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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Thursday, September 8, 2022


First Minister’s Question Time

Ferries Procurement

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

I start by welcoming the decisive action that was announced by our new Prime Minister to halt rising energy bills. That vital support will save families £1,000 on their bills, and it comes on top of the £37 billion of help that had already been announced. I am sure that the whole chamber will welcome the measures from the United Kingdom Government to support people and businesses across the country.

Yesterday, the First Minister’s Government announced £560 million-worth of cuts. The cost of living crisis means difficult decisions for Governments across the country. Does the First Minister regret that so much money was wasted on ferries that have not been built? So far, that scandal has cost taxpayers £250 million, which could have been used to address the cost of living crisis.

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I, too, take the opportunity to welcome the very belated action on energy bills that the new Prime Minister has just announced in the House of Commons. I have not yet seen all the detail, but I am aware of the headline.

Although I welcome it, we should be clear that it does not represent a halt to the rise in energy bills. Average energy bills are just under £2,000. A cap of £2,500 means that people will still pay more for their energy. Of course, if we go back to spring of this year, average energy bills were around £1,200. People are seeing soaring energy costs because of a broken energy market and the utter incompetence of the UK Government.

Lastly on that issue, all the costs of what has been announced today are going to fall on consumers and taxpayers, although oil and gas companies that make windfall profits should be making a contribution. We can see whose side the UK Government is on.

Secondly, yes, the Deputy First Minister outlined savings that are having to be made in the Scottish Government’s budget this year. I remind members that the purpose of those savings is, first, that we can ensure that public sector workers get the fairest possible pay rises and, secondly, that we continue to target resources to those who need them most in this cost of living crisis. That is the backdrop: a budget this year that, because of inflation, is worth £1.7 billion less than it was worth when we published it. The other thing that we need the new Prime Minister to do is increase funding for devolved Administrations so that we can support public services and public sector workers.

Lastly, no, I do not regret the actions that the Government took to save Ferguson’s shipyard and ensure that those who were working there still have a job. That is important. We will continue to take action to ensure that the two ferries are completed. That work continues.

Douglas Ross

There we have it—it is official. Nicola Sturgeon does not regret wasting £250 million of taxpayers’ money, when that money is needed right now to help our services. If her Government had not wasted a quarter of a billion pounds on trying and failing to build ferries, that money could have been used elsewhere in the Scottish National Party’s budget.

Those failures leave islanders without lifeline services and take money away from the front-line spending that we need here, in Scotland. We know that nearly £50 million of emergency Covid support went towards fixing those ferries, instead of going to the businesses that needed it. An internal analysis by the ferry operator Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited has indicated that the number and severity of the issues and faults with the ships means that it will be, to quote it, “difficult” for the vessels to achieve acceptance by CMAL and enter into service.

What plans does the First Minister have in place if, as the experts fear may be the case, those vessels never become fit to sail and more money needs to be diverted away from the cost of living crisis to make up for those failures?

The First Minister

What Douglas Ross has just said about Covid money being directed to Ferguson’s is simply not true, and he should take the opportunity to reflect on that and withdraw what he said. That misunderstanding came from the name of a budget line. It did not reflect how money had been allocated. If I am wrong on that—[Interruption.] Media sources have already corrected that, so perhaps Douglas Ross will want to reflect further.

On the issues around ferries, I have made clear on many occasions my regret at the cost overrun. That is why it is important that we continue to focus on completing the ferries. However, even if we took Douglas Ross at his word about £250 million—which, of course, would not be in one year—it would still leave the rest of the £1.7 billion by which our budget has been eroded because of inflation soaring out of control under the UK Government. It would still leave us with the unbudgeted £700 million that we have had to allocate for higher pay deals because of the soaring inflation that is being presided over by the UK Government.

We will continue to make the hard decisions to get support to where it is needed most. One of the pressures on all construction projects right now is inflation, which the UK Government is failing to get under control. We will continue to focus on ensuring that the ferries are now completed on the revised budget and timeline.

I mean—[Applause.] Well done. There was muted applause because the First Minister did her usual thing: blame Westminster for everything but not actually address the question that I put. [Interruption.]

I will not have members shouting at one another from a sedentary position. Please just resist the temptation.

Douglas Ross

I hope that the Deputy First Minister resists that temptation, although he seems to do it quite a lot because he does not want to hear what members say.

The First Minister’s answer was all about what the UK Government has done wrong and nothing about what CMAL is saying about the fact that the ships might never enter service. All that money—hundreds of millions of pounds—could be wasted.

Today, the First Minister’s former right-hand man, the disgraced Derek Mackay, appeared before a Scottish Parliament committee to discuss the ferries scandal. That scandal has hit Scottish public finances and we still do not know why the Government made the disastrous call that it did. At the Public Audit Committee, the ex-finance minister outlined what he believes went wrong with the contracts before—as we understand—he was smuggled out of the building by Parliament officials. Does the First Minister agree with all the evidence that Derek Mackay gave today?

The First Minister

I have not had the opportunity to look at all the evidence that Derek Mackay gave to the committee. I will take the opportunity to do that as soon as I am able to and then, I am sure, Douglas Ross will come back and ask me more about it.

Douglas Ross keeps quoting CMAL and saying that its view is that the ferries will never be in service, so let me quote what the chief executive of CMAL, Kevin Hobbs, said in June:

“There is not much now which is standing in the way of both of them being delivered. There are a lot of detractors out there saying rather spurious things about them, but we’ve always had a view that both would be finished.”

I would not suggest that the

“detractors out there saying rather spurious things”

was a reference to Douglas Ross. Others, of course, might reach that conclusion.

Douglas Ross

The First Minister does not like it, but CMAL has said that the number and severity of faults might lead to the ships never sailing. If the First Minister does not want to hear it, that is fine, but it comes from CMAL. It seems that she does not like to hear a lot of things. It is amazing how often Nicola Sturgeon has never seen or heard anything that is potentially a difficult question.

We know that Derek Mackay gave significant evidence today but, during the First Minister’s recent run at the Edinburgh fringe, she said that the disastrous ferry contracts were not a scandal. We saw her say that this summer. Her words at the Edinburgh fringe were—[Interruption.] I will wait for the SNP members to be quiet, because it is important that everyone hears this. The First Minister’s words were:

“There hasn’t been a scandal with these ferries. It’s a situation.”

A situation! Two hundred and fifty million pounds has gone up in smoke, with nothing to show for it. If that is not a scandal, I do not know what is.

Today, even disgraced Derek Mackay accepted that the purchase of the ferries was catastrophic. Perhaps that is the bit that Nicola Sturgeon did not see today. Her former loyal lieutenant admitted how awful the mistake was, even though it further ruins his already trashed reputation. Why can Nicola Sturgeon not admit that it is a downright scandal that is taking hundreds of millions of pounds away from tackling the cost of living crisis that we face in Scotland right now?

The First Minister

First, I am happy to answer any questions on the issue. I have answered many questions on it and I have made my views very clear. Douglas Ross does not like it when he quotes CMAL and I quote the chief executive saying the exact opposite, so perhaps he should be less selective in that.

On the wider issues, Douglas Ross has stood up here—I think that this is quite staggering—and said that there is nothing to show for the investment in Ferguson’s shipyard. I do not know about a Conservative, but I think that almost 400 jobs does not equate to “nothing to show”. We value people’s jobs and we take action wherever we can to protect people’s jobs. That is perhaps the difference between this Government and the Conservatives.

We will continue to focus on the job at hand—that is what people expect of us—and I will happily answer any questions for as long as Douglas Ross wants to ask questions on the issue. However, I suspect that Douglas Ross’s choice of topic is more a reflection on his own difficulties than anything else. After all, it is not me who started this new parliamentary term with one MSP standing down from his front bench and another MSP quitting Parliament altogether, so perhaps he has not got his own troubles to seek.

Cost of Living Crisis

2. Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

The cost of living crisis is a national emergency. Therefore, I welcome that we have finally seen action from the United Kingdom Government, but I do not believe that it goes far enough. Let us be clear: this is not a freeze. Energy prices will still be going up for households across the country, there is not enough support for businesses and charities, and there is no meaningful windfall tax, which means that households and businesses—not companies that are making record profits—will pay in the long term.

Moving to the action that the Scottish Government can take, I welcome the commitment to a rent freeze and a winter eviction ban. That is long overdue, but the Government needs to go further, so I ask the First Minister the following questions. When will the legislation be brought to Parliament? Given that the majority of social rents will rise on 1 April, will she extend the freeze to cover that period? Will she commit to a review towards the end of the freeze period, with an option to extend if necessary? Finally, to avoid a sharp hike when the freeze is lifted, will she commit to putting in place a rent regulator in order to cap any future rises?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

First, the emergency legislation will be introduced very soon. We have not yet determined the date for that, but we need to introduce it soon, because Parliament needs to act at pace to pass it. We want that legislation to be passed within three months so that the freeze that I announced is effective from that date. That work will happen at pace, and I encourage all members to engage constructively with the detail of it. As all members will be aware, it is important that we get legislation right to ensure that, if there are any legal challenges to it, it has the best possible chance of withstanding those.

Secondly, I will commit to an on-going review of the emergency legislation. We have said very clearly that we intend the two proposals that I announced on Tuesday—the rent freeze and the moratorium on evictions—to be in place until at least the end of March. We will review that regularly, and we will, of course, keep open the option of extending the period further, depending on the wider situation.

Lastly, as I said on Tuesday, the emergency measures are, by definition, temporary. How temporary they prove to be will depend on the reviews that I have just spoken about, but they are intended to pave the way for longer-term reforms that bring greater affordability to the rented sector, particularly the private rented sector, and that give greater protections to tenants. The wider issues that Anas Sarwar has raised today will be fully taken into account in that longer-term work.

Anas Sarwar

I welcome that response from the First Minister. We will engage proactively with the legislation, and the sooner we can do that, taking into account the legal complexities, the better. We will continue to push for the freeze to cover 1 April, because that will give people certainty. We welcome the agreement to a review, with an option to extend, and I again push the First Minister on creating a rent regulator so that we can make sure that there are not excessive increases when the freeze is finally lifted.

However, rents are not the only costs that are rising. We have been calling for a rent freeze since June, but we have also been calling for a reduction in rail fares since April. In the summer, the Scottish National Party published a document outlining what actions European countries were taking in the face of the cost of living crisis. That document included examples from Germany, Spain and Ireland, which have all cut rail fares. ScotRail is now in public ownership. The decision on rail fares is for this Government, so will the First Minister commit to Labour’s plan to halve rail fares, which could save commuters up to £130 a month?

The First Minister

Again, I will address two aspects of that issue. In what I am about to say, I intend to be constructive, and I invite Labour to engage constructively on these points.

As I announced on Tuesday, we have confirmed a freeze on ScotRail fares until the end of March, and, yesterday, the Deputy First Minister said that, in the context of our emergency budget review, we will consider extending that further. We will also consider a range of other areas where we can go further to help people with the cost of living crisis. However, it is important—not just important, but inevitable and essential—that that is done in the context of that budget review. I set out starkly—as did the Deputy First Minister yesterday—the realities of our position, saying that our budget is worth £1.7 billion less than it was when we published it. We also face increasing pressures from issues such as public sector pay and the costs of housing Ukrainians, which none of us grudge at all. We cannot raise taxes within a financial year, we cannot borrow for day-to-day spending, and all of our reserves are already allocated. If we want to spend more on anything, we have to find other places in our budget to take the money from. That process started yesterday.

I say in all sincerity to Anas Sarwar that we will consider in good faith any suggestion that is made, but any suggestion that involves more spending in this financial year has to come with a saving from elsewhere. I encourage and ask Anas Sarwar to engage with that part as well.

Anas Sarwar

We need to go further than a freeze. Let me be clear: getting more passengers on our railways potentially makes money for our railways, and changing people’s pattern of behaviour by getting them out of private vehicles and on to our railways helps us to confront not only the cost of living crisis but the climate crisis. I push the First Minister to be bolder and more ambitious, because this is not a time for timidity or delay. Our “Emergency Cost of Living Act” included a rent freeze and a winter eviction ban—we welcome the Scottish Government’s action in that regard—but it also included halving rail fares, capping bus fares, a £100 water bill rebate, writing off school meal debts, topping up the Scottish welfare fund and establishing a business hardship fund to keep small businesses going.

I know that the First Minister will say that the Scottish Government has to find the money. That is why I welcome an emergency budget review, but it has to be an open, genuine and transparent one. Therefore, in recognition of the national emergency, the Scottish Government should open up the books to all parties so that we can have a team Scotland approach to actually using the powers of this Parliament to confront the cost of living crisis and help people here, in Scotland.

The First Minister

We will engage on that basis, and I am sure that the Deputy First Minister will be happy to have open discussions with any party about how we meet that challenge, as long as the starting point for any discussion is an acceptance of the reality that, if we want to spend more on anything this year—as, I think, all of us do—that money must be found elsewhere in our budget.

With regard to Anas Sarwar’s suggestions, we will consider everything in good faith. However, taking bus fares as an example, I point out that about half of the Scottish population—nobody under 22 or over 60—already do not pay for bus travel. That is a sign of how we are using the powers of this Parliament. On increasing money, I know that Labour called for an increase in the tenant hardship fund, but we have doubled the fuel insecurity fund and have committed to increasing the budget for discretionary housing payments. Further, we are extending free school meals beyond the limits set by any other Government in the United Kingdom, and, once the extensions that were announced earlier this week take effect, the Scottish child payment will deliver £1,300 in support for every eligible child under the age of 16. Again, that does not exist anywhere else in the UK. We are using our powers and we will continue to do so.

I will share some reflections by someone who is well known to Anas Sarwar:

“this week’s programme for government, announced by the First Minister, was a creative and coherent response to the poverty pandemic we are all facing ... Credit where it’s due. The SNP have been upfront in explaining what’s happening to the public finances and the principles underpinning their decisions.”

Those are comments by Kezia Dugdale, one of Anas Sarwar’s predecessors as Scottish Labour leader.

We move to constituency and general supplementary questions.

Suicide Prevention

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

As the First Minister is aware, this is international, as well as national, suicide prevention week. Without scaremongering, I would say that both domestic and business inflationary pressures may very well push some folk to the brink. What measures can the Scottish Government take to help desperate people, liaising, for example, with organisations such as the Samaritans, which I commend for all that it does?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I thank Christine Grahame for raising an extremely important issue.

The cost of living crisis, which has come so quickly on the back of the Covid crisis, is, of course, having an impact on the mental health of many people across the country. The Scottish Government will continue to do all that we can, working with third sector organisations such as the Samaritans, which does a fantastic job in the area, and we will continue to invest in mental health services. That will continue to be a priority for the foreseeable future and, I am sure, much beyond that.

Rowan Glen Yoghurt Factory

Finlay Carson (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con)

The First Minister will be aware of the worrying news of the possible closure of Rowan Glen yoghurt factory in my constituency, with the potential loss of 50 jobs. That would be a hugely significant loss of jobs in a rural area, and it could result in the loss of a well-known and respected brand that is located in the heart of Scotland’s milk field. I appreciate that businesses across Scotland face extraordinary pressure, particularly with energy costs, but given the importance of the dairy industry, and the food and drink sector more widely, to Galloway, will the First Minister assure the workforce and other stakeholders that her Government and its agencies are prepared to look at extraordinary solutions, think outside the box and be proactive in exploring every opportunity to give the loyal and skilled workforce the platform to continue producing these much-loved and valued products?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Yes, I will give that assurance. That is the approach that we always take when businesses are in difficulty.

I was certainly very concerned to hear that the Dale Farm group is holding a consultation on the proposed closure of the Rowan Glen dairy factory in Newton Stewart, and I know that this will be a very difficult time for the company’s staff and their families. The people affected by that development are, of course, everybody’s immediate priority, and the Government will do everything in our power to help those affected, including through our PACE—partnership action for continuing employment—initiative.

South of Scotland Enterprise held discussions with the company this week, and it is working closely with it to investigate all areas of potential assistance so that it can provide help to try to mitigate the need for any job losses.

I encourage the Dale Farm group to explore all available options to secure the site’s future and for redeploying any affected staff, to help to minimise the impact on the workforce. I know that the Minister for Business, Trade, Tourism and Enterprise has already spoken to local MSPs and will take steps to ensure that they are kept updated.

E coli

Sarah Boyack (Lothian) (Lab)

I am concerned about the E coli outbreaks that are being experienced in nurseries in Musselburgh, and my colleague Martin Whitfield has raised concerns about the outbreaks in Haddington. In the guidance notes that families received, they were told that, under the Public Health etc (Scotland) Act 2008, they were required to isolate, but the formal exclusion letter that they received 13 days later gave contradictory advice. Therefore, families have had no help, despite their loss of earnings. What action is the Scottish Government taking in response to those outbreaks of E coli? Will it look to put in place a loss of earnings scheme to support families that have borne the brunt of the debacle?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I thank Sarah Boyack for raising that issue. Obviously, I am very well aware of the E coli outbreaks, and I share her concern about them. Public Health Scotland will not only monitor the situation but take or advise on all appropriate steps.

On the particular issue of contradictory information that Sarah Boyack raised, if she can make that available to my office or to the office of the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care, I would be very happy to give an undertaking to look into it as quickly as possible and to come back to her with more detail once I have had the opportunity to do so.

Nuclear Power and Fracking

Bill Kidd (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)

At Prime Minister’s question time yesterday, we heard Liz Truss advocating her belief that nuclear power and now fracking have a role in abating the energy crisis. I know that the commitment of the Tories to the transformational changes needed to achieve net zero is wafer thin, just as I know that the Scottish Government’s position on those matters is clear. What is the First Minister’s response to the Prime Minister’s comments?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

First, let me take the opportunity to reaffirm the Scottish Government’s position on fracking. That is a devolved matter, and our position is unchanged. We do not intend to grant licences for fracking, and we do not think that it is the solution to the crisis that is currently faced. Let me quote someone else:

“No amount of shale gas ... would be enough to lower the European price”.

That was, of course, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer speaking earlier this year.

Similarly, our position on nuclear is unchanged: we do not support new nuclear, certainly not with existing technology. The reality is that Scotland has vast potential in renewables. Offshore and onshore wind power can already be generated more cheaply than gas-fired power or nuclear power—that is where we need to focus our efforts and that is exactly what the Scottish Government is going to do.

NHS Dumfries and Galloway (Staffing)

Oliver Mundell (Dumfriesshire) (Con)

I would kindly ask the First Minister not to seek to politicise my family life, just as I would never seek to do so when it comes to hers.

I have received reports from national health service whistleblowers in Dumfries and Galloway that paramedics attending a call-out in the past week were told, having urgently requested a doctor as required under the Mental Health Act 1983, that there was no on-call doctor available in the region. That comes on top of concerns being raised about unsafe staffing levels at Dumfries and Galloway royal infirmary and allegations of bullying.

First Minister, this is completely unacceptable. My constituents are worried. NHS staff are sounding alarm bells. What steps can the Government take to make sure that our NHS is functioning safely and meeting basic health needs?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

On Oliver Mundell’s first point, although I am not sure that there is any aspect of my life that the Tories would not seek to politicise if they thought that they could, I genuinely wish him well—I do that in all sincerity.

On the serious question that he has raised, the health service is operating under extreme pressure, and the health secretary and the Government are acting to support it as it recovers from Covid—that applies to all aspects of healthcare, from ambulance waiting times through to accident and emergency and out-patient and in-patient waiting times—while also seeking to support our staff.

On the serious issue that has been raised, if more detail can be provided to my office and to the health secretary, we will look into the specifics of that and reply to Oliver Mundell as soon as possible.

Nursing (Pay)

Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

The First Minister will be aware of the Sunday Mail investigation showing that the use of private agency nurses in the national health service is spiralling out of control, but can the First Minister understand the frustration of hard-working and exhausted nurses when those same agencies put out recruitment adverts saying that they will pay nurses the rate that they deserve, meaning a much higher rate than NHS pay?

Will the Scottish Government commit today to fair pay for all NHS workers, who we all clapped for during Covid and who are holding our NHS together under significant pressure?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

First, spend on agency staff in the NHS is a tiny, tiny fraction of the overall NHS budget. Secondly, the majority of temporary staffing comes from the NHS staff bank and those are NHS staff on NHS contracts at NHS rates of pay.

I agree with the member on NHS pay and I think that that is evidenced in the fact that agenda for change NHS staff in Scotland are already better paid than they are in other parts of the United Kingdom, because we take so seriously our obligation to reward them properly.

We are in extremely difficult financial times—that has been set out clearly to members in the chamber this week. NHS negotiations around pay are on-going but, just as was the case with other public sector workers, we want to ensure that our NHS staff get the fairest possible deal, and I know that the health secretary is taking that extremely seriously in those negotiations.

Tenants (Support)

To ask the First Minister what further steps the Scottish Government will take to support tenants facing the cost of living crisis. (S6F-01341)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The impacts of the cost of living crisis are being felt by all households and there is a disproportionate impact on people on the lowest incomes, which can, of course, include tenants. Therefore, as announced this week, we will introduce emergency legislation to deliver a moratorium on evictions and a rent freeze until at least 31 March next year.

We are also extending the tenant grant fund and investing an additional £5 million in discretionary housing payments, increasing our total financial support to over £88 million for housing support that mitigates United Kingdom Government policies such as the bedroom tax, the benefit cap and the local housing allowance.

This Parliament does not yet have the levers that we desperately need to respond fully to the cost of living crisis. Therefore, we will also continue to urge the UK Government to comprehensively and urgently take the actions needed to combat it.

Gillian Mackay

I thank the First Minister for her welcome response.

Does she agree that the ambition that she outlined in the programme for government to introduce a rent freeze and a halt to evictions puts the Scottish Government far ahead of anywhere else in the UK in protecting tenants? Does she also agree that the commitment should rightly be seen as a central part of our far-reaching programme of reform, as outlined in the new deal for tenants, which is being led by my Green Party colleague Patrick Harvie as Minister for Zero Carbon Buildings, Active Travel and Tenants’ Rights, and that our shared commitment shows the value of political co-operation in developing detailed, workable and robust protections for tenants?

The First Minister

Yes, I agree with that. It is a statement of fact that the announcement on rent freezes puts us ahead of any other part of the UK on that, as on so many other issues. The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, commented on Tuesday that he wished that he had the powers to do something similar.

Our commitment to introduce a rent freeze is important and it will help to ease the cost pressures that people are facing; therefore, it is very important in that context. I agree that the policy is an example of what can be achieved when parties come together constructively to work together in the interests of the people of Scotland, which is what the Scottish National Party and the Green Party are doing. The policy is one good example among many of joint and constructive working.

Elena Whitham (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (SNP)

Paul Johnson, the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, has told the BBC that the support package from the UK Government will mean that the

“majority of the money will go to better off people who use more energy”,

and that the package is “very poorly targeted”.

What are the First Minister’s views on that assessment? Does she agree that nothing that has been currently proposed by the Tories goes far enough to ameliorate the deepening crisis for people and businesses?

Ms Whitham’s question was not related wholly to the substantive question. I would be grateful if the First Minister could address it briefly.

The First Minister

I share the concern that we have a new Prime Minister who does not think that redistribution is important, and that she does not think that there is anything unfair about giving more help to those who are better off than those who are worst off. However, my main concern about what has been announced about the UK Government’s energy support package—this is relevant to rents, because it is relevant to the overall cost crisis—is that it does not freeze energy bills. We need a proper freeze in energy bills, and I think that it is important to continue to press the UK Government to do that.

Mercedes Villalba (North East Scotland) (Lab)

When Living Rent and I first raised the need for an emergency rent freeze with the First Minister, in April, the average rent in Scotland was £780. It now stands at £840, which is at least a 10 per cent increase in just five months. The Labour Party proposed a rent freeze in June, but SNP and Green MSPs teamed up with the Tories to block that. Their political choice to unnecessarily delay support for a rent freeze led to further financial hardship for tenants. In fairness to tenants, will the First Minister explore backdating the rent freeze to June?

The First Minister

As has been well canvassed and rehearsed in the chamber, there were real reasons why the amendment to the Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill proposing a rent freeze could not be supported. As I said to Anas Sarwar, and as I hope everyone who wants the policy to be successfully implemented will accept, we need to make sure that the policy can withstand any legal challenge. That test is unlikely to be met if legislation were to be applied retrospectively, which is an important point to take into account.

Finally, I pay tribute to Mercedes Villalba for the work that she has done on the issue. It has been important and it is to her great credit. I thank her for the work, because we have taken many of the points that she has made into account when reaching the decision to freeze rents and implement other measures to protect tenants, as we announced to the Parliament.

A9 and A96 (Dualling)

4. Fergus Ewing (Inverness and Nairn) (SNP)

To ask the First Minister, in light of the loss of life as a result of road traffic incidents on the A9 over the summer, on sections of the road that have not been dualled, what plans the Scottish Government has to publish a timetable setting out when the dualling of the A9, and A96, will be delivered. (S6F-01315)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

First, I express my sympathies to everyone who has been affected by the loss of a loved one, and to anyone who has been injured on our roads over the summer. Road safety is of paramount importance to the Government and, indeed, to everyone. Our road safety framework is backed by £21 million in funding.

Work is continuing on the A9. The section between Tomatin and Moy is currently under procurement, and it is expected that the construction contract will be awarded later this year. Design work is progressing on the rest of the programme, with the statutory process well under way for seven of the remaining eight schemes.

The evidence-based review on fully dualling the A96 between Inverness and Aberdeen will report by the end of this year, and we will take forward enhancements on that corridor to improve connectivity between surrounding towns, tackle congestion and address safety and environmental issues.

Fergus Ewing

I join the First Minister in sending our thoughts to the families of those who have, sadly, lost their lives. I emphasise that my constituents sincerely believe that more lives are lost on single-carriageway sections because, unlike dual carriageways, they have no central reservation to separate the opposing flows of traffic, and hence the risk of head-on collisions is not reduced. Will the First Minister provide reassurance and confidence to my constituents and to the civil engineering sector by publishing revised and detailed timetables for delivering our long-standing pledges on dualling the A9 and the A96, starting from Inverness to Auldearn—including the Nairn bypass—which will help to save lives in the future?

The First Minister

I will not repeat all of my first answer about the processes that are under way to deliver exactly such clarity. I certainly share Fergus Ewing’s concerns about safety, which is of paramount importance to the Government.

As Fergus Ewing knows, procurement is a complex process that involves many rules that must be adhered to. I assure him that the work to determine the most suitable procurement option on the A9 is on-going and that an update will be provided when the work is completed.

On the A96 from Inverness to Nairn and the Nairn bypass, we need to complete the statutory approval process before setting a firm programme for delivery. However, we are continuing to progress the preparation stages, with a view to completing the process as quickly as possible.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

The consultation that has been referred to did not offer the option of dualling the A96 between Huntly and Aberdeen. Can people in the north-east take it that that means that dualling of that stretch has been quietly dropped?

There is no change to what we set out in the Bute house agreement. In my answers to Fergus Ewing, I have already given detail on the processes that are under way.

National Health Service (Overtime)

To ask the First Minister what assessment the Scottish Government has made of overtime in Scotland’s NHS. (S6F-01338)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Our national health service is the largest employer in the country, with nearly 180,000 staff—many more than was the case when the Government took office. Paid overtime accounts for a tiny fraction of the total hours that are worked in our health service.

Like most organisations, health boards make limited use of paid overtime to help to manage unplanned absences. Alongside the NHS staff bank, paid overtime can be used to ensure that care for patients is delivered. We continue to build on 10 consecutive years of increasing NHS staffing, which is why we are investing £11 million over this parliamentary session in domestic and international recruitment.

Craig Hoy

Last weekend, we discovered that hard-working NHS staff have put in 11 million hours of overtime in the past five years, as a result of SNP workforce failures. They are burned out and they are worn out, and the present situation is not sustainable. How can it be right that hard-pressed doctors and nurses are being forced to work millions of extra hours to make up for the First Minister’s failings on our NHS?

The First Minister

It is worth noting what we are speaking about—the reported sum of money is less than 0.7 per cent of total NHS workforce spending. Of course, it is the case that staff work overtime, and it is also the case that health boards use agency and, to a greater extent, NHS bank staffing.

On the Government’s record, there are 28,000 more staff working in our NHS now than when we took office. We have a significantly higher staffing level per head of population than that in England, where the Conservatives are in power. Of course, we have the best-paid NHS staff anywhere in the UK. We will continue to build on that progress and to support the staff, who do such a fantastic job in our NHS.

Sexual and Violent Crime

6. Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government plans to take in light of reported figures showing that sexual and violent crime in Scotland has risen significantly over the last five years. (S6F-01325)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Crime, including violent crime, has fallen under this Government. However, recently, there has been a rise in recorded sexual and violent crimes. That might in part be because women are now feeling more confident to report such crimes to the police.

We are taking forward a range of activity to reduce violence as well as challenging behaviours and attitudes that we know can lead to violence against women and girls. Through the victim-centred approach fund, we have invested £18.5 million in specialist advocacy support for survivors of gender-based violence, and the delivering equally safe fund is providing £90 million per year to support projects that are focused on early intervention, prevention and support.

Additionally, building on the recommendations of Lady Dorrian, the criminal justice reform bill will further improve the experiences of victims in the justice system.

Pauline McNeill

I welcome the fact that the Scottish Government has made justice such an important part of the programme for government. I know that the First Minister agrees that underlying those horrendous figures is the huge societal and global problem of male violence against women, which we need to tackle with urgency in Scotland. However, the length of time that a case can take to come to court does not help victims to come forward. We should also bear in mind, as the First Minister said, that such crimes disproportionately affect women and children.

However, the Government recently extended time limits for court cases in the justice system. For example, in the preparation of a Crown case for the High Court, the limit used to be 80 days, but it is now 260 days. Therefore, some victims of sexual assault and rape have been dropping cases because they cannot bear to wait the years that it sometimes takes to go to trial.

What can the First Minister do to ensure that, month on month, those delays are coming down as we go towards 2025? What reassurance can the First Minister provide to victims of sexual crime that they will not have to wait years for justice?

The First Minister

I know that Pauline McNeill accepts that I agree entirely with the sentiment of her question. The trauma that anyone who is a victim of sexual crime or domestic abuse goes through is only compounded if there are delays in bringing the perpetrator to justice. Therefore, there is a real seriousness of intent on the part of the Government.

Ms McNeill’s question was about what we can do. We need to ensure that the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service is supported and resourced to tackle those backlogs and bring down those waiting times, and we are determined to do that.

The matter is also extremely important to the Lord Advocate, and I am sure that she would be willing to speak to Pauline McNeill and provide further information to MSPs about the work that has been done in the Crown Office to tackle the issues. Therefore, if it is of interest, I will convey that to the Lord Advocate, although it is entirely up to her what information she chooses to share. I assure Pauline McNeill, the Parliament and the wider public on how seriously we take the issue and that we will continue to work to deliver improvements.

The Presiding Officer

That concludes First Minister’s questions.

I am aware that a statement has been made at Westminster on the health of Her Majesty the Queen. I will, of course, monitor developments and keep members updated over the course of the day. My thoughts and, I am sure, those of all in the Parliament are with Her Majesty at this time.