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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, October 6, 2022


First Minister’s Question Time

Accident and Emergency Departments (Waiting Times)

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

Two weeks ago, in this chamber, I asked the First Minister about the scale of the crisis across Scotland’s accident and emergency departments. The answers were not good enough. This week, it emerged that, for the month of August alone, 5,000 patients spent more than half a day waiting to be seen in A and E departments across the country. Waits of more than 12 hours for emergency treatment are completely unacceptable, yet such waits are faced by thousands of Scots at hospitals right across the country. This Government is presiding over the worst ever A and E waiting times in Scotland, so does the First Minister believe that the plans that were outlined by the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care on Tuesday will end those appalling waits?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

First, performance in our accident and emergency departments is not good enough. I have been candid about that, as has the health secretary. Our national health service is dealing with backlogs that were created by the Covid pandemic; indeed, it is still dealing in many different ways with the impact of that pandemic. We continue to support the national health service to recover. That includes accident and emergency services, as it does all parts of our national health service.

Of course, it is incumbent on me to point out again that although there are big challenges in our NHS and in A and E departments, our A and E departments remain the best performing anywhere in the United Kingdom, which is down to the dedication and hard work—[Interruption.]

Thank you, members.

The First Minister

That is down to the dedication and hard work of the people who work in our national health service. Of course, staff numbers are at a record high across the NHS and investment is at a record high. Although I and the health secretary are not complacent, we believe that the measures that he set out in the recovery plan update and the winter plan will make a positive difference.

Finally, I say frankly that it beggars belief that Douglas Ross stands here and talks about the national health service. His concern today for the national health service is even less convincing than it normally is, because he has spent much of the past week arguing for us to put millions of pounds into the pockets of the richest people in our society, regardless of the impact that that would have on our national health service.

Douglas Ross

I ask the First Minister, please, to not ever question my commitment to our national health service, given that it was just over—[Interruption.] It was just over a year ago that I had to follow my wife who was in an ambulance as she gave birth, and just over a year ago that I had to see my infant child on oxygen and fed through a tube in the Royal Aberdeen children’s hospital. She should not make political points when politicians are raising serious issues. Just as we did last year when the United Kingdom armed forces had to step in to help, we are seeing this crisis spread throughout Scotland’s NHS.

Long waiting times in A and E have a knock-on effect on the rest of our health system. A freedom of information request response that we have received shows that ambulances are queuing up outside hospitals because of the crisis inside in A and E. In Glasgow earlier this year, one ambulance was stuck outside the hospital for more than 13 hours because the patient could not be admitted. It was stuck outside for 13 hours. The Press and Journal revealed today that, in the past month, ambulance turnaround times at Aberdeen royal infirmary were at a record high. That is critical time during which an ambulance could be deployed to help other patients. Therefore, if the First Minister can answer about Scotland’s NHS and Scotland’s ambulances, will she tell us what her Government is doing to prevent ambulances from being held up outside hospitals?

The First Minister

Of course, £45 million for the Scottish Ambulance Service was part of the winter plan that was announced—which is about Scotland’s national health service. I say, Presiding Officer, that I have enormous sympathy for the personal experience of Douglas Ross, as I do for the personal experience of anyone in the national health service. However, I am sorry, but I think that it is reasonable to question the commitment to the national health service of anybody who argues for millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money going on cutting taxes for the richest people in our society, rather than being invested in the national health service.

It is because of the Government’s commitment to the national health service that we do not shy away from the difficulties that it faces, largely because of the Covid pandemic that has placed such burdens on health services across the world. That is why we are investing in our national health service instead of giving tax cuts to the richest people in our society. It is why we are supporting greater recruitment to our national health service, with staffing numbers at an all-time high, and it is why we are seeking a fair pay deal for the people who work in our national health service. They deserve it. We will continue to do the hard work to support our national health service in tough times as well as in good times.

Finally, we will take no lessons from the UK Government, which is doing real damage to the national health service. Although our NHS faces challenges, Scotland’s national health service is the best performing in the UK on A and E waiting times and on many other measurements, and that is down to the dedication of the people who work in it.

Douglas Ross

The First Minister has been busy all week on Twitter and responding to events elsewhere, but people turn to First Minister’s question time to hear the First Minister and her Government being challenged, and—hopefully—to hear responses. However, there has been absolutely nothing.

Let me go back to the topic that I am focusing on today, even if the First Minister will not do so in her responses. The FOI request that I mentioned revealed that the lengths of time that people are waiting for ambulances even to arrive is getting worse, which is unacceptable. Amber incidents involve patients who need an ambulance within 19 minutes—they have called and they need someone to arrive within that time. Our FOI request response mentioned one individual from Ayrshire and Arran, who was categorised as an amber incident but waited more than 32 hours—more than 100 times the wait of 19 minutes that he was supposed to have.

The situation is also dire for people who face the most serious incidents—purple incidents, which are so serious that the target response time is eight minutes. However, this summer, one purple incident patient in the Lothians waited more than two hours for an ambulance, and another patient, in Glasgow, waited more than an hour and a half. Others have waited close to an hour in Lanarkshire, Forth Valley, the Highlands and Shetland. Those incidents are the most critical and lives are on the line: people are waiting for hours when the response should arrive in minutes. Can the First Minister honestly stand there and tell us that those incidents are not jeopardising people’s lives?

The First Minister

I have been, and will continue to be, entirely candid that instances such as those are not acceptable. Our NHS is under extreme pressure, which is why it is so important that we continue to take the steps that we are taking to support it.

Douglas Ross is just plain wrong—as anybody who is listening to this will know—to say that I did not address the issues about Scotland’s NHS in my previous answers. I spoke about the £45 million of additional investment in the Scottish Ambulance Service to help specifically with winter pressures, and I spoke about record investment and record numbers of staff—in particular, the staffing of the SAS, which is up under the Scottish National Party Government by 67.3 per cent. That is the reality.

Any instances such as those that Douglas Ross narrated are clearly unacceptable. However, our ambulance crews responded to more than 68 per cent of their highest priority calls in under 10 minutes, and to more than 99 per cent of their highest priority calls in under 30 minutes. That is what the dedication of our paramedics and our ambulance technicians is delivering. We will continue to support our NHS in the ways that I have outlined.

It is not possible to separate those issues from the overall funding of our NHS, which—like the overall funding of Scotland’s budget—depends on decisions that are made by the Government at Westminster. We have already had the U-turn on tax cuts for the richest 1 per cent of people in the country, which Douglas Ross this time last week wanted this Government to emulate, and which would have taken millions of pounds out of the budget of our public services—[Interruption.]

Could we hear the First Minister? Thank you.

The First Minister

Last week, the former deputy governor—I think—of the Bank of England said that the spending cuts that are coming down the track from the Tory UK Government could mean the “end of the NHS” as we know it. That is the reality. This Government will continue to prioritise the national health service, but we are doing that in the face of a Tory Government that seems to be intent on destroying it.

Douglas Ross

We all, across Scotland, would really benefit if Nicola Sturgeon spent more of a Thursday morning practising her responses on the issues that really matter to people in Scotland, rather than political attacks. The First Minister has to accept and must see that the situation with ambulance waiting times in our NHS is appalling and is happening all over the country.

The First Minister said that I was narrating cases, so let us look at a case that we both should know about. On Monday, she and I were both emailed by a 78-year-old man explaining what had recently happened to his 73-year-old wife. His wife fell in their garden and broke her hip. She was in agony, but was told that a broken hip does not constitute a priority for receiving an ambulance. They waited for hours for an ambulance to come to take them to Aberdeen royal infirmary, but it never arrived.

After four and a half hours outside in the garden in agony and distress—from 10 minutes to 3 in the afternoon until half past 7 at night—they gave up and called a taxi. The 78-year-old man had to get help from his neighbours to lift his wife into the taxi to eventually get her to hospital. A line in the email that the First Minister and I received says:

“She endured even more severe pain getting into the taxi but, by this time, we were getting desperate.”

The email from that gentleman also says that the First Minister’s Government should

“hang your heads in shame.”

He is right, is he not?

The First Minister

He is absolutely right that experiences like that are not acceptable. Nobody will ever hear me say otherwise.

Our health service, including the Ambulance Service, is under the most extreme pressure that most of us can remember. I believe that most people understand the reasons for that. I also believe that most people understand the support that is being given to the national health service, as is right and proper. There are record staffing levels in our NHS and there is record investment.

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care set out the winter plan in the chamber earlier this week. We will continue to get on with the serious responsibility of supporting the recovery of our national health service. We will always respond on incidences in which people’s experiences are not what they should be and we will not shy away from that. The Government prioritises and supports the national health service and will continue to do so each and every day.

National Health Service (Waiting Times)

2. Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

The Scottish Government’s failure to get to grips with NHS waiting times is costing lives. In February, my colleague Foysol Choudhury raised the case of Anne Sinclair, who was waiting for cancer treatment. Anne, a previous cancer survivor, waited seven months for her diagnosis, at which point she was told that she had an aggressive form of cancer. She was then forced to wait more than five months for treatment.

We know that the sooner someone is diagnosed and the sooner they start treatment, the more likely they are to survive. Anne tragically died this summer. Her last words to her son Ricky were:

“Keep fighting; tell my story; we need to stop this happening to anyone else. I love you.”

In February, the First Minister said that Anne’s case was “unacceptable”, a word that she has used at least six times already this afternoon. If it is unacceptable, why is it still happening to others?

The First Minister

First, I convey my sincere condolences to Anne’s loved ones—her family and her friends. I do not know all the circumstances of her situation but I know what was narrated to me in the chamber previously.

Individual experiences in which the treatment or care in the NHS is not what all of us expect are unacceptable. I will never stop saying that.

That does not change the fact that, for the overwhelming majority of people in this country, the NHS delivers an outstanding service. Cancer is and always should be a clinical priority. We have two key waiting time standards on the NHS for cancer care: the 31-day target for the period from decision to treat to first treatment, and the 62-day target. More people are now being seen on those urgent pathways than was previously the case, and we continue to invest in cancer services and the early diagnosis of cancer. Those issues are a priority.

I do not and will never shy away from the serious challenges and pressures on our national health service. That is why it is so incumbent on Government to support the NHS with the investment and the other forms of support that it needs, and we will always do that, for the sake of patients like Anne and, of course, the many other patients who depend on the NHS each and every day.

Anas Sarwar

Anne’s case is not an isolated or individual case. Here is another. A 56-year-old man in West Dunbartonshire first went to his doctor with back pain in autumn 2020. He was prescribed painkillers and told to visit a physio. Six months later, he was passing blood and being violently sick. He called an ambulance but was told twice that one would not attend because his condition was not life threatening, so he got himself to accident and emergency and eventually had a CT scan, which showed a large tumour that had spread to his spine. He died a year after first seeking help from the NHS. That demonstrates a systemic failure and what happens when services and staff are pushed to breaking point.

Does the First Minister accept that her failure to get to grips with the NHS crisis is costing lives?

The First Minister

I take my responsibility to the NHS seriously every single day. The pressures on our NHS are well known. That is why the support that we are giving to our NHS is so important. That is the case across all conditions and all specialties in our NHS, but it is perhaps even more particularly the case when it comes to cancer care.

I mentioned the two targets. I explain to people that the 31-day target relates to the period from a decision being taken to treat to the first treatment happening. More than 95 per cent of patients are seen within that target period. The 62-day target, which relates to the whole referral to treatment period, is much more challenging. However, almost eight out of 10 patients are seen within that target period, and more people are being seen through that urgent pathway than has ever been the case.

The reason I have spent time talking about that is that it is important for people to understand that, for the vast majority, our NHS—on cancer care and on everything else—delivers an outstanding service of clinical care. It is clear that that is not the case for everyone, especially now, given the pressures that are faced. That is why the responsibility that I, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care and the whole Government have to make sure that we support the NHS is such a vital one and one that we take so incredibly seriously.

Anas Sarwar

A failure to get to grips with the NHS crisis is costing lives. Let us look at the facts. In the past year, 3,393 people waited for longer than the 62-day target period for urgent cancer treatment, which is a standard that has not been met in 10 years and the performance on which is getting worse. That means lives lost.

We have the worst A and E waiting times on record. In one month alone, 13,000 patients waited for more than eight hours. The Royal College of Emergency Medicine has warned that that means lives lost.

This is a systemic failure on the Scottish National Party’s watch. Staff are being failed, patients are being let down and lives are being lost. How many more families have to suffer? How many more tragic stories do we have to bring to this Parliament before Nicola Sturgeon and Humza Yousaf do their jobs?

The First Minister

On the 62-day cancer target, if we look at the most recent quarter, we see that more patients were treated on that 62-day pathway than was the case before the pandemic. In the most recent year for which we have full-year figures, more people were treated on that 62-day pathway than, I think, was the case in any year since 2011.

Our national health service, because of investment and staff recruitment, is doing more in many senses than it was before. Demand is also increasing, which is why we have to continue to increase that support.

Whether in cancer care, accident and emergency or the Ambulance Service response times that we have just been talking about, there are very significant challenges. Those challenges are often experienced by patients and are felt every day by staff who work on the front line of our national health service.

This Government is committed to supporting our national health service. There has never been a more difficult time to do so, but there has also never been a more important time to do so, which is why we continue to take that responsibility so seriously.

We move to constituency and general supplementary questions.

Education (Anti-racism)

Kaukab Stewart (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

What is the Scottish Government’s response to reports that some ethnic minority teaching professionals have experienced racist online abuse after sharing their plans for more diversity in Scottish education at the Scottish learning festival? Will the First Minister join me in condemning the racist abuse faced by St Albert’s primary school in her constituency and the racist graffiti that has been found on the campus of the University of Glasgow in my constituency? Will she further agree with me that anti-racist education is important in ensuring a more diverse and inclusive Scotland?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I whole-heartedly agree with that and I am sure that the whole chamber whole-heartedly agrees with that. No one should ever experience racism and we all have a duty to stand firmly in solidarity with anyone who does and against those who are racist. The vile racist abuse directed at teaching professionals, staff and children on the back of the Scottish learning festival should be condemned and I condemn it.

I make a particular comment, given how close to my heart the experience of pupils at St Albert’s primary in my constituency of Pollokshields is. I know St Albert’s very well. It is a fantastic school with a fantastic headteacher, fantastic teachers and outstanding young people. I was privileged to visit the school on Friday, as I have been many times in the past. Racism sickens me, but there is nothing that turns my stomach more than the idea of adults—whether from Scotland or anywhere else in the world—who can look at a photograph of beautiful, clever children and see only the colour of their skin. It is despicable, it is disgusting, it has no place in Scotland and I hope that all of us will unite in utter condemnation of vile racists everywhere. [Applause.]

Baby Loss (Certification)

Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

The First Minister will know that next week is baby loss awareness week. Baby Loss Retreat, which is a fantastic charity in my region, helps people who have lost babies. I recently opened its charity shop in Airdrie. Heather Denham of East Kilbride works for that charity after being helped by it; she is in the public gallery today. Heather has an eight-year-old son but has lost three other children. In April last year, she went for her 20-week scan and learned that her baby daughter had no heartbeat. Heather had to give birth to little Jorgia and lay her to rest a few days later.

Because Jorgia was born at less than 24 weeks, she has no birth certificate. Heather told me:

“One of my children has a birth certificate, the other does not. My daughter does not exist in the eyes of the law and it breaks my heart every single day. I have held two children in my arms, so they should both exist in the eyes of the law.”

The United Kingdom Government has launched a new initiative that will provide parents with a pregnancy loss certificate if their baby is born before 24 weeks. Will the First Minister ensure that the same happens here?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I will. Baby loss awareness week is a very important event every year and it is one that I always mark personally as well as in my role as First Minister, for very personal reasons. I absolutely understand the feelings and sentiments that have been narrated here today. I know from personal experience how awful it is to lose a baby very early on, and I know how deep the desire is to have that lost baby recognised in a variety of ways. I think that the suggestion around pregnancy loss certificates is an important one and I give the undertaking that we will look very seriously at that in Scotland too.

Centre for the Moving Image

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

In recent hours, reports have emerged that the Centre for the Moving Image, which is the charity that runs both the Belmont cinema in Aberdeen and the Filmhouse in Edinburgh, has gone into receivership. The Filmhouse is located in Edinburgh Central, but it is an important institution for the whole of the city and indeed the whole of the country. It hosts the Edinburgh international film festival, which is the oldest continuously running film festival in the world.

What efforts will the Government be making? Will the First Minister ask ministers to engage with Aberdeen City Council and the City of Edinburgh Council so that they can co-ordinate an approach? What business and cultural support funds can be made available in order to save this vital cultural institution?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I thank Daniel Johnson for raising the issue. The news, which has emerged publicly this morning, is of huge concern and I know that many people in Edinburgh and Aberdeen will be profoundly upset about it. These are really important cultural organisations and all of us want to see them, if at all possible, go from strength to strength.

The Scottish Government will engage to consider whether there is any support that we can bring to bear. I will ask Angus Robertson to engage with the Aberdeen and Edinburgh city councils and ensure that Creative Scotland, which of course takes funding decisions independently of ministers, engages with the organisations as well. Obviously, I cannot give any commitment standing here right now and I cannot go into any more detail ahead of that engagement, but I can say that we recognise the importance of the organisations and will do everything possible to support them at this difficult time.

Population Health Protection (Independence)

Michelle Thomson (Falkirk East) (SNP)

The First Minister will have seen the truly shocking findings by the University of Glasgow and the Glasgow Centre for Population Health that were published yesterday in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. They show that 19,299 excess deaths in Scotland are likely to have been caused by United Kingdom Government’s economic policy. The academics also report that that translates into 300,000 deaths across the UK—deaths that lie squarely at the door of the Tories. Does the First Minister therefore agree that it is essential for the protection of our population’s health that Scotland escapes Westminster control and the Tories for good, and that that can be guaranteed only with independence?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Yes, I do. The study that was published this week by the Glasgow Centre for Population Health is shocking, and it lays bare the real impact of austerity—the impact on people’s lives, which we see quite literally in the report.

The report is on the impact of past Tory austerity. We now face, unfortunately, a new period of Tory austerity. We have seen in recent days the estimate of what spending cuts will be and we know the impact that that will have on our public services and on people’s lives. We are watching a quite grotesque debate in the Conservative Party about whether it is right to cut the incomes of people on benefits—the lowest-paid people in our society.

If we want to chart a different course in Scotland—if we want to apply the values of respect and dignity in Scotland, as I believe most of us across the chamber do—we are not going to be able to do that for as long as we are tied to Westminster governance. That is one of many, many reasons why this country needs to be independent and why I believe that this country will be independent.

Energy Efficiency Measures (Funding)

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

It was reported last weekend that the Scottish Government intends in its capital spending review to cut 14 per cent—that is, over £17 million—from the funding for energy efficiency measures for those in fuel poverty. Of course it is right that we focus on immediate measures to help families through the cost of living crisis, but investment in efficiency upgrades will reduce their heating bills and energy use in the long run. The Scottish Government declined to confirm or deny those cuts. Will the First Minister confirm whether the cuts will go ahead as set out?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

We have an emergency budget review under way right now. The Deputy First Minister will report the outcome of that to the Parliament following the recess. I wish that we were not having to undertake that emergency budget review. We have to do it because of the actions of the United Kingdom Conservative Government.

In effect, we have a fixed budget. We have very limited powers to borrow. Therefore, given that our budget is being eroded by soaring inflation and that we are facing even more cuts coming down the track from Westminster, we have to contemplate some very difficult decisions. We will take those decisions, through applying our values, and seek to protect those who need our protection most.

If Tory members do not want us to have to face some of those choices—and I wish that we did not have to face them—perhaps, instead of kowtowing to their masters in London over tax cuts to the rich, they could start standing up for Scotland and demanding fair budget treatment for this Parliament.

McVitie’s Factory Glasgow (Closure)

Paul Sweeney (Glasgow) (Lab)

Last week, Pladis ceased production at the McVitie’s factory in Tollcross, ending 205 years of biscuit making in Glasgow and terminating the connection of an iconic Scottish brand with our country. Workers faced the humiliation of having to walk out of their last shifts while the state-of-the-art machinery that they worked on was dismantled around them, to be shipped to factories in England. Some of that machinery was funded by almost £1 million in Scottish Enterprise grants. Has the Government raised concerns with Pladis’s management about its blatant asset stripping of the Glasgow factory, and what steps is it taking to secure the factory and its assets for future manufacturing use?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Scottish Enterprise will consider all those issues.

Like Paul Sweeney, I was extremely disappointed that the tireless efforts—everybody would recognise them as tireless—of the Pladis action group were not able to secure the future of the Tollcross site and its skilled workforce. That was not for the want of trying. My thoughts are with the staff and their families, who now face redundancy. The Scottish Government will support them in every way possible. However, I hope that the member will accept that the Scottish Government did everything possible to try to reach a different outcome. We all regret that that outcome was not possible.

E-cigarettes (Teenagers)

To ask the First Minister what steps the Scottish Government is taking to curb the reported sharp rise in e-cigarette use among teenagers. (S6F-01433)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

We are greatly concerned by reports of young people obtaining e-cigarettes or vaping products. The only place for vaping should be as a possible aid to help existing smokers to quit using tobacco. Underpinning our concern is clear evidence that vaping products are not harm free. That is married with our concern about the tobacco industry’s involvement with and influence over vaping.

Last week, we published our consultation analysis on proposed restrictions on vaping products, and the Minister for Public Health, Women’s Health and Sport aims to bring forward new regulations in the new year.

Stephanie Callaghan

The recent consultation “Tightening rules on advertising and promoting vaping products” produced polarised views. However, given that major Scottish football clubs are signing partnerships with vaping companies, and given reports that TikTok influencers are platforming such products to young people online, we need decisive action to control the crisis before it spirals out of control. Will the First Minister confirm whether further consideration has been given to introducing stricter regulations on the sale and marketing of e-cigarette products, both online and offline, and whether an effective, clear and educational public health message that addresses the new epidemic of nicotine addiction in children and young people is being developed?

The First Minister

Yes. I agree with the sentiments of that question. We are carefully considering the outcome of the consultation. We have not ruled anything out at this stage. Any action that we seek to take will build on the regulations that are already in place, which restrict the marketing, promotion and sale of vaping products to under-18s.

We recognise the vital importance of having a clear public health message for young people on the potential dangers of vaping, and we are working with Young Scot and the Children’s Parliament to bring their voices into our work to develop a refreshed tobacco action plan. We are determined to create a smoke-free Scotland, in which nicotine addiction is a thing of the past.

Will data on youth vaping that is collected from the local schools survey be collated and considered in the Scottish Government’s tobacco action plan that is due to be published next year?

Yes, it will be. We have a stated ambition to create a tobacco-free generation in Scotland by 2034, and we will consider how such a survey on vaping can help to deliver that ambition.

Investment Zones

To ask the First Minister what discussions she has had with the United Kingdom Government about new investment zones for Scotland. (S6F-01419)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities wrote to the Deputy First Minister proposing official discussions on how investment zones might work in Scotland. We have agreed to exploratory discussions, but we have also emphasised that any model would require partnership working between the Scottish and UK Governments; that it must reflect the Scottish economic policy and governance landscape; and that it must respect the devolution settlement, particularly as it relates to planning and environmental protection. We still await further information on the UK Government’s proposals.

Stephen Kerr

I welcome the positivity of the First Minister’s response and I welcome the proposal to create investment zones in Scotland as one part of an ambitious plan to grow our economy—to incentivise businesses to invest, to build, and to create high-quality jobs. I also welcome the reported constructive talks that have just been mentioned between Scottish ministers and the British Government.

However, for my constituents—the people of Central Scotland—and for people in businesses across Scotland, the success of the policy will depend on Scotland’s two Governments working co-operatively for the common good. That common good is about working together to attract new investment, new infrastructure and new high-skill and high-paid jobs.

I have read that as many as five or more investment zones could be created in Scotland. Will the First Minister set aside constitutional division, be ambitious for Scotland and work in partnership with the UK Government to bring the benefits of investment zones not only to the people of Central Scotland but to other parts of Scotland?

The First Minister

It is good to hear a Tory take a break from crashing the economy to talk about supporting the economy. That is certainly a refreshing change, although I am not convinced that it will be a long-standing one.

I say to the Tories that anybody who is really serious about growing the economy needs to tackle the anti-growth coalition in the Conservative Party—the people who took Scotland out of the European Union and the single market and the ones who are exacerbating skills shortages through their obsession with immigration. Perhaps it would support the economy to start there.

On investment zones, I am not sure whether Stephen Kerr listened to what I said. We have agreed to exploratory discussions, but we have to be satisfied that such zones are in Scotland’s interests. Crucially, we do not yet have any details on the UK Government’s proposals. [Interruption.] I know that the Scottish Tories just do anything that the UK Tories ask them to do, but this Government actually acts in the interests of the Scottish people—and that will be true on investment zones, as it is for everything else.

“Poverty in Scotland 2022”

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report, “Poverty in Scotland 2022”. (S6F-01422)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The report is a stark reminder of the pressures that low-income households are facing and why the Government’s actions to tackle poverty are so important.

We have allocated almost £3 billion this year to help to mitigate the impact of increasing costs on households. That is from within our fixed budget, which is £1.7 billion less than it was in December last year, due to inflation. We are taking a range of actions, including increasing our unique Scottish child payment to £25 per week.

That is in sharp contrast to a UK Government that is plunging the UK into economic turmoil. We have seen over the past week—and, indeed, over the past 12 years—why it is so vital that the Parliament has the full powers to be able to tackle poverty and the cost of living and to support those who are most in need.

Pam Duncan-Glancy

I thank the First Minister for that answer, but the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report highlighted the particular pressures facing families in Scotland with a disabled person in them, noting that

“Three in four families ... where someone has a disability reported a negative impact on their mental health due to the cost of living crisis”,

and even higher numbers have had to cut back on essential spending.

Another report published this week by Inclusion Scotland made the very stark statement that there will be “avoidable deaths” of disabled people this winter without targeted action. Scottish Labour has pushed and pushed the Scottish Government to do something for disabled people during the cost of living crisis; so far, we have been ignored. What urgent action will the Government take to step in and alleviate the pressures that are facing disabled people this winter?

The First Minister

It is the case that poverty has a disproportionate impact on certain groups in our society, which undoubtedly include disabled groups. The £3 billion that I mentioned will, of course, be of benefit in many respects to people who live with disabilities; the fuel insecurity fund is one example of that. Within the fixed budget and limited powers that we have, we will continue to do as much as we can to mitigate the impact of the cost of living crisis.

Of course, the fundamental problem is that so many such powers, and the access to resources, lie outwith the hands of the Parliament. It is not enough to have partial powers over welfare or partial resources; we need full powers in this Parliament. I hope that we might yet see the day when Scottish Labour will argue for such powers to be not with Tory Governments at Westminster but in the hands of this democratically elected Parliament.

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

If the First Minister has all that power, why is she taking away money from disabled people by cutting the employability budget by £53 million this year? Will she tell the Scottish people—in particular, those who are disabled—why it is harder for a disabled person to get a job in Scotland than it is anywhere else in the United Kingdom?

The First Minister

It is important to stress that the budget for employability is increasing. It is not increasing by as much as we would like it to, because of the choices that we are being forced to make since our budget is shrinking as a result of the economic incompetence and financial decisions of the UK Government.

If any member does not like the decisions that we are making—we do not want to be in the position of having to make them—they can come and argue how else we should balance our budget and protect the people who are most in need. I say particularly to the Conservatives that, if they do not like the decisions, they should start to argue with their colleagues at Westminster to stop cutting the Parliament’s budget so that such decisions are not necessary in the first place.

Deaths in Custody

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government is doing to reduce deaths in custody, including suicides, in light of reports of a 60 per cent year-on-year increase. (S6F-01423)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

First and foremost, my thoughts are with everyone who has lost a loved one in prison custody. The safety and wellbeing of people who are in prison are a priority, and we recognise that we need to do more to support positive health outcomes for vulnerable people in prisons.

The prison health and social care needs assessment, which we published last month, and work undertaken in response to the independent deaths in custody review are key steps in our commitment to achieving that aim. All front-line staff are trained in the Scottish Prison Service’s prevention of suicide strategy, which provides a person-centred care pathway for prisoners who are at risk of suicide and promotes a supportive environment in which people can ask for help. Individuals are screened on their arrival at prison. When needed, the SPS and the national health service work together to support vulnerable individuals and review them regularly.

Jamie Greene

The First Minister is right to say that we need to do more. In my hand is a one-page roll call, which contains a tragic list of every single death in Scotland’s prisons last year. The list includes individuals’ names, ages and causes of death. I will not read out those names, out of respect for the families involved and to avoid the risk of retraumatising them, but those prisoners should not be forgotten. For example, at HMP Addiewell, a 26-year-old man took his own life nine months into his sentence; at HMP Kilmarnock, a 29-year-old man was found hanging four months into his sentence; and at HMP Greenock, a 27-year-old man was found hanging 15 months into his sentence. At HMP Polmont, a 20-year-old man—who had not even been convicted; he was on remand—was found dead.

Those are just the tragic suicides in prisons. Where do I start with the overdoses? Etizolam and opioid overdoses and multidrug intoxication are killing people in our prisons every week. They account for 53 of the deaths on the list in the past year alone. Ten years ago, there were 21 names on an equivalent list. That is still too many, but we can see that the number has doubled in 10 years.

Why is it still the case that so many people in custody are taking their lives? Despite years of promises to get a grip on the problem, why are so many drugs still getting into our prisons and killing people? I warn that this situation must stop or, next year, the list of deaths will be two pages long and the year after that it will be three pages long. I ask the First Minister when this will end.

The First Minister

Every death from suicide is a tragedy, no matter where it takes place, which is why this issue is not specifically about prisons. However, it is why the new suicide prevention strategy from the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, which was launched last week, is so important. Clearly there are particular issues in prisons, which is why the work that I set out in my original answer is so important. The prevention of suicide in prison strategy aims to care for those at risk of suicide by providing a specific pathway based on an individual’s specific needs. Of course, a supportive environment should also be promoted to ensure that people in custody are able to ask for help. We will continue to take forward all of that work.

Finally, this is not the only reason but one of the many reasons that this Government has made it a priority to try to reduce the number of people, particularly vulnerable people, who are in our prisons in the first place by, for example, reducing short-term sentences and increasing community rehabilitation options. Often, the Conservatives come here and oppose all of those things, so I say in the interests of consensus that we should take forward this important debate in the context of a proper debate on criminal justice as a whole. We send too many people to prison in Scotland in the first place, and we need to tackle that as well as ensure that we tackle the conditions inside our prisons.

Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

Research from the University of Glasgow has shown that in more than nine out of 10 fatal accident inquiries sheriffs made no recommendations to improve practice. It also shows that, when families are involved, sheriffs are three times more likely to make findings based on lessons learned from the deaths; however, only 31 per cent of families are represented at FAIs.

My colleague Katy Clark has raised the issue with the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans, but I ask the First Minister to consider whether all families and the next of kin of family members who have died in custody should have access to non-means-tested legal aid funding throughout the investigation. I am sure that the First Minister will appreciate that many families who have lost someone in custody feel helpless and intimidated by the process and it is important to ensure that they get representation where it is needed.

The First Minister

Those are important and legitimate issues to raise. Of course, a fatal accident inquiry is an independent judicial process that is mandatory for all deaths in custody unless the circumstances of the death have been explained through a criminal trial or other inquiry. The current process for FAIs, as enacted in legislation in 2016, follows an in-depth review of the system, and a number of improvements have been made to the system for such inquiries since the legislation in question was introduced. However, Pauline McNeill has clearly raised an important issue about legal aid and the ability of families to engage with inquiries, and I will certainly take it away and consider whether there is any further action that it would be appropriate for the Scottish Government to take.

The Presiding Officer

That concludes First Minister’s questions. There will be a short suspension before we move on to the next item of business, which is a members’ business debate in the name of Mark Ruskell.

12:48 Meeting suspended.  

12:49 On resuming—