims’ interests groups, and on whose establishment members agreed unanimously, prepared the guideline. Although the guideline is a matter for the council and the High Court to approve, I support the council in progressing its work in that area, which complements the Scottish Government’s vision for youth justice. That vision was published in June 2021, with a focus on early and effective intervention; opportunities to divert young people from prosecution; and improved experiences for those who enter the criminal justice system.

The new guideline is misleading in title as it refers to under-25s. People in their 20s are clearly responsible for their actions and should be punished appropriately if they commit a crime. However, the guideline states that people as old as 24 should receive a lesser punishment for committing exactly the same crime as people who are aged 25 or over. Does the cabinet secretary think it right that, under the new guideline, 24-year-olds can receive less punishment than 25-year-olds for committing the same crime?

The member should address the Scottish Sentencing Council, which proposed the guideline, if she has an objection to it, as I have said that I would support it. The council is independent. It might be that the Conservatives, who supported it, now want to have a go at it because they do not like one of its recommendations—they are entitled to do that. However, the guideline is not, as Conservatives elsewhere have said, soft justice; it allows other factors to be taken into account when the courts, which are independent from the Government, consider what they intend to do in relation to a young person who is before them. Iain Smith, of Keegan Smith Defence Lawyers, has described the guideline as “huge progress” and “smart” justice, which will lead to there being fewer victims.

This is the Sentencing Council’s decision to make. It has made it and the guideline has been approved by the High Court. I will certainly support it and support efforts to make sure that it is adopted when the Government has a role in that. However, the Sentencing Council is independent, as are the courts. This is not really just another facet of the Tories’ facile attack on soft justice; it is proper smart justice being administered, not least with the benefit of the scientific and expert evidence of the Sentencing Council and the people on whom it relies. The continuing attempts to label this smart justice as soft justice means that the Tories are content to have the darkness of sub-standard justice that does not take into account other factors. We will oppose that.

I have a supplementary question from Collette Stevenson, who is joining us remotely.

Although sentencing decisions from the courts must take into account the seriousness of the crime and its impact on victims, does the cabinet secretary agree that, more generally and particularly for young people, rehabilitation is more effective in the long run in reducing reoffending and in building safer communities?

The member makes an important point. We are all trying to achieve a reduction in the number of victims and the presence of crime and society. If rehabilitation helps to achieve that, surely we should all support it.

As I have said, however, sentencing is on individual cases and is a matter for the courts. All that the guideline says is that the court should be able to take into account all the facts and circumstances of the case. The court will consider the guideline on the sentencing of young people, which places rehabilitation at their heart. However, as the Sentencing Council has made clear, the guidance also allows for other considerations, including, of course, punishment, and, more generally, rehabilitation must be a key factor in the operation of justice. Although there is more to do, I am pleased that the reconviction rate is 11 per cent lower for the most recent cohort, people who committed offences in 2018-19, when compared with 2009-10.

Question 5 is from Siobhian Brown, who is joining us remotely.

I am in the chamber, Presiding Officer.

Indeed you are. Apologies.


Cybercrime

5. Siobhian Brown (Ayr) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is working with Police Scotland to tackle the reported increase in cases of cyber crime and extortion. (S6O-00664)

The Scottish Government works closely with Police Scotland and other CyberScotland partners, including the National Cyber Security Centre, to protect the public and organisations from cyber threats. We also work with Police Scotland and partners on the serious organised crime task force to oversee work that is being carried out to reduce the harm that is caused by serious organised crime in Scotland.

The sharing of intelligence and experience is key to responding to cyber threats, particularly when it comes to ransomware attacks that seek to extort victims. The Scottish Government, along with Police Scotland, is an active member of the UK cyber security information sharing partnership—CISP—which we encourage all eligible organisations in Scotland to join.

In my Ayr constituency in recent months, there has been an increase in the amount of extortion, particularly of elderly constituents who have fallen prey to scammers and have given them personal bank details. Some of them have lost four-figure amounts. The scammers are sophisticated and they are continually evolving to prey on the vulnerable. How many people in Scotland have been charged with cybercrime in the past five years?

The member is right to draw attention to the real effects of those crimes. I was involved in working on them in a previous role in relation to consumer protection.

In 2019-20, 485 people were proceeded against for a main charge of fraud, with a conviction rate of 85 per cent. During the same period, 42 people were proceeded against for a main charge of threats and extortion, with a conviction rate of 79 per cent. Those figures include crimes that were committed both online and offline.

Fraud is committed by a broad range of criminals from domestic lone actors to complex international organised crime groups. Although the victims might be in Scotland, the criminals who target them often operate outwith Scotland and it can be challenging to identify who they are and prosecute them.

Question 8 is from David Torrance, who is joining us remotely.


Cybercrime

8. David Torrance (Kirkcaldy) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is working with Police Scotland to tackle cybercrime. (S6O-00667)

The Scottish Government works closely with Police Scotland to tackle cybercrime in a number of ways, including by working with other CyberScotland partners and the serious organised crime task force, which seeks to identify threats, share intelligence and oversee work that is carried out to reduce the threat of cybercrime in Scotland.

The CyberScotland Partnership will celebrate its first anniversary during CyberScotland week 2022, which will take place in the week commencing 28 February. This year’s theme is learning for life online, and the week will include dozens of events that are aimed at all audiences and organisations, and everyone from school age to pension age. Of course, older people are a particular target for scammers. We encourage everyone to get involved in the week and take advantage of the learning resources that are available.

How does the 2022-23 budget ensure that Police Scotland will have access to appropriate resources to tackle cybercrime?

I have mentioned elsewhere the uplift in the budget to deal with the issues that the member raises, and with the backlog that we continue to have because of Covid.

How cybercrime is dealt with will, of course, be an operational matter for Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority. I have mentioned some of the methods that are used. There will also be joint working with other partners, such as the United Kingdom Government, which has the responsibility for online security. We will work with all partners including the UK Government to ensure that, through the police, we bear down on what is a horrendous crime that affects many people in a very profound way.

The state can go after the stolen money that is held by criminals using proceeds of crime laws, but millions of pounds of confiscation orders remain unpaid. The cabinet secretary mentioned what he called “smart justice”. When is he going to get smart about fixing proceeds of crime laws on behalf of crime victims?

I am not sure that the question is when I am going to get smart; I think that the matter is really one for the police and the justice authorities, which have the relevant responsibility. I am satisfied that they are making real progress with the legislation on getting money back from criminals, which is relatively new. Because of the fact that they are criminals, it can sometimes be difficult to extract those funds, but the police, along with other justice agencies, are making every effort to get back from criminals the proceeds of crimes that have been perpetrated, and to make sure, where possible, that that money is funnelled into anti-crime initiatives or used to help victims.


Women’s Prisons (Biological Sex of Inmates)

7. John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government how many people whose biological sex is male are currently in women’s prisons in Scotland. (S6O-00666)

The Scottish Prison Service has advised that there were five transgender women located in the women’s estate in Scotland as at 21 January.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer, because the Scottish Prison Service would not give me the answer when I asked the question in September. I am glad that the answer is there, but does the cabinet secretary not think that female offenders, many of whom have suffered violence and sexual assault previously, should be entitled to a single-sex prison?

The practice that is undertaken by the Scottish Prison Service—in common, I think, with other prison services throughout the United Kingdom—is to adopt a process that seeks to make sure that the rights and safety of everyone in prison are looked at when such issues are taken into account, and I think that it does that in a very structured and sensitive way.

However, John Mason will know, because he mentioned that he had previously corresponded with the Scottish Prison Service, that the service is going through a review to look at the collection of further information. That will help with the provision of the information that he sought previously, which he now has. I hope that the fact that that information, which will be specific to the day on which the question is asked, will be provided more regularly will help John Mason.

The SPS regularly judges people’s rights and the safety of all the prisoners in its care in a very sensitive way, not least in relation to transgender prisoners.

I thank the cabinet secretary for the comments that he has just made, in which he highlighted that the rights and welfare of prisoners are paramount. I must say that there was a very shrill anti-trans dog whistle in John Mason’s question, which is deeply troubling, especially given the rise in the number of transphobic hate crimes that are being reported.

What systems and protections are in place to deal with violence in prisons, regardless of who the perpetrator is? How can we reduce the number of women who are in prison for non-violent crime?

I am sure that the member did not want to suggest that, by asking his question, John Mason was doing any of those things. His question was selected and it was in the Business Bulletin.

I think that Maggie Chapman’s question was about ensuring that people are protected from crimes of different types while they are in prison.

A host of things are undertaken by the Prison Service in relation to that, not least when people are first admitted to prison. That process will take into account, for example, whether a person might be involved with or allied to serious organised crime groups and whether, because of the nature of the crime that they have committed, they might be under undue threat. At that point, an assessment is made as to which establishment and which unit within the establishment they should go to, whether they should be put in a single-cell facility, and many other factors.

The Scottish Prison Service is not new to doing that. It does it for every prisoner, and it will continue to do it and to review its processes to ensure that it safeguards and cares for all prisoners in its custody.


Finance and the Economy

The next portfolio is finance and the economy. Again, if any member wishes to request a supplementary question, they should press the request-to-speak button or indicate so in the chat function by entering the letter R during the relevant question.

Evelyn Tweed joins us remotely.


Labour Shortages

1. Evelyn Tweed (Stirling) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what actions it is taking to address the reported labour shortages. (S6O-00668)

The minister joins us remotely.

The Scottish Government recognises that employers across many sectors are experiencing challenges in attracting and retaining workers, with some directly linking labour shortages to the end of freedom of movement in Europe. Brexit has of course had a particular impact on the labour market due to European Union nationals leaving the United Kingdom in large numbers, with the resultant loss of skills making the situation even more difficult for the sectors that have relied on EU talent.

However, we are also aware of the challenges in attracting skilled workers into a number of sectors that predate those events, and we will invest an additional £500 million over the course of this Parliament to support new jobs and to reskill people for the good, fair and green jobs of the future.

A number of businesses in my Stirling constituency—including hospitality, social care and public transport providers—have contacted me to say that they are struggling to recruit and retain staff, with Brexit and the UK Government’s immigration policies being major difficulties.

It is clear that the UK Government’s immigration policies simply do not work for Scotland. Will the minister advise what steps the Scottish Government is taking to press the UK Government to create an immigration policy that works for us? Does he agree that, if the UK Government is not willing to act, powers over immigration should be in Scotland’s hands?

Evelyn Tweed highlights a massive issue that is impacting on the labour market in Stirling, and which is replicated across the whole of Scotland. As she said, it is clear that the UK Government’s immigration system is failing to meet the needs of our communities, public services and economy.

The Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture wrote to the Home Secretary in September setting out constructive proposals for changes to the immigration system, including a 24-month temporary workers visa to address the needs of all sectors, a full review of the costs of the immigration system—which are disproportionate and a significant barrier for employers and individuals—and a proper review of the role and function of the shortage occupation list. The letter also asked for a formal role for Scottish ministers and this Parliament in determining what roles should be on the Scottish shortage occupation list.

I agree with Evelyn Tweed that, if we do not have a positive response from the UK Government, not only will the situation damage Scotland’s economy and many of the sectors that are directly affected even more, it will make the case for those powers to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament to allow us to address Scotland’s distinctive needs, particularly the distinctive needs of our labour market.

There are a number of supplementary questions, which I will take.

Notwithstanding the minister’s previous answer, there are concerns among some Scottish employers that there are people out there who would be available for work but who are not willing to take some of the jobs in the market. What is the Scottish Government doing to address that particular aspect?

Liz Smith raises an issue that the Government also wants to address by encouraging people into the labour market. There are so many initiatives under way that I cannot go through them all just now. However, under the “No one left behind” policy of the Scottish Government, working with local employment partnerships across Scotland, we are doing our best to break down the barriers that keep some people at a distance from the labour market so that they can get back into work. That is meeting with some success, but there is a long way to go. Clearly, we do not have full powers over employment and those schemes. However, where we have powers, we are doing what we can for those people who are some distance from the labour market.

The most recent published statistics—which I believe take us up to November 2021—showed a slight decline in inactivity in the labour market, which is a step forward. We will continue to work on that and with the “No one left behind” initiative.

Today, the Royal College of Nursing Scotland published its employment survey. It found that a staggering 61 per cent of nursing staff in Scotland are thinking of leaving their post. The key reasons for that include

“feeling undervalued”

and

“feeling under too much pressure”.

Sixty-seven per cent say that

“they are too busy to provide the level of care they would like”.

Given that our national health service is already in crisis, what does the minister plan to do to retain staff and to avoid further labour shortages in our NHS?

We all recognise that our nurses in Scotland have been through a very challenging time over the past couple of years of Covid, and I know that we all want to pay tribute to them for all their dedication, professionalism and hard work. I know that the health secretary is devoting a lot of resources and time to addressing the issues that Jackie Baillie raises. Clearly we want to ensure that we continue to attract record numbers of staff to the NHS in Scotland and address some of the other issues that she highlights.

Brexit is, indeed, making skilled migration into Scotland difficult, and we have increasingly acute labour shortages. Nevertheless, at a time of record vacancies, we also have a claimant count of 145,000 unemployed people in Scotland. What steps are being taken to upskill people who are currently unemployed, to help them return to work and to ensure a wider dispersal of Government jobs to areas of high unemployment?

The recent labour market statistics, which were published in the past few days, showed that employment has increased in Scotland, unemployment and youth unemployment have decreased, and there has been a slight decline in inactivity. That is progress, although, as the member suggested, there is a long way to go.

In the coming year, the Scottish Government is investing £35 million in our “No one left behind” approach, which demonstrates our commitment to person-centred and place-based—to come back to the point that Kenneth Gibson raised—employability support for those who are at risk of long-term unemployment.

As I said earlier, we clearly have limited powers over employment law and in terms of employability schemes, but we are making the most of the resources that we are putting into the system, and I hope that that trend of decline of inactivity in the labour market continues.


Scottish Wholesale Food and Drink Resilience Fund

To ask the Scottish Government what progress is being made with the latest Scottish wholesale food and drink resilience fund. (S6O-00669)

The member will know that, on 17 December, the First Minister announced that funding will be made available to food and drink wholesalers who were affected by hospitality cancellations in December. We have been working with the Scottish Wholesale Association to finalise funding criteria and we will ensure that that information is publicised widely as soon as we can, so that nobody misses the detail. I expect that to be in the coming days.

I can confirm that I am also making available additional discretionary funding in recognition of the food and drink wholesale sector’s ineligibility for non-domestic rates relief and to help compensate for the adverse impacts felt by businesses during the first part of 2021. That will bring the total amount of funding available to the sector to £15 million.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that helpful answer. Access to the fund will provide a lifeline to many wholesale businesses that were severely impacted by the omicron variant just as they were beginning their recovery and looking forward to the festive season. One such business in my constituency is experiencing added uncertainty about eligibility, arising from having been unable to apply for previous business support. Can the cabinet secretary provide an assurance that funding will be forthcoming as a matter of urgency and that all eligible applications will be considered, regardless of whether the business received funding in the previous round?

I can confirm that, and I commend the member’s representation of the business in her constituency, through speaking to me, in writing and in the question that she has now raised. I can confirm that the fund will be open to all food and drink wholesale businesses in Scotland that meet the eligibility criteria.

Minister Ivan McKee is joining us remotely for question 3.


Covid-19 Support (Bed and Breakfasts and Guest Houses)

3. Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide additional Covid-19 support funding for bed and breakfast and guest house operators. (S6O-00670)

The emergence of the omicron variant of the virus and the reality that the funds available for financial support for business are finite have meant that we have had to make difficult choices. We have prioritised support for those businesses that have been most severely impacted by cancellations due to public health advice and the reintroduction of restrictions. There are no immediate plans to widen support to B and B and guest house operators, but I understand and regret that that sector has also been affected.

We recognise that this is a challenging time for many businesses across Scotland and we will continue to make the case to the United Kingdom Government for additional, comprehensive financial support.

The trouble with the minister’s answer is that bed and breakfast and guest house operators in England have received support. Similar businesses in Scotland have been hit hard by restrictions but have been excluded from support—the minister referred to that.

Does the minister understand that those businesses might not survive? Will he reconsider support for the backbone of the tourism and hospitality sector in Scotland?

As the member is aware, different choices are made in different parts of the United Kingdom about what support to give to sectors and when to give it.

There has been support for the sector that we are talking about, for example through the bed and breakfast hardship fund, which was available in Scotland but not south of the border, and the small accommodation providers paying council tax fund, which, again, supported eligible bed and breakfasts and guest houses in Scotland but was not available south of the border. The member is not comparing like with like, because decisions about the most appropriate way to use funds have been made at different times in each of the four nations. There are several examples of bed and breakfasts receiving funding that was not available in other parts of the UK.

I do not accept the minister’s answer and I agree with Willie Rennie.

Given the festive period losses and the Scottish National Party’s costly and burdensome licensing scheme, which has just been implemented, the rural economy faces a perfect storm.

Will the minister please tell us why self-catering businesses are not deserving of Covid mitigation funds to deal with the impact of the regulations that were put in place in Scotland at the time? Does he agree with Councillor Gordon Adam, of Highland Council, who is concerned that the SNP Government’s short-term lets licensing legislation will affect the income of thousands of businesses in rural Scotland? How will he mitigate the loss to those businesses?

That has taken the subject matter slightly wider, but the minister may respond as he thinks is appropriate.

I am happy to answer that. I know that Rachael Hamilton has a particular interest in these matters and I think that this is at least the third time that she has raised short-term lets.

Rachael Hamilton is aware that the legislation in that regard is in place and that I support it. It makes perfect sense that accommodation providers should be required to comply with standards and should be licensed, to ensure that they do. Many of the member’s comments about the impact of that on the sector are inaccurate and misguided. It is absolutely right to ensure that guests who avail themselves of those services can be assured of a high standard of safety, and the licensing regime ensures that.

On a point of order, Presiding Officer.

Presiding Officer, I seek your guidance on the assertion that my comments were “misguided” and “inaccurate”.

I want to say something that I did not say earlier. The chairman of the Scottish Guest House and Bed and Breakfast Alliance, Sinclair Williams, said:

“If businesses like ours fail, then it has a knock-on effect.”

Ms Hamilton, I advise you that that was not a point of order. The Presiding Officer is not responsible for the content of members’ comments in the chamber. As I said at the start of this afternoon’s meeting, there are ways in which a member can request a correction to another member’s contribution, if they feel that it needs to be corrected, through the Official Report corrections mechanism, which Ms Hamilton will be aware is available.

Question 4 has been withdrawn.


GFG Alliance (Scottish Government Financial Exposure)

I direct members to my entry in the register of members’ interests.

To ask the Scottish Government what it considers its financial exposure to be in relation to its arrangements with GFG Alliance and its related companies. (S6O-00672)

The Lochaber guarantee between the Scottish Government and companies belonging to the GFG Alliance, which the cross-party Finance and Constitution Committee approved in 2016, has helped to secure the future of aluminium and renewable energy production in Lochaber.

The combined smelter, hydroelectric power station and estates businesses are now operating profitably. Since 2016, they have created 40 new jobs, thereby increasing direct employment in the complex to 200 jobs, while supporting a valuable supply chain with hundreds of associated jobs, which I am sure the member welcomes.

The Scottish Government’s contingent liability is protected by a series of cross guarantees and a comprehensive security package that covers the noted Lochaber businesses. The net present value of the remaining guaranteed revenue stream is £284.2 million, while in contrast, the companies have valued the business assets at Fort William at £438 million in their 2019 accounts.

In his statement to the Parliament on 15 December, the minister described it as an “evolving situation”. Last month, the Auditor General for Scotland reported that the financial exposure of public money—our money—to GFG and its constituent parts on one deal alone, being the power purchase agreement at Lochaber, had risen from £37 million to £161 million.

Now that the Gupta’s supply chain banker, Greensill Capital, has gone bust and GFG itself is under Serious Fraud Office investigation for fraudulent trading and money laundering, with auditors resigning, finance directors leaving, accounting deadlines changing and a corporate structure that is described as “opaque”, it is clearly in the public interest, and the interest of the GFG workforce, that the Scottish Government publishes details of all the deals that it has done with GFG and all its subsidiary companies. Will the minister agree to do that today?

I am well aware that Richard Leonard wants to make as much of the situation as possible, but the reality is much more straightforward. The deal at Lochaber was approved by the cross-party Finance and Constitution Committee in 2016. The deal ensures that there is more than adequate cover from the value of the assets for any exposure of the Scottish Government. Therefore, if there were a situation in which GFG Alliance was unable to operate the plant, the protection of the public purse would be ensured, and options would be available to enable the business to continue. That is exactly why we have those guarantees in place.

The note in the consolidated accounts for 2020-21 was merely a technical assessment of a range of credit risk scenarios, which is an accounting standards requirement. However, that does not take away from the fact that, based on Treasury green book analysis and analysis that was undertaken by independent auditors, the value of the assets far exceeds the value of any liability to the Scottish Government.


Green Ports (Green Recovery)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its proposals on green ports as part of the wider investment to support a green recovery. (S6O-00673)

We are determined to ensure that the roll-out of the United Kingdom Government’s free port programme in Scotland should deliver for Scottish businesses, communities and workers, and make a strong contribution to a green and fair recovery. That is why we developed the green port model, with its strong focus on a just transition to net zero and fair work, including payment of the real living wage.

For the past few weeks, we have been in active discussions with the UK Government on a joint approach that will deliver a full package of reserved and devolved incentives to Scottish ports that apply to the green ports. So far, those discussions have been positive, and we hope to set out the way forward soon.

I note the minister’s comment about positive discussions. Will he expand on those?

As I said, so far, the discussions have been very constructive. I am hopeful that agreement is—[Inaudible.]—Parliament with more details in the near future.

England has two free ports up and running, and it has named eight. Teesside alone is expected to create 18,000 jobs in the next five years. Yesterday, it was announced that a Welsh free port deal could be imminent. When will the Scottish Government put the grievance, division and grandstanding aside and start working to deliver the free ports that would help the green recovery and secure jobs for the people of Scotland?

I am afraid that what the member says is completely misguided and inaccurate. The Scottish Government only heard about the details of the English free port offer when the bid prospectus was released—the UK Government did not bring us into the discussions earlier.

We were clear that we will not take part in a race to the bottom where environmental standards, workers’ standards and the payment of wages and so on are reduced. We are clear about the fair work agenda and its centrality to Scotland’s economic recovery. As I am sure the member is, we are clear that in relation to the transition to net zero and the importance of that, having those requirements is central to any green port operation in Scotland.

We negotiated with the United Kingdom Government through the course of last year in good faith, but it made it clear that it was not willing to engage in a process in which payment of the real living wage and net zero requirements were part of the offer. I am glad to say that the UK Government has returned to the table on the basis of our requirements for—[Inaudible.]—and as a consequence we are moving forward with the discussions. I recognise the economic benefits of green ports but I also recognise that treating workers fairly, looking after the environment and moving towards net zero are central to our agenda, which is why those are red lines for us.

I will take a supplementary question from Paul Sweeney, who joins us remotely. Can we have a succinct question and answer, please?

In light of the green ports project, what key industrial capabilities will be developed to ensure that we build up a wind turbine manufacturing base in Scotland?

Paul Sweeney makes a hugely important point. As someone who has spent all my life in manufacturing, those issues are important to me and Mr Sweeney will know that I am as passionate about them as he is. As he will also know, the ScotWind process required a strong supplier with development commitments for the Scottish supply chain as part of the bid. Recent work that has been taken forward in Nigg to provide manufacturing capability for offshore wind towers is hugely welcome, and the work that is on-going through our supply chain development programme, which identifies Scottish businesses in the supply chain that are capable of supplying components for offshore wind manufacturing facilities, is central to what we are doing. We are very focused on looking for businesses that we can work with to help them get the investment, skills, capability and capacity to be part of those supply chains. We will continue that work. I would be delighted to discuss the issue in more detail with the member as we both have a strong interest in it.

Fulton MacGregor joins us remotely.


Covid-19 (Financial Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what financial support it has made available for those business sectors that were impacted by Covid-19 restrictions required to control the omicron wave of infections. (S6O-00674)

The Scottish Government has made available funding of £375 million to support businesses affected by the necessary public health restrictions to control omicron. That funding has been targeted at the sectors most affected by those measures, including hospitality, leisure, culture, sport, tourism and industries that support them. Payments to businesses are now under way.

I welcome the financial support that has been given. The cabinet secretary knows that I have contacted her previously during the pandemic about financial arrangements for nightclubs, of which there are a couple in my constituency. How much money from that fund will go to individual nightclubs as part of the on-going support?

I commend the member for his consistent advocacy throughout the pandemic on behalf of nightclubs. The £5 million nightclub closure fund provides a one-off payment to support eligible nightclubs that are required to close. That is categorised in three ways. There will be £25,000 for premises with a rateable value of up to and including £40,000; £35,000 for premises with a rateable value of up to £75,000; and £55,000 for a rateable value of £75,001 or above.

Nightclubs that have previously received support were contacted by the Scottish Government and asked to complete an application. Those applications are being processed and payments will be made as soon as possible. Nightclubs that have not previously received support have also been contacted and asked to complete an application. Any nightclub business that has not been contacted should check whether they are eligible on the Find Business Support website and contact the Scottish Government using the details that are provided.

Many businesses in Glasgow had no income or half of their income over the period of restrictions. Although they welcome the funding, they do not have it in their bank accounts and their situation is getting serious because they are getting ready to open. Could the cabinet secretary look at whether anything can be done about that? To be straight about it, they fear that councils are dragging their feet. I hope that the cabinet secretary agrees that those businesses should have that money in their bank accounts as soon as possible.

I agree with Pauline McNeill that the important part is that that payment is made into business bank accounts as quickly as possible. Yesterday, I wrote to all chief executives of organisations that are distributing the funding—local authorities, enterprise agencies, VisitScotland and others—to encourage them to accelerate payments. I am monitoring the situation daily. A lot of the payments are being made and many are being made without an application, so that the money gets into accounts quickly. However, I understand that we need to do everything possible to ensure that businesses receive that payment.


Homelessness (Local Authority Funding)

To ask the Scottish Government how much funding for local authorities it has allocated in its draft budget to help tackle homelessness. (S6O-00675)

In the 2022-23 draft budget, we have maintained the £23.5 million allocated to local authorities for homelessness prevention and response measures. In addition, we have provided a further £10 million from the ending homelessness together fund. That includes £8 million for local authorities to support rapid rehousing transition plans, which help move people as quickly as possible into settled accommodation. There will also be further support for local authorities within the remaining £2 million of that fund—for example, to support housing options hubs. The detail of how the spend will be allocated is still to be finalised.

Due to administrative decisions that were taken some years ago, the City of Edinburgh Council is losing out on vital resources to help to address homelessness in the capital. For example, last year, Glasgow City Council was able to recover £8.8 million through the health mobilisation plan arrangements, which were administered through its integration joint board. Will Scottish Government ministers agree to review the spending allocation to tackle homelessness so that the capital does not miss out on the equivalent of £9.3 million of funding due to that administrative issue? I am aware that Scottish National Party and Labour leaders of the city have written to the minister on the issue.

If correspondence has been addressed to me, I have yet to receive it. I undertake to write to Miles Briggs on his detailed question in due course if he is content with that.