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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, June 16, 2022

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Men’s Sheds, Point of Order, Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Role of Incineration in Waste Hierarchy, Miners’ Strike (Pardons) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Miners’ Strike (Pardons) (Scotland) Bill, Point of Order, Decision Time


Contents


First Minister’s Question Time


Scottish Independence Referendum

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

The Scottish National Party Government has said that it wants to hold another divisive independence referendum in October next year, but Nicola Sturgeon cannot even say whether ferries will float by then; she will not have closed the school attainment gap by then; she will not have returned national health service services to normal by then; and she will not have cleared the court backlogs by then.

Why should all those pressing issues play second fiddle to another divisive independence referendum next year?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

First, I welcome Douglas Ross’s line of questioning. It is at least an implicit—if not yet an explicit—recognition that people in Scotland will have their say on independence in line with the democratic mandate that this Parliament has.

The second point is that the case for independence is not distinct or separate from the big challenges that Scotland, in common with countries across the world, is facing right now. Instead, independence is part of the solution to those challenges. It is about how we equip ourselves better as a country to meet those challenges and fulfil our potential.

Independence is not the distraction that Douglas Ross wants to pretend that it is. Instead, it presents an alternative to a failing United Kingdom system—a failing UK system that gives us a Prime Minister right now with no democratic or moral mandate in Scotland; that has given us a Brexit that we did not vote for; that is giving us the highest inflation in the G7 and the lowest projected growth in the G20, with the sole exception of Russia; that is constraining our public finances and tying the hands of the Scottish Government; and, of course, that give us the obscenity of a Government that tries to shore up its own base by deporting vulnerable people to Rwanda, which is utterly immoral.

Independence is an alternative to that. It would give this Parliament additional powers to navigate those challenges and meet the full massive potential of this country.

What a depressing answer from the First Minister—never once responding to the points about education, our NHS or the justice system—[Interruption.]

We will hear Mr Ross, thank you.

Douglas Ross

—never once responding to the pressing issues for people across Scotland right now, which will be playing second fiddle to an independence referendum, because we know that the First Minister cannot focus on improving our country when she is trying to divide it all over again.

We can see right now what happens when this SNP Government is distracted: the census was a shambles, because the constitution secretary—who is looking up to the sky, maybe for divine inspiration—was too busy updating the “UK bad” bar charts to actually count the number of people in Scotland. That is what happens when time and resources are not thrown squarely behind things that really should matter. Mistakes are made and the people of Scotland are the ones who suffer.

Let us look at Scotland’s NHS. Waiting lists are continually hitting record highs across our health service, from accident and emergency to cancer diagnosis. Patients are waiting years for essential treatment. Why does Scotland’s NHS not deserve the First Minister’s full focus right now?

The First Minister

Those issues have my full focus. However, since Douglas Ross has raised them, I will take them on point by point, and he should listen carefully.

First of all, though, he talks about bar charts. What every one of the bar charts in the publication that we produced on Tuesday this week shows is that when 10 comparator countries across Europe—with different characteristics but all independent—are compared with Scotland, they are wealthier, they are fairer and they have better wellbeing than Scotland as part of the UK. They make the case for Scotland becoming an independent country.

Let me set out the ways in which the Government is using our current powers, and in doing so making the case for more powers. Let us look at the economy. In the most recent quarter, Scotland’s gross domestic product grew; in the rest of the UK, GDP contracted. Unemployment right now is lower in Scotland than in the rest of the UK. Unlike the rest of the UK, Scotland has a positive trade balance in goods with the rest of the world. We have the position as the top-performing—[Interruption.]—

We will hear the First Minister.

—economy in the UK for inward investment outside of London.

Will hear the First Minister. Thank you.

The First Minister

Business research and development is up under this Government by 99.5 per cent, compared with under 30 per cent in the rest of the UK.

Let us turn to schools. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Scotland has the highest proportion of 25 to 65-year-olds in the UK with post-secondary education. Of all UK nations, we have the highest number of teachers. We have the highest number of schools per 100,000 pupils. On the last exam day, we saw higher passes at the highest level in the history of devolution. On access to university, the independent commissioner for fair access says that Scotland has “set the pace” with regard to fair access across the UK—and, of course, we have free tuition in Scotland.

On justice, recorded crime is at one of the lowest levels since 1974—down 41 per cent under this Government.

Lastly, on health and social care, we have record staff numbers.

Briefly, First Minister.

The First Minister

We have higher staff numbers than in other parts of the UK, and we have the best-paid staff anywhere in the UK.

If that is what we can do with the powers of devolution, imagine how much better we can do with the powers of independence.

Douglas Ross

The First Minister’s answers are as selective as her bar charts. Yet again, there is nothing about the attainment gap. What happened to that being the First Minister’s number 1 priority?

There have now been two questions about the NHS and two answers that never mentioned our NHS, because those issues are put on the back burner.—[Interruption.]

Those issues are put on the back burner.

Members!

Douglas Ross

For the SNP and the SNP Government, those issues are put on the back burner because they have set a date for an illegal referendum in just 16 months’ time. Nicola Sturgeon is distracted all over again, and we know what happens next.

Every time the SNP campaigns for another referendum, Scotland’s drug deaths spiral. The First Minister has admitted that herself.—[Interruption.]

Members!

Douglas Ross

She took her “eye off the ball”, and people lost their lives. The latest figures show that Nicola Sturgeon’s drug deaths scandal remains the worst in Europe. We have brought forward a solution that we could implement straight away. Our right to recovery bill now has cross-party support. Nicola Sturgeon’s Government could throw its weight behind it and we could pass that bill now, this year.

Why should a referendum bill be passed before the First Minister sorts out Scotland’s drug deaths scandal?

The First Minister

On drug deaths, I have said—and people who have been listening to earlier First Minister’s question times will have heard me say—that we will look very sympathetically at Douglas Ross’s bill when he publishes it. We cannot do that until the bill is published.

I hope that we can find consensus and agreement. Some concerns have been raised by experts about what might be in the bill; other experts have voiced real support for it. The willingness to work together is there.

Of course, we are investing £250 million over this session of Parliament to tackle drug deaths and, although there is no room for complacency, we have seen in recent statistics a reduction in the number of suspected drug deaths over the months to March 2021.

Going back to other aspects of Douglas Ross’s question, he said, bizarrely, that in my previous answer I did not mention the NHS or the attainment gap; I mentioned both. I pointed to the commissioner for fair access. A core part of tackling the attainment gap is to reduce that inaccess to university, and the independent commissioner has described our progress as an “unambiguous success”. I also mentioned the NHS—the fact that we have record staff numbers and the best-paid staff anywhere in the UK.

Lastly, Douglas Ross should really stop—there is a real desperation at the heart of his approach to independence. It is very telling, is it not, that he is so terrified of the substantive debate on independence—so terrified of the verdict of the Scottish people on independence—that he is reduced to somehow trying to pretend that democracy in Scotland is illegal.

It is not a question of whether this Government respects the rule of law; we do and always will. The question is, is Douglas Ross a democrat? I think that the glaring answer to that is no.

Douglas Ross

The First Minister’s priorities are all wrong at the worst possible time. It is a crucial moment right now for public services and our economy. We have just gone through a pandemic, war in Europe has hiked energy prices and there is a global cost of living crisis. It is time for us all to pull together and focus on improving public services, creating jobs, restoring schools, fighting crime and supporting our NHS.

Scotland has the potential to rebuild stronger. A focus on our recovery is what the Scottish people overwhelmingly want, not a referendum. We need a strong Government for all of Scotland, but we are getting a weak campaign group for the nationalist minority that values grievance over governing. Why is the SNP’s obsession with a referendum next year more important than the priorities of people across Scotland right now?

The First Minister

Independence is about ensuring that we can better meet the priorities of the Scottish people and deal with those challenges. What Douglas Ross needs to reflect on is that so many of the challenges that he has outlined are being exacerbated right now in Scotland because we are not independent.

We were taken out of the European Union against our will. Brexit is why we are suffering the highest inflation in the G7 and the lowest growth of the G20 apart from Russia, and why we are seeing constrained budgets. That is Brexit and that happened to Scotland because we are not independent. People across the country are paying the price of it right now. Independence is the solution.

Lastly, because we are not independent, we currently have a Prime Minister whom even Douglas Ross—well, this is the case today; it might not be tomorrow—does not think is fit for office. The ethics adviser—the second ethics adviser to Boris Johnson who has resigned—said this morning that the Prime Minister

“has placed him in an impossible and odious position.”

Douglas Ross seems to agree with Christopher Geidt that Boris Johnson is putting him in an odious position. The difference between Douglas Ross and Christopher Geidt is that Christopher Geidt has the decency and honour to resign.


Audit Scotland Report (Covid Spending)

2. Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

Today, Audit Scotland has published the latest in a series of damning reports uncovering the Scottish National Party Government’s failures. It shows that the Government made more than 300 spending announcements during the Covid pandemic, but failed to monitor how that money was spent. More than 40 per cent of the additional funding for health and social care that came through Barnett consequentials has not been spent.

The First Minister said at the election that her priority was Covid recovery, but Audit Scotland says that there are billions of pounds of Covid money being “held back” while our public services, businesses and workers are crying out for support.

Why is Covid recovery no longer the First Minister’s priority? Why has that money not been spent? Will the First Minister guarantee that every penny will be spent on rebuilding Scotland?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

That is not what this morning’s Audit Scotland report shows. It is a very good and positive report, and we will pay very close attention to the recommendations that it makes.

Let me share some of what the Audit Scotland report actually says. The Scottish Government spent more on dealing with the pandemic—£15.5 billion—than was allocated through consequentials from the United Kingdom Government. The report goes up only to December 2021 and not to the end of the financial year so, of course, at that time some of the money remained unallocated, Also, the pandemic is, of course, not completely behind us, so we need to continue to support the economy and our public services without consequentials.

The report also says that the Scottish Government

“managed its overall budget effectively”;

that it “developed specific schemes” that were unique in the UK—they did not exist anywhere else in the UK; that it acted with the essential “urgency” and “speed”; that it

“relied on established systems ... to detect”

and reduce fraud in the system; and that it worked well with partners across the country.

The report suggests some lessons that we should learn. As is the case with all aspects of the pandemic, we will ensure that we learn those lessons.

Anas Sarwar

Not for the first time, the First Minister is denying the reality. The report refers to money that was committed but has not been spent, and it makes it clear that although it is a good thing to build reserves, using emergency money to do so is not. It is the equivalent of taking out a payday loan and putting it in a savings account. It does not work and it is not good for Scotland.

This is not the first time that Audit Scotland has highlighted the Government’s incompetence. As is typical with the Scottish National Party Government, there is a culture of contempt for anyone who dares to ask a difficult question or to expose an inconvenient truth. Even when it is one of the SNP’s own members, the party closes ranks and gives them a slap on the wrist.

In the face of uncomfortable truths about its financial mismanagement, SNP figures openly talk of “clipping the wings” of Audit Scotland. The SNP has already cut Audit Scotland’s budget by nearly a fifth since it came to power and the spending review makes it clear that there will be year-on-year cuts to come. Is not it the case that Nicola Sturgeon is cutting Audit Scotland’s budget because it makes it harder for it to do its job and harder for it to expose the Government’s failures, and because it makes it easier for her to get away with it?

The First Minister

Oh, dear. I thought that Anas Sarwar might have done some basic homework before coming to the chamber. I have some news for him: the Scottish Government does not set the budget for Audit Scotland. The budget for Audit Scotland is independently funded through the Scottish Parliament; the audit fees from public bodies pay for it. [Interruption.] I thought that Anas Sarwar might have known that—[Interruption.]

Members! [Interruption.] Mr Swinney! Members! I am sorry; I cannot hear a word that the First Minister is saying, and I am sure that we would all like to hear what is being said.

The First Minister

I am not sure that Anas Sarwar will want to hear this, but I certainly want him to hear it. The figures in the spending review in relation to Audit Scotland are illustrative because we have to have illustrative figures, but they do not replace the independent processes whereby Parliament scrutinises and determines the budget of Audit Scotland. That is basic stuff that I thought a leader of an Opposition party would have known.

The reserves were fully utilised as part of the 2021-22 budget management process. They were transparently allocated within the budget revisions, and they include the £134 million of Covid funding that was specifically ring fenced for health. No money that is currently in the Scottish reserves relates at all to Covid-19 business support funding. Again, that is basic stuff that I thought a leader of an Opposition party would have known.

Anas Sarwar accuses me of being selective in my quoting of the Audit Scotland report. I have it here and I will read from page 4 of the actual report. It states:

“The Scottish Government worked collaboratively and at pace with local and UK government to direct significant public spending in difficult circumstances. It is critical that lessons are learned about what worked well, and what”

needs to “improve”.

The second point that it makes is that

“the Scottish Government streamlined governance arrangements to direct funds quickly”,

and it goes on to say that

“it is hard to see how some financial decisions were reached”,

but that is because we were acting quickly, because there was a global pandemic.

Thirdly, it says:

“The Scottish Government directed a large proportion of funding to councils and other public bodies who had existing systems and local knowledge to enable them to spend quickly.”

Briefly, First Minister.

The First Minister

Fourthly, the report says:

“The Scottish Government has managed its overall budget effectively”.

Yes—it says that some Covid-19 funding remains unspent, but that is because the report does not go to the end of the financial year. Again, that is really basic stuff that I thought the leader of the Opposition would have known.

Anas Sarwar

Nicola Sturgeon can be as condescending as she likes. We are used to it.

However, the reality is that she is selectively quoting from one page when the report makes it clear that it is not clear where the Covid recovery money is going to be spent, and that there are billions of pounds of reserves sitting in integration joint board accounts or local government accounts. That is money that should be spent on the recovery.

On the spending review, the report makes it clear that year after year there is a standstill budget for the Scottish Parliament and Audit Scotland. That means, in real terms, year-after-year budget cuts for Audit Scotland, which means that its wings are clipped.

It is no wonder that Nicola Sturgeon wants to hide and distract from her failures. She is not focusing on the rising child and pensioner poverty that is happening on her watch. She is not focusing on the drugs deaths that have more than doubled on her watch. She is not focusing on the attainment gap that is still wide open on her watch, and she is not focusing on the 700,000 people on national health service waiting lists on her watch. What do we get? Instead of the Nicola Sturgeon whom we saw during the pandemic, we see a return to the Nicola Sturgeon who wants to divide our country and to pit Scot against Scot. After 15 years of this Scottish National Party Government and eight years as First Minister, when will she stop pretending that she is in Opposition and start governing for the people of Scotland?

The First Minister

Forgive me, Presiding Officer, but when Anas Sarwar comes to the chamber and makes basic errors, it is not “condescending” to point them out. It is not my job to hide the incompetence of the leader of the Scottish Labour Party; it is my job to put facts in front of the Scottish people.

Anas Sarwar talks about this Government’s use of our own powers and he mentioned child poverty. I remind him that Scotland is the only part of the United Kingdom that has a child payment specifically to lift children out of poverty. If Anas Sarwar was prepared not to continue to support welfare powers lying in the hands of Tory Prime Ministers and Chancellors of the Exchequer, and would instead help to get them into the hands of this Parliament, we could do more—and he just might have a scrap more credibility.

On Scotland’s right to choose, Anas Sarwar is entitled—although why he would want to do it is beyond me—to team up with the Tories again to oppose independence. That is democracy. What he is not entitled to do is stand in the way of the Scottish people’s democratic right to choose. His position has him at odds with the trade union movement and the Scottish Trades Union Congress. It has him at odds with the constituency that he would like to represent, where 60 per cent of voters backed parties supporting a referendum. It has him at odds with his own party’s membership, as a third of Scottish Labour voters support a second referendum on independence, and with his own MSPs, including Alex Rowley and Monica Lennon. Even Jackie Baillie has said that Labour was wrong to do a deal with the better together campaign in the previous campaign. However, most fundamental is that Anas Sarwar’s absurd position puts him at odds with any basic notion of democracy, which is why he will continue to struggle so badly.


Scottish Breastfeeding Week 2022

How is the Scottish Government supporting Scottish breastfeeding week, and what steps are being taken to promote the breastfeeding friendly Scotland scheme?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Scottish breastfeeding week 2022 is being promoted with a programme of daily events and is supported by national health service boards and third sector partners. The highlight of the week was a breastfeeding celebration event that was held yesterday, at which Maree Todd thanked more than 120 delegates from health boards and the third sector. At that event, we also launched important resources for promotion and protection of and support for breastfeeding in Scotland. A theme that is running throughout the week is promotion of the breastfeeding friendly Scotland scheme. Work continues to promote and expand the scheme from commercial premises including shops and cafes, to early years and school settings, and to our local authorities.


Baby J (Independent Review)

Russell Findlay (West Scotland) (Con)

Baby J was 11 weeks old when he died in West Lothian. In his short life, he suffered multiple broken bones and other injuries that, in a ruling, a judge said could only have been inflicted by his parents. A social worker and a nurse wanted baby J to be placed on the child protection register before he was born, but they were overruled. The judge has expressed surprise that the council did not instruct a serious case review into his death.

That tragedy happened in 2014, but news of it has emerged only thanks to The Sunday Times. No one has been held to account, and serious questions remain unanswered. Will the First Minister commit to ensuring that a full and independent review now takes place and that its findings are made public?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The circumstances are tragic and horrific, and I convey my deep condolences to the loved ones of baby J. In such circumstances, it is really important that all lessons be learned fully. There are already independent processes in place to ensure that that is the case. Of course, I will satisfy myself that all the necessary processes are in place to ensure that all the lessons that need to be learned from the case—clearly, lessons do need to be learned—are learned and that, within the bounds of confidentiality for families, any findings of any of the processes are put into the public domain.


Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis

Pam Duncan-Glancy (Glasgow) (Lab)

This week is the first-ever juvenile idiopathic arthritis week. I thank members for their support in promoting it and for wearing purple. I also thank the activists who have shared their personal stories.

One in 1,000 children in Scotland has JIA. I ask the First Minister to join me in thanking organisations such as Versus Arthritis and clinicians who are working tirelessly for the work that they do to support people who are living with JIA in Scotland. What more can the Scottish Government do to raise awareness of the condition?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I thank Pam Duncan-Glancy for raising this important issue. The first JIA awareness week is a step forward. It is really important and I am delighted to support it.

I am also delighted to accept the invitation to pay tribute to organisations such as Versus Arthritis, which do fantastic work to raise awareness of the issues that people with JIA experience and to support people who are in those circumstances. I give a commitment to continue to work with charities and similar organisations to ensure that we do as much as possible to support people. I would be happy to ask the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care to discuss those issues with Pam Duncan-Glancy, so that we consider everything possible to increase support.


Green Free Ports (North-East Scotland)

Jackie Dunbar (Aberdeen Donside) (SNP)

Aberdeen International Airport Ltd, Port of Aberdeen, Peterhead Port Authority, Aberdeen City Council and Aberdeenshire Council have put together a bid to bring a green free port to the north-east of Scotland. That bid has the potential to boost gross value added income by £7.5 billion, bring 30,000 jobs to the north-east of Scotland and usher in a new era of investment, innovation, regeneration and opportunities for the people who need them most across the region.

I am aware that the First Minister cannot support any particular bid, but will she give a commitment that the Government will give serious consideration to the bid, and will she join me in recognising the huge benefit that it could bring to the north-east of Scotland? [Applause.]

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

We can hear the north-east contingent in Parliament loudly and clearly.

All bids will be treated extremely seriously. I advise the Parliament that bids for green free port status close on 20 June. All bids will be assessed jointly by the Scottish Government and the United Kingdom Government, with ministers jointly selecting the winning bids. As it is a competitive process, I cannot comment on individual bids at this stage, as Jackie Dunbar indicated. However, I recognise the strong support that she has given to the north-east bid, which is, of course, of great interest to her constituents.

I look forward to receiving strong bids from around Scotland from everyone with ambitious plans that will bring real benefits to Scottish businesses, workers and communities and that will have a positive and lasting impact on Scotland’s economy. A clear contribution to achieving net zero through decarbonisation plans is a core requirement of green free ports. Applications should also demonstrate how they will deliver fair work, or they will not be supported by the Scottish Government.

I take the opportunity to wish all bidders well in the process.


NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde

Annie Wells (Glasgow) (Con)

My constituent Briege Ward-Foley, who suffers from spina bifida, had bladder surgery in April 2019. Since the initial operation, her bowel problems have worsened and the only option is further surgery. Briege is admitted to hospital on a four-weekly basis, as her bowels do not function without a nasogastric tube, but that treatment is damaging and is becoming less effective over time. That experience has taken an immense physical and mental toll on her, and she needs urgent assistance.

Briege’s consultants have informed her that they are prepared for surgery. However, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde continues to delay her vital surgery. What action can the First Minister take to assist my constituent in getting her surgery as quickly as possible?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I thank Annie Wells for raising the issue. As, I hope, she will appreciate, I do not know the details of her constituent’s case other than those that she has just shared with me in Parliament. If she is willing, and if she has the consent of her constituent, to share all the details of the case and any additional relevant information with the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care this afternoon, I will ensure that the case is looked into as a matter of urgency and that we liaise with the health board and give a detailed reply to her as quickly as possible.


Police Pay

Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

This week, Calum Steele of the Scottish Police Federation described the police pay offer of £565 as “derisory”. He said that police officers are disgusted at the offer and are considering taking action to demonstrate the “palpable anger” that members of the SPF feel. Such a low offer has been made despite the fact that the police have done an exemplary job in the pandemic, and despite the crime figures that the First Minister referred to earlier. I am sure that she gives the police some credit for those figures.

The offer comes despite warnings from the SPF that more than 800 police officers are expected to take early retirement—a higher figure than we would expect—because they feel overworked and undervalued. They refer to constant cancellation of their rest days and annual leave.

If the Government takes the issue seriously, what is the First Minister doing to make sure that police officers do not feel undervalued by the Government? What is she doing to make sure that we encourage police officers to stay in the service and not take advantage of early retirement? We need those offices on the front line.

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I pay tribute to police officers and support staff across the country, whose service is exemplary. I give them enormous credit for their contribution not only to the handling of the pandemic, but to the wellbeing of our country.

Pauline McNeill is right to say that the figures that I cited earlier, which show that our crime rates are among the lowest since the 1970s, are in large part down to the efforts of the police. That is why we have a higher number of police officers than we had when the Scottish National Party took office. We have a higher number of police officers proportionately than other parts of the United Kingdom, and the starting salary for police officers is higher in Scotland than it is elsewhere in the UK.

I want all public sector workers to get the fairest possible pay increases, particularly at this time of soaring inflation. Pay negotiations across the public sector are under way, and it is obvious that the Scottish Government—within the very limited resources that we have—is seeking to secure as much fairness as possible. Unlike a Government elsewhere in these islands, we value deeply the contribution of public sector workers.

Specifically in relation to the police, police officer pay is negotiated through the police negotiating board. That has been the case for many years, and that process is on-going in relation to pay for 2022-23. It would not be appropriate for me to cut across that. Following Scottish Police Authority board approval in late May, formal negotiations with trade unions commenced on 2 June. That process is on-going, and I hope that it delivers—I would say this about all groups in the public sector—the fairest possible outcome in the circumstances that we are in.


Northern Ireland Protocol (United Kingdom Government Proposed Legislation)

3. Maggie Chapman (North East Scotland) (Green)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s analysis is of the potential risks to Scotland’s economy of the United Kingdom Government’s proposed legislation to override the Northern Ireland protocol. (S6F-01224)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The Scottish Government was not consulted by the UK Government before it took that action, which risks a hugely damaging, self-inflicted trade war in the middle of a cost of living crisis and which might well breach international law.

The UK Government is risking sanctions such as targeted tariffs that would deeply harm Scottish businesses, which are already dealing with an uncertain and unnecessarily bureaucratic environment, thanks to Brexit. It is also very likely that the UK Government’s action will end discussions across a range of other important issues, including access for our scientists and researchers to the European Union’s horizon programme.

Brexit has already made the cost of living crisis much worse, but, by sparking a trade war, the UK Government risks exacerbating that crisis significantly. I hope that common sense and decency on the part of the UK Government quickly prevail.

Maggie Chapman

By seeking to override parts of the Northern Ireland protocol, the UK Government is putting the economic wellbeing of the north of Ireland behind its desire to impose its Brexit-infused British ideology on people. Such unilateral action also damages trust in politics. As the First Minister has said, we know that Brexit is already damaging Scottish businesses. Indeed, some in the north-east, in my region, have decided to stop all international business due to Brexit.

What can we do to ensure that any actions by the EU in response to the UK Government’s riding roughshod over international treaties does not further damage Scotland’s economy? Does the First Minister agree that independence for Scotland is now very clearly the best route to securing our country’s position as an outward-looking and internationally responsible European nation?

The First Minister

Maggie Chapman’s question is absolutely correct, as is everything that she said. Let us not forget that the Northern Ireland protocol was negotiated and signed by the UK Government. It is also a protocol that is now benefiting Northern Ireland, whose economy is doing better than those of the other countries in the UK. If I, as First Minister of Scotland, could get a protocol that would allow Scotland to continue to trade freely across the single market, I would take it in a heartbeat. That is the reality.

We also have a UK Government that is showing no respect for the rule of law, for international law or for the basic norms of our democracy. Earlier, I quoted from the letter from Christopher Geidt, the now-resigned ethics adviser to the Prime Minister. Let me quote another line from it. I do not know whether it refers to the Northern Ireland protocol, but it may do. Lord Geidt says that, this week, he was

“tasked to offer a view about the Government’s intention to consider measures which risk a deliberate and purposeful breach of the Ministerial Code.”

That is how the UK Government is now behaving.

Actually, I slightly disagree with Maggie Chapman. I do not think that independence is now the best route to securing our status in the European Union as an outward-looking country—it is now our only route to doing that.


Responsible Access (Countryside)

To ask the First Minister, in light of summer officially commencing next week on 21 June, what action the Scottish Government is taking to promote responsible access to Scotland’s countryside. (S6F-01223)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

It is very pleasing to see that summer may have unofficially commenced already in Scotland. Long may it continue.

NatureScot is the lead Scottish Government public body for access to the countryside. It works with the national parks and other key partners on raising awareness of the Scottish outdoor access code. Last year, NatureScot’s traditional and social media activity saw more than 15 million impressions, driving more than half a million page views on the Scottish outdoor access code website. A further campaign is already under way for this summer. It will inform campers of their responsibilities, including around people and pet behaviour, and good practice in relation to fires and waste disposal.

Emma Harper

More people will be enjoying Scotland’s bonnie countryside, but it so important that they do so responsibly. As the First Minister will know, the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) (Amendment) (Scotland) Act 2021, which is based on my member’s bill, is now law and increases penalties for those who allow dogs to worry or attack livestock. Will she join me in encouraging everyone to follow the Scottish outdoor access code and to keep their dogs under control when they are in the countryside? Will she also join me in commending the vital work of the Scottish partnership against rural crime?

The First Minister

Emma Harper has made important points. Of course, everyone should follow the access code. Indeed, it is worth pointing out that access rights apply to dog walking only if the dog is under proper control.

I also commend the vital work of the Scottish partnership against rural crime. Its livestock attack and distress campaign, which has the slogan “Your Dog—Your Responsibility”, aims to educate dog owners about the new legislation and is key to awareness raising and bringing an end to the associated unnecessary suffering for all involved. Police Scotland and farming and crofting stakeholders combine their efforts to address such crimes, and the Scottish Government also campaigns with the Scottish SPCA. The small minority of people who do not treat livestock with respect and care must be held accountable, and the consequences must appropriately reflect the severity of their crimes.


Nuclear Fusion Technology (Investment)

To ask the First Minister whether she will provide an update on the Scottish Government’s policy regarding investment in nuclear fusion technology. (S6F-01214)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

We are aware of the increasing interest in the development of fusion energy, which of course is different from traditional nuclear energy. We should never close our minds to new technology. It is clear, though, that there is still a very long way to go on fully understanding both the risks and the opportunities that fusion energy technology presents.

The Scottish Government’s position on traditional nuclear energy has not changed and will not change. We do not support the building of new nuclear power stations in Scotland, and therefore that will not feature as part of our wider energy strategy review, which is due to be published later this year.

We will continue to assess any such new technologies based on safety, value for consumers and contribution to Scotland’s low-carbon economy and energy future.

Craig Hoy

I thank the First Minister for that answer, but I note that she is non-committal on fusion and will still use the planning system to shut down Scotland’s traditional nuclear energy industry.

Scientists at the UK-based Joint European Torus have set a new record for the amount of energy produced in its quest to produce nuclear fusion. That offers the potential of virtually unlimited supplies of safe, low-carbon, low-radiation energy. Why will the First Minister not give a guarantee that her Government will allow Scotland to benefit from that technology when it becomes commercially available? Is caving in to the anti-science, anti-nuclear dogma of the Greens yet another price that she will pay for them propping up the Scottish National Party’s plan for an illegal wildcat referendum next October? [Interruption.]

Members.

The First Minister

There is a real obsession on the Tory benches today. I think that they might be feeling a wee bit under pressure and uncomfortable because they know that a referendum will be legal and it is coming.

On the issue at stake, however, yes—I am noncommittal on fusion energy. It would be irresponsible to be anything other than that, because there is an awful long way to go before any of us fully understands either the risks or indeed the opportunities that that technology might present. It will probably be decades before we could see any plants operating, and a lot of understanding needs to be built along the way. We will not close our minds, but neither will we jump to conclusions while that work has to be done.

Our position on traditional nuclear energy is well known. Let me quote the chair of the Nuclear Consulting Group:

“The central message, repeated again and again, that a new generation of nuclear will be clean and safe is a fiction. The reality is nuclear is an extremely costly and inflexible technology with the potential to cause significant harm.”

We have massive renewables potential, and this Government is going to focus on making sure that we fully realise that.


National Health Service (Use of Locums)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government is doing to tackle the reported growing use of locum staff in the national health service. (S6F-01228)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The use of temporary staffing in the NHS, be that locum, agency or bank staff, is a very small fraction of NHS staffing. Temporary staff were vital during the height of the pandemic, not least to deliver our vaccination programme. The majority of the temporary staffing cost comes from the NHS staff bank, who are of course NHS staff members on NHS rates of pay.

Every health system has to make some use of temporary or agency staffing. Let me illustrate that. In 2021, agency spending in NHS England was 23 per cent higher than in Scotland. In Labour-run Wales, agency spending was 79 per cent higher than in Scotland.

NHS staffing in Scotland is at a record high level and, as set out in our recent workforce strategy, we are committed to growing the NHS workforce further.

Jackie Baillie

I thank the First Minister for her response, but I remind her that, of course, people in this chamber are responsible for the NHS in Scotland. Perhaps she should spend her time focusing on that, because agency spend has risen to £423 million in 2021-22, which represents a 30 per cent increase on the previous year. We have had a pandemic, but most of that increase is down to the increasing level of vacancies for nurses, doctors and consultants.

The First Minister may be aware that, currently, nurses are quitting the NHS to work for private agencies that then, in turn, place them back in the NHS to cover staff shortages. They can earn more in a weekend than they do all week working in the NHS. The consequence is more vacancies and more money being wasted on sticking-plaster solutions. What action will the First Minister take to end the costly and growing use of agency staff in our NHS?

The First Minister

First, I am responsible and this Government is responsible for NHS Scotland, but as I have said before—I am sorry to disappoint Labour, as I am sure that I will also say this again—if Labour comes to the chamber to say that it would do things so much better, it is perfectly reasonable to look at the record in the part of the United Kingdom where Labour is currently in government and draw our own conclusions on whether that is true or not.

Secondly, we have a record number of workers in our NHS—even taking account of vacancies; I am talking about staff who are currently in post. The number has increased under this Government by almost 30,000.

But demand is growing.

The First Minister

Yes, demand is growing. We have had a pandemic. That has meant that some workers in our NHS have been off sick, due to having Covid, and that additional things—not least, the vaccination programme—have had to be undertaken. I do not know what Jackie Baillie is suggesting. Should we just have left those posts somehow unfilled and not had those service delivered? Is that what a Labour Government would do? If that is the case, people will certainly draw conclusions from that.

I come to my final two points, Presiding Officer. The majority of temporary staffing comes from the staff bank. Those are NHS staff on NHS contracts at NHS rates of pay. Jackie Baillie asked me what action we are taking. We have already acted to ensure that there is a record number of staff in our NHS—higher, proportionately, than in England or Wales—and we will continue to grow the NHS workforce so that it can meet the demands of the people of Scotland in the years to come.

That concludes First Minister’s question time. There will be a brief pause before we move to the next item of business, which is a members’ business debate in the name of Christine Grahame.