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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, April 26, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 26 April 2018

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Business Motion, Civil Litigation (Expenses and Group Proceedings) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Standards Commission for Scotland (Appointment of Member), Motion without Notice, Decision Time


General Question Time

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

Good morning. The first item of business is general question time. As usual, I ask for nice succinct questions and nice succinct answers to match—I live in hope.

Children’s Food Environment

1. Clare Haughey (Rutherglen) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it can take to improve the food environment for children. (S5O-02017)

The Minister for Public Health and Sport (Aileen Campbell)

We have to make it easier for all of us to make positive dietary choices, including by changing the environments that influence what we buy and eat. We are all susceptible, but children are especially impressionable.

I will set out in the summer how we will do that in our new strategy for healthy weight, which will include world-leading measures to restrict promotions of food that is high in fat, sugar or salt.

The Scottish Government has already taken other actions, including extending, from August 2020, free school lunches for all young children attending funded early learning and childcare.

As part of the recently published child poverty delivery plan, we have committed to investing £1 million over the next two years to provide additional practical support to children experiencing food insecurity during school holidays.

Clare Haughey

Last year, research commissioned by the obesity health alliance found that children can see up to 12 adverts per hour for high-fat, high-sugar foods while watching prime-time family television programmes.

Does the minister agree that if the United Kingdom Government fails to restrict junk food advertising before 9pm, which would improve the wider food environment for children, the power to do so should be devolved to this Parliament, so that we can act?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I call Michelle Ballantyne. I am sorry—I meant to call the minister, but I am alert to the fact that Michelle Ballantyne wants to come in.

Aileen Campbell

Thanks for the heads-up, Presiding Officer. I absolutely agree with my colleague Clare Haughey. Children do not restrict themselves to watching just the children’s channels. Increasingly, shows such as “The X Factor”, “Britain’s Got Talent” and a host of others are watched by whole families. We are all susceptible to advertising, but I reiterate that children are particularly impressionable. That is why we will continue to urge the UK Government to take action to restrict all such advertising until after the 9pm watershed. We have argued that if it does not make headway on that issue, it should provide us with the power to take such action.

I point the member to the recent letter that was issued to the Prime Minister by a range of supporters on this issue, including Jeremy Corbyn, Nicola Sturgeon, Vince Cable, Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley, who are pressing the UK Government to take action in this area.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Strangely enough, I call Michelle Ballantyne.

Michelle Ballantyne (South Scotland) (Con)

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has urged ministers to introduce measures to make it easier for councils to keep junk food away from schools to reduce the temptation for pupils. Is the Scottish Government inclined to support that proposal?

Aileen Campbell

We got a range of responses to our recent consultation. Of course we will take on board all the views, particularly those from bodies that have expertise in this field. We have looked at things that are within our gift, given the powers that we have. It is not just about pushing the UK Government to do something; it is also about looking at the powers that we have to make sure that we can create the right environment for children to have healthy lives.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Question 2 has been withdrawn.

Taxis (Diesel to LPG Conversion)

3. Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it takes to encourage more diesel taxi owners to convert to liquefied petroleum gas. (S5O-02019)

The Minister for Transport and the Islands (Humza Yousaf)

Although no specific support is currently available for LPG taxi conversions, the Scottish Government provides loans to replace older hackney cabs with new, efficient Euro 6 diesel or electric models to reduce harmful emissions.

Miles Briggs

The City of Edinburgh Council has acted positively in relation to LPG conversions by introducing the incentive of a four-year licence extension for those who convert their taxis and private hire vehicles to LPG. However, other council areas, including Glasgow, which the minister represents, are taking a different approach.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I would like to hear a question.

Miles Briggs

Will the minister look at how conversions can be mandated through the national low emission framework?

Humza Yousaf

I am interested in a range of technologies. I will certainly reflect on what Miles Briggs said—I also saw his press release from a couple of weeks ago. There are some caveats to set out. Although LPG conversion will often see a reduction in NOx—nitrogen oxide—and particulate matter, there is evidence, particularly from the Birmingham study, that it does not have the same reduction effect on carbon oxide and greenhouse gas emissions; the effect can be marginal and, in fact, there can be an increase in levels of carbon monoxide in LPG-converted taxis.

We have to make sure that we take an evidence-based approach, but the points that Miles Briggs made are good and I will reflect on them.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

The minister may be aware of taxi firms in Dundee and London that have only electric vehicles now. Will he consider speaking to local authorities about the idea of having EV-only taxi ranks, charging facilities, and so on, to try to deliver the climate change ambitions in the climate change plan?

Humza Yousaf

Yes, I certainly will. Dundee is streets ahead of any other local authority when it comes to having an EV taxi fleet. The member knows that I am up in Orkney tomorrow and I am more than happy to have that conversation with the local authority area, which is of course ploughing ahead with its own ambitions on electric vehicles.

Universal Credit (Impact on Services)

4. Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the impact on local services in areas where universal credit has been rolled out. (S5O-02020)

The Minister for Social Security (Jeane Freeman)

Evidence provided by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities shows that average rent arrears for those in receipt of universal credit are more than 2.5 times higher than for those on housing benefit. Local authorities also report that administering discretionary housing payments and council tax reduction is more onerous both for the local authority and for those in receipt of universal credit compared with housing benefit cases.

This week, the Trussell Trust analysis demonstrated an average 52 per cent rise in food bank use where full service universal credit has been rolled out.

From all of that and from the additional demands on advice services, it could not be clearer that the Department for Work and Pensions universal credit system is not only failing those it is there to support, but making it harder for our public and third sector services to deliver the support that they wish to deliver.

Clare Adamson

The Scottish Government will be aware that universal credit is about to be rolled out in my constituency of Motherwell and Wishaw and I have concerns, as do my constituents, for all the reasons that the minister has just explained.

Although we know that this is a reserved benefit, can the Government set out what work it has undertaken and will undertake to provide more flexibility for claimants to help them better manage their money?

Jeane Freeman

As Ms Adamson and members in the chamber will know, in the devolution of social security powers, universal credit was not devolved to the Scottish Government—more’s the pity—but we have the opportunity, in the delivery, for three specific flexibilities, as they are described.

The first of those flexibilities relates to the direct payment of rent to both private and social landlords and the second relates to the choice for individuals in receipt of universal credit to receive the funds fortnightly.

In October last year, we introduced those two choices for new claims for universal credit in full service areas and from January this year, those choices were rolled out to everyone in full service credit areas. As the member and, I hope, other members know, as the roll-out progresses, I am writing to all MSPs to make sure that they understand what those choices are.

The third flexibility is split payments, which we discussed yesterday. As I hope members in the chamber understand, we are fully committed to that and we are working with the DWP to try to ensure that we can now offer that third choice.

Drumchapel Station (Stop-skipping)

5. Bill Kidd (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to concerns raised by commuters regarding the level of stop-skipping by services that are scheduled to call at Drumchapel station. (S5O-02021)

The Minister for Transport and the Islands (Humza Yousaf)

One of the recommendations from the recent Donovan review of performance was a specific initiative detailing a series of steps to recover performance following disruption to services, and changes in operating policy to reduce the skipping of stops.

I am pleased to advise the member that since the start of the year, the percentage of services running across the rail network that have been affected by the practice of stop-skipping has reduced from 1.1 per cent to 0.5 per cent, and we expect that figure to reduce further in the coming months.

In terms of Drumchapel station specifically, the extent of skipping stops has fallen from 50 reported incidences in the four weeks ending Saturday 30 December to 10 reported incidences in the four weeks ending Saturday 14 April. That works out as approximately 0.3 per cent of the services planned to stop at Drumchapel over the latter four-week period. I would hope to see that figure being reduced even further.

Bill Kidd

I asked that question to emphasise the damage that Abellio is doing to its own reputation and, by extension, to the ScotRail franchise, due to this practice.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I do not think that that was really a question, minister, but you can comment.

Humza Yousaf

I think that it is important, and I agree with the member that there is nothing more frustrating to the passenger or commuter than being on a train and seeing it whiz by its stop. It does reputational damage, and that is why the Donovan review is important. That is why we have seen a reduction in stop-skipping, and that is why we will continue to press to see further reduction in this practice. The anecdotal evidence from the past four to six weeks since the Donovan review has been very positive and shows that it is working.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

The minister is aware that ending this practice was one of the key recommendations in the Donovan report. Can the minister tell me whether the number of incidents of missing stops is included in ScotRail’s monthly performance statistics and, if it is not, why not? Will he commit to asking ScotRail to publish those statistics on a monthly basis, so that we can monitor whether the practice has truly ended?

Humza Yousaf

The statistics are incredibly easy to find. If the member wishes to see specific statistics, he can ask ScotRail for them. [Interruption.] I can hear some chuntering in the chamber about stopping the practice altogether. If one speaks to those running the franchise, train drivers, conductors and others—as I know that Jamie Greene has done—they will say that they minimise skip-stopping. In some instances, it might have to be done to recover services, because otherwise there would be a knock-on effect on the rest of the rail network.

Clearly, passengers and commuters should be informed of skip-stopping before they get on the train, as opposed to when they are on the train. That is one of the key Donovan recommendations.

In terms of statistics, I will certainly reflect on what the member has said. If there are specific statistics that he wishes, we will make sure that he is provided with them.

Fife Health and Social Care Partnership (Primary Care Recruitment)

6. Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it is providing Fife health and social care partnership to recruit general practitioners and primary care staff in order to alleviate pressure on service delivery. (S5O-02022)

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport (Shona Robison)

The new GP contract, backed by investment of £110 million in 2018-19 and jointly developed with the British Medical Association, will help to cut doctors’ workloads and make general practice an even more attractive career.

Our ambition is to increase the number of GPs by at least 800 over 10 years to ensure a sustainable 24/7 service that meets increasing demand. There will also be significant new investment in the wider multidisciplinary teams to support GPs. Details of how we will achieve this will be set out in our primary care workforce plan, to be published next week.

NHS Fife has benefited from Scottish Government investment to train advanced nurse practitioners. Investing in ANPs is an example of our commitment to provide the range of skills needed to meet the changing and complex needs of communities, both in and out of hours.

Alex Rowley

The cabinet secretary will be aware that Fife health and social care partnership has closed the overnight out-of-hours emergency services at Dunfermline Queen Margaret hospital, Glenrothes hospital and St Andrews hospital. It says:

“As with most areas in Scotland, there are growing difficulties ensuring clinical, medical and nursing cover in GP Out of Hours Services.”

Will the cabinet secretary agree to instruct her officials to bring the partners in Fife together to work with NHS Scotland to find a solution to what is an unacceptable situation?

Shona Robison

Recent changes to the out-of-hours primary care services in Fife have occurred to ensure that appropriate levels of patient safety are maintained. NHS Fife is reviewing its longer-term arrangements for out-of-hours care and has undertaken an option appraisal exercise. A public consultation will commence in June, prior to any permanent decisions being made. I encourage Alex Rowley and others to input into that.

Overnight primary care emergency services will still be available at the Victoria hospital in Kirkcaldy, and we will continue to liaise with NHS Fife and the local partnership throughout the review process. We expect full consultation and engagement with the local communities affected.

Jenny Gilruth (Mid Fife and Glenrothes) (SNP)

Will the cabinet secretary request that the director of Fife’s health and social care partnership meet me and other Fife MSPs as a matter of urgency to discuss how and when Glenrothes’s out-of-hours service will be reinstated?

Shona Robison

I understand that a regular liaison meeting is taking place tomorrow between NHS Fife, Fife health and social care partnership and the local MP and MSP group, at which the issue will be discussed. I encourage local members to attend.

In addition, my officials have been in touch with the director of health and social care in Fife, who has advised that he is happy to meet Jenny Gilruth and indeed other Fife MSPs separately to provide an update on the contingency measures that are in place in the primary care emergency service. I hope that that is something that Jenny Gilruth will take up.

Unpaid Work Trials

7. Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the practice of unpaid work trials. (S5O-02023)

The Minister for Employability and Training (Jamie Hepburn)

I wrote to the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, David Gauke, in November last year to express broad support for the terms of the Unpaid Trial Work Periods (Prohibition) Bill. It was disappointing that the bill, which was aimed at protecting the rights of vulnerable workers, was talked out by United Kingdom Government MPs at its second reading.

In that correspondence, I also sought assurances that the voluntary work trial scheme operated by the Department for Work and Pensions is based on the principles of fair work and that participants are given the best possible chance of gaining permanent paid employment. I look forward to receiving at some stage a reply to my letter of last November from David Gauke’s successor, Esther McVey.

Rona Mackay

Does the minister agree that, if the UK Government is not willing to take action against unpaid work trials, it should agree to devolve employment law to the Scottish Parliament so that we can finally take action to end that unfair and disgraceful practice?

Jamie Hepburn

Yes, I agree with that. The fact that Mr McDonald’s bill was talked out on 16 March, along with the UK Government’s pernicious Trade Union Act 2016 and its failure to promote the living wage, demonstrates that we cannot rely on the UK Government to protect workers’ rights or deliver fair and progressive labour market policies. That is why employment law must be devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

Attainment Gap

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

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to close the attainment gap. (S5O-02024)

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

The Scottish Government has committed £750 million during the course of this Parliament through the attainment Scotland fund to provide targeted support for children, schools and communities to close the poverty-related attainment gap. In 2018-19, we will invest a total of £179 million, which will be an increase of £9 million from last year. That funding includes £120 million of pupil equity funding that has been allocated directly to schools on the basis of the numbers of pupils in primary 1 to secondary 3 known to be eligible and registered for free school meals; it also includes £59 million that will continue to provide targeted support to authorities and schools in the communities with the highest levels of deprivation.

Through the national improvement framework and improvement plan, we are providing, for the first time, a complete picture of how children are progressing with their learning and of the actions that we are taking to close the poverty-related attainment gap.

Rachael Hamilton

As the cabinet secretary will know, in the most deprived areas of the Scottish Borders, only 25 per cent of pupils went on to achieve five or more national 5 qualifications between 2014 and 2017. That is significantly worse than the figures in other deprived areas in Scotland. Will the cabinet secretary look to explore the reasons why pupils in deprived areas in the Scottish Borders are not performing as well as those in other deprived areas in Scotland and look to provide additional support to help Scottish Borders pupils reach their potential?

John Swinney

With the greatest of respect, that is precisely what I have done, because the issues that Rachael Hamilton cites are long-standing issues in Scottish education. The poverty-related attainment gap has been present in Scottish education for a very long time; it was present when I was at school, which was most definitely not yesterday. This Government has attached the greatest priority to resolving that issue by closing the poverty-related attainment gap.

With regard to the data that Rachael Hamilton cited, the Government has allocated £1.8 million in pupil equity funding directly to head teachers in the Scottish Borders on top of specific financial support to Burnfoot community school, St Margaret’s primary school and Hawick high school to ensure that, in addressing the implications of poverty, pupils who require specific assistance to support them are able to receive that support as a consequence of the direct, targeted interventions that the Government is making to close the poverty-related attainment gap.

Glasgow City Council (Early Learning and Childcare)

9. Johann Lamont (Glasgow) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it has received any representations from Glasgow City Council seeking additional resources to avoid increasing charges for early learning and childcare. (S5O-02025)

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

Glasgow City Council, like all councils, makes representations every year in relation to the local government settlement. The current statutory entitlement of 600 hours is fully funded by the Scottish Government and free to families at the point of access, and the Scottish Government is committed to fully funding the expansion of that entitlement to 1,140 hours. The issue underlying Johann Lamont’s question is in relation to charges set by the council for wraparound hours over and above the funded statutory entitlement. Where a local authority offers wraparound hours in its own settings in addition to the funded hours—and parents’ need for those additional hours will reduce with the expansion to 1,140 hours—it is for the council to choose how it funds those particular commitments.

Johann Lamont

I accept that the cabinet secretary is saying that Glasgow City Council has made an active choice to put a burden on hard-pressed families in Glasgow.

I have had representations from a constituent who is in a panic because she will have to pay £180 more a month. She faces the choice of reducing her child’s nursery hours or reducing her working hours and, as a consequence, she is fearful of losing her home. This is not an academic discussion; the issue is having a direct impact on hard-working families across Glasgow. I urge the cabinet secretary to use his influence and ask Glasgow City Council to reverse its unacceptable, unfair and unjust decision.

John Swinney

I say, with the greatest respect to Johann Lamont, that I do not treat such matters as academic issues. I address them directly with members of Parliament.

My second point is that Glasgow City Council has a choice to make. If the Parliament believes in local democratic accountability, local authorities must be held accountable for the decisions that they take.

Thirdly, the current Scottish Government is investing in the expansion of early learning and childcare in a way that no other Government has ever done, and the Labour Party should welcome that.

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

Before we turn to First Minister’s question time, I am sure that members will wish to join me in welcoming to our gallery His Excellency Professor Arthur Peter Mutharika, the President of the Republic of Malawi. [Applause.]