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Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, December 1, 2022


General Question Time

Infrastructure (Discussions with UK Government)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it can provide an update on any discussions it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding infrastructure. (S6O-01636)

The Minister for Transport (Jenny Gilruth)

We meet UK Government counterparts to discuss matters of importance to Scotland, including infrastructure, as required. I was certainly disappointed that no UK Government minister was able to meet me this week in London on the matter of rail infrastructure, which Mr Carson may know has been a key feature in the on-going dispute between Network Rail and the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers.

Furthermore, it was disappointing that the UK Government’s November autumn statement did not enhance the Scottish Government’s capital budget.

The UK Government has failed to protect our capital allocation against inflation, pursued a hard Brexit and tight immigration laws and presided over volatility in the financial markets. All of that is impacting on our ability to deliver on capital investment plans.

Finlay Carson

Unfortunately, I really do not thank the minister for that response. Last week, yet another horrific accident took place on the A75, when two heavy goods vehicles collided in the village of Crocketford. One of the vehicles overturned and hit several parked cars before careening through a pedestrian crossing into a house; it was a miracle that nobody died. Sadly, it is just another statistic, but for the people who live in that small village, such accidents are happening all too often.

I have lived next to the A75 all my life and witnessed the aftermath of hundreds of accidents, far too many of which resulted in loss of life. Report after report highlight the need for significant improvement on the critical link to Northern Ireland, with a bypass around Crocketford and Springholm at the top of the list.

Only last week, Michael Matheson said that the union connectivity review had fallen off the table, only to be undermined by Jenny Gilruth, who said that discussions were on-going.

This is not about party politics. The people of Dumfries and Galloway and cross-party MSPs demand those bypasses—nothing less will be acceptable. Can the minister confirm that positive talks with the UK Government are continuing and commit today to those bypasses, so that communities will not have to wait a moment longer for the much-delayed strategic transport projects review 2?

Jenny Gilruth

I very much recognise Mr Carson’s constituency interest in this matter. I do not think that it would be appropriate for me to comment today on any individual incident, although I am, of course, aware of the incident in question.

My officials in Transport Scotland engage regularly with our counterparts in the Department for Transport. I am advised that the A75 was discussed at the most recent meeting, which was held on 31 October, and that the DFT confirmed that the Scottish Government would be required to submit a proposal to the UK Government to approve the release of any funding for the A75. There is no guarantee from the UK Government that any additional funding is available, and any money that might be received from the UK Government would most likely be best targeted at further investigation of preliminary options for a local bypass at Springholm and Crocketford, as I think that Mr Carson alluded to. That has been identified through the STPR2 process.

It would be for Transport Scotland to lead and manage that work, because the trunk road network belongs to Scottish ministers. Irrespective of that, I have not received any substantive update from the Chancellor of the Exchequer on that matter. It would be much more appropriate—[Interruption.]

I hear Mr Carson heckling from a sedentary position. I have to say that this is potential, and my officials have been informed—[Interruption.]

I remind members that the only person speaking should be the person who is asking or responding to questions. I ask, too, that we pick up the pace, because we have a lot of interest in this item. Thank you.

Jenny Gilruth

I have received no substantive update from the chancellor or any other UK Government minister on the matter. It would be far more appropriate for the UK Government to protect and enhance Scotland’s capital allocation to reflect rising inflation.

Finally, as Mr Carson knows, transport infrastructure investment decisions are devolved to Scotland. If his friends in the UK Government want to increase funding to infrastructure projects in Scotland, they should do so through the already agreed and established processes of devolution.

Fuel Poverty (Engagement with Energy Sector)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on any recent engagement it has had with the energy sector regarding support for those at risk of fuel poverty. (S6O-01637)

The Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport (Michael Matheson)

The First Minister has chaired two energy summits since August. All major energy suppliers attended the summits, along with advice providers and third sector organisations.

The summits discussed the impact of the measures that have been introduced by the United Kingdom Government in response to the energy crisis and agreed that the UK Government should be targeting more support towards people who are living in vulnerable circumstances. Other outcomes include the Scottish Government commitment to work with public and private sector partners to explore how people living in fuel poverty can be further protected within our devolved powers.

James Dornan

At the most recent summit, the Scottish Government agreed to work with Energy UK and other organisations to increase smart meter coverage in Scotland. Although aspects of smart meter usage are helpful, the cabinet secretary will be aware of the shocking and, frankly, immoral actions of energy companies that are using smart meters as a back door to switch consumers to prepay mode, often on a more expensive tariff and without informing people or having to apply for a warrant. That has already happened to more than 150,000 households, with the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets estimating that a further 180,000 households will be affected this winter. Can the cabinet secretary say how many households in Scotland that has happened to and whether it is legal, given that, previously, companies would have had to apply to the Scottish courts for a warrant before taking such action?

Michael Matheson

Although I cannot give an exact figure, we are aware of instances in which energy suppliers have switched their customers’ accounts to prepayment mode without informing them or obtaining a warrant beforehand. That can have serious implications for customers, particularly those living in vulnerable circumstances. We condemn that kind of practice, as it is likely to exacerbate the challenges that some households in fuel poverty are already contending with.

I have asked my officials to engage with Ofgem directly on the matter and to look for action to be taken. In the meantime, I reassure members that, if they have a constituent who is affected, they can seek advice through our advice services and, primarily, through Advice Direct Scotland.

Mercedes Villalba (North East Scotland) (Lab)

The UK’s major energy distributors made £15.8 billion in profits last year, despite rising energy bills putting more consumers at risk of fuel poverty. Unite the union is calling on Ofgem to reopen its price review and set a clear cap on distributors’ profits. Will the cabinet secretary join Unite in urging Ofgem to act now to end that rampant profiteering?

Michael Matheson

I certainly support the need to ensure that we take a fair tax return from those who are making excessive profits in our energy sector—energy companies, in particular. I gently point out to Mercedes Villalba that we are in a situation with energy companies making record profits, yet Scotland—one of the most energy-rich nations in Europe—has one of the highest levels of fuel poverty in the whole of Europe. Rather than writing to UK Government ministers or pleading with Ofgem to act on these matters, I would prefer to have the powers in this Parliament to tackle them, so that we can tax those companies properly and end fuel poverty once and for all in energy-rich Scotland.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

Some of my constituents are experiencing significant delays in having faulty meters replaced or repaired, because energy companies have contracted out that work to third parties. Already impacted by high levels of fuel poverty, they face increased anxiety about their bills. Our island areas are also experiencing market failure and new electricity contracts for both business and domestic consumers. Has the Scottish Government had any discussions with the energy sector about these serious problems?

Michael Matheson

We raise such issues on a regular basis with Ofgem and the UK Government, which, ultimately, is responsible for those matters, including issues relating to energy meters and the failures in and regulation of the market. Those failures are evident and are adding to fuel poverty and the high increases in fuel bills that people are facing.

If Beatrice Wishart has some specific examples that she wants us to highlight to Ofgem, I am more than happy to receive such information and ensure that it is forwarded on to it and that we ask it to take urgent action to address the matters.

Northern Ireland Protocol Bill

To ask the Scottish Government what recent dialogue it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding the potential impact on Scotland of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. (S6O-01638)

The Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture (Angus Robertson)

I met the Foreign Secretary two weeks ago and urged the UK Government to seize the current window of opportunity to re-engage in good faith with our European partners, seek sustainable shared solutions on the Northern Ireland protocol and withdraw the bill without delay. The bill risks violating international law and sparking a trade conflict with our European Union neighbours in the middle of a cost of living crisis, with potentially disastrous consequences for Scotland and the whole of the UK. That is simply indefensible.

Jenni Minto

In its report on the legislative consent memorandum for the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, the Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee reiterated its view that

“the extent of UK Ministers’ new delegated powers in devolved areas amounts to a significant constitutional change.”

Does the cabinet secretary agree that, to ensure that the Scottish Parliament has the opportunity to effectively exercise legislative powers to ensure that Scotland is a fairer, greener and progressive country, the constitutional change that is really required is for Westminster to keep its promise of 2014—that the power to decide how Scotland is governed lies with the Scottish people—and to grant a section 30 order?

Angus Robertson

It would indeed be far better for the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government to be able to make decisions in that area.

In general terms, people in Scotland have made a clear decision to be offered a choice about this country’s future in a referendum, and we call on the United Kingdom Government to respect that decision and to open discussions with the Scottish Government on a change to the Scottish Parliament’s powers so that it can give effect to the mandate of the people of Scotland that was obtained in last year’s Scottish Parliament elections. The easiest route to doing that would be through a section 30 order.

Question 4 has not been lodged.

Planning (Energy Consent Decisions)

To ask the Scottish Government how citizens can influence energy consent planning decisions made under the section 36 application process. (S6O-01640)

The Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport (Michael Matheson)

Citizens are able to engage in the planning process by making representations to the Scottish ministers on live section 36 applications.

Measures are in place throughout the planning and consenting process to ensure that views from the public are taken into account when decisions are made. Guidance is available to encourage applicants to undertake early and meaningful engagement with citizens who would be affected by a proposed section 36 application.

Ruth Maguire

I recently met constituents in Lylestone, who told me that they feel that they are in a David and Goliath-scale fight with a company that is proposing to build a large solar farm on farmland next to their village. They expressed worry and anger about the fact that the company concerned is acting as though the project is a foregone conclusion.

I seek reassurance from the Scottish Government that that is absolutely not the case and that the concerns and objections of residents of the village who would be most impacted by the proposed development will be taken seriously and acted on.

Michael Matheson

The application process under the Planning Act 2008 and the Electricity Act 1989 includes a clear mechanism to ensure that communities and members of the public can have their say when proposals are submitted.

Ministers and, of course, the planning authorities carefully consider all views that are submitted during the application process. Each proposal is considered on its own merits on a case-by-case basis. Those merits are carefully balanced against a range of matters that must be taken into account, including environmental, economic, renewable energy and climate change benefits. The purpose of that is to ensure that communities have an opportunity to feed into the process.

I hope that that provides reassurance to the member’s constituents that there is an open and transparent process for considering such matters.

National Qualifications (STEM)

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

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to address reported declining numbers of national 5 and higher pupils taking science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects in schools. (S6O-01641)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

We are committed to encouraging young people’s ambitions to pursue STEM subjects. The evidence tells us that they continue to do so: the percentage of STEM entries at higher and national 5 level this year is stable compared with the level in 2019, which was the most recent previous year in which exams were held.

Since 2017, we have been implementing our STEM strategy, which includes work to ensure that there is on-going take-up of STEM subjects. For example, we are working through programmes such as the raising aspirations in science education programme to equip practitioners with the skills, networks and confidence that they need to deliver engaging STEM experiences. In addition, we continue to support the young STEM leaders programme.

Alex Rowley

We could trade a whole load of statistics back and forth, but I hope that the cabinet secretary would agree that we are not doing well enough when it comes to Scottish education and that we need to do better.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that, first, we need to prioritise sorting out the teachers dispute? It is absolutely shocking that teachers, who have been through so much, find themselves being forced on to picket lines to defend their pay and their jobs.

Secondly, does she agree that every education authority in Scotland should produce properly costed recovery plans, so that those can be scrutinised by democratically elected local councillors and by this Parliament and so that we can start to address the massive failings in Scottish education?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I do not recognise the picture of Scottish education that Mr Rowley paints. That will be proven by the on-going work on the national discussion, where we are being told that there is a lot that is successful and good in Scottish education. Although I appreciate that we must always look to do better, it is advisable for us also to recognise what is going well and to see the good position that we are in at the moment.

We, of course, continue to liaise with all teaching unions about the current pay dispute. That work is on-going. Industrial action is in no one’s best interests, particularly those of children and young people.

We are very close to the publication of the stretch aims that are part of the Scottish attainment challenge and are set by local authorities. Those will allow us to look specifically at what is being done by each local authority so that we can look very carefully at attainment within councils.

Audrey Nicoll (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

I recently attended a girls in energy conference, hosted by an energy operator and its college partners. The programme supports girls to take a one-year course during secondary 4 and provides a platform for them to pursue a career in energy. Given that that sector is still considered to be male dominated, will the cabinet secretary say what action the Scottish Government is taking to maximise opportunities for girls and women to pursue educational pathways and careers in STEM?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

That is an important question. We must all rise to the challenge of increasing not only the number of pupils who are interested in STEM but particularly the number of young women. I absolutely recognise the contribution made by girls in energy and by the courses that that organisation supports in Audrey Nicoll’s constituency.

Equality is an integral and important part of our work on the STEM strategy. That is why Education Scotland’s improving gender balance and equalities team continues to look at that.

Sue Webber (Lothian) (Con)

The declining number of pupils taking STEM subjects at national 5 and higher appears to have coincided with a drop in applications to study medicine. Figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show that 19 per cent fewer Scots have applied to study medicine in the 2023 academic year than did in the previous two years. Is the cabinet secretary concerned not only by the drop in the number of pupils studying STEM but by the drop in the number of Scots applying to study medicine?

Shirley-Anne Somerville

I point to my original answer to Alex Rowley. Entry and attainment will inevitably vary from subject to subject, which is why I answered by giving an overall percentage of STEM entries. It is particularly important to recognise the number of new STEM subjects out there: mathematics has been joined by the application of mathematics and biology by human biology. We take very seriously our desire to increase the number of pupils taking STEM subjects and, whether it is in medicine or otherwise, to encourage young people to take up the opportunities for STEM-based subjects within our colleges, for apprenticeships and in our universities.

Fossil Fuel Boilers

To ask the Scottish Government whether it plans to ban the installation of replacement fossil fuel boilers from 2025. (S6O-01642)

The Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport (Michael Matheson)

In October 2021, the Scottish Government published its heat in buildings strategy, which sets out how we propose to remove emissions from Scotland’s buildings by 2045, in line with the country’s climate change targets.

As we committed to doing in this year’s programme for government, the Scottish Government will consult in detail, in the coming year, on proposals for a heat in buildings bill. That will include further detail on how we propose to phase out the use of fossil fuel heating systems from 2025, as is committed to in our strategy.

Jeremy Balfour

People who are making decisions now about heating their homes should be able to have a clear idea from the Government about how impending regulations will impact them. However, key messages about what they have to do to make their homes compliant are not being relayed. Instead, the Government continues to make vague suggestions about what regulations might look like. Will the cabinet secretary tell concerned home owners when they can expect to have comprehensive details of what regulations will come into place from 2025 regarding replacement boilers?

Michael Matheson

If the member is looking for concrete examples, he just needs to look at the strategy. The strategy sets out that the early action by 2025 is actually focused on those who are currently off-grid gas supplied, and it is 2030 for those who are on grid for gas supplies. The strategy sets that out very clearly, and I hope that the member will share that information with his concerned constituents.

The details of the statutory regulations that will underpin that will be set out in the draft bill, which will be consulted on. I hope that that provides the clarity that the member is looking for. The information is set out in the strategy, which was published last October.