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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 29 September 2020

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motions, Scottish Budget Update, Topical Question Time, Complaints against MSPs (Committee Bill Proposal), Social Security Administration and Tribunal Membership (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Social Security Administration and Tribunal Membership (Scotland) Bill, Sentencing Bill, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Mossmorran (Just Transition)


Contents


Topical Question Time

Our first topical question comes from Sandra White, who joins us remotely.


Covid-19 (Students)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it is having with the university sector regarding students isolating because of Covid-19. (S5T-02420)

This is a challenging time for many of Scotland’s students, and we are in frequent direct conversation with the university sector around support for students who are self-isolating because of Covid-19, to underscore the importance of supporting students, practically and emotionally. We have been assured that practical and welfare support is in place, but we are actively pressing universities to ensure that that is the case. Institutions and providers are making arrangements for self-isolating students to be able to access food and essential supplies.

Students can also access local authority services that provide support for self-isolating individuals who are otherwise unable to access food and other essentials. That can be arranged through the national assistance helpline on 0800 111 4000. The national assistance helpline is a service for those who cannot leave their home and cannot get the help that they need in any other way.

Universities will have accessible wellbeing services, with details on their websites, and the student information Scotland website has the student support pages of every institution, so it can signpost students to support that is available.

I have spoken to the universities in my constituency and I have not had an answer from them, so will the minister please tell me whether the Scottish Government has had any discussions with the universities about students who have already returned home or who wish to return home, but who want to resume their university hall tenancies once it is deemed safe for them to do so? Will those students face financial penalties?

I thank Sandra White for asking those pertinent questions that are relevant to many students in Scotland.

Our advice to all students in Scotland is that they should please remain living in their current student household in their current university accommodation, because that is the best way to prevent the spread of the virus in Scotland. We are giving similar advice to all sectors of society across the whole of the nation.

However, we recognise that this is a very difficult time for many students, particularly those who might be self-isolating and those first years who might be away from home for the first time. That is why we issued guidance at the weekend, after speaking to student bodies and the universities, to outline under what conditions students can return home under the current restrictions in Scotland. The ability is there for students to return home if they are unable to continue in the current circumstances at university, but if they are able to do so, we are asking them to remain in their student households in their current student accommodation.

When it comes to leases for student accommodation at university, we know that the University of St Andrews and the University of Glasgow have introduced a lot more flexibility to ensure that they do not penalise students who want to resign their leases even within their 28 days’ notice period. I have written to all of Scotland’s principals asking for all universities to be very sympathetic to all students at this time.

A number of students reside not in halls but in the private accommodation sector, including houses in multiple occupation. Has the minister had any discussions with private student accommodation providers regarding guidance on their duty of care to their residents and what should happen if residents wish to leave? Has he had any correspondence with those providers regarding the Government’s guidelines? In my Glasgow Kelvin constituency, I have a huge amount of private student accommodation.

That is a good point. On purpose-built private student accommodation, I note that the Covid regulations that we passed allow students to give 28 days’ notice to resign their leases, and that applies to those situations as well. We have had regular conversations with the operators of those buildings, and they are also obliged to have a duty of care for their residents and ensure that they are able to access necessary supplies if they are self-isolating.

There is a lot of interest in the subject. We will see how many members we can get through.

What consultation did the minister hold with NUS Scotland about the restrictions on students and their potential impact ahead of their publication early on Friday evening?

We have had regular conversations with NUS Scotland throughout the pandemic. Indeed, I spoke to it again today. On the guidance for students returning home, we were in conversations with NUS Scotland, and it helped to input to that guidance.

If the member is referring to the guidance on socialising over the weekend, we offered our support to Universities Scotland, because that was the advice that it gave to Scotland’s students. It said that, just for the previous weekend, they should not socialise outside their households in order to help us to break the chain in transmission, given where we are with the outbreaks in universities at this time. That was a matter for Universities Scotland to take forward.

Yesterday, the First Minister was at pains to explain that the advice on household mixing for students was not really different from the advice for everybody else. Given that that is the case, why did the minister, before the universities returned, remove from the guidance that where work could be done from home, that should be the norm?

Over the summer, we worked with Scotland’s further and higher education sector on guidance for the safe return of our colleges and universities, and we consulted closely all the stakeholders including the trade unions, student bodies, the universities and, in the case of further education, the colleges.

It has always been the case, even in the draft guidance that was circulated for comments and consultation, that there was the proposal for blended learning. In many cases, students will be learning online, but there are cases where face-to-face teaching is very important. That should, of course, be limited and happen only where it is necessary, and that has been reflected in every version of the draft guidance that was circulated for consultation in the run-up to its publication on 1 September.

That blended approach to student-centred education is incredibly important at present. Many courses cannot be taught wholly online. Interaction with lecturers and tutors is an important part of the education experience as well, and it has to take place where necessary.

In the past few days, a number of students have raised disturbing examples of universities informing them that, if they were to terminate their lease for their university accommodation, their place on their course would be terminated as well. I do not believe that that is legally enforceable or morally right. I ask the minister to take this opportunity to state categorically that no student should lose their place at university because they have decided to terminate their accommodation lease and return home.

It is absolutely the case that no student at any Scottish university should have their place on their course jeopardised by their terminating the lease for their student accommodation. I have discussed that point with the principals, who tell me that that is not the case. I know that there have been such reports, however.

We will reiterate, time and again, that our universities have a duty of care to their students at this very challenging time—particularly to those students who are going into their first year at university, as I said before, as it is perhaps their first time away from home and already an anxious time for them. They deserve the absolute maximum support from all Scotland’s universities. There should be no obstacles to putting their wellbeing and education first.

Police Scotland says that there are no travel restrictions in law, and there never have been, so why were students being told that they could not travel home, which gave them the impression that if they did so, they would be breaking the law?

The Scottish Government issued guidance at the weekend on students travelling home to put the recent restrictions in the context of student households. It is only a week or so since we had new restrictions on meeting other households indoors and social gatherings. It was very important, particularly given what has been happening in some of our universities, where students are self-isolating, and perhaps are anxious and want to go home, that the restrictions are put into the context of student households.

There are no extra laws that apply to students that do not apply to the rest of society. We must not stigmatise or target students. What is happening at the moment is not their fault, or anyone’s fault—we are in the middle of a global pandemic.

If students wish to go home, they are perfectly able to do that within the law, in certain circumstances, as outlined in the guidance that was published at the weekend. However, our strong advice to the student population in Scotland is that if you are able to, please remain in your current household in your student accommodation.

With colleagues, I had a constructive meeting with Professor Muscatelli yesterday, where I raised various matters, including restrictions put in place by Glasgow university at Murano Street student village regarding the use of common laundry facilities and the suspension of cleaning services for communal areas. I know that the university is working hard on both counts. There is a temporary workaround and it is trying to secure a permanent solution.

Is the minister aware of similar issues elsewhere in Scotland? Can I request that the Scottish Government works with universities to ensure that they meet their responsibilities and that such matters are resolved speedily?

The guidance on a safe return to further and higher education that was published on 1 September outlined how the guidelines should be applied to student accommodation and the services that should be made available to students, and how outbreaks should be managed.

I very much recognise that the current situation is a challenge for Scotland’s universities, as it is for our students. I thank our university staff and all staff who are helping to care for and look after the wellbeing of our students at this time.

There are some practical challenges and there have been some teething issues, as Bob Doris mentioned. I will happily look into the specific issues that he raised and make sure that they are reflected in our on-going discussions with the sector.

The multiple changes in guidance all happened over a short few days and were completely bereft of parliamentary scrutiny, and they have left many students worried about whether or how they can socialise or even return to their family homes. Can the minister end some of those concerns and confirm that food parcels and priority deliveries will be available for all students in lockdown who need them, and that any who choose to leave their accommodation and return home permanently can do so and will be given rent refunds? Given that students are not yet clear whether they can go home for the October holidays, can the minister give some reassurance that they will be allowed home for Christmas?

Of course, Jamie Greene highlights important issues, but we worked with student bodies on the guidance that was published at the weekend. I spoke to them again just before this question, and they told me that they very much welcome the guidance, and it has been welcomed across Scotland’s campuses.

I hope that most people are able to stay in their current household in their student accommodation, but if they are not, I urge all students who feel that they are unable to continue in their accommodation, particularly those who are self-isolating, to access the guidance, which explains the circumstances in which they are able to return home. The circumstances include moving permanently back to your home household, which of course means that you cannot move back and forth, because the whole of Scotland is subject to the same guidelines on households meeting indoors and social gatherings.

The guidance is clear. Students have told me that it is welcome and it is clear. It is helping a lot of students to make informed decisions, and that was its purpose. The law has not changed, and the guidance explains the law in the circumstances of student households.

I am advised that senior Government advisers wanted the mass testing of students at universities. Who vetoed that?

The guidance that we are following is, of course, from Scotland’s public health officials. We keep asymptomatic testing under review, as I am sure the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport and the First Minister have reiterated time and again. There has never been anything vetoed in terms of the advice that we have received from our advisers in Scotland, who have taken into account all the scientific advisory group for emergencies—SAGE—advice. SAGE advice was published in the first week of September, and the draft version of that was, thankfully, passed to our own officials so that we could take it into account for our own guidance, which was published earlier than that, because our universities in Scotland return earlier.

The guidance from SAGE and our own public health officials is, of course, taken into account by ministers, and we are focusing our testing capacity on symptomatic students, as the advice asks us to do. International students who arrive in Scotland from certain countries have to quarantine for two weeks, as well. We are advised that that is the best way to keep people safe.


Court Cases (Backlog)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that the backlog of court cases could take up to a decade to clear. (S5T-02423)

I welcome the recent report that was published by the Justice Committee, entitled “Re-opening Scotland’s courts and tribunals system”. In common with the report, the Scottish Government recognises the scale of the challenge with regard to the backlog of court cases. Administrations across the United Kingdom and beyond face such challenges. For example, in England and Wales, the outstanding workload in the magistrates courts was up to 520,000 cases in August.

As I emphasised to the committee, the estimate that it would take a decade to deal with the backlog in Scotland was based on a do-nothing scenario, which is clearly not the approach that we are taking.

We have provided the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service with additional funding of £5.5 million to set up ground-breaking jury centres for High Court trials, which start this week. We are optimistic that we will see up to 16 jury rooms available for High Court trials before the end of November—that is at pre-Covid capacity. We are also working with the SCTS to enable the jury centre model to be rolled out for sheriff and jury trials. I hope to say more about that later this week.

The chief executive of the SCTS, Eric McQueen, has confirmed to me that positive progress is being made in recovering volumes of summary business within the sheriff courts. In September, the number of summary trials that progressed with evidence led was at 80 per cent of pre-Covid levels.

Although those are positive developments, we must be realistic about the scale of the backlog and the time and action that will be required to recover fully. I will, of course, update Parliament on the progress of that work in my response to the committee’s report.

We have to remember that, for every criminal trial that is delayed, there is a victim waiting for justice. The reality is that most of the backlog in Scotland was built up before the coronavirus hit. The latest figures show that over 80 per cent of the 22,000 trials that were scheduled at the end of June were carried over from March. The committee’s report said:

“Covid-19 and lockdown has not created the problem of a backlog in cases, rather it has deepened an already existing problem.”

Why was the backlog already so big? Why has it taken a pandemic for the Scottish National Party to start to take it seriously? Does the cabinet secretary accept that the failure to address that has failed thousands of victims?

I say to Liam Kerr in all seriousness that, when it comes to the issue of courts and victims, he is not in the best books of the victims organisations, because of the approach that his party has taken.

I would not suggest that the Government has not done anything to address the backlog; I have given Liam Kerr details of where we have done that. I have referenced the fact that, in England, there was a pre-Covid backlog of 407,000 cases in the magistrates courts.

Liam Kerr asked for the reasons why there are backlogs in court cases. They exist because of things such as the rise in sexual offences cases going through the courts. Such things are not, of course, unique to Scotland.

Liam Kerr is right: we should look to address the issue. One thing that the pandemic has taught us is to look to take innovative approaches, such as external jury rooms and investment in technology for virtual courtrooms. We will take forward some of the work that was being done pre-Covid—for example, Lady Dorrian’s group’s work on how to manage sexual offences cases through our courts. That work was delayed because of Covid, but I hope that it will continue to progress.

We will continue to do that work. I hope that Liam Kerr understands that, with the unprecedented challenges of Covid in the past six months, the first priority has been to ensure that the backlog does not get any bigger. I hope that I have demonstrated that through the actions that I outlined in my first answer. If we are getting into a position to contain the backlog, I hope that we can make progress in diminishing it further over the years.

I hear what the cabinet secretary says, but I do not think that victims or the wider public will be reassured that the situation is under control.

The cabinet secretary talks of some possible actions, but I will specifically talk about sentence discounts, whereby a criminal gets a shorter sentence in return for an early guilty plea. Victim Support Scotland has made it clear that further discounts would cause “more confusion and upset” for victims, and I agree. The cabinet secretary is on record as saying that he is “wary” of increasing discounts, but victims will expect a cast-iron guarantee that such a soft-touch approach will not be countenanced. Will the cabinet secretary make that promise today?

Again, the question shows the challenge that we are facing. On the one hand, Liam Kerr says that the Government must do something; on the other hand, he says that the Government must not do X, Y and Z. He does not present a solution, which is fair enough, because opposition is really easy. The tough job is being in government and making really difficult decisions.

I appreciate Liam Kerr’s position, but he has not offered a single solution. I suggest that he go back and read the Justice Committee’s report, which he would have been involved in. My evidence is included in that report. I said that we are considering a number of areas, one of which is the possible adjustment of sentencing powers, which is something that Liam Kerr’s party has urged us to look at. We are also looking at investing in virtual technology. However, let us get to the crux of the issue—we have to ensure that the backlog does not increase any further. I have just given Liam Kerr a fairly detailed answer about how we are doing that across High Court trials, sheriff and jury trials and summary trials. That is our immediate priority, and then we will continue to consider how we can further invest in other solutions.

To answer Liam Kerr’s direct question, the consideration of discounts is not something that I am actively pursuing at this stage.

Apologies to Rona Mackay and Rhoda Grant, but I am not able to take supplementaries on that question.


Childminding

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking in response to reports that over 900 childminding settings are still to reopen, and the recent Scottish Childminding Association survey that suggests that the sector is “on the edge of financial viability”. (S5T-02432)

A range of financial support has been open to childminders, including the United Kingdom Government’s self-employed income support scheme and the Scottish Government’s newly self-employed hardship fund. Childminders who are delivering funded early learning and childcare have benefited from the commitment to continue payments during the closures period. However, we are aware that not all childminders have been able to access support through those routes. That is why, in June 2020, we agreed with the Scottish Childminding Association to jointly fund the childminding workforce support fund. In September, the Scottish Government announced an additional £390,000 for the fund, thereby increasing our support for it to £420,000.

We are also working in collaboration with the SCMA and others to develop and frame our commitment to supporting childminders with targeted activity in the short, medium and long terms.

The decision to exclude childminders from the transitional support fund was described by the SCMA as “poor and divisive”, and justifications from the Scottish Government about fewer operating costs do not add up. Childminders are going to considerable expense and effort to ensure that their premises are safe. Last week’s survey found that childminders have experienced direct increases in operating costs, alongside working more unpaid hours. Will the Scottish Government reverse its decision to exclude childminders from the transitional support fund?

Let me say on record that I am deeply grateful to everyone in the childcare sector, including childminders, who has supported key workers and their families, as well as vulnerable children, during the health crisis. I recognise that lockdown has hit income in many areas. The transitional support fund was intended to support private and voluntary not-for-profit day care of children settings to meet the extra costs that were incurred in complying with the public health guidance for those services in response to Covid-19. The guidance has significant financial implications for those settings, including the cost of potential physical adaptations and additional staffing.

In contrast, childminders are subject to separate guidance, under which the vast majority of them do not have to considerably change their operating models, so they can run very close to business as usual in terms of delivery.

The development of the transitional support fund was informed by evidence and analysis. We put out a survey, as did the SCMA. The majority of childminders who responded indicated that they expected no change or a decrease in their cost of delivery as a result of public health guidance. In contrast, 79 per cent of the day care of children respondents reported that they expected an increase in their costs compared with business as usual.

We have continued to work very closely with the sector, including through the SCMA. We are aware that some childminders have not been able to access support through those other schemes, which is why we have provided £420,000 in total to the SCMA to deliver the childminding workforce support fund.

The SCMA is clear that the childminder workforce has declined as local authority provision has expanded. Now, 46 per cent of childminders say that they

“do not believe they will remain financially viable for more than six months without financial support or an increase in business”.

The number of childminders has already reduced. Given fears that more will follow, does the minister agree that that could have disastrous consequences for parental choice and flexibility?

There are certainly a number of challenges ahead for the entire sector. The SCMA survey showed us that there is a significant reduction in demand for childminding services, as there is for other forms of childcare. Eighty-one per cent of respondents said that the reduced demand was caused by parents working from home, and 74 per cent said that it was caused by parents being on furlough or being made redundant. There is significant flux in the sector, and there is significant change in what is happening.

We are absolutely committed to delivering the expanded childcare of 1,140 hours. Eleven councils are already delivering it and, by the end of October, another four local authorities will be doing so. We are determined to deliver it, and we are determined that parents will have the flexibility to choose the type of childcare that suits their family needs best. We want childminders to be part of that offer.

To ensure that we continue progress on the recovery and on all the challenges that childminders face, we continue to work closely and collaboratively with them to strengthen their future position. We will keep an eye on the future impact of the pandemic on the sustainability of childminding as we progress through the stages of the pandemic. We are also looking to frame, with the SCMA, our commitment to supporting childminders with targeted activity in the short, medium and long terms.

That concludes topical questions. There will be a short pause.