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Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Wednesday, September 21, 2022


Topical Question Time

Good afternoon. The first item of business is topical question time. In order to get in as many members as possible, I would be grateful for short and succinct questions and responses.

Short-term Lets Legislation

To ask the Scottish Government what analysis it has carried out regarding the implementation and potential impact of short-term lets legislation. (S6T-00856)

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government (Shona Robison)

In December 2020, we published six different impact assessments, which, along with a separate business regulatory impact assessment, were informed by evidence and information from partners and stakeholders. They set out analysis on the likely costs, risks and benefits of short-term let sector regulation.

We will continue to work with local authorities and, in the summer of 2023, we will review levels of short-term let activity in hotspot areas to assess how the actions that we are taking are working and to ensure that there are no unintended consequences.

Miles Briggs

I know that the cabinet secretary is acutely aware of the concerns that have been expressed, especially by class 7 guest houses and bed and breakfasts that have been included in the scheme by some councils when they should have been excluded. Indeed, many councils do not even have teams in place to do the work.

Like many small businesses, those that provide short-term lets are still to recover from the Covid pandemic. The Association of Scotland’s Self-Caterers has warned that the Scottish Government’s legislation will have a negative impact on the sector, and it is now calling for the implementation of the legislation to be delayed. With that in mind, will the cabinet secretary agree to delay the legislation and take on board the growing concerns about the negative impact that it will have?

Shona Robison

Let me deal with all of those points. On the calls for a delay, as the member knows, we have introduced licensing to ensure, first and foremost, that there are mandatory safety standards for short-term lets across Scotland. Of course, the scheme also provides local authorities with powers to introduce additional licensing conditions in order to address issues of concern in their local area. As the member will also know, many short-term lets already comply with those conditions. For those that do not, it is important that those conditions are met as soon as possible to ensure a level playing field and safety across Scotland. There is a transition period for existing operators, which have until 1 April 2023 to apply for a licence and may continue to operate while their licence is being determined.

Miles Briggs mentioned guest houses specifically. I am happy to deal with that issue, because it is important to provide clarity. The Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982 (Licensing of Short-term Lets) Order 2022 does not reference planning use classes. Schedule 1 lists excluded accommodation, which includes hotels with

“planning permission granted for use as a hotel”,

but it does not list as an exclusion guest houses with planning permission granted for use as a guest house. Therefore, to be clear, unless otherwise excluded by any of the criteria set out in schedule 1 to the licensing order, short-term let accommodation, including guest houses, will require a licence to operate. We have been clear about that for quite some time—certainly since June 2021—so I hope that there is no misunderstanding in that regard.

On the issue of promotion, we will ensure that a campaign runs from October to put clear information in the public domain. I have also written to local authority housing conveners and chief executives to remind them of their duty to establish short-term let licensing schemes by 1 October.

Miles Briggs

I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer, but I think that it is a complacent one, given the inconsistent implementation of the Government’s legislation across local authorities. For example, the Deputy First Minister has been telling guest houses in his constituency that they are exempt. The Scottish Government is clearly not giving the right information to constituents and businesses. It is clear from what the cabinet secretary has said today that the scheme needs a bit of time to work properly and to bed in.

I go back to the key point in my question: does the cabinet secretary not realise now that the legislation is a mess and that there needs to be a pause for councils to implement it properly, especially given that many have not yet even employed the staff who will be tasked with its implementation?

Shona Robison

First, I do not accept that description of the legislation. We have had numerous consultations on it; Parliament has had ample time to scrutinise it; and widespread consultation has taken place, as well as there being stakeholder input through the stakeholder implementation group.

The member mentioned inconsistencies. This year, we have worked with Scotland’s Housing Network and officials from across all local authorities to plan for the implementation of the licensing scheme, which has involved discussing different local approaches in order to understand their rationale and facilitate common processes where possible. As I mentioned earlier, there is local variation because of variations in local need, but we have tried where possible to ensure that common processes are in place, as well as simple online information and application processes that should be straightforward for applicants to follow.

Paul McLennan (East Lothian) (SNP)

During the Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee’s scrutiny of the short-term lets licensing scheme, most councils, especially those with tourism hotspots, expressed support or enthusiasm for the plans. With the new measures, does the cabinet secretary believe that councils will feel more empowered to balance tourism with the needs of local communities?

Shona Robison

Yes. Local communities have told us over many years about their safety concerns and the impact that the concentration of short-term lets can have on communities and housing availability. The regulation of short-term lets is appropriate for the whole of Scotland and offers considerable flexibility to local authorities around its implementation.

Licensing will allow councils and communities to take action to manage issues more effectively without unduly curtailing some of the benefits of short-term lets for hosting visitors and for the Scottish economy. However, we need to ensure that those lets are safe and that people who provide them are suitable, fit and proper. I am surprised that anyone could disagree with that point.

Sarah Boyack (Lothian) (Lab)

I refer members to my entry in the register of interests.

While we have waited for the Scottish National Party Government to act on short-term lets, thousands of homes have been lost in Edinburgh. Labour-led City of Edinburgh Council has implemented the new rules as quickly as possible, but more than £3 million has been lost to the public purse in Edinburgh in the past financial year alone, because of the loophole that still exists through which short-term let owners can move to business rates and receive the 100 per cent small business bonus scheme discount.

Given that the Scottish Government committed years ago to reviewing the tax treatment of short-term lets, what progress has been made on that review and when will it be completed?

Shona Robison

In the interests of fairness, Sarah Boyack should recognise that much of the groundwork was actually done under the previous administration in Edinburgh, and completed under the current one. Anyone giving a fair analysis would recognise that point.

We were happy to give ministerial approval for the short-term let control area proposal that was brought forward after due consultation. Local authorities had to consult their communities, and that consultation was welcome. Of course, such a process takes time, but it is the right thing to do—if we had not put it in, members would be raising concerns about the lack of consultation locally. It is the right balance and it is important to get that right.

On the issue of taxation, we have taken steps to ensure that self-catering properties are correctly classified on the valuation roll for non-domestic rates purposes. From 1 April 2022, premises are now required to be actually let for at least 70 days and available for let for 140 days in the same financial year in order to be classed as self-catering. That will go some way towards addressing some of the loopholes that Sarah Boyack referred to. However, I am happy to give her any further information that she might find helpful in that regard.

Policing and Arrests

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will make a statement on the policing and arrests at events connected to the death of the Queen and the proclamation of the new monarch. (S6T-00871)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans (Keith Brown)

I pay tribute to Police Scotland for its considerable efforts in the planning and delivery of operation unicorn, which was an operation without precedent in scale, complexity and sensitivity. However, it is the fundamental right of anyone who lives in a democracy to protest peacefully. As demonstrated during the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26—Police Scotland protects people’s right to protest while balancing the rights of the wider community and upholding public safety. The member will appreciate that operational decisions are a matter for the chief constable, with scrutiny and oversight provided by the Scottish Police Authority, and that it is not appropriate for me to comment on specific cases. Any complaint about the actions of officers should be made directly to Police Scotland in the first instance.

Katy Clark

I recognise that it was a huge policing operation, but media reports suggest that there was heavy-handed policing, with four arrests for breach of the peace, a number of other people detained and then released without charge, and a woman who was demonstrating about free speech being followed by police officers. What discussions has the cabinet secretary had with Police Scotland about those incidents?

Keith Brown

I have just said that I am unable to comment on individual cases. However, I confirm that Police Scotland approaches its job firmly on the basis of human rights legislation and, of course, operates under the principles of policing by consent. It has confirmed that there will be a formal debrief process for operation unicorn, and I understand that the operation will be discussed at the Scottish Police Authority board meeting later this month, which is the appropriate forum for that. I understand that that will include reviewing at least one of the incidents that took place while the operation was active.

I will meet the chief constable tomorrow. I will discuss the issues with him, with a view, as ever, to what lessons can be learned from the operation and how those can be applied to future policing operations. I will also congratulate him and his force on a superb job, notwithstanding the issues that have been raised by the member.

Katy Clark

Does the cabinet secretary agree that the incidents create a worrying precedent and that freedom of speech is a fundamental right? I am grateful that he is going to discuss the issues with Police Scotland tomorrow, but will he ensure that MSPs have the opportunity to discuss the issues and our approach to policy on them?

Keith Brown

I think that I have just confirmed that the right to peaceful and democratic protest is one that we fully support; it is also one that Police Scotland supports. There are a number of ways in which individual members can make their views known to the chief constable or to the SPA, but if the member is proposing particular methods, I am more than happy to meet her to discuss those further. However, the police are accountable in many different ways, and they are very open to receiving representations from MSPs, as the member will know.

Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)

I share Katy Clark’s concern about some aspects of policing during the proclamation and, later, during the funeral procession on the Royal Mile. I understand that there were many different police forces on duty then. Can the cabinet secretary confirm that Police Scotland had overall control and operational policy control? I note what the cabinet secretary said about the debriefing and the review. Will the outcome of that review be made public or, certainly, can he ask the SPA whether that can be done?

Keith Brown

For the member’s information, whenever police officers from other jurisdictions come to serve and help under mutual aid arrangements with Police Scotland, control always rests with the chief constable and, of course, with the Lord Advocate. Similarly, Police Scotland had 1,000 officers in London and throughout England and Wales to help with events this week. At that time, they were under the control of local police chiefs. That is the way that it should be done. Of course, in Scotland, the chief constable will always be in control.

It will be up to the Scottish Police Authority how the discussions that it has with the chief constable are discussed and the extent to which they are made public. The chief constable will provide an update on the policing activities that supported the operation. I have already mentioned the extent to which that will be subject to review, but it will be for the SPA to make such decisions.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

Despite the mammoth scale of events, there were clearly a small number of isolated incidents that, I have no doubt, will be subject to due scrutiny. However, does the justice secretary agree that, on the whole, Police Scotland did a tremendous job and should be thanked for its efforts? Rank-and-file officers from across Scotland supported events here in Edinburgh and London. However, it was not only the police who were involved: there was an army of volunteers and the armed forces, and they have behaved impeccably over the past week.

Keith Brown

That is certainly true, but it does not mean that the issues that members raise are not significant and important or should not be considered. However, the member is exactly right. I will give one example—probably wrongly—of that, which is the police officer, who I think was a superintendent, who drove the motorbike from Balmoral for six hours, at very low speeds, and was then confronted with the Royal Mile and its cobblestones. For him to come down there under control shows the level of concentration, ability and expertise that there is in Police Scotland.

I think that the police did a tremendous job, although, as I said, that does not mean that we should not explore other issues that have arisen.

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

In her coronation address, Her late Majesty professed a belief in free speech and tolerance. She called it

“a precious part of our way of life”

and asked the British people to cherish it and practise it. Free speech and the right to peaceful protest are the cornerstones of this liberal democracy, even when we find them distasteful or inappropriate.

I am concerned that the cabinet secretary has stressed that he will not speak to specific examples of policing. Policing by consent surely means that the actions of Police Scotland should be accountable to this Parliament. If the cabinet secretary will not talk to specific events, in what forum can such concerns be voiced by members of this Parliament?

Keith Brown

I have already said two or three times that I fully support the right to democratic and peaceful protest. It is true, as Jamie Greene has pointed out, that the number of arrests was very small compared to the scale of the event that took place. Nevertheless, there are serious issues.

I say to Alex Cole-Hamilton: check the legislation. I am not allowed to involve myself, because a decision of this Parliament in 2012 explicitly rejected the idea that ministers or the Parliament should directly control the police. I am not allowed to do that under the legislation, so perhaps the member should familiarise himself with it before he asks his next question.

Maggie Chapman (North East Scotland) (Green)

We have heard much about the arrests of people who expressed anti-imperialist or anti-monarchy views, holding signs and carrying eggs. We have heard less about the people—mostly young women—who were followed and those who were held by police and had their details taken simply for booing or being near people with anti-monarchy signs. Does the cabinet secretary believe that that shocking and intimidating behaviour was acceptable, especially given that concerns about similar behaviour were raised less than a year ago, during and after COP26?

Keith Brown

My views on the policing of COP26 are on the record.

As I said in my original answer—I have to repeat this—it is not appropriate for me to comment on the detail of specific cases. However, I understand that Police Scotland is aware of the incident that the member mentioned, video footage of which was shared via social media, and that the content of that footage is currently being reviewed.

I underline our commitment to having in place strong systems and processes for dealing with complaints against police. We outlined in the programme for government our intention to introduce a bill on police complaints and misconduct handling later this parliamentary year.

Oil and Gas Exploration Licences

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is regarding the impact in Scotland of the reported plans of the United Kingdom Government to grant up to 130 new oil and gas exploration licences. (S6T-00873)

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

Oil and gas exploration and production, including licensing, remain reserved to the UK Government. The Scottish Government is clear that unlimited extraction of fossil fuels is not consistent with our climate obligations if we are to meet our target of 1.5° under the Paris agreement, and it is not the right solution to the cost of living crisis that families are facing. Instead of licensing more fossil fuel extraction, the UK Government should be encouraging investment in renewables and supporting a just transition for our energy sector and for Scottish households and businesses.

Mark Ruskell

In her first week in Downing Street, Liz Truss has taken a wrecking ball to climate commitments. The UK Government is again pretending that it can drill its way out of the energy crisis, while the world is facing unimaginable suffering from climate breakdown. From Liz Truss’s installation of a fossil fuel fanatic as her energy secretary to her making no reference to climate in her first speech on energy, this is climate denial at its worst. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the development of the Rosebank oil field, alongside Cambo and Jackdaw, undermines both the Paris agreement and the Glasgow pact and will do nothing to reduce the energy bills that people are facing?

Michael Matheson

The focus at the moment is on tackling the cost of living crisis that many households face as a result of increasing energy costs; increasing extraction of oil and gas in the North Sea will not address that issue—that is not my comment but that of the United Kingdom Government. Kwasi Kwarteng, the former UK energy secretary, who is now Chancellor of the Exchequer, made such a point during a debate in the House of Commons earlier this year.

The way to tackle the underlying causes that are driving household and non-domestic energy bills at the moment is to decarbonise our energy system and reduce our dependency on fossil fuels. In doing that, we reduce our potential risk when it comes to the malign forces of people such as Putin in the future. Renewable energy is the most effective way to do that and deliver not only cheaper energy for domestic and non-domestic users but energy security. We in Scotland can benefit from that approach, through acceleration of renewable energy projects.

Mark Ruskell

Yesterday, the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, called on countries to “tax the windfall profits” of oil and gas companies, to support people who are struggling with the costs crisis and to support communities that are suffering immense loss and damage from climate change, around the world. Does the cabinet secretary agree with his proposal?

Michael Matheson

At a time when households face such high energy bills, which are driving millions of households into fuel poverty and extreme fuel poverty, the focus is on the need to do whatever we can, not only to reduce the financial burden on households in the here and now but to prevent the burdening of households with increased fuel costs in the future. That is the risk of the approach that the UK Government is taking through the announcements that it has made to date on tackling the cost of living crisis.

The focus should be on taxing the windfall profits, particularly of energy companies, which are making sizeable profits, and using that money to offset the costs on households. It is estimated that energy companies will make in the region of £170 billion over the next two years alone. A windfall tax could offset the cost of energy in people’s homes today. The UK Government should introduce that, rather than burden household bills with additional costs in the future, which is what will happen under the approach that it is taking.

Fiona Hyslop (Linlithgow) (SNP)

Does the cabinet secretary agree that the UK Government should heed Alok Sharma, former UK secretary of state and president of the 26th UN climate change conference of the parties—COP26? He said:

“Climate and environmental security are now synonymous with energy and national security.”

Does the cabinet secretary also agree that Scotland’s great asset of a combined energy sector means that sensible use of existing domestic oil and gas licences during the energy transition, subject to climate analysis, and investment in renewable energy growth, including green hydrogen exports, will provide more energy security to us and to our European partners, who desperately want a green energy supply and security from hostile actors, than will be provided by the UK Government agreeing 130 new, long-term licences without climate impact analysis?

Michael Matheson

I agree with COP26 president Alok Sharma, who also said:

“Countries now understand the benefits of low-cost, homegrown renewables, the price of which cannot be manipulated from afar.”—[House of Commons, Written Answers, 27 June 2022; UIN 22423.]

He recognises that renewable energy is the quickest, cheapest and most environmentally friendly approach to tackling our energy crisis, while delivering energy security.

Scotland is rich with the natural assets to deliver that, not just to meet our domestic needs in Scotland and the rest of the UK but to support the decarbonisation of energy in other parts of Europe. Whether it is onshore or offshore wind, carbon capture, utilisation and storage, battery storage or hydroelectric, all of it can contribute to our energy transition, and Scotland has the natural benefits that can maximise such resources. That is why it is critical that, in the early days of this new UK Government, we see an approach that is consistent with the need to drive forward renewable energy, to help to reduce energy costs overall.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

Mark Ruskell strangely forgot to mention that Guterres also said:

“fossil fuels cannot be shut down overnight. A just transition means leaving no person or country behind.”

Without new investment in fields such as Cambo and Jackdaw and without political support from the Scottish Government, production will fall off a cliff, jeopardising the just transition and the 90,000 Scottish jobs that will deliver it, which will make us reliant on environmentally worse imports from regimes such as Putin’s. Has the Scottish Government assessed the financial, economic and environmental impacts of its plans to abandon our oil and gas sector? If so, will that be published?

Michael Matheson

Let me try to deal with the facts. We have been consistent in our approach, which is that we should transition away from our dependency on fossil fuels in order to reduce our risk of exposure to malign forces such as Putin. That approach is agreed by the UK Government. I am making the point that the failure of the UK Government is in not driving forward the policies that will deliver on that approach. We need to ramp up our production of renewable energy and development of other forms of renewable resources, onshore and offshore, to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels.

As I have consistently said in the chamber and, I think, to Liam Kerr, our oil and gas sector will continue to play an important part in our economy, but we need to ramp up our renewables development, which will help to reduce our overall costs. The impression that some try to give that simply by extracting more oil and gas we can in some way reduce our energy costs is seriously wrong. The reality is that that will not happen, but that is the impression that the UK Government has tried to give with its announcement over the past few days. That approach simply will not work, because all the evidence demonstrates that it will not deliver the output that is needed.

Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

The approach of the UK Government and the Scottish Conservatives is worrying and wrong-headed. What can the Scottish Government do to make sure that our planning system is robust and fit for purpose? If we are going to see new offshore oil and gas developments such as Cambo, Jackdaw and Rosebank, what can we do to make sure that our planning system is robust? There will be a requirement for onshore assets and infrastructure. What can we do to frustrate the process if necessary?

Michael Matheson

Most of the licences for new fields that are issued nowadays are tiebacks into existing oil and gas infrastructure that comes onshore so, by and large, there are no planning provisions for the Scottish ministers and the Scottish Government to be involved in. The licensing of exploration and production rests solely with the UK Government.

I believe that we should be deciding such policies here in the Scottish Parliament, given their importance to our natural environment and our future fuel security but, as it stands in relation to oil and gas production, there are often no planning requirements in the process for the Scottish ministers to be involved with.

That concludes topical question time. The next item of business is portfolio question time.

Air adhart

Point of Order