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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, May 4, 2023


First Minister’s Question Time

Highly Protected Marine Areas

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

Last night, the Scottish Conservatives led a debate and vote here in Parliament on Scottish National Party-Green plans to introduce highly protected marine areas. Those reckless proposals would ban fishing in large parts of Scotland’s seas. They would risk thousands of jobs. They would be devastating to coastal communities. The First Minister has said that his Government will not impose highly protected marine areas on any community that is vehemently opposed to them. So, quite simply, can he define what he means in this case by “community” and say what level of opposition will be considered vehement?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

Before I respond to Douglas Ross, I want to recognise that today is international firefighters day. I take this opportunity to thank firefighters across Scotland for their selfless contribution to keeping us safe, and I pay tribute to those firefighters who have lost their lives serving our communities, including Barry Martin—I know that his bravery will serve as a constant and continual reminder of the courage that our firefighters demonstrate in the line of duty each and every day.

On the important question that Douglas Ross raises, let me just remind him that it was also a Scottish Conservative manifesto pledge to introduce highly protected marine areas. In fact, Douglas Ross stood on not one but two manifestos that pledged to introduce highly protected marine areas in some shape or form.

I had the misfortune of hearing Rachael Hamilton’s interview on “Good Morning Scotland” a couple of days ago, in which she set out, I think, four different positions on HPMAs in around five minutes. What we have made absolutely clear is that this Government will not impose HPMAs on any community that vehemently opposes them.

We have done the consultation and we have had an enormous response to it—[Interruption.]

If I could have a moment, First Minister, I would like to say that I would be grateful if, when a member is speaking, other members were listening.

The First Minister

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

We have done the consultation and there has been a significant response. It is only right that we now analyse those responses. Of course, Màiri McAllan and I have committed to making sure that we engage with our coastal and island communities that may well be affected by HPMAs.

With regard to what consent mechanism we will use and how we will define “community” in terms of opposition or consent, that is something on which we will engage directly with the community. That is why we have done a consultation at early inception stage. It would be completely wrong of us to pre-empt a decision about what consent mechanism we will end up putting in place or to set the parameters here today, because, of course, that would risk excluding some voices that should be heard.

We will not apologise for taking the necessary action that we need to in order to protect our biodiversity. It is incumbent not only on the Government of the day but on all of us to ensure that we tackle the twin crises of the climate emergency and the loss of our biodiversity.

Douglas Ross

I begin by associating myself with the remarks of the First Minister on international firefighters day. My colleague Russell Findlay will speak in the members’ business debate on that very issue, which will take place immediately after First Minister’s question time. We all celebrate and recognise the bravery of our firefighters, who do tremendous work day in, day out, putting their lives at risk, which we saw so starkly with the sad loss of Barry Martin earlier this year.

The First Minister’s answer was long in length but short on detail. What would be completely wrong is to give reassurances to coastal communities that everything is fine because, if they are a community that is vehemently opposed to an HPMA, the HPMA will not be introduced, but then be completely unable to define what a community is. The First Minister is trying to give reassurances with no substance behind them.

Speaking about behind, the First Minister just needs to look behind him to Karen Adam, who said in Parliament two days ago:

“we need clarity on how those communities will be defined and how we will gauge their vehement opposition.—[Official Report, 2 May 2023; c 78.]

We do. I am saying that and even the SNP members are saying it. However, it is already crystal clear that those communities are vehemently opposed to the plans. The First Minister should just listen to what they are saying.

The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation said that the plans could have a “catastrophic” effect. A fisherman from the Outer Hebrides said that it will be

“absolutely devastating and you’ll see a loss of population in these areas akin to the Highland Clearances”.

The Tiree Community Development Trust said:

“It will be the end of our community.”

A development trust said that the SNP-Green plans will be

“the end of our community.”

Those are damning verdicts on the SNP Government’s proposals from the people who know the sector best. Therefore, why is the First Minister pressing ahead with a policy that will devastate coastal, rural and fishing communities?

The First Minister

I remind Douglas Ross of the commitment in the Scottish Conservatives’ manifesto not that many years ago. It said:

“We will review the current Marine Protected Areas in Scottish waters, with a view to expanding their extent, and pilot the introduction of Highly Protected Marine Areas.”

The Conservatives are now saying that they are for pilots. Rachael Hamilton gave a very different articulation on the radio a few days ago. [Interruption.]

Thank you, members.

The First Minister

We know that Douglas Ross is known for flip-flopping all over the place on any issue of the day. He is flip-flopping on the issue of highly protected marine areas.

Karen Adam was absolutely right, of course. We will not only define communities; we will define what consent or what opposition is. What I am saying to Douglas Ross very clearly is that we should analyse the huge number of consultation responses that we have had from those communities before we decide for them or impose on them or, indeed, exclude any of those communities from the discussion.

What we should all absolutely agree on is the fact that we have to take action to ensure that our marine environment is sustainable for the future. It will not help our fishing communities if that marine environment is not sustainable. We want to ensure that it is so that the future of our fishing industry can continue for many years. I am committed to doing that not to the communities involved but, I hope, with the communities involved. [Applause.]

Douglas Ross

There is muted applause from behind the First Minister. If only he could see the glum faces of SNP members—it is incredible.

It is not only coastal, fishing and rural communities—which the First Minister is seemingly happy to ignore—that are against the plans. Last night, in the chamber, three senior SNP MSPs—all former Government ministers—voted against their party on the fishing ban. Let us listen to what they had to say.

Fergus Ewing said:

“this issue will haunt the Scottish Government.”

Alasdair Allan said:

“I have never known my constituency to be ... so unanimously opposed to any single policy ... in all my time”

as an MSP. Kate Forbes said:

“if the proposals go ahead as planned, the rarest species in our coastal areas and islands will soon be people.”—[Official Report, 2 May 2023; c 86, 81, 92.]

Does Humza Yousaf realise that not only is he out of touch with coastal communities, he is out of touch with members of his own party?

The First Minister

Again, I remind Douglas Ross of the fact that the Parliament accepted an amended motion by a majority. Of course, we, too, accepted and voted for amendments from the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats. A number of parties came together to propose amendments, which we accepted, and the majority of members agreed to the motion.

I say to Douglas Ross that there are good examples of where we have a no-take zone, including Lamlash Bay. The community campaigned for that. [Interruption.]

Thank you, members.

The First Minister

The community wanted that in its local area. Based on the studies that have been co-ordinated by the community group, we have seen that, since that protection was put in place, commercially important species such as the king scallop and the European lobster have increased in size, age and density. That is a good example of where we have worked with a community in order for a no-take zone to be implemented.

We are not talking about imposition; we are talking about working with communities throughout the country. That is the right thing to do.

The trouble with the Conservatives is that they demand that we take action on the climate emergency and that we take action to reverse some of the negative impacts and effects of the loss of biodiversity but, whenever we propose action, they oppose it every single step of the way. That is not going to help our climate, and it certainly is not going to help our fishing industry or our marine environment in the future. [Applause.]

Gosh, it is getting worse. If I had another question, there might be no response from his own party to an answer from the First Minister. [Interruption.]

Quiet, please. Thank you.

Douglas Ross

Humza Yousaf was speaking about the response from the Scottish Conservatives. He should be worried about the response from his own back benchers and the rebellion that we have already seen. It took Nicola Sturgeon eight years to have her first major rebellion within the SNP ranks; it has taken Humza Yousaf less than eight weeks to achieve the same. He is clearly losing his grip on his party because he insists on pursuing these extreme policies, which are opposed by the very communities he wants to impose them on.

These reckless plans would ban fishing across much of our sea. They would put thousands of jobs at risk and devastate coastal, rural and fishing areas. Coastal communities, the fishing sector and even Humza Yousaf’s own MSPs have all called for the SNP Government to ditch its anti-fishing plans, yet the First Minister is ploughing ahead with them regardless. Instead of arrogantly dismissing the many valid concerns, as he has done so far, will he now do the right thing and scrap the plans?

The First Minister

What we are doing—and what we have done from the very beginning of this process—is engage with our coastal and island communities. In total, we have had over 40 meetings with stakeholders and I have already stated that the cabinet secretary will continue that engagement.

For example, prior to the consultation even being launched, there were meetings with over 20 stakeholder groups, including some of those that Douglas Ross has mentioned, such as the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation, aquaculture groups such as Salmon Scotland, important environmental non-governmental organisations such as Scottish Environment LINK and community representatives such as the Coastal Communities Network and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities—[Interruption.]

I appreciate that members are here because they have strong opinions on many issues, but I would be grateful if they could keep those opinions to themselves while other members are on their feet.

The First Minister

They are not willing to hear the facts and that is the problem, Presiding Officer, because the facts are that we have engaged, even prior to the consultation.

I have given an absolute commitment that we will continue to engage and I have given a commitment, time and time again, in public, that we will not impose HPMAs on any community that is vehemently opposed to them. For Douglas Ross to stand there and talk about losing grip of a party when he has been leader—[Interruption.] The Conservatives have had the longest attempted coup in Scottish political history. Why does Jamie Greene or Liam Kerr not just stand up and put Douglas Ross out of his misery? [Interruption.]


The First Minister

It is hardly a surprise that Douglas Ross talks about losing grip on a political party. Even he has lost faith in his own political party: he spent the entire Easter recess urging his supporters to vote for the Scottish Labour Party, Presiding Officer.

Finally, Douglas Ross has got his finger on the pulse—[Interruption.]

Members—quiet, please. Thank you.

Douglas Ross has finally caught up with Scottish public opinion. Even Douglas Ross has lost faith in his own leadership of the Scottish Conservative Party.

Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 (Review)

2. Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

First, I would like to join others in recognising international firefighters day and in paying tribute to all those who run towards danger in order to protect their fellow citizens. In particular, our thoughts are with the family of Barry Martin, who so tragically lost his life at just 38 years old.

This morning, the Criminal Justice Committee published its review of the Government’s Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018. The act was passed by this Parliament in February 2018 to give greater protections to victims, particularly women and children, from coercion and abuse. However, today—five years on—the committee concludes that progress on implementing the changes has been far too slow. In the words of one expert who gave evidence, the experience of victims and survivors is still “unremittingly grim”.

When the 2018 act was introduced, the then justice secretary, Humza Yousaf, said that he hoped victims would be able to seek support with the confidence that the law was behind them. When so many women and children are still being failed, does the First Minister believe that his Government has lived up to that ambition?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

I believe that we have, but that there is always more that we can, and should, do. I welcome the publication of the Criminal Justice Committee’s report on its post-legislative scrutiny of the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018. We have taken action, not just as a Government—in fairness, there has been a collective effort by the Parliament to respond to the needs of the victims of domestic abuse. Of course, we will give careful consideration to the report’s eight recommendations before responding formally. However, I will be clear that any form of abuse is unacceptable, and I am sure that there is collective agreement on that.

The new domestic abuse offence, which has been heralded as gold standard legislation, has given more powers to police and the courts to punish the perpetrators of abuse and protect people who are at risk. However, as the committee’s report highlights, clearly, there is still more work to be done to improve the justice system’s response to domestic abuse and for survivors of domestic abuse. We will work with justice agencies to consider the recommendations.

Anas Sarwar

The First Minister suggests that the ambition has been met. I suggest that he listens to and reads the testimony of victims on how they feel about the process. The act was marked as world leading but, as usual, the Scottish National Party Government is content to talk up change and settle for less. It is not just this legislation that has been neglected across our justice system: the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act 2021 has never been enforced, there is a court backlog of more than 27,000 criminal cases and there are 816 fewer police officers since 2020.

When the First Minister was justice secretary, there was a damning review of the police complaints and disciplinary system, which reported evidence of misogyny, racism and serious discrimination issues within Police Scotland. In 2020, the then justice secretary, Humza Yousaf, told the chamber that the Government would “move at pace” in its response, and that there would be

“no dithering, nor will there be delay.”—[Official Report, 25 November 2020, c 37.]

However, “Newsnight” has spoken to women about the misogyny that they faced while they were working in our police force. They say that many women are too scared to speak out and that many have been forced to leave the police. Is that the decisive action that the First Minister was talking about?

The First Minister

Decisive action has led to those court backlogs falling. The reason why the court backlogs increased so much was because of the global pandemic, and I think that we can, and should, all recognise that. Since the SNP has been in Government, decisive action has led to the lowest crime figures on record. Our resolve to fund the police and our record of doing that, ensuring that more police officers are on the beat, are good. That is why we have more police officers per head than in England and Wales.

In terms of misogyny, we are taking decisive action on the back of an excellent report by Baroness Kennedy in relation to what more we can do legislatively and as a society to tackle that. On some of the concerns that have been raised about misogyny in the police force, I know from my engagement with Chief Constable Iain Livingstone how seriously he takes that issue in policing, and I know that he has taken action to address it. The Government and the police take any concerns raised against police officers extremely seriously. When things go wrong, the police must be held to account. That is why I am pleased that some of the whistleblowing policies in relation to Police Scotland have been updated by the Scottish Police Authority, in direct response to the work that we commissioned from Dame Elish Angiolini in 2018—the review of police complaints handling, investigations and misconduct issues.

Those are the decisive actions that we have taken. Am I saying that everything is perfect? Of course not. There is more that we can do for those who serve in our police force as well as the public that we seek to serve. The Government has a good track record of tackling the issues that matter to people and keeping people safe, up and down Scotland.

Anas Sarwar

I am sorry, but that is a complacent answer from the First Minister. He seems to be in denial. The fact that female police officers feel compelled to speak to the media in order to inspire change from the Government is a record of failure, not one of success or progress. There is chaos across our criminal justice system. Courts are backlogged, prisons are overcrowded and the police force is being starved of resources.

Is not the problem with the First Minister that he likes to talk big, but consistently fails to deliver? This is an incompetent and dysfunctional SNP Government which, after 16 years, has left every Scottish institution weaker. We have a justice system that too often fails victims, a transport system that too often fails communities, an education system that too often fails our children and a health service that too often fails staff and patients. Is it any wonder that, every day, more and more people are losing trust and faith in this failing SNP Government?

The First Minister

Anas Sarwar talked about rhetoric, but I gave facts—facts that he cannot and should not avoid. In each and every department, we can look at the Government’s achievements.

In health, we have record spending of more than £19 billion to invest in the national health service in this financial year. NHS staffing is up to historically high levels. Our accident and emergency services continue to be the best-performing such services anywhere in the UK.

In education, we have not just record investment but record high numbers of school leavers who have gone on to education, employment or training. On attaining one or more passes at Scottish credit and qualifications framework level 4 or better, we have the narrowest gap on record between school leavers from the most deprived areas and school leavers from the least deprived areas.

As I said, crime is at the lowest level since 1974—the figure is down by 42 per cent under the SNP. We have the highest number of police officers at any time in comparison with when Labour was in power. We have more police officers per head than in England and Wales.

On the economy, unemployment is at record low levels. I could go on and on and on.

Although the SNP has—undoubtedly—had some of the most difficult and challenging weeks, we still enjoy incredible popular support, and Anas Sarwar is still in second place, which betrays his lack of ambition. [Interruption.]

Thank you, members.

The First Minister

After wall-to-wall negative coverage of the SNP for five to six weeks, Anas Sarwar is happy to be in second place—that is his ambition for the Labour Party, and that is why the people of Scotland have not trusted Labour in the past 16 years to be in government.

Violence Against Young People (Government Action)

3. Russell Findlay (West Scotland) (Con)

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government plans to take in light of his declared support for the Daily Record’s “Our Kids … Our Future” campaign to tackle violence against young people. (S6F-02070)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

Like many others, I commend the Daily Record for drawing attention to an incredibly important issue. We must all confront the causes of violence, address its consequences, minimise future victimisation and stop violence from a young age. I call on anybody who experiences or witnesses violence or who sees it on social media, as highlighted by the campaign, to report it.

It is for all of us in society to confront the issue. We do not have power over social media platforms, but the UK Government does. Its Online Safety Bill, which is progressing through Westminster, could be a means to ensure that social media companies take more seriously their responsibility to contain violent content. I will write to the UK Government to make that case and I would welcome Mr Findlay’s support.

Russell Findlay

When Abbie Jarvis was violently attacked by another teenager, every brutal moment was recorded and circulated on social media. The First Minister says that he backs the important campaign against such sickening attacks. Abbie lives in fear and cannot leave home by herself or return to school, and her mum, Angela, struggles to explain why there has been no justice. Why are Abbie and other child victims paying the price? When there are no consequences for serious acts of violence, Angela asks this: what message does that send to the children of Scotland?

The First Minister

I am really grateful to Abbie and her mum, Angela, for speaking out; I have read their testimony in the Daily Record on a number of occasions. I am grateful to them and the other young people who have chosen to speak out after such horrific incidents.

We are keen to back the Daily Record’s calls by working with our local authorities to ensure that there are safe places for teenagers to go. We also want to do more work with social media companies to prevent violent content from being shared, which is why I will write to the UK Government on that matter.

Another ask of the Record’s campaign is that

“Every adult ... has a role to play—so take the lead in your community to help local children feel cared for and included”.

I do not think that the response to that is to lock up every under-18 who commits a violent act, throw away the key and forget about them and their future. We must understand the root cause of violent crime. A public health approach has been taken to that in Glasgow, which has worked well over many years.

Of course there should be consequences for violence, but that should not be about incarcerating young people; we should work with them to reduce violence and take a public health approach, which I am committed to doing.

I call Michelle Thomson.

I am sorry. My question is a constituency supplementary question rather than a supplementary question.

I call Katy Clark.

Katy Clark (West Scotland) (Lab)

The Scottish Government has a goal of ensuring that robust community justice interventions are available across Scotland, but the community justice budget is facing real-terms cuts over the next year. Given that the Scottish Government’s stated intention is to increase use of community justice, will the First Minister look at that again?

I think that there might be some misunderstanding. Is that a supplementary question with particular regard to question 3?

Yes—that was my understanding, Presiding Officer.

The First Minister

I am happy to answer the question, because Katy Clark has raised a really important point. I am full square behind the aims that she speaks about in relation to investing more in community justice, which I believe is a better route than, for example, incarceration. We know that if we divert people to community justice alternatives, there is the ability to prevent reoffending, for example. Therefore, I am more than happy to continue to look at every budget line I can—in particular, that important budget line. We are operating within a fixed budget, which we have limited powers to increase, and that is why I spoke yesterday about making really tough choices. Whether we are in Government or Opposition, it is important that we all engage in that conversation in a grown-up fashion. It is very clear that Katy Clark is up for that conversation.

Anti-poverty Summit (Update)

To ask the First Minister whether he will provide an update on the anti-poverty summit that took place on Wednesday 3 May. (S6F-02064)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

I am very grateful to the more than 80 people, including party leaders, who joined the anti-poverty summit. I hope that they will all agree with me that what we heard, particularly from people with direct experience of poverty, confirmed that poverty is the biggest challenge that we face, as a country. Although we have already acted to tackle the pressure on those who are most in need, of course more must be done.

We have fixed budgets and money is tight and needs to be stretched very far, so we must be hard-headed and realistic about the action that has to be taken. That means making some really tough choices that need to be bold. As we heard specifically, we have to be brave. All of us, including party leaders and me, as First Minister, were challenged to be brave by people with direct experience of poverty. The Government that I lead will be bold and will consider what we can do in relation to taxation, the tough decisions that have to be made and the targeted investments that we have to make.

Collette Stevenson

I thank the First Minister for that response. A wellbeing economy and a fair social security system are two key components in tackling poverty. Many experts agree that the United Kingdom Tory Government’s policies, such as cutting universal credit, are worsening poverty. [Interruption.] Of course, the minimum wage, which was set by Westminster, is well below the living wage that would help people to meet the cost of living. Does the First Minister agree with me that, until this Parliament has full powers over the economy and social security, the UK Government must step up to the plate and use its powers to support rather than to punish people? Can he outline the steps that the Scottish Government will take to build on its progressive record?

The First Minister

Whenever anybody talks about poverty, we always hear groans from the Conservative Party. Instead of groaning, they should face up to the reality that their actions—including more than a decade of austerity, the hard Brexit that has been imposed on us and a mini-budget that wreaked complete havoc on our economy—have pushed more people into poverty, and not just in Scotland but up and down the UK. Instead of groaning, they should face up to that fact and take some responsibility. [Applause.]

Thank you, members.

The First Minister

The UK Government should match the ambition of the Scottish Government on tackling and reducing poverty, and that includes introducing the equivalent of the Scottish child payment by reinstating the universal credit uplift at £25 a week and extending support to other means-tested benefits. Were the UK Government to reverse key reforms that have been introduced since 2015, that would put £780 million into the pockets of Scottish households, and it would lift 70,000 people, including 30,000 children, out of poverty this year.

Let me make it clear: where I can work constructively with the UK Government on reducing poverty, I will do so. It was one of the first topics that I raised in my meeting with the Prime Minister recently. Where we have the power in this Parliament to go further, I give an absolute commitment that we will use powers to their absolute maximum effect. We must all make a collective effort in order to reduce poverty—particularly child poverty.

Paul O’Kane (West Scotland) (Lab)

I noted the First Minister’s headline-grabbing announcement prior to the summit of £4.5 million for after-school clubs. Does he accept that that is a drop in the ocean compared with the £1 billion financial black hole that the Government created in local authority funding through its relentless slashing of council budgets? Does he also accept that it is time for the Scottish National Party to use every lever at its disposal to improve people’s lives?

During the summit, which we attended in good faith, we outlined a number of areas where the Government could take immediate action, including wiping out of school meals debt, improvement of debt support in communities, freezing of water charges and provision of a water rebate. The First Minister said that he is listening, so when will he get on and take action in those areas to make a real difference right now?

The First Minister

The difficulty, of course, with all those policy proposals is that Paul O’Kane did not outline how on earth we would pay for them. That is the problem—we have a Labour Party that demands action but does not do the grown-up politics of putting forward how it would pay for measures. That is the reality of government. I know that the Labour Party has not been in government for more than 16 years, but it has to be able to say how it will pay for those measures—[Interruption.]

Members, let us treat one another with courtesy and respect.

The First Minister

Labour shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves said that

“principles don’t change but the priorities and the policies must change according to the circumstances.”

I agree with her. We have to ensure that every single penny that we spend is targeted at those who need it most. I am more than happy to engage with Paul O’Kane constructively on issues that he has raised today, but we absolutely must be realistic. It is not just about coming up with potential solutions and proposals; we have to say how on earth we are going to pay for them. I make no apology whatsoever when I say that I believe in progressive taxation. I hope that that is a call that Labour can back, too.

Forestry Grants (Peatlands)

5. Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government's response is to a recent report suggesting that current forestry grant funding rules are supporting projects that are harmful to peatlands, and which, as a result, generate more CO2 than they sequester. (S6F-02067)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

We do not agree that our woodland creation is harmful for peatlands. No Government is doing more in these islands to ensure that woodlands and forestry help to tackle climate change.

Scotland’s forests remove more than 7 million tonnes of CO2 a year from the atmosphere—about 14 per cent of all Scotland’s gross emissions. All grant-funded planting must comply with the United Kingdom forestry standard to maximise CO2 removals and minimise emissions.

Planting on deep peat is, of course, banned. Guidance on ground preparation was strengthened in 2021, and we will continue to use the best available science and evidence to protect our environment, sequester carbon and get Scotland to net zero.

Brian Whittle

Even the Government’s own scientists, including those in Forest Research, are suggesting that even 10cm of deep peat might be worth protecting, and certainly that 30cm of deep peat should be protected.

The report highlights that trees have been planted using the wrong techniques, which dries up peatlands and sends organic matter down our rivers, which acidifies them, thereby killing salmon, and causes more flooding. To keep carbon in the ground, the report says that we need to keep peatlands wet. Will the First Minister tighten up the regulations for forestry and peatlands and ensure that the right trees are planted in the right place at the right time?

The First Minister

I make the point again to Brian Whittle that we have a very ambitious peatland restoration programme. The new policy prospectus that I announced just a couple of weeks ago promises to deliver up to 110,000 hectares of restored peatland by 2026, and Brian Whittle knows that our target in relation to 2030 is to restore 250,000 hectares. That is something that we are keen to do to build capacity, because we know that we need to go faster than we are currently going.

We are looking very closely at the report that Brian Whittle referenced, but Forest Research recently carried out quite a comprehensive study on CO2 uptake achieved through creation of different types of woodland. The key finding of the Forest Research study is that all types of woodland, including conifer, broadleaf and natural recolonisation woodland, have important roles to play

We will listen to any experts in that regard, and we are looking at the report that Brian Whittle referenced in his question.

Jackie Dunbar (Aberdeen Donside) (SNP)

As is to be expected, there is a range of opinions on the subject, but Scotland’s forests are an important carbon sink. The strategy of having the right tree in the right place is crucial, but does the First Minister share my view that expanding, restoring and improving forests and woodlands has a key role to play in achieving our net zero targets and restoring Scotland’s natural environment?

The First Minister

Yes, absolutely. Currently more than 75 per cent of woodland creation across the UK is in Scotland. Scotland’s forests and forestry sector are making a vital contribution to our reaching our climate change targets. We have set out bold plans in the climate change plan to increase woodland cover to 21 per cent by 2032, by planting than 18,000 hectares a year, including 4,000 hectares of native woodland. We have also taken steps to further protect and restore our iconic Atlantic rainforest and Caledonian pine woods. Our package of measures will deliver towards net zero and restore the biodiversity that underpins our economy and, importantly, the wellbeing of our planet and of local communities.

Deaf People (Communication Needs)

6. Karen Adam (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

Presiding Officer, for the record, I will ask my question first in spoken English and then in signed and spoken British Sign Language, to raise awareness.

To ask the First Minister, in light of this being deaf awareness week, what work the Scottish Government is undertaking to ensure that deaf people have their communication needs met. (S6F-02068)

I will now ask the question in BSL.

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

I thank Karen Adam for the question and recognise the incredible work that she has done to raise awareness of the issues of deaf people. A number of weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of meeting her father, who has also been an advocate and a champion for raising issues around deaf awareness and BSL, and for the use of BSL in particular.

I also wish all those who are marking deaf awareness week all the very best for the awareness-raising activity and events that I know are planned.

Since 2014, we have provided over £5.5 million to promote the implementation of the see hear strategy. A refreshed strategy for 2024 will be designed collaboratively with stakeholders and, importantly and crucially, with people who have lived experience. It will be focused on living a good life with sensory loss. Of course, communication plays a key and vital role in that.

For BSL users, the Scottish Government funds Contact Scotland BSL, which enables deaf and deafblind British Sign Language users to telephone any number, via video relay interpreters, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

We are investing in two technological solutions to improve communication for deaf people through our CivTech programme: a centralised booking system for BSL/English interpreters, and, crucially, an online concierge service that enables access to public services.

Karen Adam

I am a CODA, which is a child of a deaf adult, and I grew up learning BSL alongside English. The importance of the right to be understood in one’s own language cannot be understated. The deaf community deserves to feel included, but BSL provision across Scotland can be a postcode lottery. In Scotland, we pride ourselves on being a progressive nation. On BSL, however, we must go further and faster.

Will the First Minister commit to providing a space where stakeholders and I can highlight to the Scottish Government what we must do to protect the future of our precious minority language in Scotland?

The First Minister

Yes, I can absolutely commit to that. Once again, I thank Karen Adam for the incredible work that she has done in her time in Parliament and before that to raise issues that are affecting our deaf community in Scotland.

We have established a short-life working group for the development of the British Sign Language national plan for 2023 to 2029, which is due to be published in October. The national plan will provide a real opportunity to advance our approach to BSL. We will also establish an implementation governance group, for when the national plan has been published, to ensure that we can deliver on those commitments.

I am clear that I expect stakeholders to be fully involved in this work, particularly those with direct lived experience. The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills will be happy to meet Karen Adam to explore those issues in more detail.

We move to constituency and general supplementaries.


Kaukab Stewart (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

The situation in Sudan is worsening by the day. The sister-in-law of one my Glasgow Kelvin constituents is currently trapped in Khartoum as violence worsens across the region. I understand that the Eritrean police and security services are actively rounding up those attempting to flee. I also gather that at least three people have died while being transported from Khartoum to Shagarab refugee camp and that many more people have been kidnapped while they are trying to leave the capital city. Does the First Minister agree that that underlines the need for safe and legal routes to seek asylum within the United Kingdom? Can he provide assurances that Scotland will do all that it can within its devolved competencies to support victims caught up in this awful nightmare?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

I thank Kaukab Stewart for raising this important issue in our Parliament. I agree with all that the member has said. The Scottish Government has consistently sought and advocated for safe and legal routes to enable people to seek safety under the refugee convention—a convention that the UK was the first to sign. The majority in this Parliament made that clear in a debate on Tuesday, as well. Without such routes, people will continue to be forced into dangerous journeys that put their lives at further risk. The member has just mentioned countries where we can see that scenario taking place.

What we need is a humane asylum system in which people’s cases are dealt with swiftly and fairly, not the UK Government’s Illegal Migration Bill, which I believe that Douglas Ross voted for in earlier stages in the House of Commons. That is not fit for purpose; it is a complete abdication of international responsibility and a complete abdication of our moral responsibility. We will be engaging with the UK Government urgently, pleading with it to do the right thing. If we can do the right thing for those seeking to flee from war in Ukraine—as we absolutely should; it is the right thing to do—we should make sure that we are doing that for everybody who is fleeing war right across the world, regardless of which continent they are fleeing from, their colour of skin or their religion.

NHS Forth Valley (Complaints)

Alexander Stewart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

NHS Forth Valley continues to struggle, even under special measures. Complaints are going up and performance targets are falling short. Between April 2022 and January 2023, 1,704 complaints were received, which is an increase of 30 per cent compared with the same period the year before. Patients are clearly still not receiving the care that they deserve. What further action can be taken to ensure that the upturn in complaints is rectified as a matter of urgency?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

Alexander Stewart is right to raise the issue, which he has, of course, raised before with me. That is one of the reasons why, when I was health secretary, I took the action to escalate NHS Forth Valley to the second-highest level of escalation. Part of the reason for that was the complaints handling, the culture and the performance in NHS Forth Valley. As health secretary at the time, I offered a meeting between Alexander Stewart and Christine McLaughlin, who is heading the oversight group. I do not know whether that meeting has taken place. If not, I am more than happy to facilitate that from my office.

There is an improvement plan in place. I think that we all recognise that, given the nature of the challenges that NHS Forth Valley is facing, the improvement plan will take time to embed. However, I am assured that improvement is being made and I will get the latest update from the Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care after First Minister’s question time. If Alexander Stewart wishes to meet the cabinet secretary to get a further update, we will make that happen.

Buffer Zones (Legislation)

Gillian Mackay (Central Scotland) (Green)

Now that the work of the short-life working group on buffer zones has concluded, does the First Minister agree that all of our collective focus should be on delivering national legislation as the most robust way to put buffer zones in place in Scotland, and that our collective aim should be to bring forward the final proposal for my member’s bill before summer recess?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

I absolutely and fully agree with that and I extend my thanks to the members of the working group for helping us to get to this point. Gillian Mackay is right that the focus should now be on that national approach. I can give an absolute commitment—I know that Gillian Mackay knows this—that we will work closely with her on her member’s bill, which is of incredible importance. It is vital to ensure that women get safe access to health care and I and the Government are fully supportive of those safe access zones.

I know that my officials have been working at pace with Gillian Mackay in relation to the development of the legislation and I am pleased to hear her ambition around its introduction before summer recess. I look forward to engaging with her personally as well as with the cabinet secretary and the ministers who are involved.

Rapes and Sexual Assaults in Hospitals (Data Recording)

Pam Gosal (West Scotland) (Con)

More than 6,500 rapes and sexual assaults were reported to have taken place in hospitals in England and Wales between 2019 and 2022. However, Police Scotland does not record such data and, therefore, we do not know the scale of the problem in Scottish hospital wards.

A constituent has written to me and said that she was—rightly—unsettled by that alarming oversight. What action will the Government take to ensure that appropriate and accurate data is collected to identify the scale of the problem?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

Pam Gosal raises a very important matter. I do not have the detail in front of me in relation to the data that is, or is not, collected. However, I promise Pam Gosal that I will request, as she has asked me to do, the data that is collected in that regard. I will ask and explore whether we and Police Scotland can do more in relation to recording that data and will write to the member with further detail.

The Presiding Officer

That concludes First Minister’s questions. There will be a short suspension to allow members to leave the chamber and for people to leave the public gallery.

12:46 Meeting suspended.  

12:47 On resuming—