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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 30 November 2021 [Draft]

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Storm Arwen (Response), Deaths in Prison Custody, Residential Rehabilitation, Gender-based Violence, Decision Time, Lamb for St Andrew’s Day Campaign


Storm Arwen (Response)

I remind members that Covid-related measures are in place and that face coverings should be worn while moving around the chamber and the Holyrood campus.

The next item of business is a statement by John Swinney on the response to storm Arwen.


I am grateful for the opportunity to update the Parliament on the response to and continued recovery from the major impacts of storm Arwen.

On Friday the Met Office took the serious step of issuing a red weather warning of danger to life. Classification of a weather incident at that level happens rarely and is an indication of the magnitude of the challenge that has been faced. Storm Arwen has caused widespread and extensive damage, with impacts that have been greater than those initially anticipated. That has created significant challenges and hardship for communities and households across Scotland. I extend my sympathy to everyone who has been and continues to be affected, and I assure everyone involved that every effort is being made, with our partners, to address the impacts as swiftly as possible.

Although Scotland regularly experiences severe winter storms, the high winds that are generally associated with them are from a southerly to north-westerly direction. However, on this occasion, the storm tracked down the North Sea, bringing very strong north to north-easterly winds across eastern coastal areas. Naturally, our infrastructure is designed to handle incidents from the prevailing wind direction.

The fact that storm Arwen gave rise to very strong winds from an unusual direction exacerbated the severity of the incident.?Met Office records identify a few occasions in the 1970s and 1980s when widespread strong north to north-easterly winds were recorded across eastern Scotland, but those gave gusts of only around 60 to 70mph, in comparison with the damaging gusts of around 80 to 90mph that were experienced during storm Arwen.

To give a sense of the scale, I note that storm Arwen has been a more significant event than the beast from the east in 2018, requiring a complexity of response that we have not seen for a number of years. It has affected almost all of Scotland, with the most widespread impacts being felt in the north-east, Dumfries and Galloway and the Borders. In the north-east, the impact has been compounded by heavy snow and a sharp drop in temperatures.

Amber warnings were issued in the days leading up to Friday’s storm, but the Met Office escalated that to a red warning on Friday at 10.30 am. The Scottish Government resilience committee met on Friday to be assured of preparations, with information from local resilience partnerships and power and utility companies.

Throughout the duration of the storm and its aftermath, the Scottish Government has been working closely with resilience partners and responders on the ground, and with Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks and Scottish Power, to ensure that all is being done to respond to the impacts of the storm. Throughout the period, the safety and welfare of the people affected has been, and remains, at the forefront of the discussions. I am very much aware that the impacts of the storm are still being felt across areas of Scotland and that the recovery will take time.

Our priority right now is to get power restored to homes and provide support to those who are affected. At the peak of the disruption, 79,500 Scottish Power customers and 126,000 SSEN customers were affected. Both Scottish Power and SSEN have worked tirelessly on network repairs and have restored supplies to 184,500 customers as of 8.00 pm yesterday. However, I am acutely aware that that will be of little comfort to the customers who continue to be off supply.

As at 11.45 am, I am informed that 16,763 customers continue to be without power.? Those individuals are located in the Borders, Dumfries, Edinburgh, Fife, Aberdeenshire, Moray, Angus and Perthshire. I do not underestimate the impact that that is having on people and their wellbeing, or how serious the situation is. I encourage anyone who is still affected by the impacts of storm Arwen to get in touch with their local authority to get help, advice and welfare support if they have not already been able to access that.

SSEN has deployed more than 500 engineers and support staff to repair widespread and extensive damage to its network and to support customers. Scottish Power is similarly deploying significant resource, and both companies are drawing additional mutual aid and resources from across the United Kingdom. Given the severity of the storm across the UK, however, the additional resources and mutual aid on which the power companies would normally be able to call have been available later in the incident than would usually be the case.

In many areas, damage caused by fallen trees and other debris has been severe. That is hampering access, and specialist equipment has been required. In addition, the power companies are encountering much more significant damage to the network, which involves much more complex and resource-intensive solutions in order to reconnect supply to particular areas. I pay tribute to the staff from Scottish Power and SSEN, who have worked in very difficult and often precarious conditions to make as much progress as possible in restoring power supplies.

Three multi-agency resilience partnerships are co-ordinating the response activity in the north, east and west, working closely with the power companies. Support is being prioritised for care homes and the most vulnerable in the community, including those with medical needs, with a range of actions being taken in the most affected areas.

Scottish Borders Council opened drop-in centres in key locations to provide free meals and hot drinks to residents in surrounding areas who remain without power. In Forth Valley, a resilience partnership care for people group has been established specifically to deal with the communities and vulnerable persons in them.

Aberdeenshire Council confirmed that all 170 schools would be closed on Monday and today, and all schools are being checked for storm damage and access routes, and to confirm whether power, heating and water supplies are operational. The priority is to ensure that buildings are safe before pupils and staff are welcomed back.

The severe impacts in the area also meant that vaccination clinics in Aberdeenshire were cancelled on Monday, with planned reopening today. The council has also set up rest centres. In other areas, hotels, pubs and halls are being opened to provide food and warmth. Local partnerships and community groups have been going door to door and providing hot food and assistance packages. Although many people are making arrangements to stay with friends and families who have power, those without power are being offered accommodation in hotels.

The British Red Cross is utilising community volunteers across the north area to support energy and council partners, provide door-to-door welfare checks on vulnerable people and care homes, and distribute blankets, food and essential supplies and information to vulnerable and prioritised individuals.

In Dumfries and Galloway, the care-for-people arrangements through the council’s care-at-home teams, social work teams and its care call service have continued to make care visits throughout this period. That has helped to identify those who may be in need of additional support and will continue to be closely monitored. Yesterday, there were a small number of primary school closures in the area; however, all except one are expected to reopen today.

Our transport network was also seriously affected by the storm. On Friday, Police Scotland issued do not travel warnings and, by Saturday, many trunk roads and railway lines were closed. However, I am pleased to report that all trunks roads were cleared by Saturday evening and that there are no remaining storm-related rail issues.

There have been many wider impacts from the storm, with 10,000 properties having experienced water supply issues. Scottish Water is working at pace to restore water supplies and provide all those affected with alternative supplies of drinking water. Around 1,500 properties are still without a water supply, mainly across the Deeside area, with work being hampered by the loss of power and difficulty in accessing some sites due to on-going weather conditions or blocked access routes.

Telecoms providers have experienced significant infrastructure damage and my officials have met them through the national emergency alert for telecoms protocol to seek assurances on power resilience provisions that they have in place to restore mobile telecoms in affected areas. Actions being taken include mobile generation deployment to affected cell locations. Although the position is improving, we continue to focus on that as a key issue.

I assure the Parliament and members of the public that the focus of the Scottish Government, local resilience partnerships and the power and utility companies is on restoring services to those affected as quickly as possible and on taking practical steps to help anyone who has been adversely affected. My expectation is that most of the remaining customers who are off supply will have it restored today, but I regret that, for some of the more complex cases, supply is unlikely to be restored until later in the week.

In the aftermath of the incident, we will review the preparations for and response to storm Arwen to ensure that we take all the learning from this exceptional storm. We have strong and robust arrangements in place to manage and address weather-related resilience issues at national, regional and local levels, but I want to ensure that our arrangements continue to evolve and strengthen for the future.

I express my sincere thanks to all those who have been working in very difficult conditions for prolonged periods to restore utility supplies and support affected communities and households. That includes voluntary organisations, local businesses and community groups of volunteers, who are contributing significantly to neighbourhood wellbeing and resilience.

We have been closely monitoring progress to address storm Arwen’s impacts and engaging with a range of organisations to ensure that the public is regularly updated in what has been a rapidly changing situation. We will continue to do so, with our resilience partnerships remaining active to ensure that every possible resource is deployed and the worst effects of this significant storm are addressed.

The Deputy First Minister will now take questions on the issues that were raised in his statement. I intend to allow around 20 minutes before moving to the next item of business. I would be grateful if members who want to ask a question could press their request-to-speak buttons or place an R in the chat function if they are joining us online.

I thank the Deputy First Minister for the advance sight of his statement. The 15,000 households in Scotland that are still without power, of which more than 13,000 are in the north-east, are astounded by the Government’s appalling lack of planning. Given what we saw happen with storm Frank and then the beast from the east, and given that weather reports were warning people of the impending catastrophe days before storm Arwen hit, why was there such a monumental failure of planning by the Government?

Secondly, The Press and Journal rails today that

“the Scottish Government remains quiet. Aside from a few cursory social media posts offering sympathy but not assistance, it seems leaders have forgotten those affected”.

Thankfully, businesses such as pubs and hotels, and community centres, have stepped up. The Fife Arms in Braemar has said:

“the response from the Scottish Government has been pretty shambolic at getting the emergency services, the army and power company employees deployed.”

What steps is the Government taking now to proactively and productively co-ordinate the response and swift resolution to the issue?

Finally, the cost of clear-up and, presumably, of implementing the lessons learned that the Deputy First Minister referred to will be astronomical. Last night, the United Kingdom Government pledged help, saying:

“we are on standby to provide further assistance to the Scottish Government.”

What financial help will be made available to our underfunded local authorities? Will the Scottish Government be taking up the UK Government’s offer of assistance?

I do not think that Liam Kerr characterises the gravity of the situation in any way appropriately. The Scottish Government does not run power companies; I have no operational control over them. I think that the power companies have worked extraordinarily hard to reconnect the 184,500 people who have been disconnected by a storm of incredible ferocity.

Liam Kerr represents North East Scotland. I assume that he has looked around to see the scale of the damage that has been done to infrastructure. I have looked around my Perthshire constituency and seen with my own eyes the impact of the storm. Unfortunately, that will take time to clear up, and that is what the power companies are focused on doing. I have been discussing that with them at every stage since the storm emerged last Friday.

On the resources on the ground, we work closely with local resilience partnerships, which are led by local authorities—that is the fundamental principle of the resilience operation that is in place. Mr Kerr will be familiar with the work of Aberdeenshire Council, which is in operational leadership at the local level to progress the emergency response.

I am certainly profoundly grateful to the various voluntary organisations, pubs, hotels and cafes that have made themselves available to help people. I think that such community spirit, which has helped to assist members of the public facing jeopardy, is really welcome in our society. That assistance is in addition to the public servants who are going around, door to door, making sure that vulnerable people are supported

On the financial question, the Minister for Public Finance, Planning and Community Wealth has activated the Bellwin scheme. The Scottish Government has immediately made it clear that the terms of the scheme are available to local authorities, should they be required.

I will look with care at what the United Kingdom Government is offering financially. Forgive my scepticism, Presiding Officer, but I will look in great detail at the terms of the press statement that Liam Kerr has cited. The United Kingdom Government is awfully good at words on those questions but not very good at following up with substance as a consequence.

I thank the Deputy First Minister for advance sight of his statement. I send my condolences to those who have, sadly, lost a loved one during storm Arwen, and I extend my sympathies to everyone that has been affected by its impact. We are hugely grateful to all those on the front line of the response.

However, there is a growing frustration on the part of the thousands of people across the country, including many in my South Scotland region in Dumfries and Galloway and the Borders, who still have no power and, in some cases, no water supply, and have no idea of when they will be reconnected, due to a lack of information or, in some cases, misinformation.

The Deputy First Minister said that it is his expectation that most remaining customers with no power will have their power restored today, but some will not have it restored until later this week. How many does he anticipate will have to wait beyond today? When will the 1,500 properties that are still without a water supply be reconnected? Given the problems with telecommunications in some areas, is the Scottish Government confident that all vulnerable residents have been contacted directly to ensure their wellbeing? For many people, contacting their council is not an option.

I am grateful to Mr Smyth for making those points.

In relation to the steps that are being taken to reconnect people, I assure Mr Smyth that the power companies are moving as fast as they can, although one of the individuals from SP Energy Networks with whom I was in discussions yesterday, who was down in the Eaglesfield area of Mr Smyth’s region, cited to me the specific complexity of the difficulties that were affecting a limited number of properties, which was a result of multiple interruptions to the power supply.

I cite that example to illustrate to Parliament the fact that the issues that are being wrestled with are of a greater degree of complexity because of the damage that has been caused. That makes it difficult to give a prediction on the numbers involved. However, the power companies are working as fast as they can to restore supplies, and I will get regular updates in the course of today about the progress that is being made.

On water supply, much of the issue depends on the ability to get power supply to installations, so electricity connection is at the heart of that issue, too.

On the question about contacting vulnerable customers, the power companies and local authorities are in regular dialogue on the existence and extent of vulnerability in communities. They have established lists of individuals to be contacted, and I am assured by local resilience partnerships and the power companies that they have been undertaking such contacting. However, I am conscious of the number of people in society who are now dependent on mobile telephony networks, which can be significantly interrupted as a result of loss of power supply.

I have had assurance on the issue of vulnerable customers, but I reiterate the point that, if anyone is in need of assistance, I urge them to contact their local resilience partnership to secure that.

I am conscious that an understandably large number of colleagues want to ask a question, given the impact that storm Arwen has had on many parts of the country and the fact that constituents’ interests will need to be seen to be raised. Therefore, I am keen for members’ questions to be as succinct as possible, and for the Deputy First Minister to provide as succinct answers as he can manage.

I have never before seen such damage from high winds in my area. We are all aware of the volumes of people who are still without power. How is the Government ensuring that there are sufficient resources to ensure that those in outlying areas are being checked on? I am not talking only about those who are on lists of people with vulnerabilities. I am hearing from families with newborn babies, and I am very concerned about older people who live alone who might be missed, many of whom cannot get information. As the Deputy First Minister mentioned, in the digital world that we live in, gaps in communications have been exposed.

What resilience review work will be undertaken as a result of what has happened to us this week, which has exposed some of those gaps?

As I indicated in my statement, as we do in relation to all such incidents, we will consider the lessons that we can learn from the handling of storm Arwen.

As Gillian Martin acknowledged, we have had to wrestle with a storm of the greatest ferocity. The damage has been significant. We must identify whether there are other steps that we need to take to make networks, as well as individuals and households, more resilient. That discussion will start once we have got to the point where we have secured resolution of the issues and we can properly and fully learn the lessons, in consort with our resilience partnerships and the power companies, which have a critical role to play in it.

Thousands are without power, water and heat. Roads are blocked and communities are cut off, yet those communities have faced a wall of silence from the Scottish Government and the First Minister. As the Deputy First Minister said, engineers did a fantastic job, but they were overwhelmed and needed more help. Did the Scottish Government even ask the UK Government for emergency assistance, or did it yet again take its eye off the ball?

I come back to my response to Liam Kerr, which is that the responsibility for the operation of power companies lies with the companies themselves. It would be folly for me to interfere in the sophisticated technological work of power companies in restoring supply. If Mr Lumsden wants to know whether I have had discussions with power companies, I can tell him that I have—on multiple occasions.

That is not enough. What about the UK Government?

Those companies—[Interruption.] Mr Lumsden continues to shout at me, but as he might not know this, he might want to stay silent for a moment while I explain the position.

The power companies have access to mutual aid supplies across other power networks in the UK, but, as I said in my statement, other parts of the UK were under severe strain as well. Some of those resources are now becoming available, but that is happening only once power has been restored in the original network areas.

For example, let us consider SSE, which is a company that Mr Lumsden should be familiar with, if he is familiar with the north of Scotland. It has an operation in the south of England, which took a hammering as well. Once the damage was recovered in the south of England, SSE was able to relocate staff further north. That is the type of mutual aid arrangement that operates in the electricity market. It would be folly for me to intervene and interfere in what the power companies are doing to resolve the situation as quickly as possible. [Interruption.]

I encourage members to ask their question and then to allow the minister to answer.

I thank all those people who have put in a tremendous effort to support local communities over the past five days. I note that many people in my constituency are still without power and water.

I have been in touch with vulnerable constituents, some of whom require power for medical equipment and some who require running water to sterilise baby bottles. They have been offered reimbursement for takeaways and hotels, but cannot meet the up-front costs. Once again, people who are living hand to mouth are suffering the most in an emergency. Will the Deputy First Minister outline what alternative measures the Scottish Government is considering to help people in vulnerable circumstances?

Fundamentally, the needs of individuals in those circumstances must be addressed by the dialogue that goes on at the local level with resilience partnerships, which must find the means of addressing the individual circumstances that people face. Karen Adam has put to me a legitimate set of scenarios, which are distinctive and different circumstances that have to be addressed. The most appropriate mechanism for that is for dialogue to take place between individuals and local resilience partnerships. Those partnerships should be active at the local level, making sure that individuals who are facing difficulties are able to receive the support that they require.

In our reflections on this incident, we will work to identify how individuals can be most effectively supported should we again have to face interruptions of supply of the length that we are having to face in these highly unusual circumstances.

I note that the Deputy First Minister did not mention Stirling Council in his statement. I have been contacted by constituents who feel that Stirling’s emergency response at the weekend was inadequate and that they were abandoned in freezing temperatures with no rest centres or access to generators. I know that there were people who were unable to operate their oxygen tanks. People had an extremely difficult weekend. On Friday, at the Scottish Government resilience meeting, was the Deputy First Minister satisfied and confident that the plans that local resilience partnerships had in place would meet the impact of the expected and anticipated storm?

At the resilience committee meeting on Friday, we heard directly from the three strategic regional resilience partnerships, all of which had been in dialogue with local resilience partnerships to ensure that the capacity was stood up to be available to assist individuals in the event of storm damage being apparent. Obviously, the red weather warning was a clear indication that that was going to be the case. All that information and assurance was sought on Friday, to ensure that all resilience partnerships were ready to provide that. If Claire Baker would like to supply me with the information on the experience of the members of the public who have contacted her, that would be helpful to us in seeking the assurance that individual resilience partnerships took appropriate measures to be ready for the challenges.

The Deputy First Minister has outlined what action has taken place across Scotland, including in Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders. I thank all the staff and leadership for their efforts. As more such weather events are predicted, can the Deputy First Minister provide further information on what work is under way to identify the most vulnerable and on how the Government can assist and support the local resilience partnerships?

As part of the resilience planning, we expect local resilience partnerships to establish very clearly those who face vulnerability. That knowledge is amassed through a lot of the work that goes on in local communities—I saw that when I was in the Annan area to look at some of the impacts of flooding. Many of the community-based organisations that I met are focused on providing adequate support to all the individuals who face any degree of vulnerability. That knowledge is built up as part of the preparation of the resilience arrangements, and it is crucial that it can be followed through and activated when an incident arises. Obviously, when there is a power-related matter, there is close linkage to the circumstances involving power companies, which have knowledge of the various issues involving vulnerability that exist in different parts of the community.

Storm Arwen has highlighted our expectations about and reliance on technology and online information, but, in terms of lessons learned, how can the Scottish Government improve methods of communication in times of emergency when the power is gone and the batteries have run out, especially given the predicted increase in the frequency and intensity of wild weather events due to the climate emergency?

That is a significant issue. As householders and citizens, we are immensely more dependent than we were previously on mobile telephony and digital connectivity, which is all entirely power dependent. The issues of ensuring that we have adequate contact mechanisms in place in times of difficulty of such magnitude are exacerbated by the issue that Beatrice Wishart properly raises. We will reflect on that issue closely in the resilience exercise. The incident has highlighted, and was exacerbated by, that significant dependence on electricity power supplies.

In my constituency, more than 3,000 trees were blown over in John Muir country park in Dunbar alone, and the impact on wildlife elsewhere has been reported. What consideration has been given to addressing the effects on nature and the environment as we look to recover from the impacts of storm Arwen?

There is obviously a significant impact in the John Muir country park, to which Mr McLennan refers. Forestry and Land Scotland is looking at those issues actively and has provided guidance to individuals to avoid being in forest areas while the situation is being properly assessed. We must consider the impacts of the incident on our natural environment. A very careful exercise has to be undertaken to remedy those issues, particularly in the circumstance that Mr McLennan raises with me.

I thank those who worked tirelessly to reconnect communities at the weekend and those who are continuing to do that work. My community in the Stirling area had no electricity for the best part of four days, despite the fact that, over the weekend, we were told through the online app that we would be reconnected within about four hours. Does the Deputy First Minister recognise that it is very difficult—almost impossible—for householders to plan ahead when such rolling deadlines are not met? How does he think that communication in general can be improved, particularly on people’s rights? We were told at the weekend that utility companies would pay for pizza for people, but the information that people could be eligible for up to £700 of compensation has not really got out there.

It is important that the quality of communication that is available to householders is at the highest possible level. The power companies have shared with me the volume of contacts that they have had with individuals, and they have had a colossal number of contacts with members of the public. It is important that individuals pursue their rights in relation to interruption of supply, but it is equally important that the power companies make available to individuals high-quality and reliable information on when incidents are likely to be resolved following the kind of outages that we have experienced.

Alexander Burnett joins us remotely.

I echo the gratitude that parliamentary colleagues have expressed to those who have worked to restore power and those who are assisting people who have been affected.

Thousands of people across my constituency have been or remain impacted by the storm. Over the weekend, I spoke to care homes across Aberdeenshire West that were scrambling to get generators and that had major concerns about their most vulnerable residents. The red weather warning was issued on Friday morning, but the storm was on the radar before then. What resilience planning had the Scottish Government done to protect our care homes, and how will it commit to doing better next time?

Priority has been attached to ensuring that power supplies can be sustained for care homes and individuals with vulnerabilities. In my discussions with the local resilience partnership in Aberdeenshire, I have been assured that steps were taken to make sure that power supplies were assured to those organisations and institutions. In a number of cases in Mr Burnett’s constituency, the remedying of some strategic faults in the electricity network resolved the situation for a significant proportion of his constituency, but it is an indication of the magnitude and severity of the incident that such widespread effects arose as a consequence of it.

Many of those ventures have emergency supplies available to them, but we will ensure that the issues of emergency supply are reassessed as part of the work of the local resilience partnerships in order to guarantee that we have resilience in such circumstances.

We have run over the allotted time for this item of business. I intend to call all three of the remaining members who want to ask a question, but the questions and responses will have to be as brief as possible.

When transport and communications are so damaged, it makes us realise how important local communities are. Can the cabinet secretary say anything about how the Government can empower them to prepare for such incidents in the future?

There are numerous examples of ventures that local communities have brought forward, such as local organisations. We have generated a number of resilience forums through flood prevention activity, and they provide practical and tangible assistance to individuals. There is a network of those available around the country. The Government’s community empowerment agenda is designed to support them and encourage the development of similar ventures.

Does the Deputy First Minister recognise and accept that, at this time of year, every day’s trading counts for our struggling small businesses? Will he therefore look at a targeted package of support for those businesses that suffer a significant loss of income due to destruction or damage that was inflicted by storm Arwen?

I have put on the record the fact that we have opened the Bellwin scheme. The Government remains open to considering any other issues that are relevant, and, if Mr Hoy has any particular issues to raise with the Government in that respect, they can be looked at by the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy.

I record my thanks to everyone who has been dealing with this catastrophe. Two thousand of my constituents in the Ettrick valley, the Kale Water valley and Berwickshire are still without power. What can the Scottish Government do to provide generators, because there are not enough to go round; to support energy companies by working out a way of supplying additional linemen and engineers; and to supply essential support to Scottish Borders Council, which is going through significant financial resource in supplying hot food to residents who are without power?

I have gone through the issue concerning the power companies, which have a mutual aid arrangement in relation to the network. We cannot send any old individual up an electricity pole to reconnect the supply—it defies belief that we are getting such suggestions.

When it comes to the financial issues, we have activated the Bellwin scheme. If local authorities are incurring expenditure that merits classification under that scheme, financial support is available to them. I assure Rachael Hamilton that the local resilience partnership in the Borders has been actively involved in discussions with the power networks and with the east of Scotland regional resilience partnership, to ensure that all the issues that need to be addressed have been addressed as quickly as possible.

I come back to my core point: there has been extensive damage, which is taking a prolonged period to resolve because of its intensity.

I thank colleagues for their co-operation in allowing all the questions to be taken. There will be a brief pause before we move to the next item of business.