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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 26 May 2021

Agenda: Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Scottish Government Priorities, Urgent Question, Point of Order, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


Topical Question Time

Lifeline Ferry Routes

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

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to address the on-going disruption to lifeline ferry routes served by CalMac. (S6T-00001)

The Minister for Transport (Graeme Dey)

We recognise communities’ frustration at the current disruption and the impact that it is having. We are doing everything that we can to support CalMac to maximise available capacity across the network and to ensure the timely resolution of the issues.

Since becoming Minister for Transport, I have prioritised the matter. I have already met CalMac representatives and local MSPs, including Dr Allan, and I will be meeting the independent CalMac community board on Friday to hear its views. I am open to constructive and viable suggestions for improving matters.

We are actively exploring opportunities for chartering additional tonnage, including consideration of the suitability of MV Pentalina, to increase resilience across the network. We have also confirmed new investment of £580 million in ports and vessels to support and improve Scotland’s ferry services over the next five years.

Alasdair Allan

I welcome the minister to his new role, and thank him for his reply.

As the minister will appreciate, the entire economy of any island depends on its ferry. In recent weeks, I have been deluged by emails from families who are desperate to visit relatives on the mainland, and whose long-booked tickets have been cancelled; from businesses that can no longer get building materials to the islands or export shellfish; and from tourism businesses that are struggling to cope with the news that all bookings are suspended for a fortnight.

MV Loch Seaforth is CalMac’s largest major vessel, but she is also CalMac’s newest vessel. She should not be experiencing technical issues of such severity. Will there be an investigation into the causes of the faults?

Graeme Dey

I entirely recognise the intolerable nature of the situation for islanders, from individual and economic perspectives. I also realise that people want action rather than warm words, hence the work that is going on to improve matters in the short, medium and longer terms.

With regard to the vessel that is at the centre of the matter, CalMac is, rightly, fully focused on resolving the issue and getting the MV Loch Seaforth back in service as quickly as possible. In parallel, specialist reports have been commissioned to examine the cause of the issue, and any recommendations will be fully considered. Once the reports are finalised and digested, I am happy to commit to updating members on the outcome of that exercise.

Alasdair Allan

I thank the minister and I appreciate the attention that he is giving to the matter. Although the issues with the MV Loch Seaforth are unprecedented, breakdowns of major vessels on lifeline routes are not, unfortunately. It is now obvious for all to see that CalMac at present does not have enough vessels to run its services with the necessary resilience. What will the Government do in the immediate term to charter additional vessels and to ensure that the next overdue vessel order is placed with a shipyard soon?

Graeme Dey

As I have said, we are actively looking at accessing additional tonnage in order to take care of the immediate future. Activity is also in hand on orders that are due to be placed, with a view to having one in particular—the one to which Dr Allan referred—well in train by the end of the financial year.

Katy Clark (West Scotland) (Lab)

The minister will be aware that part of the reason for the problem is the failure since 2011 to commission sufficient vessels. Is the minister willing to meet me, as a list MSP for West Scotland, to look at how we will address the long-term problem of failure to consult and listen to local communities that was highlighted in the recent Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee report, and at how we make sure that islanders on Arran and the trade unions that represent the CalMac workforce are involved in decision making?

Graeme Dey

As I think I have already indicated, I am willing to work constructively with any MSP who is likewise willing to engage constructively. In the short to medium term, we need a solution that does not involve robbing Peter to pay Paul and which will add to our assets in helping to begin properly to tackle the issue.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

I am delighted that the minister has hit the ground running, in having already committed himself to real and long-lasting improvements to Scotland’s ferry services. What changes will be implemented to ensure a more responsive and reactive customer focus at CalMac, in order to improve contingency planning in the event of future ferry disruptions?

Graeme Dey

Again, that touches on the answer that I just gave, which was that we need an emergency plan, if you like, so that when such incidents arise, we can respond in a way that does not—again, as I said earlier—rob Peter to pay Paul. Kenneth Gibson will understand that, because I have been in post for only a few days, it is very much a work in progress, but I give him the assurance that it is all being actively looked at.

Ariane Burgess (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

I am heartened to hear the minister’s response, and of the investment in the ferry fleet. I would love to hear a commitment to having a green ferry fleet. Will the minister assure me that in the next five years we will see ferries that are green and will help us to meet our net zero targets?

Graeme Dey

I seem to recall from last week that Green MSPs were very critical of transport sitting in the net zero portfolio, but it is self-evidently there for a reason, because transport is such a large emitter. Everything that we do is with a view to tackling the climate emergency and driving down emissions.

Colleges (Funding and Expenditure)

2. Pam Gosal (West Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the recent Audit Scotland report, which highlighted that the gap between colleges’ funding and expenditure has grown to £54 million. (S6T-00024)

The Minister for Higher Education and Further Education, Youth Employment and Training (Jamie Hepburn)

I welcome Pam Gosal to the Parliament and I congratulate her on her new role.

We know that our colleges face significant financial challenges, which have been exacerbated by the pandemic, and we are working closely with them to mitigate the effects of the crisis. Assessing and managing the financial health of colleges is a dynamic process. In its report “Scotland’s colleges 2020”, Audit Scotland acknowledged that the college sector reported an underlying operating surplus of more than £3 million in academic year 2019-20.

In financial year 2020-21, we allocated the college sector and its learners more than £30 million in additional funding, with the Scottish Funding Council allocating an extra £10 million of repurposed funding. In the current financial year, there is an overall increase in the college sector budget of £33.7 million, which will support the sustainability of the college sector and help mitigate against the effects of the pandemic.

In addition, the Scottish Funding Council will shortly conclude its review of coherent provision and sustainability in the tertiary sector.

Pam Gosal

I thank the minister for his response and welcome him to his role, too.

As we recover from the pandemic, it is clear that Scotland’s further education sector will play a critical role in our recovery, as people look to reskill and retrain for a changing job market. However, with Scotland’s college sector’s deficit apparently set to rise even further in the coming years, the sector is facing the task with one arm tied behind its back.

If the Government is serious about equipping Scotland with the skills that it will need to rebuild effectively—

The Presiding Officer

May we have a question, please?

Pam Gosal

The Government must commit to properly funded colleges. Will the minister commit to full funding for colleges?

Jamie Hepburn

I refer Ms Gosal to my previous answer, when I made the point that, in the coming year, we are providing £33.7 million more to the college sector than we provided last year.

On Ms Gosal’s remarks about a deficit in the sector, I urge her to look with caution at the figure that she quoted, which includes many reported costs, such as depreciation of assets, that do not have an immediate cash impact on colleges. I refer her to the point that I made: for the academic year 2019-20, an adjusted operating position of a surplus—a surplus—of more than £3 million was reported.

Pam Gosal

The minister talks about £33 million, but Audit Scotland said that there is a £54 million funding gap.

I remind the minister that there is no single pathway that people, especially young people, choose; different people choose different pathways. University is not right for everyone. When I finished school, it was not right for me; the time that I spent at Cardonald College provided me with a platform from which I could start not only my career but my education journey, which has led to my handing in my PhD thesis this week.

This is not just about my journey. I want everyone out there to have the same opportunities that I had. Will the minister explain how his Government plans to prioritise the college sector and reverse the trend that has resulted in a 35 per cent reduction in college student numbers since his Government came to power?

Jamie Hepburn

I congratulate the soon-to-be Dr Gosal on completing her PhD.

Let me correct the member. She referred to a reduction in student numbers in Scotland’s colleges. That is not correct. Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, we continue to exceed the target of 116,000 full-time-equivalent student places. In 2019-20, we delivered more than 117,000 full-time-equivalent student places.

I agree with Ms Gosal’s fundamental proposition: there are many different pathways for young people. Ms Gosal will be aware that my ministerial role goes much wider than the tertiary education sector and that I also have responsibility for the developing the young workforce strategy and the young persons guarantee. She—and every member—can be assured that my commitment is that there is no wrong path for a young person as they move onward and into employment and that I will approach my role in that vein.

The Presiding Officer

Before we move on, I say that I would be grateful if questions and responses could be succinct.

Vaccination Status Letter

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)



To ask the Scottish Government whether the reported security flaw in the vaccination status letter has been resolved, and whether it will provide an update on the provision and use of vaccine passports for both international and domestic purposes. (S6T-00019)

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care (Humza Yousaf)

Yes, it has been resolved. On learning of the security glitch in relation to downloading a vaccination status letter, that option was disabled. A request for a free-of-charge vaccination status record can be made through the freephone Covid-19 status helpline, on 0808 196 8565. As our Covid status certification programme progresses, the letter will be replaced by a digital Covid status certificate, which is likely to include vaccination status and Covid recovery and negative test data.

On international travel, we are working across the common travel area to put in place a fully interoperable digital solution that aligns with the international standards that are being developed by the World Health Organization.

No decision has been taken on using Covid status certificates domestically, and I have ethical, clinical and equalities concerns about their use. In that vein, I will soon host a round table with human rights and equality experts to discuss the issues.

Willie Rennie

When I asked the First Minister about vaccine passports last year, she said that she did not favour them. However, the Government is pressing ahead without a debate in Parliament or proper public consultation. There is no clarity on how vaccine passports will work, whether they will be used and how long they will be used for. Is the Government making this up as it goes along?

Humza Yousaf

The member clearly did not listen to my answer before asking a second question. We are not pushing ahead. The status letter that I talked about is part of people’s medical records. If Willie Rennie is seriously suggesting, as a Liberal Democrat, that people should not have access to that record, he should say so, but that is not what we are doing. People can request that record. We were trying to make sure that there is an option for people to request that status, so that they do not inundate their general practitioners.

I have just said in my answer to Willie Rennie that I have ethical, clinical and human rights concerns about the use of Covid vaccination certificates and we want to deal with those issues on a four-nations basis as best we can. However, I give him an absolute assurance that no decision whatsoever has been made about using Covid vaccination certificates domestically.

Willie Rennie

I always listen extremely carefully to what the cabinet secretary says. It took five minutes for a junior researcher to identify a major security flaw in the system that the cabinet secretary has set up—what system testing was undertaken before it was launched? Was it piloted before it was launched and how can we have confidence that the new system will work? If we do not trust it, why would any foreign Government trust it?

Humza Yousaf

Again, I give an absolute assurance that, having been made aware of the security glitch, of course we are going to debrief with our information technology team—that is happening at the moment. Vaccination certificates have relatively low currency; not many countries require them at the moment and no major airline requires them for entry to its flights. We want to stop people from inundating their GPs, who are already working extraordinarily hard during the pandemic. We will learn the lessons of the security glitch. We have resolved it, so that issue is no longer a problem.

I reaffirm what I have already said to Willie Rennie: I have concerns about the domestic use of vaccination certificates. I will be meeting a number of equalities and human rights organisations very soon and I promise the member that there will be no pressing ahead with Covid vaccine certificates until we resolve those issues, and even then we will have cross-party discussions.

The Presiding Officer

Pauline McNeill joins us remotely.

Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

Around half of people in Glasgow who were due get a Covid jab over the weekend failed to turn up. Reports on Monday said that there was a staggering 83 per cent non-attendance at the Hydro in Glasgow. We know that the venue can administer a minimum of 4,000 vaccinations a day and has the capacity to scale up to 10,000. Does the Government understand the reasons for that high level of non-attendance among people in their 30s and 40s at mass vaccination centres such as the Hydro? Is it time to look at having an online registration system for people of all ages? We cannot continue to have that level of non-attendance—it is inefficient.

Humza Yousaf

I agree with Pauline McNeill. After the statistics from the weekend, I am urgently talking to the team about extending the online portal that is available for 18 to 29-year-olds, which has had very good take-up, to cohort 10, which is those who are aged 30 to 39 and 40 to 49. That is being urgently considered as we speak.

Those who did not attend and who we have phone numbers for have been followed up by text message. As we are all aware, there is a considerable problem in the south side of Glasgow in particular. Around two hours ago, I was at the gurdwara on Albert Drive in Pollokshields looking at the walk-in mobile vaccination unit there. We are exhausting every single avenue and using every tool that we have to do everything that we can to bring case numbers down in the south side of Glasgow, and I would be happy to speak to Pauline McNeill and other members across the chamber in more detail about the efforts to do so.

The Presiding Officer

Apologies to those members who we were unable to take. That concludes topical questions.