Skip to main content

Language: English / Gàidhlig

Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Thursday, June 10, 2021

Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Justice System, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time

The Presiding Officer (Alison Johnstone)

Good afternoon. I remind members that social distancing measures are in place in the chamber and across the Holyrood campus. I ask that members take care to observe those measures, including when entering and exiting the chamber. Please use the aisles and walkways to access your seat and when moving around the chamber.

Examination Grades

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

I am sure that I speak on behalf of the whole Parliament in wishing Steve Clarke and his entire squad all the very best for the Euros. It has been a long 23-year wait for the men’s international team to qualify for a major finals and I know that, in their first match against the Czech Republic on Monday, against the auld enemy on Friday and in their final group stage match against Croatia on 22 June, they will have the support, hopes and backing of the entire country.

Does the First Minister stand by the statement that she made in the chamber when she said that grades will not be based on

“algorithms, statistical models or historical performance of schools”?—[Official Report, 3 June 2021; c 3.]

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I do, but before I come on to more detail on that, I also take the opportunity today to wish Steve Clarke and all of the Scotland men’s football team all the best as they prepare to embark on the European championship campaign. On Monday afternoon, 23 long years of frustration, pain and standing on the sidelines will come to an end. The team has done us proud already but—to echo Douglas Ross and, I am sure, everybody across the chamber—we will all be absolutely behind them as they kick the first ball and all the way through the tournament. We all hope that that will be for a considerable way into the tournament or—who knows?—perhaps the whole way. We wish Steve and all of the team good luck.

I stand by the statement that I made absolutely. This year’s national qualifications awards will be based on teacher judgment, and that teacher judgment will be evidenced by the attainment of pupils, not by past results or algorithms. No learner’s grades will be marked down or up because of their school’s past performance. If any learner has demonstrated that, for example, they deserve an A grade, an A grade is what they will receive.

There are quality assurance processes in place. We may come on to discuss them in more detail, but neither the Scottish Qualifications Authority nor Education Scotland is involved in those processes. Once provisional grades have been submitted to the SQA, they will not be changed because of any school’s past performance.

Douglas Ross

The First Minister says that she stands by her statement, but the evidence paints a very different picture. Let us go through some of that evidence. An Education Scotland report that was published last week says that three in four councils in Scotland are analysing results using historical attainment data. Some councils have published their own reports, and this is what they say. Inverclyde Council is holding “data analysis meetings” before submitting grades; the City of Edinburgh Council is making “adjustments” based on previous attainment data; and East Renfrewshire Council has a checklist to ensure that teachers compare this year’s grades to the past three years’ grades.

All that is in direct contradiction to the promise that the First Minister gave in the chamber last week and reiterated just a few moments ago. Once again, young people will lose out based solely on where they go to school. This is the same shambles as last year. It is just more sleekit because, instead of the SQA marking pupils down at the end of the process, the system will force teachers and schools to do it first. How on earth can young people have confidence in the system when the First Minister’s words do not match reality?

The First Minister

What Douglas Ross is trying to suggest happens is simply not the case, so let me take the chamber and those watching at home through the process.

I have already set out that awards this year are based on teacher judgment. Teachers arrive at their judgments by looking at attainment—the work that pupils have done. There are no past results or algorithms that dictate what an individual learner’s grades will be.

On the quality assurance that is in place—I think that everybody would expect some such process to be in place—the only way in which a school’s past performance is looked at is to identify, within its own local authority area, whether it has provisional grades overall that appear to be significantly out of step with past performance. However—this is the important part—if that happens, provisional grades are then checked again not by the SQA or Education Scotland but by the relevant teachers. The key part is this: if the teacher’s judgment is that they stand by the result that they gave, that result stands and is not changed.

It is simply a checking procedure and it ends in the same place: the teacher’s judgment, based on the attainment of the pupil, determines the grade. Provisional grades are then submitted to the SQA, which is not involved in the process before that. When that happens, they will not be changed because of a school’s past performance. That is a world away from the situation last year, when algorithms and the past performance of schools automatically changed the performance and grade of some pupils. That is not happening.

This is a system that is based on teacher judgment, evidenced by the work that pupils have done throughout the year.

Douglas Ross

The First Minister chose to ignore all the points that I read out from Inverclyde Council, the City of Edinburgh Council and East Renfrewshire Council. The harsh reality of this system is that, if someone is lucky enough to attend a consistently high-achieving school, their grades will probably not be reviewed, but if they attend their local school, where people work hard but not everyone gets five As—the kind of school that the First Minister and I went to—their grades are more likely to be lower.

Last night, I met members of the Scottish Youth Parliament, who spoke about how unfair the system is. They feel that their voices have been ignored and that pupils with exceptional circumstances are being overlooked. This year, of all years, we should be going out of our way to recognise exceptional circumstances and listen to young people’s concerns. I asked them what they would say if they were able to put points to the First Minister. Cameron, Liam and Sophie all said that young people should be able to appeal their grade without the risk of it being downgraded. The appeals process is supposed to ensure that people get the grades that they deserve but, instead, this year’s system is asking them to roll the dice with their future. Will the First Minister do something about that now, by allowing an appeals process that does not risk downgrades and ensuring that we make the system fair?

The First Minister

I will come on to the appeals process in a second. Douglas Ross used the word “sleekit” earlier and, if I may say so, there was a bit of that in how he posed his question. He took young people’s perfectly legitimate comments about the appeals part of the system and almost suggested that they were backing up what he said about the earlier part of the system in his first question. Before I come on to appeals, let me conclude the explanation about the first part of the system, which is the main part of the system, because we want to get it right the first time for young people, so that they do not have to appeal.

Douglas Ross said that I ignored the points that he made. I did not ignore the points that he made; I simply refused to go along with his misrepresentation of what that means in practice. If a school’s results are reviewed because they appear, at face value, to be out of step with previous years, that is not the operation of an algorithm automatically downgrading pupils, as would have happened last year. Such a situation simply triggers a checking by teachers, and if the teachers’ judgment is that the original grades stand, that is the final decision. It is simply a quality assurance process at that stage, before results go to the SQA.

Fundamentally, it is the teacher judgment that stands. At that point, the SQA is not involved, and when the SQA does become involved, no algorithm or past performance influences a young person’s grade. It is very important that that is set out clearly, because this matters to young people across the country.

I understand and I absolutely recognise that there are different views on the appeals process. Where there is consensus, it is on the point that it is right to offer universally available appeals, which are free of charge this year. However, there are two issues that have divided opinion, and I understand that. Great care has been taken with them.

One issue is the no-detriment system versus the symmetrical system, which Douglas Ross was asking about. On balance, in common with other parts of the UK and in line with past experience, it has been decided to adopt the symmetrical process. That is fair, because it is based only on the attainment of young people.

The second issue is of course whether there should be a ground of appeal based on exceptional circumstances. The system tries to build that into an earlier stage, so that a young person who suffers a bereavement, for example, does not have to rely on appeal but has extended time to submit the evidence for their original grading. We have taken great care around all this and we will continue to do so. Douglas Ross should by all means raise all these issues—it is important that they are scrutinised—but he should not try to confuse the different issues to make a point that does not stand in reality.

Douglas Ross

I am glad that I have permission from the First Minister to raise issues such as education in Scotland and the effect that it is having on young people right now and in the weeks and months ahead. Despite what she tried to suggest in her answer, I will not stop listening to and engaging with the young people of this country and giving them a voice in this Parliament, because they seem to be ignored consistently by the First Minister and her Government.

The only thing that young people, parents and teachers watching today will have heard is that they are wrong and the Government is right. However, why should they trust the First Minister on this? We just have to look at what happened. Pupils were told that there would be no exams this year, but everyone knows that they have sat exams in all but name. Parents were promised that no historical data would be used, but we know that that is exactly what is happening. Teachers were told that grades would be based on their judgment alone, but there is an algorithm lurking in the background.

Young people feel cheated by another deeply unfair system that judges them on where they are from and not on how they did. The life chances of tens of thousands of young people are at stake. The 2021 exam crisis has already started, but the Government acts as if nothing is wrong. Just what will it take for the First Minister to step in and act before the Government lets down Scotland’s young people all over again?

The First Minister

Douglas Ross does not need anybody’s permission—and certainly not mine—to raise issues in the chamber. However, it is a responsibility of leadership to engage in issues responsibly, particularly when we are talking about the life chances of young people, and not to misrepresent or try to confuse issues in order to back up political points that, frankly, do not stack up in reality.

Whether they agree or disagree with the judgments and decisions that the Government is making, I do not think that people who are listening will have heard me say that everybody else is wrong and the Government is right. They will have heard me try to set out, calmly and rationally, the position as it is in order to take on some of the misrepresentation that we have heard from Douglas Ross, as well as readily concede that some of these issues divide opinion, and that we have had to make judgments based on what we think is right overall. In fact, many of the judgments that we are making are the same judgments, albeit in different education systems, that different Governments of different parties in other parts of the UK are arriving at as well.

These are not straightforward issues, but they are hugely important. This is not a case of me stepping in to do something. The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills and I engage on these issues each and every single day, listening to teachers, parents and—above all else—young people in arriving at the best overall judgments that we can. We do that responsibly on the basis of the situation as it is, and not on the basis of the misrepresented situation that Douglas Ross has put forward. We will continue to do that in the interests of young people all over Scotland.

National Qualifications 2021

2. Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

I join others in wishing the Scotland men’s team all the very best for the European championships. This is their opportunity to catch up with the great leadership that has been shown by the women’s team in recent years. I wish good luck to Steve Clarke and to captain Andy Robertson. I also thank them, because they will—I hope—give us a summer of hope, optimism and cheer after what has been a really difficult year for us all.

The Government can try and deny it, but we are in the midst of a second exams crisis. This week, in an unprecedented letter, many children’s organisations, the Scottish Youth Parliament, parents’ groups and leading academics begged the First Minister to listen and to ensure that exceptional personal circumstances can be used to appeal grades.

One example that demonstrates why this is so important is the case of Ellie, who is a sixth year pupil in Glasgow. She lost her mother in March of this year. Despite being promised by this Government that there would be no exams, she found herself needing to sit several assessments—exams in all but name. There was no evidence available of her prior performance due to lockdown. Her lost education time has been exacerbated by grief.

Does the First Minister believe that such circumstances would impact on Ellie’s performance in assessment?

The First Minister

Yes, I do. It is not a question of whether the system recognises that, but of how the system is recognising it.

I absolutely concede that there are differences of opinion on this, but let us be clear about it. Obviously, I do not know all the circumstances of Ellie’s position, but instead of somebody in such a position having to go through the process of submitting all their evidence by 25 June, which is the deadline, getting a grade and then—if it is not the grade that they think they deserve—having to appeal it, the system has built-in contingency arrangements that mean that they can have access to an extended deadline in September. That takes account of such circumstances by giving young people a longer time period to get that evidence together and to have their grade determined.

It is not a question of whether those kinds of circumstances should be taken into account—it is simply about the method that the system is using. There are differences of opinion, and we continue to listen. However, it would not be accurate for anyone to say that circumstances such as Ellie’s are being ignored in the system that we have.

Anas Sarwar

I will come to why September is a problem in itself in a moment.

The problem that we have is that the process that the First Minister has outlined is simply not good enough. The cast-iron guarantee that the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills gave this week means nothing without changes to the actual system, because Ellie is just one example.

Let me give another example, which highlights the problem with September. A mother has been in touch about the year that her son has had. Due to terminal illness in his family, he was required to shield and not return to school in person. He was told that that would have no detrimental effect on his education. He had performed well earlier in the year, before he had to shield. Three weeks ago, his school informed him that his grade in one subject would be submitted as a class average of 68 per cent, despite his grades earlier in the year having been far higher. The only option that he has in the system that the First Minister has outlined is to present more evidence in September. If he waits until then, he risks losing his conditional apprenticeship place.

Does the First Minister believe that that family has been treated fairly? Does she accept that, by forcing them to wait until September, she has created a failed system that risks that young person losing his future?

The First Minister

These are important issues, and we have to consider all the particular cases to make sure that the system can respond overall. On the point about September, there is a recognised need for the pupils who take advantage of the contingency arrangement to engage with universities, colleges or employers about any knock-on effects. If Anas Sarwar wants to send the particulars of a case, I can make sure that that is happening. It should be happening, and we have to ensure that it happens so that there is no disadvantage at that end.

I come back to the most fundamental point. I apologise that I did not catch the name of the young man who Anas Sarwar talked about, but in his case, if the fundamental issue is that, because of the understandable circumstances, the evidence of attainment could not be provided within the given timescale—and this gets to the heart of the matter—an appeal is not going to rectify that, because appeals can look only at the attainment evidence that is provided. That is why extending the timescale for the accumulation and submission of evidence is seen to be a fairer way of doing this.

Because of the lack of exams, the situation that the pandemic has created is far from ideal, but, in an imperfect situation, we are genuinely finding the best overall way. There will always be individual circumstances that we need to look at and make sure that we are taking proper account of. I give an assurance today that we will make sure that that happens. We are seeking to address this issue in as fair a way as possible. I think we have just highlighted why relying on appeals for exceptional circumstances is not always the best way to do that. The way that we are choosing to do that, although it is absolutely not perfect, is in many ways preferable.

Anas Sarwar

The issue is that this is not just about an individual case. We all accept that the situation is imperfect, but an imperfect situation means that some will lose their life chances. This is a key point in young people’s lives, where attainment and what they do with their future life will be impacted. I gave one example for reference, but there are lots of examples of why the September system simply does not work.

Parliament voted to incorporate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into law. If that is to mean something, we must listen to what young people are telling us right now. Earlier this week, the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland said that he is concerned that the exams process does not uphold young people’s rights. Cameron Garrett, the only young person in the group that developed this year’s process, says that young people have been ignored.

The current Scottish Qualifications Authority crisis has all the hallmarks of last year’s crisis: the use of historical data in moderation; a non-functioning appeals process; and the Government refusing to listen and engage.

Young people across Scotland have had the hardest year of their lives. The Government has had a year to develop a system that works, but there are now just days left to improve the flawed process. Will the First Minister finally listen to Scotland’s young people and introduce a no-detriment appeals policy, making personal circumstances part of the appeals criteria, or will young people be forced to take to the streets again this year to make her change her mind?

The First Minister

We will continue to listen. We have paid very close attention to all those points of detail and come to judgments that are difficult but which we think are right overall.

Anas Sarwar makes some really important points, but describing an appeals system that has not even started yet as “non-functioning” does not help with the delivery of the system or with proper discussion of these issues.

I recognise that some people will have issues with the September extension, but that is not the same as saying that making exceptional circumstances grounds for appeal is the way to fix that, for the reasons I have already set out.

Last week, I quoted Jim Thewliss of School Leaders Scotland, who made the point that the system, while not perfect, is the best one in the circumstances. He also makes the point that few people have come up with alternatives to what is in place. We will continue to look at all of this.

Hard lessons were learned last year, but I would caution against what we heard from Douglas Ross and what Anas Sarwar said at the end of his question: there is no algorithm that is determining young people’s results, and I do not think that it is fair to young people to create the impression that there is. The system is based on teacher judgment, which is correct. The appeals system is open to all, free of charge. We have taken a very difficult decision about having a no-detriment or symmetrical system. As I understand it, the Labour Welsh Government has done the same in a different education system. In saying that, I am not making a party-political point, recognising that these are not political decisions. We are trying to do the best we can in coming to these judgments, and we are often coming—from different political persuasions—to the same judgments.

We will continue to listen and we will continue to look at all the detail. We will strive to make sure that every young person gets the service from the education and exam system that they deserve, so that they can make the most of their life opportunities, notwithstanding the difficulties of the pandemic.

Teachers and Classroom Assistants (Contracts)

3. Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

To ask the First Minister, in light of the growth in short-term teaching contracts, how many of the 3,500 teaching and classroom assistant posts that the Scottish Government has committed to creating will be given permanent contracts. (S6F-00095)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

That question follows on from all our discussions so far today.

Our education system relies at all times on the hard work and dedication of teachers. That is particularly true right now, and we all recognise the effort they have put in and their resilience in supporting young people during the pandemic.

The reality right now is that we need all possible teaching resources that are at our disposal to support education recovery. I therefore expect—I will say in a moment why I am couching my answer in these terms—permanent employment opportunities to be the priority. We are working closely with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on employment of teachers for the coming academic years, and local authorities are currently undertaking assessment of their staff requirements to support education recovery.

I have couched my answer in those terms because the reality is that recruitment and deployment of teachers and support staff in local authority schools are matters for councils, because they are the employers of those staff. However, I expect the number of permanent posts and jobs to be absolutely maximised within the discretion that local authorities have to meet their needs.

Willie Rennie

I am afraid that that is just not good enough. The First Minister takes all the credit for recruiting 3,500 extra teachers but is nowhere to be seen when their terms and conditions turn out to be shoddy.

In an open letter that was written this week, 2,000 temporary teachers say that they are having to take extra jobs just to put food on the table. One in 10 teachers is now on a short-term contract, bobbing from one precarious job to the next for years on end. That is no way to treat those who are responsible for educating the next generation. We all know that if the money is temporary, the teachers will be temporary. If the Scottish Government makes the money permanent, the teachers will be permanent.

Will the First Minister fix that and treat those teachers with respect and decency, for a change?

The First Minister

The Scottish Government will make the funding for our commitment available, but Willie Rennie cannot gloss over the point that I made. He should be honest about his position. If he wants the Scottish Government to take away from local authorities the responsibility for employment and the terms and conditions of teachers, he should say so—although that would run counter to everything that he has said until now about opposing what he calls the Scottish Government’s centralisation and its taking powers away from local authorities. That is the reality.

Willie Rennie should also listen to what I am clearly saying. Through our budgets, we will make funding available for the commitment that we have made on teachers. Given the need for teachers in support of economic recovery, I expect that we will see permanent posts and jobs. However, if I was to stand here now and mandate that, Willie Rennie would accuse me—perhaps not today, but at another stage, because to do so today would not suit the question that he has asked—of taking powers away from local authorities and centralising things here in the Scottish Government.

Body-worn Cameras (Funding)

To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government will support and fund the roll-out of body-worn cameras for police officers and ambulance crews. (S6F-00073)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

We support the efforts of Police Scotland and the Scottish Ambulance Service to protect the safety and welfare of front-line responders and of the general public.

The issue of body-worn cameras for police officers is a policy and operational decision for the chief constable, acting under the oversight of the Scottish Police Authority. However, as part of our budget allocation for policing this year, we have provided one-off funding of £500,000 to support their use by armed officers.

We engage regularly with the Scottish Ambulance Service. If the matter is something that the Ambulance Service wishes to pursue in the future, we will fully engage with it on that.

Kenneth Gibson

Last year, there were 6,942 assaults on police officers and staff and 250 assaults on ambulance crews in Scotland. Senior police officers whom I have spoken to believe that body-worn cameras are a vital tool in increasing officers’ safety by deterring attacks, securing convictions against those who carry out assaults and boosting public confidence in engaging with officers. NHS England announced last week that it will roll out body cameras for ambulance crews in order to deter and to protect.

If the current public consultation backs extension of the roll-out of body cameras, will the Scottish Government commit to ensuring that Scottish police officers and ambulance crews are given the protection that they need and deserve?

The First Minister

I will not pre-empt those decisions, but I will say that we will engage in order to support police officers. Should the cameras be required by the Ambulance Service, we will support that, too. I said in my initial answer that the funding that we have already made available to the police includes a commitment to that.

It is unacceptable that police officers and ambulance staff are attacked and abused while going about their duties. Anything that we can do to improve their safety and to protect them and the general public is important. We will continue to engage with the police and with the Ambulance Service on those issues.

Estimated Examination Grades (Validation)

5. Sharon Dowey (South Scotland) (Con)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government's response is to reports that, to meet the Scottish Qualifications Authority quality assurance processes, local authorities are validating teachers’ estimated grades using a school’s prior attainment data. (S6F-00078)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I welcome Sharon Dowey to the chamber.

As I did in my response to earlier questions, I assure young people that the grades that will be given to them by their teachers will not be marked down or up because of their school’s past performance. I am being absolutely clear about that. If a learner has demonstrated that they deserve a certain grade, that is the grade that they will receive.

Teachers and lecturers will let young people know their provisional results by 25 June. As I said, a quality assurance process is under way. I have explained how that will work. It is important to emphasise again that the Scottish Qualifications Authority and Education Scotland are not involved at that stage. Once provisional grades—which will be based on teachers’ judgements and not on algorithms—have been submitted to the SQA, they will not be changed because of the past performance of the school.

Sharon Dowey

It is not only pupils who face an uncertain year: teachers do, too. For new teachers who are just finishing their probationary year, new jobs are being advertised only now, with interviews being in the next few weeks. Not only does that create uncertainty for teachers, it causes problems for headteachers who are trying to fill posts and it leads to disruption to classes. Rural schools such as the Barony campus in Cumnock face even greater challenges because of their location.

Will the First Minister commit to a review of the teacher recruitment process, consider the possibility of increasing the powers that are available to local authorities to attract new teaching talent, and confirm that the funding that was promised for additional teachers has been allocated to councils? I have been told that it has not been allocated. Councils do not need the Scottish Government to look after recruitment; they need confirmed funding so that they can recruit for permanent positions.

The First Minister

I will happily take away and consider the specific point about reviewing recruitment processes.

The funding will be available to councils. Obviously, we have given the commitment for the entire session of Parliament. We have also made a commitment for the first 100 days, and we will be in discussion with councils about funding for that.

It is important that councils have clarity in order that they can recruit. I repeat the point that I made in response to Willie Rennie’s question: we are in a situation right now in which teachers are required, so there should be employment opportunities for them. I expect the posts to be permanent in the main, but the councils are the employers and they need to be able to assess needs in their areas and take decisions based on that.

Sharon Dowey asked for further consideration of certain matters. I will certainly ensure that that is done, and I will revert to her as soon as possible.

Trans and LGBT+ Healthcare

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government is doing to improve trans and lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer plus healthcare. (S6F-00084)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

We are committed to advancing equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people. Everyone should be able to access the healthcare that they need when they need it as part of that overall commitment to equality.

As part of the remobilisation of the national health service, we are considering the impact of the pandemic on sexual health services and how we can improve those services further. That includes widening access to pre-exposure prophylaxis, for example. We are also working with NHS Scotland to improve gender identity services, including reducing waiting times. I think that everybody recognises that the waiting times are far too long, and that that causes additional trauma and anxiety.

We will shortly write to the national gender identity clinical network for Scotland to ask it to review and update the gender reassignment protocol.

Gillian Mackay

I take the opportunity to wish everyone a happy pride. However, we should always remember that pride started as a protest.

In recent weeks, we have witnessed attacks on organisations such as Stonewall, with some particularly wild and untrue allegations. That shows just how far we have to go to make Scotland a truly equal society. Such attacks cause great emotional pain and they have to stop. Trans people are our friends, colleagues and family, and they deserve to be able to express their identity in peace.

Will the First Minister stand with me to support trans people? Does she agree that the current situation that many trans people face in trying to access gender identity services is unacceptable? That includes typical waiting times of years for a first appointment. Will the First Minister give a clear commitment that the Scottish Government will take the steps that are needed, including through providing funding and redesigning those services, to make a person-centred and multidisciplinary approach for trans people in Scotland?

The First Minister

In general terms, I agree with all of that. I absolutely stand full square behind trans people and against the discrimination, stigma and prejudice that they face in the on-going battle for equality, to which they have as much entitlement as anyone else in our society.

There are many things that we have to do, not the least of which is to reduce waiting times for gender identity services. I have already commented on that.

All of us also have to recognise that progress in our society is, unfortunately, rarely all one way. We always have to protect and continue to win and re-win the progress that we have made.

I, too, wish people a happy pride month. That started as a process, and Stonewall was, of course, right at the heart of it. To this day, it has done very good work for people who rely on its services and support.

We do not have to look too far to see that there are many forces that want to take us backwards, whether on LGBTI issues, sexism, misogyny or racism. All of us have a duty to stand up for equality, however difficult that may be on occasion, to ensure that our progress as a country continues to be in the forward direction and that Scotland is a place where everybody feels valued, respected and able to be who they are. That is the country that I want not just to lead, but live in as a citizen. We all have work to do to ensure that that is the reality and not just rhetoric.

Dental Appointments (Children and Young People)

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to address the reported backlog of national health service dental appointments for children and young people. (S6F-00091)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Obviously, we have a commitment for patients, including children and young people, to receive NHS dental care and treatment as quickly as possible. We are supporting a range of measures to remobilise the NHS overall, which of course includes dental services. As part of that process, I can confirm today a funding package of up to £5 million for improved ventilation in dental premises. We will also continue to fund free personal protective equipment for the dental sector, and increase that supply by up to 50 per cent from July. We will also re-introduce the child smile programme.

There is a significant challenge across the whole NHS to tackle backlogs and get the service back to normal. That is the case in dental services as well, and we will continue to take the necessary steps to support that work.

Sarah Boyack

I wrote to the Scottish Government last week about how it analyses waiting times for dentistry, and the answer was that it does not. Dentists have warned of years and years of delays. Given that dental care is a vital part of health and wellbeing for children, how is that situation acceptable? Longer and longer waits for NHS treatment for children and adults mean that many people choose to go private. Is that not just privatisation by stealth?

The First Minister

No. However, it is important and right that we be vigilant around that point. It is the NHS that provides the services that people need, whether for healthcare generally or for dental services in particular. I have not personally seen the letter to which Sarah Boyack refers, but I am happy to have a look at it and its response. I know that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care met with the British Dental Association—this week, I think—to discuss those very issues, so there is a real recognition of the importance to support recovery as quickly as possible, in dental services as in the NHS.

To give some context, prior to Covid, NHS dental services provided more than four million courses of treatment every year. A record number of people are registered with an NHS dentist—more than 95 per cent of the population. There are, however, pressures there—some are Covid related and some undoubtedly pre-date Covid. Through funding and efforts to protect from the impacts of Covid and, where necessary, through a redesign of services, the Government will support the profession to ensure that people get the care and treatment that they need, and that they get it on the national health service.

We move on to supplementary questions.

National Carers Week

Jenni Minto (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)

To ask the First Minister to join me in this, national carers week, in recognising the immense contribution that carers make to the health and wellbeing of our loved ones across the country, and to give an update on the commitment of the Scottish National Party Government to establishing a national care service.

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I thank Jenny Minto for that important question during national carers week. I want to highlight and thank unpaid carers for the incredible contribution that they make. We introduced the carer’s allowance supplement to support carers who are in receipt of carer’s allowance. I recognise that it does not apply to every unpaid carer, but the carer’s allowance supplement has helped more than 100,000 carers since 2018.

The pandemic has added to the pressure on carers, which is why we provided an extra payment last year and we, of course, plan to do the same this year. Establishing a national care service to ensure that the social care system consistently delivers high-quality support for carers and those who need care is vital with regard to the update in the first 100 days of this Administration. We will start the consultation on the necessary legislation and establish a social covenant steering group that will include those with lived experience of care services and unpaid carers, to ensure that the new service is designed around their needs.

Domestic Cruise Ships

Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

Can the First Minister explain why domestic cruise ships can drop off and pick up passengers from Scotland in England, but not Scotland, and why this ban on domestic tourism is in place at a time when thousands of football fans will—quite rightly—be allowed to gather in Glasgow?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I want to reiterate what I said the other day, because I understand that, as we come out of restrictions and hope to start to get back to normal bit by bit, people will look at different circumstances and events, and ask why something is allowed here and not there. Sometimes, we get those things wrong, which is why we review matters on an on-going basis. However, every event or category of event has to be assessed based on its own characteristics, and we try to do that as best we can.

The Scottish Government position on cruises has been well known and communicated to the industry. This week, at the request of the industry, we reiterated the position, which did not change in any way this week. Domestic cruises will restart when the country as a whole is in protection level 1. The reason why we do not allow cruises right now comes down to their particular characteristics. They represent a long-duration, close-proximity form of leisure, which our advice says has a particularly high risk of transmission. When that is combined with the fact that cruises go to, and passengers can disembark at, multiple locations, the risk of spreading the virus to different parts of the country is increased.

It is difficult for the cruise industry. It is an important part of our economy and we want to support getting it back to normal as much as possible. However, I am explaining why the advice is that it is still prudent to have the restrictions in place right now, while in other circumstances and for other events, with the right mitigations, a different conclusion might be reached.

I recognise that it is difficult for people, but we continue to try to take decisions based on the best advice and by applying the best possible judgment overall.

Long Covid Clinics

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

In July, October and December 2020, I asked the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport about long Covid clinics. At the time, I was told that guidelines would be published at the end of that year, and that specialist clinics would be set up. Six months on, I am not aware of any specialist clinics here, although there are 60 in England, and further 20 are planned.

Long Covid has affected some 87,000 people in Scotland. They are desperate, and those with the means to do so are turning to the private sector, which just exacerbates inequality. How much longer will those people, many of whom are in pain, have to wait for specialist long Covid clinics?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

People who are suffering symptoms that might be associated with what is known as long Covid should access their general practitioner services and be referred on as appropriate.

The issue of specialist clinics is important. I have discussed it in some depth with the national clinical director and the chief medical officer. I cannot comment on the exact nature of the clinics in England, but one of the issues around establishing specialist clinics at this stage is that there is still a lack of understanding about which specialisms are needed to respond to long Covid, because clinicians and experts do not yet fully understand all the symptoms and their cause. In Scotland, we are funding a number of research projects to develop that understanding, from which we will establish the longer-term provision. It is important that we do so as quickly as possible.

The clinical advisers and I discussed one of the constraints caused by the lack of understanding, which is that nobody can say for certain exactly what specialisms are needed in a specialist clinic, because we have to do the research and learn more about the condition before we can go to that stage. However, it is important work, which we are committed to doing properly.

Freedom to Crawl Campaign

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

I know that the First Minister is aware of the Freedom To Crawl campaign, which calls on the Mears Group and the United Kingdom Government to cease using a mother-and-baby unit in Glasgow that houses asylum-seeking mums and their children.

I back the campaign. The unit is cramped, with limited personal space and unsatisfactory communal facilities. Twenty families share just three washing machines, the unit has restrictive visiting hours and there are various other worrying concerns.

Does the First Minister welcome the fact that Scotland’s Children and Young People’s Commissioner is now investigating the impact on families who live in the unit? Does she agree that the current system of housing asylum-seeking families is deeply flawed? Does she agree that mothers and their babies should be supported in our community and housed in appropriate, self-contained accommodation?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I agree very much with the context of the question. It is not for me to comment on what the commissioner might do, but I support any efforts to improve the situation of, and the conditions for, children of asylum seekers.

The Freedom To Crawl campaign was raised with me in the chamber last week or the week before. I have since looked into the matter and, like every other member I am sure, I receive lots of letters from constituents asking me to support the campaign.

The concerns that are being raised are legitimate. I say again that all asylum seekers, particularly young children, must be provided with accommodation that properly meets their needs, ensures that they get support and can access the services that they need, and enables them to be a part of the community. The issues underlying the campaign need to be resolved quickly in the best interests of mothers and babies.

We have repeatedly called on the Home Office to deliver more humane and flexible asylum and immigration policies, and we make clear again that our strong preference is for asylum accommodation to be delivered by the public sector or the third sector.

General Practitioner Appointments

Tess White (North East Scotland) (Con)

I have a constituent who has significant health issues and who has had real problems in getting to see a GP. It took two hypoglycaemic episodes, three e-consults and four telephone calls over one week before an appointment with the GP was obtained—and my constituent is somebody who knows how to use a computer.

When will patients who need to see a doctor but who do not have access to a computer so that they can complete an online e-consult form be seen in surgeries in person?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Obviously, I do not know all the circumstances of the case, but it sounds as if it was not an acceptable experience for any patient. I will be happy to look at the details if they are provided.

It is important to say that GP practices have remained open during the pandemic, although they have had to change the way in which they cater for patients. They continue to provide clinical care, making more use of NHS near me and telephone consultations, but we are very clear that there must always be an option to have a face-to-face consultation if that is clinically necessary.

The chair of the British Medical Association’s general practitioners committee has commented that face-to-face appointments are an essential part of what GPs do and that GPs are committed to ensuring availability of those appointments. Obviously, individual GP practices have to assess their own circumstances and risks, but it is absolutely essential that patients get access to face-to-face appointments when that is in their interests.

I repeat the offer to look in more detail at the specific case that has been raised, if the patient wishes her or his details to be passed to me.

University of Dundee Oral Health Sciences (Course Extension)

Michael Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

Students on the University of Dundee’s oral health sciences degree course are facing a year’s extension due to the restrictions of the pandemic. They have been informed that their student support will not be extended, despite an extension being given by the Government to students who are studying to be dentists alongside them. Does the First Minister agree that that must be fixed, in order to ensure that students who are now being forced to leave the course will be able to continue, and will she ask ministers to meet me to resolve the issue?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I will do what I hope is more helpful, which is to try to resolve the issue without the requirement for a meeting. I am trying to bring to mind right now all the details of a previous issue involving dental students, for whom that problem was resolved. If there is a problem with other parts of that cohort, I will take that away today to see whether we can resolve it without the need for a meeting. If that is not possible, I will come back to Michael Marra with the reasons why.

12:47 Meeting suspended.  

14:00 On resuming—