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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 31, 2022

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 31 March 2022

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Benefit Sanctions, Portfolio Question Time, Investment in Natural Capital, Scotland’s Vision for Trade (Annual Report), Miners’ Strike (Pardons) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Point of Order, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

Constitution, External Affairs and Culture

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

The next item of business is portfolio question time, on constitution, external affairs and culture. I remind members that questions 5 and 6 are grouped together. I will take supplementaries after both questions have been answered.

As ever, if any member wishes to ask a supplementary, I ask them to press their request-to-speak button or type R in the chat function during the relevant question. I make the usual plea for brevity in questions and answers, to allow us to get through as many questions as possible.

Independence Referendum (Work on Prospectus)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on how many of its staff members are working on the prospectus for another independence referendum. (S6O-00942)

The work to prepare an independence prospectus is being co-ordinated by the constitutional futures division within the Scottish Government’s constitution and Cabinet directorate. That division is currently comprised of one senior civil servant and 14 other officials. The work will draw on other officials across a range of portfolios, who will contribute to varying extents as part of their wider responsibilities in supporting the Scottish Government.

People across Scotland will be dismayed to discover that the Scottish National Party Government is diverting yet more precious staff and resources towards another referendum. The SNP’s programme for government said that work on that would take place only if the Covid crisis was over. Why is the cabinet secretary’s Government ignoring its own programme and squandering money on its obsession with a referendum, which the people of Scotland do not want?

I commend the member for the implicit recognition in his original question that there will be an independence referendum. That is very welcome.

The member and I differed on the issue in the Scottish Parliament election last year but, as democrats, I hope that we all recognise that the parties that were committed to there being a referendum won the election, and that the parties that opposed a referendum, such as his, lost the election.

We are now getting on with delivering on the policy of the Government, including a prospectus, ahead of the independence referendum, and I look forward to further announcements on that in the future.

A couple of members have supplementaries.

Can the cabinet secretary tell us how many Government staff are currently working on Brexit-related matters for a policy that Scotland did not vote for, unlike an independence referendum, which Scotland did vote for? Does he agree that the £120 million that the United Kingdom Tory Government squandered on its ludicrous festival of Brexit earlier this month was a complete waste of public money?

As I have mentioned, the constitutional futures division that is working on the prospectus is comprised of one senior civil servant and 14 other officials. The far-reaching consequences of Brexit have meant that almost all parts of the Scottish Government have had, or continue to have, officials dedicated to assessing and responding to the UK’s exit from the European Union.

Brexit has resulted in exports of UK goods falling by 14 per cent in the three months to January, while the global average continued to rise over the same period. The opportunities of independence stand in stark contrast to the economic damage that is being caused by Brexit, and it must be up to the people of Scotland to decide their future.

Despite the war in Ukraine, the pandemic that is raging, with Scotland having the highest infection rates in the whole of the UK, the enormous hospital waiting times, the fact that people are desperate for care home packages and the ferries construction scandal, the cabinet secretary carries on regardless. If even independence supporters do not think that there should be an independence referendum now, why is he carrying on regardless?

I always thought that, in a democracy, it was recognised by democrats, including those who stood in the name of the member’s party, the Liberal Democrats, that when one stood in an election on a manifesto that opposed something and lost, the party that won that election—which in this case it did on a manifesto to deliver a referendum—should deliver on that. I would have thought that even a Liberal Democrat would recognise that the democratic result of last year’s election would compel us to get on with our policy platform, instead of jeering from the sidelines in opposition to that democratic result.

Correspondence (Russian Ambassador)

To ask the Scottish Government what response it has received to the Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture’s letter to the Russian ambassador on 26 February. (S6O-00943)

I wrote to the Russian ambassador on 26 February condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the strongest possible terms and laying out the Scottish Government’s position that Russia’s illegal aggression against Ukraine had no conceivable justification.

I have not received a response from the Russian ambassador. I will continue to condemn Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and to offer my unqualified support for Ukrainian sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.

The solidarity that people have shown with Ukraine is undiminished after more than a month of fighting. So, too, is the resolve of the international community to isolate instruments of the Russian state. To reinforce the sentiments that he expressed to the Russian embassy, will the cabinet secretary agree that more should be done here in Scotland to divest public money from sanction-hit financial institutions such as Sberbank? Will the Scottish Government encourage companies trading with Russia to take economic action and will it support our public sector pension funds and other Scottish institutions to do so, too?

The short answer to the points that Neil Bibby raises is yes. In addition, it is important for us to stress that this country stands together with all those in the international community who oppose this illegal war, whether they are in Russia, Belarus, here in Scotland or elsewhere in the world.

I understand that Police Scotland has engaged directly with Ukrainian and Russian communities to provide reassurance and to encourage them to report any concerns so that it can work with communities to address those. Universities Scotland has confirmed that institutions are reaching out to Ukrainian and Russian students with offers of support.

Mr Bibby asks if there is more that we can do to identify whether there is any way of hitting the Putin regime and those in the Russian economy who support him. The answer is yes. If the member has any further suggestions, I would be really pleased to hear those, because there is a consensus across Parliament that we should do everything that we can to oppose the aggression by the Russian Federation against the people of Ukraine.

The cabinet secretary’s letter stated:

“Our quarrel is not with the people of Russia, nor the Russian community who live and work in Scotland, but with President Putin’s regime and its deplorable actions.”

Will the cabinet secretary further reassure us about any work that is being done to provide support to Russians and Belarusians who oppose authoritarianism in their homelands, but who may be at risk of unfair treatment here in Scotland?

That is exactly the point that I was making a moment ago about our interactions with the Ukrainian consulate in Scotland and with Ukrainian community organisations. We also send out a message to people who are of Belarusian or Russian heritage and living in Scotland. Our quarrel is not with those who stand, with the rest of us, in opposition to aggression by the Putin regime. The war is not their fault.

I have already mentioned the efforts undertaken by Police Scotland. We must do everything that we can to ensure that community relations are maintained. At the same time, we are unequivocal about our opposition to the naked aggression against Ukraine. We will do everything that we can to help Ukrainians in Scotland as well as those who seek refuge and wish to come here to get out of harm’s way and away from the aggression being wrought on their country.

Global Affairs Framework

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its global affairs framework. (S6O-00944)

Work on the global affairs framework is continuing and the framework will be published in due course.

I thank the cabinet secretary for his brief answer and look forward in due course to the publication of the framework. Is he able to update us now on the work of the Scottish council on global affairs, which I believe was set up last autumn? Will he also take the opportunity to report on the work that is being undertaken to expand the fantastic resource of the Scottish diaspora network across the world?

The Scottish council on global affairs will be Scotland’s first international relations institute, providing a hub for collaborative policy and relevant research and a home for informed non-partisan debate on all areas of global affairs. I am pleased that the universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh and St Andrews will formally launch the institute at the end of April.

There is a wide range of activity across the Scottish Government to engage with our diaspora groups and those who have a connection with, or affinity for, Scotland. Our external network of international offices will work directly with our diaspora communities in key locations around the world, and two new overseas offices in Copenhagen and Warsaw will further expand the network. We are also undertaking research to inform our future approach to diaspora engagement to expand our international impact.

On the issue of expanding our global impact and the network, what is the Scottish Government doing to support Covid recovery and work with partner countries and to support them in addressing monopoly production and protections? Only 5 per cent of Malawians have been vaccinated and they do not have access to testing. I have just been to a meeting with Global Justice Now, at which that was a key issue. What can we do through our global network with our partner countries to help to tackle Covid?

The good news for Sarah Boyack—I hope that she knows this—is that that is a major priority for the Scottish Government, and Neil Gray and I have been underscoring the issue. In fact, during the Commonwealth day members’ business debate this week, I made that point about the support that we wish to offer to our partner countries, and the fact that that is a priority for the Government. I hope that that assures Sarah Boyack that there is much more that we can do as we all emerge from beneath the cloud of the Covid experience. We have established relations with a number of countries, and we wish to do everything that we can to pursue the priorities that she highlights.

International Offices

4. Emma Roddick (Highlands and Islands) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on how its international offices are functioning and improving international relations. (S6O-00945)

Scotland’s international network works to create domestic opportunities, attract investment and, ultimately, benefit the people of Scotland. Our offices are focused on improving Scotland’s international profile, helping businesses to trade internationally and protecting Scotland’s interests in the European Union and beyond. Together, that will continue to further Scotland’s economic, cultural and policy visibility in key countries in the months and years ahead.

I am sure that, like me, the cabinet secretary takes pride in Scotland choosing to pursue world-leading human rights and equalities legislation. How will his international offices help the Scottish Government to promote best practice in equalities policy internationally?

That is an excellent question. We believe that our actions abroad should be consistent with our focus on equality and inclusion at home. That is why Scotland is developing a feminist approach to foreign policy, which will help us build on our international work to date, such as the Glasgow women’s leadership statement on gender equality and climate change at the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26—and a review of our international development programme, which led to the incorporation of a new equalities funding stream. We will also continue to promote our policies internationally, such as the groundbreaking approach on period poverty.

Ukrainian Refugees (Warm Scots Welcome Scheme)

5. Bill Kidd (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the warm Scots welcome scheme for Ukrainian refugees. (S6O-00946)

We have worked rapidly with a number of partners to set up our warm Scots welcome programme and supersponsor scheme, linking in to the United Kingdom Government’s visa and homes for Ukraine scheme.

We have established welcome hubs to support displaced Ukrainians who are arriving in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Cairnryan with a place of safety and security. Those will provide meals and accommodation and will triage people to find out what support they need. We will ensure that everyone is treated with compassion, dignity and respect.

We continue to work closely with the United Kingdom Government to understand when and how people are arriving in Scotland, and we share the frustration of those who want to provide accommodation in Scotland, and the anxiety of those fleeing war, at the slow pace of the Home Office in turning applications into visas. We are working with UK ministers to encourage them to move at a quicker pace, to allow people to arrive as quickly as possible.

Does the minister agree that the safeguarding of refugees in the UK is a top priority, and that policies to eradicate the human trafficking, procuring and sexual exploitation of women and girls are an important aspect of protecting those who are more vulnerable to such exploitation, such as lone women and children who are fleeing conflicts and humanitarian crises?

Yes. It is, of course, vital that those who are fleeing the illegal war in Ukraine are protected as they seek to find a place of safety. Any form of human trafficking or exploitation is completely unacceptable, and I encourage anyone who has concerns about human trafficking to report them to the modern slavery and exploitation helpline or to Police Scotland. We have translated a range of key information on the Scottish Government website and I urge people who are seeking sanctuary in Scotland and those who are assisting them to follow those guidelines.

Police Scotland’s national human trafficking unit continues to engage with internal and external partners and enforcement agencies to maintain a high visibility of human trafficking and exploitation risks at points of entry around Scotland.

This week, we have introduced new regulations to ensure that we have in place a safe, speedy and free vetting system. That means that people who are opening their homes to displaced people from Ukraine can apply for expedited disclosure checks of the same level of scrutiny as the initial checks that are carried out for those who work with children or vulnerable adults.

Ukrainian Refugees (Support)

6. Siobhian Brown (Ayr) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what support Ukrainian refugees will receive after arriving at a welcome hub in Scotland. (S6O-00947)

Multi-agency teams will be on hand at our welcome hubs to triage people, assess their needs and provide support such as healthcare, translation services, clothes, food, temporary accommodation and trauma support.

The people who come here from Ukraine have a right to work and to access social security and public funds, so we will ensure that they are aware of and get access to the wide range of services and support that they need. Welcome packs in Ukrainian will provide information on accessing a range of support, translators will be on hand to help and trauma experts will be on call.

I have been contacted by many constituents who are looking to host refugees fleeing Ukraine. How is the Scottish Government co-ordinating with local authorities to ensure that refugees and hosts are given proper support?

I thank Siobhian Brown for giving me the opportunity to thank people around Scotland for their incredible generosity in wanting to open their homes to those forced to flee Ukraine.

Scotland has a wealth of experience and learning from previous refugee schemes. As set out in the “New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy 2018-2022”, we have a tried and tested approach to integrating refugees into our communities, schools and workplaces.

We are working closely with a range of partners to develop clear guidance for local authorities and individual hosts, as well as to put in place support for Ukrainians who arrive through that route. We are also encouraging all those who wish to provide support to look at the Ready Scotland website, which has information about local refugee support groups. I encourage people to reach out to those groups, to see what more they might be able to do to help.

Sharon Dowey, who joins us remotely, has a brief supplementary question.

Much has been made of the supersponsorship scheme, but what of the next steps? As of last night, officials at the City of Edinburgh Council said that they were still waiting for data on those who have expressed an interest in hosting Ukrainians, so that they can start pairing refugees with homes. Meanwhile, hundreds of Scots who are ready to open their doors are still waiting for an update. Has that data been made available to councils since last night? How many Ukrainians who have arrived in Scotland have been matched with a home?

Sharon Dowey will share my frustration at the slow pace of receipt of data from the United Kingdom Government. At the end of the day, we are still reliant on the UK Government’s immigration system in order to work at speed.

To be fair, an incredible effort was made following the First Minister’s conception of the supersponsor idea on one Friday to getting the system up and running on the following Friday. However, since then, it has been a very slow process in getting applications turned into visas and in our receiving the data.

I appreciate the frustration that the member feels. We feel it too, and we are asking the UK Government to move much faster to make sure that those who are offering support with accommodation here in Scotland and those fleeing war in Ukraine get what they need as quickly as possible.

Post-Brexit Funding Arrangements (Engagement)

To ask the Scottish Government what engagement the Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture has had with United Kingdom Government ministers regarding the post-Brexit funding arrangements, including the UK shared prosperity fund, which is due to launch this Friday, on 1 April. (S6O-00948)

Scottish ministers have always maintained that the replacement for European Union funding that is included in the UK shared prosperity fund ought to be devolved to the Scottish Government in line with the principles of devolved Government and that investment must support national economic priorities.

In the past month, my colleague Richard Lochhead has met UK Government ministers twice to advocate for Scotland. Although no date has been confirmed by the UK Government for the fund’s intended launch next month, I am optimistic that future engagement can continue to take place to ensure that the shared prosperity fund aligns with Scotland’s policy aims.

Obviously, given that the fund is due to launch tomorrow, it is disappointing that the cabinet secretary still awaits information. The Finance and Public Administration Committee has been advised in evidence that the shared prosperity funds are being top-sliced from Barnett consequentials—a situation that did not apply before Brexit. Will the cabinet secretary confirm whether that is, indeed, the case? If that is the case, will the shared prosperity funds that are directed by Westminster simply reduce those that are available to this and other devolved Administrations?

That is a key question from Kenneth Gibson. Although the United Kingdom Government has outlined the overall value of the shared prosperity fund, Scotland’s specific allocation is still to be determined, and it remains unclear what methods will be used to allocate the fund nationally. There has been no indication that it will be top-sliced from Barnet consequentials. In November 2020, Scottish Government officials calculated that replacing the European structural funds, including the European territorial co-operation and LEADER programmes, would require £183 million of funding per year.

The UK shared prosperity fund and the levelling up fund are fantastic ways in which the UK Government can invest in Scotland. Does the cabinet secretary agree how disappointing it is that Dundee City Council failed to submit a bid for the first round of the levelling up fund?

Despite the engagement to which I drew attention a moment ago, there is a strong likelihood that, in financial terms, the UK shared prosperity fund will be insufficient. Last autumn, the announcement of the UK spending review noted that the fund will provide only £2.6 billion over three years across the whole of the UK, with £560 million of that already ring fenced for the UK Government’s multiply programme on adult numeracy. That falls far short of the calculations of what is necessary to maintain the levels of investment of the European Union structural funds. Replacing the European regional development fund and the European social fund in Scotland would require £162 million per year, and an additional £21 million would be required each year to continue the work of the LEADER and European territorial co-operation programmes.

I would welcome the co-operation of Scottish Conservative Party members to apply pressure on the UK Government to at least match the commitment that was shown to Scotland by the European Union, which the UK has not done so far.

Cultural Attractions (Support for Local Authorities)

8. Alexander Stewart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is supporting local authorities to make best use of their cultural attractions and facilities. (S6O-00949)

In 2021-22, we have provided councils with an overall Covid-19 support package of up to £1.5 billion. It is for locally elected representatives to decide how best to use resources to deliver culture services.

We are continuing to work with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and others towards recovery and renewal of the culture sector, including at local level. I recently met COSLA’s community wellbeing spokesperson and look forward to meeting the culture conveners group soon after May’s elections.

Creative Scotland supports culture at local level, including through its place partnerships, with a range of local authorities across the country.

Local authorities’ spending per head on cultural attractions varies greatly across Scotland. Even before the pandemic, Clackmannanshire, which is in my region, had one of the lowest spends per head in the country, at just £2.01 in 2019-20. What action will be taken to support the cultural sector in Clackmannanshire, to ensure that it makes a strong recovery from the pandemic?

We place great value on the cultural recovery that we want to see in our facilities, events, attractions and arts and creative sector. We have a great understanding that it is not just an economic recovery that will be important, but a wellbeing recovery. Over the past two years, we have all suffered from not being able to attend the facilities, events and attractions that bring us great joy, as we would have wanted to. Re-opening will have a converse affect, and will, we hope, help our wellbeing. We will continue to work with Clackmannanshire Council, which is well led, and many other local authorities, so that we can continue to ensure that our culture facilities are well looked after.

Public libraries are a vital social and cultural hubs in communities in Scotland, including in my constituency. Will the minister provide an update on the roll-out of the public library Covid relief fund, as libraries continue to play their full part in supporting wellbeing during the pandemic recovery?

Yes, I will. This week, we announced the final tranche of the support through that fund. Seven libraries received, I think, £200,000, which brings the total funding through that fund to £1.25 million. We will continue to support public libraries, because we understand the clear role that they play in local communities, in terms of culture and heritage. They also have a wider role to play, and we will be looking to support our public libraries to continue the good work that they are doing.

That concludes portfolio question time.