Meeting of the Parliament
Meeting date: Thursday, March 9, 2023
Official Report 1001KB pdf
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Care-experienced and Adopted Children, Portfolio Question Time, Misogyny (Criminal Law Reform), Motion without Notice, Decision Time
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Care-experienced and Adopted Children
- Portfolio Question Time
- Misogyny (Criminal Law Reform)
- Motion without Notice
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
Scottish National Party Leadership Contest
Apparently, the First Minister could not bear to watch the Scottish National Party leadership debate this week, but her ears must have been burning as the candidates torched her record in government. I like to be helpful to the First Minister, so let me recap some of what was said. [Interruption.] I am happy to continue if you are, Presiding Officer. [Interruption.]
If you are content to continue, Mr Ross, we will try to. [Interruption.]
I am very happy to continue. We can ignore them while I direct my comments to the First Minister.
Let us be absolutely clear. I can be helpful to the First Minister—[Interruption.]—if people can hear me. Perhaps we cannot continue, Presiding Officer. We have tried. [Interruption.]
We have tried, Mr Ross. We will suspend briefly.12:01 Meeting suspended.
12:03 On resuming—
We resume. Please start at the beginning, Mr Ross.
John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon seemed to enjoy the start of my question, so I will repeat it.
Apparently, the First Minister could not bear to watch this week’s SNP leaders’ debate, but her ears must have been burning as the candidates torched the SNP’s record in government. Let me be helpful to Nicola Sturgeon, as I try to be, and update her on what was said. Her finance secretary Kate Forbes said about Scotland that the trains never run on time, the police service is stretched to breaking point and there are record high waiting times in the NHS. Does the First Minister applaud, as we do on this side of the chamber, her finance secretary’s honest assessment of the SNP’s record in government?
Unfortunately, I did not catch the leaders’ debate the other night, because I was on my way back from a wonderful visit to the inspirational Glasgow Women’s Library, which is a fabulous place that I recommend to everybody in the chamber.
The only verdict on my Government that really matters, of course, is the verdict from the people whom we serve—the people of Scotland. That verdict—winning no fewer than eight elections—has been pretty clear over the eight years of my leadership.
Let me remind Douglas Ross—I am trying, as I always do, to be helpful to him—why that might have been the case. Under this Government, we have seen a 20 per cent increase in national health service staff and the highest number of doctors and nurses proportionately anywhere in the United Kingdom. We have seen a doubling of the NHS budget. We have seen the best-performing accident and emergency departments anywhere in the United Kingdom for the past seven years. Scotland is the only part of the UK with no NHS strikes and the highest-paid NHS workforce anywhere on these islands. There has been a significant reduction in hospital infections, and there are £10,000 nurse bursaries at a time when the Tories in England have scrapped nurse bursaries. We have scrapped prescription charges and taken away parking charges at NHS hospitals. We are leading the way on public health measures.
Presiding Officer, I can see that you are looking at me askance. That is about just the NHS. I look forward to getting on to other topics later in this session.
If the First Minister really did miss the first television debate, there is another one tonight. I am really worried that 30 minutes will not be long enough for the candidates to trash her record in government.
Last week, I said that there seem to be two Kate Forbes—one with a terrible record in government and one who says that the Government has a terrible record. Now the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy is in an even bigger guddle. She cannot decide whether she is in government or in opposition. Just listen again to that statement from Kate Forbes. The current finance secretary said that the current SNP Government leaves trains that never run on time, the police service stretched to breaking point and record high waiting times in our NHS. That is a quote sorted for every Scottish Conservative leaflet going forward.
There is even more material that we can use. Kate Forbes said:
“More of the same is not a manifesto—it’s an acceptance of mediocrity.”
The First Minister might expect to hear that from me, but did she really expect to hear it from her own finance secretary?
I am very aware that, for Douglas Ross, mediocrity is, of course, a dizzy height that he has never come close to achieving. There is no confusion whatsoever about where Douglas Ross is in terms of government or opposition. He is in opposition now, and he will remain in opposition for a long, long time to come.
Helpfully—Douglas Ross has been very helpful today, and I am most appreciative—he has taken me into other subject matters. I will be brief, Presiding Officer.
Douglas Ross talked about crime. Let us talk about the record of my Government, which has been endorsed eight times in eight years by the Scottish people under my leadership. Crime is down by more than 48 per cent. Violent crime alone is down by 48 per cent. [Interruption.]
Excuse me, First Minister. Let us have one speaker at a time, please.
Automatic early release has been ended—that was opposed by the Scottish Conservatives, of course. We see reoffending rates among the lowest ever and a higher number of police officers than there was at any time during previous Scottish Administrations—the number is higher proportionately than that in any other part of the UK. We have strengthened the law on domestic abuse.
Then there is transport. ScotRail is in public ownership. There are lower fares on average than there are where the Tories are in power. There is the £11 billion of investment in rail infrastructure. The M74 has been completed, the Aberdeen bypass has been built, and the Queensferry crossing has been built. There is the highest investment in active travel in any UK nation.
I could go on, and I will be happy to do so later on.
If the First Minister continued with that record in government on transport, it would be about the A9 delayed, the A96 delayed, and ferries rusting in the docks and not serving the island communities that they are there for.
However, the First Minister seems to think that if she does not mention Kate Forbes—if she pretends that she did not watch the debate—those comments did not occur. This was a Scottish Government minister, someone currently serving under Nicola Sturgeon, tearing apart the SNP’s record in government. If Nicola Sturgeon will not focus on Kate Forbes, we know that one of her closest allies will. Shona Robison—a current Cabinet colleague of Kate Forbes—said that Kate Forbes is trashing the record of the SNP Government.
However, Kate Forbes has voted for every single SNP policy. She has backed every single SNP referendum demand and every one of the SNP budgets. She is the finance secretary—she writes the budgets. Also, Kate Forbes was Nicola Sturgeon’s right-hand woman, handpicked by the First Minister to rise up rapidly through the ranks. When promoting Kate Forbes in February 2020, the First Minister said this in the chamber:
“Kate Forbes ... has a forensic grasp of detail.”—[Official Report, 18 February 2020; c 63.]
On this Government’s record, Kate Forbes has got the detail bang on the money, has she not?
All three of those colleagues of mine who are vying to be my successor and vying to have the joy of First Minister’s question time every Thursday at 12 o’clock, either are or have been members of my Government, so of course they all share in the success of the Government that I am proud to lead.
I am now, by my own choice, an outgoing leader, but I will be serious for a minute here. Nobody needs a running commentary from me—certainly, nobody needs a running commentary from Douglas Ross on anything, but that is another matter. However, if I were to offer advice, first, to those who are vying to succeed me, it would be this: of course, the internal process is really important but, although it might not feel like it right now, it is the relatively easy part. Being First Minister is hard; it is tough; and it is a massive responsibility. Whoever emerges in the position of First Minister and is standing here three weeks today has one overriding task. It is to govern, and it is to serve in a way that inspires the people of Scotland to keep placing trust in us, just as they have done consistently since 2007 and just as they have done eight times over the eight years of my leadership. That is what matters, because without that trust, nothing else is possible.
Finally, to my opponents, perhaps a word to the wise as well. I cannot grudge them watching the first SNP leadership election in 20 years, because we have had lots of Tory and Labour leaderships to enjoy over those years. However, as long as they are using virtually all of their air time to talk about the SNP because they have nothing positive to offer, fundamentally the problem is not ours; the problem is theirs, because they are destined to stay exactly where they are right now—in opposition.
If only the SNP candidates had something positive to offer rather than fighting with each other. However, Kate Forbes has been so honest about the SNP’s record in government that, just this morning, Mhairi Black—the SNP’s deputy leader in Westminster—said that the SNP could split over this contest. Nicola Sturgeon has divided Scotland and now her departure is dividing the SNP, yet while the SNP goes through this civil war, the real priorities of Scotland are being ignored.
This divided and distracted party is failing to give Scots the health service that they deserve. The current health secretary is mumbling as I speak about his portfolio area, so let us go through what has been said this week. The British Medical Association Scotland told us that nearly half of junior doctors are thinking of quitting. On Monday, an investigation reported that one in five people in Scotland have been forced to go private for health treatment. There are 773,000 Scots on an NHS waiting list just now, and 10 patients a month are travelling to Lithuania for treatment—I repeat: they are travelling from Scotland to Lithuania for treatment. The First Minister said that people should focus on governing and serving, but should not the SNP leadership candidates focus on the crisis in our NHS, not the crisis in their party?
I will come to the NHS in a second. Every one of the SNP politicians that Douglas Ross has mentioned has more popular and public approval than he does. I think that he is the least popular elected leader in Scotland today. My advice to him was intended to be helpful. Perhaps if he spent a bit more time looking in the mirror—[Interruption.]—
—and reflecting on the reasons for his party’s and his personal unpopularity, and a bit less time thinking about the SNP, he might not be in the dire straits that he is in now.
The NHS does face significant challenges. However, the number of people who are self-funding private care in Scotland is significantly lower than the number in Tory-run England or Labour-run Wales. We are seeing considerable reductions in the longest waiting times for out-patients and in-patients because we are focusing on NHS recovery. It is because we are doing that that no NHS workers have been forced to strike in Scotland. In fact, in terms of our agenda for change, they are the highest-paid NHS workers anywhere in the UK. That is the focus that the SNP has on the NHS, and we will continue to have that focus as long as we are in government.
National Health Service (Performance)
Week after week, I have asked the First Minister about the national health service and, week after week, she has defended the indefensible and asked patients to accept the unacceptable. Members of her Government accept that the NHS is in crisis. Kate Forbes has said that more of the same will not cut it, and she has called out Humza Yousaf for delivering record waiting times. After nearly 16 years in Government, the performance of our NHS is the worst that it has ever been. It needs a serious plan to fix it. Does the First Minister agree that continuity, mediocrity and incompetence will not cut it?
As I said earlier, continued focus on the part of whoever is First Minister on delivering for the people of Scotland and retaining their trust is the priority, and it should be the priority of whoever is standing here as First Minister in just three weeks’ time.
Specifically on the NHS, the NHS in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as health services across much of the world, are facing challenges, largely because of the pandemic that has afflicted us all in the past three years. However, because of the recovery plan, the record investment that we are putting into the NHS and the record number of staff that it has, we are now seeing progress in its recovery. On waiting times for out-patients, the number of people who are experiencing waits of more than a year is down by almost 9 per cent in the last quarter; and the number of people waiting for more than two years is down by 50 per cent in the last quarter, and down 60 per cent since the peak. We are seeing similar reductions in the numbers for in-patients and those who are waiting for diagnostic tests.
The number of people who are being seen in our NHS is going up. Is that tough? Yes. It is toughest of all for everyone who is working in our NHS, but our focus on the NHS is resulting in those improvements and will continue to do so.
Incompetence has serious consequences. Dr Chris Adams, one of Scotland’s leading paediatric surgeons, says that his patients are suffering because of a lack of staff, and that he has had enough. Crucially, he says that those problems are not due to Covid. One of Dr Adams’s patients is Harvey Martin. Harvey is nine years old and suffers from neurofibromatosis, which is a genetic condition that causes tumours to grow on the nervous system. In August last year, he was told that he needed urgent surgery within four weeks to correct a curve in his spine. Seven months on, he is still waiting. The curve is now harming his internal organs, and he has been left in excruciating pain. A nine-year-old in excruciating pain for seven months: that is a serious consequence of incompetence.
Harvey’s mum, Natalie, told me yesterday that she cannot watch her child in pain any longer. She is looking at private options and will fundraise for Harvey’s treatment. First Minister, why are children having to wait so long for urgent treatment, and why are families having to contemplate paying to relieve their child’s pain?
No parent should have to contemplate that. Other than those that Anas Sarwar has just shared, I do not know the details of Harvey’s case, but I will look into that and will respond more fully.
I have heard the concerns that Dr Chris Adams expressed and I know that those have been investigated by NHS Lothian. As I understand it, those concerns are general and are not in relation to Harvey’s case in particular. They have been investigated by NHS Lothian and, this morning, I asked officials to ensure that we have more external assurance to satisfy ourselves that there is no substance to those concerns.
As we all know, the NHS is facing significant challenges, which are largely down to Covid There were pressures that predated Covid but, in most countries, the pressures on health services are down to Covid. That is why we are focusing on investment, recruitment and reform to help tackle those challenges.
Anas Sarwar cited Dr Adams’s comments on staff. We have record numbers of staff in our NHS today. Since this Government took office, staffing has gone up by 22 per cent. We have higher staffing per head than NHS England and higher numbers of nurses, midwives and doctors than in the health services of other parts of the United Kingdom. We will continue focusing hard, each and every day, on supporting our NHS so that it is delivering for all patients, including children like Harvey, every day.
As I said, I will look further into the specifics of Harvey’s case and will respond either to Anas Sarwar or directly to Harvey’s family, in due course.
It is important to repeat two things. First, Dr Adams says that the problems are not due to Covid, so the First Minister needs to stop hiding behind Covid. Secondly, incompetence has serious consequences. Incompetence might be funny in a Scottish National Party leadership debate, but incompetence in Government means that people are losing their lives, right now, across Scotland.
Across Scotland, thousands of people are opting to pay for treatment because they cannot wait for the NHS. Research by the BBC shows that one in five people says that they or a family member have paid for medical treatment—one in five. NHS staff such as Dr Adams are speaking out about waiting times because of the risk to their patients’ lives. Shamefully, other clinicians were gagged from speaking out publicly by the Lothian and Greater Glasgow and Clyde health boards. They know that there is a crisis.
Thousands of operations have been cancelled; we have the worst accident and emergency waiting times on record; there are more than 5,500 nursing and midwifery vacancies; 770,000 patients are on NHS waiting lists; and there are record-breaking levels of delayed discharge. This is a crisis 16 years in the making because of SNP mismanagement of our NHS. None of the candidates to replace Nicola Sturgeon is up to the job of fixing that, because the people who created the problem cannot be the ones to fix that problem.
To be clear, I said that, in relation to the general comments and concerns that Dr Adams has cited, although not specifically in relation to young Harvey’s case, I have asked for further external assurance to ensure that we have properly investigated those. No one is hiding behind anything.
Anas Sarwar must be one of the only people—Douglas Ross is in that category as well—who steadfastly refuses to recognise the impact of Covid on the NHS. [Interruption.] I have already referred to Dr Adams. I am not talking about Dr Adams. Week after week, Anas Sarwar stands here—[Interruption.]
—and wants to pretend that Covid did not happen. There were pressures on our NHS before that, but everyone understands the significant exacerbation of those pressures on the NHS that was caused by Covid. That is the case in Scotland, Wales, England and in most other countries across Europe and around the world.
This is really important: I have said this many times and it does the NHS a disservice for Anas Sarwar to suggest otherwise. No NHS staff are gagged. We have whistleblowing arrangements in our national health service, and all staff who have concerns should feel able to come forward and raise those.
I have been in this post for more than eight years, as I may have said once or twice already today. I have taken the duty and responsibility of this office seriously, as everyone has the right to expect me to do, every single day, right through the very difficult days of Covid and on every other day beside. I will continue doing that for my remaining days in office and I know that whoever stands here after me will also do that.
Government is difficult at the best of times, and these are not the best of times. However, the people of Scotland are the ultimate arbiters of who is competent, who is doing the job well and who is not, and they have put their trust in this Government consistently since 2007, and eight times in the eight years of my leadership. The task of my successor is to make sure that they retain that trust. It is precious and it is essential to achieving anything.
Hospital Waiting Times
To ask the First Minister whether she will provide an update on the Scottish Government’s progress towards reducing the number of people on hospital waiting lists and ending long waits for national health service treatment. (S6F-01899)
Yes, I will. The total number of patients waiting more than 18 months for a new out-patient appointment was down by 27 per cent in a single quarter; the numbers of patients waiting for more than two years for in-patient and day cases was down by 60 per cent over six months; the number of patients who were seen in December 2022 was at the highest level since the pandemic began; and the number of patients waiting for a diagnostic test had reduced by more than 7 per cent in the most recent quarter.
Of course, that progress is down to the hard work of our front-line NHS staff to clear long waits that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. We need to go further and continue to grow capacity in our national health service, which is why we will, for example, open four new national treatment centres over the coming year.
Figures from NHS Grampian show that two people have waited more than five and a half years for in-patient treatment. In NHS Grampian, for orthopaedic surgery alone, waiting times are 18 to 24 months, and more than 3,800 people are on the waiting list. I have a constituent on that list who is in debilitating pain, and that is impacting her physically, emotionally and financially. No meaningful progress has been made to reduce the number of people on waiting lists, as Kate Forbes has said. Our health secretary, Humza Yousaf, is focused more on the Scottish National Party’s succession plan than on the NHS recovery plan. What does the First Minister have to say to my constituent and to the thousands of other people who are suffering in pain on those waiting lists?
What I will say to Tess White’s constituent—and to anyone who is on an NHS waiting list—is that this Government will continue to focus on investment, recruitment and reform in our NHS to get those waiting lists and times down. It is simply wrong—and the facts do not bear it out—that progress is not being made in reducing the longest waits. I have already set out the progress over recent months in reducing the longest waits for out-patient and in-patient appointments and for diagnostic tests. Is the progress that has been made yet good enough? No—it is not. The challenge in our NHS is significant, but we will continue with the investment, recruitment and reforms that are necessary to make sure that we deliver for all patients every day in our national health service.
Earlier this week, BBC Scotland revealed that one in five people had paid for private medical care in the past 12 months. Let us be clear that those are people who are on lengthy waiting lists and who are so desperate for treatment that they are scraping together their savings to go private.
The Private Healthcare Information Network tells us that the number of private operations has increased by 72 per cent and, in 2021 alone, 40 per cent of all hip and knee replacements were done privately. Each and every one of the health secretary’s targets for ending even the longest waits—of more than two years—have been missed.
Just a few months ago, NHS board chief executives were discussing a two-tier system of healthcare in Scotland, in which some people would pay for their care. Does the First Minister now accept that, in reality, under this SNP Government, the two-tier system is already here?
No, I do not accept that, but I do consider it unacceptable that any patient has to pay privately for treatment that they should—and want to—get on the national health service. That is why we continue to focus, in the ways that I have been speaking about, on bringing down waiting times, and we will continue with that focus. I know that it will be a priority for whoever succeeds me as First Minister, as it has been a priority for me every day in this job.
The targets have not been missed. The targets on reducing long waits are being met, and we need to and will go further. I know that this will get howls of objection from the Labour benches, but Jackie Baillie is trying to suggest that the challenges in our national health service are uniquely down to the fact that Scotland has an SNP Government, so let me counter that.
Jackie Baillie quoted the Private Healthcare Information Network figures, so she will not mind my also quoting the Private Healthcare Information Network figures for self-funded private care. In the second quarter of 2022, which are the most recent figures, in Wales, where Labour is in office—[Interruption.] Jackie Baillie wants to do the comparisons when it suits her.
In Wales, where Labour is in office, the number of people getting self-funded private care was, according to the Private Healthcare Information Network, 27 per cent higher than it was in Scotland. Not only that, for those opting to pay for private healthcare, the rate of increase in Wales was 21 percentage points higher than it was in Scotland.
I am responsible—this Government is responsible—for health in Scotland, but for those who want to suggest that the challenges in our national health service are uniquely down to an SNP Government, if they are Tories, they need to look at performance in England, and if they are Labour, they really need to look at performance in Wales.
Budget (Impact of Teachers’ Pay Settlement)
To ask the First Minister what impact the proposed pay settlement for teachers, if accepted, will have on other Scottish Government budgets. (S6F-01901)
This is a very fair offer for teachers in very challenging circumstances. It represents the best pay offer to teachers in more than 20 years. Delivering it will require the Scottish Government to make very hard financial choices, and it will therefore have an impact on other parts of the Scottish Government budget. However, that is necessary and I believe that it is right, given the importance of resolving the dispute, which the education secretary has worked very hard to do, and in the interests of ensuring that young people’s education is not further disrupted and in the interests of valuing teachers, who do such a good job in schools right across the country.
I declare an interest as a former secondary teacher. It was one of my former professions, and I have high regard for it and hope that a settlement can be reached.
What will the proposed pay settlement mean for teachers in Scotland, particularly compared with teachers in the rest of the United Kingdom?
The new pay offer, which, as I say, is the best pay offer to teachers in more than 20 years, will see the salaries of most teachers rise by more than £5,000 in April, if it is accepted. The 28-month deal has a cumulative value of 14.6 per cent and would mean an overall increase of more than £6,100 over two years for the 70 per cent of classroom teachers at the top of their main grade scale.
Teachers in Scotland are among the best paid anywhere in the world and they move more quickly to the top of the pay scale than those in any other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development country. In terms of UK comparisons, new fully registered teachers in Scotland are the best paid anywhere in the UK.
It is a good deal and it is a fair deal, and I hope that it is accepted and that the dispute is resolved.
It is a great relief to everyone involved that the dispute finally looks like it is over. However, is this whole episode not typical of what the First Minister’s Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy, Kate Forbes, has called the “mediocrity” of Nicola Sturgeon’s time as First Minister? There have been eight years of broken promises and neglect of Scottish education, more than a year of on-off negotiations even to get to this point, and damaging disruption. Would Nicola Sturgeon not agree that Scotland’s teachers, parents, children and young people deserve better?
The hypocrisy here is utterly staggering. Yes, it has been a tough negotiation, but it is because the Scottish Government has been determined to find resolution, with our partners in local government, that we are where we are right now.
The reason why Stephen Kerr’s approach here is utterly hypocritical is that he is a Conservative, and when we look at the Conservative Government in England, we find a completely different approach. The Tory Secretary of State for Education said that Government is not there to do teacher pay negotiations. The full quote is:
“We didn’t negotiate the pay, that’s not what we we’re there to do.”
In this Government, we think that that is part of what we are here to do—to get around the table and agree fair pay deals for the national health service and for teachers—and that is one of the many reasons why the people of Scotland continue to put their trust in this SNP Scottish Government.
The Educational Institute of Scotland ballot on this last-gasp offer ends tomorrow. We all hope that this dispute can end because of the lost learning, the responsibility for which rests with the Government.
Can the First Minister assure young people in targeted constituencies, such as her own, that the Scottish Qualifications Authority will make special provision to ensure that they get a fair chance at success? What will the Government do to ensure that all payments are in this month’s pay run—the last one of the financial year—to avoid tax and benefits chaos for many teachers?
I very much hope that we see this pay offer accepted and that teachers will get the substantial increase to their salary that I believe they deserve.
Education Scotland will, of course, continue to take steps, as will the SQA as appropriate, to ensure that pupils are properly supported.
The approach of this Government, whether towards the national health service, the wider local government workforce or the teaching profession, in very, very tough times, when inflation is putting significant pressure on our budget, is to get round the table, to respect trade unions and to negotiate fair pay deals. If only that were happening in other parts of the UK in the way that it is happening in Scotland, we might all be in a much better position.
Home Energy Costs
To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to support home owners seeking to reduce their energy bills. (S6F-01887)
The Scottish Government has allocated £336 million to heat, energy efficiency and fuel poverty measures. This year, £119 million of that is targeted specifically at fuel-poor households. We have also doubled the fuel insecurity fund and have provided an additional £1.2 million to help advice services to meet increasing demand.
We are doing, and will continue to do, everything that we can within our limited devolved powers, but, of course, the key levers lie with the United Kingdom Government. We will continue to call on the United Kingdom Government to protect those who are struggling with their energy bills. I urge anybody who is struggling to contact Home Energy Scotland, which can provide advice and support on how to manage energy costs.
The cost of living crisis has highlighted the benefits of improved energy efficiency in homes—an area in which Scotland has, sadly, lagged behind for too long. The Scottish Government’s existing proposals on home retrofitting for energy efficiency are, like the pledge to retrofit a million homes with heat pumps by 2030, long on ambition but short on detail. The answer to every key question about how those goals will be achieved, from who pays to how there will be enough people with the skills to carry out the work, is still unclear.
They are Scottish Government initiatives and goals. However laudable and necessary their targets are, they are worthless without a route to achieving them. Does the First Minister accept that a detailed, practical programme for implementation will be vital to delivering net zero homes? If so, when are we likely to get sight of it?
When Brian Whittle rightly references the cost of living crisis, let us remember that the cost of living crisis was largely created by an incompetent UK Tory Government.
We will continue to take our responsibilities seriously, not just in helping people through what we all hope are short-term cost of living pressures, but in insulating and improving energy efficiency in our homes for the sake of the environment in the longer term as well.
As I said, we have already allocated more than £300 million to heat, energy efficiency and fuel poverty measures in this year alone. That is being delivered through a package of support via some long-standing programmes that have already supported over 150,000 households that are in, or at risk of, fuel poverty. We will continue those short and long-term plans to deliver for people across Scotland.
Households in my constituency and across Scotland expect to see their annual energy bills rise by over £1,000 from next month. That will eat up more than 13 per cent of the average Scot’s take-home pay.
Will the First Minister urge the UK chancellor to use next week’s spring budget to halt that increase? It will have a devastating impact on many of our constituents at a time when their finances are already stretched to breaking point. Will she support the call from Age UK for an amnesty on pre-payment meters, which are penalising some of the poorest people in our society even further?
I agree with all of that, and I will certainly take those steps, which are really important. There have been some positive noises from the UK Government around this matter, and I hope to see those realised and turned into concrete commitments in the UK budget next week.
It is essential that the proposed increase to the energy price guarantee cap be cancelled. Failure to do that would mean an estimated increase of 120,000 Scottish households in fuel poverty, taking the estimated total to almost 1 million. I hope we all agree that that would be completely unacceptable, and it can be avoided if the UK Government so chooses.
To ask the First Minister, in light of Scottish apprenticeship week this week, how the Scottish Government is supporting people into apprenticeships. (S6F-01903)
I was delighted to visit City Building, in Glasgow, earlier this week to launch Scottish apprenticeship week and to meet some fantastic young people, who shared their own apprenticeship journeys with me.
The Scottish Government is working with Skills Development Scotland and the Scottish Funding Council to maximise apprenticeship opportunities and to ensure that employers that wish to take on an apprentice are supported to do so. The modern apprenticeship quarter 3 statistics show an increase of 7.1 per cent in the number of those who are starting an apprenticeship compared with the same period in the previous year. Despite a context of the most turbulent economic and financial situation that most of us can remember, the Scottish budget for the forthcoming financial year delivers record investment in education and skills. We have kept the Skills Development Scotland budget broadly in line with last year’s, allowing it to fund both modern and foundation apprenticeships.
On Monday, I visited the headquarters of River Clyde Homes, in Greenock, to learn more about its apprenticeship programme. I heard directly from the apprentices about how working for RCH has helped with their development and offered them opportunities. The investment by River Clyde Homes in youth recruitment has led to the company being awarded platinum accreditation from investors in young people, making it only one of 11 organisations in Scotland to achieve that accolade. Will the First Minister join me in applauding RCH and its commitment to helping young people in my constituency into sustainable employment, with the hope that its actions will inspire even more organisations to invest in apprenticeships?
I certainly applaud the work that is being done by River Clyde Homes. The award of platinum accreditation from investors in young people is testament to its commitment to offering opportunities to young people. I hope that that inspires other organisations to invest in apprenticeships, which are a key way for employers to invest in their workforce, providing the skills that the economy needs now and in the future. Almost 12,000 individuals between the ages of 16 and 24 took up the opportunity of a modern apprenticeship by the end of quarter 3 of 2022-23. Scotland’s apprenticeships support young people and those of all ages into sustainable and rewarding careers, and they give individuals the opportunity to develop the skills that they need to succeed in their chosen career.
Seven years ago, the Equality and Human Rights Commission identified that just 0.5 per cent of modern apprenticeships were going to young disabled people, despite their making up between 8 and 9 per cent of the target population at that time. What progress has been made since then?
I can confirm that we remain very committed to addressing the barriers to young disabled people taking up apprenticeships. Figures show that significant progress has been made in this area since the study by the Equality and Human Rights Commission seven years ago, to which Graeme Dey refers.
Skills Development Scotland provides enhanced funding contributions for disabled apprentices in training until the age of 29. The most recent statistics, published by SDS on 14 February, report that the disability rate for modern apprenticeship starts by the end of quarter 3 was 14.8 per cent—two percentage points higher than in quarter 3 of the previous year. Just under 3,000 individuals had a known disability status or a self-identified impairment, health condition or learning difficulty, which was a 23.5 per cent increase compared with the same point last year. There has been good progress, but much more work is still to be done.
This week, I met winners of my west of Scotland apprenticeship awards. Apprentices spoke highly about the skills and opportunities gained, and employers boasted about the value added to their companies. However, the Scottish Training Federation says that, although the demand for apprenticeships is strong, the funding is just not there. Will the First Minister commit to properly funding apprenticeships and back the STF’s calls to increase the number of apprenticeship places to 27,000?
I do not recall the Tories putting forward a proposal in the budget that was passed recently for more funding for apprenticeships. If we had taken their advice over the past few months to cut taxes for the richest people, we would have less money to spend on apprenticeships and everything else.
We are investing strongly in modern apprenticeships. We have asked SDS to deliver at least 25,000 new apprenticeship starts in this financial year, and there are still some to be allocated. Apprenticeships are a real good-news story. They are a good-news story for the young people who are apprentices and the people of all ages who are apprentices, and they are a good-news story for the economy, because apprenticeships provide skills that we need for the future. That is more important than it has ever been since the Tories’ Brexit has denied us many skills from elsewhere in Europe.
We move to constituency and general supplementaries.
Illegal Migration Bill
Given this week’s new proposals from the Tory Government on its approach to refugees and asylum seekers, does the First Minister share my concern about how that will impact on our ability to meet our responsibilities under the United Nations refugee convention and the European convention on human rights? Does she share my disgust at the spectacle of the leader of the United Kingdom Labour Party trying to outdo the Prime Minister on his anti-immigration rhetoric?
First Minister—on matters for which the Scottish Government has responsibility.
Let us be clear. The UK Government’s Illegal Migration Bill sets out a clear intention to remove the right to seek refugee protection in the United Kingdom. It is utterly shameful and immoral. I can still remember a day when Labour would have opposed it tooth and nail in principle, rather than in the mealy-mouthed way in which it has been doing so.
Here is what the UN refugee agency said:
“This would be a clear breach of the Refugee Convention and would undermine a longstanding, humanitarian tradition of which the British people are rightly proud.”
All of us, without exception, should be appalled that the Home Secretary has introduced such a bill, which she knows does not comply with the Human Rights Act 1998 and which will add to the damage that has already been inflicted on the UK’s reputation as a place of refuge, its credibility with international partners and its ability to meet its responsibilities under the refugee convention and the ECHR. It is a bill that the Scottish Government does not and will never support, and nobody who has any concern for our fellow human beings should ever support such an appalling piece of draft legislation.
This weekend, the Parliament rugby teams of Scotland and Ireland will play a match in memory of our former colleague and friend, David Hill, who sadly died playing in the same fixture last year. After the game, there will be a fundraising dinner to benefit two charities: Cardiac Risk in the Young and the Murrayfield Injured Players Foundation.
Will the First Minister join me in wishing both teams well? Will she also acknowledge the strength and courage of David’s parents, Rodger and Sharon, who have been instrumental in organising this weekend’s events so that some good can come from such an awful tragedy? [Applause.]
I associate myself whole-heartedly with those comments. I think that all of us still remember the sense of shock last year when we heard of David’s sad passing. I had some communication with David’s parents, Rodger and Sharon, at the time, and my thoughts remain with them at what I am sure is an incredibly difficult time for them.
This weekend’s fixture will be a fitting tribute to David. I wish both teams well and, of course, I pay tribute to the charities that money is being raised to support. Let us end this session of First Minister’s question time, in which—rightly and properly—we have had some robust exchanges, by remembering somebody who gave a lot to our democracy in this Parliament. He is sadly missed by all of us across the chamber, and particularly by his Conservative colleagues.
David was an example of what we should aspire to in public life and in politics, so if Douglas Lumsden’s question turns out to be the closing question in today’s First Minister’s question time, it is a good one to remind us of our common humanity and to enable us to remember somebody whom we all miss greatly. [Applause.]
I will take one further question.
The First Minister will be aware of the plight of Morton’s Rolls in Drumchapel, where 250 workers who have been responsible for creating an iconic Scottish brand now face an uncertain future. In the past few days, investors have come forward, and I have put Government ministers in touch with them. They are due to meet this afternoon.
Although there is undoubtedly a deal to be done here, that will require the Government to do its bit to ensure that there is a sufficient level of capital investment and business support to ensure that production can be restarted on a sustainable footing as soon as possible. Will the First Minister commit her Government and its agencies to doing everything in their power to save Morton’s, save skilled jobs in a depressed area and ensure that this household name can prosper for decades to come?
I commit to doing everything possible to try to preserve Morton’s Rolls and the jobs of the people who depend on the company. Like everybody else, I was deeply concerned to hear of the company’s decision last week to cease trading. In my pre-politics life, I worked in Drumchapel, and I know how important such a company is to the people and sense of community there. Morton’s is an iconic Scottish brand.
Working with Glasgow City Council, the Scottish Government will do everything that we possibly can to see whether there is a rescue package that will allow the company to continue trading and making the contribution that it has made for some time to the community of Drumchapel.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer.
Over the past number of weeks, we have been subject to increasingly tiresome interruptions from protesters in the public gallery. In a democratic society, we recognise that there is a right of peaceful protest, but it is very disruptive for those of us in the chamber, other people in the public gallery who have come to watch proceedings and those who are watching at home, who tune in to see the First Minister and the Scottish Government being held to account.
Therefore, through your office and the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, will you look at the question of allocation of tickets for the public gallery? Are those individuals obtaining tickets directly, or are they doing so through MSPs’ offices? What sanctions are being applied to those who are being disruptive? Are their names being taken and are they being prevented from coming back on another occasion? What other steps can be taken to address what is a weekly irritation to all members?
I thank Mr Fraser for his point of order. I assure him and all members that work is under way on the disruption that the Parliament has been experiencing over recent weeks. I have held discussions with the Parliamentary Bureau, the SPCB, party leaders and members more widely. Discussions are on-going and the issue will continue to be pursued. I will give members an update in due course.
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