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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, December 1, 2022

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Small Business Saturday 2022, Portfolio Question Time, World AIDS Day 2022, Decision Time


Contents


First Minister’s Question Time


Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill

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

I begin by paying tribute to the incredible life and legacy of Doddie Weir, who sadly passed away on Saturday. During his fight to find a cure for motor neurone disease, Doddie has been an inspiration to us all, with his bravery, infectious optimism and love of life. My thoughts are with Doddie’s wife, Kathy, their sons, Hamish, Angus and Ben, and their wider family and friends. Scotland has lost a true sporting legend and a champion in the fight against motor neurone disease. [Applause.]

In the past week, the United Nations expert on violence against women offered to provide expertise to the First Minister on the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill. Reem Alsalem raised concerns that the bill

“would potentially open the door for violent males ... to abuse the process of acquiring a gender certificate”.

Her report states:

“This presents potential risks to the safety of women in all their diversity (including women born female, transwomen, and gender non-conforming women).”

Last night, the Scottish Conservatives asked the Parliament to simply acknowledge the report of the UN rapporteur, but the First Minister voted against that. Why can the First Minister not accept the concerns raised by the UN special rapporteur?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I also take the opportunity to pay tribute to the life and legacy of Doddie Weir. He was a hero on the rugby pitch but, perhaps even more so, he was an inspiration off the rugby pitch. A question later in this First Minister’s question time session will allow me to pay more fulsome tribute to Doddie, but, for now, let me say that my thoughts and condolences are with his wife, his children and all of his loved ones.

On the issue raised by Douglas Ross, not only do we acknowledge the comments made—it is not a UN report; those are comments made by a UN special rapporteur—the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government has written a substantial response to them. I believe that that response can be found on the Scottish Parliament website, because it was sent to the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, which is the lead committee on the bill.

A number of organisations that represent women who suffer male violence and abuse, including Rape Crisis Scotland and Scottish Women’s Aid, have responded, too. They have set out in a number of respects why they disagree with those comments.

I take the safety of women and girls very seriously—perhaps more seriously than any other issue—as I am sure we all do. I have spent much of my adult life and all of my years in public office seeking, along with others, to advance the rights of women and girls and to ensure better protection for them against male violence.

Of course, any man who wants to abuse a woman—certainly in my experience, which I think will be shared by many across the chamber—does not need to in some way pretend to be a woman in order to do so. Any man who felt that need would not need a gender recognition certificate. Our focus as a Parliament, and as a society, should be on those who perpetrate violence against women and girls, which is men. It is not all men, of course, but it is men who abuse women. That should be our focus.

In taking on these issues and debating them fully and respectfully, which is really important, we should not further stigmatise a very small minority who are already perhaps the most marginalised and stigmatised group in society: trans people. In any group in society, where there are bad-faith actors, we deal with them; we do not stigmatise the entire group. I believe that very strongly.

Douglas Ross

From the First Minister’s answer, I am not sure why she could not have voted yesterday for the Conservative amendment, which simply asked the Parliament to acknowledge that report from the special rapporteur. The cabinet secretary has responded to those comments, yet the First Minister and the majority of Scottish National Party MSPs could not support that amendment.

Let us have a look at the valid concerns that have been raised by that expert, Reem Alsalem. She said:

“the ... efforts to reform existing legislation by the Scottish Government do not sufficiently take into consideration the specific needs of women and girls ... particularly those at risk of male violence and those who have experienced male violence”.

To prevent the risk of attacks on women, my Scottish Conservative colleague Russell Findlay lodged an amendment to ban convicted sex offenders from changing gender, but the Scottish Government voted it down. Why does the First Minister believe that a convicted male sex offender should be able to change their gender, given that there is a risk that they will exploit the system in order to attack women?

The First Minister

Not only has the cabinet secretary responded in detail to the comments of the special rapporteur—I encourage all MSPs and all members of the public who have an interest to read those comments, because they set out fully and clearly the reasons why, respectfully, we do not believe that those concerns are well founded—she will also meet the special rapporteur next week to discuss the concerns in more detail.

Of course, the bill has not only gone through two public consultations; it is currently going through extensive parliamentary scrutiny. A number of amendments have been passed at stage 2, in response to a number of the concerns that have been raised by members from all sides of the chamber.

The cabinet secretary will have set out fully and clearly to the committee the reasons why the Government could not support other amendments. It is then for the committee to vote and to decide on those matters—and, ultimately, it will be for the Parliament as a whole to reach decisions at stage 3, which we will reach before the end of the current parliamentary term.

These are difficult issues, on different aspects of which people have strong views. It is important that we engage seriously, respectfully and in detail, and that we remember that all of us see the protection of women and girls as a priority. However, I hope that all of us see the protection of the rights of trans people as important, too. Having considered in great depth all those issues over a long period of time, I feel that part of my duty is to set out clearly why I do not believe that those objectives are in conflict. In fact, I believe that it is important that we advance both of them, which is what the Government seeks to do.

Douglas Ross

I agree with the First Minister that we have to treat these things with the seriousness and respect that they deserve, and to look into them in detail. However, again, I asked a very simple question as to why the Government could not support Russell Findlay’s amendment, and we got no answer on that. Surely, we should all be able to agree that convicted male sex offenders should never be able to change their gender. That is not about trans people. Sex offenders are criminals. That is exactly what Russell Findlay was trying to stop.

The First Minister is trying to say that the Government has dealt with the issue, but the UN expert says differently. The special rapporteur said that

“the Scottish Government does not spell out how the Government will ensure a level of scrutiny for the applications made to acquire a gender recognition certificate.”

She goes on to say:

“Other governments that have adopted a self-identification procedure for the legal recognition of a gender identity have done so.”

Other Governments did the necessary work before changing the law, but the First Minister has not. Right now, there are live court cases that could have a material impact on the bill. The UN expert says that the Scottish Government should,

“as a minimum, await the outcome of judgments on these very issues in front of both the Scottish and UK courts.”

The First Minister said that the bill is currently going through “extensive ... scrutiny”. Surely, therefore, the First Minister must agree to pause the bill until we have heard those legal judgments.

The First Minister

It is ultimately for the Parliament to determine whether a bill passes through this chamber.

On the issue of sex offenders, let me set out in more detail the reasoning for the Government’s position on Russell Findlay’s amendment. Current provisions for management of sex offenders are robust and effective. However, as was made clear during stage 2, we will expand the reporting requirements to include notification about an application for gender recognition. It is important to point out that, under the existing process in the Gender Recognition Act 2004, there is no requirement that an applicant must be what Russell Findlay’s amendment would have required. We consider that the amendments lodged by Russell Findlay would not be compatible with the European convention on human rights.

Notwithstanding that we think that the processes for sex offender notification requirements are already working well, the Scottish Government has made it clear that, before the provisions in the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill are commenced, we will introduce legislation to amend the sex offender notification requirements to include notification about an application for a gender recognition certificate.

We are taking these issues seriously, but we are seeking to proceed in a way that will ensure that the bill is compliant with the European convention on human rights. We have been open to other amendments that have been lodged, including by Jamie Greene—a member of the Conservative group.

We take seriously the comments of the special rapporteur, which is why we have responded in detail. Respectfully, though, we do not believe that those criticisms are well founded. That is not a view that we hold alone. Organisations that work day in, day out with women and girls who are subject to violence, such as Rape Crisis Scotland and Scottish Women’s Aid, also believe that many of those criticisms and concerns are not well founded.

We will continue to proceed carefully. There has been considerable consultation on and scrutiny of the bill, and that is right and proper.

Douglas Ross

On the First Minister’s response on sex offenders, we know, as result of a Scottish Conservative freedom of information request, that in the past three years in Scotland, sex offenders have changed their name on more than 500 occasions. If sex offenders can change their name so easily, and for the reasons that they want to, why would they not also change their gender if that becomes easier as a result of the bill?

I understand that it is a complex issue, but the First Minister did not mention the live legal cases that are on-going, for which the special rapporteur asked for the legislation to be delayed. Those judgments are crucial, and a delay would be sensible. It is far better that the Government and the Parliament make good laws as opposed to quick laws. We want there to be full and proper consideration of all the implications of legislation, but, for some reason, the Government seems determined to rush ahead at full speed to pass the bill this month, which the experts and women’s groups say could have potentially damaging consequences.

The First Minister said that the special rapporteur’s criticisms are not well formed. Reem Alsalem is a United Nations expert. She is a special rapporteur on violence against women and girls. I personally think that very few people can speak with greater authority on women’s safety. The Scottish Parliament, including the committee that is in charge of scrutinising the bill, has not had the chance to examine her evidence and hear from her in person, which the cabinet secretary will do. Will the First Minister agree to pause the legislation so that we can properly consider the findings of the leading global expert on this crucial matter?

The First Minister

I cannot comment on live legal cases; I would be open to criticism if I were to do so.

Regardless of any individual’s view on the legislation, one thing that cannot be said with any credibility or basis in fact is that it is being rushed through the Parliament. From consultation through to introduction of draft legislation and formal parliamentary scrutiny, the process has been under way for a period of six years now. It has not been rushed; it has been done carefully—and rightly so.

Before I come on to the issue of the UN special rapporteur, let me respond to the question about registered sex offenders. It is already the case that such offenders must, by law, notify the police of any change of name. That requirement applies to an individual irrespective of the name that they use or the gender that they identify as. Disclosure Scotland already takes steps to ensure that a person who requests a disclosure certificate does not succeed in avoiding the disclosure of any previous convictions by using a different name. It is important to recognise the protections that are already in place, which the bill does nothing to change. I accept that many of the issues that are being talked about—and many of those that are sparking concern—are not changed or impacted in any way by the detail of the legislation.

I come back to the UN special rapporteur. It is because we respect that person and the role that they hold that we are treating their concerns so seriously. Again, I encourage every member to read the cabinet secretary’s response on the Parliament’s website. She will meet the UN special rapporteur next week. However, other voices in the debate also speak from a lot of experience and expertise. It is not right to dismiss them either, because they are people who work every day of the week with women who are subject to male violence.

Lastly, given that we are speaking about a UN special rapporteur, I note that the reforms in the bill align with the stated position of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights that trans people should be recognised legally through “a simple administrative process” that does not require medical diagnosis.

Scotland is not the first country in the world to make changes of this nature; many others have done so. As the cabinet secretary’s response to the UN special rapporteur sets out, the concerns that are being raised in the context of our legislation have not materialised in the experience of other countries that are ahead of us.

Let us continue to treat these issues seriously, respectfully and calmly and allow the Parliament to continue to do its job properly.


Breast Cancer Treatment (NHS Tayside)

2. Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

I join others in paying tribute to the late Doddie Weir. Throughout his life, as both a player and a campaigner, it was clear that he was a force to be reckoned with. He viewed his heartbreaking diagnosis of motor neurone disease as a call to action and bravely shared his story with the world and raised millions of pounds for his cause. He was an inspiration to us all and a champion for people who are battling MND. Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this difficult time.

The provision of breast cancer chemotherapy in NHS Tayside has collapsed, which has meant that vulnerable women are travelling across the country to receive life-saving treatment. At the root of the problem is a chemotherapy dosing scandal that has gone on for three and a half years. Yesterday, The Courier released a documentary in which the affected women and their grieving families demand answers. We now know that no one believes the conclusions of the reports that have been commissioned by the First Minister’s Government. Patients do not believe them, neither do doctors, and even the whistleblower who first raised the alarm described the conclusions of the reports as nothing more than “a guess”.

For years, Scottish Labour has raised the issue and has been dismissed by the Scottish Government. Will the First Minister order an independent inquiry to restore confidence, relaunch the service and give patients and the public the facts that they need?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Before I respond on the very serious issues that have been raised, I want to say, first of all, that Anas Sarwar is wrong to describe the Tayside service as having “collapsed”. That neither comes close to accurately describing the current service nor does anything to help current patients or the dedicated doctors who work in the centre.

I want to illustrate a really important point, in particular for people in Tayside who might be watching this right now. About 150 new patients are referred to Tayside breast services every week, and of them about seven will receive treatment at another centre. It is therefore just wrong—I think shamefully wrong—to use the word “collapsed” to describe a service in which doctors are working in a dedicated fashion and which is treating many patients every single week.

As for the issues that have been raised with regard to the review, they are serious and require assessment by experts and clinicians. I am not a clinician—politicians are not clinicians—and we do not have the expertise to reach judgments on such matters ourselves. I will look carefully at what is being reported today, as will the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care, and if a further process of review is necessary, we will not shy away from taking that action.

A Royal College of Physicians review, commissioned by NHS Tayside, into prescribing practices up to early 2020 has been undertaken, and the board will implement all of its recommendations. The review looked at a random selection of case notes from before and after the Healthcare Improvement Scotland review and confirmed, as the HIS review had already found, variation in practice against national norms. However, it also pointed to a range of improvements in practice since then. The authors of the RCP review included four oncologists and, of course, its findings aligned with previous published reviews, including that of Healthcare Improvement Scotland. We will continue to take the issues seriously, but also responsibly.

Anas Sarwar

I suggest that the First Minister watch the documentary that I referred to and that she listen to the stories of NHS Tayside staff and the experiences of families. There are zero breast cancer oncologists in NHS Tayside—I repeat, zero—and if zero does not equate to collapse, I am not sure what definition the First Minister would use.

That has consequences for staff. There is a workforce crisis across our national health service, but it is being felt particularly in Tayside. According to a recent freedom of information request, there are nine vacancies in the oncology department, with the lead breast cancer consultant post having been vacant now for 839 days. That has consequences for patients, too, with more than 200 women having to travel to other parts of the country to get their treatment.

In February, the First Minister said that that situation was unacceptable, but things are getting worse, and the Government’s failure to get a grip on the crisis is putting women’s lives at risk. At one of the most traumatic times in women’s lives, they are facing additional barriers to treatment and all the anxiety that comes with that. Can the First Minister tell us when local oncology services will be restored and can she guarantee that breast cancer oncology services have a future in Tayside?

The First Minister

Anas Sarwar asked me to watch the documentary. I will certainly take the time to do so—although I say to him that the health secretary has not only watched it, but took part in it.

These are issues that we all take seriously; indeed, the cabinet secretary will meet the current clinical teams next week. I take this opportunity to assure patients in Tayside that they have a very committed and compassionate team of doctors who deliver excellent care. Recruitment efforts are on-going; in fact, there has been recent success in recruiting a consultant in colorectal cancer in NHS Tayside. NHS Tayside also works closely with oncology teams in the other four cancer centres across Scotland to ensure that patients who need treatment are prioritised appropriately.

At this point, let me repeat what I said in my original answer. Yes, there are challenges in the Tayside service and yes, there have been reviews that have been necessary. If further reviews are needed, we will not shy away from doing them, and there is further work to be done. However, I repeat that, of the 150 new patients who are referred to Tayside breast services every week, just seven have to go to another centre to receive treatment. It is absolutely right to raise these issues, but it does a disservice to the people who work in the centre to describe it as being in a state of collapse, because that is not the case.

Anas Sarwar

The women in Tayside do not want to see the health secretary in a documentary; they want to see a breast cancer oncologist in Tayside, and that problem has still not been fixed.

I am sorry, but the First Minister has said little today that will reassure women in Tayside and their families. We have a failing cancer service. That means that staff and women are being let down, but the First Minister has no serious plan to restore services. As usual, Nicola Sturgeon keeps telling us that the situation is unacceptable, but then expects patients to accept it anyway. We have seen that again this week. Ambulances are still queuing at accident and emergency departments, elderly patients are still waiting on trolleys for treatment, we have the longest waiting lists in history—now, more than 750,000 Scots are our on NHS waiting lists—and women in Tayside are being failed by the collapse of cancer services.

The First Minister is in charge of NHS services in Scotland, and has been for 15 years. How long do Scots have to wait before she gets to grips with the crisis and actually does her job?

The First Minister

As head of this Government, I am in charge of the national health service, which is why I understand that running the NHS and resolving problems and challenges in it takes more than glib soundbites in the chamber of the Scottish Parliament.

As they have been throughout the entirety of the 15 years that my party has been in government, the people of Scotland will be the ultimate and, indeed, the only judge of whether this Government is trusted to continue with its stewardship of the national health service.

All those issues are taken seriously. It was because of original concerns about potentially substandard care that many of them came to the fore. I repeat what I said earlier: there is work to do to ensure the sustainability and the on-going quality of cancer care and breast cancer care in NHS Tayside. However, the vast and overwhelming majority of people who are referred to that service do not go for treatment to another centre but get good-quality treatment in NHS Tayside. I say again that it does a disservice to NHS Tayside to suggest otherwise.

On the wider point, day in and day out the Scottish Government works to address the significant challenges that our NHS faces. We can look at statistics that were published this week, which show that there has been a significant increase of 7.3 per cent in the number of in-patient and day-case patients who were seen in the past quarter; that, with regard to the referral to treatment target, there has been an increase in the percentage of people being seen within 18 weeks, which is now 72.5 per cent; and that, with regard to the longest waits in our NHS, there has been a 20 per cent reduction in out-patient waits and a 22 per cent reduction for in-patient and day-case patients.

We will continue to do the hard work of supporting our NHS through these difficult times, because that is our job and our responsibility—a responsibility that was given to us by the people of Scotland.


Alcohol Sport Sponsorship

3. Gillian Mackay (Central Scotland) (Green)

Like others, I want to add the thoughts of my party to the tributes paid here today to Doddie Weir. His legacy will be not just his rugby but the honesty and bravery with which he faced his health condition and the incredible work that he did in raising awareness and funding. I send the most sincere and heartfelt condolences to his family. Their bravery has never failed to astound me, and his sons, in particular, have been in my thoughts this week. It is awful to lose a parent, and they are so young. They have been amazing in accompanying their dad to events over the past few years, and I hope that the whole family are getting the support that they need.

To ask the Scottish Government whether it recognises the harms that are caused by alcohol sport sponsorship to vulnerable groups such as young people and those in recovery. (S6F-01600)

The First Minister

It is the case that alcohol advertising and promotion can encourage young people to drink alcohol and can, indeed, act as a barrier for people in recovery. Restricting alcohol advertising and promotion is one of the World Health Organization’s top three “best buys” to prevent and reduce alcohol-related harms.

We have launched a public consultation, setting out potential restrictions on a variety of methods of alcohol advertising, including on sports sponsorship. That consultation closes on 9 March next year, and I encourage anyone with an interest to respond.

The Minister for Public Health, Women’s Health and Sport will meet key stakeholders, including sporting bodies, during the consultation period to hear about potential impacts and to gather their views on the proposals.

Gillian Mackay

It is well established that alcohol marketing is causally associated with the initiating of drinking, an increase in alcohol consumption and an increased risk of relapse for those in recovery. Sports sponsorship provides alcohol companies with a prominent and highly attractive method of reaching a large audience, influencing how much and how often they consume alcohol. Does the Scottish Government recognise the need to implement restrictions on alcohol sport sponsorship as a public health measure to protect our population?

The First Minister

I will repeat what I said in my original answer. That is an important aspect of promoting better public health, discouraging young people from drinking alcohol and making it easier for people with alcohol misuse issues to recover from them.

There are, of course, difficult issues involved in relation to sporting organisations. We would encourage them to diversify sponsorship away from the alcohol industry.

It is because I agree very much with Gillian Mackay’s comments that we have embarked on the consultation. Some complex issues are involved in it, but it is important that we listen to a wide range of people and, of course, key stakeholders, which we will do. The Government has a good record on implementing sometimes controversial policies, such as minimum pricing for alcohol, to try to reduce the harm that we know alcohol can do. That is the spirit in which we will take forward the consultation.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

If the Government is seeking to curtail the advertisement of any perceived enjoyment of drinking, surely it must also raise public awareness of the harms of drinking, especially at this time of year. We know that drinking-under-the-influence offences have risen by 20 per cent over the past decade, but, last year, the conviction rate for those offences fell by a third, year on year. Many cases have simply been dropped because of delays in forensic testing. Aside from Police Scotland’s public awareness campaign on the dangers of drinking and driving, what is the Scottish Government doing to raise awareness of that important issue as we enter the festive period? Does the First Minister agree that those conviction rates are simply far too low?

The First Minister

We all recognise that many people drink alcohol in moderation and that they enjoy doing so. We need to discourage and address people who have an alcohol misuse problem or who drink alcohol in ways that pose a danger to them and to others.

Obviously, the conviction rates for any offence are a matter for the courts and the independent prosecution authorities. Of course, I want to ensure that the Government is doing everything that it can to raise awareness. As we approach the festive season, we will, as we do every year and beyond, take steps to continue to educate people about the dangers of driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Ensuring that people who do that are identified and prosecuted is a matter for the independent authorities, but we want to ensure that we have zero tolerance of that. The Government will continue to support those independent authorities in all ways that are appropriate.


Overseas Student Visas

To ask the First Minister what impact any proposed reduction in the number of overseas student visas will have on Scottish universities. (S6F-01585)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Scotland’s world-class universities do a fantastic job in attracting students from around the world, and that should be welcomed. Unfortunately, the United Kingdom Government seems to be intent on jeopardising the internationalist outlook of our tertiary sector, as its policies continue to make it seem, at least, that the UK is not a welcoming place for people to come to live, work and study in.

I want to be absolutely clear that international students make a valuable contribution to our campuses, our society, our culture and, indeed, our economy. I think that, every year, more than 60,000 students from around 180 countries study in Scotland. We should continue to welcome and encourage that.

Gillian Martin

The proposals that seem to have been outlined by the Prime Minister seem to be at odds with the positive aspects of universities that the First Minister has just outlined.

Universities UK, which represents most Scottish universities, has said that international students make a net positive contribution of £25.9 billion to the UK economy and are the source of 70 per cent of education export earnings.?Can the First Minister give an initial assessment of the economic impact that any reduction in student visas from the UK Government could have on Scotland’s economy? At a time when Tory and Labour-backed Brexit has already had a devastating impact on research collaboration between Scottish universities and their European Union counterparts, how might that also impact on remaining international collaborations? Crucially, what can we do in Scotland to safeguard our universities from such reckless UK plans?

The First Minister

First, restricting the ability of international students to come to study in Scotland will have an adverse impact on our education institutions and on our society, which is more diverse and vibrant because of that contribution. It will have an adverse impact on our economy as well. I quote the director of Universities Scotland, who said in recent days:

“Any attempts to cut international student numbers at Scottish universities would be damaging to universities and the Scottish economy. Every year more than 65,000 students from more than 180 countries study in Scotland. This diversity brings significant advantages to both our students and the wider university community as well as generating a £1.94 billion net contribution to the Scottish economy.”

That is why we need to do everything that we can to make it possible for people to come to live, work and study in Scotland. Brexit is making that more difficult, as it is making many things more difficult, and we need to find a way back into the heart of the European Union.

To answer Gillian Martin’s last question, given that the Tories, Labour and the Liberals seem to support the UK being outside the EU, the only way for Scotland to get back in is by becoming an independent member of the EU.


UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities

To ask the First Minister how the Scottish Government will mark the United Nations international day of persons with disabilities. (S6F-01589)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The UN international day of persons with disabilities is a very important day. It highlights that disabled people continue to experience inequality and barriers. As a mark of respect for the day and to help to promote it, the Scottish Government will be lighting up St Andrew’s house and Victoria Quay in purple. We also provide £5 million to support disabled people’s organisations to tackle inequality and discrimination and promote the rights of disabled people.

We have committed to incorporating the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities into Scots law. We all want to ensure that disabled people benefit from all that we are doing to improve the lives of people and that we achieve equality for all.

Jeremy Balfour

I thank the First Minister for that very positive answer. Next Tuesday, I am lodging my final proposal for a bill to establish a disability commissioner for Scotland—an individual who will act as a champion for the disabled community and for all disabled people. What better way is there to celebrate the international day of persons with disabilities than by committing to supporting my proposal? Will the Scottish Government support it?

The First Minister

I want to try to give a positive answer to that. Of course, we will need to see the consultation responses when those are published and the detail of the proposed bill when it is introduced. As I have said in other contexts, it is not possible for any Government to give a commitment to support a bill before it has seen the bill. However, I know that the Minister for Equalities and Older People has agreed to meet Mr Balfour to establish the details of the proposal for having a disability commissioner and we will certainly look as favourably as we can on it, because I absolutely recognise the sentiments behind it.

It is also important—I am sure that Jeremy Balfour would share these views—that we remind people that there are existing commissions to support and protect the rights of disabled people. The Scottish Human Rights Commission and the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission already play a role in relation to the rights of disabled people as well as in respect of age as a protected equality characteristic. There are existing mechanisms, but of course we should consider fully the proposal for a disability commissioner, which the member will shortly introduce.

Pam Duncan-Glancy (Glasgow) (Lab)

In 2018, Scope found that disabled people in Scotland spent, on average, £632 a month on disability-related expenses such as taxis, the increased use of heating, special equipment and care costs. One in five disabled adults faced additional costs of over £1,000, and almost a quarter of families with disabled children were facing similar costs.

Given the current cost of living crisis, will the Scottish Government consider commissioning an update to that research?

The First Minister

I am happy to give that proposal consideration. I also recognise the reality for people with disabilities that Pam Duncan-Glancy has narrated today. Of course, we have already taken steps to implement our strategy—a fairer Scotland for disabled people. Over the five years of the delivery plan we have, for example, increased the number of people involved in choosing and controlling social care support through self-directed support. We have also seen Fair Start Scotland helping more than 9,000 people into employment and we have established a new child disability payment to replace the disability living allowance and a new adult disability payment to replace the personal independence payment. We are introducing a brand new child winter heating assistance benefit, which will only be available in Scotland.

We have done that work, but all Governments need to look to do much more. Having research to underpin and inform that work is always important, so I will certainly look at that suggestion carefully.


Industrial Action (Discussions with EIS)

To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government will provide an urgent update on its discussions with the Educational Institute of Scotland after the announcement of new strike dates. (S6F-01601)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

First, I will say that these are difficult times for everyone, including those who work across the different parts of our public sector, such as teachers. It is also a difficult time for public spending because of the inflationary impact on the Scottish Government’s budget. It is in that context that I say that a fair pay offer has been made to teachers, as appropriate, through the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers. Of course, industrial action is in no one’s interests: it is not in the interests of teachers, and it is certainly not in the interests of pupils, parents or carers, who have already faced significant disruption over the past three years.

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills is in regular dialogue with all our teacher unions and spoke with the general secretary of the EIS most recently on Friday. Those discussions are on-going, although the chamber will be aware that only the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, as the employer, can make a formal pay offer to the teacher unions through the SNCT. The Scottish Government does not negotiate separately with unions on teachers’ pay.

Michael Marra

The offer that the First Minister has described that was rejected by teaching unions was made at the last possible moment. It sat on the cabinet secretary’s desk for more than three weeks. Since the announcement of 16 more EIS strike dates, which will close our schools, deprive our children of their education and throw family life into chaos, no dates for negotiation have been sought or fixed. Next week, the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association and the NASUWT will strike, which will mean that schools will close again.

No attempt has been made to avert that action by the Government. Our children have lost so much during the pandemic years. How can they afford a Government to be making so little effort to keep their schools open?

The First Minister

Frankly, that is just not the case. The offer that was made to teacher unions last week was the fourth offer that has gone to unions. We should bear in mind the point that I made that the Scottish Government does not negotiate separately with unions; that is done through the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers. Anyone who looks at the efforts that the Government has made to give fair pay rises and settle any potential for industrial action with the wider local government workforce and the national health service workforce will know that this is a Government—in contrast with other Governments in other parts of the United Kingdom—that is going to every length possible to reach fair agreements with our public sector trade unions.

The offer that has been made to teachers, which is the fourth offer that has been made, recognises the impact of the cost crisis on lower-paid teachers in particular, with an increase of up to 6.85 per cent for them. The offer is the same as the offer that has already been accepted by other local government workers. I have nothing but admiration for our teaching profession. Rightly, teachers are paid at higher rates than other workers in other parts of the local government workforce. However, the offer of the pay increase that has been made to teachers is the same offer that has been accepted already by the janitors and dinner ladies working in schools—it is a fair offer. If it is accepted, it would mean that, since 2018, teachers have had a 21.8 per cent cumulative pay increase.

Lastly, we have the highest starting salary in the UK for fully qualified teachers. Under the new and latest pay offer, a newly qualified teacher in Scotland would receive £7,400 more than their counterparts in England, and our most experienced classroom teachers would get £5,600 more than if they were teaching in England on the main pay range.

Briefly, First Minister.

Our record shows our commitment to teachers. I really hope that that offer will be accepted, in the interests of teachers and pupils across the country.

Stephanie Callaghan (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

The First Minister has noted already that strikes are in no one’s best interests: not teachers, and certainly not pupils. Does she agree that, with a fixed budget, the Scottish Government has been put in an impossible position by the UK Government, with no additional support forthcoming to fund pay offers or mitigate the impacts of inflation?

The First Minister

That is a statement of fact—[Interruption.] It is a statement of fact. It is important to remember that the current pay negotiations are for this financial year, when the Scottish Government’s budget has been eroded by inflation to the tune of £1.7 billion, and not an additional penny extra has been provided to help to deal with that.

We are not standing by and doing nothing. We are working really hard to give our public sector workers a fair pay deal. In Scotland, the offer that the NHS unions are considering provides an average increase of 7.5 per cent; in England under the Conservatives and in Wales under Labour, the offer to the NHS is 4.5 per cent on average.

We are doing everything that we can to get every penny possible into the pockets of public sector workers, because that is the kind of Government that we are and that represents our values. However, we have a fixed budget, which is being eroded through Tory Government incompetence.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

So the message to teachers is, “Just be grateful—you’ve had your lot; you’re paid enough.” That is not the way to treat teachers in this country. To play one set of workers against another is a disgraceful way to treat the people who taught our young people through the pandemic. Instead of making last-minute offers, hours before strike deadlines, is it not about time that the First Minister treated teachers with the respect that they are due and gave them a decent pay offer with the budget that she has?

The First Minister

I know that Willie Rennie doesnae get much attention these days but, even by his standards, that was a pretty shameful tone to take on an issue that is so important to teachers, pupils and parents across the country. I will set out again our approach. We are making an offer this year that recognises the impact of the cost crisis on the lowest-paid teachers and an offer that is as fair as, and gives teachers as much of an increase as, the offer that the janitor and the dinner lady have already accepted. In a fixed budget, we have to try to be fair across all parts of the public sector, and we are seeking to do that.

If the offer to teachers is accepted, it will mean that teachers have had a 21.8 per cent cumulative pay increase since 2018—I think that they deserve every penny of that—and that the outcome is that our teachers are paid better than those in other parts of the UK. Scotland would have not only the highest starting salary for teachers in the UK but, as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found, starting salaries for teachers that are 17 per cent above the European Union average at primary level.

That is how much we value teachers. In a fixed budget, we are doing everything possible to get every penny possible into the pockets of public sector workers. That is the right thing to do. To be frank, the tone that was taken will be seen for what it was by people across Scotland.


Motor Neurone Disease (Doddie Weir)

7. Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to build on the enduring legacy of Doddie Weir and support efforts to cure motor neurone disease and similar neurological conditions. (S6F-01586)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

As we reflected earlier today, Doddie Weir was a Scottish sporting legend. As a human being, he was in so many ways one of a kind. He was a hero of rugby but, off the pitch, his response to his MND diagnosis was truly inspirational. He campaigned tirelessly to increase awareness of this cruel condition, as well as raising money for research through his foundation in the hope that a cure will be found, so that others who come after him will benefit.

I suspect that I speak not just for the Government but for everybody across the chamber when I say that we share Doddie’s vision of a world without MND. It is important to say that much of the work that we did after 2015 was inspired by the campaigning of the late Gordon Aikman, who also deserves great credit. [Applause.]

We have invested around £700,000 in research to look at the progression of the condition and the development of a pipeline for new treatments. We have also doubled the number of MND specialist nurses across the country and ensured that they are now funded from and by the NHS. We are currently implementing the neurological care and support framework, to ensure that everyone with a neurological condition such as MND can access the co-ordinated and high-quality care that they need.

Brian Whittle

To say that Doddie Weir was a unique individual certainly undersells him. We should not forget that he was a world-class sportsman, but it is his indomitable character and the way he tackled head-on his diagnosis of MND that will endure. He certainly showed us how to live our best life. As many have said, people who met him could not fail to like him and be inspired by him. I can think of no one else who could have achieved what he did. Along with Rob Burrow, he brought the search for treatment and a cure for MND into everyone’s thoughts. I also welcome the First Minister’s earlier mention of Gordon Aikman’s work.

The United Kingdom Government has pledged £50 million to help the search for MND treatments and, although the messages are positive, I ask the First Minister and everyone in the chamber to unify as a Parliament to encourage the UK Government to move quicker. Specifically, what will the Scottish Government do to work with charities such as the My Name’5 Doddie Foundation, to tackle these horrible neurological conditions and keep up the momentum that the big man started?

The First Minister

We have all mentioned the practical impact of the work that Doddie Weir did—and, indeed, Gordon Aikman before him—but what always struck me about Doddie and Gordon was the courageous way in which they never allowed that horrible condition and its diagnosis to dim their spirit and their love for and capacity for life. I think that the last time I saw Doddie in person was at Murrayfield stadium. His smile lit up the room. That fortitude and resilience—in the face of something that none of us really knows how we would cope with—was inspirational. It united Doddie and Gordon and, in their memory, we all have a duty to go as far and as fast as we can to find the cure for this condition. I encourage the UK Government to go faster, but I also say to my Government that we need to go faster, to do everything that we can here and to work together. We already work closely with charitable organisations and we will continue to do so.

Thanks to the research that is being done, there are positive signs, but we need to make sure that those people who have the skills and expertise to find the cure have all the necessary support and resources. Today, in memory of the great Doddie Weir, I pledge that the Government that I lead will continue to do all that we can to find the cure that he so desperately wanted.

The Presiding Officer

That concludes First Minister’s question time.

I regret that I have been unable to call any general or constituency supplementary questions today, largely due to the length of some exchanges. I will review today’s exchanges to ensure that more members are able to participate in this session each week.

There will be a brief suspension to allow people in the public gallery and members to leave the chamber before we move to the next item of business.

12:53 Meeting suspended.  

12:54 On resuming—