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Language: English / Gàidhlig

Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Refugees from Ukraine, Substance Use in the Justice System, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Point of Order, Dog Theft


Refugees from Ukraine

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

The next item of business is a statement by Nicola Sturgeon, who will give an update on refugees from Ukraine. Before I call the First Minister to deliver the statement, I invite members to join me in welcoming to the gallery Yevhen Mankovskyi, the consul general of Ukraine. [Applause.]

I remind members that the First Minister will take questions at the end of her statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.


The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine is causing the largest displacement of people in Europe since world war two, and in a much shorter timescale. The United Nations has estimated that more than 3 million people—more than 5 per cent of Ukraine’s total population—have already left the country. Those who are fleeing, who are overwhelmingly women and children, are leaving their homes in circumstances that, however hard we might try, are impossible for us to truly imagine. They deserve, need and must receive compassion, care and support.

Countries across Europe are confronting this humanitarian emergency. It is estimated that 1.8 million people have arrived in Poland, 250,000 in Hungary and 80,000 in Moldova, which has a population of just 4 million. Last week, many of us were moved by scenes in Berlin of German families flocking to the railway station to offer shelter and support to those arriving from Ukraine.

However, even as we are moved and inspired by such scenes of compassion, we continue to be deeply shocked that this is happening at all. Just three weeks ago, the world still hoped that there would be no invasion. People in Ukraine were still going to work, school and university—they were living normal lives. Today, those lives have been ripped apart. More than 3 million are displaced, thousands more are fighting on front lines, many have been killed, and an entire population is showing incredible courage and resistance. All of that is down to the evil—I use that word deliberately—of one man: Vladimir Putin.

Scotland stands firmly with all Governments, including of course the United Kingdom Government, in condemning Putin’s war crimes, taking action to isolate and penalise his regime, and doing everything possible to support the people of Ukraine.

The Scottish Government is committed to playing our full part in the international effort to help those who are displaced as a result of the war. Other countries have waived the requirement for people from Ukraine to obtain visas in order to gain entry and settle. The strong preference of the Scottish Government is that the UK Government adopts the same approach. However, although we will continue to press for that, we will also work with UK ministers to make the processes that it has put in place as effective as possible. That is the focus of my statement today.

At present, people from Ukraine can enter the UK through the family scheme. I hope that the changes to the scheme that were announced last week will make it easier and quicker than it has been so far. A second route—homes for Ukraine—was announced this week. It is hoped that, in time, very significant numbers of Ukrainians will come to the UK through that scheme. The fact that more than 100,000 people across the UK have already signed up to offer accommodation demonstrates the willingness of the public to help. The response so far has been magnificent. However, the terms of the scheme mean that it will take time for that outpouring of support to translate into large numbers of Ukrainians actually being able to come to the UK.

The first phase of the scheme depends on matches being made between refugees and individual sponsors. Initially, it is only those who already have, or can themselves find, details of people who are seeking refuge who will be able to provide help quickly. The Scottish Government’s proposal seeks to short-circuit that process. We want and have offered to act as a single supersponsor to allow significant numbers of people who are fleeing Ukraine to come to Scotland immediately. We have offered to sponsor 3,000 people straight away, and in the longer term we have given an uncapped commitment to support at least 10 per cent of the total number who seek sanctuary in the UK.

In practice, Scottish Government sponsorship would mean that people from Ukraine do not need to be matched with individual sponsors before being allowed entry to the UK. They would be able to come here to sanctuary and safety first. We will provide temporary accommodation and then, with people already safely here and, I am sure, wrapped in a warm Scottish welcome, we will work at speed with partners including local councils, the Scottish Refugee Council, the national health service, Disclosure Scotland and others to complete safeguarding checks; put in place wider health, education, practical and befriending support; and arrange longer-term accommodation.

We warmly welcome and intend to fully harness the thousands of individual offers from people who are willing to provide refugees with a home, and I thank everyone who has volunteered. Of course, not everyone will be in a position to offer accommodation, but there will be many other ways for people to offer support.

However, welcome and necessary though the voluntary offers of accommodation are, we must be mindful that those who are fleeing the war may need to be here for a long time. They will wish—as we all wish for them—to return to Ukraine as soon as possible and for Scotland to be just a temporary home. Unfortunately, however, they may need to be here for longer than we can reasonably expect members of the public to provide accommodation. As well as fully harnessing the good will of people across Scotland, we therefore also need to plan for long-term sustainable accommodation and ensure that there is appropriate public service provision. I will say more about that shortly.

First, though, I underline the immediacy of the preparations that we are making. As I indicated yesterday, the UK Government has given in-principle support to the supersponsor proposal, and we are now working to agree the operational detail as quickly as possible. Our aim is that our supersponsor route will run in parallel with the first phase of the wider UK scheme. That should make it possible—this is certainly our hope—for the first 3,000 displaced Ukrainians to begin arriving in Scotland from as early as this weekend.

I make it clear that that is dependent on UK Government agreement, as only the Home Office can issue the visas, but in my view there is no good reason for that agreement not to be reached. We hope and expect that it will be, and—crucially—that is the basis on which we are now planning.

Detailed preparations are being led by Neil Gray as minister with special responsibility for co-ordinating the response. They cover five priorities: ensuring that we get the data that we need from UK Government systems, making contact with those who are coming to Scotland, securing short-term accommodation for those who need it, working on longer-term support including housing and community integration, and establishing welcome hubs over the coming days. I will say a bit more on each of those, and on resources to support delivery.

We are working closely with local authorities, other public sector agencies such as Disclosure Scotland, the third sector and the UK Government on the practical issues that need to be addressed to ensure that the process operates smoothly. For example, urgent work is under way to ensure the sharing of data from UK Government systems, including the visa application system. That information will allow us to better and more quickly understand who is coming here and what needs they might have. We are also exploring how we can start to make support available even before people get here—by providing help with travel, for example. As a matter of priority, we are working to secure immediate temporary accommodation that is safe and comfortable for people while longer-term arrangements are put in place.

In addition to harnessing voluntary support, we are assessing other, longer-term housing options. Those will include, where available, local authority and housing association properties, but also private sector or holiday accommodation. Finally, we are establishing with a range of partners including local authorities, the police, health services and the Scottish Refugee Council welcome hubs to offer practical help and assistance—for example, with food, clothing, healthcare, language support and signposting to other services. Decisions on exactly where those hubs will be located will firm up as we develop a better understanding of when and exactly where people will arrive.

We have considered the resources that are necessary to support this work in the first instance. I confirm that, in addition to financial support that the UK Government will provide, the Scottish Government is allocating £15 million to support our immediate refugee response. Just over £11 million of that will be allocated to local authorities, £2.25 million will be set aside for temporary accommodation, and a further £1.4 million is being allocated to the Scottish Refugee Council for the expansion of its refugee integration service. Earlier today, I visited the Scottish Refugee Council to discuss its invaluable contribution to Scotland’s response to the Ukraine crisis and to thank it for its wider work to support refugees and asylum seekers.

It is important for me to be clear to Parliament that the challenges of resettling thousands of displaced and traumatised people in such a short space of time are significant and should not be underestimated. Given the sheer pace at which everyone is working and the need to agree the operational arrangements with the UK Government, not every question of detail has a definite answer as yet.

Meeting the challenge will require effective and on-going co-operation between the Scottish and UK Governments and councils, with and across the wider public and third sectors, and with many other partners and local communities. Parliament also has a vital part to play. As MSPs, we often gain a unique insight into the quality of support that is provided on the ground and can be instrumental in ensuring that problems are identified and quickly addressed.

For all the undoubted challenges, however, I am confident that Scotland will live up to our humanitarian obligations. We have recent experience of successfully integrating refugees into our communities, schools and workplaces. I am confident that we will provide not just refuge but a warm welcome and a helping hand to people whose lives have been ripped apart. We will open our doors and our hearts.

The duty of Government is to ensure that the practical assistance that we provide matches the warmth and good will of people across the country. We have an obligation to play our full part in the global humanitarian effort and to offer sanctuary, security and a home to thousands of people who desperately need it. I know that those aims are shared across Parliament. Let us all work together as we stand in resolute solidarity with the people of Ukraine in this hour of need.

The First Minister will now take questions on the issues raised in her statement. I intend to allow around 20 minutes, after which we will move on to the next item of business.

Donald Cameron (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I thank the First Minister for the advance sight of her statement, and I associate the members on the Conservative benches with the sentiments that she expressed towards the people of Ukraine and her recognition of the compassion of those in Scotland who volunteered to help.

Needless to say, we continue to condemn the abhorrent violence that the Putin regime is inflicting on Ukraine and its people. Providing a place of refuge and sanctuary for those fleeing violence is a tradition that belongs to no one country or nation but that arises from the instinct in us all to ensure the dignity of every human being who is in need of safety and protection. In that spirit, it is very welcome that the Scottish and UK Governments are working collaboratively to ensure that, in Scotland, we can provide that place of refuge. I appreciate the additional detail that we have just been given on that.

Given that many refugees may struggle with English and, in any event, will be arriving in a new place, what plans does the Scottish Government have to ensure that they are provided with clear information about how to access vital public services? In particular, will any assistance be provided to new arrivals to allow them to register quickly with a general practitioner so that they can have full access to healthcare, particularly if language is a possible barrier?

The First Minister

I thank Donald Cameron for his support, his comments and his questions.

I referred in my statement to the work that is being done with our partners to establish welcome hubs. Those arrangements will be in place to offer immediate practical advice, assistance and support to people who arrive. I hope that members will understand that, while we are seeking through our work with the UK Government to understand exactly when and where people will arrive, we cannot yet finalise the precise location of the hubs. However, that is under consideration and those decisions will be taken quickly and as soon as possible.

The hubs will offer welcome packs and information leaflets that will be translated into Ukrainian, with multi-agency teams already working to support that. The leaflets will offer information on how to access broader support, including social security benefits, which will be important, and translators will be on hand to help. We are considering how we provide language support, which will be a longer-term and on-going requirement.

The welcome hub approach will involve signposting people to healthcare services and to information on how they register with GPs. We are paying particular attention to an issue that was raised with me in the Parliament yesterday. We are taking advice from Public Health Scotland and the chief medical officer on the support that will be offered in the context of Covid—for example, providing vaccinations for people who have not had them.

That will all be part of the initial arrangements that will be in place to welcome and support people. Much of that work will have to continue on a longer-term and more sustainable basis. Those arrangements are being worked on, literally as we speak in the Parliament.

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

We all stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine as they resist the unprovoked and unjustified attack on their country by Vladimir Putin.

The UK Government has been slow to respond to the refugee crisis and I hope that it will waive the bureaucratic visa requirements. However, 5,000 Ukrainians are settled in Scotland and at least another 6,000 are seasonal workers, so it is clear to me that the Scottish National Party will need to offer more than 3,000 places.

The overriding concern is that we move at pace to help with the rapidly unfolding humanitarian crisis. We have all been overwhelmed by the generosity of people in our constituencies and, indeed, across Scotland who want to help, whether that is through making overseas aid donations or offering rooms in their homes for refugees.

Will the First Minister indicate whether people should register with the UK Homes for Ukraine website, or is there another route to register in Scotland? What are the plans to quickly vet the properties and potential hosts for refugees?

What are the plans to provide wraparound services, including education and, of course, childcare to enable parents to work? What are the plans for health services? Given the trauma that people will have experienced, mental health support will be critical, but we know that child and adolescent mental health services are already under huge pressure, with people experiencing long waiting times. How much money will be allocated to mental health services?

How much does the First Minister expect will be allocated by the UK Government? When will additional resources be made available to local government, which stepped up to the plate in the past to help Syrian refugees and is well placed to help people from Ukraine?

The First Minister

Some of that information was provided in my statement, but I am happy to expand on it.

Let me take numbers first. I was very careful to say in my statement that we have given a commitment that the flow of people from Ukraine whom we will support through the homes for Ukraine scheme and, we hope, our supersponsor route is uncapped. We have made an initial and immediate commitment to take 3,000 people and we hope that they will start to arrive as early as this weekend. We anticipate that we will take at least 10 per cent of the overall number of those who come to the UK, but we are not putting a cap on that.

It is worth making the point that that is in addition to people who will come through the family scheme and will settle with families who are already here. Last week, and again this morning in Glasgow, I met members of the Ukrainian community, many of whom are already going through the process of getting visas for family members via the family scheme so that they can come here.

That is the scale of the commitment. It would be wrong to misrepresent that by saying that we have a fixed commitment to take 3,000 people. Everything that I have said has made it clear that that is not the case.

My advice to people in Scotland is that, if they can offer accommodation, they should register their interest through the UK Government portal that was launched on Monday. We are working with the UK Government on how we access that data, so that we know who has volunteered in Scotland. We also want to get data from the visa application process so that, once people are here, we can make the matches.

As I mentioned in my statement, one of the agencies with which we are working closely is Disclosure Scotland, so that there are disclosure checks on people who volunteer, because safeguarding is really important.

Finally, we obviously need to start planning in relation to services now—we are doing a huge amount of planning—but we do not yet know exactly how many people will come to Scotland. Therefore, it would be wrong and inappropriate to cap figures for financial support, just as it would be to cap numbers of people. That will also apply to mental health support and local government support. We will need to make sure that, in addition to the tariff that the UK Government has agreed will be publicly available, the money that the Scottish Government provides is commensurate with the number of people who come here. Again, I set out in my statement a commitment to make £15 million available, as of today, in addition to the UK Government tariff resources. Just over £11 million of that will be allocated to local authorities immediately.

We are working across a range of things, and all members will appreciate that, as we agree the operational details—as I hope that we will; this still depends on the UK Government agreeing to give visas so that people can come—and we know when, where and how many people will be arriving, we will have to continue to flex arrangements and make sure that they are appropriate to the scale of the challenge and obligation that we are meeting.

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

I express the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ admiration for and solidarity with the people of Ukraine, and our utter condemnation of the war crimes of Vladimir Putin. Slava Ukraini!

I welcome the announcement of the supersponsor scheme. We should be justifiably proud, but not wholly surprised, by the colossal response that we have seen from people in Scotland and across Great Britain who are opening their homes to Ukrainians who are fleeing the conflict. Those refugees will have been through the worst in human suffering. They will require access to trauma recovery, long-term counselling and, as I suggested yesterday, perhaps even immediate vaccination against Covid should they wish it. All those things will be vital and I would be grateful for an update or further details on them.

I also want to ask the First Minister about the Scottish Government’s refugee integration strategy—the new Scots strategy. That runs until the end of this year, so it is nearing the end of its life and it is still struggling to deal with people who have come from Afghanistan, which, lest we forget, was just six months ago. “STV News” revealed that as many as 300 Afghans remain in temporary and bridging accommodation in different parts of this country as work to resettle them continues. What lessons have been learned from the failure to resettle those refugees from Afghanistan, and what changes can we make to ensure that similar backlogs do not occur with the scheme that the First Minister announced today?

The First Minister

We are drawing heavily on experience gained through all previous refugee integration work, not just that with those from Afghanistan. It is not fair to describe that as a failure. There is an on-going process to welcome people here and to settle them and integrate them into our communities. Anybody who looks fairly at the response of the Scottish public, local authorities and other agencies, and at the success of the work that they did in supporting the Syrian resettlement scheme, would know that we have a lot of positive experience to draw on from that. We want to see that work being embedded in the new Scots strategy, and that is one of the things that I was talking about with the Scottish Refugee Council this morning.

The figure of 3,000 that we have initially committed to welcoming through the UK Government supersponsor scheme has not been drawn from nowhere. We were able to settle 3,000 refugees through the Syrian resettlement scheme, so we know that, although this is being done much more quickly than with the Syrian scheme, we can do that relatively quickly. We will learn all the lessons—the good ones and the more challenging ones.

There are lots of challenges in this and, if we were simply to look at the situation as a challenge, we would shy away from it. This is a moral, humanitarian obligation that we, in common with other countries across the world, have right now. I am not standing here suggesting that it will be easy and straightforward, that there will not be difficulties and challenges, or that we will not face hurdles along the way, but we have a duty to do this work and, with our partners, we are focused on making sure that we get it right, and that we put all the practical arrangements in place as quickly as possible.

Kaukab Stewart (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

It is important that the Scottish Government ensures the fair and equitable treatment of all Ukrainian refugees, black and white, old and young. What discussions has the Scottish Government had with relevant partners about safeguarding issues relating to the homes for Ukraine scheme, to ensure that all people, particularly children and young people, are placed in safe and supportive environments?

The First Minister

Kaukab Stewart makes an important point. We are all horrified by what is happening in and to Ukraine right now and we all desperately want to do everything that we can to help, but the duty to give refuge to people who are fleeing war or famine does not depend on where they come from, who they are, what their religion or faith is or what culture they come from; it is a duty that we all owe, as a matter of humanity, to everybody who needs it.

I believe that, notwithstanding the challenges that are involved, Scotland has a good record on opening our doors and hearts to Syrian and Afghan refugees. Perhaps one of the lessons that we can learn, not just in the immediate response to those people who are fleeing war in Ukraine, is that we have a duty to open our hearts to people who are fleeing war from all parts of the world.

Safeguarding is central to all the discussions that we are having with partners. It is really important that, as we harness the outpouring of support from the public, we do not neglect the wellbeing and the safety of those who are fleeing war and trauma. Obviously, our principal discussions are with Disclosure Scotland, to ensure that we have the processes in place to quickly do appropriate checks, but I assure the chamber that that is a critical part of all the work that we are doing as we seek to put in place the arrangements for immediate welcome, and to ensure that that support continues as people settle and integrate here. The focus on wellbeing and safety applies to accommodation, health services and wider support services, too.

Sharon Dowey joins us remotely.

Sharon Dowey (South Scotland) (Con)

Can the First Minister guarantee that no Ukrainian refugee will find themselves in temporary accommodation for a period of longer than one month, in order to minimise uncertainty for the individuals concerned, many of whom have experienced high levels of stress and require a stable, integrated environment as soon as possible?

The First Minister

Our first priority—this is the whole intention of the supersponsor proposal—is to get people to sanctuary in Scotland as quickly as possible, rather than having bureaucratic processes that take a long time while people are still in Poland or other countries. Because we will want to do the longer-term matching process while people are in Scotland, that will mean that there will be a period in which we house them in temporary accommodation. Work is being done as we speak to secure temporary accommodation. In the short term, that is likely to be hotel accommodation; it could perhaps be university accommodation. It is our intention that that will be short term, while the longer-term support is put in place.

I think that having people in short-term accommodation is preferable to their having to go through long-standing bureaucratic processes just to get here in the first place. Speed of action is really important here, but that must be underpinned by all the proper safeguarding and other processes that everybody has a right to expect.

There is also a need to recognise that, while we are hugely grateful for and must harness the public’s support and offers of accommodation, we should not take that for granted, nor should we expect members of the public to shoulder a disproportionate part of the responsibility. Some people will be able to offer accommodation, and some will be able to do it for longer than others. We all hope that the war will end quickly and that people will be able to go home as quickly as possible, but if people need to be here for a longer period of time, we must think about the long-term sustainability of accommodation and not expect members of the public to make their homes available for very lengthy periods of time.

We are thinking about all those issues very carefully. We are not just thinking about them; we are seeking to get on at pace and make sure that we have in place the arrangements that will allow us to start welcoming people within days, if the UK Government and the Home Office make it possible for us to do so.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

Public opinion has now ensured that the UK Government will provide more assistance to refugees than it originally intended to.

Last August, 3,000 UK households volunteered to take Afghan refugees but, sadly, not one of those offers has been progressed by Westminster. Does the First Minister agree that, by acting as supersponsors for the Ukrainian refugee scheme, Scotland and Wales will be able to avert further foot dragging by the UK Conservative Government?

The First Minister

I know that there have been considerable delays with the UK Government’s matching process for Afghan families. Indeed, one of the reasons for our arguing initially for the UK Government to take a route other than a community sponsorship route was that our experience has been that we have managed to settle more people through the Syrian resettlement scheme than we have done through previous community sponsorship schemes.

However, that is the route that the UK Government has opted to take. It has simplified it and made the requirements less onerous than in previous schemes, which is welcome, but we must continue to do everything we can to make it as effective, efficient, quick, safe and humane for people as possible.

If we manage to make a success of the supersponsor proposal—as I really hope we will—it may give us lessons on how we deal with humanitarian crises like this in future, and I hope that the Home Office and the UK Government in general will be open, as we will be, to learning such lessons.

Sarah Boyack (Lothian) (Lab)

The First Minister mentioned the importance of the need to learn lessons from supporting people who came to Scotland from Syria. In research findings, employability and welfare rights were mentioned by 78 per cent of respondents. What work is the Scottish Government doing with employers to prepare them to offer jobs to Ukrainians coming to Scotland, and what work is it doing to support digital connectivity, so that people can access welfare support, keep connected for learning and access support networks?

The Ukrainian consul general was clear at committee last week that many Ukrainians will want to return to Ukraine to rebuild their country, but we do not know how long that will take, given that many of them have homes that no longer exist. We need our businesses to be able to reach out to Ukrainians so that their skills can be matched with potential employers and they can support their families. What is the First Minister doing to make that a reality?

The First Minister

I give an assurance to members that work on all those issues is on-going. Members will understand that the principal and immediate focus is on making arrangements and getting the agreements to put immediate support in place for people, accommodating them and providing them with health services and other support very quickly. However, we are already thinking about employability. Businesses and other sectors are already making offers of employment and accommodation support. Remember, we need people to come here and work across a range of sectors, so we are already seeking to collate and co-ordinate that. There will be requirements to help people who perhaps have qualifications in Ukraine to adapt those qualifications to here. I cannot give commitments right now, but that is work that we are exploring—for example, if somebody has qualifications in teaching or health care, are we able to support them to quickly make those skills available here? Work on all that is under way.

Similarly, on digital connectivity, a big part of that is making sure that we use all the systems that are there to speed up that work. Some parts of that will take longer to get in place than others, because the immediate focus is most important, but all that is part of a very rapid and comprehensive response. The reason that we are working through, and want to do this through, the supersponsor route is so that we can do it much more comprehensively and have greater visibility of how many people are here, where they will be and what skills they bring, which will allow us to act in a holistic way.

We will keep Parliament updated as that develops. We have referred to the Syrian precedent, but it is worth remembering that we had months to prepare for the Syrian settlement scheme. We are doing this literally in a matter of days, so I cannot answer every question in detail right now, but I can give an assurance that all these questions are being considered, and we are working at pace to put the answers and arrangements in place.

Collette Stevenson (East Kilbride) (SNP)

I have been contacted by a constituent in East Kilbride who is waiting for extended family to arrive from Ukraine. Can the First Minister set out how the Scottish Government is working with stakeholders such as local authorities and the Scottish Refugee Council to ensure that accommodation is available for people on arrival? Furthermore, what organisation is best placed to help people who have disabilities and require accommodation?

The First Minister

Those are important questions. Most of my comments in the statement and in the answers that I have given to questions have been about the people who will come through the homes for Ukraine route and, hopefully, the supersponsor route that will run in parallel in relation to Scotland. However, it is important to say that we are also standing ready to provide support to those coming through the family route. Many of them will not need accommodation because they will be coming to stay with family, but they may need help when they get here to travel to their destination and will need help to access other services, so we are seeking to put that in place. We have been trying over the past week or so to keep track of people who might be coming into the country, whether that is people coming into Cairnryan from Ireland—the Republic of Ireland has waived visa requirements—or people coming in through airports, through the family route.

As I said, I spoke to the Scottish Refugee Council this morning; the council had people at Edinburgh airport at the weekend, who held up boards to say to people who were coming from Ukraine that they were there to welcome and support them. Therefore, some of what the member asked about is happening; we need to make sure that it continues to happen.

Accommodation is, obviously, the critical and most immediate issue for people who come but do not have family accommodation, so getting temporary accommodation in place and then working through the longer-term options is at the top of the priority list when it comes to the various issues that we are working through.

Four more members want to ask a question. I am keen to take them all, but if I am to do so I will need questions and answers to be succinct.

Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

Across the European Union, there has been incredible solidarity from bus and rail operators, who have provided free transport to people fleeing the conflict in Ukraine. From Deutsche Bahn in Germany to the SNCF in France and ferry operators in Sweden, countries and companies have stepped up to provide free, safe travel for refugees. Does the First Minister agree that the UK and Scottish Governments, as well as transport providers, should join our European neighbours in doing something similar to help all those who seek refuge here, including people who are fleeing the devastating war in Ukraine, by offering the widest possible scheme of free access to public transport?

The First Minister

Yes, I do. We will seek to reach out to transport providers to make sure that that is the case. Ross Greer is rightly talking about transport and travel within Scotland, but we have also already had very tentative discussions to explore the possibility of our arranging travel to Scotland for people who are in Poland and who get agreement to come to Scotland. All that is very much in the ambit of what we are looking at. Not all those bits of support will be necessary for everybody, but we want to ensure that the support that we are able to provide is as comprehensive and all-encompassing as it can be.

Dr Alasdair Allan (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)

I imagine that almost every member has been contacted, as I have been, by constituents who are reaching out to offer their support and welcome Ukrainians to Scotland. Is the First Minister confident that the roll-out of the supersponsor scheme can fully utilise and co-ordinate that outpouring of generosity, particularly on the part of Scots who are unsure how to proceed when they have a room to offer but, as yet, no name of a person to whom they can offer it?

The First Minister

Yes, I am confident that, through the scheme, we can match the generosity of the Scottish public.

Let me again be clear about what we are asking the UK Government to do. From Friday, when I understand that visas will start to be issued under the homes for Ukraine scheme, we are asking the UK Government, in effect, to issue 3,000 visas to people because we have said that we will sponsor them—so that the UK Government does not demand that individual sponsors in Scotland are identified for those people but allows the Scottish Government to be the single sponsor and lets them come to Scotland, where we will put in place temporary accommodation while we do the process of matching those people, who will be safely here.

Through all the work that we are doing, with operational meetings going on even as we speak, if we get that agreement from the UK Government, I believe that we can put in place the arrangements to give 3,000 people initially, and more later, the safe sanctuary that they need here. What we need, though, is the UK Government to be able and willing to start issuing the visas from this weekend. That is the bit that I hope to get agreement on. I am optimistic about it, but it is the bit that we still need to secure.

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

Two weeks ago, a couple arrived from Ukraine, after a traumatic journey. They were turned down for temporary accommodation because they were not willing to give up one of their cats, which they had brought with them. Does the First Minister agree that local authorities need to take a pragmatic attitude and allow people who have come from horrific situations to take things that they have brought with them to their new accommodation, whether we are talking about pets or other things?

Does the First Minister also agree that there is a lack of accommodation in this city? Will people who arrive in Edinburgh go to other parts of the country, or does she see Edinburgh becoming a major hub?

The First Minister

The experience of the Syrian resettlement scheme is that many different parts of Scotland, including rural, remote and island communities, have played their part in welcoming people, and I think that that is what we want in this context.

An issue that we are discussing with the UK Government is that, if the single supersponsor proposal is given the green light, we need to get a sense of exactly where people will arrive. Will they all arrive into Edinburgh airport? Will some people come via London or through other points of entry? Those sound like—and are—points of detail, but they are really important points of detail to get, so that we know where to put the initial welcome hubs and where we will accommodate people immediately and temporarily while we do the wider matching work.

The point about pets is important. People are fleeing trauma. Not everybody who offers accommodation will be willing to take a pet. However, the more information and visibility of people coming here that we have, the more able we will be to assess their needs and properly match them with people who are willing to offer help.

The supersponsor proposal is—I will be perfectly frank about this—partly about short-circuiting UK processes that I still think are too bureaucratic, are too cumbersome and take too long, but it is also about allowing us to offer more comprehensive support by having greater information about people who come here. That is why I really hope that it works. If it does, I am confident that the Scottish Government, working with our partners and with the great body of good will from across Scotland, will make Scotland a place of safety, sanctuary and welcome for as many Ukrainians as possible.

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

I note the proposal for welcome hubs and, if necessary, temporary accommodation. I suggest that the Scottish Government could start by using premises that are in its ownership for welcome hubs and accommodation. For example, in Edinburgh, we have Holyrood palace a stone’s throw from the Parliament. It is, I understand, owned by the Scottish Government, has lots of space—more than 200 rooms—and is largely underoccupied.

The First Minister

I am keen that we keep our focus on what we are trying to do to help Ukraine. I know that the point is serious and I am taking it seriously. I am just a little bit reluctant to give an answer that might generate a headline that detracts from the important work that we are doing.

Christine Grahame’s general point is right. We should look to use all possible ways of helping to accommodate people from Ukraine. We are all being asked whether we will do it. Everybody’s circumstances are different, but her general point is right that we should make available all accommodation that we reasonably can. That will allow us to ensure that we maximise the contribution that we make.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That concludes the statement. There will be a short pause to allow the front-bench teams to change over for the next item.

While members are moving positions, I remind everyone of the Covid-related measures that are in place and that face coverings should be worn when moving around the chamber and across the Holyrood campus.