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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 11 June 2019

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Primary 1 Standardised Assessments, Fuel Poverty (Targets, Definition and Strategy) (Scotland) Bill, Human Tissue (Authorisation) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Human Tissue (Authorisation) (Scotland) Bill, Standing Orders (Rules Changes), Decision Time, The Way of St Andrews


Contents


Topical Question Time


Broadband (Reaching 100 per cent Programme)

1. Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government by what date the R100 project is expected to deliver its target of 100 per cent superfast broadband coverage. (S5T-01708)

The Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands (Paul Wheelhouse)

As I outlined in my update to Parliament on Friday, the procurement is on-going and delivery timescales will be confirmed once we have a supplier, or suppliers, in place later this year.

The £600 million that we have committed to the R100 programme is a vital investment in Scotland’s national infrastructure. Despite the fact that broadband services are wholly the legal and regulatory responsibility of United Kingdom ministers, 96.5 per cent of that investment is coming from the Scottish Government. We are providing that investment because we want to secure the right outcome for Scotland—one that will underpin digital connectivity and economic growth for decades to come—and we will work to deliver that as early as possible.

Colin Smyth

I thank the minister for that answer, but it did not answer the question. I asked specifically when the Government is expected to deliver on its target of providing 100 per cent superfast broadband. Previously, the Government was very clear—it said consistently that it would do that by 2021, but the minister now seems to be saying that it will do so as soon as possible.

I ask the minister to answer the question. Will the Government meet its commitment to deliver 100 per cent superfast broadband under the R100 programme by 2021? Yes or no?

Paul Wheelhouse

As I said in my original answer, as Mr Smyth would know if he had been listening, we will confirm that once we have a supplier, or suppliers, in place. That is part of the negotiations with the bidders. We are setting them our objective of achieving the goals by 2021, and we are inviting them to submit their bids on the basis of how much they will deliver by 2021. That is how bidding works. It is impossible to say at this point in time, during the live procurement process, exactly what we will see, but I commit to giving Parliament more certainty on the delivery timescales as soon as we have a preferred bidder in place.

Colin Smyth

That was possibly the longest “No” that I have heard. It is quite clear that the Government is not going to hit the original target that it set.

The minister has announced that the contracts are being awarded a year later than was originally intended. As a result of the delays in awarding the contract, is it now less likely that the Government will meet the target and provide the coverage that it believed that it would provide by 2021, or is the Government still on target?

Paul Wheelhouse

Given the scale and complexity of the procurement, legally, financially and technically, we have always acknowledged that 2021 would be a challenging target to meet, but we will not sacrifice our aim of achieving the best result for Scotland. I am confident that the process is working well. We have maintained competition throughout the process, which is vital in ensuring that we get a good deal for the public taxpayer. We are getting good engagement through the process.

To give Mr Smyth confidence that the Scottish Government is delivering well on broadband, I need only direct him to Ofcom’s “Connected Nations 2018” report, which confirmed that Scotland continues to outperform the United Kingdom as a whole in providing superfast broadband access. [Interruption.] I can hear Conservative members scoffing, so I will quote what the report said:

“Over the past year the coverage of superfast broadband across the UK increased from 91% to 94%, with Scotland seeing the largest increase of 5 percentage points (pp) from 87% to 92%.”

Ofcom figures also show that, since the digital Scotland superfast broadband programme began in 2014, access to superfast broadband has increased by 31 percentage points in Scotland, whereas in the UK it has increased by just 19 percentage points.

Therefore, we are doing well. We want to continue our track record in delivering R100. As I said to Mr Smyth, I am confident that I will be able to give members a fuller update once the procurement process proceeds to the preferred bidder stage and the contractors are appointed, when we will have more information about the delivery timescales.

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

Five members wish to get in. If people are succinct, we might get through all five.

Finlay Carson (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con)

For 18 months, the Scottish Government has been crowing about R100 being delivered by 2021. That formed part of Derek Mackay’s 2017 budget announcement, which gave false hope to constituents right around the country. Although £600 million has been promised, investment in broadband infrastructure on the ground has fallen from £114 million in 2017-18 to only £32.9 million in 2019-20.

Will the minister apologise to my constituents and take immediate action to support businesses in my constituency, which are struggling for any kind of connectivity? Despite his protestations to the contrary, the Scottish National Party Government has responsibility for roll-out to areas where commercial providers are unable or unwilling to provide it on a commercial basis.

Paul Wheelhouse

Mr Carson, predictably, has gone for that line of attack. I need to remind Mr Carson—as I have reminded several Conservative MPs and MSPs who have written to me about broadband issues—that, as I said in my earlier answer, broadband services are the legal and regulatory responsibility of UK ministers. [Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer

Let the minister answer, please.

Paul Wheelhouse

Mr Carson wants me to direct my answer to delivery. Let us talk about delivery in Dumfries and Galloway. When the DSSB programme commenced, just 17 per cent of premises in Dumfries and Galloway could have a superfast broadband connection. By February of this year, 83.3 per cent were able to have a superfast connection. That is our record of delivery.

As I said in my response to Mr Smyth—[Interruption.] The member wants to disagree with Ofcom. Ofcom has highlighted that the Scottish Government’s track record is better than that of the UK Government. As I said, there has been a 31 per cent increase in Scotland since January 2014, compared with a 19 per cent increase in the UK as a whole. Despite the most challenging geography in these islands, we have overachieved compared with the UK average.

Richard Lyle (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

Can the minister advise members how the approach here, in Scotland, differs from that which is being taken by the UK Government? Broadband services are a reserved matter. How does that impact on R100? What contribution is the UK Government making to R100, and what is the UK Government’s target date for 100 per cent access to superfast broadband?

Paul Wheelhouse

That is an extremely important point. As Richard Lyle has said, the UK Government does not have a commitment to 100 per cent superfast coverage across the UK. Scotland is the only part of the UK to have made such a commitment, which is supported by £600 million of public investment that is targeted towards the areas that need it most.

Only £21 million—or 3.5 per cent—of that £600 million cost is being met by the UK Government, despite the fact that the responsibility for broadband is reserved wholly to Westminster. The UK Government has indicated that its objective is to have full fibre access across the UK by 2033, but no funding has been committed—there is no funding to support that ambition. The Scottish Government is not waiting. We have acted, and the £600 million that we have committed to the R100 programme will put Scotland in an enviable position as one of the best-connected nations in Europe. I hope that members across the chamber will get behind that.

Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

Given that NHS Highland is starting to rely on superfast broadband to deliver its NHS near me treatment service, does the minister agree with me that the failure to deliver R100 on time is bad for the health of highlanders?

Paul Wheelhouse

The point that Mr Mountain is trying to make is extremely unfair. In Highland alone, between January 2014 and February 2019, there has been an increase of 58.3 per cent in access to superfast coverage—that is the impact of the digital Scotland superfast broadband programme—which is well above the 19 per cent increase that we have seen across the UK over the same period. If anything, Highland has been well served by the investment that this Government is making, and our stewardship of the DSSB programme, along with our partners, has delivered an outstanding result. Perhaps the member might want to acknowledge that.

I agree that access to broadband is extremely important for innovation areas such as health innovation. Through CivTech and other measures, we are pioneering new approaches to use of digital technology in NHS Highland, and the area will benefit hugely from the investment in R100 and the continued investment in DSSB.

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

Is the minister aware of the UK Government’s announcement about the universal service provision for broadband, which is for a lower speed than that of the R100 programme? More fundamentally, it is a capped investment whereby the subscriber will have to pay any extra cost above the cap that the UK Government is putting in place. Is such a cap in place for the R100 programme?

Paul Wheelhouse

The short answer is no—there is no such cap for the R100 programme. We are looking to spend £600 million through the initial R100 procurement, but we have always acknowledged that we may need aligned interventions to supplement that amount. I am concerned that the initiatives that are in place as a result of the UK Government’s decisions around the universal service obligation will be insufficient to meet the cost of delivering a connection to many rural properties. Stewart Stevenson is absolutely right to highlight that, but we are trying to work with UK ministers to combine our efforts in respect of voucher schemes to get the biggest bang for the public buck and to do as much as we can to accelerate deployment in the areas that are affected by poor service, at present.

Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

Despite the picture that the minister and other SNP members have painted, whereby all seems to be rosy in the broadband garden, a Which? survey that was released earlier this year showed that parts of my Highlands and Islands region have among the worst broadband speeds in the country, with Orkney having the slowest speeds of any local authority area, Shetland being not far behind and Moray having the worst speeds of any mainland authority. At a time when more and more services are moving online, has the Scottish Government done any analysis of the wider cost of the delays to broadband roll-out, particularly for Scotland’s remote and rural communities?

Paul Wheelhouse

I have highlighted a number of times that the roll-out in Scotland has been faster than the UK average. Starting from a lower base, we have caught up and are now only two percentage points behind. I know that Jamie Halcro Johnston takes a particular interest in Orkney Islands Council. In the absence of DSSB, 11.1 per cent of premises there would have had access to superfast broadband, but the figure is currently 65.1 per cent. The R100 programme—[Interruption.] Mr Halcro Johnston should listen. In the R100 programme, we have given a commitment and have mandated areas across the Highlands and Islands to which access must be delivered by the selected bidders, and we have set weighted areas, particularly in our island communities, to ensure that we address the deficiencies in broadband coverage.

I remind Mr Halcro Johnston and other members that the area is a responsibility of the UK Government, in regulatory and legal terms. We are merely taking the funding that has been allocated, augmenting it with our resources and doing better than the UK Government in rolling out the schemes.

The Presiding Officer

I apologise to Rhoda Grant, but there is no time for any more supplementary questions. I can tell that there is a lot of interest in the subject.


Fisheries (Rockall)

2. Dr Alasdair Allan (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to protect Scotland’s fisheries interests around Rockall. (S5T-01695)

The Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs (Fiona Hyslop)

Our relationship with Ireland is strong and we value it highly. Our aim is to reach an amicable position with the Irish Government.

Before I set out the latest steps, it may be helpful to Parliament if I provide some background. In 2017, the Scottish Government became aware of a significant increase in fishing by Irish vessels in the territorial seas and fishing grounds within 12 nautical miles of Rockall. Irish and other European Union vessels with quota can, of course, fish in the external 200 nautical miles of the exclusive economic zone.

In April 2017, the then Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade asked to speak with me about his concerns regarding potential enforcement by Marine Scotland. Since 2017, we have had regular ministerial meetings and calls in which the issue has been discussed, alongside official-level meetings. We have made various political and diplomatic efforts to resolve the issue without the need for enforcement action. In September 2018, given that no resolution had been reached, we notified the Irish Government that, in the absence of an agreed way forward, we would need to prepare enforcement options, in line with international law, and that we would give the Irish Government notice of such action.

Dialogue is continuing between the Irish and Scottish Governments. In recent days, there have been close contacts at official level, and it has now been agreed that a process of intensified engagement will take place, which will be led by senior officials from both Administrations. We want to reach an agreement, and our Governments are talking as we speak in an effort to do so. While that discussion takes place, Marine Scotland will continue to monitor the area using aerial and satellite capabilities.

Dr Allan

As the cabinet secretary said, the Scottish Government clearly has the legal right to regulate fishing rights and access up to 12 nautical miles from Rockall, as is laid out in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. She will be aware of the importance of the fishing industry to my constituency and many other communities across Scotland. Will she outline to Parliament what increase in activity around Rockall there has been in recent years and what impact the notice of enforcement has had on any such activity?

Fiona Hyslop

Sustainable fishing and responsible fisheries management depend to a large degree on adherence to and enforcement of the law. In recent years, activity by Irish vessels in the area has increased sharply, from 15 incursions in 2015 to 33 in 2016 and 94 in 2017. In 2018, there was a slight decrease in activity due to a change in fishing quotas and the absence of some seasonal fisheries. Surveillance by Marine Scotland has shown a decrease in Irish vessels’ activity in the area as a result of the notice of enforcement action. Official and ministerial channels have always remained open throughout the period, and I welcome the move to intensify discussions in the coming days.

Dr Allan

I thank the cabinet secretary for that information. As she has outlined, domestic law recognises Rockall as part of Scotland; therefore, the Scottish Government clearly has a duty and an obligation to regulate the use of the territorial waters around it.

The actions of the Scottish Government, in showing our determination to protect the rights and interests of Scottish fishermen and our willingness to engage in discussions, have demonstrated that we take the protection of our fishing interests seriously. Will the cabinet secretary confirm that the dispute does not impact on our constructive relations with Ireland? Will she or the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy report back to Parliament on the outcome of the discussions that are currently under way?

Fiona Hyslop

It is our duty to protect the interests of the Scottish fishing industry and our territorial seas. In exercising our rights under international law, we have an obligation to uphold the law just as other countries do. Scotland has a strong and enduring relationship with our nearest neighbour, Ireland, which we value greatly—one that is demonstrated by our regular ministerial conversations and our political, economic and social connections. We hope that that strong relationship will lead to a constructive resolution. Parliament will be updated as and when there are further developments.

Andy Wightman (Lothian) (Green)

I declare an interest as an Irish citizen.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that Rockall was annexed by the British Crown on the advice of the Colonial Office when, in September 1955, Lieutenant Commander Scott landed on the rock, raised the union flag and announced:

“In the name of Her Majesty, I hereby take possession of this Island of Rockall.”

Does the cabinet secretary agree that we should reject complicity in Britain’s last act of colonialism, make it clear that we will have nothing to do with such land grabs and instead renounce any Scottish claims over Rockall?

Fiona Hyslop

Clearly, the issue of the United Kingdom Government’s sovereignty is one thing and management of sustainable fisheries—in which I would have thought that Mr Wightman would be interested—is another. The obligations and responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament in relation to sustainable fisheries management are clear, and the Scottish Government will continue to promote recognition of the importance of the fisheries industry to Scotland’s economic interests.

As I have said, I value our relationships very much. We want to strike up a new relationship with Ireland as we progress. Of course there may be difficulties along the way, but the way to resolve those is through diplomatic discussions with the Irish Government, which we have had and will continue to have.

The Presiding Officer

I apologise to Rhoda Grant once more, and also to Peter Chapman, as there is not enough time to take their supplementary questions. I imagine that both subjects will come back to the chamber in the future.