Election 2021

Elections to the Scottish Parliament were held on 6 May.  We are currently updating the website with the results of the election.

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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament 23 March 2021 [Draft]

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Covid-19 (Reflections and Next Steps), Topical Question Time, Motion of No Confidence, European Charter of Local Self-Government (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, European Charter of Local Self-Government (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill, Business Motion, Tied Pubs (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Tied Pubs (Scotland) Bill, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Motion Without Notice, Decision Time, Churches (Support During Lockdown)


Contents


Churches (Support During Lockdown)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-23618, in the name of Jeremy Balfour, on the “Stories of Hope” report on Scottish churches providing support in lockdown. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament welcomes the publication of the report, Stories of Hope, produced by the Evangelical Alliance and Serve Scotland, which has calculated that churches across Scotland have provided 212,214 acts of support during lockdown; understands that these acts were delivered by over 3,000 volunteers and impacted over 55,000 beneficiaries; acknowledges that churches in 180 locations across Scotland worked in partnership with key stakeholders, including supermarkets, community councils, NHS boards, food banks, voluntary support groups and charities, to deliver services to support vulnerable groups, including older, homeless and young people; recognises the important role that it considers churches and charities play in communities across Scotland, including in the Lothian region, and praises all those involved in delivering these services during the pandemic.

19:30  

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

My first speech in the chamber, just under five years ago, was in a members’ business debate, so it seems appropriate to finish this session with a members’ business debate. I think that it will also be the last time that the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government addresses the chamber, and I want to wish Aileen Campbell all the best as she spreads her wings and flies to other areas of Scotland. Although we have our political differences, the times that we have worked together on bills and have otherwise engaged have always been very constructive. I wish her well with her family. I also thank people for the cross-party support that the motion has had, which has allowed the debate to take place tonight.

I think that we all agree that the past 12 months has been horrendous for most people in Scotland. Because of lockdown and the pandemic’s impact on our health and our families, we have seen so many difficult situations in our country. All of us have received emails and letters from constituents who have suffered because of uncertainty over their jobs, because of a lack of food or for other reasons.

The report that the Evangelical Alliance Scotland has put together and which we are debating tonight gives at least some bright sunshine to enable us to see what has happened in our country in the past 12 months. In the Bible, James says:

“faith without works is dead.”

The report brings that verse alive. People’s faith has motivated them to go and do good works for their fellow citizens and their local communities.

That has happened across our country. It has happened in small communities and in our cities. There have been large projects here in the Lothians, such as work undertaken by Bethany Christian Trust, of which I used to be a director, to help the homeless. It has made such an impact by taking people off the streets, giving them support in hotels during the worst of the pandemic last year, and making sure that lives that were chaotic were given some kind of structure. It is about the small projects as well. To highlight my own church, Holy Trinity Wester Hailes has been running a food bank over the last period of time. It is also reaching out to the community that it is based in, seeking to bring help. What unites all the projects—whether in the north or south of Scotland, whether large or small—is that they are there to help individuals who need help.

For me, the report highlights something else very important that has happened, and that is partnership working. We talk a lot of about joined-up thinking and joined-up working, but the report highlights it happening in practice across Scotland: the church working with Government, the church working with local authorities, the church working with other faith communities and the church working with the third sector.

If anything can be taken from the report, it is that, whatever happens in the next few years with the pandemic and however things play out, the partnerships that have been made should not be broken and should not go away. In fact, they need to be built on and supported.

It has been my experience in the Parliament and before I came to it that there may have been suspicion of Government among some churches and Government suspicion of churches. I think that that is partly to do with language rather than wanting to achieve. However, the report shows that, when we pull together, it makes a difference and we are stronger with those positives. After all, the church is not a building; it is individuals and people in their local communities seeking to help and develop those communities. I hope that, from the report and the relationships that have been built with local and national Government, the church can have a role to play along with other faiths and other groups in our communities.

The church produces a lot of good stuff, but it needs financial support—not necessarily support for individuals but seed funding for projects to get going and support to provide the necessary things that go on. I hope that whoever forms the next Government will look to support the third sector across the board, particularly those from the faith communities who reach their communities. It is probably fair to say that the church collectively is the last institution that will be found in every part of our community across Scotland, working away often unseen and often not looking for credit but looking to support individuals who come across its doorstep or individuals to whom it goes to help.

I welcome the report, which has lots of positives and gives us hope for the future, and I look forward to hearing other members’ contributions.

19:37  

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

I thank Jeremy Balfour for bringing this subject to the chamber.

One of the good things that have come from the past year with Covid has been that individuals and local organisations have been keen to volunteer and add to what the public sector has been doing. The report only scratches the surface of what has been going on. For example, only two churches in my constituency are listed in the report—Parkhead Nazarene church and the Redeemed Christian Church of God in Bridgeton—but, in fact, we have around 40 churches in the constituency, and I know that most of them, if not all of them, have been helping people in different ways. Therefore, I hope that no one thinks that the report is meant to be comprehensive. It is more of a snapshot of what has been going on.

The report mentions how churches have been aiming to help people with a whole range of needs, including physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs. It has been encouraging in recent years that we as a society have given greater emphasis to mental health as well as to physical health. That is good, and we probably have further to go in that direction, but we have not always given enough emphasis to spiritual health.

Christians believe—and a number of other faith groups do, as well—that there is a God-shaped space in our human lives and that we cannot find real peace and fulfilment as human beings until we have found a relationship with God.

The churches and other faith groups have been doing a lot to support physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. As Jeremy Balfour has highlighted, there have been deliveries of food and cooked meals and lifts to hospitals for physical health. That has often been done in partnership with the public sector or other third sector services. However, people have also been given company, phoned for a chat and helped to work Zoom, and those things are more for mental, social and emotional wellbeing. The public sector is not always so good at providing that kind of support, and we need to look to wider society—to the third sector, including faith groups—for that kind of need to be met.

To go beyond that, providing for people’s spiritual needs is largely beyond the scope of the public sector, and the third sector may or may not be able to help. It is then that we need the churches, according to Christian belief, or other faith groups that can provide support in that dimension. We live in a materialistic and humanistic society. Most people no longer believe in a God who wants to be personally involved in their lives and yet, as I said, human beings are not just physical or even intellectual or emotional beings—we also have spiritual needs. That is not to say that the churches and other Christian organisations are interested only in meeting people’s spiritual needs—the report proves that that is not the case—but it is to say that we need to care for the whole person.

Jesus set us an example by feeding the 5,000 with bread and fish. He helped people with mental and emotional issues, such as how to deal with fear in their lives, but he also dealt with people’s spiritual needs—especially by offering to forgive their sins and revealing God as a loving, heavenly father.

Lockdown and the closure of churches and other places of worship have brought to the fore again the relationship between church and state. Some have questioned whether the state can close churches, although many of us see it as having been a necessity for virtually all sectors of society, including faith groups. The point still holds that the state needs to respect the churches and other faith groups and not interfere with them. The churches and others pray for political leaders, and we want to help to make society run better.

I thank Jeremy Balfour again for initiating the debate. I hope that it will improve understanding of the good things that churches are doing and I hope that the relationship between church and state continues to evolve in a healthy way.

19:41  

Maurice Corry (West Scotland) (Con)

I wish the cabinet secretary and her family well as she moves on to other spheres of life. As I know well, there are responsibilities that no doubt come with a young family. I say an enormous thank you to the cabinet secretary for her work to help us with the veterans community, which has been noticed a lot in the past five years. I have enjoyed working with her on that—she understands it and gets it, which is important. On behalf of veterans, I thank her so much.

I am delighted to speak in the debate and I thank my colleague Jeremy Balfour for his motion. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected every corner of society and exacerbated some problems to the extreme. To answer the challenges, thousands of volunteers and organisations have stepped forward and exhibited great dedication, commitment and care. At the heart of many of those efforts big and small, the church has stood ready to help.

The “Stories of Hope” report, which was produced by the Evangelical Alliance with Serve Scotland, has shown the breadth of support that Scottish churches have provided in response to the heightened challenges that have resulted from the pandemic. Across the nation, church-led projects have sought to assist the homeless, the elderly, the vulnerable and those who were simply in need of a listening ear. All in all, those projects have delivered more than 200,000 individual acts of support.

It is safe to say that, in the early months of the first lockdown, none of us foresaw the multilayered impact that Covid-19 could have on our lives and we did not fully recognise the heavy emotional toll that it would bring. As the report found, the first weeks left many people spent of their resources, without financial or relational support.

Churches have taken on broad and varied projects to answer practical and emotional needs. Some have operated free doorstep deliveries of food parcels for those who could not go shopping. In Dundee, a network of 12 churches, together with Dundee City Council, NHS Tayside and community groups, collectively provided more than 57,000 meals. Churches offered dedicated helplines to combat feelings of loneliness and anxiety. Those efforts demonstrate the importance of making and sustaining contact with one another. That might seem small, but it has certainly not been underestimated by those who have benefited.

For much of the past year, churches have been unable to hold services or meet as congregations. However, that has not stopped them being a vital support network for their communities, alongside neighbouring charities and organisations. As they have looked to adapt and repurpose their outreach, some churches have offered their buildings to host Covid-19 response and resilience groups and have brought together representative voices to share ideas on how they can collectively best help. Dornoch free church operated a street buddy scheme to assist more than 1,200 shielding and self-isolating households in that area.

In all this, churches—including those in my West Scotland region—have played a significant role in reminding people that they do not have to cope by themselves. The work of the volunteers, who number nearly 3,000 people, has shown that there is hope and optimism to be found, even in such circumstances.

Partnerships are the key to why such projects have made such a valuable impact on people’s lives, as the “Stories of Hope” report emphasised. Churches, regardless of denomination or tradition, have worked in strong co-operation with the wider community—supermarkets, national health service boards, businesses, councils and so on—to ensure that, through helpful and tailored co-ordination, support is not only accessible but maximised to reach whomever it needs to reach. Far from the idea that they are separate from or out of touch with their communities, Scottish churches have purposefully looked outwards for ways in which they can respond meaningfully to the pandemic and communicate during it. In doing so, they have exemplified their continued relevance in our society.

The “Stories of Hope” report described Scotland’s churches as “a lifeline”. That truth goes beyond the pandemic. Our churches have actively sought to reflect the care and generosity that were evident in the life of Jesus Christ. Through their intentional partnerships and contact with others, those attributes have undoubtedly shone through. I commend all the churches and their selfless volunteers who have so clearly placed the needs of others before their own. Beyond the pandemic, I am sure that it is our shared hope that the partnerships that have been forged between church and community will continue to be utilised and encouraged as much as possible.

As this might be the last time that I speak in this place, as I warned the Presiding Officer, I want to say a few words by way of au revoir rather than goodbye. It has been a privilege to serve my region of West Scotland, which, as someone who has been a councillor on Argyll and Bute Council, I have enjoyed thoroughly. I have enjoyed my time in the Scottish Parliament—in fact, I have loved it—and the challenges and friendships that go with it. I could not have done it without the support of my team—John McMurtrie, Alix Edmonds, Esther Macleod and Sandra Robinson—and my beloved family: Juliet, my wife, who is always a great support in good and difficult times; my daughters, Sophie, Katie and Emma; and my son, Charlie. Their support has been immense and invaluable. I have enjoyed working with colleagues across the chamber immensely, and I hope that I have helped them in what ways I have been able to.

I have served on the Justice Committee, the Public Petitions Committee and the COVID-19 Committee. Above all, I have enjoyed my time on the cross-party groups on dyslexia, mental health, accident prevention and safety awareness, and armed forces and veterans community, which became one of the most active cross-party groups that I worked on. It could be said that my work on veterans has been my pièce de résistance. I would like to think that I have been the voice of veterans in the chamber, and I have tried to be the voice of veterans and armed forces members throughout Scotland and to raise their issues here. I will continue to do that, whether from inside or outside the Parliament. If I am lucky enough to be re-elected, I will continue that work here.

This is the people’s Parliament, and it has been a great privilege to show it off to people. Finally, I thank all members for the friendship and love that they have given me, and for the experience of working with them and the richness of life that it has given me. I have thoroughly enjoyed it.

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Thank you very much, Mr Corry.

19:48  

Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

I wanted to support Jeremy Balfour in tonight’s debate because it shines a light on the humanity that is exemplified by churches. Mine will be a short contribution, but I make it in admiration of those I will speak about and in full support of the motion, the churches and the communities that make them.

I have previously made remarks about Aileen Campbell, each time thinking that it was her last speech in the Parliament. It seems as though her speech in this debate might actually be her last speech. All credit to her.

Maurice Corry’s speech was really touching. It has been a pleasure to listen to him, and he has made an immense contribution to the Parliament. He is a credit to his party, and the work that he has done on veterans will never be forgotten.

Today is a national day of reflection on the past year of the pandemic. Many people will have positive reflections because they have made the most of their time with their families, revised their working conditions, learned something new or even got fitter. However, it has been a dreadful year for most people and one that has demonstrated the fragility of our world, given the extent to which it has been possible for our older people and our vulnerable people to become so isolated from our love and physical contact, for our young people to be separated from their friends in education, and for family members to be unable to see one another and help one another in the ways that they would want to.

Did we pull together and protect the people who were most in need? Did we do the right thing and share the vaccine supply with poorer countries? Did we recognise the impact on people’s mental health? Did we help one another? Did we comply with the rules to protect our national health service and the people who needed it? We must ask ourselves all those questions when we look back on this dreadful time. The levels of poverty that existed before the pandemic got a whole lot worse. As decision makers, I hope that we made the right decisions for families in poverty.

The Parliament welcomed the publication of “Stories of Hope” by the Evangelical Alliance and Serve Scotland. More than 3,000 volunteers from churches in Scotland have carried out almost a quarter of a million acts of support during lockdowns, which have impacted on 55,000 beneficiaries. There can be no argument with the assertion that our communities in all parts of Scotland have been strong throughout the pandemic or with the fact that churches in Scotland have been doing wonderful work.

We should make no mistake: churches protect people from starvation and from losing their homes. Their life-saving work has given our society hope that we can meet the challenges because people are there to help. Re:Hope church in Royston helped people with their benefit claims and established an advice and support service, which was much needed. Ruchazie parish church got involved in food delivery and counselling—services that were badly needed during the crisis. Parkhead Nazarene church in Glasgow Shettleston delivered food. Ordinary people relied on those food deliveries. Homes For Good and the Bethany Christian Trust did much to prevent homelessness.

I whole-heartedly thank everyone who was involved in that incredible work. Their stories of hope show that humanity is alive and well and that churches are acting on what they believe in. I am delighted to support Jeremy Balfour in this debate, and I look forward to hearing other members’ speeches.

19:51  

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

I congratulate Jeremy Balfour on bringing the motion to the Parliament, and I commend colleagues from parties across the Parliament for sharing their experiences.

I pay tribute to my West Scotland colleague Maurice Corry, who I think has made his final speech in the Parliament. Maurice has participated in umpteen members’ business debates, which shows his eclectic interests. He has also been the spokesperson in the Parliament for veterans. I pay tribute, too, to his work on behalf of the men’s sheds movement. He has visited my constituency at least a couple of times that I know of, and he led—extremely well—a debate on men’s sheds a few weeks ago, which went down very well in my constituency. I will miss Maurice. He has made an exceptional contribution to the Parliament over the years.

As we are all too aware, today marks one year since we first went into lockdown. We have taken time out to remember the people who lost their lives as a result of Covid-19 and the impact of the virus on our essential services, as well as to reflect on the hardships of the past year. For some of us, that might have been the loss of our offices and the boredom of a completely blank social calendar. Others, who are less fortunate, have had to cope with the loss of income, livelihoods and loved ones.

Although this might be a time that many of us will wish to forget, it is important that we remember the past year’s sacrifices. We must also recall the ways in which we have come together and the immense benefits that have been provided by communities, who have been doing what they do best.

The “Stories of Hope” report provides a reminder that, when people are faced with adversity, they respond to the needs of their communities. For many people and communities, Christian churches have been an integral part of that coming together, as they have been for centuries, since the days of St Columba, St Ninian, St Cadoc and many others.

In more than 180 locations, local churches, often in partnership with other organisations and individuals, have created support networks and established projects to support the most vulnerable and isolated. Existing services have been adapted to meet demand, and staff and volunteers have been recruited or redeployed. New projects have delivered food, phoned the elderly and isolated, supported homeless people or those claiming asylum and connected with children and young people who were struggling with their mental health.

At the height of both lockdowns, in particular, churches have been a central part of the community response to Covid-19. When the report was published, in December, it rightly made a ripple in an otherwise bleak news cycle. It found that more than 212,000 individual acts of support had been recorded in the Evangelical Alliance’s survey on church-based projects around Scotland, which ran from May to July last year.

That is an astounding figure—even more so when we consider that it is almost certainly incomplete. It would be unreasonable to assume that every call to someone in need, every offer of grocery shopping and every token of support left on someone’s doorstep has been accounted for in those figures. The full extent of the support that has been provided by churches and their congregations is impossible to know, but it has been—and is—invaluable.

The report also takes an in-depth look at the stories of churches and people from around Scotland. Although each story is unique, I was struck by how familiar each one felt. I am sure that we all have tales from our constituencies that would slot perfectly into the report. For example, Ardrossan’s church of the Nazarene operates as a centre for North Ayrshire Foodbank, and it has been a vital part of the community throughout the pandemic, just as it was beforehand. Before Covid-19, the food bank provided around 300 meals a week to those in need. At the height of the first wave, that rose to 2,500 a week, and the food bank provided more than 20,000 meals during the first lockdown.

The dreadful impact of Covid-19 on the people of North Ayrshire is certainly nothing to celebrate. Nevertheless, the response from the church, the food bank and the local community deserves recognition. Regular donations to the food bank increased significantly, as did supermarket contributions and partnerships with local businesses, which helped the food bank to cope with the surge in demand.

Speaking in the Ardrossan & Saltcoats Herald, the food bank co-ordinator Craig Crosthwaite said that he was “overwhelmed” at how the community came together to help those most in need. There are hundreds of situations around Scotland just like that one, and only a relative few have made it into the “Stories of Hope” report.

The past year has been extremely trying for us all, and, although there is light at the end of the tunnel, we cannot let down our guard just yet. However, the way in which communities, churches and charities have come together up and down Scotland to provide support and succour to those in great need surely shows us that there is much to be hopeful about as we reflect and look forward.

I thank Jeremy Balfour for bringing the debate to the chamber, and I thank Aileen Campbell for responding on behalf of the Scottish Government. Aileen Campbell has been my colleague in the Scottish Parliament for 14 years, and I will really miss her. She is a very cheerful and uplifting person to work with and be around, and I know that we were all shocked when she said that she was retiring, given that she is such a whippersnapper, as you know, Presiding Officer.

I hope to see Aileen in whichever guise she emerges after her time in the Parliament. I hope that, one day, she will come back to Scotland’s Parliament, where she has served us so well in many roles over many years. I thank Aileen, Jeremy and Maurice.

19:57  

Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I congratulate Jeremy Balfour on securing the debate on such important projects.

I also take the opportunity to wish Aileen Campbell all the best for the future. Aileen is a Perthshire girl and, a few years ago, we shared a school visit from her old primary school, Collace primary. The youngsters from Collace were very proud to have a cabinet secretary among the school’s former pupils. I wish Aileen all the best for the future. She will be a loss to the Parliament, as will my good friend Maurice Corry if he is not re-elected, although I still hope that he will be.

Maurice has been a great pal on the Conservative benches. As people have said, he has been a tremendous champion for not only communities in the west of Scotland, particularly Helensburgh, where he lives, but the veterans community throughout Scotland. He will be well remembered for the contribution that he has made. The only thing I will say to him is “pussycat”, which means a lot to him and to me but will mean nothing to anybody else in the chamber, which is just as well.

Moving quickly on to the subject of the debate, I join others in congratulating the Evangelical Alliance on the work that it has done in bringing together the report “Stories of Hope”. In particular, I thank Kieran Turner, who is the hard-working parliamentary officer for the Evangelical Alliance. He prepared the brief and put together the details for tonight’s debate.

John Mason talked about what a challenging time it has been for churches across Scotland. It has been difficult for many because the restrictions have made it difficult, if not impossible, to meet for much of the past year. The limited lifting of restrictions will be welcomed by many churches, which will now be allowed to have 50 people present with adequate social distancing. That is a big step forward. It still means that many larger churches will struggle, but at least it is a step in the right direction.

Many churches have embraced the opportunities from the restrictions by moving to online services and engaging in worship people who perhaps would not want to cross the threshold of a church building, so some interesting opportunities have come out of the current difficulties. Also, as has been said, churches have taken the chance to develop the services that they provide to the wider community. All of that work is reflected in the report that is before us.

I will highlight two examples of such work in my parliamentary region. The first concerns the Vine church in Dunfermline, which has set up a new project that serves 100 meals a day to people who might otherwise not get healthy and nutritious meals. The project is serviced by 25 volunteers who are drawn from the church membership and the wider community, and it takes referrals from schools, social workers, doctors’ surgeries and youth groups so that it targets its aid at those who are vulnerable and in need of support. The project has been an immense success since it was set up.

The other project that I want to highlight is that of Christians Against Poverty. I hosted an event in Holyrood for the organisation, I think, a couple of years ago, and it was well supported by MSPs. We heard about the tremendous work that it does to tackle debt problems among individuals. Christians Against Poverty has developed a tremendous reputation for assisting people who are in debt in a way that many other debt charities struggle to do because of a lack of resource. I have visited Christians Against Poverty’s centre in Aberfeldy, and I know that it has two other new centres in Perthshire. Those centres are very much valued by the local community.

Those are just two examples, and there are many more across other parts of Scotland, to which other members have referred. Such examples demonstrate the good work that is going on within the church community in all parts of Scotland. I thank those who are involved, and I thank the Evangelical Alliance for highlighting the good work that is going on.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I call Aileen Campbell to close the debate for the Scottish Government. Cabinet secretary, I think that you will also be speaking tomorrow. I am beginning to think that you will have as many farewell speeches as Frank Sinatra, but there we go.

20:02  

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

Thank you, Presiding Officer. You have taken the words right out of my notes—I was going to say that I think that I have had more comebacks than Frank Sinatra. I had not realised a couple of debates ago that I would have so many opportunities left to contribute to the Parliament. Tomorrow, I have portfolio question time, which will be my last, last ever contribution.

I sincerely thank Jeremy Balfour for bringing this really important motion to the chamber, and for his kind words. He is right that we have sometimes crossed swords in debates but, nonetheless, we have done so with respect and while appreciating our differences, and we have sought to work together when we can. The fact that he has brought today’s debate to the chamber with such passion is testament to his commitment to ensuring that we reflect on and appreciate the role of faith and belief communities.

I thank all members for their contributions. They have articulated strongly the breadth of our faith and belief communities and their reach over the past year into all pockets of our country. They have illustrated that such communities have been crucial to the country’s resilience in these challenging times.

As we take tentative steps towards recovery, it is vital that we consider the issues that have been raised by the “Stories of Hope” report and that we acknowledge and thank faith and belief communities throughout Scotland for their selflessness, compassion and tireless work in supporting the most vulnerable in Scotland. That is brought to life in the report, which captures the breadth and reach of the inspiring work that has been done during the pandemic by our faith and belief communities. It was also captured by the contributions from Jeremy Balfour, Pauline McNeill and John Mason.

John Mason said that the report “only scratches the surface”. I can think of so many churches in my constituency that are not included in the report, and that will be the case across many constituencies. That further amplifies the important role that our faith and belief communities have played during the pandemic.

There were also speeches from Kenny Gibson and Maurice Corry. If that was Maurice’s last contribution in the chamber, I put on record my thanks and gratitude for the way in which he conducts himself, which is always with such kindness and authenticity. He is a hugely strong champion for veterans and has done so much to support that community. I thank him on behalf of the Government for all his advice and guidance on how to better support that community.

Hopefully, this is not his last time in the chamber—it is always difficult to say that, because of course we are all fighting each other in the parliamentary elections, but I am sure that he knows what I mean. I thank him, and I hope that he gets a chance to continue to contribute to public life after the elections.

As we have reflected today, Covid has challenged us all, at every level, but it has been apparent from the outset that it has affected the most vulnerable people in Scotland disproportionately. It has intensified and worsened inequalities in society and has had a devastating impact on many.

Faith and belief communities have brought a sense of hope and purpose in the midst of the pandemic. They were able to step in quickly and sensitively to adapt and often increase the community support that they already delivered, day in, day out. They have helped to bridge a number of gaps, which, as has been widely reported and is mentioned in the report, has exposed pre-existing inequalities and brought with it additional challenges. They have worked together effectively and with a range of partners, including agencies, other community groups and local government.

As our faith and belief communities and other communities stepped up to look out for so many during the pandemic, it was right that the Scottish Government worked hard to support that endeavour. Since the start of the pandemic, the Government has provided a combined total of £1 billion to help local communities and to build resilience in public services. More than £550 million has been committed through the communities funding package and has been distributed across councils, local services and initiatives that support those in need. Almost £80 million has been awarded to third sector and community organisations through the wellbeing fund, the supporting communities fund and the third sector resilience fund.

That has included funding for faith and belief communities, which are well placed to ensure that money is directed effectively in their communities. On top of the £550 million communities funding package, a further £479 million has been awarded to councils to meet demand for local services and to build resilience across the sector. The support has assisted faith and belief organisations in bringing much-needed help to communities, which, as we have heard, has ranged from food banks and information technology equipment to emotional support and day to day practical assistance for those who are unable to leave their homes.

For example, funding was provided to Interfaith Scotland to support digital online worship for faith communities; funding was provided to Sikhs in Scotland to help establish the Sikh food bank; and a grant was awarded to the Solas Foundation to help to connect Muslim communities throughout the Covid-19 lockdown period, including during Ramadan. Our funding for third sector organisations continues, including the community and third sector recovery programme, which is expected to make £44 million of awards by this summer.

As I mentioned earlier in my closing remarks on Andy Wightman’s member’s bill, today’s milestone of it being a year since lockdown began and the collective reflections that we have made today to remember those who lost their lives during the pandemic give us cause to think and reflect on how we use the experience to shape the future. We have an opportunity to look afresh at what we have learned and to build a legacy by creating a fairer and more equal Scotland.

The social renewal advisory board was established to ensure that the learning from and experience of the community response to the pandemic are not lost and instead help to guide our future actions to help to create that better and fairer Scotland. I think that Jeremy Balfour said that he wants to ensure that we use the report’s recommendations. Importantly, and to reflect the central role that our faith and belief communities have played over the past year, we ensured that Interfaith Scotland, represented by Maureen Sier, played a full role on the social renewal advisory board.

Today, the Scottish Government published its initial response to the board’s independent report. Our response welcomes the ambitious and innovative calls to action that are set out in the report and outlines the work that we are already doing to address, either in full or in part, a number of the board’s recommendations. The response also recognises that there is insufficient time remaining in the current parliamentary session for the Government to give full consideration to the recommended actions and that that responsibility should rightly fall to the next Government following the May 2021 elections. The challenge to all members across the chamber is to ensure that we use the SRAB’s work to drive the actions of the Parliament. I hope that everybody who has contributed to the debate—if they are back in May—does so. However, to ensure that the ambition and momentum of the board’s work are not lost, we will kick-start the work by investing an additional £25 million to take forward a number of actions that are informed by the board’s recommendations.

I again underline my sincere thanks to our faith and belief communities for all that they have done, not just during the past year but throughout every year and always. I completely agree with the sentiment that I think Jeremy Balfour expressed that churches help communities quietly, compassionately and without looking for praise or reward. That compassion and kindness have seen our faith and belief communities open their hearts and their doors to support those who far too often experience doors and minds closed in seeking the support that they need. Faith and belief communities make a huge and positive difference to our country, and it has been an enormous privilege of mine to hold portfolio responsibility in the Scottish Government for faith and belief. I have learned so much from our faith leaders, and I sincerely thank them all for the support that they provide and the work that they do tirelessly across the length and breadth of the country.

I again thank Kenny Gibson, Maurice Corry, Jeremy Balfour, Murdo Fraser and Pauline McNeill for their kind words. Cross-party members’ business debates such as this one often go unnoticed by the press and they do not dominate the Twitter headlines or Facebook, but I think that they show Parliament at its best. They are collaborative, consensual, appreciative of others and respecting of difference and, like the report that we have discussed, they offer hope for brighter days ahead. I wish everybody in the chamber all the best, although I will be back tomorrow to make some more remarks.

More importantly, I again commend the motion, and I commend all that our faith and belief communities have done across the country in this really challenging year. I thank them sincerely for that effort and endeavour. The resilience of our country just would not have been there had not they and countless other communities and volunteers stepped up when so many had to step back to respond to the pandemic. I thank them and I thank the authors of the report, which I hope will continue to drive forward and influence the Government’s actions after May.

Meeting closed at 20:11.