Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]
Meeting date: Thursday, May 11, 2023
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Supporting Mental Health in Rural Communities, Portfolio Question Time, Charities (Regulation and Administration) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Charities (Regulation and Administration) (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Decision Time
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Supporting Mental Health in Rural Communities
- Portfolio Question Time
- Charities (Regulation and Administration) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1
- Charities (Regulation and Administration) (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
National Care Service (Costs)
The Parliament’s Finance and Public Administration Committee called for updated costs for the Scottish National Party Government’s controversial plans for a centralised care service to be given to it this week. Humza Yousaf’s Government has refused. The previous estimate of the costs for the centralised care service was £1.3 billion. However, after that figure came out, Audit Scotland said that
“it is likely that the overall cost of the measures will be significantly above the amounts currently assessed.”
Will the First Minister tell us now how much the service will really cost Scottish taxpayers?
First and foremost, let us not forget why we have introduced the national care service legislation: it is to end the postcode lottery of inconsistency of care that we all accept exists up and down the country. We want to introduce a system that ensures that we put fair work principles and people who need care at the very heart of the national care service.
I point out to Douglas Ross that the Opposition, quite rightly, asked the Scottish Government to ensure that we engaged with local authorities and our trade union colleagues—[Interruption.]
I am sorry, First Minister. Before we go any further, I would be grateful if members could treat each other with courtesy and respect.
It is hardly a surprise that the Tories groan when I mention fair work principles and working with trade union colleagues. Douglas Ross was one of the first to call for us to pause the national care service legislation so that we could engage with local government and trade unions. We are doing so in the hope of finding a level of compromise on the legislation that will allow us to proceed with it with an element of consensus. What that compromise is will then determine whether there will be any changes to the financial memorandum. One we have had that intensive engagement over the course of the summer we will return to Parliament and ensure that a revised financial memorandum is published. [Applause.]
The muted applause from SNP members has not got any better since last week. It is no wonder, because the answers have not got any better, either. The First Minister suggests that there might be additional costs, whereas Audit Scotland was very clear that the figure of £1.3 billion will not be the final cost—it will be higher. From that feeble answer, which did not address the point, it turns out that the First Minister has no idea what it will be.
The First Minister is throwing public money away when front-line social care services are in desperate need of more funding. The SNP Government could be investing to improve local care services; instead, it is creating a bureaucratic nightmare, and it wants a blank cheque to enable it to do so. It has already wasted £14 million on the plans and spent £1.9 million on consultants. However, the plans are not advancing, there are no signs of progress and the legislation has been repeatedly delayed. Is the First Minister paying consultants a fortune to tell him what everyone else knows—that his plans are woeful and will not work?
It is hardly a surprise that a national care service plan that puts fair work, sectoral bargaining and ethical commissioning at the heart of it is wholly opposed by the Conservative Party. That is hardly a surprise to anyone in the chamber, our trade union colleagues or the people of Scotland.
Why are we bringing forward a national care service? We are doing that because we know of the extreme challenges that people who work in social care face because of workforce issues. That is the biggest challenge that social care providers face. One of the fundamental reasons for such workforce challenges is the hard Brexit that was imposed on us by a United Kingdom Government. Once again, the Scottish Government is having to pick up the pieces—[Interruption.]
Thank you, members.
Once again, the Scottish Government is having to mitigate the woeful decisions that have been made by a cruel Tory Government. How are we doing that? Yes, we are committed to spend on the national care service, but we have also ensured that there is an additional £100 million to provide a pay uplift from April this year, which represents a 14.7 per cent increase for those workers over the past two years. When I was health secretary, I was proud to have ensured that there was not just one, not just two, but three pay uplifts for our adult social care workers. We want to go further where we can.
We have committed to invest in social care right now to undo some of the damage that was done by the Conservatives’ hard Brexit. At the same time, we are absolutely committed to our plans for a national care service that will ensure that fair work is at the very heart of any future care service.
You would not have guessed it from that answer, but my question was actually about spending almost £2 million on consultants on the proposal. However, the First Minister failed to address that in his answer.
The plans are such a mess that his social care minister, Maree Todd, who is sat in the chamber just now, said this week:
“it has been a little hard for me to get my head around”.—[Official Report, Health, Social Care and Sport Committee, 9 May 2023; c 12.]
The plans are a bit hard for the minister in charge to get her head around—First Minister, she is talking about your plans. Before Humza Yousaf failed upwards, he was not just the health secretary but cabinet secretary for social care—he wrote these shambolic plans. What does it say about the First Minister’s policy if his own care minister does not understand them?
It just goes to show how desperate Douglas Ross is when he starts with personal attacks on me or any of my colleagues—[Interruption.]
Thank you, members—
Those are not attacks on policy or substance, but personal attacks from the man who is, of course, the least popular elected politician on these islands by any poll estimation—[Interruption.]
The best retort that Douglas Ross has is that I am catching him up, but he is still the most unpopular leader and elected politician in this country by a country mile.
On consultancy spending, which is an important point, the Scottish Government and our officials are absolutely focused on making the national care service work, but it is important that we bring in the additional technical and specialist expertise that allows us to ensure that we make progress on the legislation.
On the question on finances around the national care service, which is a very legitimate question, we will, as I have said, engage with trade unions and local government, and when we reach a compromise—as I hope that we will—on the national care service, we will come back with a revised financial memorandum .
I will hardly take any lectures on financial literacy—neither will any minister in my Government—from Douglas Ross, who demanded that this Government copy Liz Truss’s tax cuts, which would have cost the Scottish Government £500 million and caused economic carnage to our public finances.
That is absolutely hopeless from the First Minister. He said that quoting his own minister was a desperate tactic by me. Listening to that answer, I am pretty sure that Maree Todd still cannot get her head around the policy or the costings, because it is quite clear that the First Minister cannot.
This is all starting to look like another Humza Yousaf disaster. The man who could not get the trains to run on time, forced police officers to breaking point and left our national health service in crisis is now doing his best to throw social care into chaos as well. He does not know whether he is building a national care service or a white elephant.
Humza Yousaf has no idea how much this centralised care service will cost, when this bureaucratic nightmare will be ready or how it will improve the situation for people who desperately need better care. The very last thing that our struggling care service needs when its front line is being starved of cash is an administrative overhaul costing billions of pounds.
Will Humza Yousaf do the right thing, stop wasting taxpayers’ money and scrap the plans altogether?
It is quite incredible that when we give a pay uplift to adult social care workers, Douglas Ross describes it as a waste of money. Every penny that we spend on social care is ensuring that we lift standards for adult social care workers and for those people who are in receipt of care. While we do that, yes, we build a national care service that has fair work and ethical commissioning at its heart, so that the profits from care are not just gleaned away into bank accounts in the Cayman islands—which is something that the Conservatives would, of course, like to see—and a national care service that has sectoral bargaining at its very heart. That is what we are committed to.
All of that is happening in the midst of the more than a decade of austerity that we have had from Douglas Ross’s Conservatives. We have also had a hard Brexit imposed on us and, of course, the disaster of the mini-budget, in relation to which, if we had listened to Douglas Ross and gone ahead with tax cuts for the wealthiest, our budget would be worth £500 million less. Therefore, I will take no lectures about financial literacy, or for standing up for people who work in our care service, from Douglas Ross and the Conservatives.
It has just been announced that interest rates will go up again, which will mean higher mortgages. That is all because of Tory economic chaos. That comes in the same week that the Scottish National Party launched its campaign for another Tory Government. [Interruption.] Therefore, I ask the First Minister to put aside his party’s self-interest and be honest—[Interruption.]
SNP members do not like the truth, Presiding Officer.
I ask the First Minister to put aside his party’s self-interest and be honest. What is better for Scotland: a Labour Government or a Tory Government?
What is best for Scotland is independence, of course, because then we will have the powers in our own hands. [Interruption.]
It is exceptionally brave of Anas Sarwar to go on that topic, this week of all weeks, because what we have with the Labour Party’s Keir Starmer is someone who has refused to reverse every single measure of Tory austerity. What we have with Keir Starmer is an individual who has reneged on his promise to abolish tuition fees for students in England and who, just yesterday, refused to repeal cruel Tory legislation such as the Illegal Migration Bill.
Scotland does not need cruel, harmful policies imposed on it, whether that is done by a politician who wears a blue tie or a politician who wears a red tie. What Scotland needs is the full powers of an independent nation, so that we can chart our own course and get out of this unequal and broken union.
There you have it, Presiding Officer. He cannot answer the question. [Interruption.]
Thank you. I am sorry, Mr Sarwar.
We have visitors, who have gathered to hear the questions and answers, and we have people tuned in across the nation, who are also keen to do so. Although I appreciate members’ passion and interest, I would be grateful if we could try to behave ourselves with decorum.
I think that you should be softer with SNP members, Presiding Officer—it is the first time that they have shown life in weeks. We should appreciate the SNP back benchers. Is it not amazing that they have shown life when it comes to attacking the Labour Party? We have a governing party that is under investigation by the police; sexual misconduct allegations; whistleblowers being silenced; and division on the back benches. There is only one party that looks like the Tories, and it is not us—it is the SNP.
The First Minister is so out of touch that he insults the intelligence of people across Scotland. Labour would deliver a new deal for working people and scrap the Tory anti-trade union laws. Labour would deliver a publicly owned energy company, which the SNP promised but has failed to deliver. Labour would make Scotland a research and development powerhouse, rather than imposing SNP cuts on universities. Labour would bring down people’s bills with a proper windfall tax, which the SNP and the Tories do not support. That is the change that Scotland needs.
I know that the First Minister is still trying to find his feet and that the job can be quite confusing for him. Is it not the case that he prefers a Tory Government, because it is cover for his own incompetence?
I will say what the SNP is interested in. We are not interested in getting rid of the Tories just for a little while; we want to get rid of Tory Governments for ever, and the way that we do that is, of course, by voting for independence. We do not want to replace Tory with Tory-lite or with a pale imitation of the Tories. We know that Keir Starmer is lurching to the right. The Labour Party is little more than a Conservative tribute act.
Just last week, Labour committed to keeping the Tories’ anti-protest legislation in place. On tuition fees, Keir Starmer has done a Nick Clegg and ditched his pledge to make university education free.
We are absolutely committed to progressive taxation—the Scottish Government is leading the way on progressive taxation. What does Keir Starmer say about income tax for the top 5 per cent of earners? He said:
“we are in a different situation now ... I think we’ve got the highest tax burden since world war two.”
What about railways? Starmer was, of course, previously committed to nationalising the railways. Now he says of water, rail and other services:
“I take a pragmatic approach rather than an ideological one.”
I say to Anas Sarwar that we are prepared to work with any political party in order to keep the Tories out of number 10. Why is Keir Starmer refusing to work with the Scottish National Party in order to keep the Tories out of number 10? We are the most progressive party on these islands. I say to Anas Sarwar that I do not want to be rid of Tory Governments just for one year, five years or one election cycle; we want to be rid of Tory Governments in Scotland for good.
Yet again, the First Minister is more interested in attacking Labour than in getting rid of a Tory Government. [Interruption.]
It is really interesting that the First Minister did not want to talk about poll ratings with me. Why? His approval rating is minus 12. Twenty-two per cent of people say that he is competent; 40 per cent say that he is incompetent. Eighteen per cent say that he is trustworthy; 42 per cent say that he is untrustworthy. Nineteen per cent say that he is strong; 39 per cent say that he is weak. Nineteen per cent say that he is doing well; 44 per cent say that he is doing badly. Best of all is this: 9 per cent say that he is better than his predecessor; 41 per cent say that he is worse than his predecessor. He is a pale imitation of Nicola Sturgeon. I am not sure whether that is a compliment any more.
The SNP and the Tories are two sides of the same coin. Both want division, both want chaos, both want to damage Labour and both want a Tory Government. It is all about saving their jobs—[Interruption.]
—and not acting in the interests of the people of Scotland.
Scotland is desperate for change and desperate to get rid of two failing Governments—an economically illiterate and morally bankrupt Tory party and a dysfunctional and incompetent SNP Government. [Interruption.] If people want change and want lower bills, more money in their pockets, the end of fire and rehire, the transformation of workers’ rights, the creation of thousands of jobs—
Mr Sarwar, I am sorry to disrupt this session further, but members are doing a very good job on that account. I would be grateful if members could remember the basic rules of the code of conduct, which require that we conduct ourselves with courtesy and respect. I am seeing little of that, and that is not continuing.
Mr Sarwar, please put your question to the First Minister.
SNP members do not like it. Change is coming, and they do not like that they have been found out and that they are plummeting. They do not like putting more money into people’s pockets through a proper windfall tax. They do not like ending fire and rehire and scrapping the anti-trade union laws. They do not like creating tens of thousands of new jobs.
Question, Mr Sarwar.
Surely even the First Minister can see that Scotland needs change and that it can be delivered only by a Labour Government.
Presiding Officer, I am grateful that you stepped in to save the branch manager of the Scottish Labour Party.
The reason why Scotland will not trust Keir Starmer, of course, is that he is a born-again Brexiteer. It should be remembered that Brexit has caused economic devastation to this country. Anas Sarwar said that he wants a changing relationship with the European Union. We want a relationship with the EU that means that Scotland is back in the European Union—that we rejoin it. The only way in which to do that is, of course, as an independent nation and country.
Here is the real proof of the fact that Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has lurched to the right again. The very first major speaking event that I went to as First Minister was at the Scottish Trades Union Congress. Anas Sarwar was there. One person who was not invited was Keir Starmer. Dundee Trades Union Council brought forward a motion that condemned Keir Starmer’s actions and behaviours. Labour members might well be led by someone who is named after the founder of the Labour Party, but if Keir Hardie could see the state that the Labour Party is in now, he would be birling in his grave.
Disposable Vaping Products
To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government will consider a full ban on disposable vaping products on health and environmental grounds. (S6F-02109)
We will give that consideration. Littering of any kind is, of course, unacceptable, and I share Gillian Mackay’s concerns about the environmental impact of single-use vapes, not to mention their increased use among children and young people, who should not have access to them in the first place.
The Minister for Green Skills, Circular Economy and Biodiversity has asked Zero Waste Scotland to examine the environmental impact of such products and consider options to tackle the issue. The review is considering a range of possible options, including a ban. Our future approach will be informed by the findings of the review, but I should make it quite clear that we take the use of such products very seriously and that nothing is off the table at this stage.
I look forward to the publication of the report that was commissioned by the minister.
Vaping has serious environmental and health impacts. That is why campaigners such as Less Waste Laura, the Daily Record and a growing number of councils have highlighted those harms. I thank them all for their work.
A full ban on disposable vapes is needed, but does the First Minister agree that there is much that can be done to reduce harm ahead of a full ban, such as keeping the products away from public view—as is the case with cigarettes—raising awareness of the legal purchase age and highlighting disposable return points? Will the First Minister join me in calling on retailers to step up to the plate and implement those measures?
Yes, I join the member in that call. We are keen to work constructively with retailers in that regard. I understand the many concerns about both the environmental and the health impacts of single-use vapes that have been raised by campaigners, including Less Waste Laura, as Gillian Mackay mentioned, and by our local government colleagues. I know that they also take the issue extremely seriously, and about 15 councils have now called for a ban.
Those concerns, as well as the issues that the member raised around retailers’ responsibilities, are being looked at in detail by the minister for the circular economy and by the Minister for Public Health and Women’s Health as part of the review of the environmental impacts and in our refreshed tobacco action plan, which will be published in the autumn. That plan will include further action on education but also, crucially, on enforcement. I will keep the member updated on the publication of that strategy.
Thanks to the work of local campaigners, in February this year, Dundee City Council supported banning disposable vapes and called for a national ban from the Scottish Government. As there is already local support for such a ban, what consideration has the Scottish Government given to introducing a pilot ban on disposable vapes in Dundee to help to develop a model for a national ban?
That is very worthy of consideration. As I referenced in my previous response, about 15 councils have called for a ban, but I am not surprised to see Scottish National Party-led Dundee City Council leading the way in that regard.
I am more than happy to consider a potential pilot, but it is important that the work that we have initiated through the review is allowed to happen. I will ensure that that work is published and that we take immediate action, because this issue is of growing concern due to the environmental and health impacts.
Youth Navigator Programme (St John’s Hospital)
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s position is on the view of the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland that NHS Lothian should review its children’s rights impact assessment of the decision to end the youth navigator programme, which operates at St John’s hospital. (S6F-02098)
The hospital youth navigator pilot will continue to be delivered by Medics Against Violence and national health service partners at the Queen Elizabeth hospital for children in Glasgow alongside the adult navigator programme in nine hospitals across Scotland.
Navigators are key support workers who help individuals presenting at hospitals with multiple complex needs to access those support services. I understand that no decision about future funding has yet been taken and that NHS Lothian is evaluating all its youth work provision in hospitals, including the pilot to which Fiona Hyslop refers. NHS Lothian has confirmed that a children’s rights and wellbeing impact assessment will be undertaken on the proposed options. A final report is expected to be discussed at the children and young people’s programme board at the end of this month.
As the First Minister has acknowledged, the youth navigator programme is supported by Medics Against Violence, which has announced that funding will end at the end of June. It offers a youth work-based community outreach service to vulnerable young people aged 12 to 16, accessed at the time of presentation at St John’s hospital in West Lothian as well as at the sick kids hospital in Edinburgh.
Having debated a trauma-informed approach to services only on Tuesday in this chamber, does the First Minister acknowledge that preventative youth work such as that offered by the successful youth navigator programme should be supported, not withdrawn, that a full impact assessment would have flagged up that adverse childhood experiences often present as a crisis on hospital presentation, and that early support and intervention, actioned quickly, can be most effective?
Fiona Hyslop makes an important point to which I fully subscribe, particularly due to my previous roles in justice and health. Taking a preventative, trauma-informed approach through the navigators programme can make and has made a difference to young people in NHS Lothian. I value the importance of the service. Fiona Hyslop is absolutely correct in saying that the most effective way to deal with those issues is to take a trauma-informed and preventative approach. In my previous answer, I said that those matters are under review. When it comes to the final decision on the provision of youth services in NHS Lothian, there has been confirmation that a children’s rights and wellbeing impact assessment will be undertaken. I will ensure that the Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care will make representations to NHS Lothian on the important issues that Fiona Hyslop has raised.
Scrapping that service will have a devastating effect on vulnerable children and young people across the Lothian region. The Queen Elizabeth hospital is hardly accessible. Many other youth worker services have lost funding and statutory services, such as child and adolescent mental health services, are at breaking point. Cutting back on youth work is the wrong course of action and will simply store up problems for the future. So often, we hear about a preventative approach being championed by the Scottish Government, and the navigators programme takes exactly that approach, so why are we even considering cutting it?
I agree with the approach in relation to preventative funding. The Government has funded Medics Against Violence—an excellent organisation that I have had the pleasure of meeting a number of times over the years—to the tune of £337,000 in this financial year. It delivers a variety of violence prevention activities, and its core activity is to support the national hospital navigator programme.
I go back to my answer to Fiona Hyslop. NHS Lothian is reviewing its decision and is looking at youth service provision in the round. It will do that important impact assessment that Fiona Hyslop has called for. I am more than happy for the Government to make representations to NHS Lothian on the back of what has been said in the chamber, but ultimately, it will be a decision for NHS Lothian to take and I would expect it to do the full impact assessment in that regard.
Colleges and Universities (Support)
To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to support colleges and universities in Scotland. (S6F-02100)
Colleges and universities make a crucial and unique contribution to Scotland. We are investing nearly £2 billion in that sector each year through the Scottish Funding Council and, where possible, we make that funding flexible. I recognise the challenges and pressures that colleges and universities are currently facing. We will continue to engage with the Scottish Funding Council as well as the sector directly to ensure that institutions are financially stable.
Two weeks ago, the Scottish National Party Government took a dagger to the heart of colleges and universities by cutting £46 million from funding that had been announced only in December, with no warning and no consultation. When the Scottish budget was announced, the Scottish Government trumpeted a £12.7 million increase for higher education. Five months on from the budget announcement, £7.3 million in cash has been cut between financial years.
Since then, I have also received a letter from the City of Glasgow College stating its intention to begin the process of 75 compulsory redundancies. Despite claiming that education was her number 1 priority, the former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon failed Scotland’s young people. What is the First Minister going to do to prevent history from repeating itself?
If it comes back to the question of the former First Minister’s record, I remind the member that there are more young people from areas of deprivation who are going to university now than there ever were before. That is down to the legacy of Nicola Sturgeon. We are closing the poverty-related attainment gap because of the actions of the former First Minister.
We have had to make some difficult decisions on the savings that we have had to make. I am not going to downplay the significance and the effects that those savings will have on the college and university sector. However, I will put that into some context: the cuts that we made were 2.3 per cent of the £2 billion budget for further and higher education in 2023-24. Why did we have to make that saving? We had to do that because, rightly, every party in the chamber demanded that the Scottish Government intervene and help to assist local government to settle the teachers’ pay dispute. An additional £320 million had to be found in order to do that. That does not grow on the proverbial magic money tree, so tough decisions had to be made—we were up front about that.
We will take the tough decisions and we certainly will not take lectures from a Conservative member. The Conservative Party’s actions are the reason why we face financial constraints on the Scottish public finances. I remind Pam Gosal that, because of sky-high inflation as a result of decisions that the Conservative Government took, our Scottish finances were worth £1.7 billion less at peak inflation last year. That was because of the economic carnage that her party inflicted on Scotland.
Yes, we will take the tough decisions that are needed, but we will certainly not take any lectures on financial and economic literacy from the Conservative Party.
Sally Mapstone, who is the head of Universities Scotland, has described the SNP Government’s policy on universities as “managed decline”. Why does the First Minister think that the multimillion-pound cut to the universities budget will reverse that managed decline?
I do not agree with that characterisation. In the coming weeks, months and years, I will be more than happy to meet Dame Sally Mapstone—and other university and college principals—because I take her views very seriously.
As for the characterisation of managed decline, I remind Willie Rennie that the latest higher education statistics show that a record number of Scotland-domiciled students are studying at Scottish universities. We have some of the best universities in the world—those universities are world class because they undertake excellent initiatives and provide excellent education. That is also down to the funding that the Scottish Government has put into our higher education and further education sectors, and will continue to put into them for many years to come.
I am more than happy to engage with our university and college principals, but I do not accept that there is managed decline when we have world-class universities, such as the University of St Andrews, which are being funded by the Scottish Government.
I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests.
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s position is on the potential impact of the proposed timetable reductions by ScotRail on efforts to ensure a modal shift from car to train. (S6F-02085)
My understanding is that, under ScotRail’s new May 2023 timetable, the number of daily services will remain the same, with no overall reduction, and resources will be focused on areas to better serve current demand. As a result, peak-time trains and school connections have been prioritised to support the modal shift that Katy Clark referred to.
I want to make Scotland’s public transport system more accessible, I want to make it more available and I want to make it more affordable. That is why I confirmed last month that the six-month pilot to remove peak-time fares from ScotRail services will start in October. That intervention, which is unprecedented in the UK rail sector, will enable officials to gather evidence across transport modes for the fair fares review and will inform future proposals while, importantly, encouraging modal shift.
Despite the Scottish Government’s goal of reducing car use by 20 per cent by 2030, ScotRail proposes to cut many train services, including many commuter services, including the 7.42 am service from Largs to Glasgow. Will the First Minister look at the case for maintaining the 7.42 am commuter service from Largs to Glasgow? Does he agree that we need to do far more to encourage people to use the railways rather than cars, if we are to achieve our climate change target? Will he assess how the timetable changes that ScotRail has proposed will impact on meeting such goals?
I agree with the underlying premise of Katy Clark’s question, which is that it is important to make public transport as available, affordable and accessible as possible in order to achieve the modal shift from the car to public transport.
On the operational matters that Katy Clark referred to, I will ensure that the Minister for Transport engages with ScotRail, but they are matters for ScotRail. My understanding is that the 7.42 am from Largs to Glasgow will be replaced by the 7.54 am from Ardrossan to Glasgow, and that a train from Ardrossan to Glasgow that departs at 7.26 am has been added to the timetable.
The May 2023 timetable will also provide journey-time savings for passengers who travel on the Ayr-Glasgow route. Following customer feedback, the Ardrossan and Largs services now call at stations in the Garnock valley, in order to improve connectivity. Changes that have been directly influenced by user feedback have been made across the timetable.
Katy Clark is absolutely right that we need to continue to do more to ensure that the modal shift from car to public transport happens. That is why I am really pleased that one of my first acts as First Minister was to announce the beginning of the pilot to abolish peak rail fares, which will run for six months from October this year.
Can the First Minister confirm that passenger numbers have not returned to pre-Covid levels, partly because people are working at home, and that that means a shortfall in cash for either the railways or the Government? Can he confirm how that shortfall is being made up?
John Mason is absolutely right to raise that issue. Clearly, passenger numbers are still recovering from the pandemic, so income levels are still down. Scotland’s rail operators are also having to meet the high inflationary costs that are affecting every business and person right now. Of course, all that impacts on our rail budget.
I understand that the cost of implementing the May 2023 timetable change is projected to be neutral. It is difficult to accurately assess the exact financial impact of passenger numbers, which have not yet returned to pre-Covid levels, but it is good that demand continues to increase—even if only incrementally—and numbers have recovered to more than two thirds of pre-Covid levels.
Clearly, we want Scotland’s publicly controlled railways to succeed in the short and long terms. Through a range of promotions in recent months, ScotRail has been working hard to encourage more people to travel by train—not least because of the contribution that rail can, should and will make to addressing climate change and cutting transport emissions.
We move to general and constituency supplementary questions.
Carbon Monoxide Poisoning (Holiday Homes)
Following the tragic death of Jaime Carsi in Majorca, due to a suspected carbon monoxide leak in a holiday home, I know that members’ thoughts and condolences will be with Mr Carsi’s friends and loved ones—especially his wife, who is now recovering.
The dangers of carbon monoxide are frequently a subject for the cross-party group on accident prevention and safety awareness. Regulations here vary greatly from those abroad, so does the First Minister agree that members of the public should consider the advice from organisations such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and the Safer Tourism Foundation, that a carbon monoxide alarm is essential holiday packing?
Yes, I agree with that. Of course, my thoughts are with the family of Jaime Carsi, with his wife, Mary—who, I understand, remains in a very serious condition in hospital—and with their friends, family and community, who will be deeply saddened and rocked by these events.
A carbon monoxide detector can give people an important life-saving warning about a faulty appliance. Of course, in Scotland, it is a legal requirement to have a carbon monoxide detector in any room that has a carbon-fuelled appliance. Fitting a detector is vital for safety and could, quite literally, save people’s lives. I encourage everyone to find out about the importance of being aware of the signs of carbon monoxide poisoning, and about the actions that can keep them safe. People can find more information on www.gassaferegister.co.uk.
I hope that Mary Somerville, the wife of Jaime Carsi, continues to recover. My thoughts are with her and the family of Jaime Carsi.
Aberdeen City Council (Library and Pool Closures)
Yesterday, the fight to save six libraries and Bucksburn swimming pool in Aberdeen moved to the courts. Will the First Minister contact the Scottish National Party administration at Aberdeen City Council and tell its members to get a grip, listen to the people whom they are meant to serve and not fight them in the courts—or is that yet another example of the SNP failing the people of the north-east?
Before the First Minister responds, I remind members again that questions should be put to the First Minister on matters for which the Scottish Government has general responsibility.
Of course, the SNP Government has increased funding for local government, and Douglas Lumsden would be the first to complain if we were to interfere and intervene in local decisions that are being made.
I will not comment on any potential or live court proceedings, but I will say that we have increased funding to local government. We respect the decisions that are being made by local government, and it is local authorities’ right to make those decisions, under section 163 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973. We will continue to make sure that we fund local government, but we will not intervene and interfere in locally made decisions.
Free School Meals
This evening, alongside the Scottish Trades Union Congress and the Sunday Mail, I am hosting a parliamentary reception to celebrate the food for thought campaign and the positive impact of universal free school meals across Scotland. All MSPs are invited, and we hope that the First Minister can join us to hear directly from young people how access to universal free school meals is reducing poverty, inequality and stigma.
Further to comments that he reportedly made in the Daily Record, will the First Minister provide an update on the roll-out of universal free school meals in primary schools and on the pilot programme to be launched in secondary schools?
I say to Monica Lennon and others who have an interest in the issue that the Scottish National Party, which is leading the Government, is the party of universalism. That is why we abolished tuition fees, which is something that Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is not going to be doing. It is why we are the party of the baby box and the party that introduced universal free school meals from primary 1 to primary 5. We stood on a manifesto commitment, and we remain committed, to the future roll-out for P6 and P7, and we are also looking at a pilot in secondary schools.
I have simply made the point, including at the anti-poverty summit—and I continue to make this point—that we will look at what more we can do around progressive taxation and, because of the economic carnage that has been inflicted on us by the United Kingdom Government, we will have to look at making really tough decisions. We will have to look at targeting across a range of potential policy areas.
There is not a conflict between universalism and being targeted. There are some rights that should be universal, such as the right to a free education and free university education. They are rights; they are not benefits or a luxury. At the same time, we should absolutely make sure that we are being targeted where we can, such as, for example, with the Scottish child payment. That game-changing intervention is helping the poorest in our society.
We are the party of universalism, but we are also the party that makes sure that we target our resources towards those who absolutely need the most help, particularly in the face of a UK Government that is inflicting harm upon harm on the poorest in our society.
Bracken (Use of Asulox)
Uncontrolled bracken is the perfect breeding ground for ticks, which carry diseases that infect humans, including the debilitating Lyme disease. Will the First Minister end the delay and instruct the authorisation of Asulox, which is the only effective treatment to control bracken? Given that time is running out for both its procurement and use in the available season, will he do that straight away? If not, does he appreciate that the outcome will likely be the widespread infection of many human beings with this dreadful Lyme disease?
I will look into the serious issue that Fergus Ewing raises. The Scottish Government recognises the concerns about the potential risk of uncontrolled bracken and the difficulties associated with its control, particularly here in Scotland.
Asulox is a herbicide that has no current European Union or United Kingdom authorisation. There are specific legislative conditions that must be met in order to grant an emergency authorisation of the product to ensure a high level of protection of human health and the environment.
The Health and Safety Executive is responsible for assessing emergency authorisation applications right across the UK against the legislative requirements. The Scottish Government considered and promptly responded to the HSE’s recommendation. My understanding is that the HSE will issue the decision to the applicant once all other UK Governments have responded.
The Scottish Government is aware of the importance of effective pesticides when used as part of an integrated approach, and our position is very much guided by regulation and, crucially, by scientific evidence.
Oil and Gas Exploration (North Sea)
This week, three quarters of people surveyed said that they think that we should meet our domestic energy needs from United Kingdom oil and gas production rather than from imports. This Government’s energy strategy specifically includes a presumption against new exploration and production in the North Sea.
Yesterday, the First Minister tried to please both sides of the debate, yet he carefully committed to neither. Here is the chance for him to get off the fence. Given the need for energy security to protect thousands of Scottish jobs and the climate benefits of local production, will he remove from the energy strategy the Government’s intention to close down the North Sea?
What the Government will do is listen to the responses to the consultation, which closed just a couple of days ago. We have had more than 1,500 responses, and we will analyse them carefully.
Be in no doubt that we are absolutely committed to our just transition away from oil and gas. It is important and crucial for our economy and our planet to make sure that we unleash the potential of the green economy. We have to make sure that we live up to our climate obligations—both domestic targets and international obligations. We have to make sure that we are playing our part in energy security domestically but also internationally.
What we absolutely will not do is what Liam Kerr’s Conservatives did to the mining and steel communities in the 1970s and 80s. We will not throw a single worker in the north-east on to the scrap heap during the just transition process.
What members will see from the Scottish Government when it comes to unlocking our green potential is action. What we are seeing from the United Kingdom Government is complete and utter inaction. For example, it is failing to make any meaningful progress on investment in the Scottish cluster, or, indeed, on the Acorn project in particular. There is complete and utter abject failure and inaction from the UK Government, whereas we will take action to make sure that we unleash the potential of the green economy, not just in the north-east but in the whole of Scotland. That is important because we want to invest in and unlock the potential of our economy, but also because it is a moral imperative to ensure the sustainability of our planet in the future.
Ferguson Marine (Return to Private Ownership)
The Cabinet Secretary for Wellbeing Economy, Fair Work and Energy has now said that he would like to see Ferguson Marine return to private ownership as soon as possible. The GMB union rightly says that the award of Ministry of Defence work from BAE Systems to Ferguson Marine is a sign of confidence in the workforce and that the Scottish Government should follow suit by developing a plan for the direct award of work to it on smaller vessels, with robust oversight in place. The GMB is right. Changing ownership and plunging the workforce into more uncertainty is not the solution. It is important that we listen to the GMB. In fact, if its warnings had been listened to earlier, perhaps we would not have the fiasco that we have now.
Does the First Minister not accept that, given that this whole mess is of the Government’s making, it is the Government’s job to clear it up?
Of course, the Government stepped in and saved hundreds of jobs on the Clyde. I make no apology for that.
There have undoubtedly been challenges, which the Government has fronted up. However, when it comes to the GMB’s letter and this issue of public versus private ownership, what Neil Gray said has been the Government’s position for a long time. It has always been the intention of the Scottish Government to return Ferguson Marine to private ownership. That was made clear when we announced that the yard was being taken into public ownership in the first place.
Having seen the GMB letter, I can say that there is not much in it that we disagree with. We want to work with the GMB and with the wider workforce to secure the best possible future outcome for the yard. We absolutely have faith in that workforce and in the future of the yard. Investment in the yard is about more than just profitability, important as that is. It is about the retention of skills and jobs and manufacturing capability. Those will be key considerations in any decision on the future of the yard.
Any deal to see the yard returned to private ownership must present value for money, but let me be absolutely unequivocal that it must also ensure that it continues the good work on fair work that is at the heart of everything that this Government does.
That concludes First Minister’s questions. There will be a short suspension to allow those leaving the chamber and the public gallery to do so.12:48 Meeting suspended.
12:50 On resuming—