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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 27 April 2022 [Draft]

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, United Kingdom Shared Prosperity Fund, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Honouring Emergency Workers


Portfolio Question Time

Covid-19 Recovery and Parliamentary Business

Good afternoon. The first item of business is portfolio question time, and the first portfolio is Covid-19 recovery and parliamentary business. If a member wishes to ask a supplementary question, they should press their request-to-speak button or enter R in the chat function during the relevant question. I call for succinct questions, and answers to match.

Covid-19 (Recovery Strategy) (Resilience)

To ask the Scottish Government, as part of the delivery of a cross-government Covid recovery strategy, what efforts it is making to ensure the resilience of Scotland’s response to any future pandemic. (S6O-00990)

The “NHS Recovery Plan 2021-2026” sets out key ambitions and actions to be developed and delivered now and over the next five years. The recovery plan is backed with more than £1 billion of targeted investment, which will drive the recovery of our national health service not just to its pre-pandemic level but beyond.

In addition, the Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill will help to build resilience against future public health threats, including any future pandemics. The provisions in part 1 of the bill will, if it is passed, allow Scottish ministers to respond swiftly, flexibly and proportionately to any infection or contamination that presents, or could present, significant harm to human health.

As the pandemic begins, thankfully, to ease, I know that the Scottish Government has been in consultation with various personal protective equipment suppliers about the need to stockpile for future pandemics. However, concerns have been voiced about the huge costs in the procurement of PPE, and that suppliers and users could potentially be left with out-of-date and useless equipment, which is what happened the last time.

Can greater consideration be given to encouraging domestic manufacturers such as Alpha Solway, which is based in Dumfries and makes 150,000 respirators a week? Its production could increase to more than 2 million respirators a week, which would be enough to meet the entire needs of the NHS, because of its investment in using its own raw materials. Would the cabinet secretary look into that as a more cost-effective way forward for the long term?

If my recollection is correct, Alpha Solway was providing supplies to the Scottish effort through the PPE network. I am very grateful to the employees and leadership of Alpha Solway for all that they contributed.

In all such circumstances, the development of the domestic supply chain is very important. That was a key priority for my ministerial colleague Ivan McKee, who did a tremendous amount of work in dialogue with the business community to enable us to manufacture more of the required PPE in Scotland, rather than relying on imports. Fundamentally, I agree with Mr Carson about the importance of that point.

I need to raise the issue of stockpiling. If we stockpile for the possibility of a pandemic and no pandemic arises, it is inevitable that there may well be stock that cannot be used within particular periods of time. However, efforts can be made to recondition stock to make sure that we maximise the effectiveness and efficiency of the arrangements. I assure Mr Carson that those arrangements are very much at the heart of the pandemic learning that we have undertaken, and that we certainly want to encourage the domestic supply chain to the maximum possible level.

I agree entirely with Finlay Carson that we need to be taking steps now to ensure the resilience of Scotland’s response to any future pandemic. Does the Deputy First Minister agree that that is the entire purpose of the Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill, which the Conservative Party is vehemently and opportunistically opposing?

As I said in my original answer to Mr Carson, the Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill will help us to build resilience against future public threats, so it needs to be taken seriously and engaged with by Parliament. Without those legislative protections in place, the speed of our response to a pandemic and our ability to respond to its changing dynamics would be limited. I therefore encourage members of Parliament to engage constructively with the Government on the bill to produce a statute book that will simply bring us into line with powers in relation to pandemic management that have existed in England and Wales for more than a decade.

Culture is one of the sectors that have been hit hardest by the pandemic. What lessons has the Scottish Government learned from the experience of Covid in order to shield the culture sector from the impact of future pandemics?

The Government has taken action in a range of different sectors, of which the culture sector is one. We wanted to ensure that we provided the sector with the maximum amount of support possible to enable it to navigate its way through the difficulties, when audiences could not be present and artistic performances and other events could not take place, and then to deploy its important cultural contribution in the aftermath, when people will perhaps need it even more in order to recover mentally and socially from the trauma of the pandemic.

The Government’s funding arrangements were designed to sustain the sector. There is on-going funding in the normal budget arrangements that are in place, and I know that my colleague Neil Gray, the Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development, is actively engaged in dialogue with the culture sector in order to maximise its contribution to Scottish society.

Question 2 is from Alex Rowley. He is not in the chamber, so we move to question 3, from Carol Mochan.

Covid-19 (Long Covid)

To ask the Scottish Government how long Covid has been factored into its Covid-19 strategic review. (S6O-00992)

Our strategic framework update in February 2022 confirmed that on-going assessments of the Covid-19 threat will combine assessments of potential disease impact and the risk of infection. As well as covering current and expected infection fatality rates, the assessment of disease impact will consider factors such as long Covid.

Accurate data is vitally important in understanding the prevalence of long Covid. Data from the Office for National Statistics Covid-19 infection survey is currently the best source of evidence on the estimated prevalence of long Covid in Scotland. Our chief scientist office is funding nine Scotland-led research projects, with a total funding commitment of £2.5 million, to improve understanding of the long-term effects of Covid-19 on physical and mental health, and to help with developing effective clinical interventions to support recovery and rehabilitation.

Given that answer, can the cabinet secretary explain why the Scottish Government is yet to host a debate on the important issue of the long-term effects of long Covid, and why the scheduled debate on that issue last week was changed to a different topic?

The Government is committed to having a debate on long Covid and that will happen very shortly. With regard to the Government’s ability to set out a complete picture of the response, that would involve funding announcements—which members might object to hearing during a local authority election campaign.

General practitioner colleagues of mine up and down Scotland despair at the absence of a pathway for long Covid patients, and no one sitting in the comfort of the chamber should pretend that there is one. I and my colleagues face patients who are crying in despair over their long Covid symptoms, but the Scottish Government still does not know how to deal with that, despite the tried and tested models that are running in Hertfordshire.

Given that more than 100,000 Scots now suffer with long Covid and cannot wait for the research that the cabinet secretary tells them is being performed, when will the Scottish Government realise the devastation that is being wreaked across Scotland and finally start caring for people with long Covid by getting long Covid clinics up and running? What is happening now does not work.

I do not agree with the picture that Dr Gulhane has set out, and I do not think that it reflects the position or intended approach of the national health service in Scotland. It is very clear—the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care has set this out to Parliament on countless occasions—that the pathway for patients who have long Covid must be assessed by individual clinicians. There is no way that Dr Gulhane can say to me that every long Covid case presents in exactly the same fashion; that would be an absurd clinical proposition to put forward. Individual clinicians must therefore make an assessment of individual patients, and the national health service must meet those needs.

Research projects are under way. I would have thought that, rather than rubbish those research projects, Dr Gulhane, as a clinician, would be interested in hearing what they might produce. It is really odd for a clinician to rubbish evidence gathering that is part of the process of gathering intelligence and information to enable us to take the right decisions. That approach strikes me being as evidence-led policy making, and if Dr Gulhane, as a member of the Scottish Parliament and as a clinician, cannot see the benefits of evidence-led policy making, I think that he has some serious questions to answer.

Covid-19 (Vaccination Certification Scheme Costs)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the total costs of the Covid-19 vaccine certification scheme. (S6O-00993)

Scotland’s Covid certification scheme was an important part of our domestic response to Covid-19. The app continues to be a vital part of supporting people to travel internationally, given that the scheme also provides Covid-19 status.

I confirm that the Scottish Government has directly allocated more than £7 million to date. I have asked my officials to place a table of that breakdown in the Scottish Parliament information centre.

So, John Swinney wasted £7 million on a domestic Covid passport scheme, which was quietly switched off by the Scottish National Party Government last week. The Deputy First Minister was warned that domestic certification would not work, that it breached data protection laws, and that it would damage business and cost jobs. Will the Deputy First Minister now say that he is sorry to the businesses that were damaged and for the jobs that were lost, and will he apologise to the Scottish people for wasting £30,000 a day of their money on his botched scheme?

What a lot of absolute baloney—by Mr Hoy’s standards, it is a colossal amount of baloney.

Mr Hoy must surely understand the basics of this point: regardless of its domestic application, the Covid status app was necessary to enable people to travel from Scotland to other countries. Surely the Conservatives must understand that point. The costs that have been incurred were necessary to enable us to produce an app that would allow Scottish people to visit other countries. If the Conservatives are saying that they did not want people in Scotland to have an app that allowed them to travel internationally, that is an interesting message. I would be fascinated to know whether any Conservative members have used their app for international travel in the past few weeks and months. It would be fascinating to have an answer to that question.

As for the Government “quietly” making an announcement about the domestic app, the Government published its stance on the domestic app openly and transparently, just as it always does in relation to our policy agenda.

Given that a number of countries still require proof of vaccination before allowing individuals to enter, will the Deputy First Minister confirm that the app will continue to operate to ensure that people in Scotland can continue to travel internationally without issues?

As I delicately explained to Mr Hoy, the app was originally designed to be used for international travel, and we expect that the app will continue to be required for that purpose until at least June 2023. To repeat the point in case the Conservatives did not understand it, the app enables people from Scotland to travel to other countries and to access venues, because countless other countries require individuals to demonstrate their Covid vaccination status in order to gain entry.

Covid-19 (Recovery Strategy) (Lateral Flow Test Provision)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of any potential impact on its Covid recovery strategy of its decision to end the universal provision of lateral flow tests. (S6O-00994)

Our decision to transition from regular lateral flow testing for the general public is based on the latest available evidence and advice from public health officials and clinicians. Throughout the pandemic, the Scottish Government has made decisions based on expert advice, and we will continue to do so as we support recovery.

Some groups will remain eligible for free lateral flow testing, including unpaid carers and personal assistants, people who are visiting a hospital or care home, and people in relation to whom it is advised as part of a clinical care plan.

Alongside our evolving response to the pandemic, the Scottish Government’s Covid recovery strategy will continue to focus effort and resources on bringing about a fairer future, particularly for those who have been most impacted during the pandemic.

One of the stated aims of the Scottish Government’s Covid recovery strategy is to improve access to services where provision was restricted by the pandemic. Although health and social care workers will continue to be able to access free lateral flow tests, other front-line workers from teachers to hospitality staff will no longer have access to them for routine workplace testing. That could lead to access to services such as schools and restaurants being disrupted, especially as Scotland’s infection rates remain high. Will the Government consider expanding access to free lateral flow tests to all front-line workers to ensure a fair and safe Covid recovery?

I understand the significance of Mercedes Villalba’s point, particularly in relation to individuals who had their access to services disrupted during the pandemic, such as those accessing day centres and other provision of that type, which I suspect lies at the heart of her question.

In recognising the fact that we are emerging from what I might describe as the intensity of the pandemic into a position in which we are managing the pandemic and its prevalence in the community, we have tried to take a proportionate approach with regard to the availability of lateral flow testing. Where there might be a risk of greater intensity of infection in healthcare settings, we enable that arrangement still to be applied. We will, of course, continue to review that approach on the basis of infection levels in society.

Although we have had a period of intense Covid infection in our community, it is encouraging that that is showing signs of consistent decline, which is very welcome for the forthcoming period.

Although it is welcome that testing remains free of charge to those with health conditions, what consideration is the Scottish Government giving to expanding the availability of free lateral flow tests to those, such as family members, who are close contacts of people in high-risk categories?

The vaccination programme is the principal measure that we put in place to ensure population-wide resilience, and we have had phenomenal participation in that programme.

With the availability of new Covid treatments, the reliance on the testing approach is not as significant as it was in the past. As I have indicated, we are using lateral flow tests in a targeted way to support clinical care and to protect those in high-risk settings. From 1 May, anyone eligible for Covid treatments, unpaid carers and anyone visiting a hospital or care home can still order lateral flow tests online or by phoning 119.

Covid-19 (Recovery Strategy) (Cost of Living Crisis)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of any potential impact on its Covid recovery strategy of the reported cost of living crisis. (S6O-00995)

The Scottish Government is acutely aware of the impact that increases in the costs of energy, food, transport and other essentials are having on people across Scotland, and we are taking immediate action to support those who are most impacted by the cost of living crisis.

Our £290 million cost of living support package is supporting 1.85 million Scottish households, we are investing up to £113 million of additional investment through our tackling child poverty delivery plan and we have increased the value of a further eight Scottish social security benefits.

The key levers to address the cost of living crisis are reserved to the United Kingdom Government, but it has repeatedly failed to take the steps necessary to address the crisis. I take this opportunity to urge it either to take the steps that are required to protect people, or to devolve the powers that would allow this Government to take further action.

For many people, this month’s pay cheque will be the first since the national insurance hike. That comes as energy bills skyrocket and new research reveals that folk face yet another hit, with the average food bill potentially increasing by a staggering £271 this year.

Will the Deputy First Minister outline what steps the Scottish Government is taking to support households that are facing not only acute challenges from the pandemic but a cost of living crisis of the Tory Government’s making? Does he share my view that Scotland’s recovery would be best served if this Government had the full powers over welfare, energy and the economy that would come with independence?

Before the Deputy First Minister responds, I urge that, in his response, he sticks to the question, which is to do with the Covid recovery strategy, among other things.

I agree with the point that Jackie Dunbar has made. The Government is taking a range of actions within the devolved powers that we have at our disposal and our limited resources to help people who are facing the cost of living crisis. Through our cost of living support measures and our spend on unique Scottish social security payments, which are not available elsewhere in the United Kingdom and include bridging payments and payments that mitigate the bedroom tax, we are set to invest almost £770 million in tackling the cost of living crisis this year. That is an indication of a Government that is engaged in addressing that crisis. I only wish that the United Kingdom Government would either engage in tackling the crisis or devolve powers to enable us to do exactly that.

In yesterday’s debate on multiple sclerosis week, we heard that people living with MS face additional costs of between £600 and £1,000 a month. Can the cabinet secretary set out what specifically the Government is doing to support disabled people to meet the extra fuel costs during the cost of living crisis?

Again, if the Deputy First Minister could link his response to the Covid recovery strategy, that would be really helpful.

There is a direct link to the Covid recovery strategy, Presiding Officer, in that at the heart of that strategy is the Government’s determination to tackle the inequalities that existed before the pandemic. As I have said, those inequalities affect many individuals with disabilities, and they were exacerbated by the pandemic—hence my answer earlier to Mercedes Villalba, as well.

The Government is focused, in the Covid recovery strategy, on tackling inequalities. The decision that the Government has taken to upgrade a number of Scottish benefits by 6 per cent is a substantive contribution to assisting individuals who will access those benefits—many of whom have disabilities—to be able to manage the significant challenges that households face. I do not in any way understate the significance of those challenges, which I recognise are acute. I only wish that the United Kingdom Government was contributing more to the process.

Covid-19 (Recovery) (Support for Young People in Glasgow)

To ask the Scottish Government how its policies across government will support young people living in Glasgow to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. (S6O-00996)

We know that young people across Scotland have had an extremely challenging time during the pandemic. The Scottish Government is committed to supporting all our young people as they recover. Improvement of the wellbeing of children and young people is one of the central outcomes in our Covid recovery strategy. Together with our partners in local government, business and the third sector, we are delivering policies that will help young people, including those who live in the city of Glasgow.

For example, as part of the young persons guarantee, Developing the Young Workforce Glasgow is helping to support young people who have additional barriers to positive destinations. Glasgow’s local employability partnership is also prioritising the support of those who are furthest from the labour market to achieve a positive destination.

As the Deputy First Minister highlighted, young people between the ages of 18 and 24 have been at the sharp end of the pandemic, but they are the most likely to have experienced extended worklessness during it, especially if they shielded and gave up their jobs. Youth unemployment in Glasgow sits at 9 per cent, which is almost three times the national average, and young people who return to work are more likely than the average person to be in insecure work and not to be in a union.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that more needs to be done to protect young people who are in work, as there are some scandalous stories of their poor treatment, not just in Glasgow but across the country? How is the Scottish Government ensuring that young people in Glasgow and across the country can access decent and secure jobs that provide them with the ability to develop good-quality careers?

Fundamentally, I agree with the proposition that has been put forward by Pauline McNeill, and I contend that the Government’s agenda is designed to support that.

The young persons guarantee gives the assurance of a good pathway for every young person, no matter how far they are from the labour market. Indeed, the Covid recovery work that the Government is doing places special emphasis on ensuring that we are able to reach those who have the greatest challenges in getting into the labour market. The young persons guarantee provides that flexibility. For some young people, accessing further education or individually focused support might be required to enable them to overcome obstacles to entering the labour market.

As I have discussed with the Glasgow economic leadership group, which I met last Wednesday, we are very focused on ensuring that the tremendous resource base of talented young people in Glasgow is properly nurtured, supported and assisted so that they can contribute significantly to the city’s economic recovery. The Government is committed to working with our partners in Glasgow to enable that to be the case.

The Scottish child payment will clearly have a positive impact in supporting low-income families to recover from the pandemic. Will the Deputy First Minister detail how many children in Glasgow are expected to benefit? Will the Scottish Government monitor the impact by surveying directly those who are in receipt of the Scottish child payment to find out what they think?

We expect around 50,000 children in Glasgow to benefit from the Scottish child payment in each of the next five years. We are currently undertaking an interim evaluation of the Scottish child payment. Mr Doris will, of course, be aware that, in recent weeks, the Government has announced enhanced rates for the payment, as part of the tackling child poverty delivery plan. Once the payment is fully rolled out to those who are responsible for children under 16, we will carry out a full evaluation of the policy development. Both those evaluations will involve engagement with those who are in receipt of the Scottish child payment to ensure that we capture the experience and the benefit for those individuals.

Young people in Glasgow and across Scotland will be sitting exams in the coming weeks, and, unfortunately, a number of them may miss the exams due to Covid. That is likely to lead to a large increase in the number of appeals going to the Scottish Qualifications Authority in the summer. Is the cabinet secretary confident that the SQA is properly resourced to be able to deal with the likely increase in the number of appeals?

I am confident that if the situation results in an increased number of appeals, the Scottish Qualifications Authority will have the resource planning in place to enable that to be properly addressed.

Question 8 is from Paul O’Kane, who joins us remotely.

Covid-19 (Recovery Strategy) (Contact Tracing)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the potential impact on its Covid recovery strategy of its future plans for contact tracing. (S6O-00997)

The “Test and Protect Transition Plan”, which was published on 15 March, outlines the phased way in which test and protect will transition and support the effective management of Covid, primarily through adaptations and health measures that strengthen resilience and recovery, as we rebuild for a fairer future.

I have previously raised in the chamber with the First Minister and the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care the importance of ensuring that test and protect staff have their contracts honoured and are suitably redeployed, so that we do not lose the expertise and knowledge that they have gained during the pandemic. Does the cabinet secretary agree that, in learning from Covid-19 and as part of the recovery plan, we should ensure that contact tracing systems are evaluated and refined to incorporate lessons learned, and that those systems should be maintained within the national health service so that they can be rapidly activated in case of further outbreaks or of future epidemic illness or public health emergencies?

First, I want to express my very warm thanks to the test and protect workforce, who have done an absolutely phenomenal job during the pandemic, in difficult circumstances. When many of us were working from home, many of the individuals in that workforce were working in very challenging conditions.

I agree with Mr O’Kane that it is important that we learn from the experience of the pandemic. That is part of building up resilience as a population for the handling of any future pandemics. That is why the Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill that I have brought to Parliament is so critical. It will ensure that we have that pandemic awareness in place and the ability to handle such issues. Arrangements certainly need to be put in place to ensure that the learning can be built into the workings and approaches of the NHS to enable us to be properly resilient for any future pandemics.

That concludes portfolio questions on Covid-19 recovery and parliamentary business. I will allow a short pause before we move on to the next portfolio questions to allow the front-bench teams to change places, should they wish to do so.

Net Zero, Energy and Transport

The next portfolio is net zero, energy and transport. I remind members that questions 1 and 7 are grouped together and that I will take any supplementaries on those questions once both of them have been answered. Any member who wishes to request a supplementary question should press their request-to-speak button or enter R in the chat function during the relevant question. I again appeal for succinct questions and answers.

Fuel Poverty

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment has been made of the impact of rising energy costs on fuel poverty in the most deprived communities. (S6O-00998)

We are doing all that we can within our devolved powers to support households, including support through our £10 million fuel insecurity fund and expanded support to improve home energy efficiency. However, only the United Kingdom Government has the powers over energy pricing and obligations that are necessary to fully address the cost pressures on households.

Our analysis suggests that the increase in the energy price cap could move an additional 211,000 households into fuel poverty, which represents a 43 per cent increase from 2019. For the most deprived 15 per cent of communities in Scotland, the increase is estimated to be even greater—it rises to 54 per cent.

I have been contacted by community heat customers in the Wyndford estate who are facing eye-watering price increases for heat and hot water—tariffs are to more than double. I have had a constructive meeting with SSE, but the relationship between rising wholesale gas prices and the additional cost of running community heating is unclear.

I made specific suggestions to lower costs, which included urging SSE to rethink the tariff increases. Will the cabinet secretary join me in urging SSE to do that and in urging other community heat providers to constrain prices, given that one of the underlying purposes in the first place for many heat networks, including that in the Wyndford estate in my constituency, was to tackle fuel poverty?

I am aware of the issue that the member raises. I can advise him that my officials have met Citizens Advice Scotland representatives to discuss the issue and have been in contact with SSE to raise concerns about affordability and debt among community heat customers in Wyndford. I assure the member that we will continue to press SSE to help to resolve those issues, but he will recognise that there are complexities given the nature of the energy market and the fact that energy prices—even electricity prices—are being driven largely by the wholesale gas price at the international level. I encourage the member and any of his constituents who are experiencing difficulty in the interim to contact Home Energy Scotland, which can provide them with advice and support to help them in reducing their overall energy costs.

Fuel Poverty

To ask the Scottish Government what support it is providing to help people experiencing fuel poverty as a result of increased energy bills. (S6O-01004)

We recognise the immense financial strain that households are experiencing as energy prices rise. As powers over energy markets are reserved, we are pressing for more action from the United Kingdom Government to help hard-pressed consumers.

Meanwhile, we are doing everything that we can within our powers to help. Through our £290 million cost of living support package, we are giving 1.85 million Scottish households £150 of extra support in April. We are also allocating a further £10 million to continue our fuel insecurity fund, which has since 2020 helped households that are at risk of severely rationing their energy use or self-disconnecting entirely.

Increased energy bills mean that many people in my constituency of Coatbridge and Chryston and across the country have to choose between heating and eating. Given that energy powers are largely reserved, as the cabinet secretary said, does he agree that the crisis demands immediate action from the UK Government and that cutting VAT on energy bills would be a simple and effective way to support people during this very difficult time?

We have set out a range of measures that the UK Government should take to help to avert the crisis that many households face—the question whether they can afford to heat or to eat—given the very significant increase in energy prices and the prospect of those prices increasing again in the autumn, when the price cap is reviewed. In the short term, one measure that the UK Government could take is to cut VAT on energy bills, which would help to reduce pressure on household budgets. We urged the UK Government to take action on that issue in January and again in the past month.

It is important for the UK Government to recognise the crisis that many households face with not just the increasing costs of energy bills but the increased cost of living in general. It must respond much more effectively than it has done with its severe lack of response to date.

Presiding Officer,

“Energy is not a luxury; people have to be able to heat their homes. That is why it is so important that we do everything that we can, within our powers and resources, to help people to do that.”—[Official Report, 10 March 2022; c 24.]

Those were the First Minister’s words in the chamber last month. Labour-run North Ayrshire Council is tackling rising energy costs by pioneering publicly owned energy production, but we need that kind of ambition on a national scale. Will the Scottish Government look again at a model of publicly owned energy for the whole of Scotland?

The member makes an important point about a person’s basic right to be able to heat their home and about the fact that Scotland has one of the highest levels of fuel poverty in the whole UK, which is largely because of our rural environment.

The member will recognise the reality that we would require to be an independent country to operate a national public energy company that could deal with energy production and retail, because we would need the powers to borrow in the market in order to invest in the market and we would also have to have control over the energy market. That is why countries in Scandinavia have been very successful and effective in such an approach and why we believe that the best way to control our energy use in Scotland and our energy market in the future is through our having full control over those issues and making such decisions right here in Scotland.

How will the Scottish Government ensure that sufficient funds are available to those who need insulation or replacement heating systems for their homes—especially those who are on restricted incomes or in rural and island areas with high levels of fuel poverty?

Given the experience that households are having now with energy prices, we are increasing our support in three areas. One is expanding Home Energy Scotland’s advice service, which provides free impartial advice to households. Home Energy Scotland has seen a 20 per cent increase in the support that it can provide.

We are widening the eligibility criteria for the Scottish Government’s warmer homes Scotland fuel poverty programme, which will expand the programme to more households, including those that are occupied by people who are between 60 and 75 years of age. We are also increasing funding for individual fuel-poor households through the area-based energy schemes. Alongside that, we are expanding our wider energy programme with insulation programmes for properties.

We are taking forward the measures that we can take forward to help to reduce people’s energy costs, because the cheapest energy that people get is the energy that they do not use. That is why we need to ensure that energy efficiency is a key strand of our work, which will help to reduce energy use not only in the short term but in the medium to longer term. That will also help to tackle our climate change challenge.

Cost of Living Crisis (Home Heating)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to make homes easier to keep warm, in light of the need to tackle the reported cost of living crisis. (S6O-00999)

The Scottish Government has allocated more than £1 billion since 2009 to tackling fuel poverty and improving energy efficiency. More than 150,000 fuel-poor households have benefited from our investment.

This year alone, we have committed a further £336 million to help make homes warmer and less expensive to heat, as part of our £1.8 billion commitment over this session of Parliament, which is the most ambitious programme in the United Kingdom. Last October, we published our “Heat in Buildings Strategy”, which sets out our commitment to addressing the dual challenges of reducing carbon emissions and tackling fuel poverty.

Does the minister agree that there is a stark contrast between the UK Government’s approach to energy policy, which places all its bets on expanding nuclear power and squeezing out even more oil and gas while neglecting the much quicker and more significant impact that investing in energy efficiency can bring, and that of the Scottish Government, which is seeking to do everything that it can to ease energy costs for hard-pressed households?

I agree completely that there is a stark contrast between those two agendas. The issue is not just the different view about whether expanding the fossil fuel industry in the midst of a climate emergency is viable but the UK Government’s extraordinary decision to publish not only a heat in buildings strategy but a UK energy security strategy that does not emphasise energy efficiency and demand reduction. The Scottish Government is committed to placing a high priority on that.

Scottish ministers wrote to the secretary of state on 18 March to set out wider views on energy policy, including the need to accelerate the decarbonisation of electricity, which, in part, supports the decarbonisation of heat and transport; to reform the network charging system; to create new business models for green hydrogen; and to rebalance policy costs to protect consumers.

As the cabinet secretary said in his response to question 1, since March, we have announced wider eligibility criteria for energy efficiency upgrades and the warmer homes Scotland programme, as well as measures to ensure that the maximum number of people benefit from our area-based schemes, including the focus on fabric-first insulation upgrades.

The cost of heating homes by using domestic heating oil has risen dramatically in recent months—by even more than that of gas and electricity. Given the prominent use of domestic heating oil in rural communities, does the minister agree that, because of their running costs and carbon footprint, homes that use domestic heating oil should be a priority for support to install low-carbon heating systems? If so, how will the Scottish Government enable that to happen?

That is a high priority. I regularly see correspondence from members who are supporting constituents to access the wide range of support through advice and grant and loan schemes that the Scottish Government provides to enable people to increase energy efficiency measures in their homes and switch to zero-emissions heating. I hope that Brian Whittle and other members across the chamber will support their constituents to access that support.

Aberdeen City Region Deal (Transport Projects)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on progress regarding the transport projects funded from the £254 million announced in 2016 and as part of the Aberdeen city region deal. (S6O-01000)

I remind members of my entry in the register of members’ interests, which shows that I am still a councillor on Aberdeen City Council.

In 2016, the Scottish Government committed to invest up to £125 million in the Aberdeen city region deal, matched by the UK Government. Alongside the deal, the Scottish Government announced an additional £254 million of investment in the north-east’s infrastructure. That includes £200 million to improve journey times and increase capacity on key rail links between Aberdeen and the central belt and £24 million for a new grade-separated junction at the Laurencekirk A90/A937 south junction.

The option selection process for the rail improvement project is nearing completion and we expect to complete the project by the end of 2026. We also continue to push forward with the statutory process for the A90/A937 Laurencekirk junction improvement scheme, and we are working with objectors to the scheme, including Aberdeenshire Council, to resolve concerns wherever possible. Delivery of the scheme itself can commence only if it is approved under the relevant statutory procedures, at which point a timetable for the construction phase can be set.

In 2008, the SNP first promised £200 million to reduce rail journey times between Aberdeen and the central belt, but no improvement has been made. That was another broken promise from this SNP Government, just like when Alex Salmond said that the first decision that he would make if he was elected First Minister in 2007 was to dual the road between Ellon and Peterhead, with the decision being made within 100 days of his gaining office. If we fast forward more than 5,000 days, the north-east is still waiting. When will this Government stop the soundbites, stop breaking its promises to the people of the north-east and start delivering on the commitments that it has made?

I thank Mr Lumsden for his supplementary question, but I must remind the member about the broken promises in relation to six city deals across Scotland that remain short-changed by Westminster to the tune of £420 million, or approximately £439 per household. That is not levelling up. It is very clear that the UK Government is not able to match Scottish Government funding.

As I have outlined, we have invested £379 million in Aberdeen while only £125 million has come from the UK Government. That is the same Conservative Party Government that reneged on the investment in carbon capture and storage that was promised to the people of the north-east in 2014. The north-east can certainly do better, so I will take no lectures from Mr Lumsden on broken promises.

As I outlined, by 2026 an additional £200 million will have been invested in increasing rail passenger and freight capacity between Aberdeen and the central belt, as ministers previously committed to do.

Does the minister share my disappointment that the United Kingdom Government has failed to match the £379 million in Scottish Government spend on city deals, resulting in a shortfall of £254 million, which is the equivalent of £1,125 for every household in the north-east?

Absolutely. I am really disappointed that the UK Government has refused to even match our £500 million just transition fund, despite the £300 billion in oil revenues from the North Sea that has flowed to the Treasury since the 1970s.

The future for the north-east is bright, and I am proud that we are putting our money where our mouth is when it comes to ensuring a just transition to sustainable energy and greener jobs with our £14.3 million skills investment to provide immediate training and enterprise opportunities for up to 3,000 people across the region.

Good green jobs do not just happen, which is why, on Monday of this week, the First Minister announced annual funding of £100,000 for the Scottish Trades Union Congress to support officials to liaise with workers and Government, to continue to influence and shape our delivery of a just transition.

Low-emission Zones (Glasgow Taxi Drivers)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the reported concerns of taxi drivers in Glasgow that they may be forced to leave the profession unless further support is offered when low-emission zones come into force. (S6O-01001)

To help taxi drivers to prepare for low-emission zones, the Scottish Government offers grant funding towards the cost of retrofitting taxis to the latest Euro 6 standard through the low-emission zone support fund. Those grants provide up to 80 per cent of the capital cost of retrofitting, which is capped at £10,000 per vehicle.

From 2019 to 2022, the LEZ support fund has made more than £5.5 million available to households and businesses, and the Scottish Government is offering a further £5 million via the LEZ support fund for 2022-23.

I understand the challenge that the introduction of LEZs presents to taxi drivers, and I have agreed to have a meeting with taxi representatives and unions to discuss the matter further. We are looking for a suitable date in the diary for that meeting.

The minister will be aware that many taxi drivers in Glasgow feel that that support is not enough.

Taxis provide employment, as well as an essential service that enables people in Glasgow to get around—especially disabled people who cannot access other forms of transport. Therefore, I am deeply concerned that only a limited number of second-hand taxis are available that can meet low-emission standards. What other specific action will the Scottish Government take to help drivers to upgrade vehicles and ensure that they are not forced to spend extortionate or unreasonable amounts in purchasing new ones or, worse still, forced out of the profession altogether?

As Pam Duncan-Glancy outlined, the Glasgow taxi fleet includes a significantly higher number of older taxis than the fleets of other cities in the country do. That might be partly due to Glasgow City Council licensing conditions being less stringent than those in other parts of the country.

As far as the provision of support is concerned, the low-emission zone retrofit fund that I mentioned provides grant funding of up to 80 per cent of the cost of retrofitting. As part of the LEZ retrofit fund, the clean vehicle retrofit accreditation scheme offers further opportunities that allow taxis to be retrofitted with new engines so that liquefied petroleum gas fuel can be used or with new exhausts for the existing diesel engine. There is also the low-emission zone support fund, which is available to eligible microbusinesses.

As I outlined in my initial response, I will meet taxi drivers and unions soon to discuss in more detail what more support we might be able to provide.

The minister will be as pleased as I am that the low-emission zone scheme for Glasgow has been agreed to. I know that the changes will be challenging for some, but they will deliver significant benefits.

How will the scheme help to improve air quality in Glasgow city centre, which is part of my constituency of Glasgow Kelvin? What other impacts can we hope to see as a result of the lowering of emissions in the city centre?

Kaukab Stewart is right to say that the issue is not without challenge, but Glasgow’s low-emission zone has now been formally submitted to the Scottish ministers—through Transport Scotland, of course—for final approval. Glasgow City Council remains on track to introduce its scheme by the end of May.

Forecasting has shown that the LEZs will significantly reduce harmful transport emissions in parts of city centres where air quality really needs to improve. LEZs will also contribute towards the meeting of emission reduction targets and are part of a range of actions that we are taking to make our transport system cleaner, greener and healthier.

Scottish National Investment Bank (Forestry Sector Jobs)

To ask the Scottish Government how many jobs in the forestry sector have been created as a result of the Scottish National Investment Bank. (S6O-01002)

That information is neither collected nor held by the Scottish Government. It is a matter for the Scottish National Investment Bank, which makes independent decisions about which investments to make and what information to collect, monitor and publish about those investments.

In August 2021, the bank committed £50 million to the Gresham House forestry fund. That investment is under 12 months old and has therefore not been subject to the bank’s annual reporting cycle. However, it was estimated that it could sustain more than 200 existing jobs and create 500 more in Scotland.

The SNIB is to plough millions into forestry. However, there are issues over tree species and jobs: as the bank itself admits, 54 per cent of the trees will be non-native. We know that major flaws are associated with large-scale Sitka spruce plantations, especially with carbon sequestration and greenwashing. It is estimated that only 200 jobs will be created, which is not an impressive return for £50 million—which I believe has gone to Guernsey—and it is hardly a resounding success story for protecting rural communities.

Why was such a deal signed off through SNIB when it has such a poor return for the environment, net zero progress, job creation and rural communities?

As I thought might be obvious to the member, the bank invests on a commercial basis, alongside private money. It makes independent investment decisions, which do not involve the Scottish ministers. I am content, however, that that particular investment rises to a number of the objectives of the Scottish Government, including on carbon sequestration, commercial planting, support for biodiversity and the creation of good, green jobs in our rural communities.

My understanding is that investment such as tree planting is generally a long-term endeavour and that the bank has only recently been set up. Rachael Hamilton and the Scottish Tories should be aware that Scotland has a very positive story to tell regarding forestry. It is worth nearly £1 billion per year in gross value added, and it employs more than 25,000 people. [Interruption.] I ask the minister how the forestry initiatives to be carried out under the auspices of the SNIB will help to complement the Scottish Government’s tree-planting goals and support our drive towards net zero?

I could hardly hear the question, Presiding Officer. However, the commitment to the forestry fund has been set up focusing on wide-scale new planting, with an estimated carbon sequestration potential of a staggering 1.2 million tonnes of carbon. As I have said, there are also commitments to biodiversity support and to sustainable forest management, both of which are in line with Scottish Government objectives.

For our part, Scottish Forestry will set out research this year on the different sequestration potential of the planting of different types of woodlands, as well as on the jobs that flow from those kinds of projects.

Winchburgh Railway Station

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with Transport Scotland, Network Rail, Winchburgh Developments Limited and West Lothian Council relating to the provision of a railway station at Winchburgh. (S6O-01003)

Winchburgh Developments Limited is responsible for the provision of a new station at Winchburgh. The Scottish ministers and the principal funder of Winchburgh Developments met twice in 2020 to discuss the proposed railway station. In 2021 there was one further meeting between the chief executive officer of Transport Scotland and the principal funder of Winchburgh Developments.

I am shortly meeting with the local constituency MSP, Fiona Hyslop, to discuss the matter, on which I know that Ms Hyslop has campaigned tirelessly for some time. Like her, I am keen to ensure that we all work together, including with the local authority and the developer, to make progress on the new station.

The people of Winchburgh were first promised a railway station 15 years ago, but Transport Scotland would not let West Lothian Council make the station a condition of the development. We now hear that, as a result, there may be no station at all. Would the minister consider visiting Winchburgh with me to see for herself the massive scale of development and the folly of a nation in a declared climate emergency forcing hundreds of new residents into cars and private transport?

It is important to remember, and it may interest the member to know, that there are no cases of developer-funded stations in Scotland at the moment. I think that there are at least two cases of developer-funded stations in England. However, funding towards those new stations is requested through the rail enhancement budget, and it is worth noting that the proposal for a station at Winchburgh came from the developer, not the Government, along with the developer’s offer to fund the station itself. That came at a much lower estimated cost in terms of the costs associated at the time.

Mr Choudhury talked about a meeting. I have previously committed to meet Ms Hyslop. If the member will let me first meet Ms Hyslop, I will be more than happy to follow that up with further detail for him.

The city region deal for Edinburgh and south-east Scotland was signed off by six local authorities, the United Kingdom Government and the Scottish Government. The deal included 5,000 new homes in Winchburgh. Thanks to a West Lothian official, we know that Transport Scotland blocked an attempt to make the construction of a new station at Winchburgh a condition of planning permission for the houses. With a hammer blow of taxes hanging over the families who choose to live in Winchburgh but work in Edinburgh, will the cabinet secretary now prioritise funding for the station, which will provide a genuine alternative to the car for many?

I have to remind the member that the proposal came from the developer. It did not come from Transport Scotland, nor am I aware of any Transport Scotland officials blocking the proposal.

As I outlined in my previous response, I am more than happy to meet the developer to ensure that the proposal comes to fruition, but the proposal originally came from the developer, which also committed to fund it.

I thank the minister for agreeing to meet me and I point out that the cabinet secretary previously visited Winchburgh to see the potential there.

Winchburgh is likely to grow to a similar size to Linlithgow, which has one of the busiest stations in Scotland. Of course, the financial crash in 2010 caused significant disruption to everything, not least the development of Winchburgh. There is a bit of rewriting of history, in relation to what West Lothian Council could and should have done with regard to development.

Does the minister agree that the most sensible thing to do is get all the relevant public bodies together? Network Rail has already indicated to me that there is a possibility of driving costs down, given previous experience of building stations. Creative solutions can and should be found. The Edinburgh and south-east Scotland city region deal may be a vehicle through which we can make sure that we close the funding gap. My constituents—most certainly those who have bought houses in Winchburgh—deserve a station, and we all need to work positively and proactively together to make it happen.

Fiona Hyslop is absolutely right. We need to get all relevant parties around the table and we need to look at creative solutions, so I give her that commitment.

On the city region deal, of course, as has been mentioned, global priorities have perhaps changed since the time of its inception. The Scottish Government recognises that those priorities can change, and we are always looking to discuss potential changes to the deal, should partners—this has to be about local authority partners—wish to propose them and provided that they meet the associated eligibility criteria. I note that the recent West Lothian Council board notes state that the developer and the council will ask the Edinburgh and south-east Scotland city region deal for a contribution to the station.

Campaign for North East Rail

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its engagement with the Campaign for North East Rail. (S6O-01005)

I am due to meet the Campaign for North East Rail and MSPs at a meeting planned for early in the summer, to discuss the campaign’s proposals. I thank the campaign group for submitting its response to the second strategic transport projects review consultation, which closed on the 15th of this month. All responses are now being considered, and they will help to inform the final set of recommendations, which we plan to publish later in year.

I thank the minister for that response and her acknowledgement of CNER’s published response to the STPR2 process.

The minister will be aware of the importance of connecting the towns of Peterhead and Fraserburgh to the rail network, if they are to benefit from and be a part of creating the new economy that the north-east so desperately needs. Can the minister give assurances that the Campaign for North East Rail’s response will be included, and that the campaign group will be incorporated in design decisions for the next promised feasibility study, so that local knowledge and expertise can be taken on board to ensure that the next study will take into account the needs of north-east communities?

Although, as the member will know, STPR2 has not recommended an extension of a rail line to Ellon and onwards to Fraserburgh and Peterhead as a strategic rail priority, I recognise that that may be a regional priority. There remains a path for such rail projects to come forward; we saw that in my constituency in 2019, with the Levenmouth project. That has to be subject to a strong business case being developed and suitable funding being identified. Further work on that would be for partners to take forward.

I am committed to meeting campaigners, plus MSP colleagues. We will work with regional partners on any proposal for a rail link between Dyce and Ellon and further north to Peterhead and Fraserburgh, if they decide to take such an option forward.

Since 2016, I have been campaigning for new stations at Cove and Newtonhill—something that the Campaign for North East Rail is also keen to progress. According to a recent study from Nestrans, most respondents in Cove and Newtonhill are in favour.

Now that the multimodal study has been published, can the transport minister tell me when Transport Scotland will issue its formal response and when people in the north-east will get the stations that they deserve?

I thank Mr Kerr for his question. I do not have the detail of that in front of me but I will be more than happy to write to him with further detail.