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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 12, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 12 March 2020

Agenda: Business Motion, General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Scottish Apprenticeship Week , Portfolio Question Time, Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Covid-19 (Update), Business Motion, Decision Time


General Question Time

Adverse Childhood Experiences (Renfrewshire South)

1. Tom Arthur (Renfrewshire South) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to tackle adverse childhood experiences in the Renfrewshire South constituency. (S5O-04260)

The Minister for Children and Young People (Maree Todd)

The Scottish Government recognises and is committed to tackling adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, within the Renfrewshire South constituency and across Scotland. This is a broad agenda that we are progressing across many ministerial portfolios, by pursuing four key areas for action that are set out in our programme for government. We are providing intergenerational support for parents, families and children; reducing the negative impact of ACEs for children and young people; developing adversity and trauma-informed workforce and services; and increasing societal awareness and supporting action across communities.

Tom Arthur

I thank the minister for her answer and welcome the work that the Scottish Government is doing. She referred to working across portfolios. One organisation that operates in my constituency is Youth Interventions, which is based in Linwood. It address issues with adolescent substance misuse and the experiences of young people who have grown up in households where there was substance misuse.

Will the minister join me in commending the work of Youth Interventions? Will she also accept my invitation to come to Linwood and Renfrewshire South to see its work at first hand?

Maree Todd

Absolutely. I welcome the valuable work that Youth Interventions carries out in Renfrewshire by supporting young people who are affected by alcohol and drug use. Addressing the impact that they can have on individuals and their families is absolutely critical to preventing adverse childhood experiences and to safeguarding future generations. I would be more than happy to consider a visit to Youth Interventions, so I ask Mr Arthur to contact my office directly with further details.

Discretionary Housing Payments (Pension Rules)

2. Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what impact changes to the pension age and new rules for mixed-age couples might have on discretionary housing payments in Scotland. (S5O-04261)

The Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government (Aileen Campbell)

I am deeply concerned that those damaging United Kingdom Government policies will punish older people. We estimate that the change could lead to an annual loss of as much as £7,000 per household, and by 2023-24 could affect as many as 5,600 households in Scotland.

The effects of the changes will impact on entitlement to assistance such as cold weather payments, and will also increase the number of households impacted by the bedroom tax, therefore increasing demand for discretionary housing payments, which we use to mitigate the bedroom tax in full. The Scottish Fiscal Commission forecast that that unwelcome change for mixed-age couples will cost an additional £3 million in 2020-21.

Bob Doris

I am glad that the Scottish Government has estimated how much that double whammy—the removal of financial support to pensioner households and the requirement for the Scottish Government to pick up the pieces in 2020-21—will cost. Will the cabinet secretary make representations to the UK Government to either reverse those policies or financially make recompense to the Scottish Parliament?

Aileen Campbell

As Bob Doris knows, we have urged the UK Government on a number of occasions to reverse its damaging welfare cuts and we will continue to do so. The action that we are taking to tackle poverty and inequality is clearly reflected in the budget for 2020-21. It includes investment of £110 million to mitigate the worst impacts of UK Government welfare cuts, including the bedroom tax. That includes an increase of £3 million following the Scottish Fiscal Commission’s modelling of the increase to the pension credit qualifying age and the UK Government’s changes to benefits for mixed-age couples. We would much rather spend that £110 million on other priorities, including tackling child poverty, and it is a pity that we have to continue to mitigate the actions of the UK Government.

Access to Community Sports Facilities

3. Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to ensure that people across the country have easy access to community sports facilities. (S5O-04262)

The Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing (Joe FitzPatrick)

The Scottish Government is committed to ensuring that everyone across Scotland has access to sporting facilities in their local community. Sportscotland is on track to achieve our commitment of delivering 200 community sport hubs across the country in 2020. As members will know, community sport hubs focus on sustainable, community-led approaches that get clubs and local partners working together to develop welcoming, safe and fun environments for sport that meet local needs.

Brian Whittle

Community sports assets across the country have been an easy target for council cuts, especially in rural and more deprived areas, as council budgets are continually squeezed. Does the minister agree that cutting access to activity is a false economy, because, if the spend on the preventative agenda is cut, it will just appear as poor health outcomes in a ledger later on? If so, what will the Scottish Government do to reverse that trend?

Joe FitzPatrick

Brian Whittle will be well aware that the budgets of local authorities across Scotland have been supported in a way that we have not seen elsewhere on these islands. That has allowed local decision makers to consider a range of priorities, and we are now seeing more people involved in a range of sporting activities across Scotland.

Mr Whittle often comes to the chamber expecting the Scottish Government to centrally direct local decision makers. That surprises me, because I thought that we all believed that localism is important and that local decisions should be made by councils and not by me as the Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing.

We need to work together and support local authorities if they are supporting sporting and other physical activities. There is fantastic work going on across Scotland, and I would always encourage local authorities to work with a range of partners to make sure that the offering in their areas continues to improve, such that people become more active everywhere in Scotland.

Shetland College (Proposed Privatisation)

4. Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had regarding the proposed privatisation of the new merged college on Shetland. (S5O-04263)

The Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science (Richard Lochhead)

The Scottish Government is in regular contact with the Scottish Funding Council on the issue, but we have not yet received any formal business case for a merger. We expect that it will be submitted in due course, at which point it will undergo full scrutiny.

Rhoda Grant

Concerns have been expressed to me about the level of consultation with staff, students and the wider public. Concerns were also expressed around access to public funds for further and higher education and the impact of privatisation on staff’s terms and conditions. In order to allay those fears, can the minister advise me what protections would be available in the event of privatisation, and say whether privatisation will be blocked, should it carry such risks?

Richard Lochhead

The proposal has been developed locally and we await a final business case to be signed off by the Scottish Funding Council, which the Scottish Government would consult on before any legislation was put in place to make the merger officially happen.

With regard to the funding, a financial memorandum would have to be put together and signed for the new merger, should it proceed. The memorandum would also be signed off by the Scottish Funding Council. Processes are in place to make sure that such matters are in order. If Rhoda Grant has specific concerns, she should write to me and I will have them looked at.

Disability Employment Gap

5. James Dornan (Glasgow Cathcart) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to reduce the disability employment gap. (S5O-04264)

The Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills (Jamie Hepburn)

The Scottish Government is committed to at least halving the disability employment gap in Scotland by 2038. We launched our disability employment action plan in December 2018 and we will shortly publish our first progress report. In the action plan, the baseline disability employment gap was 37.4 per cent. In the latest statistics, which cover the period from October 2018 to September 2019, the disability employment gap was 33.9 per cent.

To date, progress in taking forward the action plan includes: publishing our recruitment and retention plan; establishing a public social partnership to support employers to recruit and retain disabled people; and, through fair start Scotland, delivering personalised support to 19,000 people, 5,000 of whom have already been supported into work.

James Dornan

I recently met several of my constituents who have extensive physical disabilities. They have found it difficult to find and hold down permanent work. What actions in the action plan will help my constituents to secure long-term employment?

Jamie Hepburn

The disability employment action plan is a pan-disability plan, but I recognise that some groups can be disproportionately impacted and might require more targeted support to find and sustain employment. My initial answer set out some of the progress that we have made, such as the recruitment and retention plan and the public social partnership, which will support the constituents whose cases James Dornan laid out as a source of concern for him.

We are also taking forward an accessible travel framework, which will remove barriers that prevent people from travelling and we have established the parental employability support fund, which has a focus on disabled parents. We continue to take forward fair start Scotland, which supports many disabled people, and our £800,000 workplace equality fund supports employers to adopt fair and inclusive workplace practices that support disability-related issues. Some of the work is under way; there is more to be done, but Mr Dornan can be assured that we will continue to take forward that work.

Employability Services

6. Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the Scottish Fiscal Commission’s forecast that spending on devolved employability services will be £27 million lower in 2022-23. (S5O-04265)

The Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills (Jamie Hepburn)

Fair start Scotland was commissioned for a three-year referral period, ending in March 2021, with a further two years for people to benefit from the nature of the support that is offered. The forecast figures reflect the natural tailing off of that contract. The latest statistics show that more than 19,000 people have started on the service, with more than 5,000 people supported into work in a dignified and respectful way.

Mark Griffin

The minister’s answer adds to a series of written responses that reveal that Remploy is no longer active in the scheme in Glasgow; the third sector no longer supports the scheme in Tayside; Rathbone and the Wise group have left the south-west scheme; and, in my region, NHS Forth Valley has pulled out. On top of the Scottish Fiscal Commission forecast that spend will be £4 million lower this year than it said it would be 18 months ago, freedom of information requests have revealed that all the contracts are under performance management after hundreds of compliance issues have been identified. By all accounts, the scheme is in crisis. Fair start Scotland was meant to get disabled people into work and yet we are more than half way through the period and only 10 per cent of referrals have made it into a job for three months or more. How will the Scottish Government turn fair start Scotland around?

Jamie Hepburn

That is an extraordinary question. There was not one word of welcome from Mr Griffin that, since the beginning of this initiative, 19,000 people the length and breadth of this country have been supported through the service—5,000 of them into employment—in the dignified and person-centred fashion in which we sought to take it forward. None of them were under the threat of sanction, unlike in the previous initiative that was in place under the United Kingdom Government.

Mark Griffin suggested that it is not a successful initiative; I utterly reject the premise of his question. In the first year of operation of the programme, we supported the equivalent of 9 per cent of the unemployed population in Scotland. The programme that is in existence in England and Wales—which would, presumably, have operated in Scotland had it not been devolved, allowing us to take a different approach—supported only 4 per cent of the unemployed population in those countries. As such, I totally and utterly reject the notion that the programme is not delivering for the people of Scotland.

Colin Beattie (Midlothian North and Musselburgh) (SNP)

The Scottish Government has taken a substantially different approach to employability services from that of the UK Government, most notably in that participation is voluntary. Will the minister advise how the reach of devolved employability services compares to that of UK Government programmes?

Jamie Hepburn

The most fundamental way that it differs is the way that I just outlined to Mr Griffin. Unlike in the approach that is taken by the UK Government, we do not compel people to take part in our programmes under the threat of being sanctioned under the social security system. We have heard that the UK approach has delivered many people into serious circumstances of further deprivation.

I have already laid out the fact that we are supporting a wider cohort of the unemployed population. In relation to the unemployed disabled population in particular, in its last year of operation in Scotland, work choice, which was operated by the Department for Work and Pensions, supported 12 per cent of the unemployed disabled population in Scotland; by contrast, in the first year of fair start Scotland, we supported 19 per cent of the same population. In addition, in the analysis of the first year of operation of our programme, of the 1,000 participants who were surveyed, more than 90 per cent said that they were being treated in a dignified and respectful manner. That is the approach that I will continue to take with our employability services. Yes, there is much to learn; however, we are delivering for the people of Scotland.

Hate Speech

7. John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government how it ensures that the action that it takes to restrict hate speech does not inadvertently discourage freedom of speech. (S5O-04266)

The Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government (Aileen Campbell)

Scotland is a modern and inclusive nation that protects, respects and realises internationally recognised human rights. Any form of hate crime is, nonetheless, unacceptable. In June 2017, the Scottish Government published an ambitious programme of work to tackle hate crime through an action group that I chair. Our plans include the introduction of a hate crime bill during this parliamentary term. The bill, like all our efforts to tackle hate crime, has been carefully balanced against the fundamental rights and freedoms of all who live in Scotland, as reflected in human rights legislation.

John Mason

We have had two recent cases in Glasgow where freedom of speech has, apparently, been restricted. One case was when Franklin Graham was refused an event at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre, and the other case was when was refused an event at the Glasgow Women's Library. It appears that there is a cooling towards freedom of speech and that, when someone disagrees with someone else, it is simply called hate speech.

Aileen Campbell

I am aware of the exchanges that John Mason referred to, and I am sure that we are all aware of the tone and nature of some of the discussion and dialogue that has gone along with them. That tone is not necessarily helpful in carving out the space for dialogue, discussion and debate, and for that to be done respectfully.

As I said in my earlier reply, Scotland is a modern and inclusive nation; however, that does not happen by accident. It is precious, and we need to work hard to keep that. It is incumbent on all of us as parliamentarians to ensure that we set the right tone, lead by example, and are guided by kindness, respect and empathy. That should be the hallmark of our approach to all the vexing and challenging discussions that we have.

Gordon Lindhurst (Lothian) (Con)

Following on from the cabinet secretary’s comments, does she share the concern of many Christians in Edinburgh at the cancellation of a Destiny Church event at the public Usher Hall venue, and their concern about perceived, potentially state-supported, religious censorship?

Aileen Campbell

As I said, the tone of some of the dialogue that happens around that is, sometimes, not necessarily helpful. I am happy to meet Gordon Lindhurst and John Mason should they have concerns to make sure that, as we take forward the hate crime bill, they can be made to feel reassured.

As I said, Scotland is a modern and inclusive nation; however, that has to be worked hard for. We should lead by example. We will meet members to discuss concerns to ensure that we proceed in a positive way and that people do not feel in any way threatened.

Glasgow School of Art (Morale)

8. Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reported concerns regarding morale at the Glasgow School of Art. (S5O-04267)

The Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science (Richard Lochhead)

The Scottish Funding Council continues to meet the Glasgow School of Art senior management on a regular basis to ensure that the high level of governance that we expect of our higher education institutions is delivered, and to support staff and students.

Pauline McNeill

The minister will be aware that the Glasgow School of Art has paid out a staggering £800,000, accompanied by confidentiality agreements. Such gagging orders are concerning, because the people involved have important information about the running of the school. In contrast, whistleblower Gordon Gibb was sacked for speaking out about his view of the running of the school. Given that the school gets funding from the Scottish Funding Council, when will the minister start asking the institution to account for that unacceptable sacking of a whistleblower and for the fact that it has presided over dreadful relations at a critical time, or is he not concerned about that?

Richard Lochhead

As I explained to the member a few moments ago and in answering her previous questions on the issue, the Scottish Funding Council has considered all the procedures that the Glasgow School of Art followed and takes the view that they were followed correctly.

There are now five new members of the Glasgow School of Art board, and a new director, Penny Macbeth, was recently appointed. I hope that Pauline McNeill will take the opportunity to meet the new board members and the new director to discuss her concerns with them. I look forward to meeting them as well.

I am pleased to say that, in the latest QS world university rankings, which were published only last week, the school was named eighth in the world for delivering art and design courses. We should all welcome that.