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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, September 7, 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Universal Credit, Programme for Government 2017-18, Decision Time, Correction


First Minister’s Question Time

As members and others might be aware, this will be our first First Minister’s question time without open or diary questions. Leaders will begin by asking their substantive questions.

Income Tax

1. Ruth Davidson (Edinburgh Central) (Con)

The First Minister said on Tuesday that she wanted to open a discussion on tax, so let us begin right now. I am opposed to all current basic rate taxpayers paying more in income tax. Can the First Minister confirm that she is, too?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Usually when opening a debate and committing to listening to what others have to say, it makes sense to carry on and do that before ruling things out in advance.

Let me be quite clear about the principles that will guide this Government. First, we will always—as we always have done—set tax rates responsibly and with the interests of households, businesses, wider society and the economy firmly at heart. We will not simply transfer the burden of austerity on to the shoulders of those who can least afford it.

As we look forward over the next few years, we owe ourselves a genuine debate about what kind of society and economy we want to be. We know that we face further Westminster austerity imposed by Ruth Davidson’s party. We know that we face the implications of Brexit, from which Ruth Davidson thinks that the country might never recover, and a range of other pressures, such as demographic pressures. If we want—as I certainly do—this country to continue to have the highest-quality public services, well-paid public servants, the support and the infrastructure that our businesses need to thrive, and effective policies to tackle poverty, we need to have an honest and mature debate about how best to deliver those things, and that is the debate that this Government will lead.

If the Tories want to sit on the sidelines of that debate, calling day in and day out, as they do, for extra spending on a range of different things while also calling for tax cuts for the richest in our society, they will continue to have not a shred of credibility. Ruth Davidson keeps telling us that she wants to be taken seriously. Now we will all get an opportunity to see whether or not she is up to it.

Ruth Davidson

I think that anyone in Scotland who earns less than £43,000 a year just heard the First Minister’s message loud and clear—she is coming for their paycheck.

In her general election manifesto, which was published just 100 days ago, the First Minister said:

“there is a risk that an increase in the Additional Rate of income tax in Scotland alone would lead to a loss of revenue.”

Does she believe that that risk has somehow disappeared in the past 100 days?

The First Minister

It is exactly the risks as well as the benefits of different tax policies that we have said that we will set out openly and honestly. We want to allow the Parliament and the wider public to have a mature debate about that. It is because of concerns that I had about raising the additional rate in Scotland alone that we did not do it last year. Instead, I asked the Council of Economic Advisers to give us advice on that.

Of course, we have consistently taken a very responsible approach to taxation. That is right and proper for any Government. However, we also have a responsibility to everybody in our country to make sure that, as we go into the next decade and beyond, we not only protect the public services that all of us depend on but ensure that our nurses, doctors, police officers and firefighters are well rewarded. That is why I have said that we are going to lift the 1 per cent public sector pay cap. It is also vital that we ensure that the support that our businesses need is there, whether that is the additional investment in research and development that I have announced in the past few days or the transport and digital infrastructure that our businesses need to thrive.

As a Parliament and as a country, let us have that mature and honest debate. I know that my party will take part in it with an open mind. Given their positions on taxation, I hope and believe that Labour, the Greens and the Liberals will take part in that debate with an open mind. However, based on what we have heard and are hearing today from Ruth Davidson, I suspect that what we will continue to get from the Tories is daily demands for extra spending. In the past week alone, the demand has been for funding for Frank’s law, which I am delighted that we will go ahead with, and for extra spending on more housing. I think that I just heard one Tory member call for extra spending on the national health service. The Tories want extra spending, but they also want tax cuts for the richest, which is not a credible position. That should hardly be surprising, as the Tories are increasingly not a credible party.

Ruth Davidson

In her answer, the First Minister spoke twice about supporting what Scotland’s businesses need, so let us listen to Scotland’s business community, shall we? Today, David Lonsdale of the Scottish Retail Consortium said:

“Any notions about increasing income tax rates ... should be firmly knocked on the head as it could cast a pall over consumer spending—a mainstay of Scotland’s economy.”

Liz Cameron, the chief executive of Scottish Chambers of Commerce, said:

“Growing the Scottish economy, not squeezing the last drops out of existing businesses and workers, will generate more tax revenues.”

Increasing tax rates beyond those of our neighbours could well deliver the opposite result. Scotland’s businesses are telling the First Minister what they want and need, but she is not listening.

We have been here before, and the question is the same. If raising taxes in Scotland damages the Scottish economy and leads to the loss of revenue that the Scottish National Party’s own manifesto talked about, which is the money that we need to spend on our national health service and schools, why would any responsible Government do it?

The First Minister

Let me cover a few of those points. First, let us look at Scotland’s economy, which faces challenges. In the most recent statistics, we have seen Scotland’s economy growing four times as fast as the economy elsewhere in the UK. Unemployment in Scotland today is close to its lowest level on record, with employment at a record high and the rate of youth unemployment half what it was 10 years ago. We are seeing progress in Scotland’s economy that we must continue to protect—I am absolutely clear about that.

The second point that is worth making is one that, day and daily, everybody across the country is becoming ever clearer about. One of the reasons why we are having these debates now is the damage that Tory austerity is doing and the damage that the reckless Tory Brexit is threatening to do to our economy. Frankly, it is beyond belief that Ruth Davidson can say, as she did yesterday, that she thinks that Brexit might do damage to this country that it will never recover from and yet expect us to carry on with Brexit regardless. Frankly, Ruth Davidson should hang her head in shame.

My next point is about consumer spending. It is because I want to see consumer spending protected, as well as out of a sense of fairness for our public sector workers, that I think that it is time to give them a pay rise. We will continue to make such decisions responsibly and with the interests of the country as a whole at heart. Our businesses need investment as well. They need investment in health, education, skills and infrastructure, and all of that has to be paid for. We all—at least, those of us on this side of the chamber—want high-quality public services.

We will lead an open, honest, mature debate about how we, as a country, best provide the services and business support that we need. I do not know whether the Tories will want to be part of that debate or whether they will simply call for more spending and tax cuts for the richest. Nevertheless, I am determined to lead a debate that is right for the overall interests of this country of which I am proud to be the First Minister.

Ruth Davidson

The First Minister opened by talking about how the last quarter figures showed Scotland growing faster than the rest of the United Kingdom. She is absolutely right about that, and I welcome it. However, that does not erase the fact that for the past 10 years we have been growing slower. We are talking about how we keep growing faster, and having punitive tax rates is not the way to do that.

As I said on Tuesday in response to the First Minister’s statement, there is room for consensus in this Parliament. Indeed, I welcome some of the ideas that the First Minister has put forward on the economy, such as cutting air passenger duty in order to stimulate economic growth. However, we have to get the balance right, and jacking up taxes on working families and businesses in Scotland will damage the Government’s stated objective of getting the economy growing faster and bringing in more revenue.

Liz Cameron, as the voice of Scottish business, added today that the biggest concern here is over the message that tax rises will send out about Scotland’s reputation as a place that values ambition, welcomes business and wants to grow. In the spirit of a mature debate, does the First Minister not accept that by going down this route, she risks damaging that reputation, as Liz Cameron says, and stifling the ambitions that all Scots should share?

Briefly, First Minister.

The First Minister

What is damaging the reputation of this country right now is the isolationist, inward-looking Brexit approach of the Tories and things such as the leaked Home Office proposals showing how the Tories want to punish people who come from other countries and to introduce measures that would be devastating for our economy.

As for the tax issue, we will have that debate and involve everybody, including business. Its views are hugely important, as are the views of those who work in our public services and the public at large. However, the message that I want to send about Scotland—and I want to send it to people here at home, elsewhere in the UK and internationally—is that it is the best place in the world to grow up and be educated in; it is the best place in the world to be cared for if someone is sick, vulnerable or in need; it is the best place in the world to grow old in; and because of our investment in infrastructure, in digital and in business support, it is the best place in the world to invest and do business in. That is the message that I want to send the world about Scotland, and we all need to make sure that we do what is necessary to deliver that kind of world-class nation.

National Health Service

2. Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

Labour has been calling for and will very much welcome a debate on how we invest in Scotland’s future, because we cannot continue with failed Tory austerity.

On Tuesday, before the programme for government was announced, a set of statistics detailing the performance of our national health service was published. Our hospitals do not have enough doctors, nurses and midwives; hundreds of operations are being cancelled because hospitals cannot cope; and two years on from the health secretary’s promise to abolish delayed discharges, more than 1,000 patients have been stuck in hospital when they were fit to go home. Those figures are surely dreadful but, perhaps most damning of all, one in five young people needing treatment for mental health had to wait longer than the agreed waiting time. What does the First Minister propose to do about this?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

First, I take this opportunity to welcome Alex Rowley to his albeit temporary place. I am sure that we will enjoy our exchanges over the next few weeks.

Alex Rowley raises a number of extremely important and serious issues. Before I say what we are doing about them, I want to address a number of points that he alluded to. First, on the number of people working in our national health service, there are almost 12,000 more in it today than was the case when this Government took office. On delayed discharge, the bed days lost to it are reducing, and we are determined to reduce them even further. Finally, on the rate of cancellation of hospital operations, although a small number of hospital operations will always be cancelled for a number of reasons, the rate has remained steady over the years and has not increased significantly.

That is some of the context. As for what we are doing, I and other members have spoken about this many times. We have a health service that, although not facing unique challenges, faces rising demand, partly from an ageing population and partly as a result of some of the issues around mental health that Alex Rowley raised and reducing the stigma related to mental health. In common with many other countries, we now have the challenge of investing in and reforming our health service so that it can meet those challenges for the future.

In terms of investment, the health budget today is around £3 billion higher than it was when the Government took office. We have committed to a further £2 billion increase over this session of Parliament. That is why, in the programme for government, I committed to at least a real-terms increase in the resource budget next year. I say again, as I said many times to Kezia Dugdale, that that is a higher commitment to NHS investment than Labour made in its manifesto for the Scottish Parliament elections.

Secondly, we are committed to a programme of reform in our national health service. That means transferring more of the health budget into community and primary care in mental health services.

Investment and reform are the challenges that we are taking forward. Some of the issues are difficult and will involve taking difficult decisions in the chamber, but I ask all members to get involved in the discussions so that we collectively take the decisions now that will equip our health service for the future.

Alex Rowley

As the First Minister would expect, I dispute the figures for who committed to what but the issue is more important than that. Too many children in Scotland are being let down. That is the key serious issue.

My approach has always been that, on the big issues, we should try to work together with the Government to find a solution. A year ago this week, Labour published a proposal that would end the scandal of poor support for child mental health. We put those proposals directly to the First Minister and we called for three things: we called for a review of why so many children were being rejected from treatment; we asked for guaranteed access for every secondary school to a qualified and experienced school counsellor; and we asked the Government to finally use the Scottish Parliament’s tax powers to stop the cuts to local public services and invest where investment was needed.

It is clear that nothing needs more investment than mental health services, particularly children’s mental health services. The First Minister said that she would look at the plan closely. Did she do that? Did she take on board any of the proposals and, if so, will she give us an update on what progress is being made?

The First Minister

I recall the First Minister’s questions at which those plans were raised. I gave a commitment then to consider them as part of our finalisation of the mental health strategy and, yes, we have taken forward many of the proposals that Alex Rowley talks about. One in particular I am surprised he does not know about, because I think that I announced it in the chamber at FMQs: we committed to a review of child and adolescent mental health service rejected referrals. We are beginning that review. That was the first of the issues to which Alex Rowley referred.

On school provision, we also committed in our mental health strategy to a review of personal and social education in schools to ensure that the vital link between education and health services is recognised and strengthened.

We have had many debates on tax over the past couple of years. In last year’s budget, we took a decision on the threshold for the higher rate tax, which was opposed by the Conservatives; Labour encouraged us to go further. As I just debated with Ruth Davidson, the time is now right to consider how we fund our public services in the longer term. I hope and expect that Labour will take part in that debate constructively.

As I have said before, we see rising demand for mental health services. That puts an onus on the Government to ensure that the services are there. We are committed to the work to ensure that that is the case. We see improvement in waiting times, for example, and a significant increase in the mental health workforce to support those expanded services. We will continue to take the action and invest the resources that bring about those improvements.

Alex Rowley

I am aware that this week’s programme for government has clear commitments to look at the matter. That is welcome and Labour will work with the Government on it, but we need action—action speaks louder than words.

I do not know whether the First Minister or the Deputy First Minister have ever been in schools and talked to teachers about the importance of having counselling services. I have, and I know that schools value those services and want to see them.

The Government has a target, but that target has never been met. More than 9,000 young people have waited too long for treatment. That cannot be allowed to continue, and the First Minister’s Government needs to do something about it, not next year but starting now.

Action speaks louder than words. How many times must children’s mental health services be raised in the Parliament before the First Minister and her Government do something about the issue?

Again, I ask people to be succinct.

The First Minister

Alex Rowley is—and I mean this genuinely—a very considered and fair politician, and I often appreciate the constructive way in which he raises issues. I include today in that. However, I think that Alex Rowley is being a tad unfair in his characterisation of the Government’s approach.

Let us take just some of the issues that he has raised. I referred to the review of rejected referrals; Labour called for a review and a review is happening. On additional resources in schools, the pupil equity funding that we put in place last year is already supporting headteachers and teachers in schools to invest in measures, where they think that that is appropriate to help them to close the attainment gap. That is concrete action, which is under way right now, as we speak. The mental health strategy, which is finalised and is being implemented, backed by new resources, is helping us to continue the progress that we have made on increasing the workforce in CAMHS and reducing the time that young people wait.

These are hugely important issues. I am not standing here saying that there is not more work for us to do—of course there is. I expect and welcome that those who care about these issues press us to go further and faster. That is absolutely legitimate. What I do not accept is Alex Rowley’s characterisation of the Government as doing and having done nothing, because that is manifestly not the case.

I encourage Alex Rowley—and I will certainly play my part in this—to let us come together where we can to make sure that we take the right decisions to ensure that young people get access to the mental health services that they deserve and need.

We have a couple of constituency questions.

Motorcycle Offences (North Edinburgh)

Ben Macpherson (Edinburgh Northern and Leith) (SNP)

I remind members that I am a parliamentary liaison officer to the First Minister.

On 10 August, one of my constituents, a 10-year-old boy, was callously run over by a recklessly driven, stolen motorcycle, in north Edinburgh, on Ferry Road, which borders my constituency and that of Alex Cole-Hamilton. The young victim of this shocking hit and run was left fighting for his life, with severe injuries. He was discharged from hospital only yesterday. I am sure that the Parliament will join me in wishing him well and a full recovery.

That terrible incident is one of the most serious in a series of dangerous and antisocial motorbike offences in north Edinburgh over a number of years, which have been perpetrated by a small group of offenders. Other local politicians and I have been working collaboratively with Police Scotland, City of Edinburgh Council, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, local youth work groups and other partners to tackle that criminality, which no community should have to endure. What action is the Scottish Government taking to tackle the dangerous joyriding of motorcycles in north Edinburgh? Can more be done to address this serious issue?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I am grateful to Ben Macpherson for raising an extremely serious issue. First and foremost, of course, the case to which he referred was a terrible tragedy, and I take this opportunity to offer my sincere condolences to the young boy’s family and friends and indeed to the whole community in north Edinburgh. [The First Minister has corrected this contribution. See end of report.]

As that tragedy and Ben Macpherson’s comments illustrate, there is a real and significant risk of serious harm from the theft and illegal use of motorbikes—harm to residents and to the young people who engage in that illegal behaviour. The behaviour has to be stopped, and agencies are working with local members of the Scottish Parliament and, importantly, the community in north Edinburgh, to find solutions. [The First Minister has corrected this contribution. See end of report.]

Local partnership is key to confronting the behaviour and dealing with underlying issues. I know that the stronger north group has played an important role in that regard. A series of initiatives are being put in place by the police, the council and community groups to divert young people from crime.

Scottish Government officials from the safer communities and youth justice units are engaging with the police, local agencies and third sector partners, including the Robertson Trust, to see what more can be done. The Cabinet Secretary for Justice wrote to Ben Macpherson last month to set out a range of initiatives and resources that are working in the area, and I give Ben Macpherson a commitment that we will continue to engage constructively to ensure that Government is playing our part in finding the solutions to this very serious issue.

Children’s Remains (Unlawful Retention)

Gordon Lindhurst (Lothian) (Con)

The First Minister will be aware of reports about a constituent I have been assisting in Edinburgh, Lydia Reid, who recently discovered that her son’s coffin was buried in 1975 with no body in it. That revelation comes after 42 years of her seeking to discover what happened to the remains of her child and leading the campaign that exposed how hospitals had unlawfully kept deceased children’s body parts for research purposes. Will the First Minister commit to finding the answers to what happened in Lydia Reid’s case, and can she confirm that everything will be done to discover whether the same thing has happened to other families?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Obviously, I am aware of the case and I take this opportunity to give my sympathies to Lydia Reid and her family. It is very difficult for any of us who have not gone through such experiences to fully appreciate and understand the stress that Lydia Reid and others in similar situations have experienced. I can only imagine what that must be.

Clearly, some work has been done on issues of this nature in the past, but I give an assurance today that the relevant minister will be happy to meet Lydia Reid to see what the Scottish Government or our agencies could do to try to ensure that she gets the answers that she certainly deserves and will personally feel that she needs to allow her to move on from this revelation. I give that assurance to the member and will take steps to ensure that that meeting happens as soon as possible.

Benefit Cap (Mitigation)

3. Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

One issue that the Greens were pleased to see in this week’s programme for government was a commitment to roll out family financial health checks. My colleague Alison Johnstone has been campaigning persistently for such measures to maximise the incomes of some of the most vulnerable families in our society. The Government has committed to implementing that by spring next year, and we look forward to working with the Government to ensure that the measure is fully funded and helps the maximum possible number of people in Scotland.

However, there is much more that we need to do to reduce poverty in Scotland, especially in light of the impact of the United Kingdom Government’s extended and even more harmful benefit cap. Research that we have conducted shows that it has hit 3,700 more households and 11,000 children in Scotland, with well over a 400 per cent increase in Glasgow alone. Of the households affected, 64 per cent are single parents, the vast majority of whom are of course women. On average, the affected households are receiving £57 a week less than they are assessed as needing. In short, the cap targets families with children who are already poor and makes them even poorer.

The Scottish Government has allocated some funds to mitigate that, but is the First Minister aware of the evidence that has been presented by the Child Poverty Action Group that the discretionary housing payments that are intended to achieve that are falling well short of what is required? Indeed, some councils have indicated that they cannot do it at all, with one saying:

“we are not in a position to award discretionary housing payments for cases affected by the benefit cap.”

Is the First Minister aware of that shortfall? What will be done to make it up?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I am happy to look at the issue in more detail. We have used discretionary housing payments, which are administered by local authorities, to try to mitigate a number of the welfare changes that the UK Government has made. Those include the ones that Patrick Harvie has talked about, but we have, for example, also used the payments to make sure that nobody in Scotland has to pay the bedroom tax until such time as we can legally abolish it. Inevitably, therefore, discretionary housing payments come under pressure. As part of my previous ministerial responsibilities, I had oversight of the issue, so I know that we have on-going discussions with local authorities about discretionary housing payments and their sufficiency. We will continue to have those discussions and we will try to ensure that discretionary housing payments operate in a way that allows us to mitigate the impact of the welfare changes as much as possible.

We are almost at the end of a week in which the United Nations has described the UK Government’s approach to disabled people as a “human catastrophe”. I know that that is not the particular issue that Patrick Harvie raises, but that comment shines a light on the inhumanity of the welfare policies of the Conservative Government at Westminster, and members of that Government should hang their heads in shame day in and day out because of the misery that they are inflicting on vulnerable people the length and breadth of this country. We will do whatever we can to mitigate that, and I am happy to give an undertaking to Patrick Harvie that I will talk to Jeane Freeman, look at the evidence that he is talking about and have a discussion with local authorities about whether we need to take further action.

Patrick Harvie

The First Minister is of course right to challenge the decisions of the UK Government, but in the face of the crisis that those decisions have created, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament have a responsibility to act. There are councils down south, such as Croydon, that are taking a much more proactive approach, ensuring that they give advice to all families to maximise their incomes where possible.

The approach that we have suggested to maximise households’ incomes through the family financial health check could be taken at council level as well, to ensure that all families are able to access the discretionary housing payments if they need them.

Does the First Minister agree that there is a need for consistency across councils and that national guidance to achieve that would be one step towards achieving that comprehensive approach? The Scottish Government’s own figures show something in the region of a £2 million reduction in payments nationally through the initial cap and another reduction of £9 million or so on top of that from the extended cap. The Scottish Government’s allocation is only in the order of £8 million, so the shortfall will inevitably lead to more debt arrears, more evictions, more hunger and more hardship.

Does the First Minister acknowledge the urgency of closing that gap and ensuring that councils not only take a comprehensive approach to the advice that they are giving but have the resources available to make the payments that are so urgently needed by many families in Scotland?

The First Minister

First, I would be happy to look at evidence or experiences from anywhere else across the UK that might inform our approach, so I am certainly happy to look at the Croydon example that Patrick Harvie mentions.

Having said that, I doubt very much whether any part of the UK is doing more to mitigate Tory welfare cuts than the Scottish Government is doing right now. We are spending hundreds of millions of pounds over the life of our Parliament doing just that—money, frankly, that I would far rather be investing in our national health service, in our education system, or in almost anything other than in mitigating the cruel policies of a Tory Government.

On Patrick Harvie’s point about consistency, I agree—that is one of the reasons why the programme for government referred to the roll-out of family financial health checks. I believe that such things are often best delivered locally, but within a framework of national guidance—we will give more detail on that shortly.

The final point is on the quantum of the resources that we can make available. We will continue to do everything that we possibly can to mitigate these cuts, but when we are mitigating something as opposed to removing it at source, there will always be constraints and limitations on what we can do.

When the Tories make these heartless cuts—I wish they would not, but when they do—they do not hand to the Scottish Government our share of the savings that they make to allow us to decide what we do with them. Every pound of mitigation that we allocate is a pound that we are having to take from other parts of the Scottish budget.

We will do everything that we can, but let us be in no doubt that the real solution here is not mitigation; the real long-term solution is to get these powers out of the hands of Tories at Westminster and into the hands of this Parliament.

The Presiding Officer

I am conscious that it has taken 33 minutes to get through the party leaders’ questions, with only two constituency supplementaries. It is welcome that some of the questions and some of the answers have been succinct, but I encourage all the party leaders and the First Minister please to keep the questions and the answers brief and to the point. This is not a conversation; it is a question-and-answer session. [Applause.] I have a number of members to get through. [Interruption.] Can we make progress? Mark Ruskell has the final constituency supplementary.

Park of Keir Development

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

Last week, the First Minister’s Government approved mansions, a hotel, a golf course and a tennis centre on the protected Park of Keir near Dunblane. The decision overruled the local development plan; it overruled Stirling Council; and it even overruled the Government’s own planning reporter. Did the First Minister’s Government not learn anything from the disastrous decision to approve Trump’s golf resort?

Celebrities should not rule the planning system and, despite the celebrity spin, the real national tennis centre is only 2 miles up the road, at the University of Stirling. Will the First Minister guarantee that there will be no public funding to bail out the Park of Keir project if it fails and that public funds will be used only to support genuine community tennis facilities?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I am not sure whether the member was trying to put Judy Murray into the same category as Donald Trump—I certainly hope not.

Planning decisions are taken in line with planning rules, and no other considerations are taken into account. The planning minister carefully considered all aspects of the reporter’s report and concluded that the development is of regional and national significance for sport. Ministers are therefore minded to grant planning permission in principle, subject to conditions that have been set out, which include the requirement for residential developments not to be occupied until the tennis and golf centre is built and open for use. Ministers have also specified that, before consent can be granted, a legal agreement between the council and the developer must be concluded that commits the developer to contributing to affordable housing and education provision in the area.

The next step in the process is for the council and the developer to discharge a legal agreement. At that point, it will be up to ministers to determine whether planning permission is formally granted. Because of all that, this is still a live planning matter, so I will say no more than that.

I absolutely understand the disappointment of those who oppose a planning application that is then granted. However, I underline the point that such decisions are taken in line with due process. That is the way that it should be and that is the way that it always will be.

Brexit (Transfer of Powers)

To ask the First Minister what assurances the Scottish Government has received regarding the transfer of powers to Scotland following Brexit. (S5F-01492)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

In its white paper on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, the United Kingdom Government stated that it expected

“a significant increase in the decision-making power of each devolved administration”,

but I have to say that, as things stand, the opposite is the case. The bill centralises to Westminster powers on all matters that are currently subject to European Union legislation, including those in devolved areas—in other words, powers that should properly be exercised in this Parliament. The bill also imposes new and, I think, unworkable restrictions on the Scottish Parliament’s powers in those areas. For those reasons, I and, indeed, the First Minister of Wales have made it clear that we will not recommend consent to the bill unless appropriate amendments are made to deal with those concerns.

Stuart McMillan

Will the First Minister confirm that there have been no joint ministerial committee meetings since February, that there has been a lack of constructive activity from the UK Government in relation to Scotland and Wales and that the Brexit discussions that are being led by David Davis show a complete lack of vision on the UK Government’s part? Does she agree that the UK Government’s shambolic approach thus far is just a naked power grab?

The First Minister

On the question of the power grab, when I gave my previous answer, I spoke about the replacement of EU law in devolved areas with unilateral Westminster decision making, and I heard someone from the Tory benches—I do not know who—shout from a sedentary position, “Rubbish.” Last Friday, the House of Commons issued a briefing paper on the Brexit bill. It says:

“the Bill effectively re-reserves to the UK Parliament these areas of competence, within competences which have otherwise been devolved.”

I suppose that “re-reserves” is polite language for a naked power grab. That is why, in all conscience, I will not recommend to this Parliament that we approve the bill.

We continue to discuss with the UK Government sensible amendments, and we hope that we will achieve them. As I said the other day, if that does not prove possible, we are also considering the possibility of continuity legislation in this Parliament.

All those discussions would be helped if we had a UK Government that was willing to enter into them in any meaningful way. There has not been a joint ministerial committee meeting since February this year. The papers that the UK Government has been publishing—many of them concern devolved areas—have been published without any consultation with any of the devolved Administrations whatsoever. Not only is the UK Government treating devolved Administrations with contempt, but it is, as we have all seen in the past weeks, leading the UK blindly off a cliff edge. This is a UK Government that has lost its way, has lost the plot and has no idea whatsoever what it is doing.

National 4 Qualification

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the concerns that have been expressed regarding the efficacy of the national 4 qualification. (S5F-01480)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The national 4 is a significant achievement for many pupils. It represents the right level of qualification to reflect their attainment, while offering a route for pupils to go on to obtain national 5s and even highers. Concerns have been expressed, however, about aspects of the qualification, not least that it does not include an external exam, and that is why there is currently an expert review.

Attempts by some to use those concerns to denigrate the academic achievements of the tens of thousands of young people who have been awarded the qualification are disgraceful. That is unwarranted and it does a deep disservice to our young people, who work hard to achieve the qualification.

Liz Smith

In February 2014, the education committee of this Parliament heard concerns from teacher representatives that national 4 was not highly valued as a qualification because of the absence of such an exam. That concern was repeated at the Education and Culture Committee in November 2016, when teachers made it clear that they felt that, as a result of that absence, too many pupils were being pushed into taking national 5 exams when that was not in their best educational interest. Today, the results of the Scottish Qualifications Authority survey are telling us exactly the same thing.

When the issue is so important to youngsters, why has it taken two and half years to start addressing the problem?

The First Minister

The decision not to have an exam at national 4 was made following discussions at the qualifications governing group, which is a body that includes teachers. The group was aiming to ensure that more time is spent on learning than assessment.

Concerns have now been raised, which is why a review has been established and is being undertaken by the assessment and national qualifications group, which is made up of the SQA, Education Scotland, the Educational Institute of Scotland and other stakeholders. It is chaired by the Deputy First Minister. If changes are to be made, it is important that they are properly thought through and that the views of a range of education bodies are taken account of. Some of the changes that have been made to national 5 and highers must also be recognised. These are decisions that we will take forward with proper consideration and process.

I say again: although it is right that concerns are recognised and changes are made if there is a consensus around those changes, let us make sure that we do not undermine the achievement of young people who work hard for these qualifications—I am not saying that Liz Smith has done that, but some have. As the EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan said this week,

“For many pupils gaining a National 4 award is a significant step and we are clear that this achievement should be celebrated”.

I agree with that whole-heartedly.

Drug and Alcohol Misuse (Fatalities)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the reported significant increase in the number of deaths related to drug and alcohol misuse in the last year. (S5F-01478)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I would like to put on record my deepest sympathy to any family who has lost a loved one through drug use. We recognise that behind the numbers there are individual tragedies, and loss of life, which is devastating.

The rise that we have seen is the result of the growing older of many long-term drug users, who go on to experience a range of chronic conditions as they get older. We know from the recent report from NHS Health Scotland that there is an established link between the rise in drug deaths now and previous austerity policies of the 1980s, which should tell us something about not repeating those mistakes for the future.

Of course, the Scottish Government has a responsibility to act, and we are determined to do that. The programme for government sets out an additional £20 million investment for alcohol and drugs services, and our new drugs strategy will be based on the principle of seek, keep and treat, to recognise that problems of substance misuse must be addressed from a public health perspective.

Monica Lennon

I have deep concerns about the funding and adequacy of recovery services, but I want to focus on a different barrier to recovery, which is the stigma around addiction. Living with addiction is not easy to speak about, but that has to change, because recovery and support services cannot help people if they feel too ashamed to access them. Too often, families only break their silence about drug and alcohol harm after they have buried their loved ones. I know that because, two years ago, my dad died as a result of alcohol harm.

In 2016, Scotland reached an unacceptable 10-year peak, with 2,132 people dying as a result of alcohol and drugs misuse. We have a long way to go. I ask the First Minister to join me in sending a message to everyone in Scotland affected by drug and alcohol harm that they matter, that they are not to blame, and that they are deserving of support. [Applause.]

The First Minister

I thank Monica Lennon for raising that issue. I also pay tribute to her courage, given her personal experience, in standing up in the chamber today and raising issues that are often deeply personal to people but hugely important to our society as a whole.

Monica Lennon is absolutely right. First and foremost, we must see those who suffer from addiction as human beings. I ended my first answer by saying that we must treat such issues from a public health perspective first and foremost, and that is what our renewed strategy will seek to do.

We must ensure—this is why we have set out plans for additional funding—that when people find the courage to come forward and to seek help, that help is there for them from the services that Monica Lennon has spoken about.

When people find themselves with addiction and dealing with drug or alcohol problems, it is often because of other factors in their lives. It is those underlying factors, as well as their needs as human beings, that must be uppermost in our minds. I would be happy to talk to Monica Lennon at greater length about the issues based on the experiences that she has shared with us today. I think that all of us across the chamber will agree that that sentiment must be the driving force behind the changes that we are seeking to make.

We will squeeze in question 7 from Liam McArthur.

Police Scotland and Scottish Police Authority (Management)

7. Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

Thank you very much indeed, Presiding Officer.

To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government will provide an update on the management of Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority. (S5F-01497)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Significant work is under way across Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority to give effect to policing 2026, which is a long-term transformational strategy published by the service in June this year. The process of appointing an SPA chair is on-going and work to identify an interim chief officer for the authority began this week. Steps are also being taken to strengthen Police Scotland’s executive team through the appointment of a new deputy chief constable, with that process due to be completed in the coming weeks.

Liam McArthur

Reports today suggest that the independent inspectorate will be scathing about what it calls this Government’s politically motivated dismantling of the British Transport Police in Scotland. That follows a summer that has seen the chief constable under investigation and the SPA chief executive, like the chair, heading out the door. Will the First Minister agree to the call by the justice spokespeople of all four Opposition parties, myself included, for change, and for the next chair of the SPA to be appointed by this Parliament, not solely by ministers, recognising our collective interest in seeing the mess that has been created sorted out?

The First Minister

As it happens, I am not entirely unsympathetic to the case made by Liam McArthur. I simply point out—I am sure that members will understand why—that the appointment process is laid down in legislation. It is a requirement of the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012 that Scottish ministers appoint the chair of the SPA. Where the Parliament has a role in appointments, for example, the information commissioner and the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland, that is generally set out in relevant legislation. That is not the case for the SPA, but ministers will carefully consider the case put forward and whether there is a role that Parliament could play within the framework set by the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012. I know that the justice secretary would be happy to have further discussions on the matter.

The Presiding Officer

That concludes First Minister’s questions. Before we move on, I point out to members that we have taken 48 minutes to get through First Minister’s questions today but only 11 members have been able to make a contribution. A number of members’ questions and the responses to them have been too lengthy. Members are giving huge preambles before asking their question and some of the responses are too long.

I have written to all members and I have spoken to all the party leaders. That clearly has not had an effect. I ask everyone to think about the situation before next week, and to make their questions shorter and the answers more succinct, please. That way, we will get through more and more members will be able to participate.