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Meeting date: Thursday, January 20, 2022

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 20 January 2022

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Nuclear Weapons Treaties, Portfolio Question Time, Strategic Transport Projects Review 2, Prestwick Airport, Coronavirus (Discretionary Compensation for Self-isolation) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Coronavirus (Discretionary Compensation for Self-isolation) (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Motion Without Notice, Decision Time


Contents


General Question Time

Good morning. I remind members of the Covid-related measures that are in place. Face coverings should be worn when moving around the chamber and across the Holyrood campus.

The first item of business is general question time. In order to get in as many members as possible, I would prefer short and succinct questions and answers to match.


Budget 2022-23 (West Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government how the allocation of funding in its budget for 2022-23 will support local services in the West Scotland region. (S6O-00650)

The budget for next year delivers record levels of funding to help restore public services across the whole of Scotland including in West Scotland. It includes record funding for health, record funding to tackle child poverty and at least £2 billion in infrastructure initiatives. The local government finance settlement alone will provide more than £1.7 billion for vital day-to-day services such as schools and social care in the local authorities that are either wholly or partly within the West Scotland region.

Year after year, councils are targeted by the Scottish Government for core funding cuts and this year is no different, despite the council elections in May. The president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has said that both service cuts and council tax rises are “probably inevitable”. The cabinet secretary will know that all 32 council leaders, including Scottish National Party leaders, have unanimously condemned the Government’s budget as unacceptable. Some even say that it is the worst they have ever seen. Are those SNP council leaders wrong, and is the cabinet secretary really saying that every penny has been spent and that there is no more money anywhere in the budget to prevent service cuts and council tax hikes in the west of Scotland and across the country?

SNP council leaders do an exceptional job right across Scotland but, in terms of the overall budget, our position right now is challenging. There is a 5.2 per cent reduction in next year’s Scottish budget versus this year’s budget and we have made it clear that we cannot inflation proof any part of the budget. For local authorities, we have ensured that we protect the core budget in cash terms—I have already made the caveat about inflation—and on top of that we are providing additional funding for the pressures that local government has identified, not least in social care and education.


Land Speculation (Carbon Offsetting)

To ask the Scottish Government what measures it is planning to introduce to protect communities and ecosystems from land speculation associated with carbon offsetting. (S6O-00651)

Mechanisms already exist to support responsible investment in our land, including the Scottish land rights and responsibilities statement. However, I am very aware of concern about recent purchases and developments. Last year, I asked the Scottish Land Commission to review the rural land market and offer advice to the Government on how we can ensure that private investment in natural capital, which is needed to help Scotland to address the climate and nature crises, is done in a way that is helpful to our wider political priorities, including empowering and benefiting rural and island communities.

We know that a range of companies and investors are already buying up land in Scotland to use for carbon offsetting. BrewDog and Shell are two examples. Private investment funds and asset managers are generating and selling carbon credits. Even the Scottish National Investment Bank is putting money into that. Will the minister outline how much land has been bought for such speculation, how much public money has been invested in such approaches and what we can do within our limited powers to ensure that Scotland does not get sold for carbon-offsetting greenwash and to protect communities from displacement by green lairds?

I begin by stressing that I share many of Maggie Chapman’s views. My vision for a net zero Scotland is one in which more people can live and work sustainably on our land. The member is right to highlight the risks and I assure her that I am alert to them. I am determined that increased investment in Scotland’s natural capital will deliver benefits for our local communities in line with those important just transition principles. That is why I have commissioned the work of the Scottish Land Commission, which I await, and why we are reviewing the Scottish land rights and responsibilities statement to ensure that it is as up to date as possible and that it addresses those contemporary challenges. I look forward to returning to Parliament to discuss those matters once I have that information in hand.


Video Doorbells

To ask the Scottish Government whether it has any concerns over the use of video doorbells in domestic properties. (S6O-00652)

Anyone who operates domestic closed-circuit television, such as a video doorbell, must ensure that they comply with the relevant laws and respect their neighbours’ privacy. People who believe that their privacy and data protection rights are not upheld should attempt to resolve that situation with their neighbour, and have the right to make a complaint to the Information Commissioner if that is not successful.

Video doorbells in communal areas of flats often record footage of anyone passing via motion sensors. That footage is accessed remotely. It has been my experience that that factor can exacerbate neighbour disputes and the impact on vulnerable individuals. The suggestion from the Information Commissioner’s Office that those who are concerned about surveillance can request access to the footage that is held of them and ensure that it is deleted when it is no longer required is just fanciful.

Despite the reserved nature of data protection, how can we use existing powers over housing and community safety to work in partnership with housing organisations and Police Scotland to seek to review, regulate or restrict the use of video doorbells for residential flatted properties?

The member makes many valid points. Avenues exist for people to challenge a neighbour’s use of a video doorbell. If they believe that domestic CCTV is used in an antisocial, harassing or intimidating way for instance, which might constitute a criminal matter, they will be able to contact the police.

The Scottish Government recognises that everyone has the right to feel safe in their community, which is why we are committed to tackling all forms of antisocial behaviour to create an inclusive and respectful society where individual and collective rights are supported and neighbour disputes are resolved fairly and swiftly. Police Scotland and local authorities lead on those interventions and a range of options are available to tackle this type of antisocial behaviour. We are committed to ensuring that all the agencies have the power and resources that they need.


Rodent Glue Traps

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to take forward the recommendations in the Scottish animal welfare commission’s “Report on the use of rodent glue traps in Scotland”, including the recommendation to ban such traps. (S6O-00653)

We are committed to maintaining the highest welfare standards for animals, including wildlife. We have carefully considered the Scottish animal welfare commission's findings, alongside all other relevant evidence, and I am pleased to announce today that we intend to end the cruel practice of setting glue traps. The commission's report is clear that the use of glue traps relates to significant animal welfare issues, not only for rodents but for non-target species such as wild birds. Therefore, we will introduce legislation to ban glue traps in this parliamentary term.

I welcome that news. Glue traps are one of the cruellest methods of rodent control. As well as banning the use of glue traps, will we also ban their sale?

Our intention is to ban both the sale and the use of glue traps. However, implications arise from the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, which can undermine decisions that this Parliament makes, including in wholly devolved climate and environmental policy areas. We intend to work through those issues to achieve a ban.


Shotts Railway Station (Accessibility)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it and Transport Scotland have had with ScotRail and Network Rail regarding the accessibility of Shotts railway station. (S6O-00654)

Transport Scotland has been in dialogue with ScotRail and Network Rail to discuss a feasibility study on improving accessibility at Shotts station, which Transport Scotland commissioned following a meeting with local representatives and the now disbanded Shotts community council.

Unfortunately, progression of the study was delayed because of restrictions that were imposed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, analysis of the report is under way and it is anticipated that further discussions will be held with Network Rail in the coming weeks to enable the details to be finalised.

There has been previous work at Shotts railway station to install a new ramp, but its length and gradient are less than ideal, particularly in winter, for people who use wheelchairs or who have other mobility issues. As the minister suggested, I have previously contacted Transport Scotland about the issue on behalf of constituents, and there was agreement to conduct an accessibility review of the station. I understand that part of the responsibility for the matter is with Network Rail. Will the minister provide an update on the feasibility study and on whether the potential for a lift will be part of the review?

I commend Neil Gray and his predecessor, Alex Neil, for their diligence in this matter. All options for improving accessibility, including lifts, will be considered. I have asked my rail officials to keep Neil Gray updated as work progresses.

Has the Scottish Government had any communications with ScotRail regarding the impact on the most vulnerable rail users of reducing operating hours at Bellshill train station?

Ms Callaghan raises an important point. Clearly, technology has changed how people want to access information and buy tickets, but we must acknowledge that there is a place for staffed services on the ground where and when they are most needed.

The consultation offers the public the chance to have their say on how to provide an efficient and cost-effective service for the future. I encourage people to get involved—I include in that local MSPs and, in particular, groups that represent people who have support needs, because it is critical that we understand how any proposed changes might affect them.


Fuel Poverty

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the action it is taking to address fuel poverty. (S6O-00655)

I know that the current situation with energy prices will cause many people to worry about the cost of their fuel bills. We share their concerns and, with the limited powers that are available to us, we are already taking action to address the situation, including through our £41 million winter support fund.

However, with powers over the energy market reserved to Westminster, there must also be action from the United Kingdom Government. I have written to it, suggesting a number of measures that we believe it should consider, including a VAT cut and targeted support for people on low incomes.

The fuel well scheme, which was introduced by Dundee’s Scottish National Party administration and is supported by Scottish Government funding, provides financial support of between £90 and £150 to help those who are most in need with winter fuel costs. Does the cabinet secretary agree that, although the action by our SNP colleagues in Dundee is commendable, the UK Government, which has cut £20 a week from universal credit, needs to step up urgently and take responsibility for dealing with spiralling energy costs?

I absolutely agree. I commend Dundee City Council for its efforts to help people who are struggling with heating costs. That is an excellent example of the kind of schemes that local councils across Scotland have established through the winter support fund to provide vulnerable households with assistance.

Undoubtedly, the UK Government must do far more to protect households from the drastic increases in energy bills that are being talked about. Reversing the indefensible cut to universal credit would certainly help, but there are many other actions that we want the UK Government to take, including cutting VAT on energy bills, which would be one of the simplest short-term means of helping energy consumers. We need urgent action by the UK Government, because many households are already under severe financial pressure due to increasing energy prices.

Only a tiny fraction of all the homes in North East Fife—fewer than 1,000 out of 40,000—have access to the Scottish Government’s home insulation financial support packages. As we are in not only a climate emergency but an energy emergency, what will the Government do to speed up and expand that provision so that more people can access support?

The member might be aware that we have invested almost £1 billion in home energy efficiency programmes since 2009, and we have set out our commitment to invest more than £1.5 billion to decarbonise properties and make them more energy efficient in the coming years. I have no doubt that the area-based schemes that we are operating in North East Fife will continue to benefit his constituents. However, we want to see those schemes expanded and developed in the future, to ensure that we make properties more energy efficient and that we meet our climate change targets.


Access Bikes Scheme

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment criteria it will use to determine whether the access bikes scheme represents good value for money. (S6O-00656)

The pilot scheme is designed to test whether providing interest-free loans can improve bike ownership and alleviate transport poverty. The fact that we have received 348 expressions of interest so far shows that there is demand for such provision. We will assess whether the scheme represents good value for money by the number of bikes that have been purchased by September 2022. Cycling UK will provide a report on the scheme’s operation after year 1. The scheme is in its infancy, and we will judge its effectiveness after the pilot period rather than after a few weeks, as well as continuing to develop the scheme in the light of on-going feedback.

I thank the minister for that answer, but I do not think that it is unreasonable to ask why a scheme that has access to £390,000 of public funds to offer 500 loans has failed to provide even one loan three months after it opened. Set against that, I am speaking to the social enterprise East Ayrshire Cycle Station, which rescues unwanted bikes, refurbishes them and sells them to the public at a fraction of what they cost new. So far, it has done 650 bikes, and it would like to extend an invitation to the minister to join me on a visit at some point. The organisation has been hugely popular in encouraging many people in the area to take up cycling, but it is now struggling to obtain funds to go further. With that in mind, will the minister commit to making funds equal to or greater than that allocated to his loan scheme available to support existing successful local initiatives such as Cycle Station?

We support a wide range of organisations, including those that provide cycle repair and refurbishment. I would be happy to explore that issue in more detail with the member if he has specific local examples that I should bear in mind.

I find it a little bit odd that, during the winter, the Conservatives were claiming both that we had splurged £400,000 and also that we had not issued a single penny. I congratulate them on the intellectual agility that is necessary to believe both of those false claims simultaneously.


UNESCO Biosphere Reserves

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the designation of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization biosphere reserves in Scotland as areas of significance for sustainable development and climate change. (S6O-00657)

There are two biosphere reserves in Scotland: Galloway and Southern Ayrshire, and Wester Ross, which together are home to more than 100,000 people. Both of Scotland’s biospheres have received funding from our enterprise agencies, and we support the biosphere approach to community empowerment through the environment when that is chosen and sustained by a local community.

The Galloway and Southern Ayrshire biosphere, which covers my constituency, has had significant support from South of Scotland Enterprise, local government, a range of private businesses, environmental non-governmental organisations and community representatives. It is identified in the local development plans and regional spatial strategies for Ayrshire and southern Scotland. Does the minister agree that it is a great shame that the UNESCO biospheres appear to have been missed by the draft national performance framework 4? In recognising the importance of the key strategic values on which they lead—sustainability and contributing to the wider social, economic, environmental and tourism aspirations of the area—can the minister commit to ensuring that UNESCO biospheres are truly recognised and highlighted in the new NPF4?

In line with the member’s comments, the Scottish Government agrees that participation can build a community’s ability to tackle challenges and sustain a healthy, vibrant community. UNESCO’s man and the biosphere programme is based on that bottom-up, stakeholder-driven initiative; therefore, biospheres are inherently an initiative that must be developed and sustained locally.

Although the draft national planning framework 4 does not specifically name the two biosphere reserves, it clearly sets out that

“Local development plans should identify and protect locally, regionally, nationally ... valued natural assets, landscapes, species and habitats.”

In addition to the current parliamentary scrutiny of the draft NPF4, we are consulting widely until the end of March and would welcome comments on our draft to support what I hope will be a finalised NPF4 that will address those issues, which we can bring back to Parliament for approval.