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Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, September 21, 2023


First Minister’s Question Time

Oil and Gas Sector

1. Douglas Ross (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

Tens of thousands of people work in Scotland’s North Sea oil and gas sector. It raises billions of pounds to support public services and it is crucial for Scotland’s economy. However, this week, across the Atlantic in the United States, Humza Yousaf said that Scotland will no longer be

“the oil and gas capital of Europe”.

Why has the Scottish National Party turned sour on Scotland’s oil and gas?

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

We are committed to a just transition for the oil workers in the north-east. I want to pay tribute to the sector and the workforce for the more than £400 billion that they have generated for United Kingdom coffers; although, of course, much of that has been squandered. We are committed to a just transition because we know that the unlimited extraction of fossil fuels is not consistent with Scotland’s ambitious climate obligations, and we have to ensure a planned and fair transition that leaves no one behind.

Douglas Ross is brave going on this subject in a week when his Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, has not just pulled the rug from under the net zero ambitions of the UK but potentially damaged the net ambitions of Scotland. That does not just damage the environment; it damages jobs in the process. He should be ashamed to stand side by side with Rishi Sunak on that matter.

Douglas Ross

What a predictable response from the Deputy First Minister. The SNP loves to talk a good game but keeps missing its own climate change targets. The Deputy First Minister wants to pay tribute to oil and gas workers in the North Sea—[Interruption.]

Let us hear one another, please.

Douglas Ross

—and Humza Yousaf wants to take away their jobs. What we need is a sensible transition to create new energy jobs, but not by throwing away the current ones. It is not a choice between oil and renewables; we need to support both. That is why Humza Yousaf’s proposals are so reckless.

A recent report from the Robert Gordon University warned that a “rapid decline” in the oil and gas sector will cost tens of thousands of jobs, so why is the SNP backing a cliff-edge scenario in which skilled jobs will be lost for good?

Shona Robison

It was just a year ago that Douglas Ross was urging us to follow Liz Truss over the cliff edge, in an economic catastrophe for our country. That same Douglas Ross now comes to the chamber wanting us to follow Rishi Sunak off the same cliff edge, by reneging and backsliding on net zero targets. It is no surprise that one of the first people out of the blocks to support Rishi Sunak was Liz Truss herself. That is the company that Douglas Ross keeps.

We are, of course, committed to a just transition for Scotland’s energy sector, and we only just missed our target by 1.2 percentage points, which shows that we are not far behind—[Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer

Members! Deputy First Minister, if I might ask you to stop for a moment.

I am finding it difficult to hear. I think that members are being somewhat robust in their engagement with responses. I would be grateful if we could hear one another speak.

Shona Robison

Thank you. I have never allowed a man to shout me down in my life, and I will not make an exception for Douglas Ross.

Our targets are world leading. That is why the First Minister is in New York for the United Nations climate change week. We are world leading and our First Minister’s ambitions are to meet the net zero targets. He shows leadership—unlike the Prime Minister, who is ditching the net zero targets.

If Douglas Ross does not want to listen to me on that, all he needs to do is listen to the condemnation from industry, business and, indeed, Tory MPs themselves.

Douglas Ross

Let us go through a few of those points. The Deputy First Minister says that the SNP Government’s targets are “world leading”, but it is not meeting them. In eight of the past 12 years, it has failed to meet its own world-leading targets.

Let us listen to industry. Jaguar Land Rover said that the Prime Minister’s plan was

“pragmatic and brings the UK in line with other nations, which we welcome”.

However, this is about what is best not just for our economy but for our environment. Industry experts have found that new fields at Cambo and Rosebank would save 17 million tonnes of CO2 compared to foreign imports. More production in Scotland is cheaper and greener, and it protects jobs.

However, Humza Yousaf no longer wants Scotland to be Europe’s capital in oil and gas, and he is against the UK Government’s granting of new North Sea licences. Why would we not use our energy, from our doorstep, instead of costly foreign imports?

Shona Robison

We have been very clear about the analysis of any new licences and the climate targets that they have to meet, which have to be robust. Of course, it is not us who will grant new licences. However, the First Minister and the Cabinet Secretary for Wellbeing Economy, Fair Work and Energy have been very clear about those climate compatibility tests.

Let us get back to the nub of the issue. Douglas Ross talked about our net zero targets. The changes and announcements that have been made by Rishi Sunak make it harder for us to achieve those targets. That is bad for the environment and for business.

Lisa Brankin, chair of Ford UK, said:

“Our business needs three things from the UK government: ambition, commitment and consistency. A relaxation of 2030 would undermine all three.”

The former Siemens UK chief executive officer, Jürgen Maier, said:

“It’s just chaos, isn’t it? It beggars belief ... Everybody is now sitting and wobbling and wondering. And I tell you what, they won’t be investing in the UK. It’s a disaster for productivity. It’s a disaster for jobs, well-paid jobs. And it’s a disaster for business confidence and investment – and we need exactly the opposite”.

When is Douglas Ross going to grow a backbone and support the net zero targets rather than his Prime Minister?

Douglas Ross

We could trade quotations all day. I quote Toyota, which said:

“The government announcement is welcome as it provides the clarity the industry has been asking for and recognises that all low-emission and affordable technologies can have a role to play in a pragmatic vehicle transition.”

Of course, we had—[Interruption.]

Mr Ross, please give me a moment.

Mr Robertson, I ask you, please, to remain silent when we are trying to hear Mr Ross’s response.

Douglas Ross

Angus Robertson’s shouting did not put me off when I beat him in 2017, and it does not put me off now.

It was quite something for Shona Robison to blame yesterday’s announcement by the Prime Minister for the SNP’s failing to meet its targets in eight out of the past 12 years.

Let us go back to where it all began. The SNP slogan used to be, “It’s Scotland’s oil”; now, it is “Just stop oil.” Humza Yousaf flew to New York—the finance capital of the world—to tell people not to invest in our oil and gas sector. The First Minister of Scotland is talking Scotland down. It is a slap in the face to north-east workers; it is naive, because we still rely on oil and gas; and it would be a hammer blow to Scotland’s economy. Why is the SNP giving up on Scotland’s crucial oil and gas sector?

Shona Robison

No one is giving up on Scotland’s oil, but it has been squandered by successive UK Governments of all political colours. As I said at the beginning of my answer, we absolutely respect and appreciate the efforts by the oil and gas sector and its workforce, and we support a just transition. We have put serious money into making that happen, unlike the UK Tory Government.

Listen to what the oil and gas industry is saying. Emma Pinchbeck, chief executive officer of Energy UK said:

“Sudden changes to policies and targets like this are damaging to the very investment we need to fund the move towards Net Zero and jeopardise the economic benefits and opportunities this transformation could bring in terms of jobs, growth and greater prosperity to all parts of the country.

Businesses need certainty and stability when making long-term investments worth billions of pounds”.

The announcements by Rishi Sunak undermine all of that, not only for the UK but for Scotland, and Douglas Ross’s standing shoulder to shoulder with Rishi Sunak will not be forgiven by the people of Scotland.

Delayed Discharge

2. Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

People across our country are paying the price for Scottish National Party incompetence and failure at a time when they cannot afford that. In every area that this Government controls, we see mismanagement leading to billions of pounds-worth of waste. In February 2015, the then Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care, Shona Robison, promised to end delayed discharge by the end of that year. So, can she tell members how many people have died while waiting to leave hospital, how many bed days have been lost and how much that has cost the taxpayer since she made that promise?

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

First, we remain absolutely committed to eradicating delayed discharge. I said that when I was health secretary, and we were absolutely determined then, as we are now.

Anas Sarwar will understand that that is challenging to do. Back then, we were on the eve of the establishment of the new integration joint boards. I think that it is fair to say that their delivery of progress on delayed discharge has been a mixed bag. That, of course, is why we want to move forward with the new national care service, which is something that Labour used to support but then opposed as soon as the SNP tried to take it forward. We will get on with the job of tackling delayed discharge while Labour just snipes from the sidelines as always.

Anas Sarwar

The Deputy First Minister is in denial. Almost 4.5 million bed days have been lost, more than 2,300 people have died while waiting to leave hospital and £1.1 billion has been wasted. Shona Robison promised to end that eight years ago, long before Covid, and people are now being asked to pay for that failure during a cost of living crisis. A quarter of households face council tax rises of up to 22 per cent, which is an increase of £740 a year; there will be an income tax rise for people earning as little as £28,000; and there are now proposals for a £15-a-day charge for people driving to work. Why are working people, who have already been hit by the Tory mortgage bombshell, being asked to pay the bill for the SNP’s incompetence and failure?

Shona Robison

On the issue of the national health service, we remain absolutely committed to eradicating delayed discharge and we will work with our partners to do that.

I notice that Anas Sarwar moved on to talk about local government finance and taxes, so let me say this about the consultation on the council tax multiplier. The consultation is looking at how we can make council tax fairer, but that joint group with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities is also looking at how we could replace the council tax in the future. Here is one question that the consultation is asking: why is it that someone living in a band H property pays so much less, as a proportion of the value of their property, than someone in a band A property? As someone living in a higher-band property, I do not think that that is fair, so why does Anas Sarwar think that it is fair?

We will get on with that consultation, but it is not credible for Anas Sarwar to come here and say no to progressive taxation when it comes to income tax and to any changes in local taxation, but to demand that money be spent on public services. That is not a credible position for Anas Sarwar to take.

Anas Sarwar

The SNP has been in government for 16 years and that is the best answer that Shona Robison can give. The Deputy First Minister just does not get it, so let me give her the example of a family in Cambuslang. The mum is a nurse, the dad is a teacher and they have two young kids. Their energy bills have skyrocketed and they are still paying 50 per cent, or £2,000, more than they used to. Their food bills are up almost 20 per cent; they have been hit with a mortgage increase of more than £2,000 a year and now the SNP wants to make that worse by asking both mum and dad to pay more income tax, to pay hundreds of pounds more in council tax and to pay £15 a day to get to work in Glasgow. That family is being let down by both Tory and SNP incompetence. Both Governments are making life harder for working people, so why can the Deputy First Minister not see that the people of Scotland are being asked to pay the price for SNP failure?

Shona Robison

We know that Anas Sarwar is now getting his orders from Keir Starmer, and they are to not promise anything in terms of progressive taxation and to turn his back on raising additional funds. Anas Sarwar should remember that, if we had followed what he seems to be suggesting—the Tory tax policies—we would have £1 billion less for public services in our coffers. [Interruption.]

Let us hear one another.

Shona Robison

That is what Anas Sarwar seems to be saying.

Let me repeat: there is a consultation on council tax. No decisions have been made in terms of council tax increases. He should not be saying to the people of Rutherglen or anywhere else that that is the case, because that is to mislead.

Let me say to the nurse and the teacher that Anas Sarwar commented on that we have, of course, made sure that nurses are better paid in Scotland than those elsewhere in these islands by making sure that we pay through agenda for change, and teachers, of course, are better paid in Scotland than those anywhere else in these islands, because we settled with the teachers in relation to their pay claim.

We will get on with paying public workers what they deserve to be paid and supporting household incomes. Anas Sarwar will side with the Tories against progressive taxation. What a place for Labour to end up.

Cabinet (Meetings)

To ask the Deputy First Minister when the Cabinet will next meet. (S6F-02380)

Next Tuesday.

Alex Cole-Hamilton

I am grateful for that reply.

The list of national health service buildings that are being searched for the dangerous concrete known as RAAC—reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete—includes surgical wards and a radiotherapy ward. It includes maternity wards and major hospitals such as Ninewells in the Deputy First Minister’s home city. There, the area of concern extends to 9,500m2, which is more than the size of a football pitch. Assumptions about what is low risk that were based on looking at blueprints are now being questioned, because a school beam that was thought to be low risk was then found to be unsound.

Can the Deputy First Minister vouch for the safety of everyone who is going for surgery, every cancer patient and every newborn currently receiving care in a ward where this concrete is suspected to be present?

Shona Robison

NHS Scotland Assure has been going through all the buildings in the NHS, looking at applying the guidance from the Institution of Structural Engineers and making sure that there is then a risk rating for any buildings that need repair. However, no patients and no staff will be left in any dangerous building anywhere, and we should not suggest otherwise, because that worries people.

I understand that the Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care spoke to Alex Cole-Hamilton about this very matter just yesterday, but, if he still has queries, I am sure that the health secretary will be prepared to speak to him again. I know that the cabinet secretaries for social justice and education have also invited him to a meeting to discuss any further concerns.

It is important that we give the assurance to the public that all these matters are absolutely in hand and that the guidance from the Institution of Structural Engineers is being followed. I hope that Alex Cole-Hamilton can join us in getting that reassuring message out.

Carer Support Payment

4. Collette Stevenson (East Kilbride) (SNP)

To ask the Deputy First Minister what assessment the Scottish Government has made of the potential impact of the roll-out of the carer support payment on the national mission to tackle poverty and reduce inequality. (S6F-02396)

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

We know that unpaid carers face a higher risk of poverty and that the majority of unpaid carers are women. The carer support payment will be available in the local authority areas of Dundee, Perth and Kinross and Western Isles from November this year. It will be extended to more areas from spring 2024, and it will be available nationally by autumn 2024.

The carer support payment will extend eligibility to more carers who are studying full time. It will remove barriers to education, provide more stable support, promote increased take-up and help carers to access wider benefits and services. Once case transfer from carers allowance completes, it will also provide extra payments to carers with multiple caring roles and an additional four weeks of support when a caring role ends due to bereavement.

Collette Stevenson

I am particularly pleased to note the expanded eligibility for the carer support payment, compared with eligibility for the Department for Work and Pensions’s carers allowance. Relative to the rest of the United Kingdom, how many additional carers are set to benefit from Social Security Scotland’s 14th devolved payment?

Shona Robison

Despite our fixed budgets and limited powers, we have transformed social security provision in Scotland by delivering a radically different system that is based on dignity, fairness and respect. From launch, our carer support payment will expand access to many carers. Once the benefit is available nationally, it will widen access to 1,500 more carers.

Carers on the carer support payment will continue to benefit from our carers allowance supplement, which has provided extra support to carers in Scotland since 2018. We will again call on the UK Government to match our actions to address the fact that carers allowance is the lowest of all the working-age benefits.

Roz McCall (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I note the Deputy First Minister’s initial reply and her subsequent response of “Westminster bad”. However, I draw the focus back to Scotland and to reducing inequalities. The 2022-23 programme for government contained a promise to develop a payment for eligible 16 to 25-year-olds with care experience to provide security as they transition towards independent living. We are a year on from that. When will the promise be fulfilled?

Shona Robison

I say to Roz McCall that it is not about Westminster bad; it is just a fact that carers allowance is the lowest of all the working-age benefits.

In response to Roz McCall’s question about the roll-out of the benefit for young carers, I will ensure that the minister writes to her with an update on progress and the timetable for that.

Net Zero Targets (Planning and Funding)

5. Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Deputy First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to reported comments from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and council leaders questioning the achievability of net zero targets without a detailed plan and adequate funding. (S6F-02384) [Interruption.]

I would be grateful if we could do members the courtesy of hearing their questions.

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

I am sure that Brian Whittle must be regretting submitting that question. A Tory MSP raising net zero less than 24 hours after the Tory Prime Minister hollowed out the Tories’ plans is a matter for pity, perhaps.

We will continue to work in partnership with local authorities and COSLA to develop a framework between national and local government to agree shared approaches to delivering net zero. We are doing that at a time when the United Kingdom Government appears determined to undermine the means to deliver the necessary change. Yesterday’s decision by the Prime Minister to renege on the UK’s key net zero commitments was an unforgivable betrayal of current and future generations. The Conservatives are trading the future of our planet for a cheap electoral ploy.

If Brian Whittle or his colleagues in the Scottish Tories have any influence on the UK Government—which is unlikely—I ask them to please urge it to rethink, because it is on the wrong side of history.

Brian Whittle

As the First Minister grandstands in New York, accusing the rest of the world of catastrophic negligence on climate change, his Scottish National Party councillors have joined COSLA, the Climate Change Committee and countless other organisations in criticising his Government’s net zero plans.

The SNP-Green Government loves being praised for its bold, ambitious climate policies, but those same policies keep disintegrating on contact with reality. A just transition requires more than ever-grander promises, with no thought as to how they will work in the real world. Will the Deputy First Minister now commit to setting out a detailed, pragmatic and achievable road map for how the Scottish Government will reach net zero, or will she continue the First Minister’s approach of bashing others to disguise his Government’s failures?

Shona Robison

Of course, it is the Prime Minister’s announcements that are disintegrating in the face of blistering criticism, not just from industry and business but from some of his own party’s members. I wonder how Maurice Golden and other Tory back benchers are feeling at the moment.

The First Minister will continue, as the Scottish Government will, to show leadership on net zero. We are regarded throughout the world as having some of the most ambitious targets and policies. We will get on with the job, and we will leave Rishi Sunak, Douglas Ross and the Tories to try to explain to future generations why they had no backbone when it comes to the environment.

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

I will stay on the theme of Rishi Sunak’s plan to ditch the UK Government’s key net zero targets. What initial assessment can the Scottish Government provide on the impact that that will have on the commitment and consistency that industry requires from the Government in order to ensure a just energy transition?

Shona Robison

I am aware that the Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero and Just Transition will answer an urgent question on that later today. The Prime Minister’s reckless plans have already been branded concerning by the Climate Change Committee, which judges that the plans are

“likely to take the UK further away from being able to meet its legal commitments”.

Business and consumer groups alike have referred to the plans as “hugely damaging” and a “colossal error”. Al Gore has called them “shocking” and hugely “disappointing”. There are many others that I could quote. [Interruption.]

They do not like that.

Shona Robison

I know that the Tories do not like the facts to be presented to them, but the key and most serious and concerning point is that those announcements will have a serious impact and implication for the climate ambitions of not just the UK but Scotland. That is unforgivable.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

The Prime Minister’s climbdown on climate shows that he is a politician who is interested only in the next election, rather than in the next generation. What impact will his announcement have on Scotland’s plans to reach net zero by 2045?

Shona Robison

The cabinet secretary for net zero will answer that urgent question, and we will get into the detail of assessing the impact. Mark Ruskell is absolutely right to point to what this is all about. It is all about the general election and the Tories trying to appeal to their core vote, which is, essentially, about culture wars, being anti-migrants and, now, being anti-environment. What an unappealing, negative, backward-looking, small-minded prospectus that is, and it will be roundly rejected by the Scottish people once again.

School Meal Debts

6. Paul O’Kane (West Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Deputy First Minister whether the Scottish Government will consider writing off school meal debts, in light of reports of local authorities instructing sheriff officers to pursue families for unpaid school meal debts. (S6F-02377)

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

We recognise that the cost of living crisis is putting a huge strain on families and that many are facing real challenges. We are committed to the expansion of free school meals, saving families £400 per year for every eligible child. Where any families experience difficulties due to the cost of paying for school meals, in the first instance, we expect local authorities to use the powers that are available to them to provide necessary support. Although school meal debt is a matter for councils, the Scottish Government will do everything that we can to support families, and we will consider all the options that are available to us to ensure that families do not find themselves punished for struggling during a cost of living crisis.

Paul O’Kane

Organisations such as Aberlour children’s charity speak of a cycle of problem debt owed to public bodies that is trapping families in poverty. Not only are families experiencing the stress of being trapped in that cycle, but we have now learned that councils such as Renfrewshire in my region are sending debt collectors to families’ doors, exacerbating unimaginable pressure, when those families are just trying to get by in a cost of living crisis.

Despite what the Deputy First Minister says about the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities guidance on managing school debt, families are now in a postcode lottery, because some councils are writing the debt off and others are resorting to debt collectors. Fifty anti-poverty organisations and trade unions wrote to the Deputy First Minister’s predecessor to call for action in the most recent budget. Scottish Labour outlined plans to write off school debt in our call for an emergency cost of living act in the summer of 2022. The former First Minister said that she was “sympathetic” to calls to write the debts off and asked officials to look at the issue.

Please ask a question.

Sympathy, warm words and another year of inaction from the Government—

Please ask a question, Mr O’Kane.

All the while, the debt collectors are banging on the door. If reducing poverty is the defining mission of Humza Yousaf’s Government—

Mr O’Kane, you can put your question now or not at all.

When will he take urgent action and provide resource in order to allow all councils to write off those debts and stop the sheriff officers?

Shona Robison

To fund an emergency cost of living act, we would need to have progressive taxation, whether at a national or a local level, and Labour has now ruled that out, so there are no more funds to pay for an emergency cost of living act. There is a lack of consistency from Labour on that point, because the two-child cap and rape clause do not help vulnerable families either. We need to see some consistency from Labour.

The point about debt is important. I encourage councils to be consistent in applying the guidance to school meal debt or indeed any other debt. They should do so in a way that preserves the dignity of families. We will continue to work with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on that important matter.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

The Scottish Government’s failure to fully implement its free school meals promise is relevant here. Just yesterday, the Education, Children and Young People Committee heard from a representative of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy that Government funding for the free school meals that are in place is insufficient. Why is the Government failing to fund its own scheme properly?

Shona Robison

Scotland has the most generous free school meal provision in the United Kingdom, and we are going even further. Liam Kerr, or any other Tory member, cannot pitch up here, demanding more money for free school meals or anything else, when, through the tax cuts that the Tories wanted us to follow, there would be £1 billion less—[Interruption.]


Shona Robison

—to spend on public services, whether they be free school meal provision or anything else. The Tories should not turn up here asking for more money when they want to take £1 billion out of the money that we already have.

We move to general and constituency supplementaries.

Cancer Research UK (Investment)

Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

Cancer Research UK has announced a £123 million investment in the Cancer Research UK Scotland Institute, formerly known as the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute, which is based at the University of Glasgow’s Garscube campus, in my constituency. The Beatson name is synonymous with cancer research in the west of Scotland, and the amazing work of the Beatson Institute has been life changing for many. What can the Deputy First Minister say about the significance of that investment, particularly for the west of Scotland, and the strengths in cancer research and life science that we have in constituencies such as mine?

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

I very much welcome Cancer Research UK’s announcement of that significant investment. Research is vital if we are to continue to develop new approaches to the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer. That funding will ensure that the institute continues its research in the west of Scotland. It is recognised internationally for its quality, innovation and impact. The Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care met the chief executive officer of Cancer Research UK yesterday to discuss the work of the institute and to recognise Cancer Research UK’s very welcome investment.

Bank Branch Closures (Islands)

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

This week, we learned the disappointing news of more Bank of Scotland branch closures, including one in Millport, on Cumbrae, and another in Brodick, on Arran. Those are the last remaining bank branches in those island communities. It is disappointing news for elderly residents on islands and many businesses that operate in cash. I wonder, though, whether the devastating effect that it will have on our island communities has escaped Lloyds Banking Group, which received a £20 billion taxpayer-funded bailout many years ago? Will Scottish Government ministers join me in lobbying Lloyds Banking Group to reverse those devastating cuts to branches?

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

I agree with Jamie Greene. Such services are important, particularly for those who do not have online banking facilities. Many older people are in that position. I absolutely agree with his sentiment. Banking is a United Kingdom Government responsibility, but I am happy to ask Neil Gray to speak to Jamie Greene to see how cross-party representation can be arranged.

Colleges (Finance)

Given the level of skills shortages across the Scottish economy, is the Deputy First Minister concerned that colleges are cutting courses and making staff redundant in order to balance their budgets?

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

The future of skills is an absolutely critical area, which is why the Withers review is so important. The college sector will be vital in that regard. There have been challenges to public finances across all public bodies—no one is denying that—due to the United Kingdom Government’s austerity policy. We must therefore ensure that the college sector or any other sector can deliver within the budgets that can be allocated.

We absolutely recognise the importance of skills for the economy. That is why we are keen to see the forward-looking review from Professor Withers being implemented in a way that will see colleges being placed at the heart of our policy.

National Eye Health Week

Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

The Deputy First Minister will recognise that this week is national eye health week. As the convener of the cross-party group on visual impairment, I am pleased that Parliament has led the way with a long-standing policy of free eye tests. As they can have multiple health benefits for the individual, will the Deputy First Minister support calls to encourage more Scots to use the free eye tests?

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

I agree with Stuart McMillan that national eye health week is a timely opportunity to highlight the importance of having a free, regular national health service eye examination and contacting an optometrist as a first port of call for any eye problem. We know that they can provide a full health check of the eyes as well as a sight test, which can help to detect early signs of sight-threatening conditions as well as other serious health conditions. I am proud that Scotland remains the only part of these islands to provide free universal NHS eye examinations, which the Scottish Government is committed to maintaining.

Short-Term Lets Licensing Scheme (House Swaps)

Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

Last week, the Scottish Government rejected calls from the chamber and the industry to pause the licensing scheme for short-term lets because of its emerging unintended consequences. Yesterday, we saw yet more confusion about the policy, with The Times reporting that ministers had told Homelink, which arranges house swaps, that swaps would now be excluded from the rules. We learned that the Deputy First Minister herself wrote to councils in March that guidance would be produced around offering temporary exemptions for house swaps, but no record exists of such guidance ever having been published. Meanwhile, the Minister for Housing, who replied to the debate last week, seemed to be unaware of any of that. Can I get some clarity, please? Are house swaps to be excluded from the licensing scheme or not? Does this not demonstrate, once again, that this is a shambolic policy from a Government where the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing?

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

I will get the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Shirley-Anne Somerville, to write to the member, because it is important that there should be clarity on the matter—[Interruption.]

Let us hear the Deputy First Minister.

Shona Robison

Murdo Fraser is right to raise the issue. I will ensure that clarity is made available not just to Murdo Fraser but to other members across the chamber.

With regard to the policy per se, it is important that Murdo Fraser and others encourage those people who are running short-term lets to get their licence in order by 1 October, because that will be critical. What this is all about, at the end of the day, is ensuring that whoever is using a short-term let, in whatever sector, can be guaranteed of the application of the same safety measures no matter where they are staying. That is at the heart of what this is about. On the member’s specific point, I will ensure that the cabinet secretary writes to him and puts that response across to other MSPs, too.

School Buildings Cancellations

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

The Deputy First Minister will be aware that Highland Council has cancelled 10 new school buildings, which means that desperately needed affordable housing will be lost. It is due to delays to her Government’s learning estate investment programme. Will the Deputy First Minister now make decisions about that fund, so that local authorities can build schools? Will she apologise to pupils, parents, teachers and communities that have been so badly affected?

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

First, phases 1 and 2 of the learning estate investment programme—LEIP—have been enormously important. Thirty-seven projects were announced, including three in the Highlands, through those first two phases. The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills will update Parliament on the third phase in due course.

Secondly, one of the issues that we have had to consider is the position of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete—RAAC—schools in relation to phase 3, in order to ensure that they receive the priority that they require.

Finally, our cut to capital budgets, which will be a cut of 6.7 per cent—nearly 7 per cent—makes the situation very difficult, whether it is around building schools, hospitals or anything else. I hope that the member will join us in ensuring that we say to the United Kingdom Government, in the same way as the Welsh Labour Government did, that we absolutely need that investment in capital. I just met the Treasury with the Welsh Labour Government, and we are saying exactly the same. It is just a pity that Labour members in this place are not aligning with their Welsh Labour colleagues.

United Kingdom Mini-budget (Scottish Economy)

One year after Liz Truss’s disastrous Tory United Kingdom mini-budget, will the Deputy First Minister outline the impact of that chaotic event on Scotland’s economy?

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

The disastrous mini-budget—enthusiastically backed by the Scottish Tories, of course, and Douglas Ross in particular—sent shock waves through the economy, causing market interest rates to jump and sterling to fall, and literally crashing the pensions market in the UK. Alongside that, the proposed tax cuts and the market reaction reduced any lingering credibility that the UK had in terms of economic management, which was already severely damaged by Brexit.

That has now been followed by—the equivalent of that—Rishi Sunak on net zero, Liz Truss being the biggest cheerleader for the backsliding and reneging on those net zero targets. If ever there was an argument for independence, it is what has happened with net zero this week. Surely there can be no better argument than that control over net zero and the economy should rest here, in this Parliament.

Interlinked Heat and Smoke Alarms

Alexander Stewart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

This week, Clackmannanshire Council admitted that a house that caught fire was not fitted with the legally required interlinked heat and smoke alarms, despite legislation requiring that from February 2022. It might not be an isolated incident, and vulnerable tenants and the elderly might be being put at risk. What urgent action can the Scottish Government take to ensure that councils are fulfilling their legal responsibilities and protecting tenants and lives?

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

I am concerned to hear about that. Of course, councils absolutely should be making sure that they apply the legislation in the same way as anyone else. If Alexander Stewart wants to write to me with those details, that is certainly something that we can raise with the council, because it is very important that tenants feel safe in their homes.

Fair Pay (University of Dundee)

Mercedes Villalba (North East Scotland) (Lab)

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests as a trade union member.

This week, members of UCU, Unison and Unite the union are on strike at the University of Dundee because their employer has repeatedly failed to make a fair pay offer. Year on year, real-terms pay cuts are harming university workers, student learning and our education system. Will the Deputy First Minister join me in urging university principals in our city of Dundee and across the country to meet the demands of campus unions?

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

That is, of course, a matter for Dundee university or any other universities, being independent institutions, and the way in which they conduct industrial relations. However, we would expect them to follow the fair work principles in terms of good engagement with the unions and to follow those in the same way that other institutions should. We would urge them to get around the table with their union partners to find a resolution.

I would say to Mercedes Villalba that what we are seeing from Keir Starmer is a complete retreat from workers’ rights and a U-turn on every commitment on workers’ rights, so perhaps she should have a word with Keir Starmer—although I suspect that she probably does not agree with him anyway. In terms of the devolution of employment law, I hope that she will sign the motion that is up for debate next week. [Interruption.] I understand that Anas Sarwar has sent a memo round, saying that Labour members should not sign it. [Interruption.]


I hope that Mercedes Villalba will sign it, because I know that she is of independent mind.

Short-term Let Licences (Privacy)

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

A constituent of mine who is a single mother with a short-term let property has been in touch with me this week. She will shortly be obliged to display a licence notice in the front window of her property in order to be compliant with the short-term let regulations. It will include her name and address. She is concerned about the wellbeing and privacy of her daughter and herself, due to her domestic relationship. Can the Deputy First Minister confirm whether it is her intention for short-term let regulations to make responsible owners afraid and scared, and possibly have to withdraw the property, and will she look again at whether that type of lack of privacy is appropriate in Scotland today?

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

No, and if Jeremy Balfour wants to furnish us with the case, we will look at it in terms of the guidance that has been issued by City of Edinburgh Council. No one should be afraid or scared. We are asking short-term let owners to get a licence to ensure basic safety measures—that is all—not to put themselves in the position of being afraid or scared.

The system is about basic safety standards. If Jeremy Balfour furnishes us with the details, and if there is an issue with the guidance that City of Edinburgh Council has produced, we will look at that. That is all that I can offer at this stage.

European Union Exit

Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

The Conservatives delivered a ruinous Brexit. This week, Keir Starmer said that he would tweak that ruinous Brexit, while ruling out a return to the European single market. He said that his priorities are economic growth and the opportunities and outcomes for young people that have been lost as a result of Brexit. Does the Deputy First Minister agree that the only way to get back the benefits of the European Union is for Scotland to be in the EU as an independent nation, back among the family of nations of Europe?

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

Clare Adamson is exactly right. It appears that Labour likes to hear the word “Brexit” even less than the Tories do—I wonder why that is.

Brexit is an on-going disaster for Scotland. The Labour Party now—[Interruption.]


Shona Robison

The Labour Party wants to keep Scotland out of the hugely important European single market and out of the European customs union. Labour also backs the end of freedom of movement—a freedom that was so important for the Scottish economy.

The real question for Labour is whether, when the onslaught on workers’ rights begins, it will look trade unions or workers in the eye and say, “That’s okay. We support that. We don’t care about workers’ rights.”

The Presiding Officer

That concludes First Minister’s question time. There will be a short suspension to allow members to leave the chamber and the public to leave the gallery.

12:46 Meeting suspended.  

12:47 On resuming—