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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, September 7, 2023


First Minister’s Question Time


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

I remind members that my wife is a serving officer with Police Scotland.

As part of a pilot in the north-east of Scotland, front-line officers are being told to no longer investigate certain crimes. Scottish National Party funding cuts are forcing dedicated officers to ignore criminal acts. Some victims will report a crime to the police only to be told that it is not important enough to investigate. Will the First Minister tell us which crimes will not be investigated? (S6F-02315)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

Police Scotland’s funding is not being cut. I am pleased to say that, despite United Kingdom Government austerity, and in recognition of the crucial role that police officers play, we have just announced, this week, an excellent pay offer, which I am pleased that police officers have accepted, and the service is receiving an additional £80 million in resource funding in 2023-24.

In relation to the north-east pilot that Douglas Ross mentioned, I will quote directly from the news release that the police put out in that region. It says:

“On some occasions, crimes are reported where there is no associated threat, risk, harm or vulnerability and”

—this is the important bit—

“also no proportionate lines of enquiry for local police officers to investigate.”

It goes on:

“When this happens, our staff will inform the caller that the enquiry has been recorded and a crime reference number will be supplied, but no further action will be taken.”

That seems like a proportionate approach to tackling crime.

Douglas Ross

So the First Minister is quite happy about that. That is incredible.

First of all, more pay for our officers is welcome. Fewer officers is not, and that is what we have now in Scotland. The First Minister cannot dodge responsibility. The measure is a result of SNP funding cuts, which is made clear in the letter that he just read out from Chief Superintendent Graeme Mackie.

The pilot is unfairly treating communities in the north-east as guinea pigs. They will receive a poorer service, despite paying their taxes like everyone else. In response to it, Scottish Police Federation chair David Threadgold said that areas could be at increased risk as criminals target places where they know that crime will not be investigated.

Humza Yousaf would not let this rash experiment happen in Glasgow, so why is he content to let victims in the north-east go without justice?

The First Minister

That is complete and utter nonsense, turning one community in Scotland against another. What else would you expect from the divisive Conservatives? This is a policing operational matter.

Let me pull Douglas Ross up on a couple of points. First and foremost, Scotland has more police officers per capita than England and Wales—and, of course, they are on significantly higher pay here in Scotland, because we believe in paying our police officers fairly. In Scotland, we have 30 officers per 10,000 of the population of Scotland, compares with 25 in England and Wales.

Let me go back to the central point. Whether they are in Glasgow or the north-east, people in Scotland care about ensuring that recorded crime is at low levels. I am pleased to say that, under this SNP Government, recorded crime continues to be at one of the lowest levels ever since 1974, and is down 42 per cent since 2006-07.

Douglas Ross

North-east families should not be paying the price for SNP funding cuts, but that is what is happening here. The Scottish Police Federation said that the pilot could set a “dangerous precedent”. Officers are warning that it could be a slippery slope, unless Humza Yousaf steps in with more funding. Even today, Audrey Nicoll, the SNP MSP and convener of this Parliament’s Criminal Justice Committee has raised concerns about what is happening in the north-east of Scotland.

Will the First Minister tell us: is he going to act on those concerns, or let this happen across the country?

The First Minister

If Douglas Ross does not correct the record after this session, he is—frankly—happy to be inaccurate and misleading. Let me read again the facts. We are investing £1.45 billion in policing in 2023-24 and increasing the resource budget by 6.3 per cent, with an additional £80 million. Any suggestion that we are cutting funding is, I am afraid, simply untrue.

Let me go back to the press release that was sent out by the police in the north-east, because—again—it is an operational matter. It says that if

“crimes are reported where there is no associated threat, risk, harm or vulnerability and also no proportionate lines of enquiry for local police officers to investigate”,

officers will of course give a crime reference number and the crime will be recorded,

“but no further action will be taken.”

On this side of the chamber, we are ensuring that our police are funded, that there are more police officers on the street and, crucially, that recorded crime remains at one of the lowest levels in 42 years.

Douglas Ross

If anyone is going to be correcting the record, it is the First Minister, because we know that Police Scotland’s budgeted officer establishment has reduced from 17,234 to 16,600. There are fewer police officers on the beat in Scotland and they are being told not to investigate crimes. Why are they being told that? It is because of funding.

If the First Minister will not believe what I am saying, maybe he will listen to Deputy Chief Constable Fiona Taylor. She said that the force is facing “Hard choices” and that the

“levels of service we provide to the public … will inevitably reduce.”

That is a direct consequence of SNP funding cuts. Officers do not have the resources to do their jobs, people who report crimes will be told, “Tough luck”, and it is open season for criminals under the SNP.

Why is the First Minister telling offenders that they can break the law and get away with it here in Scotland?

The First Minister

Douglas Ross, with that question, demonstrates why he should never, ever be allowed to be First Minister of this country: he is panicking and alarming people with sensationalism, all for cheap political headlines. That is what Douglas Ross is interested in.

What we are interested in is results. Those results see there being more police officers per head of population in Scotland than there are in other parts of the UK, and more investment in our police in comparison with the previous year. We also see lower recorded crime rates here in Scotland than when we took office—[Interruption.]

Let us hear the First Minister.

The First Minister

I say to Douglas Ross, when he talks about difficult public finances, that they are difficult because of Westminster austerity; because of cuts to our budget; and because of the disastrous mini-budget. Just under a year ago, Douglas Ross demanded that the Scottish Government follow Liz Truss’s path, and now he wants tax cuts for the wealthy.

We will continue to invest in our public services. I say that, when it comes to the public finances, Douglas Ross has no credibility whatsoever.

Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (Schools)

2. Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

The news this week about the risks of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete, known as RAAC, is causing understandable anxiety for parents, pupils and staff.

The Government has confirmed that 37 schools have been identified as containing RAAC. When did the Government first become aware of the issue, and what steps did it take? Will the Government commit to publishing a list of the schools that are impacted, so that parents and pupils have at least some of the answers that they deserve?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

We were informed about RAAC not just for many months, but for years, and that is why, for example, we ensured that our education leaders had the appropriate guidance from the Institution of Structural Engineers last year.

We have been proactive over that period—in particular, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills has been proactive in holding discussions with local authorities in order to ensure that we have a full understanding of the picture.

I can confirm, given that we have further information back from local authorities, that 40 schools with RAAC in them have been identified and the appropriate mitigations have been put in place.

On Anas Sarwar’s direct question, which I think is very fair—yes, we will work with local authorities to ensure that that information is published. I would expect publication to happen at the end of the week—we will publish not just a list of the schools that have been affected, but more information, if we can give it, around the mitigations tthat are in place, which will give some confidence to parents, and indeed to pupils and staff, in those schools.

We are working with local authorities to ensure that that information is published, and the cabinet secretary will lay out some of that detail in a statement later this afternoon.

Anas Sarwar

The Institution of Structural Engineers says that it began inspections in schools for RAAC in 2018, and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service says that it warned two years ago that buildings are at risk of collapse. It is important, therefore, to know what steps the Government took, especially since—as the First Minister said—it has known about this “for years”.

Specifically on the schools that are impacted, how many schools are subject to either a partial or complete closure; how many are subject to the additional building works or emergency engineering support; and what resources are being made available to local authorities to deal with those buildings that are affected?

The First Minister

There are a number of questions—again, if we do not get to the detail of them all, I am happy to write to Anas Sarwar with full details.

The mitigations that are in place vary from school to school. Various schools and other owners of public sector buildings have put in place a number of mitigations. I take local authorities and schools as an example. St Kentigern’s academy in West Lothian has closed part of its estate, including the dining and kitchen areas. Preston Lodge high school in East Lothian has closed off impacted classrooms and other areas. Each school will determine the position, given the Institution of Structural Engineers’ guidance, and will then choose to put the appropriate mitigations in place.

Fire stations that have also been affected have already put in place mitigations. Again, I am happy to furnish Anas Sarwar with some of the detail on that.

We are aware that some local authorities want a discussion around funding. We will continue to have those discussions with local authorities, but ultimately they are the ones that are responsible for the safety of the school estate.

I noted that the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the United Kingdom—in fact, the Prime Minister of the UK—said that funding would be made available to help with mitigations in relation to RAAC. However, in the past 24 to 48 hours, I have seen the UK Government roll back on that commitment. We will continue, therefore, to have conversations with the UK Government—in fact, the Deputy First Minister wrote to the Treasury last month, on 16 August, to call for the allocation of additional funding to remediate RAAC issues.

I know that Anas Sarwar has asked a number of questions, and I am happy to go back to him in writing with fuller detail.

Anas Sarwar

I welcome the commitment to publish a list of schools, and I ask that that public information includes what mitigations are taking place in those schools, in order to give that reassurance to parents.

The Government has delayed the next phase of its school rebuilding programme. Local authorities submitted bids a year ago and were meant to get an answer by the end of 2022. We know that at least five of the schools on that list contain RAAC, although I suspect that the actual number will be far higher. Those schools are still waiting, so that must be dealt with urgently.

The issue goes beyond our schools. We know that 255 national health service buildings across Scotland are being surveyed for suspected RAAC. When will those surveys be completed? When will we have the complete list of all public bodies affected? How soon will we have a timetable for any required remedial action, so that we can give patients, staff, parents and pupils the reassurances they deserve?

The First Minister

Again, I am more than happy to furnish Anas Sarwar with further details in writing if I am not able to get through all the questions that he asked.

On the school estate, we will be making decisions on the learning estate investment programme imminently, but we are also now looking at that programme through a RAAC lens—I think that it is important for us to do so.

This Government has a good record when it comes to building schools and carrying out substantial refurbishments of schools: since 2007-08, 1,098 school builds or substantial refurbishment projects have taken place. Anas Sarwar will be aware that the school estate statistics that came out just a couple of days ago show that 91 per cent of schools in Scotland have a “good” or “satisfactory” condition rating, which is significantly improved from when we first took office.

On the NHS, a major study is already very much under way, led by NHS Scotland Assure. The desktop review exercises that took place showed that 254 buildings have two or more characteristics consistent with the presence of RAAC. The next phase of the survey has commenced and nine of the 40 buildings that have been surveyed have been confirmed as containing RAAC.

Anas Sarwar’s original point is a fair one. We will work with partners—not just local authorities, but NHS boards and others—to see how much of that information can be put out publicly. I hope that Anas Sarwar and others will appreciate that that will be an evolving picture as those surveys continue to progress.

Attainment Gap

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government's response is to data showing that the attainment gap has increased. (S6F-02318)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

In fact, the poverty-related attainment gap is narrower than it was before the pandemic for national 5s, for highers and for advanced highers, which shows progress in education recovery and in closing the poverty-related attainment gap over the longer term.

We have seen good progress in primary school literacy and numeracy, with the latest data showing the biggest-ever reduction in the gap. We have seen a record-low poverty-related attainment gap and positive destinations for school leavers nine months after leaving school, with record-high numbers of students from deprived areas entering university in 2021-22.

All of that, plus the ambitious aims that local authorities have set and are setting for the longer term, gives me great confidence that we are making good progress and that our £1 billion investment in the Scottish attainment challenge is indeed having an impact.

Liam Kerr

The First Minister chooses his data carefully, yet he fails to acknowledge that the attainment gap between the least and most deprived pupils has widened for the third year in a row. We must be clear that that is through no fault of teachers, pupils or staff.

Although his predecessor promised to eliminate the attainment gap, his ambition, as set out in the programme for government, is limited to merely narrowing it. So, what narrowed gap would be acceptable to this First Minister, and when, does he project, will he deliver it?

The First Minister

Of course, Liam Kerr is not comparing like with like. We are comparing this year’s figures with pre-pandemic figures.

I say to Liam Kerr that he forgets to place emphasis on the fact that this is a poverty-related attainment gap—that is the point: the attainment gap is related to poverty. If Liam Kerr really cared about tackling it, he would use any of the minuscule influence that he has in his own party to demand that it scraps the two child limit, scraps or reverses the reduction in universal credit and scraps the benefits freeze. Those three measures alone would lift 30,000 children in Scotland out of poverty. So, while Liam Kerr may well wipe away those crocodile tears, we in the Scottish Government will get on with the job of protecting Scots from the harm of a Westminster cost of living crisis.

Pam Duncan-Glancy (Glasgow) (Lab)

In many areas in Scotland, including Glasgow, the attainment challenge funding is being used to backfill cuts to core education funding. Why does the First Minister think that that is? Does he accept that that dedicated funding, which was put in place to tackle the attainment gap, has failed to do that in a substantial way?

The First Minister

No. I have just said in reply to Liam Kerr that we are making inroads in relation to narrowing the poverty-related attainment gap. Of course, the funding for local authorities has increased in comparison with the previous financial year. With the £1 billion Scottish attainment challenge, we are ensuring that we are giving £520 million to the pupil equity funding for headteachers. There is also direct funding for all 32 local authorities for the first time and additional funding to support the attainment and wellbeing of care-experienced children and young people.

I say to Pam Duncan-Glancy, who I know cares deeply about these matters, that we can go only so far in relation to the poverty-related attainment gap because although we have some powers to reduce and tackle poverty, I am afraid that the substantial levers are still in the hands of a Conservative United Kingdom Government. I want to change that, and I hope that Pam Duncan-Glancy does, too.

Drug Deaths

To ask the First Minister whether he will provide an update on the steps that are being taken to reduce drug deaths in Scotland. (S6F-02343)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

We remain absolutely committed to delivering the national mission to reduce drug deaths and improve the lives of those who are affected by drugs. The latest drug deaths statistics reported a 21 per cent decrease in 2022. I welcome that reduction, which is the highest on record, but I am also quite clear that those numbers remain far too high and that every life lost is an absolute tragedy. My thoughts are with the families that have been impacted and affected. That is why the national mission includes an additional £250 million investment over the course of this parliamentary session to improve services and backs radical approaches that are evidence based—that phrase is absolutely crucial—whether that be a proposal to establish a safer drugs consumption facility or arguing for drug law reform.

The Minister for Drugs and Alcohol Policy will make a statement later this month to update Parliament more fully.

Emma Harper

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is over 50 years old. It is not fit for purpose and it must be reviewed urgently.

The Home Affairs Committee recently published a report that called for a review of drug classification and a new health-led approach to tackling drugs, with a trial of safe consumption rooms. Can the First Minister provide an update on what engagement the Scottish Government has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding the urgent need to reform the draconian Misuse of Drugs Act 1971?

The First Minister

The points that Emma Harper makes are well made. In July, the Scottish Government published a paper that set out our bold and ambitious proposals for drug law reform to ensure that we treat problematic drug use as a health matter and not a criminal matter. I was heartened that there was much support for that not just domestically but internationally and globally from experts and those who work on the ground to tackle the issue of drug misuse. That is, as Emma Harper said, complemented by the recent very welcome report from the Home Affairs Select Committee, which is clear about the need to reform the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

The Minister for Drugs and Alcohol Policy met the UK minister for policing on Tuesday this week and raised the issues with him. If the UK Government will not take the necessary actions to use the powers that it has to help us to combat the challenge—the problem and crisis—it should at least devolve the powers to us so that we can take a different approach here, in Scotland.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

The Dogs Against Drugs charity assists Police Scotland with search and seizure of illegal drugs arriving in Shetland alongside its educational preventative work. Police Scotland’s Shetland area commander has credited the dogs with a vital role in the seizure in Shetland of drugs with a value of around £750,000 in the past 18 months. One dog—Thor—which is retiring, is credited with having found an estimated £1 million-worth of illegal drugs over its nine-year career. Without core funding, the charity’s future is under threat. If it ceases, it will likely cost the taxpayer more in the long run.

I have recently met the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs to discuss the issues. Does the First Minister agree that Dogs Against Drugs is an important asset to both Police Scotland and the Shetland community and that it would be a significant loss were it to cease?

The First Minister

I agree with Beatrice Wishart. I know of Dogs Against Drugs—I remember it well from when I was justice secretary. Funding had always been an issue for the organisation, which is why I was pleased that it received additional funding from—I think—the serious organised crime task force. I believe that a good meeting took place between the justice secretary and Beatrice Wishart. If we can do anything more to support Dogs Against Drugs, we are open to that, within the difficult financial circumstances in which we are operating.

Professor Sam Eljamel (Independent Public Inquiry)

5. Michael Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the First Minister, following the publication of NHS Tayside’s “Due Diligence Review of Documentation Held Relating to Professor Eljamel”, whether the Scottish Government will immediately approve an independent public inquiry. (S6F-02323)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

This is a deeply important issue and I can inform the chamber that the Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care, Michael Matheson, will use his statement to the chamber this afternoon to confirm that the Government has decided to commission a full independent public inquiry.

That decision comes after very careful consideration of the recent due diligence review, which stated that concerns about professor Eljamel were not acted on with the urgency that they deserved. In the commissioning of the inquiry, it remains important that those people who are directly affected are still supported to find the answers that they need and that both staff and patients across Scotland know that lessons are being learned.

The cabinet secretary has considered the latest report from NHS Tayside and we have collectively concluded that it requires investigation, independent of both board and Scottish Government. The cabinet secretary for health will set out the details of the next steps in his statement this afternoon.

Michael Marra

Scottish Labour welcomes that inquiry. It should not have taken us so long to get here. The inquiry has been wrung out of the Government like blood from a stone by Jules Rose, Pat Kelly and the many victims who were weeping outside Parliament yesterday—many in permanent and debilitating pain.

As late as last week, the First Minister and health secretary maintained that a public inquiry would not take place. That damning internal review from NHS Tayside, which the First Minister has mentioned, says that they knew that Eljamel was incapable and dishonest yet allowed him to continue unchecked. That review revealed, too, that the NHS Tayside board has done nothing to deliver on a raft of recommendations from previous reports into that scandal. What will the First Minister do today to ensure that those recommendations are acted on immediately?

The First Minister

I disagree with Michael Marra’s characterisation. Both the health secretary and I have always said that a public inquiry had not been ruled out. I hope that Michael Marra understands that it is appropriate that we allow reviews, such as the due diligence review that has taken place, to progress right to their conclusion. Having seen the extremely disturbing detail of that due diligence review, the cabinet secretary for health and the Scottish Government have concluded that a public inquiry is necessary because of the failings that that report has exposed.

Let us be clear about two things. First, Professor Eljamel is responsible for his despicable actions and, where there are systemic failings, they must absolutely be exposed and interrogated and lessons must be learned, which is why the public inquiry is so important. Secondly, I have a point of consensus with Michael Marra and agree that, although many MSPs deserve credit for raising these issues, it is, of course, the brave patients who have spoken out about their suffering—Jules Rose, Pat Kelly and many others—who deserve the credit for this announcement around the public inquiry.

A further question for us to explore—Michael Matheson will lay this out in detail in his statement—is whether another process will need to take place alongside the public inquiry, which answers the questions that patients rightly have around their individual cases, as that is something that a public inquiry would not necessarily be able to do.

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I welcome the decision and pay considerable tribute to Jules Rose, Pat Kelly and all the other patients who have been fighting the case for 10 years. Aside from the public inquiry, will the Scottish Government consider a victim support fund for the former patients and their families?

The First Minister

As Liz Smith knows well, there are appropriate routes for compensation that families can go through in relation to health boards. If there are other avenues that we can explore to support patients, we will give that consideration. There are already established avenues for patients who have suffered as a result of the national health service to claim compensation. However, those can be difficult to navigate at times, so we will give consideration to any other avenues of support that we can provide.

There has been a good cross-party effort. MSPs such as Shona Robison, Joe FitzPatrick, John Swinney, Jim Fairlie, Graeme Dey, Willie Rennie and Michael Marra have all raised these issues. It is important to pay particular credit to Liz Smith, who has raised these issues diligently and in a considered manner for many years. I thank all the MSPs who have raised these important issues on behalf of the patients they represent.

Renewable Energy (Economic Benefits)

6. Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

To ask the First Minister how the Scottish Government plans to maximise the economic benefits, including the number of new jobs, that result from any growth in renewable energy sources, including onshore wind. (S6F-02348)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

Scotland has the skills, talent and resources to become a global renewables powerhouse. We are investing almost £5 billion over this session of Parliament in the energy transition, and finalising an onshore wind sector deal. That will include halving the average determination time for new section 36 onshore wind applications, as well as maximising the benefits for Scotland’s economy and, crucially, for local communities.

We are also determined to maximise the opportunities from offshore wind. I welcome developers’ commitment to invest an average of £1.5 billion per project in the Scottish economy. We are embracing the opportunities that our flourishing clean hydrogen sector will bring, which will help to support jobs, boost energy security and open export potential. Our finalised energy strategy and just transition plan will set out how we can maximise those opportunities, including jobs in renewable energy and energy supply chains for a highly skilled and flexible workforce.

Ross Greer

Wind power in Scotland is growing, which is good for our climate, jobs and economy. Last year, onshore renewables in Scotland grew at almost twice the rate that they grew in England. The programme for government will further unlock growth in green energy.

This week, in contrast, the United Kingdom Government failed to genuinely lift its absurd wind farm ban in England. The Tories are wrecking our climate and holding back growth in a key industry. The Scottish Government must do more to capture the benefits of it and other growing green industries for the people of Scotland. How will the new green industrial strategy and the sector deal for onshore wind create new jobs and supply chain opportunities across Scotland?

The First Minister

Ross Greer is right about the damning approach that the UK Government has taken in the face of all scientific evidence on the climate catastrophe that is unfolding right now. As I announced this week, we are establishing a sector deal, which will be incredibly important because of the scale of the potential that we have to realise our collective ambition of delivering 20GW of onshore wind by 2030, and to do so in a way that benefits local communities. That is why the deal that we are negotiating will enable increased investment in skills training and additional investment in communities. It will also create pathways for long-term sustainable energy jobs and supply chains, with a focus on circular economy opportunities.

Furthermore, building on our final energy strategy and just transition plan, we will work closely with businesses and industry to develop our green industrial strategy by summer next year. That will set out how we will help businesses and investors to create good well-paid jobs as part of our fair, green and growing economy.

Ivan McKee (Glasgow Provan) (SNP)

Industry bodies, including Scottish Renewables, are clear that there is, in order to maximise the economic opportunities from renewable energy, a need for a robust evidence-led and action-driven green industrial strategy that should address the challenges on skills and investment that Government and industry can deliver on, together. What plans does the Government have to bring forward that strategy and what timescales are involved?

The First Minister

We will work closely with business and industry to develop a green industrial strategy by the summer of next year. It will set out how the Scottish Government will help businesses and investors to realise the enormous economic opportunities, including jobs, of the global transition to net zero. That strategy will build on the finalised energy strategy and just transition plan to offer a clear evidence-based view of the economic sectors and industries in which we have the greatest strengths and the most potential.

We will do everything that we can to support such sectors to thrive. Some of the levers are very much in our hands, but many—particularly tax incentives and financial incentives—lie with the UK Government. That is why I wrote this week to urge the UK Government to discuss the good ideas that are in the report of the Hunter Foundation—that is Sir Tom Hunter’s foundation—on using economic levers, whether they are in the hands of the Scottish Government or the UK Government, to their maximum effect in order to boost growing sectors, such as the renewables sector in Scotland.

We move to general and constituency supplementary questions.

HMP and YOI Stirling

Alexander Stewart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

Over recent weeks, there have been continued disturbances at the new prison facility HMP and YOI Stirling, which are causing local residents great distress. The incidents include screaming, shouting, swearing and banging coming from the prison at all times of the day and night since it opened. Together with the Scottish Prison Service, what action will the Scottish Government put in place to tackle and rectify those disturbances, which locals describe as creating a living hell, and to support the vulnerable offenders?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

We certainly do not want communities to be disturbed or inconvenienced in the way that Alexander Stewart described. I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs to write to him to see what more can be done.

The Prison Service takes seriously its obligations to the young people in particular who are in its facilities, in order—we hope—to aid rehabilitation. It also takes seriously its obligations to the communities that facilities are in. I will ask the cabinet secretary, who undoubtedly raises such issues with the Prison Service, to meet Alexander Stewart and see what more can be done.

I call Christine Grahame.

NatureScot Licences

Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)

Oh! I thought that I had been dismissed.

Recently, it was reported that NatureScot issued 46,985 licences over five years to authorise the culling of native wild species, including thousands of geese, ravens and iconic mountain hare. Does the First Minister share the concerns of animal welfare organisations—and me—about the size of that number? I declare an interest as the convener of the cross-party group on animal welfare.

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

I noticed that Christine Grahame took a bit of time there as she was not sure whether she was going to be called. Forgive her, Presiding Officer—she is quite new to Parliament.

On the serious question that Christine Grahame raised, the numbers cause us all to pause and reflect. I know that NatureScot takes licensed control of wildlife very seriously. That is done only when no alternative exists. Licences are issued only in accordance with strict criteria that are laid down in law, but there are occasions when wildlife needs to be controlled, when it presents a risk to human health or safety.

As I said, such decisions are not taken lightly at all. They can involve, for example, consideration of protecting air safety around airports, safeguarding food production and retail environments, and protecting crops in fields.

As part of the Bute house agreement, we will undertake, in this parliamentary session, a full review of the species licensing system. I will ensure that the appropriate cabinet secretary and minister investigate the numbers that Christine Grahame mentioned and write back to her with a fuller response.

Covid-19 (Vaccinations)

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

Covid rates are rising, and two wards at Vale of Leven hospital have been closed because of Covid. The number of beds that are occupied in hospitals across Scotland is going up, which is putting even more pressure on the national health service.

We know that vaccination is an important line of defence, but there appear to be problems with the vaccination programme. When a couple in their 70s who had booked their Covid and flu vaccinations arrived at their vaccination centre this week, they were told that no Covid vaccine was available. They and 350 other people were sent home.

Is the First Minister aware of a problem with the supply of vaccines? When will Covid vaccinations actually start?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

I am not aware of any problem with the vaccination programme or with the vaccine supply or stock. My understanding is that we have good supply and good stock, but I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care to examine that point in more detail and write to Jackie Baillie.

Jackie Baillie is absolutely right that the vaccine is the best form of defence against Covid. The Government cannot be, and is not, complacent about the fact that Covid is still within our communities, still harming people and still impacting on our public services, including our NHS. If Jackie Baillie furnishes us with the details, I will ensure that those specific incidents are looked into, and I give her my assurance about the vaccine supply and stock.

School Leaver Destinations

Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

The disaster of Brexit that Scotland did not vote for has, among other things, narrowed opportunities for some of our young people. With that in mind, can the First Minister provide an update on what proportion of school leavers have gone on to positive destinations?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

This summer, we had encouraging statistics that showed that more than 93 per cent of 2021-22 school leavers were in a positive destination nine months after the end of the school year. That is the highest level since comparable data was first gathered in 2009-10.

The member is, of course, right to note that Brexit has narrowed opportunities for young people. One of the most damaging examples of that was the UK’s decision not to participate in Erasmus+. We are determined to ensure that our young people, particularly those from our most disadvantaged communities, can benefit from educational exchange opportunities, which is why, in the programme for government, I committed to developing the Scottish education exchange programme to deliver some of the opportunities to our young people that Brexit has robbed them of. However, I am afraid that anything that we do as an alternative to Erasmus+ will never quite be as good as that programme in the European Union. Those in Scotland know that the only way that Scotland will be able to rejoin the European Union is as an independent nation.

Snowdrop Memorial Garden Dunfermline (Vandalism)

Roz McCall (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

The First Minister will be aware of the repeated desecration of the Snowdrop memorial garden in Dunfermline cemetery. Desecration of memorials is detestable. Words can neither describe how detestable those acts of vandalism are nor the emotional trauma that is caused to the families of babies who are remembered at the site. Incidents such as this are happening too often, and it is left to volunteers to clear up the mess that is left by mindless vandals. What more can the Scottish Government do to support our local councils with funding and resources for something as simple as closed-circuit television cameras to deter the culprits of those horrific crimes and help to bring them to justice?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

Roz McCall is absolutely right. Those are despicable acts. There can be no words of condemnation strong enough to articulate and express our collective horror at such acts of desecration.

On what more can be done, I am more than happy for the appropriate minister to have conversations with our local government partners to see whether we can do anything further collectively to deter such acts. It is also important that we do our best to try to work with anybody who is desecrating those memorials to see whether we can do more to divert them from such despicable behaviour. The police will, of course, determine whether crimes have been committed and what action can be taken.

One of our local councillors, Councillor Naz Anis-Miah, who I know well, was one of the volunteers who was involved in cleaning up the baby memorial. I commend those volunteers, but it should not be left to volunteers to do that—such desecration should not be happening in the first place. The Government will reach out to local authorities to see whether there is anything that we can do to support them and any action that they are taking to stop such acts.

Football Supporters’ Buses

Does the First Minister agree that the UK Government’s transport commissioner’s draconian proposals for football supporters’ buses needs to be shown the red card?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

Absolutely. I have no idea why those proposals have been touted in Scotland. I have no idea why the UK’s traffic commissioner and the UK Government think that the proposals have any place in Scotland. The proposals are for voluntary guidance so I suspect that they will be ignored, and I would support that action.

I align myself closely with the Scottish Football Association, the Scottish Professional Football League, the Scottish Women’s Premier League and many teams across the country who have condemned the proposals. I confirm to Stuart McMillan and other members that the proposals have been brought forward without a single word of consultation of Scottish Government ministers, the football authorities or—most important, I suggest—the thousands if not millions of football fans who would be negatively impacted by them.

The Minister for Social Care, Mental Wellbeing and Sport, Maree Todd, wrote to the commissioner yesterday to better understand where the ludicrous proposals have come from. The Scottish football governing bodies and football fan organisations have already issued strong statements, setting out their concerns, and they have my absolute full support in that.

Criminal Justice (Sentencing Guidelines)

Russell Findlay (West Scotland) (Con)

Three months ago, I asked the First Minister about a murderer and rapist who received a shorter prison sentence due to new sentencing guidelines for under-25s. Since then, countless other violent criminals—adults, by any definition—have also had their sentences reduced. Can Humza Yousaf tell the victims, most of whom are women, why his Government will not step in and scrap this weak and dangerous practice in the Scottish justice system?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

The member asked the question while fully knowing the answer. Those are Scottish Sentencing Council guidelines that are not made, derived from or approved by the Scottish Government; they are approved by the senior judiciary. Given how horrifying some of these cases are—the cases that Russell Findlay mentioned are absolutely horrifying—I can understand the temptation for MSPs to demand that the Government take action. However, if we were to do so, we would be interfering in the independence of the judiciary, which is a cornerstone of our democracy and of the rule of law.

Sentencing decisions are very much for the independent judiciary. I am sure that it will have heard the concerns that Russell Findlay and many other members have raised. However, it is important to say that the Sentencing Council guidelines are evidence based.

We have announced an important bill that will put victims and witnesses at the heart of the justice system even more than they are. I hope that Russell Findlay and the Conservatives will support that bill as it goes through Parliament.

NHS Lothian (Edinburgh Eye Pavilion)

Sarah Boyack (Lothian) (Lab)

The First Minister will be aware that the new eye pavilion in Edinburgh has suffered delay after delay. Over the past few weeks, fresh doubts about its 2027 opening have arisen after NHS Lothian told patients and campaigners that timescales would be confirmed once the Scottish Government had completed a review of funding and sequencing on a number of capital projects.

Will the First Minister confirm today to Parliament that the new eye pavilion will open in 2027? Will he meet me and eye pavilion patients to reassure them that the Scottish Government will fund that vital project, given that it was not mentioned in the programme for government?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

I am happy to confirm that we are absolutely committed to the eye pavilion. Sarah Boyack is right that there is a review of the capital projects that we are funding right across Government. That review is very much still on-going, which is why we are not able to confirm the timelines.

There has been a significant reduction in our capital budget by the Westminster UK Government, which I am afraid has impacts. There is also the disaster of the mini-budget last year, which has meant that inflation and construction costs have risen exponentially. That is why the capital programmes review has to be undertaken. When it is complete, we will ensure that Parliament is updated accordingly.

I am sure that the cabinet secretary will be happy to meet Sarah Boyack and patients in the local area on the plans in relation to the eye pavilion.

The Presiding Officer

That concludes First Minister’s question time. The next item of business is a members’ business debate in the name of Carol Mochan. There will be a short suspension to allow those leaving the chamber and public gallery to do so.

12:48 Meeting suspended.  

12:50 On resuming—