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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, September 30, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 30 September 2021

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Point of Order, Community Land Ownership, Portfolio Question Time, Point of Order, Autumn and Winter Vaccination Programme, Urgent Question, Brexit Impact on Supply Chain and Labour Market, Points of Order, Decision Time


Contents


General Question Time

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

The first item of business is general question time. As ever, succinct questions and answers to match will enable more members to take part.


Electric Vehicle On-street Charging

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to increase the capacity of on-street charging infrastructure as drivers switch to electric vehicles. (S6O-00225)

We have already invested over £45 million to develop the publicly available ChargePlace Scotland network, which now consists of more than 1,900 charge points across the country. The network includes a number of public charging hubs that are already available in some towns and cities. More are planned throughout Scotland.

We continue to work with local authority charge point hosts to strengthen and expand the network. This year, we will provide funding to enable £2 million of on-street charging projects across Scotland, specifically for areas without access to off-street parking.

There are many rural villages and market towns in my constituency—including mine—in which properties are hard to pavement. As such, they do not have private driveways. Those properties currently do not qualify for grant funding for the installation of home chargers, which leaves many citizens to rely on on-street charging infrastructure should they wish to reduce their carbon footprint. Is the Scottish Government aware of those situations throughout Scotland? What considerations are being made for the many people who are in that situation?

As an MSP for a rural constituency, I am very much aware of those issues. I hope that Ms Whitham will take assurance from the fact that Government officials are working with South Ayrshire Council to support the installation of chargers that will provide for people without access to off-street charging in Straiton, Barrhill, Dailly and Maybole.

The Scottish Government is also currently consulting on the requirements for installing charge points in car parks of residential and non-residential buildings. That will further enhance access to electric vehicle charging across Scotland.

South Lanarkshire Council said that it would install more than 100 electric vehicle charging points, but it has cut that plan by 42 per cent. Notwithstanding the challenges of the pandemic, a £1 million fleet of electric vehicles has barely left the council car park in a year. Charging is a big concern. What can the Scottish Government do to help South Lanarkshire Council to expand local charging networks and make people feel more confident about using electric vehicles?

As Monica Lennon will understand, any actions that South Lanarkshire Council has taken are for it to defend and explain. However, to answer her question about engagement with the Scottish Government, the Scottish Government is actively engaged with local authorities in seeking to encourage that. That is our direction of travel, and we expect local authorities to join us in that.

I thank the minister for his previous answer on the number of EV charging points in Scotland. Will he expand on that a little and tell us how that compares with the rest of the United Kingdom?

The most recent statistics show that Scotland has more than 2,500 publicly available chargers, which represents 47 chargers per 100,000 of the population. That compares with 36 chargers per 100,000 of the population for the whole of the UK. It is important that Scotland has the highest proportion of rapid chargers and is well ahead of the rest of the UK on that. That proportion is 12 per 100,000 of the population compared with the UK average of 6.8 per 100,000 of the population.

There is, of course, much more to do, because the uptake of electric vehicles is showing a welcome increase.


Chain Store Closures

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to recent research, which suggests that chain stores in Scotland closed at a rate of 30 per week during the first six months of 2021. (S6O-00226)

We understand the difficulties that Scotland’s retail industry faces as a result of the global pandemic. In recognition of that, the Scottish Government has provided businesses with more than £4.3 billion in support since the start of the pandemic.

We continue to support the retail sector and other businesses as we rebuild the economy following the pandemic, including through retail strategy, town centre review and city centre recovery task force work, as well as the Scotland loves local £10 million multiyear support programme.

The Centre for Cities report says that Aberdeen has the United Kingdom’s fourth-lowest high-street spend, noting that around 90 units currently lie empty. Robert Gordon University and Aberdeen Inspired suggest that reasons for that include business rates and overheads. Others point to how slowly the Scottish National Party got Covid relief out the door.

Aberdeen City Council has a master plan, but the reinstatement of 100 per cent business rates in six months’ time is casting a long shadow. What plans does the minister have to introduce a fairer business rates system and to restore a level playing field with England on the higher property rate?

As the member will be aware, in Scotland we have the most generous package of rates relief anywhere in the United Kingdom. Indeed, we were the only part of the UK to give full non-domestic rates relief for hospitality, leisure, aviation and retail. That was an investment of more than £700 million.

As the member will appreciate, decisions around NDR will be taken as part of the budget process. I very much look forward to his constructive and informed contribution to that process later this year.


Electric Vehicle Charging Sites

To ask the Scottish Government what the timescales and number of units are for the roll-out of electric vehicle charging sites across Scotland. (S6O-00227)

A wide range of factors influence and, ultimately, determine the types, numbers and timescales for the roll-out of electric charging infrastructure. That includes technology developments with vehicles, batteries and charging equipment, as well as the impact of other actions supporting the Scottish Government’s ambition to reduce the total number of privately owned cars and to reduce car kilometres by 20 per cent by 2030. It is therefore not possible to specify exact timescales and numbers.

Electric charging will become an increasingly essential part of our infrastructure. I know that the ChargePlace Scotland network is supported by the Scottish Government and Transport Scotland. Will the cost of charging be determined by Government or by market conditions? Has the Government discussed what action can be taken to ensure that the cost of electric charging is maintained at an affordable rate?

Bill Kidd raises a critical point. If the switch to electric vehicles is to work for all of our population, people need to be able to afford to do that. Tariffs are currently set by charge point owners to cover the cost of the electricity provided, as well as of maintaining and growing the network. Other private networks are operating in Scotland that charge on a commercial basis.

Regardless of the source of investment, the Government is committed to delivering a charging network that works for all of Scotland all the time. We continue to engage with charging providers, energy network companies and regulators to ensure that the charging network is affordable.


Local Authority Bus Services

To ask the Scottish Government when it will implement part 3 of the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019 to allow local authorities to bring forward proposals to directly run bus services in their area. (S6O-00228)

As I outlined in my letter to all members in June, work to implement part 3 of the 2019 act resumed earlier this year, following a pause necessitated by the pandemic. We are currently consulting to help inform the development of the necessary secondary legislation and guidance. The consultation closes on 6 October, and I would encourage all interested parties to feed into the process if they have not already done so.

The minister will know that it is more than two years since I lodged an amendment to the Transport (Scotland) Bill to lift that historical ban on councils directly running bus services or establishing municipal bus companies. Can he give us a timescale for when he expects those powers to come into force? Councils want to get on with the job of delivering bus services to their communities. Will the minister also ensure that direct funding is made available to councils to enable them to use those powers, including for capital and revenue start-up costs?

I recognise the constructive way in which Colin Smyth engaged on the Transport (Scotland) Bill and on those provisions. He is asking for a timetable. In essence, we would expect to have the findings of the consultation available to us towards the end of the year. I offer him the assurance that we will look to move on that as quickly as possible. Like him, I see this matter as a real priority.

When it comes to funding, as Colin Smyth knows, we have committed to establishing the community bus fund for this purpose and others. As we see the outcome of the recommendations from the consultation, we will be able to move forward on that, too. I will be happy to work with Colin Smyth on that.

The original question that Colin Smyth asked the Government was

“when it will implement part 3 of the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019”.

I am not sure that we have had an answer to that. The minister said that the consultation will close by the end of the year, but can he actually give an answer to the original question? When does he anticipate part 3 of the 2019 act being implemented?

I think that I answered that question and I would have thought that Mr Simpson, as an experienced parliamentarian, would have picked up on that. As he knows, we need to develop the secondary legislation, time will have to be found in the parliamentary timetable for its consideration and the committee will want to scrutinise it. I anticipate that being done as quickly as possible.


A96 (Dualling)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on progress with the dualling of the A96. (S6O-00229)

The Scottish Government is committed to improving the A96. The current plan is to fully dual the A96 between Inverness and Aberdeen, but as part of the co-operation agreement with the Scottish Green Party, we have agreed to conduct a transparent evidence-based review of the programme, which will report by the end of 2022.

Police Scotland data shows that, in the last three years, 195 people in the north-east have been involved in a crash involving a least one fatality. Despite the review and the safety concerns of local communities, and the minister’s comments, Green MSP Maggie Chapman has said that it will not be “viable” to fully dual the A96 route. Does the minister agree with Green MSP Maggie Chapman?

Maggie Chapman, like any other MSP, is entitled to her view. As a Government minister, I am committed to the review process, which will determine how we take the project forward.

I will go back to the start of Tess White’s question. If she is implying that safety concerns along the route are somehow being ignored, that is reprehensible and untrue.

The traffic congestion that is experienced by residents in Nairn can be as bad as that which is experienced in Glasgow or Edinburgh, except that in Nairn there is only one road that citizens can use through the town—the A96. During the tourism season, delays of up to an hour can be experienced in getting from one end of the town to the other. Will the minister approve and commence initiation of the tender process for delivery of the preferred route that has been agreed for dualling the A96 between Inverness and Auldearn, including the Nairn bypass? Will he accept my invitation to meet local people and to hear for himself the strength of views and feelings on the matter?

I am happy to commit to making such a visit, although I am not in any way unaware of the strength of views on the matter, given the many conversations that I have had with Mr Ewing, who is a strong advocate for the project. I am sure that the member will very much welcome the fact that what is committed to on the A96 includes bypassing Nairn and dualling from Inverness to Nairn. However, as a former minister, Mr Ewing knows that such projects involve processes that have to be followed. That said, I assure him that we will move as quickly as we can to progress the work.


Young People (Employment)

To ask the Scottish Government how it will support young people to find rewarding and sustainable employment. (S6O-00230)

The Scottish Government is taking a range of actions to support young people to achieve their potential. Through our delivery of the young persons guarantee we have invested an additional £130 million, which aims to provide at least 24,000 new and enhanced opportunities for young people who need support to find and sustain employment. We are clear that opportunities that are created through the guarantee must provide fair work and be underpinned by a package of training that supports young people to transition into employment.

Our developing the young workforce activities are well embedded and are being enhanced by nearly 300 DYW school co-ordinators, who play a vital role in increasing opportunities for work-based learning for pupils. In recognition of the importance of good-quality careers advice, former general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, Grahame Smith, who is a non-executive director at Skills Development Scotland, is leading a review of the careers service.

Many of the businesses in my constituency are small and medium-sized enterprises. I would like to encourage more of them to get involved in providing opportunities through the young persons guarantee. Will the minister outline what support we are giving to businesses that are too small to have training or human resources departments to enable them to play their part in the scheme and to unlock the potential of our young people?

There is good news in that regard. As part of the young persons guarantee, we are working closely with employers to encourage them to sign up to the five asks, which are proportionate to the size of businesses. Of the businesses that have signed up, more than two thirds are SMEs, which is testament to SMEs’ willingness and commitment to making a difference.

Of course, we want to see more businesses taking part. Developing the young workforce regional groups and local authority employability leads can play important roles. We too, as members of the Scottish Parliament, can play a leadership role in encouraging local employers to do so. I welcome Ms Martin’s commitment in that regard, which is, I am sure, shared by members across the chamber.

The minister will be aware that, yesterday, figures came out on unemployment among people with disabilities. There are now more people with disabilities unemployed than there were this time last year. The gap between England and Scotland is growing wider in that respect, and a person who is disabled is far less likely to get a job in Scotland than they are to get one down south. Why does the minister think that is happening, and what are he and his Government going to do about it?

I am aware of that disappointing trend. As Mr Balfour will probably know, it is the first time in some while that we have moved backwards on the disability employment gap. We will respond—as he, and other members, would rightly expect us to do—by introducing, during the current session of Parliament, Scotland’s first national strategy on transitions to adulthood. We will also implement the Morgan review recommendations on additional support for learning.

Our fair start Scotland programme continues to play a role, and we will continue to work to our disability employment action plan, “A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People: employment action plan”, which seeks to reduce by at least half the disability employment gap, over the coming two decades.


Attainment Gap

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the action it is taking to close the poverty-related attainment gap, including in response to the reduction to universal credit. (S6O-00231)

Record investment of £215 million this year, including a £20 million pupil equity funding premium, is providing additional support for children and young people who need it most. That is the first investment as part of our £1 billion commitment to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap and support education recovery in the current session of Parliament.

However, tackling the poverty-related attainment gap cannot be done by education or schools alone. Scottish Government analysis indicates that the United Kingdom Government’s decision to cut universal credit could push 60,000 people in Scotland, including 20,000 children, into poverty. That is why the UK Government must reverse that harmful and senseless cut immediately.

I refer colleagues to my entry in the register of members’ interests. As the cabinet secretary said, this action cannot be about just education, although I note the substantial investment in our schools. The best way to narrow the poverty-related attainment gap is to address poverty.

When a £6 billion cut in universal credit, which will remove £1,000 from low-income families, is coming forward from the Tories, a £500 million replication of the Scottish welfare fund, as was announced this morning, will go no way towards making up for the poverty that people will suffer. What impact will those cuts have on the Government’s ability to close the poverty-related attainment gap?

I quite agree with Neil Gray. The announcement today of a £500 million fund does not, in any way, begin to compensate for the £6 billion cut to universal credit. That is why we, in the Scottish Government, are doing what we can. I have spoken about the record funding that we are providing to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap, but Neil Gray is quite right to say that we also need to tackle the root causes of poverty.

One of the root causes is that the UK Government has a fundamentally different approach to its social security system—an approach that seems to punish the poorest people in our society. Given the votes in the universal credit debate this week, I think that the Scottish Tories share the UK Government’s view. That is exceptionally disappointing, but we in the Scottish Government will continue to do what we can to support our people.