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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, January 11, 2018

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Carer Positive Employer Initiative, Developing the Young Workforce, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time

Health and Social Care

1. Ruth Davidson (Edinburgh Central) (Con)

In recent weeks, we have again been reminded how stretched hospitals are right across the United Kingdom, as they seek to cope with demand. Once again, we thank doctors and nurses for all that they do.

Will the First Minister confirm whether the number of hospital beds has gone up or down over the last five years?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I suspect that Ruth Davidson is fully aware that, in line with the position in all parts of the UK, as the pattern of hospital attendances and the nature of treatment that people require has changed, so has the number of acute beds. Not just across the UK, but across the western world, we will see the number of acute beds decline as more care is carried out on a day-care basis and as more care is delivered in the community. Our responsibility is to ensure that we have the right number of beds. The health secretary and her officials monitor that on an on-going basis.

In relation to the pressures on our health service over the winter period so far and particularly during the festive period, I put on record my thanks to those who work extremely hard at the front line of our health service. We have seen an unprecedented increase in demand in recent weeks. The health secretary set out some of the figures in her statement earlier this week. They include a 40 per cent increase in calls to the ambulance service, a doubling of calls to NHS 24 and a 10 per cent increase in accident and emergency attendances over the festive fortnight with a 20 per cent increase in the week before Christmas. In addition to the increased volumes of attendance at A and E, we are seeing more people present with more severe illness.

Much of that increased demand has been down to an increase in flu rates over the winter. It was reported last week that in the seven days up to hogmanay, flu rates were more than double those in the same period last year. I can advise Parliament that the figures for the first week in January are about to be published by Health Protection Scotland and show a further doubling of flu rates in Scotland: last week the rate was 46 per 100,000 and that has increased to 107 per 100,000, which is four times the level of flu in the same week in 2017.

Despite all that, thanks to winter planning and the efforts of our national health service staff, our NHS is coping admirably. Even at the height of those pressures, we continue to see almost eight out of 10 people attending A and E being dealt with within four hours. We have not required to sanction a blanket cancellation of planned operations, as has happened elsewhere in the UK. We all owe an enormous debt of gratitude to those in the NHS.

Ruth Davidson

The First Minister seemed unable to give the figures that I asked for, so I will give them: five years ago, there were more than 23,000 hospital beds in Scotland and there are now nearly 2,000 fewer. We know the Government’s rationale for that: it says that more care should be delivered outside of hospitals, closer to people’s homes and in social care. That is a laudable aim, but if it is to work, there need to be places in the community available for patients.

Can the First Minister answer this question: has the number of social care places for elderly patients in Scotland increased or been cut in the last five years?

The First Minister

First, we now have around 700 more intermediate care beds in our NHS as part of the process of shifting the balance of care and—to go back to the point about acute beds—during the winter, including this winter, we have seen hundreds of additional winter surge beds, as part of the planning for increased capacity.

When it comes to social care, as Ruth Davidson is, again, very well aware, while I do not stand here and say that all is perfect—we all have work to do and we all face pressures, particularly during the winter—the Scottish Government is, in many respects, ahead of any other part of the UK. Over the past two financial years, we have transferred significant sums of money from the NHS into social care to support the shift in the balance of care; and earlier this week, we saw the health secretary in England being given responsibility for social care for the first time, as England is presumably now looking to integrate health and social care, which is something that the Scottish Government has already done.

Yes, there is pressure on services and our NHS is, in common with not just the health service in the rest of the UK but health services in many different parts of the world, undergoing a transition as it adapts to the needs of an ageing population, part of which is about transferring care from the acute service into the community. However, the Government has already done a lot of work on this and will continue to do so.

Ruth Davidson

I often ask the First Minister about health and social care in Scotland, and she often answers me by talking about the situation in England. I think that people in Scotland want to hear about what is happening in Scotland. However, if the First Minister wants to bring England into the chamber, she should be aware that hospital beds in Scotland are being cut at nearly double the rate in England and, in England, the number of elderly social care beds has actually gone up in five years, while, under her tenure, the number in Scotland has gone down.

The number of hospital beds and the number of elderly social care places in Scotland are both falling, with the obvious consequence that hospitals get filled up; thousands of elderly patients cannot be discharged, because there is nowhere for them to go; and the cost of delayed discharge to the NHS is Scotland is over £100 million per year. If there are fewer hospital beds and fewer social care places for the elderly, is it any surprise that we have a problem?

The First Minister

The number of beds lost in our health service because of delayed discharge is down; indeed, the most recent published figures show that it is down 10 per cent over the past year. We do not yet have published figures for the festive period, but the information that we have—after all, we are obviously monitoring the situation carefully—is that delayed discharge has reduced further over that period. As a result, an increase in delayed discharge is not the reason for the pressures that we are seeing in our hospitals.

Ruth Davidson talks about comparisons with England. I know that the Opposition does not like us making such comparisons, even though it makes them when it suits it on plenty of issues. Let me be clear: for this Government, the benchmarks for success are the targets that we set ourselves, not what is happening elsewhere in the UK. However, when Opposition parties come to this chamber and try to make out that the pressures on our national health service are somehow uniquely to do with mismanagement by the Scottish National Party Government, it is perfectly legitimate to compare performance in Scotland with that in the parts of the UK where their parties are in power. I do not know whether Ruth Davidson bothered to look at the news this morning, but clinicians in England have said that they have “run out of beds” in the NHS.

Our responsibility is to make sure that our NHS is performing, and that is what we support our front-line clinicians and health boards in doing. The fact of the matter is that, in spite of all of the pressures—which are actually higher than they are in other parts of the UK; for example, flu levels are higher in Scotland, with more influenza A, which affects elderly people disproportionately—Scotland’s NHS remains the best-performing NHS anywhere in the United Kingdom. It is about time that the Opposition recognised the achievements of those working so hard on the front line of our national health service.

Ruth Davidson

Presiding Officer, Opposition leaders come to this chamber to ask the Scottish Government to take responsibility for the Scottish health service.

Here is what doctors and nurses have been saying to us over the past fortnight: people are waiting too long in A and E departments, because there are no beds for them on wards and because many of those hospital beds are taken up by patients who are waiting for their social care arrangements. This SNP Government has cut both hospital beds and elderly social care places, so when something like a flu crisis hits, the system breaks down. We need a moratorium before the next crisis, so will the First Minister promise to stop cutting hospital beds until patients have somewhere to go?

The First Minister

The hypocrisy of the Tories when it comes to these issues is breathtaking. They criticise things that are happening in Scotland, such as the changing pattern of care, which they presumably support in England, where their party is in power.

In a few weeks’ time, we will again debate the budget for next year. At that point, Ruth Davidson and her colleagues will stand up in this chamber and ask us to deliver tax policies that introduce tax cuts for people at the top end of the income spectrum—tax policies that, if we were to follow them, would take £500 million out of the money that we have available to invest in our national health service. Does Ruth Davidson know what £500 million amounts to in terms of nurses? It is equivalent to 12,000 nurses that the Tories would remove from our national health service.

We will continue to get on with the job of delivering healthcare for the people of Scotland and supporting our health service as it responds to the unprecedented demands that it is facing, and we will continue to thank and be grateful to those who are working hard across our country.

National Health Service (Delays)

2. Richard Leonard (Central Scotland) (Lab)

This week, we heard apologies from the First Minister to the thousands of people who have experienced unacceptable delays in getting hospital treatment and who have waited hours in pain for ambulance crews to arrive. Apologies are welcome, but can the First Minister tell us and can she tell the people of Scotland what changes she will make to ensure that our national health service in Scotland will not be in the same position this time next year?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

We will continue to take the action that ensures that our national health service is the best-performing health service in the United Kingdom. I have already outlined the unprecedented pressures that our national health service is facing. I have given the figures on flu for the first week in January. In that week, flu rates were four times what they were in the same week last year. When we are facing demands such as that, it is not possible to completely eliminate the pressure on services. No health service can do that completely. However, because of the plans that our health boards have put in place, supported by the £22 million of additional funding that has been provided by the Government, and enabled by the hard work of front-line NHS staff, the ambulance service’s average response time to emergency calls, despite the 40 per cent increase in demand, is eight minutes, and almost eight out of 10 patients are still dealt with within four hours.

Let me address the point of the four-hour target. We often—I am guilty of this myself, sometimes—talk about that as being a target to see patients. However, the target is not just to see patients within four hours; it is to see, assess, treat and discharge or admit or transfer patients within four hours. Even at the height of the winter pressures, almost eight out of 10 patients are dealt with within that target period. Unlike the situation south of the border, in Scotland we have not sanctioned, or had to sanction, a blanket deferral of planned operations.

Richard Leonard no doubt wants to say that all of what our NHS is facing now is entirely down to bad planning by the Scottish Government, but here is another view. It is a view that was expressed yesterday in the Welsh Assembly—

Bingo! [Laughter.]

The First Minister

I mention Wales simply to ensure that we are consistent in how we approach these things.

Labour’s health secretary in Wales said that the “unprecedented” spikes in demand in recent weeks

“are not pressures that you could reasonably plan for”.—[Official Record, National Assembly for Wales, 10 January 2018; para 128.]

I disagree with that. We can plan for them and, because we have properly planned, although there are pressures on our health service we are the best-performing health service in the UK. Those who are delivering that service deserve our thanks.

Richard Leonard

Well, there we are. The British Medical Association has already said that it is fed up with the Government’s spin, and patients in Scotland are fed up with it, too.

Let me give members a real example from right here in Scotland over the past couple of weeks. Tom Wilson of Newtongrange, who is 80 years old, fell on new year’s day and lay bleeding for three and a quarter hours waiting for an ambulance. His son called 999 seven times, only to be told that an ambulance was coming not from the Royal infirmary of Edinburgh, which was just 14 minutes away, but from Kelso. Mr Wilson then spent 13 hours on a trolley in a corridor in accident and emergency before he was admitted to a general ward. An 80-year-old man with underlying health conditions waited for more than 16 hours for treatment. He was discharged after four days, despite a nurse having told him that he should be kept in hospital, but the bed was needed.

What does the First Minister say to Mr Wilson?

The First Minister

What I say to Mr Wilson is very simple: I say sorry to him if that was his experience of the health service. I said earlier this week and the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport said in the chamber that we apologise unreservedly to any patient who has waited longer than they should for hospital treatment or who does not get the standard of treatment that they have a right to expect not just in winter but at any time of the year, and I do that again unequivocally today. The health secretary and I will be more than happy to look into the specifics of Mr Wilson’s case if Richard Leonard passes them to us.

I am not standing here saying—and we have not said at any stage—that some patients are not waiting longer during these winter times than we would want them to wait. That is down to the fact that we face unprecedented demand and increases in demand. I will not repeat the figures. The Welsh Labour health secretary made the point yesterday that there are “unprecedented” spikes in demand, and we cannot eliminate the impact of that on services. However, because of the winter plans and the resources that we have put in place, and principally because of the hard work of front-line NHS staff, we have a system that is coping admirably. I have given the accident and emergency statistics and the wider situation with planned operations. However, that does not take away from the fact that we apologise to anybody who does not get the standard of care that we would want them to get, and we regret that.

Richard Leonard

First Minister,

“I am sure you will say it’s got nothing to do with you or the SNP and blame Westminster. I’ve seen on the news your answer is ‘we are doing better than England.’ Is this a joke?” [Interruption.]


Richard Leonard

Those are not my words; they are the words of Mr Wilson’s son in a letter that was sent to the health secretary this week.

The First Minister has been found out by the people of Scotland. The doctors, nurses and ambulance crews and patients and their families want to know what she is going to do to fix the mess that she has created in our NHS.

The First Minister

Nobody who listened to the answer that I gave to Richard Leonard’s question about Mr Wilson’s situation would have concluded that I did anything other than take responsibility for that on behalf of the Scottish Government.

It is interesting that anybody who listened to Jeremy Corbyn at Prime Minister’s question time yesterday when he was asked about the Welsh health service would have heard his answer that it was all the fault of Westminster cuts to the Welsh budget. Westminster’s cuts to the Scottish budget are never recognised by the Labour Party here, of course.

I take absolute responsibility for our health service, but that is why I can also point out that we have the best-performing health service in the UK. I know that the Opposition does not like the comparisons, but I make them not because my ambition is just to be a bit better than England or Wales. When Opposition politicians say, as Richard Leonard has just done, that the pressures on our health service are just down to Scottish National Party management, it is entirely legitimate to look at the parts of the UK in which Opposition parties are in power.

I am not saying that our health service is perfect—I would never have said that when I was health secretary, and I would not say that now—but we have a health service that is performing better than that in any part of the UK, and that is because of the record of investment, the record numbers of staff and the planning that our health boards are doing, particularly during this winter period. We will continue to support them to do that so that they can continue to deliver for patients.

Police Station Opening Hours

Gordon Lindhurst (Lothian) (Con)

The First Minister may be aware that a recent freedom of information request has shown that public counters at some of Edinburgh’s police stations are shut, or operate restricted hours, more than they are open at the advertised times. I understand that, for example, Leith police station is supposed to operate from 7 am until midnight, seven days a week, but that, last year, it was open as advertised only on 29 days between January and 22 September. I am sure that the First Minister would not want to be dismissive of Leithers’ concerns, so will she explain whether that is an attempt to reduce the police estate by the back door in the face of public opposition? What reassurances can be given to those who want face-to-face policing but find the local station closed when they need it?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I would never dismiss the concerns of Leithers about police station opening hours or any other matter.

I have spent most of this week listening to Opposition politicians criticising the Scottish Government for supposedly interfering in the operational decisions of Police Scotland. Today, an Opposition member is standing up and, I presume, calling on me and the Scottish Government to interfere in operational decisions that the police are taking about the opening hours of police stations. There appears to be something of an inconsistency in that approach, but we will leave that to one side.

I do not have in front of me the information that has been cited to me about opening hours, but I will happily look into the matter and will personally respond—or ask the Cabinet Secretary for Justice to respond—in writing to Gordon Lindhurst’s points.

Bus-fare Increases (Glasgow)

Johann Lamont (Glasgow) (Lab)

First Minister, it is hard enough after the festive season to return to work or to study, but for bus users in Glasgow that feeling has been accompanied by a very unfestive hike in bus fares by First Glasgow. Does the First Minister agree with me that the rises, which include a 40 per cent rise in fares for the under-16s and a 10 per cent increase in fares for the unemployed, are simply unacceptable? What plans does she or her transport minister have to discuss with FirstBus the need to reverse the increases? Does she agree that there is a need for action to re-regulate the buses, as has been called for by unions, community transport groups and the Scottish Co-operative Party, among others, to ensure that people get a better service and not unaffordable fare increases?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

On regulation and legislation, the programme for government announced plans for legislation in this session of Parliament on better partnership working and the improvement of bus services.

On Johann Lamont’s specific issue, I am an MSP for part of the city of Glasgow and I share the concerns that have been expressed by my constituents—and by many people across Scotland—about bus fare increases, including the FirstBus increase that was announced this week. We will continue to have discussions with the bus companies on those matters. We will do that as a Government, and I will make representations as a local MSP on behalf of my constituents. Of course, individual bus operators must reach their own decisions.

The Scottish Government provides funding to support bus services across Scotland and to keep fares at affordable levels, and we will continue to take action to enable that.

Jobcentre Closures

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

Tomorrow, Maryhill jobcentre will close its doors for the final time after being axed by the United Kingdom Government. That will have a damaging impact on many vulnerable families in communities that I represent, not least due to the longer journeys that they will face to other jobcentres and, as we have just heard, costly and rising bus fares.

The UK Government’s approach is deeply flawed and counterproductive. Does the First Minister agree that jobcentres, which support people in getting back to work, should be at the heart of communities such as Maryhill, not ripped out of them? Will she pledge to do things differently should power over such matters be given to this Parliament?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I very much agree with Bob Doris. I do not support the plans to close jobcentres in Glasgow. Again, I say that as someone who represents part of the city of Glasgow and who knows the importance of having such services accessible to people. In fact, earlier this week, a cross-party letter went to the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, asking for the matter to be reconsidered.

As we try to help people back into work—particularly those who have been some distance from the labour market—it is important that such services are available without people having to travel inordinate distances to access them. As well as opposing measures such as the closure, we, in the Scottish Government, continue to do what we can to mitigate welfare cuts. However—I have said this before and will say it again—the sooner that comprehensive welfare powers are in the hands of this Parliament, the better, because that will mean that we are able to make decisions that are in the interest of the country and are properly joined up in the interest of the people whom we serve.

Pollution and Waste

3. Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

It is welcome that the Scottish Government and the United Kingdom Government are both attempting to respond to the growing concern about plastic pollution, although the UK Government might be accused of kicking the issue into the long grass in talking about what it might achieve by 2042. The Scottish Government wants to highlight the problem of discarded cotton buds. To be fair, that is a much easier matter to address, as change is already happening and alternative products are already in the shops.

The issue is far more challenging and urgent than that, given the fact that China is understandably unwilling to keep taking ever more of the west’s plastic waste and that people will not—and should not—simply accept the building of more incinerators around the country. Does the First Minister accept that, if we frame the issue merely as plastic litter, there is a risk that we imply that it is all about consumer behaviour instead of placing responsibility firmly where it belongs, with the highly profitable businesses and industries that are the real source of the problem?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Yes, I agree with that, although it has to be both. There is an obligation on companies and a real responsibility on them to get their own houses in order. In that respect, I agree with Patrick Harvie. We also have to encourage consumers to change their behaviour, and I would certainly back efforts to do that. Governments must consider the levers that they have and whether they can impose levies on single-use plastic products or take other actions to reduce the use of disposable plastic.

The Scottish Government has a good record through the action that it has already taken on the plastic bag levy, for example, and we have announced our intention to introduce a deposit-return scheme for drinks containers, which Patrick Harvie and the Greens have welcomed. We have also announced our intention to set up an expert group to look at other levies and actions that could be taken on other products, such as plastic straws. I pay tribute to Kate Forbes, who will ask a question later in First Minister’s question time, for the campaign that she has launched on straws. As Patrick Harvie says, the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform today announced our intention to ban plastic-stemmed cotton buds.

We are taking a range of actions, and that is the right approach. It is not about letting any particular interest off the hook; it is about companies, consumers and Governments. I absolutely agree with Patrick Harvie that the matter is urgent. It is more urgent than the 25-year timescale than the Prime Minister has set out implies.

Patrick Harvie

Plastic pollution is utterly connected to our society’s economic addiction to oil and gas. Fossil fuels and industrial chemicals are two sides of the same coin. This week, we learned that one oil industry voice wants decommissioned rigs simply to be dumped in the sea, which would result in millions of tonnes of industrial waste, while cotton buds made the headlines. Another fossil fuel company wants to take the Government to court for protecting Scotland from fracking.

The UK Government and the Scottish Government like to claim credit for environmental action, but they also want ever bigger tax breaks for the fossil fuel companies that are at the root of our environmental crisis. Is it not time to recognise that we can no longer invest our future in the fossil fuel industry and that we should, instead, join the hundreds of cities, institutions and countries that are truly leading? They include New York, which this week confirmed that it is taking the fight to the fossil fuel industry with legal action and a programme of divestment. Will the First Minister accept that it is time to embrace a positive, fossil fuel-free future for Scotland?

The First Minister

We support our oil and gas sector appropriately because it is important to our economy and lots of jobs depend on it. However, whether members agree or disagree with that, I genuinely do not think that it is fair to criticise the Scottish Government for a lack of action in our support for renewable energy.

If anything, we are a world leader when it comes to the transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy. For example, in the programme for government we set out our ambition for electric and low-emission vehicles, on which we will take even greater action in the longer term. As Patrick Harvie has alluded, we have also taken the decision not to allow fracking in Scotland. Given this week’s announcement of the judicial review, I will not say more about that other than that we are confident in the decision that we have taken and the process behind it.

We will continue to lead by example. The issue is important not just for this generation but for generations to come. We all have a responsibility to do the right thing, and this Government will continue to make sure that we do it.

National Health Service (Failures)

4. Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

I have listened carefully to what the First Minister has said, but the pressure that is faced by the national health service has been coming for years. It was largely predictable. The long waits at accident and emergency units are partly the result of failures elsewhere in the NHS. There have been failures in three fundamental areas: mental health, social care and primary care. Nicola Sturgeon is responsible for those failures, because she was health secretary at the time.

Why is it that staff and patients such as Mr Wilson have to suffer today because of Nicola Sturgeon’s failure to do her job over the past 10 years?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

For a representative of the Liberal Democrats—the co-architects of austerity in this country—to ask that question is, frankly, unbelievable and demonstrates quite staggering hypocrisy.

Through the actions that we have taken in the face of that austerity, we have ensured record investment in our national health service. We have transferred more and more investment into social care, primary care—for which we have plans over the course of this parliamentary session—and mental health. This year, for the first time, the mental health budget in Scotland will top £1 billion. We have record numbers of staff in our NHS.

Despite what Willie Rennie said, the pressures on our health service during this winter period are unprecedented. Flu levels are four times higher than they were at this time last year. It is not possible to eliminate the impact on the service of that kind of increase in pressure, but because of the actions that we have taken in the face of the austerity that was imposed partly by Willie Rennie’s party, we have—as I have said repeatedly this afternoon—the best-performing health service in the United Kingdom, and that is something that we should be proud of.

Willie Rennie

The First Minister really has a brass neck. If the plans that she has just set out are the obvious answer, why did she not deliver them when she was health secretary? She can hide behind those plans, but she cannot hide behind the NHS in England or even the NHS in Wales, and she cannot just blandly thank NHS staff over and over. We are 800 general practitioners short—that is her responsibility. There are 3,000 Scots waiting for mental health treatment—that is her responsibility. Today, 1,000 people are stuck in hospital because of a lack of home care—that is her responsibility.

We are all proud of our NHS staff in enduring the conditions that have been created by Nicola Sturgeon, but is she really proud of what she has done to our NHS?

The First Minister

Under this Government, the health service budget has gone up to record levels, the number of people who work in our health service has gone up to record levels and the number of delayed discharges has gone down over the past year. Despite the winter pressures—I readily acknowledge the pressure that they put on not just patients but staff—I repeat that the health service in Scotland is the best-performing health service anywhere in the United Kingdom. That is down partly to policy, but it is down principally to the hard work of staff right across our health service. I think that they deserve better—they deserve more gratitude from not just the Government but parties across the chamber.

We will have a few more supplementaries, the first of which will be asked by Christine Grahame.


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

Oh! Thank you, Presiding Officer. I had given up.

The First Minister will be aware of the recent BBC Scotland documentary that exposed deficiencies in the efficacy of bankruptcy proceedings. It focused on bankruptcy cheats such as Malcolm Scott, the bankrupt behind Loch Leven (2) Ltd, which has planning applications in for nine properties in Galashiels in my constituency.

Given that Malcolm Scott left debts of £42 million, cocking a snook at all of us and in particular his creditors and the trustee, will the First Minister review the bankruptcy process, including an increase in the inspection and monitoring of declaration of assets pre-bankruptcy and, post-bankruptcy, the operation of bankruptcy restriction orders?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I thank Christine Grahame for raising this issue.

Like many people, I was concerned by some of the revelations in the recent BBC documentary. I can give an assurance that, in light of that, the Government will look at aspects of bankruptcy legislation and regulation to see whether there are changes that we require to make.

Christine Grahame has asked some very specific questions about particular aspects of the bankruptcy regime and I will make sure that the relevant minister responds to her in detail in due course, once we have had the opportunity to review those aspects.

St John’s Hospital (Children’s Ward)

This month, the children’s ward at St John’s hospital will have been closed to in-patients out of hours for more than 200 days. When will it reopen as a 24/7 service?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

It will reopen as soon as possible. It is, of course, a matter of regret that the situation—which is to ensure safety for patients—has arisen. Patient safety is vitally important for all patients but all of us would accept that it is particularly important for children.

As soon as the recruitment challenges have been addressed—efforts are under way right now to recruit into that ward—the ward will reopen.

Neil Findlay previously used to say that our plan was to close the ward permanently. That was not the case. We are determined to make sure that the ward remains open to serve patients in West Lothian, and I look forward to it being open properly as soon as possible.

European Union (Withdrawal) Bill

Mairi Gougeon (Angus North and Mearns) (SNP)

The Finance and Constitution Committee of this Parliament unanimously agreed that the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill in its current state is incompatible with the devolution settlement.

The UK Government has failed to deliver on its promises to bring forward key amendments to the bill at report stage, which is deeply regrettable and a disgrace. It leaves Scotland’s fate in the hands of the unelected and undemocratic House of Lords. Does the First Minister agree that now is the time for everyone in this chamber to unite in a simple message: hands off Scotland’s Parliament?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The failure to bring forward amendments to the withdrawal bill at report stage in the House of Commons is not just a disgrace—although it absolutely is a disgrace—but in direct contradiction to the promise that the Secretary of State for Scotland made that the amendments would be tabled in the House of Commons and not in the undemocratic, unelected House of Lords. That promise has been completely broken.

There is no excuse. During the week, I heard Tory MPs say that the situation was unfortunate and due to the tight timescale. The Scottish Government and the Welsh Government jointly wrote amendments that could have been tabled or supported by the UK Government. We need to see amendments without further delay, but not just any amendments; we need to see amendments that properly address the issue.

Clause 11 of the bill is a power grab. That is the view of the cross-party committee of this Parliament and we will not recommend approval of the bill to this Parliament unless clause 11 and the other aspects that concern members across the chamber are properly addressed.

We hope that we can still find agreement and we will continue to work constructively in order to try to find agreement, but we have to prepare for that not being possible. That is why we have set out plans to bring forward, if necessary, our own continuity bill.

It is absolutely disgraceful that, having launched that power grab on this Parliament, the Tories have then broken all the promises that they have made so far about fixing it. Let us see that change sooner rather than later.

Single-use Disposable Plastic Products

5. Kate Forbes (Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch) (SNP)

To ask the First Minister how the Scottish Government plans to reduce the use of single-use disposable plastics such as plastic straws. (S5F-01912)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

We are determined to tackle the blight of plastic that does so much damage to our environment generally and to our oceans and beaches in particular.

As I have already said in response to earlier questions, we have outlined our intention to introduce a deposit-return scheme, and today the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform has set out proposals to ban plastic-stemmed cotton buds.

As we committed to doing in our programme for government, we will appoint an expert panel to provide advice on further charges and other actions that we might take to reduce Scotland’s use of single-use items such as plastic straws. I again commend Kate Forbes for the campaign that she has launched.

Kate Forbes

The First Minister referred to the United Kingdom Government’s environmental plan, which was published this morning and says that it will take 25 years to tackle avoidable plastic waste, including plastic straws. Does the First Minister agree that if Sunnyside primary school and Ullapool primary school pupils can eliminate plastic straws from an entire village in a matter of months with their “Nae Straw At Aw” campaign, the UK Government’s target of 25 years lacks a bit of urgency, while plastic straws continue to pollute our seas?

The First Minister

I commend and congratulate the pupils of Sunnyside primary school, who have set an example for us all. As I said to Patrick Harvie, I take the view that we do not have the luxury of 25 years, and neither do our coastal communities such as Ullapool, which are already taking local action. “Blue Planet II” might have woken up the UK Government to the issue of plastics in our seas, but we have been alive to the issue for some time and have been leading the way in taking action. As I said, we set out in the programme for government plans to develop a deposit-return scheme. We have already introduced a comprehensive carrier bag charge and we have set out in our circular economy strategy how we can benefit economically from looking after the environment. As I have said a couple of times now, we have today announced plans on plastic-stemmed cotton buds. We will always look to work constructively with other Governments in the UK and beyond, but it is clearer than ever that decisions about our precious natural environment are best made here in Scotland, because we are leading the way.

Maurice Golden (West Scotland) (Con)

I declare an interest with respect to my work at Zero Waste Scotland.

I welcome the plans from the UK Government and the Scottish Government around problem plastics. However, last year, the Scottish National Party revealed that it forecasts over the next five years a twelvefold increase in incineration capacity in Scotland. I am sure that the First Minister will agree that it is better to recycle valuable products such as plastics than it is to burn them. Therefore, will the First Minister consider the introduction of a moratorium on new incineration facilities in Scotland?

The First Minister

I will ask Paul Wheelhouse, who is the relevant minister, to respond to Maurice Golden on incineration. I agree with the member that it is much better to recycle plastic. In fact, I will go further and say that it is much better to try to avoid use of plastics where possible, which is very much the focus of our actions.

However, where plastics are used, recycling should be a priority. That is very much at the heart of our circular economy strategy and some of the other measures that I have outlined. I hope that, on some of the key aspects of the issue, if not on every aspect, we will have a lot of consensus across the chamber on the actions that we need to take.

Small Businesses (Confidence)

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

I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of interests and remind them that I own a small business.

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to improve small business confidence, in the light of reports suggesting that it is at a near-record low. (S5F-01901)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

We are maintaining the expanded small business bonus scheme, which removes the rates burden for 100,000 premises. As announced in the draft budget, we will continue to fund the most competitive business rates relief package anywhere in the United Kingdom. We are also delivering a record £2.4 billion investment in enterprise and skills, and will invest £600 million in expanding broadband to 100 per cent of premises across the country. Of course, we are also on course to deliver the new south of Scotland enterprise agency as part of our plan to drive forward economic growth while supporting communities and resources in the area.

Rachael Hamilton

Before I ask my supplementary question, I take this opportunity to welcome pupils from Kelso high school to the gallery.

The Scottish policy convener of the Federation of Small Businesses, Andy Willox, said that the federation’s recent findings show

“a long-term optimism gap between a typical firm in Scotland and their counterparts elsewhere in the UK.”

He went on to say that

“If Scotland is to confound predictions of sluggish economic growth for the foreseeable future, then closing this gap should be a top priority.”

Will the First Minister listen to the concerns of small business and reverse the Government’s tax plans in order to help small business confidence to grow?

The First Minister

I am sorry: I thought that we were not allowed to make comparisons between Scotland and England. Let me get this right, just for clarity. When Scotland is doing better than the rest of the UK, the Tories’ position is that we are not allowed to say that, because comparisons are not legitimate, but when the Tories say that Scotland is not doing as well as the rest of the UK, it is absolutely fine to make comparisons. Are those really the rules by which the Tories want to play?

I will make two points on small businesses. First, as I said, we are investing significant sums of money in supporting our small businesses. We recognise the concerns that small businesses have about the economy generally—not just in Scotland but throughout the UK. That is why, according to the Federation of Small Businesses, the most important thing is support for continuation of the small business bonus scheme.

Secondly, in most businesses that we speak to—small, medium or large—the top reason for the anxiety and concerns that they express is Brexit. It is why so many businesses are so concerned about the future. We have seen again this week the ineptitude at the heart of the Tory Government, as it takes this country closer and closer to the Brexit cliff edge. That is why every time a Tory stands up in this chamber to talk about those kinds of issues, they should be deeply embarrassed about what their party at Westminster is preparing to do to the interests of this country.

Richard Lyle (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

What is the First Minister’s view of recent comments by the Tory party and, in particular, of Murdo Fraser MSP’s criticism of her Government’s aid to small businesses? Does she agree that that is another example of Tory double standards?

The First Minister

I tend not to take anything that Murdo Fraser says particularly seriously. Maybe it is just me, but I have come to realise that not much that Murdo Fraser says is particularly serious.

The double standards at the heart of the Tory party have been on blatant display to everybody. It calls for more money for the national health service while proposing tax policies that would rip £500 million out of Scotland’s budget—and that is on top of the cuts that the Westminster Government is already making. It tells us that we cannot compare Scotland’s performance with the rest of the UK when we are doing better, but it is quite happy to make such comparisons on other occasions.

Tory members in this chamber talk about the concerns of our business community while their party is imposing Brexit on Scotland, which will do untold damage to our businesses, and to our economy more generally. Every single one of the Tories, on all those issues and so many more, should be ashamed of himself or herself.