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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, March 7, 2024


First Minister’s Question Time

Waiting Times (Accident and Emergency Departments)

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

New statistics that were released this week revealed that January this year was the worst month ever for long waits at Scotland’s A and E departments. Almost 9,000 patients waited for more than half a day for emergency treatment.

We spoke to Kirsteen Campbell from Ross-shire. She spent more than seven hours in a waiting room at the Queen Elizabeth university hospital after experiencing symptoms of a heart attack or blood clot during a visit to Clydebank. She told me that, to alleviate the pain that she was in, she had to lie on the floor, surrounded by vomit and other bodily fluids, because there was no bed available. What does Humza Yousaf have to say to Kirsteen? How will he fix the problem?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

Before I answer Douglas Ross’s question, I want to say, on behalf of the Scottish Government and the party that I lead, how sad we were to hear the tragic news of the loss of Nick Sheridan. Nick was an extremely talented journalist and author, and he will be greatly missed. Many of us in the chamber will have been questioned by Nick, no doubt quite robustly, whether it was on BBC “Drivetime” or on the many other programmes that he presented. My thoughts are with his family, his many friends and his colleagues, for whom it will undoubtedly be a very sad time.

On the serious question that Douglas Ross asked, I would say to Kirsteen Campbell and anybody else who has had to wait too long—longer than any of us would expect—for A and E treatment, elective care or diagnostics that, first and foremost, the Government apologises for that. However, we are still recovering from the global pandemic, which affected every health service in the country, and that is precisely why the Deputy First Minister ensured that record funding—more than £19.5 billion—is going into the national health service. It is why we ensured that those on front line who are dealing with, treating and caring for the likes of Kirsteen and many other patients across Scotland are the best paid in the entire United Kingdom. It is why we increased their pay to record levels, and it is also why, under this Government, we have increased staffing levels to historic highs.

Are the long waits that too many patients have to endure acceptable? Not at all. That is why we are investing in our NHS and in our staff. What makes that far more difficult, of course, is having real-term budget cuts from Westminster. If public spending for NHS England is slashed, that has consequences for Scotland, too.

The Government will continue to invest in our NHS and, most crucially, in our NHS staff, who do an incredible job day in, day out.

Douglas Ross

On behalf of the Scottish Conservatives, I, too, pay tribute to Nick Sheridan. I have been interviewed by him in the past, and he was a robust but extremely professional journalist. I know that his loss will be felt so much by his family and friends, as well as by his colleagues at the BBC and across the media, who regarded him so highly.

I listened carefully to the First Minister’s answer. The example of Kirsteen and A and E departments that I gave in my first question is replicated across our NHS. This week, we learned that patients in Scotland’s NHS are nearly 30 times more likely to be waiting more than two years for treatment than those south of the border are. More than 8,000 patients have been waiting over two years for treatment in Scotland’s NHS. Eight thousand have been waiting more than two years. Does Humza Yousaf think that it is acceptable for one person—never mind thousands—to wait more than two years for treatment? What is he planning to do specifically to deal with the appalling waits for treatment?

The First Minister

I said in my first response that we do not believe that it is acceptable for anybody to have to endure a long wait—be it for unscheduled care, elective care or diagnostics. However, I hope that we all understand that the impact of the global pandemic has affected health services not just in Scotland but around the world.

Douglas Ross asked what we are doing about this. It is because of our investment in the NHS—record investment—that we are seeing progress and recovery. I will look at the statistics that came out this week, which Douglas Ross referred to. They show a 15 per cent increase in operations performed in January compared with the previous month. In comparison with January from the year before, there was a 16 per cent increase. That shows that activity is moving in the right direction. In January this year, 702 operations were carried out each day, which compares with 604 in January of the previous year.

On long waits, there have been elements of recovery. The number of new out-patients who are waiting more than two years is down by 66 per cent. Two-year waits for in-patients and day cases are down by 25 per cent.

Douglas Ross asked what we are specifically doing about this. We are making sure that we are investing in our capacity. Through our network of treatment centres and 20,000 additional surgeries, we have provided that capacity.

I go back to my central point and will end on it. We are investing record amounts in our NHS. We are investing in our staff. We are making sure that they are the best paid. That job becomes immeasurably difficult when the UK Government has, in real terms, taken £500 million out of our budget over the past two years. Douglas Ross really needs to use whatever influence he has—of course, we know that he does not have much—to make sure that the Conservatives fund public services and do not slash them to the bone.

Douglas Ross

When we are speaking about our NHS and patients, it is really important that we speak to the 8,000 people across Scotland who are suffering and waiting more than two years—[Interruption.]

I suspend the meeting briefly.

12:07 Meeting suspended.  

12:08 On resuming—  

I call Douglas Ross.

Douglas Ross

I was saying that the 8,000 people in Scotland who have been waiting more than two years for treatment want to hear more from the First Minister about how he is going to deal with that.

It is unsurprising that Humza Yousaf still blames Covid, but the crisis in Scotland’s NHS has continued to get worse since the pandemic. Since he became First Minister, more than 500,000 days have been lost because of delayed discharge—that means that, over the past 12 months, 500,000 hospital beds could have been available for other patients.

The Scottish National Party promised to eradicate delayed discharge eight years ago. If it had done that, as it promised—[Interruption.] I think that the First Minister just said that that is stupid—

I did not say that at all.

It was a promise from the SNP Government—[Interruption.]

Colleagues, let us conduct our business in an orderly fashion.

Douglas Ross

Well, SNP members were disagreeing with something. I will be interested to know whether the First Minister disagrees that it was a promise to eradicate completely delayed discharge eight years ago. If the SNP had done that, waiting times would be lower for emergency care, ambulances and emergency treatment. How costly has the failure to eradicate delayed discharge been for patients who are waiting in Scotland’s NHS?

First, Douglas Ross should withdraw and retract his comment. I did not, in fact, say anything to Douglas Ross—[Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer

I ask the First Minister to take a seat.

Colleagues, it is exceptionally important that we conduct our business in an orderly fashion. We can best do that not by shouting and pointing at one another but by ensuring that the person who has been called to speak has the opportunity to do so and that we listen respectfully.

The First Minister

That is right, Presiding Officer. Douglas Ross, having clearly been left hung out to dry by his colleagues, is desperate to simply make up what has been said or not said.

When it comes to the NHS in Scotland, I am very proud of the fact that the actions that we have taken mean that Scotland remains the only country anywhere in the UK not to have lost a single day to NHS strike action.

When it comes to social care, which Douglas Ross is absolutely right to point to, Brexit has been a complete and utter disaster for social care recruitment. Not only that, but the recent changes to migration rules have been described as absolutely devastating by those who work in social care.

We can add to that, as I have already said, a real-terms cut to our budget over the past couple of years, including a £1.3 billion cut to our capital budget, which directly affects health infrastructure. We are attempting to recover our NHS in the face of 14 years of Conservative austerity.

The SNP-led Scottish Government will invest in our NHS and make sure that we have record staffing levels and the best-paid NHS staff anywhere in the UK, and we will continue to make sure that we invest in our public services, while Douglas Ross and his party take a hatchet to public services across the UK.

Douglas Ross

Last week, a whistleblower in NHS Grampian revealed to The Press and Journal that, at one stage, 18 ambulances were stuck outside Aberdeen royal infirmary. The whistleblower said that that could have been

“up to half of the north-east’s fleet of ambulances … stuck in one place and unable to leave … instead of supporting and protecting the communities we serve.”

I can repeat that if the First Minister is getting advice from the health secretary, because I think that it is really important—[Interruption.]

Please continue, Mr Ross.

Douglas Ross

It is really important that the First Minister listens to what our professionals in Scotland’s NHS are saying. The whistleblower in NHS Grampian continued—[Interruption.] What? Is that the response that we are going to get from a cabinet secretary in the Scottish Government? I hope that that is withdrawn.

Mr Ross—

I hope that that is withdrawn.

The Presiding Officer

Mr Ross, I did not hear the comment that you obviously heard from the floor. However, it is essential that members desist from making any commentary when their colleagues are putting questions to one another and responding to them. We will not continue in that vein. I would be grateful if members would remind themselves of standing orders and the need to treat one another with courtesy and respect.

Douglas Ross

I cannot believe that Angus Robertson is smirking after saying that, when I am quoting from an ambulance worker in NHS Grampian. I will continue to read out the whistleblower’s words, because they seem to be uncomfortable for the SNP Government. The whistleblower in NHS Grampian continued:

“Many of my colleagues share a concern that we’re unable to help those most in need because we’re tied up at the hospital and not where they need us to be.”

That is happening across Scotland. We spoke to Ian Black, who gave up waiting for an ambulance after 15 hours, when he was told that Monklands hospital was full. When he eventually got an ambulance the following morning, it emerged that he had suffered a stroke. Ian is still alive to explain his situation, but if that happens to other people, they might not be. Waiting 15 hours for an ambulance after a stroke would be fatal in other circumstances.

Will the First Minister please, therefore, take the issue more seriously than others on his front bench do and tell us what urgent action he is taking to stop ambulances being stuck outside Scotland’s hospitals? People will lose their lives if he does not.

The First Minister

Of course I take the issue seriously. I am not sure why Douglas Ross is so rattled in this session of First Minister’s question time. He mentioned The Press and Journal—a great paper that I read regularly—so it might be something to do with that—[Interruption.]


The First Minister

The health challenges that those across the country—and, no doubt, the Scottish Ambulance Service—are facing are why we have increased funding for the Scottish Ambulance Service in the next financial year. In the current financial year, we ensured that the Scottish Ambulance Service was provided with funding of £50 million, which has helped it in recruiting an additional 317 staff by April this year. We are increasing numbers and recruiting more staff where we can.

There is no getting away from the fact that the global pandemic had an impact on health services across the country, including in Scotland. Despite that, however, and thanks to the efforts of incredible paramedics, agenda for change staff and doctors up and down the country, we continue to have the best-performing accident and emergency service, and the best-paid staff, in the UK. We have more qualified nurses and midwives per head of population than there are in England, and we have not lost a single day of NHS activity to strike action. On waiting times, for example, we have made improvements and have seen recovery.

However, there is still far more for us to do. This Government is not just committed to the NHS; we will support it, in its greatest hour of need by ensuring that it has record investment of more than £19.5 billion. That is in stark contrast to the UK Conservative Government, which has slashed public spending to the bone so that Douglas Ross and high earners can get a tax cut. That is the wrong priority—[Interruption.]

I suspend the meeting briefly.

12:17 Meeting suspended.  

12:17 On resuming—  

We resume once more.

Treatment Time Guarantee

2. Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

I start by echoing the comments about Nick Sheridan. He was a young, talented and charismatic journalist with a huge future ahead of him, and our thoughts are with his family and friends and all his colleagues at the BBC.

When we are discussing issues of life and death in our national health service, I think—to be frank—that patients across Scotland deserve better than what they have seen in the past 20 minutes at First Minister’s questions.

The treatment time guarantee is a legally binding maximum waiting time of 12 weeks from referral to treatment. How many times has the Scottish National Party Government broken that law?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

Although I do not have that figure to hand, there is no doubt that we have seen increases in waits, and long waits, which is due—again—to the global pandemic. We know that there were challenges before the global pandemic, and it is fair to reference that, but we are making progress on those long waits. We are investing in our recovery, which is why we saw, for example, the number of operations that were performed in January this year increase by 15 per cent in comparison with the month before.

These challenges are faced across the United Kingdom. If we look at data for 31 December 2023, we see that in Scotland there were 124 patients per 1,000 of the population waiting for the treatment time guarantee and new out-patient appointments. That is fewer than in England, where 134 patients per 1,000 are on the RTT—referral to treatment—waiting list, and in Wales, where the figure is 244 per 1,000.

That is, of course, cold comfort to those in Scotland who are waiting, but the point is that these issues are having an impact on our health service across the UK.

I go back to the point that I made to Douglas Ross and to Anas Sarwar. We are investing in that recovery, and we are beginning to see progress in reducing the numbers of those who are waiting the longest and in increasing activity in the NHS. This Government will continue to invest in our NHS, with record funding of more than £19.5 billion.

Anas Sarwar

It is written in law that a patient should be treated within 12 weeks. The SNP has broken the law more than 680,000 times. Humza Yousaf might try to blame the pandemic, but the law was broken more than 320,000 times before Covid. Shona Robison broke the law 158,000 times, Michael Matheson broke the law 184,000 times, and Humza Yousaf broke the law 235,000 times. Since the First Minister published his so-called NHS recovery plan, the SNP has broken the law 306,735 times. Every one of those breaches is someone waiting anxiously for a medical procedure, often in pain. Many have put their lives on hold, stopped work or retired because of their condition. Too many of them have been forced to go private, in the middle of a cost of living crisis, just to stop the pain. Will the First Minister apologise to the 680,000 people whose lives his Government has failed by breaking the law?

The First Minister

I already said in response to Douglas Ross that of course the Government apologises and regrets anybody having to wait longer, whether it is in relation to unscheduled care, long waits or the treatment time guarantee. We do not want a single person waiting a day longer—a minute longer—than they have to do.

However, Anas Sarwar completely ignores the impact of the pandemic. He does that every time he talks about the national health service. The pandemic was the biggest shock that our NHS has faced in its 75-year existence. Progress was being made on waiting times before the pandemic, but there is no doubt that the impact of the global pandemic on our health service has been severe.

I go back to the point that we are beginning to see some improvements and increases in activity. For example, we have seen a reduction in the number of people who have waited the longest: since June 2022, we have seen a 66 per cent reduction in the number of people waiting two years for new out-patient appointments and a reduction of a quarter for in-patient and day-case treatments.

What are we doing about this? We are ensuring an increased capacity for 20,000 additional surgeries. We have also provided seven mobile MRI and three mobile CT scanners to increase additional activity.

Be brief, First Minister.

The First Minister

We are also supporting mobile operating theatres up and down the country.

I go back to a point that I have made before to Douglas Ross and Anas Sarwar: we are doing all of that in the face of 14 years of UK Tory austerity and a real-terms cut to our budget. It would be much better for us if we had control over our own finances, so that we would not be beholden to cruel Westminster Governments that continue to cut our budget.

Anas Sarwar

They have had 17 years in government, and that is their best answer? Seriously.

Across nearly every measure, this Government has failed. It has broken the treatment time guarantee law 680,000 times, 320,000 times of which were before the pandemic. Humza Yousaf wants to pretend that things are getting better, but let us look at the NHS stats that were published this week. A third of patients are not being seen within four hours in our accident and emergency departments. In one month, more than 8,500 people have waited in A and E for more than 12 hours. There have been 55,000 fewer planned operations in the past year compared to before the pandemic. Some 5,500 children are waiting to receive mental health treatment. Only one in five people is getting crucial bowel cancer tests on time, which is shocking when cancer remains Scotland’s biggest killer.

Does the First Minister accept that waiting time standards exist for a reason; that every time they are missed, it puts lives at risk; and that his Government’s incompetence is destroying the NHS and failing staff and patients?

It is, of course—[Interruption.]

We will suspend once more.

12:24 Meeting suspended.  

12:24 On resuming—  

I call the First Minister to respond.

The First Minister

Let me go back to the fact that the global pandemic has undoubtedly caused challenges for health services right across the UK, including in Labour-run Wales, Conservative-run England and, of course, here in Scotland, where we are in charge of the NHS.

This week’s statistics have shown the outcome of the record investment that we have made in the NHS, with, for example, head count in the NHS at record high levels.

We have made improvements in child and adolescent mental health services, which was referenced by Anas Sarwar. There are still improvements to be made and work to be done, but we continue to see sustained improvements in CAMHS waits. National performance against the 18-week CAMHS standard is the fourth highest since records began and the highest achieved since the quarter ending in March 2016. We have also seen increases in CAMHS staffing.

I end on the point that I made to Anas Sarwar and, indeed, to Douglas Ross a moment ago. We know that the NHS is struggling as a result of the global pandemic, which is why we are investing more than £19.5 billion in that most precious of institutions, our national health service. However, we are doing that in the face of a real-terms cut from the Conservative Government over the past couple of years.

What makes that situation even more difficult is that, when Labour’s general election co-ordinator is asked whether he disagrees with a single Conservative budget proposal, he says no—Labour has the same spending plans as the Conservatives. Whether it is Labour austerity or Conservative austerity, Westminster austerity will undoubtedly continue to impact and damage our public services. In the face of that, the Government makes no apologies for record investment in our NHS.

Children’s Participation in Sport (World Indoor Athletics Championships)

3. Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government can take to help encourage children into sport and cultivate future world-class athletes, in light of the recent victories of Josh Kerr and Jemma Reekie at the world indoor athletics championships in Glasgow. (S6F-02891)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

I, too, offer huge congratulations to Josh and Jemma on their fantastic medal-winning performances. I also thank the team and all those involved in the world indoor athletics championships in Glasgow for the incredible work that they have done in putting on spectacular championships earlier this month.

We know that being physically active is one of the best things that all children and young people can do to help their social, physical and mental wellbeing. As is set out in the programme for government, we are working with sportscotland to ensure that active schools programmes are free for all children and young people by the end of this parliamentary session, which will provide them with more opportunities to take part in sport before, during and after school.

The investment by sportscotland helps to support key partners to deliver programmes that address the inequalities that exist in access to sport and physical activity. By increasing participation and creating a pathway for success at every level in all sports, we will ensure that anyone in Scotland can and does achieve their full potential.

Brian Whittle

I quickly point out that we do not just have Josh and Jemma; we also have previous world 1,500m champion Jake Wightman and Olympic medallist Laura Muir in the middle-distance events—or, to give middle-distance events their full title, proper sport. [Laughter.] I cannot wait for the Olympics.

As much as those athletes are inspirational to our young, budding sportspeople, those young people have to be able to access sport. School sport is on the decline and local authorities are closing so many of our public sports facilities, or, at least, are having to increase charges. Access to sport is on a steep decline. With the huge societal, community, health and educational benefits that sport brings, does the First Minister agree that cutting those opportunities for participation is a false economy? [Interruption.]

12:28 Meeting suspended.  

12:29 On resuming—  

We resume once more, and I call Brian Whittle.

I have asked my question, Presiding Officer. I will ask it again, if you like.

Smashing. That being the case, I call the First Minister.

The First Minister

In fairness, Presiding Officer, it was a good question. I do not think that Brian Whittle has to repeat it.

I know that Brian Whittle has had a long-standing interest, as an accomplished athlete. I was going to say “at one time”, but Mr Whittle continues to be an accomplished athlete of sorts. [Laughter.] I will stop digging and move on.

Brian Whittle was right to mention our many fantastic Scottish athletes, such as Jake Wightman, Laura Muir and Eilish McColgan, among others. I will give some reassurance to Brian Whittle, if I can. Across 2023-24, sportscotland is investing £36.7 million of Scottish Government and national lottery funding into Scottish governing bodies of sports. That represents an 8.6 per cent increase on the previous year. Brian Whittle’s point about local facilities is well made. That is why the Government is providing local government with record funding of more than £14 billion. That is a real-terms increase, despite the real-terms budget cuts that I mentioned.

I go back to the point that I have made throughout this First Minister’s question time. It would be far easier for local government to support our sports facilities if we were not facing a £500 million cut over two years to our budget, or a £1.3 billion cut to our capital budget. Any influence that Scottish Tories have—which seems very minimal indeed—to help their Conservative colleagues in the UK Government to make sure that they are spending on public services would be much appreciated.

Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

Having the opportunity to share in sporting victories can play an important part in encouraging children into sport. Does the First Minister agree that showing Scotland’s men’s and women’s football matches on free-to-air television could help to inspire the next generation of talent? What steps can be taken to open up those games to as wide an audience as possible?

The First Minister

I agree with Fulton MacGregor. We want to ensure that our children do not miss out on the opportunity of being inspired by seeing their footballing heroes play. It is not just children, though. We want to encourage everybody, at any stage of their life, to become physically active. Being able to watch sporting activity, particularly some very important football matches and tournaments coming up this year, could inspire a whole generation of boys and girls to take up the sport.

Broadcasting and the listed events regime are reserved, but we want a fairer and more representative service for Scotland. We continue to argue for the regime’s improvement to ensure that it better reflects and prioritises the interests of Scottish audiences. We will continue to advocate for the inclusion of national football matches, such as qualifiers for future world cups and European championships, to be included in the regime. We have written to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on a number of occasions on the matter, but I am afraid that we have not received any reply.

United Kingdom Spring Statement

To ask the First Minister what impact the spring statement will have on Scotland. (S6F-02887)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

The spring statement marks another failure by the UK Government to deliver funding for the people and public services of Scotland. The combined cut of national insurance across autumn and spring statements equates to the loss of up to £1.6 billion in potential consequentials for Scotland. That is £1.6 billion that we could be spending further on the national health service, education, transport, our justice services and all our public services. Health consequentials of £237 million are nowhere near enough, given the pressures that we face. They do not cover, for example, the recurring cost of the agenda for change pay deal. Based on the latest forecasts, our block grant for capital is now expected to reduce in real terms by £1.3 billion by 2027-28. The absence of investment in public services and infrastructure is nothing short of a betrayal of our public services by the UK Government.

I thank the First Minister—[Interruption.]

We will suspend once more.

12:33 Meeting suspended.  

12:34 On resuming—  

The Presiding Officer

It is extremely regrettable that the opportunity of elected representatives to put questions to the First Minister is being disrupted today. Members will be aware of the steps that the Parliament has been required to take as a result of previous disruptions. I assure them that we will certainly review today’s events. It is absolutely essential in a democracy that members have the opportunity to put questions to the First Minister. [Applause.]

I call Kenneth Gibson.

Kenneth Gibson

Thank you, Presiding Officer, and I thank the First Minister for his answer.

The toxic Tory legacy of Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak is that, for the first time, per capita incomes at the end of this UK Parliament will be lower than at its start.

Does the First Minister agree with the Scottish Chambers of Commerce that the

“overriding impression”

is that the chancellor’s

“‘long-term plan’ to address our economic stagnation has been left for another day”?

Does he agree with Citizens Advice Scotland that

“there was a complete absence of the kind of support those on lower incomes need”?

Finally, does he agree with Douglas Ross, who said that he was

“deeply disappointed”

in the one-year extension of the windfall tax on the oil and gas industry and that it was

“a step in the wrong direction”?

The First Minister

I hesitate to say that I agree with Douglas Ross. However, on this occasion, when Douglas Ross said that the chancellor’s budget was going to harm Scotland and was bad for Scotland, it was probably the first time that he had ever been in tune with Scottish public opinion. It is so disastrous a betrayal of workers in the north-east that, apparently, Douglas Ross threatened to resign, but he is still sitting here. I wonder whether he sold out the north-east for a peerage or to become a privy councillor. We do not know, but I am sure that, in time, we will find out.

Kenneth Gibson is absolutely right. Over more than 14 years of economic mismanagement, the Tories have imposed on this country a disastrous Brexit that we did not vote for, and, as a Government that we did not elect, they have ushered in a cost of living crisis. For the first time on record, as Kenneth Gibson rightly says, the economy is set to be smaller in real terms per capita at the time of the next general election than it was at the previous election.

Astonishingly, Labour does not oppose a single measure in the budget. So, whether it is run by Labour or Conservatives, we know that Westminster does not work for Scotland. [Interruption.]

We will have a brief suspension.

12:37 Meeting suspended.  

12:37 On resuming—  

I call Liz Smith.

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

The chancellor’s budget prioritised improving public sector output and efficiency, with, for example, £3 billion going to the national health service to update information technology, streamline data and utilise artificial intelligence. When will we see similar changes in Scotland through public sector reform, as the Finance and Public Administration Committee has been calling for?

The First Minister

“Brave” is one word to describe Liz Smith’s intervention, because we will not see a single penny of that investment this year or in the next financial year. The UK Government has kicked that investment into the long grass, when her party will be out of power—and quite rightly so.

When it comes to the priorities of the Conservative UK Government, I note that it has prioritised a tax cut for Liz Smith and other higher earners to the tune of £1,500, while at the same time slashing public spending to the bone. That is the priority of the Conservative Party. Apparently, it is also the priority of the Labour Party, which does not oppose a single measure in the Conservatives’ budget. Is it any wonder that people in Scotland know that Westminster does not work for Scotland and that only the Scottish National Party will stand up for this country?

Community Deer Management

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to promote community deer management on publicly owned land. (S6F-02896)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

Through a pioneering pilot project, NatureScot has been supporting community deer stalking at Creag Meagaidh national nature reserve. The initiative gives people who live nearby the opportunity to learn deer management skills, as well as giving them access to the reserve—when they are fully trained and qualified—to shoot deer in season for their own consumption. Crown Estate Scotland also supports access to land for deer management by letting its shooting rights to local shooting associations and syndicates.

Community deer management models are common in many European countries, and the Scottish Government’s—[Interruption.]

We will have a brief suspension.

12:40 Meeting suspended.  

12:40 On resuming—  

We can resume. I call the First Minister.

The First Minister

These constant interruptions are deeply frustrating, but the issues of food security and poverty are very important to the Government that I lead. It is up to protesters to decide where they protest, but I say gently to them that I think that they are protesting at the wrong Parliament, because, of course, it is Westminster austerity that is causing such issues.

First Minister, I would be grateful if you could address Sharon Dowey’s question.

The First Minister

As far as the issue at hand is concerned, I will not repeat the full answer, but I will say that community deer management models are common in many European countries, and the Scottish Government’s deer board, which met on Monday, discussed the findings from Creag Meagaidh. We want to ensure that local communities reap the benefits as we step up deer management in Scotland to meet our climate and our nature aims.

Sharon Dowey

Community-integrated deer management has numerous benefits. It builds resilience and opportunities in local communities, reduces the burden of large deer contracts on the taxpayer and helps to protect the environment across areas such as the Carrick forest in Ayrshire. Local wild venison is a fantastic sustainable food source to be harvested, processed and consumed, which we must champion. I note the work of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and the Country Food Trust, which are in Parliament this week.

Does the First Minister agree that the Scottish Government must do more work with rural stakeholders such as BASC to bolster Scotland’s venison potential?

The First Minister

I agree with a lot of what Sharon Dowey has said. We know that effective deer management can help to tackle the twin climate and biodiversity crises. We want local communities to benefit from deer management. They can benefit not only from the socioeconomic opportunities that it offers, but—as Sharon Dowey rightly said—from venison as a healthy and nutritious food source.

I am more than happy to ensure that the cabinet secretary writes to Sharon Dowey with details of how we are supporting effective deer management. I am sure that Sharon Dowey is aware of this, but I make the point that we intend to introduce legislation that will ensure that we have effective deer management in the context of the twin climate and biodiversity crises. In fact, the consultation will remain open until 29 March. We will continue to engage with rural stakeholders, including BASC and others, to ensure effective deer management for Scotland.

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

Can the First Minister say whether the Scottish Government will give consideration to replicating pilots such as the one that has been undertaken at Creag Meagaidh on areas of publicly owned land in the crofting counties to allow crofters to—subject to their receiving the proper training—take in-season deer for their own consumption or, potentially, sell it on, thereby incentivising their participation in what is a vital strand of nature restoration?

The First Minister

That suggestion is certainly worthy of consideration. As I have said, it is important that local communities across Scotland are able to benefit from deer management, not only through the socioeconomic opportunities that it offers, but because of the fact that venison is a healthy and nutritious food source.

Given the success of the Creag Meagaidh pilot project, I am keen that we support more community-led deer management schemes. I know that the Minister for Green Skills, Circular Economy and Biodiversity is looking at what more can be done to establish more schemes, and that she would be happy to discuss the matter in more detail with the member.

Gender-based Violence

To ask the First Minister, in light of international women’s day on 8 March, what steps the Scottish Government is taking to tackle gender-based violence. (S6F-02905)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

Over the past week, there has rightly been a sharp focus on the violence that women and girls face, predominantly at the hands of men. Collectively, we must stand against that, and we must tackle the societal attitudes and root out the toxic behaviours that underpin those actions that lead to such abuse and violence against women. The Government is doing that through our equally safe strategy, which focuses on early intervention, prevention, and support services, but, of course, we want to go further and do more.

We also want to transform how our justice system responds to sexual violence to ensure that women and girls can have confidence in a justice system that will effectively hold perpetrators to account and, crucially, will not retraumatise women who have suffered such abuse. That is why our Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill is so important and can play a major role in supporting survivors and victims of gender-based violence.

Rona Mackay

When speaking about the Government’s proposal for a sexual offences court, Scotland’s second-highest judge, Lady Dorrian, told the Criminal Justice Committee:

“the fact is that there is no option to do nothing. Either you embed this in a new culture in a court of uniform practice across the country, or you try to embed it piecemeal”—[Official Report, Criminal Justice Committee, 10 January 2024; c 5.]

Will proposals such as the one for a specialist court give women and girls confidence in our justice system and improve the experience of complainers?

The First Minister

Absolutely. Establishing the sexual offences court can, alongside the raft of other measures contained in the Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill that are intended to improve victims’ experiences, play a crucial role in building the confidence of women and girls in our justice system.

Lady Dorrian is absolutely right: doing nothing is simply not an option that anyone in this chamber can or should consider. Piecemeal reform will fail to deliver the cultural changes that we so desperately need. Those changes in culture, processes and practice are clearly necessary. It is only by systematic reform of our court system, including the creation of a sexual offences court, that we can embed a culture that supports victims and survivors of sexual offences and gives them confidence that they will be treated with dignity and respect within a system that effectively holds perpetrators to account. I encourage everyone here to support the important proposals contained within the bill.

Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

Image-based abuse often involves girls being coerced into creating or sharing nude images, which are then shared with someone else without those girls’ consent. A report by Revealing Reality, a think tank funded by the Home Office, found that that was a particular problem for school pupils and that, for many boys, sharing nude images without consent was seen as a way of gaining respect from their male peers. The report also found that boys often do not understand that what they are doing is abusive.

I acknowledge the Scottish Government’s work in this area by cabinet secretary Jenny Gilruth and by the minister Siobhian Brown. Would the First Minister consider conducting research not only on the impact that that abuse has on girls but on its extent, so that we can be clear about what exactly we are trying to tackle?

The First Minister

I am happy to consider Pauline McNeill’s suggestions and I pay tribute to her long track record of standing up in Parliament to tackle violence against women and girls.

The Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Act 2016 makes the sharing of intimate images without consent a criminal offence, and a wide range of laws relates to image-based sexual abuse. I agree with Pauline McNeill that this is not about just legislation, although that is important—[Interruption.]

We will suspend briefly.

12:48 Meeting suspended.  

12:48 On resuming—  

First Minister.

The First Minister

I will not repeat all that I have said already.

I know that Pauline McNeill recognises the importance of legislation. She also makes an important point about understanding the nature and extent of the problem, so that we can deal with it.

I was pleased to visit Moffat academy earlier this week with the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills to launch our guidance on gender-based violence in schools, which was published this week. It makes it clear that the sharing of sexual images is unacceptable, while also giving schools guidance, and the appropriate tools, to address such issues. Indeed, one project that we heard about while at Moffat academy was the mentors in violence prevention programme, which empowers older pupils to talk to younger ones about the importance of issues such as consent.

I will continue the work on positive masculinity that I am leading, so that we can work collectively with boys and young men to eradicate the toxic behaviours that are far too prevalent in our society. I look forward to continuing work with Pauline McNeill and members from across the chamber, as we work together to tackle gender-based violence.

Child Neurodevelopmental Assessment (Waiting Times)

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to reduce waiting times for children referred for a neurodevelopmental assessment. (S6F-02904)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

While we know that there is increasing demand for neurodevelopmental support and assessments, we expect children to receive appropriate support as soon as possible. In 2021, we published a national neurodevelopmental specification, which aims to improve the quality of care for children, young people and their families. As the member might know, the specification outlines seven standards for service providers, which have been developed with children, families and key partners and are underpinned by the fact that support should be in place when children need it, instead of its being dependent on a formal diagnosis. The support, which is likely to be community based, should be quickly and easily accessible.

We continue to work with health boards and local authorities to enhance support for neurodivergent children and young people, including on how quickly they can access the support that I have mentioned. We provided more than £1 million to support five pilots to implement targeted aspects of the specification, and the learning from that will support its wider implementation right across the country.

Colin Smyth

The First Minister is correct: the Government set a standard of care in September 2021. That standard says that children and young people who are referred for a neurodevelopmental assessment should have an initial appointment within no more than four weeks. At that time, my constituent, who was just 10 years old, had been on the waiting list with NHS Lanarkshire for a year. She is now 13 years old; she has been on that waiting list for three and a half years and still has no appointment. Her mum told me:

“My daughter has spent a quarter of her life on a waiting list and no one seems to care.”

Why does no one care? Why, on Humza Yousaf’s watch as health secretary and now as First Minister, have that wee girl and countless others had to wait nearly four years just to receive an assessment, never mind any care that they might need?

The First Minister

Colin Smyth, understandably, did not mention the name of the individual constituent. If she is the one that he has written to the health secretary about, we have responded to him. My officials have been in touch with the health board, which says that it will be contacting the family imminently. Colin Smyth has been given an update, if his constituent is the one that I believe her to be.

We will continue to work with the health board, because I fully accept, without any equivocation, Colin Smyth’s point that waiting three and a half or almost four years is simply not acceptable. That is why we are providing funding to our health service and our health boards in relation to tackling some of these issues and why we have continued over the past few years to prioritise mental health funding to record levels under the Scottish National Party Government.

If the member wants further information about his constituent’s case, he is more than welcome to write back to the Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care. However, my officials have contacted NHS Lanarkshire and asked for an immediate update. [Interruption.]

We will suspend briefly.

12:53 Meeting suspended.  

12:53 On resuming—  

First Minister.

The First Minister

As I have said, my officials have been in touch with NHS Lanarkshire, and we hope that there will be some progress for the particular family very soon. I am happy to continue to liaise with Colin Smyth on his constituent’s case.

Karen Adam (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

Diagnosis is an important step on the journey of people seeking support for the diverse range of conditions that fall under the umbrella of neurodivergence, but many other steps come after it. Can the First Minister provide any further information on the steps that the Scottish Government is taking to champion the rights of neurodivergent people?

The First Minister

The Scottish Government is committed to championing the rights of neurodivergent people, and I am grateful to Karen Adam for raising the issue. Again, she has a track record of raising such issues in the chamber. We are consulting on the proposed learning disabilities, autism and neurodivergence bill, which will aim to ensure that the rights of neurodivergent people, including autistic people and people with learning disabilities, are respected, protected and—crucially—championed. Karen Adam will be aware of the consultation on that bill, which will run to 21 April this year.

In addition, the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, supported by Inspiring Scotland, have partnered with people with lived experience and other stakeholders to establish a new leadership and engagement framework that will put people’s voices and experiences firmly at its heart.

Rachael Hamilton (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

Many children coped with the challenges of the pandemic, but for those who were already struggling with mental ill health, the impacts of lockdowns and lost schooling are likely to have made their conditions worse. Shockingly, just 40 per cent of young people referred to child and adolescent mental health services in the Borders started treatment within the 18-week target. I remind the First Minister that his own target is for 90 per cent of such patients to be treated within 18 weeks. There should be no more lame excuses. Will his Government get to grips with this scandalous CAMHS crisis now?

The First Minister

There is no doubt about the impacts of the pandemic, not only on young people’s mental health, which Rachael Hamilton has rightly pointed out, but on the demand on our health services.

That is why, in an earlier answer, I referenced the latest CAMHS statistics, which show that there is room for improvement but that we are seeing a recovery in our services. The figures show that this Government is continuing to ensure that it makes significant investment not only in vital CAMHS services and their staffing but in pre-crisis intervention work. That is why we are providing local authorities with £15 million per annum to fund community-based mental health support. According to local authority reports, more than 58,000 children, young people and their families accessed such support in the first half of 2023.

We will continue to invest in our NHS, through our record investment of more than £19.5 billion, and we will continue to make progress on the journey of recovery that we are firmly on.

The Presiding Officer

Thank you, First Minister.

Unfortunately, the opportunity for more elected members to represent their constituents by putting questions to the First Minister has been disrupted once again. I think that we would all agree that the principle of this Parliament’s being open and accessible is extremely important. Visitors are very welcome to attend to see their elected representatives at work, but not to disrupt that work. I advise colleagues that the Parliament will work with security colleagues and Police Scotland and will take any further action that is required in that regard.

That concludes First Minister’s question time. We will suspend briefly to allow those in the chamber and the public gallery to leave.

12:57 Meeting suspended.  

12:59 On resuming—