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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, May 9, 2024


First Minister’s Question Time

The next item of business is First Minister’s question time.

Teacher Numbers

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

Yesterday, parents in Glasgow were protesting against cuts to teacher numbers. They said that they are fighting for their kids’ education, because those cuts will, in their words, make it

“impossible for schools to support pupils properly.”

In Glasgow, more than 100 teachers have already gone, and it is proposed that that number will rise to 450. Across Scotland, teacher numbers have declined for two years.

A new Scottish Government report that was published this week suggests that the Scottish National Party might abandon its manifesto pledge to increase teacher numbers by 3,500. The First Minister made that promise when he was education secretary. Will he be honest with pupils, parents and teachers today? Will he stick to his promise to increase teacher numbers by 3,500 in this parliamentary session?

The First Minister (John Swinney)

The Government’s commitments in relation to teacher numbers have been given in good faith to strengthen the provision of education in Scotland. I want the Government to work with our local authority partners to deliver on those commitments.

The approach that we take is, of course, hugely dependent on the resources that we have available. The Government has taken steps to expand those resources: for example, if it had not taken the tax decisions that it has taken, we would be more than £1 billion worse off in relation to the funding that we have available.

I have to directly answer Mr Ross’s question about the challenges that we face in the public finances due to the pressures of inflation and the persistence of austerity that is framing public expenditure from the United Kingdom Government. I assure Mr Ross and parents, most importantly in the city of Glasgow but around the country, of the Government’s commitment to sustained investment in education and the maximisation of the investment that we can make available.

Douglas Ross

Of course, that was not my question. The question was very specific, on a specific pledge that was made not by any other SNP MSP but by the First Minister. He was the education secretary who went to the country and told people, “Vote for the SNP. Trust me, and we will increase teacher numbers by 3,500 in this parliamentary session.”

If I am not convinced by that answer from John Swinney, I do not think that any parent, pupil or teacher will be. We were supposed to have a different style of politics, but it sounds like the excuses are the same as those that we have had previously.

Sadly, John Swinney’s record in education is one of broken promises: he introduced a flagship education bill that could have improved standards but then abandoned it; he promised a free laptop to every child, but that never happened; the SNP said three years ago that Education Scotland would be reformed, but nothing happened; the Government in which John Swinney served promised that the Scottish Qualifications Authority would be replaced, but it is still here.

On teacher numbers, can he just give a straight yes or no answer? Will he stick to his pledge to increase teacher numbers across Scotland by 3,500 in this parliamentary session, or will it be more of the same broken promises from John Swinney and the SNP?

The First Minister

On the question of education delivery, let me put on the record a few things that the Government has achieved. When we came into office in 2007, 63 per cent of children and young people were being educated in good or satisfactory buildings. That figure today is 93 per cent. There has been a transformation of the education estate in Scotland. We have allocated £145 million to support the recruitment of teachers, in partnership with local government. Those are some of the things that we have delivered. The reform programme in Education Scotland and the SQA is being implemented.

Obviously, I have just come back into office, and I will be looking very carefully at the progress that has been made in that respect. I have not been on the front bench for 12 months or so, and I will be getting much closer to all of that.

On the question of the commitment to 3,500 teachers, I will be absolutely clear with people in Scotland today. We face very significant financial pressures in our public finances. The perspective on the public finances has deteriorated because of the effect of austerity, the cuts that have been made in public expenditure and the very significant inflation that we have had to wrestle with—which has resulted, for example, in teachers in Scotland becoming the best paid in the United Kingdom as a consequence of our decisions.

The Government will take forward its programme within the resources that are available to us, but I have to make it clear to people—to be straight with the public, which I will be—that public finances are under enormous pressure. We will set out our commitments as we take our budget decisions.

Douglas Ross

I would quite like John Swinney to be clear and straight with the Parliament and just answer a question. I will ask it for a third time, and I hope to get a response. As education secretary, he made a pledge to voters across Scotland that, if they voted for him and the SNP, they would increase teacher numbers across Scotland by 3,500 over the course of this parliamentary session. Is that going to happen—yes or no? A clear and straight answer from John Swinney is what is needed.

John Swinney has been education secretary in a previous Government. From 2016 to 2021, he was education secretary of Scotland. During that time, education was supposed to be the SNP’s top priority—it wanted to be judged on education. When he was in charge, however, Scotland’s schools and the results therein fell to record lows in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s programme for international student assessment rankings. Those measured performance in maths, reading and science. In all three, Scotland’s scores declined substantially when John Swinney was education secretary. Why did Scotland plummet down international school league tables on his watch?

I ask this for the third time, hoping that I will get an answer. Will he tell the people of Scotland whether he is going to keep his promise to increase teacher numbers by 3,500?

The First Minister

I have nothing really to add to what I have said to Douglas Ross about the financial position that we face. The financial position is acutely challenging and difficult, and it is different from the position that we faced in 2021 and back in 2016. There has been a rampant increase in inflation on the watch of the Conservative Government. [Interruption.]

Let us hear the First Minister.

If inflation rises—and this is elementary—

We don’t need a lecture.

Mr Hoy.

The First Minister

This is elementary arithmetic, Mr Hoy, and we are going to have to go through some elementary arithmetic to help you out here with understanding the answer.

If inflation rises by 10 per cent, the value of the money available to spend reduces. I want to ensure that we have a well-supported and substantial teaching profession, but I have to live in the real world of the public finances available to me—never mind the fact that the Conservatives opposed every single tax change that we have made to boost the public expenditure that is available in Scotland. The Government will take these decisions in the proper course of its budgetary process.

When I was education secretary, teacher numbers rose. They rose during my term in office as education secretary. One of the things that I am most pleased about—I cannot claim all the credit for this because my successors have delivered it since 2021—is that record positive destinations are being achieved by young people in Scotland, and that is a tribute to the strength of the education system.

Douglas Ross

John Swinney wants to give credit to his successors as education secretary. We have 250 fewer teachers in Scotland in just the past two years. He is not being straight with the public about whether he agrees with his own promise to increase teacher numbers by 3,500 in this parliamentary session, but we know already that those are going down—teacher numbers across Scotland are falling under an SNP Government.

John Swinney is reaching out across the parties to seek consensus and work together. I am sorry, but some of that has to come from him. He has to be honest. He has to give a straight answer. I will ask for the fourth time. Will he, as First Minister, commit to the promise that he made to the people of Scotland to increase teacher numbers by 3,500? It is not difficult to say yes or no. He can explain why it is no, but he must tell people, be honest and say that he is not going to do it.

As education secretary, John Swinney went from one failure to another. His implementation of the SNP’s curriculum for excellence was a mess. He is smiling at that—but I say to him that it was a mess. He was at the centre of multiple SQA fiascos, which, again, is not something to laugh about. He broke promises about improving the exam system. He was supposed to close the attainment gap entirely, but he failed. He damaged Scotland’s international reputation for education.

For 16 years, John Swinney has been at the heart of a Government that has let down pupils, parents and teachers. Now that he is the head of that Government, what is going to change?

The First Minister

Certainly, what will not change is the script that we get from Douglas Ross.

Let us talk about some of the achievements that have been made in education according to the most recent data. Record levels of literacy and numeracy attainment at primary school, and improvements at secondary school, were recorded in the curriculum for excellence data that was published on 12 December. There is a record low attainment gap between the proportion of primary pupils from the most and least deprived areas achieving the expected levels in literacy, and there were reductions at secondary level. Again, that is from the achievement of curriculum for excellence levels data from 12 December.

In the summer of 2023, we had the highest-ever number of passes at national 5—a tremendous achievement by the children and young people of Scotland—and a record number of vocational and technical qualifications were achieved. In 2023, higher and advanced higher pass rates were higher than those achieved in 2019.

I will be straight with the public of Scotland. I will tell them the way it is. I will be clear that we are under enormous financial pressure. My Government will have to come to the Parliament with information about the challenges that we face in the public finances, and we will do that in due course. I have been the First Minister for only 48 hours—not even 48 hours—but we will come to the Parliament to be straight about the challenges that we face. I will also be straight with the people of Scotland about the successes that this Government has delivered and of which we are very proud.

Local Government (Teacher Numbers)

2. Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

The past two weeks have been all about managing the Scottish National Party and have had nothing to do with running our country or delivering for Scotland. However, politics is not a game. Decisions that are made by the Government have consequences, and the effects of those decisions over the past 17 years are playing out in communities across the country. The decisions that John Swinney made as finance secretary then as education secretary are being felt by pupils, parents and teachers.

Since 2007, Scotland’s education standards have declined and teacher numbers have fallen. The Government claims that it is fully funding councils, but the SNP-led council in Glasgow has made a decision to cut 172 teachers this year and 450 teachers over the next three years. I have a direct and simple question: will the Government step in, save those teachers’ jobs and protect young people’s education?

The First Minister (John Swinney)

The first point that I want to make is that the events of the past two weeks have been traumatic for my party—I accept that—and they have had everything to do with running the country. I am now here to lead this Government and to lead it with the firmness of direction that it needs to address the problems that the country faces and to achieve our objectives. That is what I am here to do.

On the question of attainment, I have gone through with Mr Ross some of the strengths that exist in Scottish education today. We will continue to improve that performance and support the education system in doing so. We will obviously work collaboratively with local government on that agenda, because local authorities such as Glasgow City Council are responsible for the delivery of education in our communities. I will be meeting the leadership of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on Friday, immediately after the first meeting of the new Cabinet, because I attach the greatest importance to working in partnership with our local authorities.

One of the most critical points about working in partnership with local authorities is that we work collaboratively. I would have members of Parliament in here complaining all the time if I instructed local authorities on what to do, and I will not be doing that.

Anas Sarwar

John Swinney needs to confront the challenges that he has created over the past 17 years in local government and education.

Yesterday, I was with the Glasgow city parents group and many of the teachers affected. The cut in teacher numbers in Glasgow will hit people in the most deprived communities the hardest. It will hit the very same working-class kids whose grades John Swinney, as education secretary, attempted to downgrade—shamefully—during the Covid exams scandal.

Of the teachers I met, one told me that she had retrained two years ago and was now going to lose her job, another said that he had not been able to get a permanent contract since he qualified, and a third said that the cut does not feel like the thanks and reward that the Government promised teachers in coming out of the pandemic. John Swinney bears responsibility for the broken finances in our councils and the decimation of our education system, so he should not give us warm words or try to explain away the Government’s record. He should tell the pupils, their parents and their teachers what he is going to do to protect their education.

The First Minister

It is very important that we have an open discussion about the choices that public authorities and public bodies face. One of the issues that Glasgow City Council has faced, and which has cost it a formidable amount of money, has been the resolution of the equal pay disgrace that was presided over by the Labour Party when it ran the council. For many years, women in our society were persistently let down. When it was running Glasgow City Council, the Labour Party went to the courts to challenge the legitimate claims of low-paid women in the city of Glasgow. The Labour Party should be utterly ashamed of that.

I understand the challenges that Glasgow City Council faces. That is why I will engage constructively with Glasgow City Council and with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities when I meet it on Friday.

Anas Sarwar

It is clear that the First Minister has no answer for parents, pupils and teachers in Glasgow, only obfuscation.

Let us look at John Swinney’s record. As finance secretary, he broke local finances and slashed the budget for local services. As education secretary, he abandoned teachers, standards declined, the attainment gap widened, Scotland fell in the international league tables and—shamefully—he downgraded the results of working-class children during the pandemic. Now, as First Minister, he is trapped by the past, defending his own record while Scotland’s children pay the price.

Scotland once had an education system that was the envy of the world. I believe that we can get there again, but continuity will not cut it. To give our young people the education and opportunities that they deserve and to unlock the huge potential of our nation, Scotland needs fresh leadership, new ideas and change, so after being at the heart of every single SNP failure for the past 17 years, why does John Swinney think that Scotland should accept more of the same?

I have good news for Anas Sarwar: that fresh leadership has just arrived—[Interruption.]

Members, let us hear the First Minister.

The First Minister

—and I am right here to deliver it. [Interruption.] They are laughing, because they are delighted that I am here to do it. That is why they are laughing—they are over the moon that I am here. They sent me here—they were all behind it.

What about the people?

The First Minister

The people did send me here. The people have sent me here. In every election when I have had my name on the ballot paper, my constituents have sent me here. In 2007, the people sent us into government; in 2011, they sent us into government; in 2016, they sent us into government; in 2021 they sent us into government; and in 2026, under my leadership, they will send us back into government as well.

I point out to Mr Sarwar, as he has his absence-of-cheerfulness escapade today, that I think Scotland has a very good education system, which we will continue to improve in the years to come.

Scottish Government (Policy Direction)

3. Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

The Scottish Greens have been clear that we acknowledge the Scottish National Party’s right to form a minority Government, but we have been equally clear that the First Minister must quickly signal the direction that his Government will take.

That signal came pretty clearly yesterday. Progressive ministers were sacked and the second-most powerful job in Government was given to someone who has opposed legal equality for LGBT people, who has expressed judgmental attitudes against abortion and who has even expressed the view that people who have families without being married are doing something wrong. Is the Scottish Government’s vision for the future of Scotland taking us back to the repressive values of the 1950s?

The First Minister (John Swinney)

No, it is not, and that is not the Scottish Government’s direction. The Government will be led from the moderate left-of-centre position that I have always occupied and which is the policy position of my party and is supported by all our members.

A week ago today, when I announced my candidacy for the leadership of my party, I set out that I wanted to build on the work of the SNP Government to create a modern, diverse and dynamic Scotland that will ensure opportunity for all our citizens. On Tuesday, in the closing words of my acceptance speech, I made it clear to the people of Scotland that I offer myself to be the First Minister for everyone in Scotland. That is precisely what I will do.

Patrick Harvie

I am not yet sure that the First Minister acknowledges or understands just how worried many LGBT people—and others—in Scotland are at the moment. It is not only equality and human rights that are at stake here, because the new Deputy First Minister has also explicitly criticised the role of fairer, progressive taxation. Ensuring that people who are on high incomes pay their fair share is the only way that the Scottish Government has been able to afford investment in climate and nature, cheaper public transport and the Scottish child payment. Without fairer tax policies, which the Greens repeatedly had to push the SNP into supporting, those things simply could not have happened.

We know that, next year, whether it is a Tory or a Labour one, the United Kingdom Government will continue with austerity, imposing deeper cuts than ever on Scotland. Does the First Minister accept that continuing on the path towards progressive taxation will be more important than ever? Will that progress continue or will the First Minister give in to the right wing of his party?

The First Minister

It is a matter of history and of record that the Deputy First Minister was responsible for introducing progressive taxes in Scotland. Kate Forbes took those budget decisions and sought the agreement of the Cabinet, and the measures were then put to Parliament. I welcome the fact that our colleagues in the Green Party supported the measures that the Government brought forward.

It is pretty clear that Kate Forbes has delivered progressive taxation. By delivering the approach to progressive taxation, she has also delivered measures such as the Scottish child payment, which is taking 100,000 children out of poverty today. To me, that is something to be warmly welcomed across our country, which supports the mission of my Government to eradicate child poverty.

I take very seriously the challenge that Mr Harvie puts to me, because I want people in this country to be reassured by my leadership. When I say that I want to be the First Minister for everyone in Scotland, I deeply mean that. I want to lead a modern, dynamic and diverse Scotland—a place for everybody, where everybody feels at home, at peace, that they have a place, and that their place in our society is protected by my leadership of this country.

Women in Enterprise

To ask the First Minister what support the Scottish Government is providing to women in enterprise. (S6F-03100)

The First Minister (John Swinney)

The Scottish Government is committed to implementation of the report “Pathways: A New Approach for Women in Entrepreneurship”, which looks at how support for women in entrepreneurship can best be delivered and addresses the barriers that they continue to face. We have allocated £1.5 million this year to support that work, building on the £1.3 million that was invested through the pre-start fund last year.

Michelle Thomson

I recognise the efforts that have been made with the 2023 “Pathways” report, and I hope that any funding can continue on a sustainable basis.

Figures from the Federation of Small Businesses in 2018 suggested that women-led businesses account for nearly £9 billion of gross value added. Today’s figure is likely to be much higher. However, a recent report from Women’s Enterprise Scotland articulates continued systemic barriers, citing issues such as an increase in discrimination and unequal treatment of women in business. Will the First Minister and his new Cabinet commit to a focus on the value of women-led businesses as a key part of his stated aim of driving economic growth, and as a means of increasing labour market participation, innovation and productivity?

The First Minister

I welcome Michelle Thomson’s contribution to the discussion through her question today, but also through her convenership of the cross-party group on women in enterprise.

I acknowledge and recognise that our efforts to boost economic growth in Scotland would be greatly enhanced if, in our society, the participation of women in enterprise was at an equal level to the participation of men. Our efforts have to be focused on closing that gap to ensure that women are able to make a greater contribution to enterprise. I welcome the points that Michelle Thomson has made, and I commit the Government, in its economic strategy and the work that we are taking forward, to specifically making sure that we close that gap, and to working with women and organisations such as Women’s Enterprise Scotland, which is a fabulous organisation, to achieve those objectives.

Residential Rehabilitation Beds

5. Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

To ask the First Minister whether he will provide an update on the Scottish Government’s progress towards its target to increase the number of residential rehabilitation beds in Scotland to 650 by 2026. (S6F-03107)

The First Minister (John Swinney)

We have committed more than £38 million for the development of new and expanded facilities at eight residential rehab projects across the country. Investment in those capacity projects alone will provide an increase of at least 140 beds by 2025-26, boosting the rehab capacity in Scotland from 425 to 565, which is an increase of more than 30 per cent. Three of those projects—in Edinburgh, Dundee and Ayrshire—are fully completed and operational.

Alongside that direct funding, we are confident that our significant wider investment in the sector will contribute to boosted bed numbers and we expect to meet our target of a 50 per cent increase in residential rehab capacity to at least 650 by 2026. We intend to commission a formal audit of residential rehab bed capacity in 2025 to provide an authoritative account of our progress towards that target.

Jamie Greene

I thank the First Minister for his update. All our thoughts are with anyone who has experienced the loss of a loved one due to drugs.

I hear what the First Minister says, but the rhetoric and the reality on the ground are two very different things. The most recent Public Health Scotland audit of rehab beds showed that the £38 million that has been allocated produced only an additional 32 beds. Capacity is nowhere near the level that it needs to be at. Many substantial barriers to accessing rehab remain, and the audit report shows that.

Last week, I had the great privilege of visiting one such centre, the Haven Kilmacolm, which provides residential rehab care. Its people told me directly that they have the ability to increase capacity by 18 beds in a very short space of time, but they have faced substantial problems in accessing Government money. Endless bureaucracy and red tape are holding them back.

That story is repeated across the country. The money is supposedly there, but the bed capacity simply is not. That is the reality on the ground.

Scotland’s drug death crisis is truly a crisis and is our national shame. People are dying. The strategy is not working. In the new-found spirit of being honest with each other as politicians, will the First Minister be honest? The strategy is not working and drug death numbers are rising. Will he personally commit to making this issue his number 1 priority?

The First Minister

I associate myself directly with the comments that Mr Greene has made about the tragedy of drug deaths and the loss to families who are affected. That is a national problem that we have to address, and I give him the solemn commitment that we will do that.

I have set out my response to Mr Greene’s question, but I hear what he says about the concerns of the Haven project, which he visited in Kilmacolm. I want to understand directly what those barriers are, because I have no interest in announcements being made if the practical reality is not being felt in communities. If Mr Greene will be so good as to advise of the details of that, I will ask Christina McKelvie, who was reappointed last night to continue the leadership of drugs and alcohol policy within the Government, to engage with him—however, I remain open to direct discussions about how we progress on what is a national tragedy. I give Mr Greene the assurance of the seriousness that I attach to the issues that he has raised with me today.

Paul Sweeney (Glasgow) (Lab)

I welcome the First Minister to his place. The safer consumption pilot is due to launch in Glasgow by early autumn. Across the chamber, there is widespread support for such facilities as just one of the many tools that are required to prevent drug deaths in our communities. Will the First Minister confirm that there will be clear referral pathways to residential rehab for those presenting at the overdose prevention facilities who request or need that support? That is just one of the many ways in which we can prevent people from falling into the trap of addiction and, of course, death.

That is essential, and I have seen it happen elsewhere in the world, such as in Copenhagen, where it works very effectively—within five minutes, a referral to residential rehab can happen from their overdose prevention facilities. Will the First Minister offer a similar guarantee?

The First Minister

I am grateful to Paul Sweeney for his kind remarks and I very much welcome the points that he has put to me. A referral pathway should be in place at this moment. The scenario that Mr Sweeney has put to me is that, once the safer consumption room proposition is implemented, a pathway should be available. I take very seriously the point that he makes—that there should be a pathway—because we can help people on the road to recovery only if that pathway is available as swiftly as Mr Sweeney has put it to me today. That is my expectation; however, as I become closer to many of the issues, I will have in mind the one that Mr Sweeney has raised with me.

Post Office Horizon System

6. Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to reports that the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service continued to prosecute postmasters when there was evidence that the Horizon computer system used by the Post Office was flawed. (S6F-03095)

The First Minister (John Swinney)

As the Parliament will be well aware, and as the Lord President reminded me when I took the oath of office yesterday, the Lord Advocate and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service are, rightly, independent of the Government in their responsibility for the prosecution of crime.

I am advised that it was not until the decisions by the courts in England and Wales in 2019 and 2021 that the full extent of the issues with Horizon emerged. Until that point, the Post Office maintained that the system was reliable—indeed, the Post Office told Scottish prosecutors in 2013 that its external lawyers had reviewed all potentially impacted Scottish cases and found no issues.

In 2015, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service was not provided with further evidence that had been promised by the Post Office to demonstrate that Horizon was as robust as it suggested. Therefore, the decision was taken to no longer rely on Horizon until such time as that further evidence was provided.

As we all know, the Post Office has, at best, obfuscated and, at worst, hidden the issues with Horizon. It is only through the on-going public inquiry that we are learning to what extent that was undertaken.

Pauline McNeill

I also welcome the First Minister to his post.

I would ask him to note carefully what I say here. We know that, in 2013, Post Office lawyers came to Scotland to meet senior procurator fiscals to convince them to keep prosecuting cases. However, forensic accountancy firm Second Sight’s interim report was given to the Crown Office and flagged that there were defects or bugs in the Horizon software, giving rise to 76 branches being affected by incorrect balances or transactions.

In an email to me this week, Second Sight director Ron Warmington said that it would have been beneficial if there had been “a little less naivety” from the Crown Office and that, if the Crown Office had at least taken the precaution of checking the report and calling him or the Second Sight offices, the outcome might well have been different.

Does the First Minister agree that, notwithstanding the independence of the Crown Office, it should be fully accountable for the miscarriages of justice in Scotland, because it did not provide the checks and balances that it should have? It chose to continue to prosecute cases for five years and never wrote to a single victim or attempted to overturn any of those convictions until now. Given that, should the Lord Advocate not come to this Parliament and answer further questions?

The First Minister

First, let me welcome the remarks of Pauline McNeill and her welcome, which is appreciated.

From her long service in the Parliament’s justice committees, Pauline McNeill will understand that we are getting into territory where I will, if I answer in a great deal of detail, be intruding on the independence of the Lord Advocate. I will not do that. The Lord Advocate is an independent office-holder and I want to ensure that I protect the independence of the Lord Advocate by my actions.

The issues that Pauline McNeill raised are material to Crown Office decisions about the prosecutions that have been taken. I will relay to the Lord Advocate the points that have been made by Pauline McNeill today. I met the Lord Advocate last night to confirm my desire for her to continue as the Lord Advocate, but I will convey to her the points that Pauline McNeill has made.

We will, of course, also continue to engage with other parties in Parliament about the appropriate way in which the issue can be addressed in Parliament.

Audrey Nicoll (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

We know that the United Kingdom-wide use of the tainted Horizon computer system evidence was a decision of the Post Office. Does the First Minister share my concerns that it appears clear that people at the top of the Post Office have continually obfuscated and provided misleading information over the years?

The First Minister

Obviously, an on-going public inquiry is looking at the issues that are material to Audrey Nicoll’s question. In observing the evidence, I am struck by how overwhelming it looks that her point is a fair one. We have to allow that public inquiry to take its course. While that is happening, there is action that we can take to remedy miscarriages of justice. That is, of course, part of the legislative programme of the Government, and the Government will bring those proposals to Parliament.

Russell Findlay (West Scotland) (Con)

The Scottish Conservatives have tried to get the Lord Advocate in here three times to answer Pauline McNeill’s questions, and many other questions, because Scotland’s Post Office victims deserve those answers, yet the Scottish National Party and the Greens voted against that reasonable request. I ask, again: why will John Swinney not do the right thing, and why he is adding to the distress and delays of the Horizon victims?

The First Minister

As an experienced member of the Parliament’s Criminal Justice Committee, and as somebody who knows his way around the issues in our courts and our judicial system, Mr Findlay knows that the Lord Advocate is independent in the prosecutorial decisions that are taken. I have said to Parliament that I will convey to the Lord Advocate the issues—

You are blocking her appearance.

Let us hear the First Minister.

The First Minister

I will convey to the Lord Advocate the issues that Pauline McNeill and Russell Findlay have raised with me. As I said in my answer to Ms McNeill, we will continue to co-operate with other political parties about the best way to address those.

Suicide Rate

7. Alexander Stewart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to reports that Scotland has the highest suicide rate in the United Kingdom, with young men being three times more likely to die than women. (S6F-03103)

The First Minister (John Swinney)

Suicide prevention is a key priority for the Scottish Government, and it will be a priority for me, as First Minister. In September 2022, with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, we published our 10-year suicide prevention strategy, “Creating Hope Together”, and an associated first three-year action plan. Those are backed by a commitment to double annual funding for suicide prevention to £2.8 million by 2026. We are tailoring our approach to ensure that we reach people across Scotland who are most at risk of suicide, which includes placing a strong emphasis on reaching men.

Alexander Stewart

Last week, the Parliament’s Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee heard from a panel of witnesses on suicide prevention, including representatives of the Scottish Men’s Sheds Association. The association is seen as possibly the most effective suicide prevention and life-affirming movement, and it has been inspirational in improving men’s health. However, it will be expected to pursue alternative funding arrangements outwith the Scottish Government in future. Why has the Scottish Government once again decided that funding for such an initiative is not a priority when it is saving lives?

The First Minister

If Mr Stewart will allow me, I will look into the question that he has asked me about funding for the men’s shed movement, with which I have many happy associations. Indeed, I had the great pleasure of opening the men’s shed in the village of Stanley, in my constituency, which emerged from a collaboration with Historic Environment Scotland. That was an example of how Government facilities can be used to create a men’s shed and support it without direct funding being made available.

As I said earlier in answer to Mr Ross, funding is under enormous pressure, but I recognise the contribution of the men’s shed movement. I also recognise that, just last week, my colleague Jim Fairlie hosted a gathering in the Parliament for a variety of organisations that support men who face difficulty. I welcome all efforts to support that aim.

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

Considering population size, the Highlands and Islands region has consistently had a higher rate of suicide than other regions. Mental health provision in NHS Highland has been variable in recent years, with the authority spending more than £2 million last year alone on locum psychiatrists. Staff shortages are leaving charities and campaign groups such as no more lost souls, Mikeysline and James Support Group to fill the gaps. Will the First Minister consider a different approach to recruitment of health staff in rural areas, such as offering financial incentives for permanent staff to relocate? We simply cannot continue without the support that vulnerable people need.

The First Minister

I recognise the seriousness of the issue that Rhoda Grant raises. It applies not just in this policy area but in a variety of such areas. The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills will be wrestling with such problems in relation to teacher recruitment. There is a substantive issue that needs to be explored to see whether there is a way in which we can do that, as some teacher induction schemes do already, so there is a serious point to be made. I add that there is much good provision in the Highlands, which is provided by organisations such as shinty clubs. They do very good outreach work to support men who face difficulties. I very much welcome that as part of the approach that we need to take.

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

In the first few days after a person is discharged from a psychiatric ward, they are at their most vulnerable to suicide. I understand that there is a requirement that within 72 hours of discharge they be visited by a mental health nurse. It is difficult to deliver that for a Friday discharge, given the Monday deadline, especially in rural areas such as my constituency where there are long distances to be covered. Will the First Minister advise whether, in such circumstances, there is any flexibility to be practicable in complying with such a requirement, such as by providing online contact initially?

The First Minister

I will answer Christine Grahame’s question by saying that, although we are working to achieve the commitment to make contact within 72 hours, we should make contact as quickly as possible. We should not view the commitment to make contact within 72 hours as simply the measure of what we are trying to do; we should be working to get contact made swiftly.

There are opportunities for a telephone call or a video call to be made to individuals as a flexible alternative. However, I stress the importance of making sure that support is in place at the earliest possible opportunity.

We move to constituency and general supplementary questions.

A9 (Dualling)

Fergus Ewing (Inverness and Nairn) (SNP)

It is with considerable sorrow that I must report that another person has lost her life on the A9. I am sure that all our thoughts are with her family.

Five of the six political parties that are represented in the Parliament, and no fewer than 122 of the 129 MSPs, support the dualling of the A9. Prior to my asking this question, of which notice has been given to the First Minister, I secured agreement from one member of each of the five parties, including myself, to put it to the First Minister. I very much welcome his appointment and his approach to work cross party. Therefore, will the First Minister meet the five of us to discuss how we can accelerate the completion of the dualling project and thereby prevent the risk of further fatalities arising?

The First Minister (John Swinney)

First, I express my sadness at the most recent fatality that has taken place on the A9, and I send my condolences to the family of the individual involved.

As Mr Ewing will know from our long association, I have been committed to the dualling of the A9 from the origins of my first parliamentary campaign, for the 1992 election, in the North Tayside constituency, with the A9 passing through my local area.

Therefore, I have been pleased that this Government has delivered a number of improvements to the A9: the improvements to the Kincraig to Dalraddy section that were put in place; the improvements through the grade-separated junction at Ballinluig junction; the Crubenmore improvements; and, most recently, the Luncarty to Birnam improvements, with the road having been made into a dual carriageway. In addition, there is currently a procurement process for the Moy to Tomatin section, and we hope that that will be concluded shortly.

I want to assure Mr Ewing of the Government’s commitment to dualling the A9. I would be very happy to meet the cross-party delegation to discuss the issue and to explain how the project fits into the Scottish Government’s infrastructure plan and how the different steps that we have taken as part of the capital investment programme have delivered the improvements to the A9 that the Government has already delivered.

Oil and Gas Development

The extremist Greens have been ditched from the Government, so can the First Minister tell me whether the damaging policy of the presumption against new oil and gas development will also be ditched?

The First Minister (John Swinney)

I do not think that Mr Lumsden’s language is appropriate in the Parliament. It is not for me to police language—I am just giving my observation; it is a matter for the Presiding Officer. However, in the spirit of trying to get us to a position in which we respect one another’s opinions—[Interruption.]

I disagree fundamentally with Mr Lumsden on more issues than I care to imagine, but he will be treated with courtesy by me, and I think that others should be treated with courtesy in the chamber, too.

Presiding Officer, please allow me to say that I was not trying to intrude on your responsibilities. I just think that, in general, the public expect us to be quite civilised to one another, and it would be nice if we could be.

On the substantive point of the question, I want to ensure that we have a just transition for the oil and gas sector. We have a climate crisis, and we have to take careful and appropriate steps to respond to it. That response must involve a just transition for the oil and gas sector, and that is what the Government will deliver.

That concludes First Minister’s question time.