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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Thursday, June 9, 2022

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, NHS Staff Recruitment and Retention, Business Motion, Portfolio Question Time, Census, Covid-19 Inquiry, Scottish Local Government Elections (Candidacy Rights of Foreign Nationals) Bill: Stage 3, Decision Time, Ukrainian Refugees (Trafficking)


Contents


First Minister’s Question Time


National Health Service Waiting Times

This time last year, there were 648 patients in Scotland’s national health service who had waited more than two years for treatment. How many people are now enduring that long wait?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

There are more people now waiting for NHS treatment. That will be the case for those who have been waiting for the longest periods of time, including more than a year and more than two years. That is why our NHS recovery plan is so important; it is to improve waiting times generally and to ensure that health boards are targeting those who are waiting the longest.

As we know—indeed, as the health secretary has just been narrating to the chamber—before the pandemic we were seeing progress on reducing waiting times. Given the pressures that there were at that time on the national health service, the pandemic obviously had a significant impact. However, in terms of the statistics that have been published most recently, we are starting to see tentative signs of improvement as a result of the actions that we are taking. In the most recent quarter, for example, we saw an increasing number of first out-patient appointments and a slight reduction in the number of those waiting for more than 12 weeks. Similarly, with the treatment time guarantee, an increasing number of patients were being seen.

The situation is challenging for the national health service. It cannot be otherwise, given the impact of a two-year pandemic that is still making its presence felt. However, the Government is supporting health boards to ensure that recovery happens and that, as part of that, those who have been waiting the longest for treatment are seen as quickly as possible.

Douglas Ross

The question was straightforward: there were 648 patients last year who had been waiting longer than two years for treatment. What is the number now? The answer that the First Minister could not or would not give is that 10,613 people in Scotland have waited more than two years for treatment in our NHS. The First Minister talked about tentative improvements, but that is a 16-fold increase in a year. That is not the NHS recovery that her Government promised; things are getting worse—far worse—not better. Now we are hearing of heart patients who are being given appointments two years down the line. Reports today state that people are receiving appointment dates in July 2024. First Minister, is that acceptable?

The First Minister

In terms of the particular case cited in the media today, I do not think that that is acceptable. I know that a review of that particular appointment—which is a follow-up out-patient appointment, not a first out-patient appointment—is being undertaken and that contact will be made with the patient.

It is the case that waiting times generally, and the numbers of those waiting an unacceptably long time for treatment, have increased over the past year. I am afraid that that is the impact of a global pandemic. We have, over the past year, seen further waves of Covid that have had a big impact on the number of treatments that can be done in our national health service, as infection control measures have had to be tightened up and, of course, a number of staff have had Covid and been off sick. That is an impact that countries across the United Kingdom, Europe and the world are finding at the moment. That is why we are investing so heavily. Record numbers of staff are working in our national health service. The number has gone up considerably in the last year, and it is up by almost 30,000 since the Government took office. That is also why we are investing specifically in the recovery plan. Although the signs are tentative, it is encouraging that we are starting to see some of the improvements that I narrated in my earlier answer.

Although I am responsible for NHS Scotland, as is the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care, it is the case that in very challenging circumstances, whether we consider waiting times for accident and emergency services or more generally, we see, through the efforts of staff in NHS Scotland, the work that is being done. For example the most recent statistics are that in Scotland, 101 patients are waiting per 1,000 of the population; in England, that is 112 per 1,000; and in Wales 221 per 1,000. That does not excuse the performance in Scotland—we have a responsibility to tackle the issue and that is exactly what we are doing.

Douglas Ross

The First Minister says that things are encouraging. How encouraging must it be for that heart patient to get a letter telling her to wait another two years to be seen?

As expected, the First Minister speaks about the pandemic. I have a constituent in Lossie who has waited four and a half years from first being seen by his doctor to getting the operation that he needs. Four and a half years is far longer than the pandemic—in fact, it is pretty much an entire parliamentary session. The longer and longer waiting times are a problem across every area of Scotland’s NHS.

Twice as many Scots are waiting more than three months for key diagnostic tests when compared to last year. This morning, the president of the Royal College of Radiologists, Jeanette Dickson, said that for every four-week delay to a diagnosis of cancer, the risk of dying increases by 10 per cent. Those are her words. People are deteriorating; cancers are growing—sometimes, they become incurable. More often, patients have to have more devastating treatment, with bigger side effects that have a bigger impact on their quality of life, for the same outcome.

If our NHS is currently in that position, how bad will it be by winter, when so many more people need treatment? Will the First Minister act now, instead of waiting for the crisis to strike, as she did last year?

The First Minister

That is not what we did last year. What happened last year was that we had further waves of the Covid pandemic, similar to countries across the world. Of course I will mention the pandemic—there is not a health service on the face of the planet that has not had to deal with the impacts of the pandemic. Anybody who looks at the situation reasonably understands that.

Before the pandemic, we were seeing progress. For example, before the pandemic, the number of out-patients who were waiting for a first appointment had reduced by more than 28 per cent; over the same period, the number of out-patients who were waiting more than 12 weeks had fallen by more than 30 per cent. We were seeing an increase in the number of in-patients and day case treatments that were carried out. The pandemic clearly had an impact. At the start of the pandemic, we paused all but the most urgent treatments on the NHS, so the health service here, as in other countries, has to recover and catch up. That is what it is doing. We are starting to see some tentative signs of progress and we will continue to support the NHS.

The report by the Royal College of Radiologists is an important piece of work. Let me first set some context, because it is important. Since the Government took office, there has been a 95 per cent increase in the consultant oncologist workforce and a 63 per cent increase in the consultant radiologist workforce. As the report acknowledges, recruitment in those professions is challenging, nationally and globally, and it has to be said that Brexit makes it more challenging, but we are working with health boards on new approaches to maximise the capacity.

The report by the Royal College of Radiologists also says that the increasing use of imaging networks in Scotland is

“going from strength to strength”.

The challenges are inescapable, given what we have lived through in these past two years, but the Government continues to get on with supporting the NHS to recover and deliver for patients.

Douglas Ross

The First Minister does not like Opposition politicians to state that the Covid pandemic cannot be blamed for everything. Therefore, will she listen to the president of the Royal College of Radiologists, Jeanette Dickson, who said that the pandemic had not caused the shortages but had laid bare the shortages that were there before and that it had exacerbated them because of diagnostic backlogs? That is from clinicians who are speaking to the Government right now and saying, “Don’t use these excuses—these are clearly problems that have built up for years and years”.

Last winter, the NHS battled from crisis to crisis. Our ambulance service and A and E departments struggled so much with patient demand that our United Kingdom armed forces had to step in. This year, we are not even close to winter, yet the situation is far worse. Scottish patients are being sent to England for treatment that they cannot get here. The First Minister looks puzzled. Well, we have spoken to Alan Turner, a 70-year-old from Kelso. He was referred for a knee replacement in October. He was told that he would have to wait up to three years to get his knee replacement on the NHS in Scotland or he could go to England for private treatment, paid for by Scotland’s NHS. Reluctantly, he agreed to travel south, and he was successfully operated on. Then, when he returned to Scotland, he tried to get essential aftercare and physiotherapy locally, but he was told, for months, that he could not receive them.

Alan is now back to square 1. He cannot even bend his knee. He will need to endure the painful wait for treatment all over again. Although it is welcome that we can rely on services across the UK in times of need, should people such as Alan have to go to England for treatment in the first place?

The First Minister

Obviously, I am happy to look into individual cases, but, in general terms, that is a mischaracterisation of the position. I again point out to Douglas Ross that, although I do not shy away from the challenges in NHS Scotland, which are my responsibility, waiting times are worse in England than they are in Scotland and accident and emergency waiting times are worse in England than they are in Scotland. Furthermore, our A and E departments, which Douglas Ross mentioned, are the best performing of any in the UK, although their performance does need to improve.

I will come to Douglas Ross’s specific point. When someone waits too long for treatment on the NHS, if it is possible for NHS Scotland to access treatment in the independent sector, at NHS Scotland’s expense, it will do that in the interest of the patient. There are agreements in place between Scotland and other parts of the UK for more specialist treatment, and those work in both directions. However, from the information that Douglas Ross has shared—I am happy to look at any more information that is available—the patient did not go to NHS England for treatment; instead, we paid for treatment in the independent sector so that they were treated more quickly than they would have been otherwise. That is what happens while we continue to invest in the improvement of waiting times in NHS Scotland.

We will continue to address those challenges, to invest and to support record numbers of staff in our national health service. We will get on with that job.


Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services

2. Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

When Nicola Sturgeon became First Minister, 6,200 children and young people were on a mental health treatment waiting list. Of those, 25 per cent were waiting for longer than the target of 18 weeks, and 221 of them had been waiting for more than a year. Now, more than 10,000 are on a waiting list, 44 per cent have been waiting for more than 18 weeks and more than 1,300 have been waiting for more than a year.

Those failures have consequences. Here is just one. A mother contacted me about her son. He was diagnosed with autism 10 months ago but was told that he would have to wait to see a psychiatrist before medication could be prescribed. He is still waiting. In that time, his condition has worsened and he is begging for the medication to, in his words, “sort out my head”. He is eight years old. First Minister, why does an eight-year-old have to suffer with no support for almost a year?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

They should not have to, and I am not going to say that that is acceptable. However, again, in mental health treatment, as in the national health service more generally, we are investing to support health boards to deliver treatment and catch up with the impact of the pandemic.

We are seeing signs of improvement and I will, again, cite the most recent statistics, which were published just this week. In the most recent quarter, the highest-ever recorded number of children and young people started treatment in child and adolescent mental health services. That was 7.7 per cent up on the number in the previous quarter and it was a 20 per cent increase on the same quarter in the previous year. There was also an increase in the number of CAMHS patients starting treatment within 18 weeks of referral.

There is still a considerable amount of work to do, but the investment and reforms that we are making within mental health services are starting to deliver that improvement.

We have also increased investment. Since 2019-20, we have increased specific expenditure on CAMHS by almost £80 million, which is a 14 per cent increase. Overall expenditure on mental health services has risen by almost 9 per cent.

These are tough challenges—nobody says otherwise. As much as we would all love to, we cannot magic away the impact of the pandemic. We are supporting the health service to recover from the pandemic so that more patients can be seen more quickly, and that work will continue with the focus that it needs and deserves.

Anas Sarwar

As much as the First Minister might want to blame the pandemic, she cannot blame it for this one. This happened before Covid. Let me give her the stats.

Between November 2014 and March 2020, waiting lists increased by more than 5,000, the number of people who were waiting for more than 18 weeks more than trebled, and the number who waited for more than a year increased from just over 200 to almost 1,000—before Covid-19.

However, those statistics do not show how broken the system is. I have been contacted by another mother whose son was seen after waiting 18 months. His treatment made a difference, but it ended in June last year. His condition started to deteriorate by August, and he was put back on the waiting list. Despite reporting suicidal thoughts, he is still waiting 11 months on. After waiting for months already, why does a 14-year-old who has been referred, who has been seen and who is now reporting suicidal thoughts have to start again from the beginning?

The First Minister

I am not going to comment on individual cases, although I am always happy to look at them if they are sent to me.

On the treatment that young people are entitled to expect when they come forward to CAMH services, one of the other things that has been done recently is the publication of the national CAMH service specification, which sets out clear levels of service, and is backed by £40 million of additional investment. We are investing in more staff and reforming the way in which mental health services for young people work. When young people need specialist services, those services should be available to them, which is why the improvements that I talked about in my earlier answer do not go far enough but are important. We are also building up more community-based services so that fewer young people need to be referred to specialist services. For example, we have supported the employment of counsellors in all secondary schools to support young people through early intervention.

We will continue to take steps to invest in and reform mental health services so that they become more preventative and operate on an earlier intervention basis.

Anas Sarwar is right. I have stood here on many occasions and talked about these issues, and we were seeing significant challenges, particularly in mental health, before the pandemic. That is why much of the investment that I have talked about has been made. Part of it is that, as the stigma of mental ill-health reduces, more and more young people are coming forward for help. We should encourage and be positive about that, but it makes it all the more important that the investment and reforms that I am talking about continue, and that is what will happen.

Anas Sarwar

The two cases that I cited are not just individual cases; they demonstrate a wider systemic problem. If mental health services are to be taken seriously, we need reform of the referral and triage system, we need a mental health professional in every general practice, and young people in every primary and secondary school need to have access to face-to-face services. Those are solutions, but all that the First Minister has done year after year—and again today—is offer warm words.

In 2015, Nicola Sturgeon said that waiting times were too long. In 2016, she said that there were far too many children whose needs were unmet. In 2017, she said that long waits were unacceptable. In 2018, she said that there was more work to do. In 2019, she said again that long waits were unacceptable. In 2020, she admitted that there had not been enough preventative and early intervention services before Covid. In 2021, she again said that long waits are always unacceptable, and we have heard the exact same script all over again today. Why does Nicola Sturgeon think that it is acceptable to use the same hollow words year after year for eight years while nothing changes, families are left to suffer, and kids are left to pick up the pieces on their own?

The First Minister

That is not the case. What we see with mental health treatment is more people coming forward for treatment. More people are being seen for treatment, but we are building services.

Anas Sarwar has put forward what he describes as solutions, but he has not mentioned anything today that is not already being done. For example, right now, we are recruiting 800 additional mental health workers for accident and emergency departments, general practitioner practices, police station custody suites and prisons. We are funding 1,000 additional staff in community mental health to build resilience there and to ensure that every GP practice has access to a mental health and wellbeing service. We are recruiting 320 additional staff in child and adolescent mental health services. The number of CAMHS staff is already at a record high.

All of that is being done. More people are coming forward, but more people are being treated. Anas Sarwar has glossed over the fact that I mentioned in my first answer, which is that, in the figures for the most recent quarter that were published this week, a record high number of children and young people were seen by CAMH services. Progress is being made because of the investments that we are making and the policies that we are introducing.

Is there much more work to be done? Absolutely—which is why we are going to get on and do it.

We move to constituency and general supplementaries. I call Kenneth Gibson.


Bus Services (Ayrshire)

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

Yesterday, Stagecoach announced plans to withdraw the X34 and X36 bus services from Ardrossan to Glasgow via Beith from 17 July. The loss of that vital link means that Beith, a town of 6,000 with no railway station, will be left entirely without a bus service to Glasgow. That out-of-the-blue decision will detrimentally affect the livelihoods of many constituents who are wholly dependent on the bus for travel to work, hospitals and higher education, or to access facilities and amenities that are available only in a city, while increasing the social isolation of people who visit other parts of Ayrshire. Stagecoach’s decision comes in a week when North Ayrshire Council’s new Scottish National Party—

Can I have a question, please, Mr Gibson?

Kenneth Gibson

Okay, then—I will go straight to the question. What steps will the First Minister take to ensure that Stagecoach, which received £88.2 million of taxpayers’ money last year, reverses its short-sighted and hugely damaging decision, which will also adversely impact on the Scottish Government’s policy of encouraging the use of public transport?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The issues that Kenny Gibson raises are important for people in Ayrshire, and he is right to raise them. I am disappointed to hear that Stagecoach is withdrawing the services that he mentioned, and I encourage it to look again at that. Of course, Stagecoach is a private company and it takes such decisions on a commercial basis, but the Scottish Government supports the network with almost £100 million through the network support grant, which includes the provision of support to Stagecoach for local bus services. The Government also provides funding to local authorities to subsidise socially necessary bus services.

Therefore, I encourage Stagecoach and Strathclyde Partnership for Transport to work together to ensure that connectivity is protected in the area in question, for all the very good reasons that Kenny Gibson outlined.


Freeports

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

Bids to be one of the two Scottish freeports are starting to fly in, and more are imminent. Those could herald a huge economic boost as we look to recover from the pandemic. However, thanks to the dither and delay of the Scottish Government, we are significantly behind the rest of the United Kingdom, especially the likes of Redcar and Thames. Does the First Minister agree that the freeports project shows what can be achieved when both of Scotland’s Governments work collaboratively? Does she welcome the UK Government’s injection of £52 million to ensure that such projects get going in Scotland?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I hate to be the one to break it to Liam Kerr, but had we gone with the UK Government’s timescale on the issue, we would have had significantly less money to invest in green ports in Scotland. It is only because of the negotiation of the Scottish Government, and Kate Forbes in particular, that we are getting funding on a par with the funding that freeports in England are getting, and that we are able to have environmental considerations and, crucially—I know that the Tories do not particularly like this—fair work considerations as part of the green port model in Scotland.

After a lot of work on the Scottish Government’s part, we have come to an agreement with the UK Government, and that process is now under way.


Abortion Clinics

Carol Mochan (South Scotland) (Lab)

The intimidating behaviour witnessed outside the Sandyford clinic in Glasgow appears to be escalating. On 12 May, the First Minister offered support to councils that would introduce bylaws to establish buffer zones at abortion clinics. On 13 May, after asking what Glasgow City Council could do in that regard to address the escalating issues, I was told to direct my inquiries to the relevant ministerial working group.

It appears that local and national Government are at an impasse. I am aware that long-term planning is under way, but we need solutions in the short term to protect these women. If the Scottish Government believes that this is the only publicly available legal option—and it is only an option—will it reiterate in writing its offer of support to councils and will it do so before the summit later this summer?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I will do that very openly today. I am happy to put that in writing as well, but this is a pretty public way of doing it.

There are legal complexities to this and it does not help anyone for me to pretend that there are not. Those are complexities that local authorities and national Government want to work through. It would be my preference to be able to legislate nationally, in order to have a consistency of approach. We know that a forthcoming Supreme Court case, sparked by legislation in Northern Ireland, will undoubtedly have an impact on the legal framework here, but I am very clear in what I want to do.

In the meantime, I want to work with local authorities to see what more can be done to protect women accessing sexual health services, including abortion services. I find what is happening outside hospitals and outside the Sandyford completely and utterly unacceptable. Let me make that clear.

The summit that I have committed to convening will happen this month. It will bring together a range of interests including local authorities and the police. They, of course, operate independently, but there is legislation around antisocial behaviour that may have an impact or relevance here.

I repeat my commitment to finding solutions as quickly as possible. Lastly, I repeat my call to those who want to protest against abortion to come and do that outside this Parliament where the laws are made and to leave women alone and stop trying to intimidate them.


Economic Growth

Michelle Thomson (Falkirk East) (SNP)

Forecasts this week from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development have shown that the United Kingdom is set to have the lowest growth of any economy in the G20, apart from sanctioned Russia. That is a direct result of a Tory Brexit and will have a regrettable direct impact on Scotland, given that the majority of key economic levers reside with Westminster. Does the First Minister share my concern about UK Government mismanagement and will our independence prospectus help the public to understand why it is critical that those economic levers are controlled by Scotland for the benefit of Scotland?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I do, and I completely understand why the Tories are shifting so uncomfortably in their seats right now. We knew last week that, largely because of the folly of Brexit, the UK already had the highest rate of inflation of all G7 countries—I think that the rate of inflation in the UK is about double the rate of inflation in France right now. As of this week, we have the quite unbelievable situation of the OECD forecast suggesting that economic growth in the UK next year will be the lowest in OECD countries, with the sole exception of Russia, which right now is rightly subject to global sanctions.

That is the impact of Brexit, and the impact for Scotland of being part of the UK. If the Tories want to argue that that is the union dividend, all I can say is, “Good luck with that.” Rather than being subject to Westminster control, we can choose a better future as an independent, outward-looking country with power over the full range of economic levers to build a better Scotland. The prospectus for an independent Scotland will set out the deficiencies of being governed by Westminster and will point to small independent countries across Europe that, with the powers of independence, are doing so much better than the UK. That should be the inspiration for Scotland.


Resource Spending Review (Impact on Crime)

Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

Yesterday, we heard yet again about the impact of the Scottish National Party’s financial incompetence. It seems appropriate to ask this question following the previous one. Public services face drastic spending cuts in areas including education, local authorities and the police. Does the First Minister agree with the Scottish Police Federation that the spending review has been good for criminals?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

No, I do not. Of course, this Government has supported more police officers, and we have one of the lowest rates of recorded crime in this country since, I think, 1974, with a 41 per cent reduction in recorded crime since this Government took office.

I am delighted that the Tories keep getting up in this chamber and elsewhere to talk about public spending, because it gives me the opportunity to remind them, the Parliament and everybody across Scotland that the amount of money that this Parliament and this Government have to spend is largely decided by Tories at Westminster. That is what is wrong with the situation. [Interruption.]

Thank you, members.

The First Minister

This year, we have a budget that is lower in real terms by more than 5 per cent and is projected to continue to be constrained, notwithstanding the rate of inflation hitting 10 per cent. The sooner this Parliament and this Government are in charge of their own finances and we get them out of the hands of Tories at Westminster, with independence, the better.


Scottish Personal Assistant Employers Network (Funding)

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

Funding for the Scottish Personal Assistant Employers Network has been withdrawn by the SNP Government. This is the organisation that helps disabled people to pay for their personal assistants, who provide care and support for disabled people to enable them to retain their independence. The immediate consequence of this closure, which is happening today, is that more than 500 personal assistants will not be getting paid this week.

I have seen the emails between the Government and the organisation and I am appalled, frankly, at the lack of understanding by the minister and his officials. No alternative has been suggested, and this crisis for disabled people is entirely the fault of this Government. It has the power to do something about it. It is about independence—the independence of disabled people in Scotland. What urgent action will the First Minister take to halt this impending crisis?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I have become aware of the issue today, and I am asking Kevin Stewart, the relevant minister, to meet the organisation as a matter of urgency. There are a number of complexities here, which I will not go into now, but I want to see a solution found, and the best way to move things forward is to facilitate that discussion as quickly as possible.


Attainment Gap

To ask the First Minister whether she will provide an update on work to close the attainment gap. (S6F-01193)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The Scottish Government remains committed to tackling the poverty-related attainment gap. That is evidenced, of course, by our increased investment of £1 billion in the Scottish attainment challenge, which is up by £250 million from the previous parliamentary session. Progress is being made. We can see that in, for example, the record high proportion of full-time, first-degree entrants to university coming from the 20 per cent most deprived areas of Scotland in 2020-21.

There is, however, more to do. The challenge has been exacerbated by the pandemic, which is why we continue to support headteachers through pupil equity funding, and it is why we are funding all 32 local authorities to develop strategic approaches, including in setting their own aims for progress.

Sue Webber

The First Minister stated in 2015:

“excellence in education is essential to our prosperity, competitiveness, wellbeing and to our overall success as a nation.”

Despite that laudable ambition, however, her Government’s spending review last week cut education spending by 5 per cent in real terms. Spending on children and families is set to be slashed in real terms by £15 million, spending on skills and training by £23 million and spending on higher education and student support by £30 million. Has the First Minister completely abandoned her promise to make education her top priority?

The First Minister

No.

Before I come on to what this Government is doing, let me remind the member what the calculation of real terms depends on. It is the rate of inflation that determines whether something is increasing or decreasing in real terms. I remind her that, this year, the total Scottish Government budget has declined by more than 5 per cent in real terms.

The rate of inflation in the UK is, of course, thanks to the UK Government’s policy decisions, including Brexit, the highest of any G7 country and double the rate of inflation in France. Perhaps a bit of self-reflection would not go amiss on the part of the Conservatives.

The spending review is not a budget. It allocates over the next few years the funding that we have available. Do I hope that that funding envelope increases? Yes, I do. Again, however, unfortunately, that depends on decisions that are taken by the United Kingdom Government. It is not my choice that this Parliament is dependent on Westminster decisions, but the choice of unionists across this chamber. [Interruption.]

Thank you, members.

The First Minister

Let me come back to education. Education budgets have been increasing. My final point in this context—the most important point—is that we are increasing the funding for the Scottish attainment challenge to £1 billion, which is up by £250 million from the amount that we invested in the previous parliamentary session. That is the commitment; that commitment remains; and that commitment is strong, notwithstanding the hurdles that are put in our way by the Tories at Westminster.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

In 2015, with a tear in her eye, the First Minister said that she wanted all young people to have the “same advantage” as she had. She put her “neck on the line” for education. Now, the word barely passes her lips.

The First Minister promised to substantially eliminate the attainment gap in a decade. Now, her Government says that it would be “top-down” and “arbitrary” to set such a date. We have the First Minister setting a date and the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills saying that it would be wrong to do so. The Government is all over the place on education. Young people want to know why the First Minister has given up on them and on closing the attainment gap by 2026.

The First Minister

We have not done so. Let me quote the manifesto commitment at the 2016 election, which said that the Scottish Government would support the substantial closure of the attainment gap by 2026. I stand by that. That remains the policy and the objective of the Government. We are seeing progress.

I am always mindful of the fact that I was the first member of my family to go to university. I am particularly mindful of that when a Liberal Democrat questions me, because I benefited from free tuition, which this Government continues to protect and on which the Liberal Democrats have a shameful record.

That is why, although there is still work to do, I am so proud of the fact that we are meeting our targets and increasing the numbers of those from the most deprived communities who go to university—something that the Commissioner for Fair Access described last week as an “unambiguous success”. We will continue to get on with the job, building on the progress—

A “success”?

Willie Rennie questions that, but that was how the independent Commissioner for Fair Access described our achievements in access to university by young people from the most deprived communities.


School Meals

4. Stephanie Callaghan (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

To ask the First Minister, in light of reported findings from the children’s charity, Aberlour, that over £1 million is owed in school meal debt, whether the Scottish Government will provide an update on its plans to expand universal free school meal provision in order to support families struggling with the cost of living crisis. (S6F-01208)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I am aware of the Aberlour report, which indicates that more than £1 million is owed across Scotland in school meal debt, although the data in the report is incomplete and is from December last year. I have asked Scottish Government officials to look more deeply into the issue.

Scotland’s offer of universal free school meals—at this stage, to all primary 1 to 5 pupils and those in special schools—is the most extensive universal offer in the United Kingdom, and it provides to families support of around £400 per pupil. In addition, we have continued to support eligible families during school holidays and we will work with local authority partners over the coming months in preparation for the planned further expansion of free school meals.

At this time of rising costs, it is concerning that families of school pupils are being chased for debts by councils. Does the First Minister agree that local authorities should write off that debt?

The First Minister

Households across the country are facing a Tory-exacerbated cost of living crisis that is pushing up food prices, and we know that those on the lowest incomes are hardest hit. I am deeply uncomfortable—as any decent person should be—with families being pursued for debt for school meals, especially in the economic climate that exists right now. I am therefore very sympathetic to calls for that debt to be written off. Part of what I have asked officials to do is to look at that.

It should be said that local authorities usually write off school meal debt for families. However, as I have said, I have asked Scottish Government officials to talk with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities about what more can be done. Local authorities also have the flexibility to offer free school meals to families who do not meet eligibility criteria but are experiencing financial hardship, and I encourage anyone who thinks that they have become eligible for free school meals to apply as soon as possible.


Schools (Restraint of Children)

To ask the First Minister what changes have been made since the 2018 report by the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland regarding concerns about the restraint of children in schools. (S6F-01189)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

We are working closely with partners, including the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland, through the physical intervention working group to develop new human rights-based guidance to address the concerns that are raised in the report and to minimise the use of restraint and seclusion in schools. I can advise members that we will consult on draft guidance later this month.

Miles Briggs

Replies to freedom of information requests suggest that, in the past year, 3,000 children have been restrained in schools. Without statutory regulation, there is no need for local authorities to report or monitor restraint, and there is no statutory training, even for restraint that involves face-down restraint of young children in schools and care settings. Will the First Minister review the Government’s approach of simply providing guidance? Will she agree to meet me, families and campaigners to take forward those changes?

The First Minister

I am happy to ask the relevant minister to meet Miles Briggs, campaigners and families.

I will make a couple of points, which I hope will be helpful. First, I am sure that we all agree that restraint and seclusion should only ever be used as an absolute last resort to prevent harm, and only when they are in the overall best interests of the child or young person.

Secondly, as I said in my original answer, we are currently preparing to consult on draft guidance. We will do that later this month. However—I hope that this is helpful—we are committed to looking further at the options to place that guidance on a statutory basis, particularly if the guidance does not have the desired effect, although I hope that it will make a difference. We will not rule out legislation, and we will actively consider the options for that.


Displaced Ukrainians (Supersponsor Scheme)

To ask the First Minister whether she will provide an update on the Scottish Government’s supersponsor scheme for displaced Ukrainians. (S6F-01203)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

As of today, there have been 12,861 applications for a visa with a Scottish sponsor, more than 11,500 visas have been issued, and around 4,200 displaced Ukrainians with a Scottish sponsor have now arrived in the United Kingdom. Some 2,035 of those have an individual sponsor, and 2,236 have the Scottish Government as supersponsor.

In partnership with local government and third sector partners, we have established a network of welcome hubs with access to meals, accommodation and support for anyone who arrives here. They have now triaged more than 2,100 people. A national matching service that is being delivered by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities is working hard to find longer-term accommodation, using all options, including the generous offers of accommodation that have been made by the public.

A national response has been developed and delivered at pace. We will, of course, continue to ensure that all those who are arriving are treated with compassion and care.

Kaukab Stewart

It continues to be the case that local authorities that welcome displaced people through the Ukraine family scheme receive no funding at all from the UK Government, and even the £10,500 per person under the homes for Ukraine scheme is not much, considering all the provisions that need to be put in place to support those who are seeking refuge. Will the First Minister urge the UK Government to urgently put in place appropriate financial support for all local authorities, no matter what scheme people have arrived through, to ensure that those who are settling here can have all their needs met?

The First Minister

Yes, that is an important and serious issue, and there have been acknowledgements from UK Government ministers—principally Michael Gove—that those are serious issues. Neil Gray and I have repeatedly raised the issue, and we will continue to do so in the strongest terms.

The £10,500 per person tariff does not provide adequate funding for local authorities and public services. That tariff is not even provided to local authorities for people who arrive through the family visa route, and I do not think that that is acceptable.

Our local authorities and public services are supporting people, regardless of their visa route. There is a clear need to provide appropriate funding that reflects the unique impact of the implementation of the various UK Government schemes on public services and local communities.

The matter is reserved, of course, but we take our responsibility seriously, and the Scottish Government wants to do as much as it can. The Scottish Government has therefore committed £11.2 million to local authorities to support resettlement and integration and the refurbishment of properties.


Victims of Rape and Domestic Abuse

7. Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

To ask the First Minister what steps the Scottish Government will take to ensure that victims of rape and domestic abuse are not retraumatised as a result of plans to allow them to formally meet those who harmed them. (S6F-01196)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

We recently launched two hubs to support the national roll-out of restorative justice services, which enable safe—and voluntary—facilitated contact between people who have been harmed by crime and those responsible for such harm. However, I stress that such contact is voluntary and occurs only where the victim of crime wants it to happen. It is important to note that the needs of people who have been harmed are at the heart of the process. If they choose to have such contact, they will set the pace at all stages and can stop the process at any time.

I recognise that victims and survivors in sensitive cases involving sexual harm and coercive control may request access to restorative justice. We are working with partners to design services to respond appropriately to such requests. A trauma-informed and comprehensive risk framework will be created for such cases, and will have at its centre the individual needs and safety of the person who has been harmed.

Pauline McNeill

The First Minister is right to reiterate the words of Sandy Brindley of Rape Crisis Scotland, who has said that no one should ever feel that they have to have such contact or that they have been pressurised in any way.

I believe that we must improve experiences of the justice system for victims of sexual violence, which disproportionately affects women and girls, and I know that the First Minister feels strongly about that, too. The Criminal Justice Committee has heard from survivors of rape and sexual assault, who said that they felt as though they were being treated as the guilty party. Long delays in the current court system mean that they are often left in the dark as to what happens in their court cases.

Does the First Minister think that more support should be given to victims, such as offering them legal advice before they go to court? Will she consider a proposal for—or even enter into dialogue on—a means-tested independent legal representation scheme in the pre-trial period for victims of rape and survivors of serious sexual violence, as a way of radically altering their experiences?

The First Minister

Yes, I will consider that. Issues on independent legal representation of victims of rape and sexual violence in the criminal justice system have been raised in particular contexts in the past—for example, where information about the history of the victim has been requested as part of the court process. Those are important issues.

I agree with Pauline McNeill. Sadly, it is simply a statement of fact that, even in our society today, many survivors of rape and sexual assault are often left feeling undersupported and as though they are somehow the guilty parties. That is partly down to attitudes in society. Right now, there is also an impact from backlogs in the court system because of the pandemic, which is why we are working hard to address those.

We are already funding organisations to deliver the equally safe initiatives. We have a duty to consider anything that we can do to better support people who have been affected by such crimes, so I will consider Pauline McNeill’s specific proposal. As for the subject matter of her original question, I again reiterate the voluntary nature of such contact. As I have certainly raised in Government, it is one thing to say that a process is voluntary, but we must ensure that even offering people that option is not heard by victims as somehow suggesting that they are expected to or are being pressured to do that, so the way in which that is implemented will be really important.

That concludes First Minister’s question time.

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. The First Minister might not be aware that Kevin Stewart is ill with Covid and is self-isolating. I am sure that members will wish him a speedy recovery. Will the First Minister therefore ensure that, in his absence, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care meets representatives of SPAEN today?

As Ms Baillie will be aware, that is not a point of order for me. However, her point is now on the record.