Election 2021

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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 11 August 2020

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Coronavirus Acts Report, Examination Results, Covid-19, Business Motion, Decision Time


Topical Question Time

Covid-19 Restrictions (Aberdeen)

1. Mark McDonald (Aberdeen Donside) (Ind)

To ask the Scottish Government what conditions it expects to be met to enable the easing of local restrictions in Aberdeen. (S5T-02300)

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport (Jeane Freeman)

We will review the current situation tomorrow, at the end of the initial seven-day period, to consider whether the restrictions remain necessary. Our decisions will be informed by the advice of the Grampian incident management team, local clinical advice and our own Scottish Government clinical advice. The evidence and data available to us as we take those decisions covers the number of cases, the rate of increase or decrease in numbers of people infected, changes or not in age range, and the situation in neighbouring geographies. Case numbers today, as the member may know, are beginning to show that the situation appears to be decelerating but has not yet stopped.

Mark McDonald

I am sure that the cabinet secretary will appreciate that these are very worrying times for my constituents and for other residents in the city of Aberdeen, many of whom hope that good news will be round the corner but recognise nonetheless that the risk remains.

The Scottish Government guidance on the matter covers many issues, but one issue that was not covered and that remains ambiguous is about individuals who live in Aberdeen city—maybe grandparents—who are caring for children on behalf of parents who live in Aberdeenshire, or vice versa, to enable those individuals to work or to return to work.

Will the cabinet secretary give guidance in relation to those arrangements and say whether they are okay to continue under the current restrictions? If she cannot answer that now, will she assure me that the Scottish Government will publish that advice as soon as possible?

Jeane Freeman

I am grateful to Mark McDonald for that important supplementary question. Rather than attempt to answer in detail now, I undertake to provide Mr McDonald with an answer today on the current situation. Dependent on the decision that is taken tomorrow at the seven-day review, that situation will either continue for another period or be ended, but we will provide an answer to him today.

Mark McDonald

I fully appreciate that it is better that we get a detailed response that gives reassurance to parents rather than an answer in the chamber that might not reflect the full detail that is required.

Another issue that has come up this week in my constituency mailbag—and, I suspect, other members’ mailbags—is about the reopening of schools. I appreciate that there will be a statement tomorrow from the Scottish Government on the wider context of school reopening, but many parents in Aberdeen have concerns about the reopening of schools while the current local restrictions are in place. Yesterday evening, I had a helpful meeting with my son’s school at which the headteacher was able to allay and address some of those concerns, but that will not be the case for all parents.

What steps will the cabinet secretary take to provide reassurance to parents about the robustness of the data that the Scottish Government is using to facilitate the reopening of schools, and to reassure parents in Aberdeen that their children and families are safe as the return to schools takes place this week?

Jeane Freeman

As Mark McDonald and other members know, one of our driving motivations in making the difficult decision to impose additional restrictions on the citizens of Aberdeen was to ensure that we could continue towards its being safe for schools there to reopen, along with schools elsewhere in the country. That is because of the importance of young people getting back to learning.

In Aberdeen, the incident management team, which involves the local authority, has access to detailed data. I expect the local authority, through its director of education and others, to ensure that local schools are aware of the data that the incident management team is looking at and to pick up any specific issues. My colleague the Deputy First Minister is dealing with those, with particular regard to Aberdeen. Nonetheless, if Mark McDonald or any other member from the city wants a specific answer on particular issues, I ask them to let me know what those are. We will be very content to give them an early answer to any specific questions that they receive from their constituents.

Lewis Macdonald (North East Scotland) (Lab)

[Inaudible.]—businesses in Aberdeen did their absolute utmost to keep staff and customers safe, but have had to close in the meantime in order to protect wider public health. Will the cabinet secretary join me in supporting the petition that was launched today by Khalis Miah of the Riksha restaurant, calling for the eat out to help out scheme to be rescheduled in Aberdeen to start after local restrictions have been lifted?

Jeane Freeman

Mr Macdonald is absolutely correct, in as much as very many businesses in Aberdeen city and elsewhere across Scotland have taken great steps and gone to great pains to ensure that their premises are as safe as possible and that they comply with the guidance that we have issued for the reopening of the hospitality industry. Nonetheless, I recognise that there are impacts on businesses in the city, because of the decisions that have been taken and the restrictions that have been imposed.

There has been additional financial support for Aberdeen, as there has been for other areas in Scotland. I know that the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture is speaking with local business organisations in the city to see whether more can be done. I am happy to ensure that she is aware of that petition and can take a view on how she might want to proceed.

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

I will select Tom Mason, if he is there remotely.

Tom Mason (North East Scotland) (Con)

I am here. Can you hear me?

The Presiding Officer

We can.

Tom Mason

Contact tracing is essential if we are to get back to any normality. However, at the beginning of the outbreak, an Aberdeen bar had to proactively get in touch with contact tracers because nobody from the national health service had contacted it. Establishments were then given an apology after they were added to the list of premises linked to the outbreak without being told. That is on top of the reports that only an additional eight contact tracers were sent to the area. How many contact tracers are working on the outbreak and, of that number, how many were sent after the outbreak started?

Jeane Freeman

NHS Grampian has 97 trained contact tracers in the local area who are available to be used. Over a short period, the number of cases in Grampian has grown to 253, 165 of which are associated with the cluster, and 875 contacts have been traced. In addition, more have been worked on between the reporting period yesterday and today, linked to the 27 cases in Grampian that I announced earlier. We see from that information that the contact tracing operation is working effectively.

NHS Grampian has received additional support in the form of 16 people from the national contact tracing centre to assist it and so that work can continue over the weekend, when contact tracers who have been working on the outbreak considerably and with great effect need to take some time off.

The case numbers and complexity of the cluster are particularly challenging and have been growing. At this point, we have sufficient contact tracers in Grampian, and I check that every day. We have that additional support and we are making sure that we have sufficient contact tracers for cases elsewhere in the country, particularly for the investigative work that is under way on the 13 cases that have been reported for the greater Glasgow and Clyde area.

The Presiding Officer

I hope that Maureen Watt can also join us remotely.

Maureen Watt (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

Will the Scottish Government consider extra support beyond the job retention scheme for businesses in Aberdeen that are impacted by the closure?

Jeane Freeman

The Scottish Government has already provided an estimated £62 million to the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors in Aberdeen city as part of Covid relief, and £20 million was provided on 4 August for small business support grants. However, as I said, the economy secretary, Ms Hyslop, has been in contact with local business organisations and is engaging with local partners to make sure that we understand what additional impacts may have been brought about by the imposition of the additional restrictions and to discuss whether we could do more to support the affected businesses.

National Health Service (Pay and Conditions)

2. Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government when it will begin talks with trade unions regarding national health service staff pay and conditions. (S5T-02306)

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport (Jeane Freeman)

Through the Scottish terms and conditions committee—STAC, as it is known—we have already begun to talk with NHS Scotland agenda for change trade union representatives about the approach to the pay deal for 2021-22. I maintain regular contact with those trade unions and I have asked them, through STAC, to work out their plan for negotiations and bring that back to me by the end of this month.

The 2020-21 pay uplift, which is the third year of the three-year pay agreement that was reached, was implemented on 1 April this year, as members would expect. Based on the discussions that I have had with the trade unions and on what comes back to me from STAC, I am looking forward to beginning the negotiations properly for the next round of pay talks.

Monica Lennon

I thank the cabinet secretary for her response. However, as recently as lunch time today, trade unions have told me that they still do not have enough clarity about where they stand or on whether the cabinet secretary will get round the table with them to discuss pay.

We all understand that clapping for healthcare workers does not pay their bills. Therefore, will the cabinet secretary give a firm commitment to NHS staff that the Scottish Government will reopen pay talks and, if so, when will that be?

Jeane Freeman

I am disappointed that trade unions are passing on that information or expressing those concerns to Ms Lennon. I do not doubt her; I am just disappointed because, in the two conversations that I have had—with Unison and most recently with the Royal College of Nursing—we discussed the pay talks and what I had asked them to do.

To be fair, I have received a letter from STAC today that asks for clarity on what is in and out of scope. That is probably the easiest way to describe what is in the letter. I do not have it with me, but broadly speaking that is its ask. The letter came from both the employer and trade union side of that body, and I will respond to it.

However, my commitment remains as it has always been: it is to begin the discussions and negotiations on the next pay agreement as soon as possible. That is why, notwithstanding everything that everyone else is engaged in—not least those union representatives—I want us to know the framework of the negotiations at the end of August, and then begin those negotiations.

I have meetings with Unison every two to three weeks and with the RCN every two weeks or thereabouts. Therefore, I am due to speak to Unison again shortly. At that point, if it wants further clarification, I am happy to give it—indeed, I am happy to give it at any point. In the meantime, we will get back to STAC with the clarification that it has sought on the scope of the plans that I have asked it to come forward with.

Monica Lennon

I welcome the cabinet secretary’s commitment to further dialogue. She will be aware that Unison has launched a pay up now campaign. There is a strong feeling among its members that there is an urgency around pay. Does the cabinet secretary intend to attend one of the demonstrations that have been organised by Unison, at the start of next week, to—[Interruption.]

The issue is important for Government back benchers, too, because they have all had letters from Unison members who are not very happy with the standard lines that they are getting from the Government. I am simply asking the cabinet secretary if she will go along to one of the socially distanced demonstrations and listen to what those health workers, who we all value, have to say about their jobs and terms and conditions.

Jeane Freeman

I have received many emails from health and social care workers about their terms and conditions and how they want to see improvement in those—I am sure that Ms Lennon and other members have received similar e-mails—and I think that I am on record as saying that I am sympathetic to the views that they express.

However, I need to go through the proper negotiating channels. The agenda for change, which has stood the health service in Scotland in very good stead, involves all the unions that are represented. As I said, I will speak to the unions, go through those channels and conduct the negotiations properly. That is what I intend to do, although I continue to receive the views of individual health and social care workers and their local representatives and, as always, I pay close attention to what they say to me.

Dirty Camping

3. Gordon MacDonald (Edinburgh Pentlands) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to tackle so-called dirty camping, in the light of more people looking to beauty spots such as the Pentland hills for holidays this year. (S5T-02305)

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism (Fergus Ewing)

Scotland’s landscapes and natural environment are among our most precious assets. Many people have taken the opportunity to enjoy them and the outdoors, particularly after such a sustained period of lockdown. Most people are doing so in a responsible fashion by obeying both the law and the terms of the access code.

However, it is unfortunate that a small minority of people are spoiling that for others by endangering themselves, local communities and the environment. We are aware of a growing number of incidents and complaints about littering, antisocial behaviour and criminal damage. I am absolutely clear that such irresponsible behaviour is totally unacceptable. Police Scotland is alert to all these matters; it has already used powers to issue on-the-spot fines for antisocial behaviour, which, like littering and fly-tipping, is a criminal offence for which fixed penalties can be issued.

We partnered with Zero Waste Scotland and Keep Scotland Beautiful to develop a national anti-littering campaign, which launched on 15 July. We are working with local authorities and Police Scotland on what more can be done to protect our environment and communities across Scotland.

Gordon MacDonald

The local community is rightly angry about the destructive and antisocial behaviour that has been carried out by dirty campers in some of the most scenic areas of the Pentlands, which I regret led to a fishing bailiff, who is over the age of retirement, being brutally attacked by four young men at Harlaw reservoir. Will the cabinet secretary outline what support Scottish Natural Heritage can provide to protect the community and this regional park for future generations?

Fergus Ewing

I am limited in what I can say about a specific incident that may be subject to police investigation at the moment. However, in general terms, any such attack on an individual by a group of people is cowardly, disgusting and completely unacceptable. The City of Edinburgh Council is the managing authority for Pentlands regional park and, as Mr MacDonald has said, SNH has a statutory requirement to promote the use and enjoyment of the natural heritage. However, incidents such as the one mentioned are plainly a matter for the police, as the law enforcement agency. I strongly urge anyone who encounters suspicious behaviour to put their own safety first and to call the police.

Gordon MacDonald

One impact of staycations this year is the number of cars trying to access the Pentland hills car parks and the resulting congestion on rural roads. What financial support is available to local authorities to provide more walking and cycling routes to places such as the Pentland hills in order to discourage car use?

Fergus Ewing

Our policy is to support local authorities through delegation to the local level as much as we possibly can. Against that backdrop, local government funding is distributed directly by means of a block grant, and it is the responsibility of local authorities to allocate financial resource based on their assessments of local needs. Through the funding package of £11.8 billion in 2020-21, coupled with the ability to increase council tax by 3 per cent in real terms, local authorities have access to more than £1 billion for day-to-day services in 2021.

We are also committed to active travel, now and in the future. The budget was increased from £80 million to £100 million, which is an investment that will enable the continued delivery of high-quality walking, cycling and wheeling infrastructure and will enable more people to choose to walk and cycle for shorter journeys or as part of a longer multimodal journey.

There are a lot of strands to this answer, Presiding Officer, so I ask you to bear with me. The Scottish Government’s rural tourism infrastructure fund, which is managed by VisitScotland, was created to address the hot spots—the increasing popularity of several areas of Scotland where there are high levels of concern among the local populace about the behaviour of a few spoiling it for the many.

The Presiding Officer

We have five potential supplementaries on this subject.

Rachael Hamilton (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

Rural crime, which is on the rise, puts huge pressure on local communities. I accept what the cabinet secretary has said about conversations that have taken place with Police Scotland and local authorities, but what specific conversations has he had with the Scottish Partnership Against Rural Crime in order to tackle the scourge of so-called dirty camping, which to my mind is as bad an offence as fly-tipping?

Fergus Ewing

The member is correct that that particular crime is causing many concerns around Scotland at the moment. I have engaged with the police in relation to the general issues—for example, some weeks ago, I chaired a conference call on which Police Scotland was represented in relation to particular problems in the Morar and Arisaig areas.

As I referred to in my answer to Gordon MacDonald, I know that Police Scotland has also issued many notices and fines in the Loch Lomond area. In answer to Ms Hamilton’s specific question, I formally met the consortia group on tackling rural crime on a farm visit.

I also point out that fly-tipping is subject to a maximum fine of £40,000. It is useful to have the opportunity to highlight that. Although such matters are plainly up to the courts, we can all see that fly-tipping is a particularly selfish crime that causes real problems, particularly for farmers, and risks health.

It really is time that Scotland rid itself of such littering, fly-tipping behaviour, which, although committed by a relatively small number of individuals, causes enormous damage and misery for many others.

Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)

There have been huge problems with dirty campers at Gladhouse reservoir in Midlothian South in my constituency. Fires have been left unattended, trees have been hacked down, human waste has been left behind and verbal abuse has been directed at local people. Does the cabinet secretary think that the access code needs to be revisited, and should there be an increase in fines?

Fergus Ewing

We have already increased the fines for littering: the spot fine was increased from £50 to £80 a few years back. I have also mentioned the maximum fine for fly-tipping, which is £40,000.

However, Christine Grahame is quite right to raise the issue. I and other ministers have received many complaints about dirty camping, fly-tipping and other types of behaviour. I should say that, although the fixed penalty for littering is £80, if such an offence is prosecuted, the fine can be £2,500. Powers to deal with antisocial behaviour are also available to local authorities through the provisions of the Antisocial Behaviour etc (Scotland) Act 2004.

To answer Ms Grahame’s specific question, my colleague Roseanna Cunningham has responsibility, along with Scottish Natural Heritage, for the access code. I know from my discussions with Ms Cunningham that she shares all those concerns. All of us feel that we must ensure that the penalties for such behaviour are of such a high level that they have the necessary deterrent effect. However, there is perhaps a wider cultural problem in Scotland with littering, which we just do not see in countries such as Norway, where there is scarcely a wrapping or an empty bottle to be seen on the streets anywhere in that country. That cultural problem is for all of us, as individuals in our society, to address.

Andy Wightman (Lothian) (Green)

I note that the question from Mr MacDonald wisely used the term “dirty camping”, but the media have been widely using the term “wild camping”. I am sure that the cabinet secretary would agree that wild camping, which takes place well away from the public highway, is substantially carried out responsibly. Such freedoms are of long standing in Scotland and should be upheld. Does he agree that nothing should be done to inhibit the freedoms of genuine wild campers, who should be able to continue to enjoy the countryside responsibly?

Fergus Ewing

Mr Wightman makes a perfectly fair point. I do not think that anyone would wish to see a move to make wild camping illegal. It is simply camping outwith permitted regulated areas such as caravan sites. It is a part of our human freedoms and of people’s enjoyment of the countryside.

When walking around Loch Morlich, for example, I have observed that the vast majority of wild campers are law abiding, as Mr Wightman has said. They leave the place where they have camped as they found it. Those are the watchwords of wild campers, and I would stress that the vast majority of people who partake in wild camping behave in that way.

Sadly, we need to try and reach out to the minority to persuade them to mend their ways—and, if they do not, to apply the full weight of the law. I think there is an appetite among many members across the Parliament for considering fines towards the maximum level, where appropriate.

Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

The cabinet secretary has already outlined a pretty full response to the questions. I recently met members of the Loch Ken Trust, one of whose members of staff had been threatened with physical assault. It is really worrying to hear about the brutal attack on the fishing bailiff that Gordon MacDonald described. Would the cabinet secretary support any additional education that the Scottish Government might be able to provide—it could also be provided by other organisations such as Police Scotland—in support of the training of community groups, so that they can learn how to de-escalate or deal with challenging behaviours? Could that be looked at?

Fergus Ewing

Emma Harper is quite right to raise concerns regarding her region, and I join her in whole-heartedly condemning behaviour of the sort that she has described.

I indeed think that there is a role for increased training. I know that Scottish Natural Heritage is working with the Scottish Countryside Rangers Association and other organisations towards that end. Forestry and Land Scotland has staff who are assisting in educating and informing people about how to behave. A whole host of people carry out that sort of work on a daily basis, for whose efforts we should all be very grateful.

I agree with Emma Harper that more can be done to train more people to do that work, because the response from all the agencies at the moment, although substantial, is plainly not sufficient to deal with the problems that we are seeing, sadly, from a small minority of people in this country.

The Presiding Officer

I am conscious that there are three members—John Scott, Neil Findlay and Finlay Carson—who wanted to ask questions. I am afraid, however, that we have already run more than 10 minutes over time. Members will hopefully get another opportunity to ask questions, possibly at First Minister’s question time or at ministers’ questions later this afternoon.