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Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, March 21, 2024


General Question Time

Parental Leave (Elected Representatives)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the work that it is doing to support elected representatives to take parental leave. (S6O-03240)

The Minister for Local Government Empowerment and Planning (Joe FitzPatrick)

The Scottish Government remains committed to increasing the diversity of councillors in local government and to breaking down the barriers that currently discourage people from standing or re-standing for elected office.

I support the introduction of proxy voting for councillors, and the Scottish Government has been working in partnership with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on how that could enable elected representatives in local authorities to take parental leave without risking their democratic mandate.

Jackie Dunbar

I am aware that the minister has previously suggested that using section 43 of the Local Government in Scotland Act 2003 to enable proxy voting might be an option. However, it has also been suggested that that might open local authorities up to legal challenge, either directly or as a means of challenging decisions to which a proxy vote made a difference.

I therefore ask the minister whether the Scottish Government could offer any support so that local authorities that utilise section 43 to enable proxy voting will be protected from the risks of such a challenge.

Joe FitzPatrick

As I said, the Scottish Government is supportive of proxy voting for local councillors, but, given the variety of approaches to council meetings across Scotland, it is for individual local authorities to satisfy themselves that any pilot falls within their existing powers.

Although I want to be as helpful as possible, only the courts can authoritatively interpret Scottish Parliament legislation. However, in the interests of partnership working and in line with our commitment to increasing the diversity of those who hold elected office, I will meet with Aberdeen City Council and COSLA next week to identify how we might support the local authority to pilot a proxy voting scheme.

Spring Budget (Barnett Consequentials)

To ask the Scottish Government how it plans to spend the £295 million in Barnett consequential funding arising from the United Kingdom Government’s 2024 spring budget. (S6O-03241)

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Finance (Shona Robison)

Of the consequentials confirmed as part of the UK Government’s spring budget, £237 million was derived from health spending. That will be passed on in full for use in health spending in Scotland. That figure is £235 million less than the in-year consequentials from health in 2023-24, which were not baselined, even though they largely related to pay.

Those consequentials also include £48 million arising from local authority spending in England, announced in January, which will be passed on in full to local government as part of a package of additional funding worth up to £62.7 million.

I will provide a further update on the 2024-25 Scottish budget next month, and formal allocation of any new funding will be included in the 2024-25 autumn budget revision.

Alexander Stewart

The Scottish National Party Government consistently misleads the public about the amount of funding that it receives from the UK Government, but the facts speak for themselves. In 2024-25, the Scottish Government will get £43 billion in a block grant and will receive more than £2,000 per person for public services, but that advantage has been completely squandered by the SNP Government, which, due to its wasteful spending, has had to raise taxes on hard-working Scots. Does the cabinet secretary really think that spending money on independence papers while cutting national health service funding in real terms is the correct priority for the Government?

Shona Robison

Let us return to the facts. The first is that the health spending that we have from consequentials leaves our health service with a shortfall, given that the figure is almost half of what health consequentials were in 2023-24. The second fact is that the lack of capital funding in the spring statement means a forecast £1.3 billion real-terms cut in our capital funding over five years.

That means that, whether in relation to housing, health infrastructure or transport, any Tory MSP who comes here demanding any funding for any infrastructure projects should be looking at the UK Government’s decision to cut our capital budget by that £1.3 billion over the next five years. I hope that those are enough facts for Alexander Stewart.

Keith Brown (Clackmannanshire and Dunblane) (SNP)

Does the Deputy First Minister agree that it is also a fact that, whether we have a Labour Government or a Conservative Government, we will have at least five more years of austerity? The Institute for Fiscal Studies has outlined that the UK Government’s spending plans amount to a real-terms cut to net public sector investment of £18 billion between 2024-25 and 2028-29. Will the Deputy First Minister outline what assessment has been made of how much that equates to per person? Will she outline how an SNP Government would prioritise investment if it had the fiscal levers of other, independent nations?

Shona Robison

It is, indeed, a shocking fact that the UK Government is planning a real-terms spending cut that, in 2028-29, would amount to a cut of around £250 for every person in the UK. In Scotland, we are taking a different approach. We are demonstrating our priorities through a record £6.3 billion investment in social security and over £19.5 billion for health and social care in 2024-25, which represents a real-terms uplift of £316 million in the face of UK Government austerity. We could go much further if we had the full range of fiscal powers that other, independent European nations have.

Decarbonising Buildings

3. Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of the Audit Scotland report “Decarbonising heat in homes” and the recent report by the regulatory review group regarding the forthcoming heat in buildings bill, what action it is taking to further assess and develop the supply chain for decarbonising buildings. (S6O-03242)

The Minister for Zero Carbon Buildings, Active Travel and Tenants’ Rights (Patrick Harvie)

Both reports highlight the importance of long-term policy certainty for developing the supply chain. Our proposed heat in buildings bill will create a clear, long-term legislative framework that will give the supply chain confidence and enable investment in its growth. That approach was welcomed by stakeholders when I hosted a recent round-table discussion with members of the industry.

Along with our enterprise agencies, we continue to provide support to innovate and accelerate skills and capacity. That includes funding the development and adoption of innovative clean heating solutions as well as considering new approaches that are needed to develop supply capacity.

Brian Whittle

Over the past few months, I have submitted many written questions to the minister on such topics as how many businesses are operating in the zero-carbon heating sector, how many heat loss surveyors are working in Scotland and what economic modelling has been undertaken to understand the future demand on the supply chain. How does the minister intend to deliver the bill urgently if, by his own admission in answering these questions, the Government is not gathering that basic data? If you are beginning a journey, minister, it is not enough to know where you are going—truly, you need to know where you are starting from.

Please always speak through the chair.

Patrick Harvie

We are, indeed, very clear about where we are starting from. The Government is under no illusion that Scotland and the UK would not be in a far better position not only to decarbonise our heating but to ensure that people have affordable heating if, throughout Scotland and the UK, decisions had been made decades earlier—most progressive European countries made such decisions—in responding, for example, to the energy crisis of the 1970s. Scotland should have been building highly energy-efficient homes and the ability to decarbonise for decades. The long-standing mistakes of successive UK Governments are the reason why we now have an incredible challenge.

However, this Government is giving the long-term certainty that will enable investment in the industry. That is a far cry from what the UK Government is doing in watering down, diluting and delaying action on heat in buildings. Just this month, it delayed the clean heat market mechanism for an entire year, sending exactly the wrong signals to industry about the need to scale up, skill up and invest.

Ivan McKee (Glasgow Provan) (SNP)

Will the Government continue its work on its supply chain development programme, which focuses on building Scottish manufacturing capability to supply products that are needed for the net zero transition and which learns lessons from our success in rapidly building Scottish personal protective equipment supply chains during the pandemic?

Patrick Harvie

Yes. The supply chain development programme continues its work to align economy and innovation policy interventions with public sector spend, including by using more strategically important approaches to improve the capacity and capability of Scottish manufacturing supply chains.

Prioritising the opportunities in low-carbon heating in housing means that we are working to make sure that procurement opportunities are made visible in the Scottish supply chain—including to manufacturers. A huge amount of innovation is happening in Scotland to develop the products, processes and services that will enable us to meet the challenge domestically and that will offer export opportunities.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

Late last year, I attended the conference of the Energy Efficiency Association, which is an important part of that supply chain. It identified extensive delays in the awarding of grants from Home Energy Scotland and said that that was having an impact on its members’ capacity and, therefore, on the supply chain. What improvements is the minister making to the operation of Home Energy Scotland so that we can get those grants out much more quickly, customers do not cancel their orders and we can get on with meeting those targets?

Patrick Harvie

We have a good track record, through Home Energy Scotland, of meeting the targets for grants. Some suppliers choose to count the entire customer journey from application rather than from the award of grant—the point at which an application has been accepted and processed. That takes a bit longer than the United Kingdom Government’s boiler upgrade scheme, for example, which does not include the direct individual bespoke advice and support that Home Energy Scotland provides. We provide more, and that whole customer journey takes a little bit longer. However, we have recently improved the Home Energy Scotland application process to further improve the time that it takes and the smoothness of the customer journey.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

The minister has just mentioned that the UK Government has delayed its clean heat market mechanism, which is a scheme that uses reserved powers to regulate the industry to increase the installations that we desperately need. That delay came after months of briefing and counter-briefing on whether the scheme was to be scrapped altogether. The minister has just highlighted the need for certainty and clarity in regulation. Does he feel that the UK Government is really providing that?

Patrick Harvie

Mark Ruskell is absolutely right to point that out. The clean heat market mechanism was brought forward by the UK Government and we supported it. We said that it would help to achieve not only the UK Government’s targets but ours, with the potential to shape the growing market for clean heating systems. The mechanism uses powers that are reserved to the UK Government and that we cannot use.

The delay—after months of speculation and lobbying by vested interests that wanted to kill that scheme off—is hugely disappointing. It will discourage existing boiler manufacturers from increasing their investment and their ability to supply clean heating systems. I therefore encourage the Prime Minister to drop his culture war on climate, which he launched last autumn, and give the long-term certainty that the industry needs.

Employment (Private Sector)

4. James Dornan (Glasgow Cathcart) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the latest report by the Royal Bank of Scotland on private sector activity, which showed that employment growth in Scotland was faster than in any other United Kingdom nation or region. (S6O-03243)

Cabinet secretary, we did not hear all of that question, but I assume that you have picked up enough of it.

The Cabinet Secretary for Wellbeing Economy, Net Zero and Energy (Màiri McAllan)

I have, Presiding Officer—I have a note of it in writing.

I welcome that data, which has shown that employment growth is faster in Scotland than in other parts of the United Kingdom. The Scottish Government is using all the powers at our disposal to grow a fair and green wellbeing economy, but the fact remains that Scotland is tied to a UK economic model that involves stagnating productivity, lessening living standards and a number of self-imposed challenges—chief among which is Brexit, alongside self-defeating migration policies.

We continue to pay the price for Westminster mismanagement and austerity. Independence is the route to higher living standards, better public services and a stronger, fairer economy.

James Dornan

I am sure that the cabinet secretary agrees that, although it is great to see positive reports about Scotland’s economy, we would be better off as that independent country—part of the European Union rather than the post-Brexit failed state that is the United Kingdom.

Màiri McAllan

I absolutely agree. The UK Government’s reckless decision to take Scotland out of the EU single market against Scotland’s democratic will is damaging Scottish trade and the economy.

Modelling by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research shows that the UK economy is now 2.5 per cent smaller than it would have been in the EU—a gap that could increase to 5.7 per cent by 2035. That is before we even touch on what we have lost socially and how far the UK has fallen in terms of its international standing. Scotland’s future should be as an independent country back in the EU so that we can emulate the success of our comparator countries and seize the future prosperity that this Government is in no doubt awaits Scotland.

Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

Although the growth in employment in the latest figures is very welcome, the cabinet secretary will know that the employment rate in Scotland still lags behind that of the UK as a whole. The latest Confederation of British Industry-Fraser of Allander Institute productivity index showed Scotland lagging the rest of the UK in 10 out of 13 productivity indicators, including business investment, exports, and research and development investment. Instead of moaning about the position in the UK, will the cabinet secretary explain why Scotland lags behind other parts of the UK and what she will do to turn the situation around?

Màiri McAllan

Murdo Fraser comes to lecture me at a time when the UK has recently fallen into a technical recession, and, indeed, after his party has overseen 15 years—half of my life and all my adult life—of austerity, as well as a self-imposed Brexit that was pursued during a pandemic, tax cuts over public services and, ultimately, plummeting living standards, such that we now have a UK that analysis in the Financial Times has described as

“a poor country with pockets of rich people.”

I will take no lectures from Murdo Fraser or the Tories.

Questions 5 and 6 have been withdrawn.

Energy Consents Unit (Community Engagement)

To ask the Scottish Government how it ensures that the voices of Highland communities are appropriately considered by the energy consents unit when assessing applications from developers. (S6O-03246)

The Minister for Energy, Just Transition and Fair Work (Gillian Martin)

It is vital that everyone has the opportunity to engage in decisions about future developments. We are clear that engagement by developers must begin as early as possible. At the pre-application stage, it should be effective, collaborative and meaningful in order to truly influence the final application. Once a section 36 or 37 application has been submitted to the energy consents unit, members of the general public or groups may make direct representations and comment to Scottish ministers. Scottish ministers take those views into account, alongside all other application documentation, in making their decision.

Kate Forbes

The minister may be aware that Highland Council has objected to Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks’ application for the Skye overhead line reinforcement. What is the minister’s response to the firm belief of campaigners that, as a result, schedule 8 to the Electricity Act 1989 requires a public local inquiry and that, in view of the overwhelming interest and response on the Isle of Skye, the energy consents unit should send the application for a public local inquiry?

Gillian Martin

The Skye reinforcement project is currently the subject of a live application under section 37 of the Electricity Act 1989. Ms Forbes will know that, in my role as energy minister, I am unable to comment on how such applications are being or may be considered, as that could be viewed as prejudicial to the decision-making process.

Immediate Priorities Plan for Disabled People

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the implementation of the immediate priorities plan developed with disabled people’s organisations. (S6O-03247)

The Minister for Equalities, Migration and Refugees (Emma Roddick)

The Scottish Government is working hard to improve the lives of disabled people. The independent living fund, which supports disabled people, will reopen to new applicants after receiving a £9 million investment as part of the 2024-25 Scottish budget, and will support around 1,000 new applicants.

Later this year, we will implement an immediate priorities plan that will deliver a range of actions to support disabled people. In addition, £5 million from our equality and human rights fund supports disabled people’s organisations to tackle inequality and discrimination, furthering equality and advancing the realisation of human rights in Scotland.

Paul O’Kane

Disabled people across my West Scotland region have been in touch with me to express their frustration that the Government is not taking their issues and concerns seriously. Although they have welcomed the intent behind the immediate priorities plan, that has become something of a misnomer because there is no immediacy on a plan that the Government has been discussing for a year. Indeed, the minister’s answer suggested that we will see further progress some time later this year. Will she listen to the concerns of disabled people who are raising those issues with their MSPs? What will she do to energise that work as a matter of urgency, so that we can deliver action on the challenges that disabled people in Scotland face?

Emma Roddick

Paul O’Kane will appreciate that the plan is being co-produced with disabled people’s organisations. On Tuesday, I, along with the First Minister and the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, met representatives of those organisations to ensure that we are moving forward as quickly as we can with publishing and implementing the plan.

I point out that this is not the only piece of work that we are undertaking to support disabled people; indeed, I covered a few in my initial answer. If the member is interested, I would be more than happy to share with him even more about what the Scottish Government is doing.