Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)
Meeting date: Thursday, June 30, 2022
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Point of Order, Decision Time, Action Mesothelioma Day 2022, Dundee Drugs Commission
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Point of Order
- Decision Time
- Action Mesothelioma Day 2022
- Dundee Drugs Commission
General Question Time
Good morning. The first item of business is general question time. In order to get in as many questions as possible, I would appreciate short and succinct questions and responses.
Scottish Government-funded Bodies (Pay Settlements)
To ask the Scottish Government what its policy is regarding negotiating pay settlements with bodies, groups and organisations funded by the Scottish Government. (S6O-01308)
Negotiations on pay settlements are a matter for our public sector bodies, as the employers, and the relevant staff representatives or trade unions. It is right for employers and trade unions to follow the recognised collective bargaining procedures.
The Scottish Police Federation has rejected what it describes as the “derisory” pay offer of £565. Yesterday, we learned that police officers will withdraw all good will from 5 pm tomorrow. A whistleblower in Police Scotland has told me that there are not enough front-line police officers to ensure safe levels of policing and that, across the east of Scotland, safe levels of policing have not been achieved on any day this year. Police officers are owed more than 50,000 rest days, they work unpaid for up to 20 hours a week, and up to 1,600 of them are planning to quit the service within months. Therefore, will the cabinet secretary reverse the cuts to Police Scotland of recent years, which have had such a damaging impact on policing in this country, and offer safe working practices and decent pay to Scotland’s police officers?
In sharp contrast to the approach that the Conservatives have taken south of the border in recent weeks, we believe in fair and affordable approaches to pay.The process in relation to police pay for this year is on-going, so it is not appropriate for me to comment. However, we will continue to ensure that public sector workers across the board are recognised through fair and affordable pay offers, and we will give trade unions, in particular, the respect that they deserve, which has been sorely lacking in similar negotiations south of the border.
Can the cabinet secretary advise us how the Scottish Government can deliver the pay increases that are being demanded when the United Kingdom Tory Government has allowed for inflation of only 2.4 per cent on our block grant this year, at a time when inflation is four times that?
Kenny Gibson raises an important point. Over the past few years, we have chosen a progressive pay approach that means that, cumulatively, public sector workers in Scotland are paid, on average, 7 per cent more than public sector workers elsewhere in the UK. The funding for that comes from within our own budget, because there has been a distinct lack of consequential funding from the UK Government.
Kenny Gibson is quite right to identify the fact that our block grant settlement from the UK Government, which was set last autumn, when inflation was much lower, is constrained. The Scottish Fiscal Commission noted that this year’s budget is 2.6 per cent lower than last year’s in cash terms but 5.2 per cent lower in real terms, mainly as a result of reduced UK Government funding.
We will continue to take a distinctive approach, but we must do so within a very constrained budget position.
Marine protection workers have been undertaking strike action to secure a fair pay rise, but they are now being subjected to underhand tactics to force them back to work. Those tactics include vessels being berthed in inaccessible areas, little accommodation being made available and the workers being put off the vessels when they are on strike.
We would expect such behaviour from the Tories, but we would not expect it from a Government that claims to value the role of trade unions and recognise the importance of fair work. Will the cabinet secretary condemn those tactics and commit to the Scottish Government and Marine Scotland bringing forward a pay offer that addresses the workers’ concerns?
Our approach to pay negotiations is to recognise the important role that trade unions play, not just rhetorically but through the process. In recent years, we have seen a distinctive approach being taken. Fully understanding the pressures on workers across the public and private sectors right now, we are committed to negotiations that reach a conclusion that is fair and affordable and that recognises the work of our public sector workers. We will continue to work with employers as they negotiate with trade unions.
High-speed Broadband (Rural Areas)
To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the roll-out of high-speed broadband to rural locations. (S6O-01309)
The latest Office of Communications figures show that more than 2.6 million homes and businesses across Scotland can now access superfast broadband speeds. Indeed, the three strands of activity that make up the reaching 100 per cent programme, which are the R100 contracts—which are worth £600 million—the voucher scheme and commercial build, are helping to deliver that full-fibre infrastructure into rural Scotland.
The latest figures show that, despite telecommunications being fully reserved to Westminster, more than 9,800 connections have been delivered through the R100 contracts and vouchers, with the vast majority being full fibre.
Several residents in Craigton Village, Milngavie, do not have access to fibre-optic broadband, as they are too far away from the exchange despite being just 11 miles outside Glasgow city centre. Because BT and the Scottish Government consider Milngavie to have been reached, residents have been told that cabling could cost them tens of thousands of pounds.
Cabinet secretary, the planning and roll-out aspects of broadband are the Scottish Government’s responsibility, so what action will the Scottish Government take to ensure that homes on the outskirts of towns and villages are not being overlooked in the roll-out of high-speed broadband?
The member may want to review the Scotland Act 2016, which confirms that telecoms is fully reserved to the United Kingdom Government and therefore entirely the remit of the Conservatives in power. However, despite that, we are investing £600 million in the R100 roll-out.
I would be very happy to look at the specific households or locations that Pam Gosal has referenced, to understand when they might be connected. We have, right now, a further 9,500 connections in build, on top of the 9,800 connections that have already been delivered. We will do everything that we can—and we are using Scottish Government devolved spending to reach areas that are in a reserved area—because of the importance of this issue.
“No one will be left behind” is the Scottish Government’s mantra on R100 broadband. Can the cabinet secretary explain to my constituent on Shetland’s west side why it is so difficult for them to get connected? In places such as Whalsay, the current scheme will allow some neighbours to be connected with superfast broadband whereas there are only do-it-yourself vouchers for others.
As the member will know, construction work is being undertaken right now to connect subsea cables to our island communities—16 subsea cables with investment from the Scottish Government.
I continue to engage with Openreach, in particular, to see whether we can push the build even further and faster than is currently proposed. Again, understanding the importance of not just starting the job on some of our islands but completing it, I am also engaged with the UK Government to ensure that project gigabit funding helps to complete the job on our islands. Of course, one of the big challenges is the UK Government’s arbitrary cap of £7,000 for reaching rural properties. In other words, if it is going to cost more than £7,000 to connect a property, the UK Government cannot help through project gigabit. However, we will try to ensure that all the jigsaw pieces of funding and support reach our islands and that we finish the job.
To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with South Ayrshire Council regarding the current situation at Ayr cemetery. (S6O-01310)
It is for South Ayrshire Council, as the burial authority, to manage, secure and maintain the burial grounds for which it has responsibility. The Scottish Government has no locus to intervene in operational matters regarding burial grounds. However, in response to correspondence from relatives about water ingress to burial chambers at Ayr cemetery, officials contacted South Ayrshire Council for detail on the actions being taken to remedy the situation, and the council’s responses were sent to the relatives. Although it remains an operational matter for South Ayrshire Council to manage and resolve, officials remain in contact with the council about the matter.
Families in my constituency are completely devastated about what has happened to their loved ones, and resolution of the situation must be a priority for the council. I know that the council has ordered an investigation into how this happened. For their peace of mind, families need guarantees that coffins will now be airtight and watertight, as was first promised. Does the minister agree that the result of any investigation into how this has happened should be made public and that lessons should be learned so that this tragic situation can never happen again to any grieving family?
Absolutely. I start by offering my deepest condolences to the families who have been affected by the situation at Ayr cemetery. I agree with the member for Ayr, and I welcome South Ayrshire Council’s investigation into how the issues at Ayr cemetery arose.
Where possible, any results of, or lessons learned from, the investigation should be shared to ensure that no other families have to face such a situation. The bereaved families will undoubtedly be concerned about what has happened, and it is vital that they understand the steps that South Ayrshire Council is taking, not only to deal with the current situation but to prevent other families from having to experience such a situation in future.
Minimum Income Guarantee Steering Group
To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the work of the minimum income guarantee steering group. (S6O-01311)
The steering group is an expert group with representation from academia, trade unions and poverty and equality organisations, and it has been formed into five workstreams. There is also a cross-party strategy group with representatives from the five parties in the Scottish Parliament. The steering group’s work is progressing well, and three meetings have been held since the group was established. At its most recent meeting, on 9 June, a work plan was agreed. That plan includes commissioning several pieces of research and establishing a lived experience panel and a series of equalities workshops, all of which will inform an interim report by the end of this year.
A minimum income guarantee is a radical and bold policy, and the work that the Scottish Government has already done in that area is a clear demonstration of its ambition to do everything that is within its limited powers to deliver a fairer Scotland. Does the cabinet secretary agree that tackling poverty must be a national mission, not only for the Government but for all of society, including employers?
I agree. We need support and action from everyone in society, including employers, so that we can make meaningful and lasting change. The minimum income guarantee has real potential to deliver transformational change by reducing poverty and inequality and ensuring that everyone has enough money to live a decent life. I agree that that must be a national mission. We are determined to find ambitious ways to tackle poverty—the minimum income guarantee is one such way.
I am acutely aware that the need for action is even more urgent while households across the country are facing a serious cost of living crisis, with those on the lowest incomes being hardest hit.
United Kingdom Government’s Policy Programme (Brexit)
To ask the Scottish Government what estimate it has made of the potential impacts on Scotland’s economy and society of the United Kingdom Government’s policy programme, including the current and future impact of Brexit on Scotland. (S6O-01312)
It is clear that UK Government policies are hurting Scotland’s economy and society. That is why we are spending almost £3 billion this year to support families through the cost of living crisis.
Households across Scotland are facing challenges that are being made worse by UK Government decisions, with the UK seeing the highest inflation in the G7. There is new evidence every day of the cost of Brexit, which is harming our trade and making us poorer. The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that Brexit will reduce UK productivity growth by 4 per cent, which is about twice as much as the long-run impact of the pandemic. That said, Scotland’s exports are still outperforming those of the UK as a whole. Excluding oil and gas, exports from Scotland to all countries in 2021 were down by 1 per cent on 2019 levels. That compares with a fall of 8 per cent for the UK.
In my lifetime, Scotland has had to endure Margaret Thatcher; Blair and his Iraq war; Labour, Liberal Democrat and Tory ministers prioritising nuclear weapons on the Clyde rather than investing in public services; David Cameron’s austerity; and Boris Johnson and his reckless Brexit deal. The Tory cost of living crisis that we are all facing is yet another example of UK Government failure. With one hand tied behind our back, there is only so much that this Parliament can do to mitigate Westminster’s damaging policies.
However, there is a positive alternative. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the only way to reverse the harms of Brexit, to get rid of nuclear weapons from Scotland and to have the economic levers to build a fairer, greener and wealthier country is for Scotland to become independent?
I agree with the member. The Scottish Government has consistently outlined the significant economic cost of policies such as austerity and Brexit. Once again, the economy faces significant challenges and, as the question implied, Westminster holds most of the powers that are needed to tackle the problems that have been brought about by the cost of living crisis in the immediate and the longer term. The Scottish Government has continually urged the UK Government to use all the powers and fiscal headroom at its disposal to address the cost of living crisis. Of course, the member is right to say that an independent Scotland would have the wealth, the capability, the people, the skills and the talent to be able to create a fairer, greener and wealthier society, and I look forward to that happening.
Two key policy areas that the minister has completely neglected to mention are the development of green free ports and the very welcome development of the levelling up fund, which is designed to invest more than £4.8 billion to help our town centres, high streets, local transport projects and cultural and heritage assets. What does the minister intend to do over the recess to promote those welcome schemes and to ensure that communities that have been left behind by the Scottish National Party Government for 15 years will benefit from that investment?
The member should be aware that the green port process is moving forward. Bidding has closed and the decision about where Scotland’s two green ports will be located will be made in the next few weeks.
On the issue of UK support, the UK has put in place measures that are supposed to make up for the loss of funding from the European Union, but, of course, as everyone knows and as can be seen locally and from the figures involved, those schemes fall far short of the support that was previously received by Scottish businesses and local authorities directly from the EU. That is another reason why Scotland needs to take its economy into its own hands, become an independent country and once again become a full member of the European Union.
Housing Developments (Social Infrastructure)
To ask the Scottish Government how many housing developments in Scotland are currently unable to progress as a result of funding for schools and social infrastructure not being in place. (S6O-01313)
The Scottish Government does not hold that specific information, although planning authorities monitor housing land locally through regular housing land audits. In our draft national planning framework 4, we have been clear that we want the planning of future development to take an infrastructure-first approach, so that homes are delivered alongside the facilities and services that communities need.
I am aware of three sites in Fife that are stalled as a result of the infrastructure for schools not being in place. I met the previous planning minister, civil servants and developers to try to find a way forward for those sites. The problem is not that the developers are unwilling to contribute, under a section 75 agreement, to the £16 million that is required for a new school in Dunfermline and the £6 million that is required for a new school in Kelty; they simply say that they do not have the money available to front load that.
I hear ministers talking about what powers they want, but they need to use the powers that they have. We need to tackle this issue. We need to bring together local authorities and others. Those three sites, which will provide thousands of houses, are stalled because of a lack of front-loaded infrastructure. Will the minister agree to attend a meeting with me, Homes for Scotland, civil servants and the specific developers to see how we can tackle the problem?
In principle, I am happy to meet, although, obviously, we cannot get involved in any live planning applications.
Alex Rowley will be aware of the £2 billion learning estate investment programme, which will benefit about 50,000 pupils throughout Scotland by the end of this parliamentary session. That programme includes two of Fife Council’s priority projects for investment—the Dunfermline learning campus and Inverkeithing high school. Phase 3 will open to local authorities in 2022, and successful projects will be announced before the end of this year.
Work is going on to ensure that the school estate continues to be improved and expanded. However, I am happy to have a meeting about the specific matters that Alex Rowley has mentioned.