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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 27 January 2021

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Prioritising Covid-19 Vaccination and Economic Recovery, Committee of the Whole Parliament, Pre-release Access to Official Statistics (Scotland) Bill: Stage 2, Scottish Parliamentary Standards (Sexual Harassment and Complaints Process) Bill: Stage 2, Meeting of the Parliament, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


Contents


Portfolio Question Time


Constitution, Europe and External Affairs

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

Good afternoon. I remind members that social distancing measures are in place in the chamber and throughout the Holyrood campus.

The first item of business is portfolio questions. We start with questions on the constitution, Europe and external affairs. I remind members that questions 2 and 7 have been grouped together. If a member wishes to ask a supplementary question they should indicate that by typing R in the chat function during the relevant question—not before it, please. Obviously, if your supplementary is to question 2 or question 7, please type R after those questions have been asked.


Support for Businesses (Brexit)

1. James Dornan (Glasgow Cathcart) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress has been made on its discussions with the United Kingdom Government regarding support for businesses in Scotland that have been impacted by Brexit. (S5O-04945)

The Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans (Graeme Dey)

The Scottish Government is deeply concerned by the emerging evidence of the severe impact that Brexit is having on the ability of Scottish businesses to trade effectively and competitively with the European Union, with lasting consequences for our economy.

The Scottish ministers are in daily contact with UK ministers to press the need to support businesses that are being adversely impacted. The Scottish Government will continue to work hard to address problems and blockages, where it is in our power to do so. We will also continue to do all that we can to ensure that businesses in Scotland have concrete and up-to-date information about the new arrangements, through our www.prepareforbrexit.scot website and other resources.

James Dornan

The EU has set up a Brexit adjustment reserve fund to counter unforeseen adverse consequences for the sectors that are worst affected by Brexit in member states. Scotland appears to be receiving no extra funding for such a purpose, but I understand that Ireland is set to receive about €1 billion in support. Does the cabinet secretary agree that, at a time when the EU continues to show solidarity with its member states, the UK Government’s insane Brexit strategy and continued contempt for Scotland show how much better it will be when Scotland rejoins the EU as an independent country?

Graeme Dey

The disruption to the seafood sector, in particular, offers a clear example of the delays, costs and devastating losses that are associated with becoming a third country and dealing with new and untested processes. The media report daily that many businesses’ profit margins will be slashed because of the new borders and customs requirements, and that other businesses will simply close altogether.

James Dornan will be aware that the UK Government has announced a £23 million compensation scheme for UK businesses. Having made repeated calls for such a scheme, we welcome the announcement, but we remain concerned that it is little more than a sticking plaster. I am most concerned about the scope of the scheme, which is designed to cover businesses that have suffered direct export losses that can be evidenced. It is essential that the UK Government provides further clarity as soon as possible and that timescales for applications and payments are made clear. The same goes for the previously announced £100 million for the fishing industry.

I absolutely concur with James Dornan about the contempt that is being shown and about the need for Scotland to rejoin the EU and the merits of our doing so.


European Collaboration Post-Brexit

2. Colin Beattie (Midlothian North and Musselburgh) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it has taken to continue positive collaboration with European countries following the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union. (S5O-04946)

The Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs (Michael Russell)

[Inaudible.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Cabinet secretary, your microphone is muted.

I will come back to questions 2 and 7. Let us move on to question 3.


Support for Businesses and Sectors (Brexit)

3. Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it will provide to the businesses and sectors most directly impacted by Brexit. (S5O-04947)

The Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans (Graeme Dey)

As well as pressing for urgent streamlining and simplification of trade arrangements, the Scottish Government continues to call on the United Kingdom Government to introduce fair and meaningful support for the businesses that are most affected by Brexit.

Complex new procedures and untested systems are having a disastrous impact on the ability of Scottish businesses to trade effectively and competitively with the European Union, with lasting consequences for our economy. That is, of course, occurring at a time when business resilience is already severely stretched by Covid.

The Scottish Government will continue to do everything that we can to help businesses in a practical sense to address the immediate problems arising from Brexit where it is in our power to do so.

Liam McArthur

As the minister will be aware, seafood exporters have faced some of the most serious problems since the turn of the year. In some respects, the Orkney Fishermen’s Society is fortunate because it ships frozen products and has loyal customers in France, and it is doing all that it can to help to maintain supply, but urgent steps are needed to reduce bureaucracy that serves no purpose and adds delay and burdens on staff and cash flow.

Will the minister therefore ask the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Tourism to look at how paperwork can be cut and processes made more efficient? In particular, I urge the Government to look at what is required for catch certificates and invoicing, much of which serves no useful purpose whatsoever.

Graeme Dey

I did not catch all that, but, of course, I will ask the relevant cabinet secretary to respond in detail to Liam McArthur. To answer his general point, I say that the Scottish Government is committed to dealing with the practical aspects of the issue on which we can have an impact. For example, we are providing, through Food Standards Scotland, practical and pragmatic help to everyone who is affected, and we are using our enterprise agencies to assist wherever possible.

I undertake to get my colleague to respond directly to Liam McArthur on the points that he raises.

Sandra White (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

There have been recent reports of UK Government advisers telling businesses that the best way to avoid border issues and VAT problems is to set up a new company within the EU single market. Does the minister agree that the best way for Scotland to protect its businesses and their ability to trade is to rejoin the European Union?

Graeme Dey

Sandra White is absolutely right to highlight that issue. It is ironic that the Government that created this boorach is suggesting ways to work around it. We recognise that the way to resolve the issue in the medium to long term is through Scotland returning to the European Union fold as an independent country.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I think that we now have the cabinet secretary back, so we will move to question 2.


European Collaboration Post-Brexit

2. Colin Beattie (Midlothian North and Musselburgh) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it has taken to continue positive collaboration with European countries following the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union. (S5O-04946)

The Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs (Michael Russell)

I hope that you can hear me now, Presiding Officer.

The Scottish Government rejects the isolationist and damaging approach of the United Kingdom Government’s hard Brexit policy. We remain committed to European values and to working collaboratively with European Union member states, in line with the views of the people of Scotland. Despite Brexit, we continue to proactively seek opportunities to collaborate in areas of mutual interest such as climate change, the just transition, hydrogen, green jobs and investment, education and the wellbeing economy.

Colin Beattie

What further steps have been taken to ensure that EU residents living in Scotland continue to feel safe and welcome here?

Michael Russell

The First Minister has again indicated her enthusiasm for our continuing to welcome EU citizens to Scotland. That is a point that is stressed with EU consuls and ambassadors on every occasion. Indeed, the minister who is responsible for migration, Jenny Gilruth, and I spoke with consuls this morning at one of our regular update sessions, and we will continue to do that.

Let me be clear—I hope that members in the chamber will agree—that European citizens are very welcome to stay in Scotland. We wish them to be here when we rejoin the EU, as we will.


Scotland-European Union Relations Post-Brexit

7. Gillian Martin (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government how it will maintain close ties between Scotland and EU member states now that the UK has exited from the EU. (S5O-04951)

The Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs (Michael Russell)

The Scottish Government deeply regrets the fact and manner of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union. It is more important than ever that we continue to engage with EU institutions and member states, and we are determined to maintain our close ties with our EU neighbours, with whom we have such close political, social and economic relationships.

The commitment is being delivered in a range of ways, including by using a network of offices in Europe—in Berlin, Brussels, Dublin, London and Paris—that work to promote Scottish interests and enable us to demonstrate our commitment to the values of co-operation, democracy, equality and the rule of law as we pave the way for Scotland’s return to the EU as an equal independent member state.

We will continue to celebrate our culture with others, as I did last night at a whisky tasting and Burns celebration with EU ambassadors that was hosted by Scotland House in London.

Gillian Martin

I am pleased to hear what the cabinet secretary has said. Keeping pace with European standards on employment, the environment and human rights, and maintenance of close trading ties with EU member states will be fundamental to Scotland’s future.

In these early stages of our exit from the EU, is there any indication that Scottish Government ministers will be directly involved in continued negotiations with the EU, as the UK Government irons out the outstanding and continuing issues arising from our departure?

Michael Russell

A plethora of arrangements have been put in place by the UK to continue dialogue with the EU but, unfortunately, we have not had notification that we will be involved in any of them. Indeed, since the end of the arrangement, on 31 December, there has not been a meeting in which we have been told about those issues. It is important now that we press our case on those issues and, of course, that we have our own direct conversations. Scotland is not mute and is well recognised within the EU. Therefore, we need to ensure that we have dialogue directly and that we attempt to influence what is taking place elsewhere.

Dean Lockhart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

In terms of the on-going trading relationships with our EU partners, can the cabinet secretary confirm that the vast majority of the SNP’s trade offices in Europe, which he mentioned, are located at British embassies and consulates, and does he agree with me that that joint working and sharing of resources with the UK Government is a good example of working together with the rest of the UK?

Michael Russell

Where it is appropriate to work with others, we will do so. However, I would not take location to indicate assent; quite clearly, we have different priorities and views. It is possible to have that and to work alongside others, but also to seek one’s own opportunities and advantages. I am sure that the Conservatives recognise that; I certainly do. However, to try to read into the situation some deep satisfaction with the UK would be foolish self-delusion.


European Union (Post-Brexit Discussions)

4. Linda Fabiani (East Kilbride) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with European Union member states following the end of the Brexit transition period. (S5O-04948)

The Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs (Michael Russell)

As I have just indicated, despite the United Kingdom Government’s disastrous Brexit policy, we continue to retain close links with EU member states and will continue to do so. The Scottish Government has participated in a number of discussions with European partners at ministerial and official level, both bilaterally and multilaterally in recent weeks. A number of those discussions have been focused on measures that we should take in the short term to protect trade and critical supply chains and reduce the risk of disruption to goods and people crossing borders, which has been a feature of the past few weeks, because of the actions of the UK Tory party, supported by the Tory party in the Scottish Parliament; and to provide as much information, advice and support as possible to EU citizens in Scotland, who have also been discriminated against by the Tory party in Scotland and in the UK.

Linda Fabiani

It is clear from the post-Brexit experience that Scotland is already suffering particular disadvantages—fishing, seafood and agriculture are just a few areas in which we see examples of that. Obviously, there have been discussions, in partnership with Wales, about the Erasmus+ education programme, which I hope will soon bear fruit. Is there scope for constructive discussion directly with EU member states on other Scotland-specific issues?

Michael Russell

There is, indeed, scope for those discussions, and I welcome Linda Fabiani’s mention of them. I am strongly in support of what my colleague Richard Lochhead and his Welsh colleague are doing on Erasmus+, and I want to say a particular thank you to those many members of the European Parliament who have written a letter in support of that. That shows not only the affection in which Scotland is held but the respect with which our educational institutions and youth work activities are held. We will continue looking for opportunities to have direct dialogue on matters of concern. Of course, that is a preliminary to our desire to re-enter the EU.


European Structural Funds (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn)

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

To ask the Scottish Government what impact European structural funds have had on the Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn constituency in the last 15 years. (S5O-04949)

The Minister for Europe and International Development (Jenny Gilruth)

European structural funding has had a significant positive social and economic impact nationally and locally within Bob Doris’s constituency. Approximately £11 million has been invested through the current 2014-2020 European funding programme to support individuals into meaningful employment and to support businesses across Glasgow. An additional £2 million has also been invested from the programme to support the installation of new, affordable low-carbon heating systems in social housing developments in Glasgow.

Bob Doris

I know well the benefit that European structural funds have had not just in my constituency but across Scotland, with an estimated €944 million invested in the past seven years.

Does the minister share my concern that the United Kingdom Government’s planned replacements—the so-called shared prosperity and levelling-up funds—might mean less financial support coming to Glasgow and the rest of Scotland as a result of the UK Government’s post-Brexit stance on structural funds, as well as less democratic control and influence, because the UK Government, unlike the European Union, seems intent on bypassing the Scottish Government?

Jenny Gilruth

The decision by the UK Government to bypass the Scottish Government in the development and roll-out of the shared prosperity fund demonstrates a complete disregard for devolution. The UK Government has kept us at arm’s length throughout the process. It has provided no clarity on the fund’s objectives and delivery plans and no evidence as to why a clearly devolved matter should no longer be run or administered in Scotland. In respecting the devolution agreement, the Scottish Government is best placed to ensure that replacement funding is allocated to meet the needs of Scotland; ignoring the devolution agreement puts at risk all that we have achieved.


Visa-free Travel to the European Union

6. Sandra White (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what representations it has made to the United Kingdom Government and the European Union regarding the extension of visa-free travel to the EU to professions that are not currently exempt. (S5O-04950)

The Minister for Europe and International Development (Jenny Gilruth)

Freedom of movement has benefited Scotland’s economy, culture and communities, and the ending of that freedom is already causing difficulties. On 14 January, the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture wrote to the UK Minister for Immigration to highlight the impact on those who work in our cultural and creative sectors, and she called on the UK Government to seek extensive reciprocal mobility arrangements with the EU for those who work in those sectors and to seek an urgent meeting.

The Scottish Government and this Parliament have been clear that the UK immigration system does not meet Scotland’s distinct needs. It is deeply regrettable that, on numerous occasions, the UK immigration minister has refused meetings with Scottish Government ministers to discuss Scotland’s unique migration needs.

Sandra White

The minister will be aware of the culture in my constituency, particularly with regard to Celtic Connections which, obviously, has been slightly different this year. Celtic Connections opens its arms to thousands of artists throughout Europe and that arrangement is reciprocal, with artists—musicians, in particular—from Scotland also going to Europe. Has the Scottish Government had any discussions with the UK Government or the EU about getting some form of transition period for the musicians and other people who take part in such fantastic cultural events to be able to travel freely in Europe?

Jenny Gilruth

I enjoyed watching Blazin’ Fiddles and Admiral Fallow this weekend as part of this year’s virtual Celtic Connections festival, and I know how important the festival is to Sandra White’s constituency.

In February last year, the Scottish Government hosted an international festivals visa summit in Edinburgh, at which we explored the challenges that festivals face and identified a range of solutions. We put those solutions to the UK Government, but we have not yet received a satisfactory response. As previously mentioned, on 14 January, the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture wrote to the UK Minister for Immigration on that issue. As of today, we have not received a reply to that letter. From a Scottish Government perspective, at the least, the UK Government should expand the permitted paid engagement visas from four weeks to six months as well as extending and clarifying the activities that that route permits.

The Scottish Government has provided £10,000 to Arts Infopoint UK, which is a pilot mobility system that will provide support to artists who are coming into the UK, giving them advice on issues such as visa applications, tax and social security. However, this situation is a direct result of a political choice by the UK Government, so it is imperative that the UK Government sorts out a solution with the EU.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I ask for a brief supplementary question from Beatrice Wishart.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

As Sandra White has alluded, new complicated arrangements and additional costs make planning harder for established musicians who want to work in Europe—never mind those who are starting out—as well as for international musicians who want to come to Scotland for events such as the Shetland folk festival. Will the Scottish Government produce accessible guidance for musicians who are trying to navigate new processes at home and abroad?

Jenny Gilruth

That is a sensible and reasonable suggestion from Beatrice Wishart. I will take it away and write to her regarding the work on that issue.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Thank you very much for the brevity.


Scottish Independence (Mariano Rajoy Comments)

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

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to recent comments about Scottish independence by Spain’s former Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy. (S5O-04952)

The Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs (Michael Russell)

I am unaware of recent comments by Mr Rajoy. I am aware of his past comments, although there have, of course, been a range of positive comments from people across the European Union who recognise and support Scotland’s continued commitment to shared EU values. They know that Scotland occupies a unique position as a country in a voluntary union of nations in the United Kingdom that has been removed from the EU against its will, and that the people of Scotland now have the right to choose their own future and escape the disastrous hard Brexit that the Conservative Party and Rachael Hamilton are so keen to force upon them.

Rachael Hamilton

I will enlighten the cabinet secretary on what Mr Rajoy said. He said:

“I want to be very clear. Scotland does not have the competence to negotiate with the European Union.”

That view has been echoed by many other European politicians.

Does the cabinet secretary accept that Scotland would be rejected for EU membership due to its current deficit of 8.6 per cent of gross domestic product? In order to bring down the deficit, a strict programme of austerity would have to be adopted, with increased taxes and cuts to public spending on top of the already dire post-pandemic outlook. As well as that, the euro might have to be adopted. Has the cabinet secretary been clear with the people of Scotland about those criteria?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I ask members in the chamber not to mumble. I am trying to hear over the connection.

Michael Russell

I am not sure which is worse: the barrage of rubbish that we have just heard from Rachael Hamilton or her clear delight that there might be a way in which our fellow citizens would be unable to take their full place on the world stage. It is extraordinary that the Tories continue to salivate on such matters.

Rachael Hamilton also fails to understand the language of diplomacy. It is quite correct to say that Scotland does not, at present, have the competence to negotiate with the EU, because Scotland does not have legal personality. However, if Scotland were to choose to be independent, that independence would allow us to enter into those negotiations. Her visible excitement at a negative about the country in which she lives might be diminished when she understands what has been said.


Economy, Fair Work and Culture

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I remind members that questions 5 and 7 have been grouped together. As usual, if members want to ask a supplementary to a question, they should put an R in the chat function when the question is being asked. With regard to questions 5 and 7, members will have to wait for answers to those questions before asking a supplementary.


Workers’ Rights Post-Brexit

1. Gil Paterson (Clydebank and Milngavie) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its engagement with trade unions and the United Kingdom Government regarding workers’ rights post-Brexit. (S5O-04953)

The Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture (Fiona Hyslop)

We are committed to fair work and do not want any reduction in workers’ rights or protections that were secured under European Union membership. Last week, the First Minister and the Scottish Trades Union Congress issued a joint call to the UK Government to preserve the protections that are enshrined in the working time directive. We are committed to working with trade unions to protect the health and wellbeing of the workforce.

We continue to engage with the UK Government on its plans relating to post-Brexit labour market reforms, including the planned employment bill, and we take every opportunity to promote our progressive fair work agenda. Our ability to tackle unfair working practices and to fully protect our workers’ rights is limited by the fact that employment law is reserved to Westminster. We will continue to do all that we can to promote fair work within the powers that we have while calling for the devolution of employment law.

Gil Paterson

The news that the United Kingdom Government is reviewing how UK and European Union employment rights protections could be changed after Brexit is concerning, is it not? We have only to look at our fishing industry to see that it is clear that the UK Government will break any promise and sell out any group of workers, no matter the cost. Does the cabinet secretary agree that when it comes to protecting workers’ rights, the Tories simply cannot be trusted?

Fiona Hyslop

The Scottish Government rejects any regression on workers’ protections. It will come as no surprise that I agree with the member. I raised concerns directly with the UK Government’s business minister, Paul Scully, in a meeting last week, and I have written to the new Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Kwasi Kwarteng, on that and other issues.

Although the UK Government may say that the review is about cutting regulations and red tape without affecting workers’ protections, those self-same regulations provide the protections that workers need. It would be naive to believe that a UK Government review of EU workers’ rights would automatically lead to better protection for workers, given, as the member said, the broken Brexit promises that we have recently seen. That is just more evidence that full powers over employment should be transferred to the Scottish Government, so that the Scottish Parliament can set priorities that benefit those who live in Scotland.

I will be clear: the review presents the greatest risk to workers’ rights since the introduction of the Trade Union Act 2016, and we will continue to work with trade unions to protect workers’ rights from a race to the bottom on standards.


Discretionary Business Support Funding (Guidance)

2. Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of the increased restrictions on business due to Covid-19, what direction and guidance it offers to local authorities regarding using discretionary business support funding. (S5O-04954)

The Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture (Fiona Hyslop)

That funding is to be used entirely at the discretion of local authorities, based on the specific needs of their local economies. However, local authorities requested guidance on how the funding should be distributed while giving them the flexibility to use their local knowledge to support businesses. We worked closely with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities in developing that guidance, which has now been established and shared with local authorities.

Emma Harper

I have dealt with a number of cases in my region in which the local authority could have used discretionary funding to provide lifeline support but opted not to do so. In the light of that, will the Scottish Government consider giving further direction to, or developing a framework for, local authorities to ensure that that discretionary funding goes into the bank accounts of those who have fallen through the cracks and need it the most?

Fiona Hyslop

Giving local authorities the autonomy to spend their allocations on the basis of the criteria that they have developed in response to the assessment of need in their local economies is a principle that underpins the discretionary fund. It would therefore be inappropriate if the Scottish Government mandated where local authorities directed that financial support.

At the request of local authorities, the Government issued non-statutory guidance to support them in the distribution of that funding. The guidance established that getting financial support to businesses that have not received other forms of direct funding from the Scottish Government since October is an important principle of the fund.

Maurice Golden (West Scotland) (Con)

The Scottish National Party said that it aims to make business support payments within 10 working days, so why are businesses now waiting for over three months to receive those payments?

Fiona Hyslop

I think that the member is referring to the original grants under the very simple system that existed during March and April. With regard to the distribution of funds, which I know we will come to in later questions, there have been significant payments for January in the past few days and weeks, which many businesses will have welcomed.

Instead of attacking local authorities and councils and their hard work in distributing those funds, the member should recognise the contribution that they have made in getting £3 billion-worth of support that has been allocated to businesses processed, planned for and ready for distribution, with the bulk of it already distributed.


Retail Workers (Prevention of Assaults)

3. Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government how it plans to make staff and customers aware of the measures that are proposed to prevent assaults on retail workers. (S5O-04955)

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

The Scottish Government works closely with trade unions and retail organisations through membership of the retail working group that co-produced the coronavirus retail sector guidance. The guidance includes advice on risk assessment, security and employee health and wellbeing. Trade unions, retail businesses and organisations are also represented on the retail strategy steering group, which met for the first time on 20 January.

In partnership with Crimestoppers, Fearless and the Scottish Grocers’ Federation, we are developing an information and awareness campaign that will highlight the real impact that threats, abuse and violence have on retail workers. The campaign will ask people to think about how they interact with retail workers and will encourage anyone experiencing unacceptable behaviour to report it directly to the police or through Crimestoppers or Fearless. The initial phase will run from February to March 2021 and will run again later in the year, prior to the commencement of the forthcoming legislation.

Daniel Johnson

I am pleased that my bill to protect retail workers was passed last week. However, my real concern is that social distancing and other critical measures are causing problems for those workers. The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers estimates that acts of violence and abuse against retail workers have doubled as a result of the pandemic.

What specific measures are being brought forward by the Government to help retail workers implement social distancing measures and to make customers aware that they must comply with those?

Jamie Hepburn

In addition to the retail guidance that I referred to, the same group has also created customer guidance, which clearly tells customers that they should behave and that abusive behaviour will not be tolerated and, at its worst, could constitute criminality.

We must constantly reinforce that message to the public. People are, by and large, adhering to the restrictions that are in place and are respecting retail workers, but we know, as Daniel Johnson has suggested, that some are not. We must all reinforce the message that that is not acceptable. We will keep working with our trade union partners to communicate that message. The campaign that I mentioned in my answer will also play a role in that.


Fair Work Agenda (Partnership Working)

4. Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government how its fair work agenda can help it to take a collaborative and partnership approach to working with workers and trade unions during the Covid-19 pandemic. (S5O-04956)

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

The Scottish Government is committed to working with our trade union partners as we respond to the pandemic. In July, the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture issued a joint statement with the Scottish Trades Union Congress and other partner organisations reaffirming our shared commitment to fair work. Ministers engage regularly with the Scottish Trades Union Congress and its affiliates to help manage the impacts of the Covid-19 crisis on workers and in workplaces. That includes a weekly meeting attended by me and by the Minister for Older People and Equalities.

The First Minister also has a biannual meeting with the STUC affiliates, the most recent of which was held on 18 January. Through our flagship fair work first approach, we are asking employers to adopt fair work practices, including providing appropriate channels for effective worker voice, such as trade union recognition.

Mark Griffin

Teachers, retail workers, transport staff and all key workers have continued working in high-risk settings this year, with many falling ill and too many dying as a result of that. A number of unions, including the GMB, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers and the Educational Institute of Scotland, have called on the Government to vaccinate those on the front line.

Is the minister having such discussions in his meetings with trade unions? Are those calls being heard? Is the Government looking at prioritising workers who are at higher risk of contracting the virus in the workplace?

Jamie Hepburn

We have discussed those matters. The STUC and its affiliates understand that we must work in accordance with the priorities set out by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. There is also a continuing discussion about how we move into the next phase of vaccination. I assure Mr Griffin that the voices of trade unions are being heard.

Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

The issue of construction workers being unable to work in a safe environment has been raised directly with the Government by Unite the union. Many construction workers have raised that issue with me. Is the Government looking at that?

Jamie Hepburn

We have discussed that issue. We are seeking to balance the various harms to the economy. Mr Rowley knows that we are dealing with economic harms and want to facilitate economic activity where it is safe to do so.

The Health and Safety Executive has reported only two coronavirus outbreaks within the construction sector. I can say freely that Unite has raised other concerns with me. I have requested it to provide that information to us, because if there are incidents happening out there, we must hear about them. We do not want workers to be working in unsafe conditions. If evidence is presented that we need to consider, of course we will do so.


Business Support Funding (Covid-19)

5. Maurice Golden (West Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the distribution of Covid-19 business support funding. (S5O-04957)

The Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture (Fiona Hyslop)

Since the start of the pandemic, the Scottish Government has allocated more than £3 billion to help businesses. That includes £2.3 billion through 383,000 business support awards between March and the beginning of October 2020. More than 90 per cent of the funds allocated to business support since October are now live, with the bulk of funding going to support businesses that are affected by legal restrictions under the strategic framework levels.

In addition to January’s strategic framework grant payment, retail and leisure businesses have now received additional funding of £9,000, with up to £25,000 per premises for hospitality businesses. We estimate that approximately 50,000 business premises are currently eligible to apply to the strategic framework business fund.

That all means that, in the first month of this year, more a third of the consequentials have been paid out, with the bulk of the remaining two thirds of consequentials available to help businesses that are required to close over the next two months. The support includes a number of bespoke schemes for specific sectors, with three of those schemes launched in the past week.

Maurice Golden

McLaren Vending Ltd is a family-run business that has been operating in Scotland since 1963. Its application for business support funds was refused by Glasgow City Council, and its director, Paul McLaren, has said:

“If no help is provided, I can see no path other than unnecessary job losses.”

Will the cabinet secretary agree to look at support for that family business as well as for the wider vending sector?

Fiona Hyslop

Clearly, I do not know the background to that individual application. In his capacity as a local MSP, Maurice Golden can take the matter up directly with Glasgow City Council.

We have the discretionary funds to enable support to be given, particularly to supply chain businesses. The business that Maurice Golden described sounds as if it is part of the supply chain for the hospitality sector. Although such businesses are not legally required to close, demand for their products will have been limited. That is one of the reasons why the discretionary fund was established and such support was enabled.

If Maurice Golden has not contacted the council, I encourage him to do so. However, if he also writes to me, I can contact the city council to understand how it applies its discretionary funds and whether the position of wholesalers or suppliers in the context described could be revisited.


Support for Businesses (Covid-19)

7. Finlay Carson (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the support being provided to businesses that have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. (S5O-04959)

The Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture (Fiona Hyslop)

In January alone, we have launched our £57 million taxi and private hire fund, the £6 million Scotland inbound tour operators fund, the £25 million wedding sector fund and the £4 million grass-roots music venue stabilisation fund and, as I have just said, we have paid out the majority of our hospitality, retail and leisure top-ups. That is in addition to the on-going support that has been paid out through the strategic framework business fund. Yesterday, we announced additional support for breweries, travel agents and indoor football centres. Funding for mobile service providers, newly self-employed people and tourism and culture organisations will also be provided this month.

Finlay Carson

Why is the Scottish National Party Government adopting rigid and unfair criteria for Scotland’s 15,500 self-catering businesses, denying them business-saving grants of £6,000, whereas their counterparts in other parts of the United Kingdom have received top-up grants as high as £21,500? According to the Association of Scotland’s Self-Caterers, there has been a lack of clarity, and the Government has provided inadequate guidelines. Pubs and restaurants get a £6,000 top-up to their SFBF support, so why has that not been extended to the self-catering sector?

Fiona Hyslop

The member will be aware that £104 million has been allocated to tourism and hospitality. The self-catering sector will have funding available to it. I understand that an additional £10,000 will be available for larger self-catering establishments.

Of course, given the current legal restrictions, the sector is also eligible for the regular strategic framework funding. For example, depending on their size, establishments that have been closed during the period from November 2020 to January 2021 could have received, in addition, several thousand pounds, with some receiving up to £9,000. That will not necessarily apply to individual self-catering companies that Finlay Carson might have in his constituency, but the funding is available.

Fergus Ewing, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism, is championing the cause and case of self-catering to ensure that establishments get the support that they require to sustain their position, so that they can reopen when the market improves.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Colin Beattie has a brief supplementary question.

Colin Beattie (Midlothian North and Musselburgh) (SNP)

It is very welcome that the Scottish Government is working to ensure that targeted support is available to sectors that are facing on-going challenges, such as the wedding sector. Can the cabinet secretary provide any further information about the types of businesses in the supply chain that might be eligible for support?

Fiona Hyslop

As the member is aware, in recognition of the on-going challenges that the wedding sector faces, an additional £10 million has been added to the original £15 million that was announced in December 2020.

The additional funding will be launched tomorrow, 28 January, and made available from then. It will provide one-off grants of up to £25,000 to eligible businesses in the sector that have been impacted by the restrictions. Wedding venues, photographers, caterers and suppliers will be able to apply. The three enterprise agencies—South of Scotland Enterprise, Scottish Enterprise, and Highlands and Islands Enterprise—will administer the funds.


Employment of Veterans (Support)

6. Maurice Corry (West Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of the impact of Covid-19 on the economy, what efforts it has made to raise awareness among businesses of the support available to assist them in employing veterans, where vacancies match their skills and experience. (S5O-04958)

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

Through community jobs Scotland, the Scottish Government supports third sector employers to recruit ex-service personnel. The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, which delivers the programme on behalf of the Government, works closely with those employers to promote the available opportunities.

The veterans employability strategic group was refreshed in 2020, with two new co-chairs considering a new and ambitious purpose. The group will continue to build on its partnership approach to employability and skills. Working in collaboration, it will identify and strengthen pathways into employment for our service leavers and veterans, identifying ways to promote the value, skills and attributes that they bring to workplaces. That work includes developing the relationship between the Career Transition Partnership and Skills Development Scotland, to avoid service leavers “falling between the gaps”, ensuring that they have seamless access to SDS while getting support from the Career Transition Partnership and once that support ends.

Maurice Corry

Given the uncertainty facing the labour market, what progress is the Government making to engage with local authorities and small and medium-sized businesses to create and better support mentorships and training programmes that target skills shortages and gaps and are particularly for British armed forces’ veterans?

Jamie Hepburn

I assure Mr Corry that I am in regular engagement with Scotland’s business community through the various business organisations. I am always happy to discuss the matter with him.

We continue to lead by example, having offered veterans and service leavers fixed-term appointments. We appointed a number of ex-service personnel to fixed-term appointments last year to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. We very much lead from the front and will continue to work with and encourage employers across the country to follow that lead.


Support for Businesses (Covid-19)

8. Bruce Crawford (Stirling) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what consideration it is giving to providing further support to painters and decorators and food production and distribution businesses in light of the Covid-19 restrictions. (S5O-04960)

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

The £30 million discretionary fund is specifically designed to target small businesses and the self-employed who have not received direct financial support through other Scottish Government financial support schemes, such as those in supply chains. We have also committed £15 million for newly self-employed people to mitigate the financial challenges for those who are unable to access the United Kingdom Government’s self-employed income support scheme.

Bruce Crawford

Is the minister aware that the Scottish National Party-led Stirling Council is one of the first councils in Scotland—if not the first—to open up its discretionary business fund to applications? Will he join me in welcoming that development? Will the Scottish Government consider refining its objectives for the strategic framework business fund to include businesses that, although they have not been told to do so by law, have significantly modified their operations to enable them simply to survive, but which have yet to receive financial support?

Jamie Hepburn

I join Bruce Crawford in welcoming Stirling Council’s getting its scheme up and running. I, too, congratulate it. We have asked a tremendous amount of local government, and have worked with local authorities to deliver various forms of support scheme across the period of the pandemic. The way in which they have responded has been tremendous, and it is good to hear that Stirling’s scheme is up and running.

The discretionary funding scheme is designed to support businesses that might not be eligible for other forms of assistance. I point out that some of the businesses to which Bruce Crawford referred in his supplementary question should be looking to that scheme as a source of funding. My response to the fundamental aspect of his question is that we continue to consider the applicability and operation of all our forms of support. Such matters will remain under constant review.


Education and Skills


Remote Learning (Analysis of Pupil Engagement)

1. Johann Lamont (Glasgow) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what analysis it undertook during the first Covid-19 lockdown regarding pupil engagement, and how the findings affected its decisions regarding the current remote learning measures. (S5O-04961)

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

On 13 January 2021, the Scottish Government published an equity audit. That work, which draws on international research as well as an in-depth study of 54 schools across Scotland, assessed the impacts of school closures against a number of factors, with a particular focus on children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Its findings provide clear indicators for supporting children and young people in the next phase of remote learning and in planning for the return to schools.

Alongside the publication of the equity audit, I announced a new package of £45 million of support to help local authorities to deal with the challenges of remote learning.

Her Majesty’s inspectors of education have also developed a national overview of practice in the delivery of remote learning through engagement with local authorities, schools, parents, children and young people. The first review was published on 22 January 2021, and such reviews will continue throughout the period of remote learning.

Johann Lamont

I am sure that the cabinet secretary will accept that the closure of schools is having a disproportionate impact on disadvantaged young people. The consequences for their attainment will be huge if action is not taken to tackle the scale of inequality in education that the pandemic is simply reinforcing. The cabinet secretary has outlined some of the steps that he has taken, but has he assessed fully the lack of engagement where need was shown to be highest geographically? What resources, particularly extra teachers and support staff, are now being targeted towards making real contact with such groups not only to encourage young people to engage with remote learning, but to understand and address the causes of such lack of involvement?

John Swinney

Some of the factors that Johann Lamont has highlighted are ones with which we constantly wrestle in our education system as we ensure that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are able to secure the necessary engagement in their learning. On that point I unreservedly agree with Ms Lamont that engagement in learning is a fundamental part of how we support young people in overcoming the disadvantages that they face.

One aim of our strategy is to ensure that schools are well supported in engaging with their learners. That is why we have put in place two separate tranches of financial support. The first secured the recruitment of more than 1,400 new teachers in our schools. The second is designed to give local authorities the flexibility to recruit staff, enhance connectivity or support other aspects of family-based learning so that young people are sufficiently engaged to sustain their learning. Those two different tranches of financial support are designed to address the real issues that Johann Lamont has raised, which I am determined to tackle. Without that support, we would see further growth in the attainment gap, which is the opposite of what the Government is trying to achieve.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Jamie Greene has a brief supplementary question.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

The cabinet secretary will be aware of serious concerns over how teachers are expected to produce estimated grades or perform remote assessments while remote learning continues. Why is full guidance on that still not forthcoming to teachers, and what exactly is the Scottish Qualifications Authority doing differently this year so that we do not see a repeat of last year’s exams fiasco?

John Swinney

First, the SQA was asked, as a consequence of the Priestley review, to engage the whole education system in developing guidance to ensure that there is whole-system buy-in to the approach that we are taking in these difficult circumstances. I think that any casual observation of the process would indicate that the SQA has done exactly that. It chairs the national qualifications group, which involves local authorities, directors of education, professional associations and Colleges Scotland, to make sure that the approach that we take is not just created by the SQA but bought into by the whole education system. I suggest that Mr Greene acquaint himself with the approach that has been taken in the light of the Priestley review.

Secondly, guidance has been given about the alternative certification model in the education system. We are, of course, wrestling with the challenges that have come with the recent onset of remote learning in the course of January. Earlier today, the national qualifications group indicated that more time would be offered to enable the formulation of estimates by teachers. The deadline for receipt of those estimates has now been put back to 18 June, to maximise the time available for learning and teaching as well as for assessment of the achievement of learning that can then underpin certification for young people, which I am determined to ensure takes place in this school year.


School and Nursery Places (Lockdown)

2. Keith Brown (Clackmannanshire and Dunblane) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what percentage of children and young people are accessing places at school and nursery during the current lockdown period. (S5O-04962)

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

The number of children and young people who are attending schools and childcare services fluctuates daily. However, the latest figures show that, on Monday 25 January, around 7 per cent of pupils were estimated to be physically attending local authority schools. That equates to around 50,000 children and young people. On Tuesday 19 January, responses to a survey from around half of childcare providers showed that at least 18,500 children were attending a childcare setting.

Keith Brown

The guidance advises that the number of children taking up those places in schools during the strict lockdown period should be kept to the absolute minimum that is necessary. The advice to employers is to think critically about what staff they consider to be key workers and to ruthlessly prioritise those providing absolutely essential services to the public in this time of emergency.

However, I have been contacted by constituents whose employers are requiring them to attend work when they could work from home, as well as constituents whose employers are refusing furlough, which would allow parents to keep their children at home. Will the Deputy First Minister join me in urging all employers to be as flexible as possible with their employees, allowing them to work at home whenever possible, and to utilise the furlough scheme to ensure that as many people as possible can stay at home, protect the national health service and save lives during this lockdown period?

John Swinney

I agree whole-heartedly with Keith Brown’s point. It is essential that we keep the number of children who are attending schools to the absolute minimum, to ensure that we are doing everything that we can to suppress the circulation of the virus.

That requires deep engagement by employers, and I would encourage employers to exercise maximum flexibility to enable their staff to work from home in order to reduce the number of children who have to be in our schools and early learning settings. If they do that, we will be able to return to a much more familiar pattern of life in our society, because we will have successfully suppressed the virus, which is the key objective of the strategy that we are pursuing.

Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

Two weeks ago, I asked the cabinet secretary about attendance in schools—particularly in additional support needs schools. However, I am still hearing concerns from teachers and support staff about perceived health risks and safety. The cabinet secretary has said that he looks at the data daily. Is that on an education authority basis? What evidence would support a move to more blended learning?

John Swinney

I look at the data on a local authority basis, so we can see the patterns of attendance in individual areas. The question that Claire Baker raises is important because, clearly, any circumstance in which children are attending school must be safe for everyone concerned—staff and pupils alike.

As we have confirmed to Parliament, we are exploring arrangements for ASN staff to be part of the cohort of health and social care workers who are vaccinated, because of the similarity of the roles that they perform. Those issues are being taken forward in Government. I assure Claire Baker that the issue is being looked at carefully to ensure that there is a safe approach for everybody concerned.

As I have said in some of my comments over the past few days, we are looking at the arrangements for the return of additional support needs pupils, because, clearly, there will be a number of scenarios in which it would be better for such pupils to be in a school setting. We are evaluating and considering how we can do that safely.


Supply Teachers (Lockdown)

3. Lewis Macdonald (North East Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what arrangements are in place for supply teachers during the current lockdown period. (S5O-04963)

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

The recruitment and employment of supply teachers in local authority schools are matters for individual councils. The Scottish Government has already provided £80 million of additional investment in education staff, which is sufficient for the recruitment of around 1,400 additional teachers and 200 support staff this year.

Last week, I announced a package of £45 million of new funding to support the delivery of remote learning. The new funding can be used to recruit further staff, which might include teachers, classroom assistants, administrative staff, home school link workers or other support workers. I therefore expect more supply teachers to be recruited where they are needed.

Lewis Macdonald

Unfortunately, the evidence from my constituents is that that is not happening. The concern is that, although there was a job retention scheme for supply teachers in the first lockdown, no such arrangement is in place in the current lockdown. Will the cabinet secretary discuss the matter with the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers, with a view to ensuring that supply teachers who cannot obtain employment are protected from the drastic loss of income that they otherwise face?

John Swinney

I will ensure that those issues are discussed with the SNCT. I am conscious that there have been discussions on the subject already, or that such discussions are scheduled.

I am troubled to hear of the experience that Lewis Macdonald is raising. I would appreciate it if he would provide me with further details so that I can pursue the issue. I can see absolutely no reason why there would not be opportunities for supply teachers in the current context, in which we are doing everything that we can to expand the teaching workforce. Indeed, at the last meeting of the education recovery group, one of the directors of education who was present made a plea for any available supply teachers to, in the words of that director, be pointed in their direction. That is quite simply because that director is keen to maximise their teaching workforce.

If Mr Macdonald has evidence that is contrary to that, I would welcome seeing it so that I can take steps to ensure that supply teachers have opportunities to engage in teaching during these difficult times.


Home Schooling (Support for Teachers)

4. Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it has put in place to help teachers to deliver home schooling during the Covid-19 pandemic. (S5O-04964)

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

As well as a range of support that has been in place throughout the pandemic through Glow Connect and the national e-learning offer, Education Scotland has hosted several drop-in sessions in January to support practitioners in their planning and preparation for remote learning. Since March, more than 7,500 practitioners have engaged in the 134 webinars that have been delivered by Education Scotland digital officers, focusing on the delivery and creation of online learning. The Scotland learns website continues to be updated with new learning activities and materials for practitioners to support at-home learning during this time.

In addition, Education Scotland has provided a named contact for every headteacher in Scotland, thereby allowing headteachers easy access to a single point of contact who can quickly point them in the direction of Education Scotland resources and guidance or the team that is best placed to provide the support that they require.

Brian Whittle

I thank the cabinet secretary for that response, but teachers have raised with us issues such as lack of information technology equipment and the challenge of home schooling their own children while trying to teach their pupils. Some have even had problems keeping in touch with pupils with special needs. What further support can the Scottish Government give to teachers to tackle those specific issues?

John Swinney

The Government has taken a number of steps to ensure that schools are well supported. As I indicated in my earlier answers, we have put in place tranches of new funding. We have put in place £80 million to recruit 1,400 more teachers and 200 support staff, and £45 million to give flexibility to local authorities to enable them to provide support to those who need it in the education system, whether that is through provision of devices, connectivity or additional teaching resources. The Government has also provided £25 million to support the connectivity of about 70,000 pupils in the education system.

I note that Fife Council—if my memory is correct—indicated in response to some media coverage that any teacher who did not have appropriate connectivity would be provided with a device by the council. I cannot see why any other local authority around the country would not be in a position to provide such assistance to enable teachers to fulfil their teaching complement.

If there are specific examples of problems that are troubling Mr Whittle, I will pursue those matters with the relevant local authority, if he would be so good as to write to me about them.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Iain Gray has a brief supplementary.

Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab)

The Education Scotland report that was published last Friday, which Mr Swinney referred to earlier, points out that although councils have provided many learners with personal devices,

“All local authorities are experiencing challenges in relation to the sufficiency and supply of information and computing technology resources, including devices and Wi-Fi access”.

Therefore, the support that has been put in place is not enough. That is what Education Scotland—not the media—has reported. What will the Deputy First Minister do to address that?

John Swinney

We have already done a number of things. We went through a data-collection exercise with local government, which identified that 70,000 pupils had digital connectivity issues. We put in place resources to tackle that, and that issue has been addressed. We are aware of other issues that have emerged, so the £45 million of resources that I made available to local authorities last week was allocated with sufficient flexibility to enable local authorities to address those challenges.

There have been issues with supply of some technology, which is why I was pleased that the Government acted so swiftly in ordering 25,000 devices last year, which were delivered before the start of the school term in August. I am conscious that some local authorities ordered later than the Government and that some of those orders have not been fulfilled because of global pressure on device supply, which is quite understandable given the volume of demand for digital connectivity.

The Government acted swiftly to identify the volumes of devices that were required and has delivered those. We have also provided additional financial support to local authorities to enable them to plug the gaps.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I ask for slightly shorter answers so that we can fit in the rest of the questions.


Learning Disabilities (Early Years Support)

5. Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on whether all children with learning disabilities in early years education are being identified and diagnosed to ensure that they are receiving targeted support. (S5O-04965)

The Minister for Children and Young People (Maree Todd)

The Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004 places duties on local authorities to identify, provide for and review the needs of all children with additional support needs in their area, including children in early learning and childcare. If a child requires support, their early learning and childcare provider should help to explore the reason for that and provide them with the support that they need as early as possible.

In its inspections of ELC settings, the Care Inspectorate inspects the quality of care and support to ensure that all children receive the support that they need to achieve their full potential. As part of our ELC expansion programme, all settings that are delivering the 1,140 funded hours will be required to achieve a “good” rating or better in all Care Inspectorate inspection themes.

Edward Mountain

I note the minister’s response, but NHS Highland has confirmed that on 16 December 2020 463 children were on the waiting list for neurodevelopmental assessment, with a waiting time of 18 months. Those children simply cannot be getting the best educational start in life, which they should be getting. Will the minister confirm what actions are being taken to ensure that children who are in that position receive appointments as quickly as possible, in order that the additional support that they obviously require can be fully assessed?

Maree Todd

We acknowledge the obvious operational difficulties that child and adolescent mental health services might be having due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the associated restrictions. Although boards have responded very creatively, and have continued to treat significant numbers of children and young people, their priority has been to ensure that emergency and urgent cases are seen, which has meant, regrettably, that some people have had to wait for longer.

CAMH services are now working hard to return to previous activity levels and to deal with backlogs that have developed. We see that in the most recent waiting-time triggers. CAMHS activity is higher than it was in the same period last year. Boards have also increased access to CAMHS online, and the services are now the largest mental health user of NHS Near Me, which is Scotland’s healthcare videoconferencing platform. I know that Sir Edward Mountain will welcome that, knowing, as he does, the Highland connection with that platform’s development.

It is important to stress that children do not need a formal assessment or diagnosis to access additional support for learning. When a child is identified as requiring extra support—through practitioners’ observations or conversations with parents or carers—support should be put in place immediately, even if the underlying reasons for that are still uncertain.


Climate Emergency Preparation (Education System)

6. Claudia Beamish (South Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to Teach the Future’s call for a review into how the whole of the formal education system is preparing students for a climate emergency and ecological crisis. (S5O-04966)

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

I have met representatives from the Teach the Future Scotland campaign to listen to their experiences of climate education. We are supporting education around the twin global climate and ecological crises through implementation of our learning for sustainability action plan, which provides a very positive context in which to address climate education.

We are always looking to strengthen and improve practice. With that in mind, the Scottish Government is considering its detailed response to all the asks of the Teach the Future Scotland campaign, and we will respond to campaign representatives shortly.

Claudia Beamish

I thank the cabinet secretary for that welcome response. I, too, have met Teach the Future representatives virtually. In this context, I particularly want to highlight the importance of one of its asks that it stressed to me, which is for initial teacher training and possibly even a new professional teaching qualification to help to ensure that skills are developed for future innovation in education in our climate and nature emergencies. Does the cabinet secretary have a view on that?

John Swinney

Teach the Future Scotland has raised a range of issues to do with initial teacher education, curriculum content and assessment, and the Government is actively exploring all those issues. It is essential, and it is one of the foundations of Scotland’s curriculum, that we properly equip young people to address the challenges of our days and of the future. The contribution of Teach the Future Scotland will be very influential in how we take those issues forward in the years to come.


Future of Gaelic (Community Engagement)

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

To ask the Scottish Government how it has been engaging with Gaelic-speaking communities on the future—[Inaudible.] (S5O-04967)

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I think that that question is on the future of the language, cabinet secretary.

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

The Scottish Government is committed to on-going development of the Gaelic language. Our engagement with Gaelic-speaking communities is essential to that, and in October I initiated two consultation events with representatives of various island communities to hear from them how they feel communities could be supported to ensure that the Gaelic language thrives. I held a gathering of Gaelic-interested individuals on 17 December to consider next steps, and we will meet again on 1 February.

Dr Allan

I thank the cabinet secretary for his on-going engagement and commitment to the issue. As we will hear at next week’s meeting, there is a good degree of consensus on the existential threat to Gaelic in some communities. We are fortunate that there is broad support across Parliament for supporting the language. What consideration is being given to putting new emphasis on developments in the language at community level?

John Swinney

I very much welcome Dr Allan’s engagement in the debate, in which he has advanced his concerns and aspirations around the Gaelic language. I am appreciative of Dr Allan and a number of other parliamentary colleagues—Donald Cameron, Rhoda Grant, John Finnie and Willie Rennie—for their engagement in the Gaelic gathering, and to the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Kate Forbes, for her sustained interest.

Much of our focus on the Gaelic language has recognised that many aspects, such as digital, broadcasting and Gaelic-medium education, are going well. The area that is finding it tough is support for the vernacular community. I am looking carefully at what more we can do to support the vernacular community in development of the Gaelic language, and to make sure that there is a strong and nurturing environment in which to increase participation. We can reflect on some of those issues in our discussion on Monday.


Additional Support Needs (Support for Teachers)

8. Alexander Burnett (Aberdeenshire West) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what additional support is being provided to teachers to support pupils with additional needs. (S5O-04968)

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

The Scottish Government has prioritised the needs of vulnerable pupils, including those with additional support needs, as part of our response to Covid-19.

Although schools remain closed for the majority of pupils, our guidance for the return to schools in January asked that schools remain open for vulnerable pupils and children of key workers. That means that some pupils with additional support needs will be learning in school. A wide range of guidance is available to aid school staff in supporting children and young people with additional support needs, including guidance on specific topics such as autism and dyslexia.

Alexander Burnett

Last week, The Herald reported that a survey by the Educational Institute of Scotland, the teachers union, found that almost 80 per cent of members believe that additional support needs provision in their school is inadequate. It was reported that there has been “an erosion” in the number of people with additional support needs qualifications. What levels of funding and support are being committed to combat that shortage?

John Swinney

There are two elements to the answer to Mr Burnett’s question. The first is in relation to application of the principle of mainstreaming. Our education system and, indeed, the Parliament have supported the principle that provision of additional support needs education should primarily be through the mainstream education system. That means that most staff have to be familiar with the challenges and issues that emerge in supporting young people with additional support needs. I am very confident that those skills exist in schools the length and breadth of the country, where staff are working very hard to meet the needs of young people.

The second aspect is specialist provision. It is important that such provision, which operates to a very high standard and is the subject of regular inspection, is able to meet the more complex needs of children and young people. I assure Mr Burnett that the resourcing and staffing of special schools is undertaken in a fashion that is designed to meet the needs of individual children and young people.

We are focused, in both the mainstream and the special school environments, on addressing the needs and aspirations of every child. That is our duty and that is what we must concentrate on doing.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Mr Findlay has a brief supplementary question. His persistence has paid off.

Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

A number of teachers are assisted by additional support needs assistants, who work very closely on a one-to-one basis with children with additional needs. They are finding it extremely difficult to maintain distance from the pupils whom they work with very closely, and are asking whether they can be prioritised for vaccination.

John Swinney

[Inaudible.]—I indicated that we are actively working to include the critical staff whom Neil Findlay has referred to in the health and social care group of staff in our system. In many circumstances, staff in education settings will be carrying out tasks that are akin to health and social care support. We are actively exploring how that approach can be taken forward to ensure that staff can continue to do the very important work to which I know they are committed.