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Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Fireworks and Pyrotechnic Articles (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Fireworks and Pyrotechnic Articles (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Decision Time, World Press Freedom Day 2022


Contents


Topical Question Time

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


Legal Advice (Independence Referendum)

1. Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the ruling of the Scottish Information Commissioner that it should release legal advice that it received regarding a second independence referendum. (S6T-00678)

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

We have received the decision from the Scottish Information Commissioner, we are considering its terms, and we will respond within the deadlines set by the commissioner.

United Kingdom Governments and Scottish Governments have observed a long-standing convention that the Government does not disclose legal advice—that includes whether law officers have or have not advised on any matter—except in exceptional circumstances. The content of any such advice is confidential and subject to legal professional privilege. That ensures that full and frank legal advice can be given.

Stephen Kerr

Yesterday, the First Minister refused to commit the Government to publishing the legal advice in full, despite the Scottish Information Commissioner’s ruling. Can the cabinet secretary confirm that the Government will publish that advice in full, as recommended by the commissioner, or does it intend to go to court to prevent that advice from being made available to public scrutiny?

Angus Robertson

As I have said, we have received the decision from the commissioner, and we are considering its terms. Any departure from the convention is a significant thing. Legal professional privilege and the law officers convention protect legal advice that is given to all Governments in these islands.

Given that the commissioner’s ruling is significant, we want to consider it carefully. We will respond within the deadlines set by the commissioner.

Stephen Kerr

I think that that was the answer that we had some moments ago.

The Scottish Government civil servants are secretly working on a referendum prospectus, and we now learn that public money may be used to cover up legal advice on a second referendum. The Scottish Government is spending hundreds of thousands—maybe millions—of pounds on its referendum obsession and refusing to allow any of it to be open to public scrutiny. Does the cabinet secretary recognise that all of that is an insult to Scottish taxpayers, who are being forced to pay for secret preparations for a referendum next year that they do not want?

Angus Robertson

The first thing that I would observe on that political speech, rather than a question, is that we should reflect on the fact that a majority of members of the Parliament were elected to deliver a referendum during this parliamentary session. Mr Kerr finds that fact very difficult to respect or even to acknowledge. It is entirely appropriate for the Government to pursue the policies that it was elected to pursue and to pursue the legal advice in line with the precedent of the UK and Scottish Governments. We will reply to the Scottish Information Commissioner’s findings in due course.

Gillian Martin (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)

A political party has been voted into government on a manifesto commitment to hold an independence referendum not once but twice since 2014. Can it be judged that that is the will of the people and that it is their democratic right to see it fulfilled?

The substantive question was about the response to the Scottish Information Commissioner’s ruling. I will therefore move on. I call Sarah Boyack.

Sarah Boyack (Lothian) (Lab)

There is now a clear pattern of behaviour under the Scottish National Party Government. Advice and documents that have a significant impact on the Government’s priorities—whether on ferries, the European convention on human rights or the constitution—are hidden from members of the Scottish Parliament and from the people of Scotland. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the people of Scotland, regardless of their views, have a right to see the legal advice in order to enhance public debate, in line with the Scottish Information Commissioner’s ruling? Will he make arrangements for the immediate publication of that legal advice, given its significance to the whole of the population of Scotland? What will he do in his work with MSPs to improve the transparency of information?

Angus Robertson

I am here specifically to answer questions in relation to the Scottish Information Commissioner’s ruling, and I can only repeat what I have said already. The ruling is significant, it must be considered in the round, and we will reply to it in good time, within the deadlines that have been set.

What I find quite interesting about the tone so far from the Labour Party and the Scottish Conservative Party is that there seems to be a willingness to depart from the established custom and practice in relation to legal advice. It might be helpful in the weeks ahead for both parties to clarify their position on whether they think that Government ministers in Scotland or, indeed, the UK should be able to receive information from their legal advisers with the confidence that has been custom and practice not just for years but for decades.

Collette Stevenson (East Kilbride) (SNP)

Given that the pro-independence SNP and Greens won a majority of seats in the 2021 election, does the Scottish Government believe that that democratic decision should be respected and that the people of Scotland have the right to choose their own future and to choose to become a fairer, greener, independent European country?

I remind members that it is essential that supplementary questions refer to the substantive question on the paper. We will therefore move to question 2.


Ukraine (Supersponsor Scheme)

To ask the Scottish Government what measures it is putting in place to ensure that Ukrainian families understand the conditions of its supersponsor scheme. (S6T-00671)

The Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development and Minister with special responsibility for Refugees from Ukraine (Neil Gray)

The Scottish Government is providing funding to JustRight Scotland to support its confidential legal advice line for Ukrainians seeking sanctuary in Scotland. That includes advice about our supersponsor scheme. As soon as the United Kingdom Government issues a visa to anyone naming the Scottish Government as their sponsor, our national contact centre sends that person a welcome message in Ukrainian and Russian. That includes a freephone international contact number for further advice.

Once in the country, the Scottish Refugee Council’s integration service, funded by the Scottish Government, can give further advice on issues such as registering for a general practitioner or enrolling children in school.

To raise awareness of Scotland’s supersponsor scheme, my officials have been working closely with international organisations and non-governmental organisations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as well as the Polish, Romanian and Moldovan authorities, to provide clear in-country information to explain how the scheme works and why it offers enhanced protection.

I met the Ukrainian MP Lesia Vasylenko last week and discussed Scotland’s offer. I hope to visit Poland in the coming weeks.

Mr Choudhury, there was a little break-up in the minister’s response. Are you content that you have heard enough?

Foysol Choudhury

Yes.

Last week, my colleague Sarah Boyack invited scothosts, a group representing hosts of Ukrainian refugees, to meet members. Scothosts has produced a thoughtful analysis of the good and bad aspects of the supersponsor scheme. A pressing issue that it highlighted is that the welcome desks at Glasgow and Edinburgh airports, intended to welcome Ukrainians arriving into the scheme, have frequently been left unstaffed during normal working hours, which has meant that refugees, sometimes with a low level of English literacy, have been left to fend for themselves on arrival, particularly when travelling on to other parts of the country. How can the Scottish Government ensure that that important initial part of any warm Scottish welcome is available to refugees?

Neil Gray

My officials have been working closely with Gary Gray and scothosts to understand their concerns, and to respond to some of the ideas and other suggestions that have been made.

On the welcome at our airports, I have received no reports of any issues at Edinburgh airport. The one report that I received regarding Glasgow airport was acted upon swiftly by the airport, Renfrewshire Council, Glasgow City Council and volunteer workers from the Ukrainian community, so that the Scottish Refugee Council and others on the ground could ensure that the staffing of the welcome desk was carried out as efficiently as possible. My understanding is that there have been no further reports of anyone arriving and not being able to access that desk.

I will continue to monitor the situation, because ensuring that people get access to clear and consistent information when they first arrive in the country is of the utmost importance to us all.

Foysol Choudhury

Another point raised by scothosts was that the hosting of refugees is not an event but a process, and that the inevitable longer-term needs, not only of refugees but of hosts, will need to be addressed. How will the Scottish Government amend its approach in response to continuing challenges with our Syrian and Afghan refugees? Refugees are the same regardless of where they are from.

Neil Gray

I absolutely concur with that point. The Scottish Government’s response to situations unfolding around the world has been consistent: we want to provide people with a place of sanctuary and support in Scotland regardless of where they have come from. We have a good system in place, having a true partnership with all 32 local authorities and our third sector partners through the Syrian scheme, which we look to replicate for the Ukrainian scheme.

There have been well-documented issues with the Afghan scheme, which operated using a different approach and was not a true partnership between the UK Government, Scottish Government and Scottish local authorities. We are looking at what can be done to provide as much assistance as possible to Afghan refugees in Scotland who seek further support.

Kaukab Stewart (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

The harrowing scenes coming out of Ukraine have rightly prompted action on a scale not seen before, including a change in legislation in the UK to enable Ukrainian refugees to access support and to work after fleeing the horrors of the war. My sincere hope is that the outcome of the situation will be a change in the way that we treat everyone who seeks refuge, regardless of where they are from.

What representations has the Scottish Government made to the UK Government to urge it to lift the no recourse to public funds condition and any employment restrictions for all asylum seekers and refugees arriving in Scotland? Does the minister agree that, if the UK Government is not willing to implement such a change, Scotland should be given the powers to enable asylum seekers to live with dignity?

Neil Gray

Kaukab Stewart is absolutely right. I concur particularly with the sentiments in the second part of her question. I met Lord Harrington, my ministerial equivalent at Westminster, and Kevin Foster, the minister with responsibility for immigration in the Commons, last week. At that meeting, I raised matters such as the ones that she asks about and my concern to ensure that we communicate effectively across the UK on safeguarding.

I also raised the need to ensure that people who are arriving from Ukraine know that the safest route is through Scotland, where the Scottish Government and Scottish local authorities operate a statutory matching service, and that there is no need for private matching. One of my major concerns about informal, social media matching is that it is often well intentioned but it poses significant risks. I called on the UK Government to implement a UK-wide supersponsor scheme to ensure that substantial safeguarding is put in place across the UK.

Donald Cameron (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

Those of us who attended the scothosts briefing last Thursday hosted by Sarah Boyack would have been struck by the comments about a perceived lack of co-ordination among local authorities. What is the Scottish Government doing to ensure that councils across Scotland and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities co-operate, learn from each other and work with each other to ensure that people who apply to the supersponsor scheme can understand it better?

Neil Gray

Donald Cameron should be reassured, as should scothosts, that I have regular meetings with COSLA and local authorities, as he would expect. We have issued guidance to all local authorities, which is published on the Scottish Government website for everyone to see, to ensure consistency of application in what people should expect when they arrive and in the longer-term arrangements.

I say to Donald Cameron, as I said to Foysol Choudhury, that my officials have met Gary Gray and scothosts. Suggestions that have been made are being considered.


National Grid (Pricing)

3. Emma Roddick (Highlands and Islands) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the potential impact on households and businesses in Scotland of the National Grid’s locational pricing system, in light of Scottish Renewables’ reported assessment that transmission network use of system charges make projects in Scotland almost 20 per cent more expensive than equivalent projects in the south of England. (S6T-00680)

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

The issue is reserved to the Westminster Parliament, and any changes to pricing require policy and legislative changes that are not within National Grid’s control. However, I am deeply concerned by the proposal to move to a locational pricing system and by the lack of consideration that has been given in that work to Scottish Government targets.

In a net zero world, it is counterproductive in the extreme to care more about where generation is situated than about what type of generation it is. It is vital that we deliver net zero at the lowest cost to consumers and that we do so in a way that does not penalise developers for taking forward projects in the best locations.

Emma Roddick

Scotland is a net exporter of energy—we export 18 times more to England than we receive back—and yet there are warnings that National Grid’s new locational pricing system could create a postcode pricing system in the middle of a cost of living crisis. Is the cabinet secretary concerned that the plans could penalise Scotland’s renewables sector when Scotland has the ambition to be the green energy capital of Europe?

Michael Matheson

At this time, when there is a desire to deliver energy security in a way that is compatible with achieving net zero, it is critical to have a charging regime that does not constrain how developments are taken forward. The existing charging scheme acts as a disincentive to investments here in Scotland and makes some developments less competitive with similar projects in other parts of the United Kingdom, so any tweaking of the system, which is what the potential change would involve, could act as a further disincentive to projects being developed here in Scotland. That would be absolutely counterproductive to reducing energy costs at the same time as meeting our net zero targets.

Emma Roddick

Given that we are in the midst of the cost of living crisis and that many households—particularly in my region, which is the Highlands and Islands—are already struggling, does the cabinet secretary agree that the UK Government, which holds the key levers of power on the issue, must urgently step up and do more to help those who are hardest hit by energy grid charges?

Michael Matheson

Renewable energy, and wind energy in particular, produces one of the lowest-cost forms of electricity. Alongside the wider benefits that can come from that and alongside developments such as hydrogen energy, we need to capitalise on the position and maximise potential areas of development. That is exactly what the Scottish Government is seeking to do, and it is important that regulators and the UK Government do not introduce any scheme that will constrain the maximisation of potential opportunities here in Scotland.

I assure Emma Roddick that we will continue to press the UK Government on the issue. We have discussed it with National Grid’s chief executive and expressed our concerns about the proposal and the lack of consultation and engagement with the Scottish Government, given the direct impact that the proposal could have on our net zero targets and energy policy. I assure members that we will do everything that we can to ensure that Scottish renewable energy projects receive the level playing field that they deserve with projects that are being taken forward across the rest of the UK.

Maurice Golden (North East Scotland) (Con)

In terms of TNUOS charging, the Scottish National Party has consistently argued that Scottish consumers should pay more to subsidise energy generators—primarily multinational companies. The most recent targeted charging review of transmission demand residual partially addresses that aspect, which means that every Scottish consumer will pay more.

The floor approach that has been suggested to the forward-looking charge would result in an overall decrease in TNUOS charges for typical domestic customers—apart from those in Scotland. The Office of Gas and Electricity Markets notes that charges in north Scotland will be higher than current charges, given the assistance for areas with high electricity distribution costs scheme.

I have asked this before. Does the cabinet secretary agree with flooring the forward-looking charge at zero—yes or no?

Michael Matheson

It is quite interesting listening to Maurice Golden literally setting out the utter failure of the United Kingdom Government to address the transmission charging costs regime that has been penalising Scotland-based projects for an extended period of time. There is no reason why the member should not be able to understand that the industry has been complaining about the issue for many years, but what have we got from the National Grid? A proposed tweaking of the system that is meant to make it appear as though it is dealing with the issue but which could potentially make things even more difficult for Scotland-based projects.

We need a process that ensures that the charging regime is based not on location but on the type of energy that is produced. The systematic failure of the UK Government to address that issue over an extended period of time has continued to disadvantage projects in Scotland. Further, adding in a bit of nuclear has pushed up the costs for taxpayers across the country, who are paying more for their energy as a result.