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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, March 12, 2020

Agenda: Business Motion, General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Scottish Apprenticeship Week , Portfolio Question Time, Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Covid-19 (Update), Business Motion, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time


1. Jackson Carlaw (Eastwood) (Con)

Partisan rough and tumble may be the stuff that excites some of the parliamentary sketch writers, but I believe that there is a huge and understandable public appetite for detailed information on coronavirus and the measures that are being taken to deal with it.

In the past week, public concern about coronavirus has inevitably increased, with statements from and actions initiated by, among others, the United States, Italy and, in the past hour, the Republic of Ireland. In consequence, there is much speculation about how our Governments will respond, when it is right to move from the containment phase to the delay phase, and whether and when it is right to move to more radical measures of social distancing, such as shutting schools or cancelling events. The public are worried and need reassurance.

Can the First Minister give us some sense of when the Scottish Government expects to move to the next phase of its response? If she cannot tell us exactly when we might expect more comprehensive measures, can she at least give us some sense of how the decision will be made and how the Government will judge when it is the right moment to take wider action?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I agree with Jackson Carlaw that the public want to have as much information on the situation as possible. The daily update of our number of confirmed cases will be published at 2 o’clock today, as normal, after the essential process of checks and verification has been carried out. I therefore cannot give the precise number right now, but I can tell Parliament that we will see a sharp rise in cases reported today, and we might also see further evidence of community transmission of coronavirus.

That underlines the seriousness of the situation that we all face. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport and I, along with our chief medical officer, will participate in the COBRA meeting that the Prime Minister will chair early this afternoon. Among the issues for discussion will be the move from the contain phase to the delay phase. My view is that the time is now right to do that, and I expect that the four United Kingdom nations will reach an agreement on that this afternoon. If that decision is taken this afternoon, that will necessitate new guidance to the public that sets out clearly what we expect them to do, most likely from the start of next week. I am happy to go into further detail about that if Jackson Carlaw wishes me to do so.

In addition, the health secretary and I have been considering what further actions we are required to take, particularly to protect the resilience of our front-line emergency workers. That involves our position on mass gatherings. Again, I am happy to go into detail about what we are minded to advise from the start of next week on that issue.

This is a serious situation. There is no doubt that we will be asking people to change the way that they normally live their lives for a period, but people must understand that the purpose of that is not to take away the challenge because, unfortunately, we cannot do that. The purpose is to seek to manage the challenge in a way that delays the spread and reduces the peak impact—which is important for our national health service—and, crucially, to take action that will protect as best we can those whom we know are most susceptible to developing serious illness.

Those are the steps that we will take. I am sure that Jackson Carlaw will want me to go into further detail on a number of those issues.

Jackson Carlaw

I thank the First Minister for that comprehensive response.

We are at a phase in which a lot of us are receiving requests for advice and guidance about events that are currently planned, whether we think that it is appropriate for those events to proceed, and whether it is safe for people to participate in them. It would be helpful if the First Minster were able to give Parliament some further indication of the sort of response that she thinks MSPs should be offering when they are challenged on those matters.

The First Minister

I will address the issue of mass gatherings directly. I make it clear that I am, of course, speaking for the Scottish Government at this stage and that it is for the other Administrations to reach their own position, although, obviously, I will be very interested in the views of the other Administrations at the COBRA meeting this afternoon.

Let me be clear on one thing. I have said all along that it is important that we are informed by the scientific advice, and that continues to be the case. The scientific advice tells us that cancelling mass gatherings will not in itself have a significant impact on reducing the spread of the virus. That does not mean, of course, that that would have no impact, but the health secretary and I have come to the view that there are wider issues to take account of. Mass gatherings require to be policed and to have emergency ambulance cover, and they require the services of our voluntary health services. At a time in which we need to reduce the pressures on those front-line workers in order to free them up to focus on the significant challenge that lies ahead, it is inappropriate that we continue as normal.

The health secretary and I decided this morning that we are minded—we will seek views on this decision from others at COBRA—that we will advise the cancellation of mass gatherings of 500 people or more from the start of next week. That is principally to protect the resilience of our front-line workers. We will continue to take other decisions on issues such as schools in collaboration with the other nations of the UK in the future, and they will be very much driven by the scientific advice.

Jackson Carlaw

Obviously, there will be schools and university campuses with cohorts of people present that would meet the threshold of a gathering of 500 people or more. I imagine that there will be an instant question in the minds of many other organisations as to what the implications of that recommendation—which, of course, we would support—would be. It would be helpful to have an understanding of that.

The chancellor announced measures yesterday concerning the resilience of our front-line national health service. I am sure that the First Minister will confirm that any consequentials that come from them and any moneys besides that that are required will go directly to our NHS.

Concern has been expressed by general practitioners, who have also taken to social media, about the availability of appropriate surgical masks. Can the First Minister give some indication of the challenge that there is now to particular NHS supplies and what plans are in place to ensure that those supplies are sustained in the immediate period ahead?

The First Minister

I will take those issues in turn.

On what I have said about mass gatherings, I was talking about events that require policing and ambulance cover. I am very clear that we are basing the decision on resilience issues and not simply on the action that we require to take to reduce the spread of the virus. It is important that we recognise that those decisions have to be informed by the science but that there are wider implications that we all have to be mindful of. Our emergency services, like all parts of our workforce, are likely to suffer from higher than normal sickness absence rates in the weeks and months ahead and our NHS in particular will be under significant pressure. Therefore, it is important that we protect that resilience as much as possible and reduce any unnecessary burden on those front-line workers at this stage.

The current advice is that closing schools and universities would not be the right thing to do at this stage, so we are not recommending that. Obviously, COBRA has not met yet, and we will advise Parliament if that advice changes at any time. That has to be kept under constant review, and I undertake that we will do that.

On the issue of yesterday’s budget, we welcome the announcements that were made specifically on coronavirus. I do not say this as a criticism—it is simply a statement of fact—but we do not yet have clarity on the allocation of resources to the Scottish Government. However, I give an undertaking that any money that is available for the NHS will go to the NHS. That also applies to money that is available to support businesses. Once we know what the consequentials are, they will go to those purposes. We will do everything that we can to mitigate the impact of the situation that we face.

Lastly, on the very important issue of protective equipment, Health Protection Scotland yesterday issued revised guidance on the equipment that is required for staff, which is based on clinical and scientific evidence. We will continue to work to ensure that all services have the resources that they require. The safety and wellbeing of our NHS staff are vital at all times but, given what they now face, they are now particularly important. If any front-line health professionals out there feel that they do not have what they need, they should contact their health board. The Scottish Government will be working closely with health boards to make sure that they have what they need.

Jackson Carlaw

The First Minister is, of course, right: this is not just about the NHS. Businesses are worried, too. Many are good, viable businesses, but they know that the next few weeks will be tough.

In Scotland, we face a further challenge to our key sectors. Many tourism and hospitality businesses will be concerned as we approach the start of their season. The price of oil has dropped—that will cast a shadow over the economy of the north-east in particular—and many small businesses will be worried about their supply chains and, indeed, their ability to trade at all.

The chancellor has acted to meet the seriousness of the times with radical rates relief and other measures to support the economy. I accept and appreciate the comment that the First Minister has just made about being absolutely certain about the consequentials that will be forthcoming, but can she reassure business that it is likely that the Scottish Government will wish to implement plans that are complementary to those that have been announced for the economy of the rest of the United Kingdom, potentially with some incrementality to reflect particular circumstances that affect the Scottish economy?

The First Minister

Yes, I can give that assurance in general terms. Obviously, the structure of our business rates system is not identical to the structure south of the border, so we will have to make sure that action is applicable to the Scottish system. As I said a moment ago, we do not yet have clarity on the quantum of consequentials that will come from yesterday’s announcements, but I can give an assurance that all the consequentials that come from the non-domestic rates decisions that were announced by the chancellor yesterday will go to supporting businesses in Scotland. I hope that that assurance is welcome.

Beyond that, we will continue to make sure that the money that is available through that route goes to where it is needed. However, we are also looking at how we can provide additional support within our own resources, as I am sure the Parliament would expect us to do. There is still a need to do more than what was done in the budget yesterday to support individuals who will suffer hardship if they are not able to work. The Scottish Government is looking at that. I welcome some of the changes that have been announced on benefit rules and statutory sick pay, but there is still a need for the UK Government to do more in that regard.

Covid-19 (Social Care Services for Older People)

2. Richard Leonard (Central Scotland) (Lab)

Presiding Officer, we know that older people and those with underlying health conditions are at the greatest risk from the spread of Covid-19. Many of us are rightly concerned about parents and grandparents, especially those who are being cared for either in their own homes or in residential care. Escalation and additional resourcing of the national health service are, without question, necessary, but will not be sufficient. Will the First Minister tell us what contingency plans there are to ensure that essential social care services are properly supported?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I thank Richard Leonard for raising those important issues.

He is absolutely right to talk about the importance of protecting older people and those with underlying health conditions. As I am sure will be the case at Cobra this afternoon, the focus of discussions so far—which are being informed very much by scientific advice—has, in broad terms, been twofold. First, how do we slow down the spread of the virus and reduce the peak impact, so that the pressure of that peak on our national health service is reduced as much as possible? Secondly, how do we protect those who are most at risk of becoming most seriously unwell? The vast majority of people who get this infection will have mild symptoms, but that will not be true for some. I am sure that there will be discussion this afternoon on that latter point and on the advice that will be given—perhaps not immediately, but over the coming days—to older people and, particularly, to those with compromised immune systems, which will be important.

Of course, patients who have severely compromised immune systems will already have guidance about what to do and what not to do, and it is important that that guidance is followed.

The points about social care are very important. Often, for shorthand, we talk about the national health service. That is vital, but the contribution of social care—not just in care homes, but in the community—will also be absolutely vital. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport has already had discussions with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, as COSLA has a critical part to play in making sure that those contingency plans are in place and are ready to be implemented. I assure Richard Leonard that all those plans are well advanced with a view to implementation and that we will continue to progress them.

Richard Leonard

Social care workers are the bedrock not only of our care services but of our communities, and we know, from the Scottish Government’s own fair work convention, that 83 per cent of that workforce are women. More than one in 10 social care workers are on zero hours contracts, one in five is on a temporary contract and their average pay is less than £10 an hour. Yet, they are on the front line of the battle against the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Alongside our health service workers, they need our unwavering support.

Following yesterday’s budget statement, what additional resources does the Scottish Government plan to allocate to social care? Given the complexity of the commissioning and contracting system, how will the First Minister ensure that any additional resources find their way through to support and protect those workers on the front line?

The First Minister

I will genuinely try to be as helpful as possible on the resources question. There were some helpful announcements in the budget yesterday, but it is a simple fact that we do not yet know the quantum that will come to the Scottish Government, whether for non-domestic rates assistance or for the national health service. Nor do we yet know the basis on which that funding will be allocated. I hope that we will get clarity on that soon. I give a commitment to pass on everything that is intended for health and social care to health and social care and to be transparent in updating the Parliament as soon as we have the detail of that.

We have just set our budget, and it involves additional resources for health and social care. Nevertheless, we will look across our budget at the ways in which we need to change what we are doing and how we are doing it to support the efforts to deal with the challenge in the weeks ahead. On the question of commissioning, it is absolutely the case that we will allocate additional resources in particular areas and perhaps not use the usual methods of allocation, in order to make sure that the money gets to exactly where it is needed.

I agree with the member’s point about the social care workforce. The points about zero-hours contracts and insecure employment feed into and underline what I said earlier. We still need to do more to support individuals who will end up in hardship because of the situation. Regarding the social care workforce, in particular, the discussions that we are having and the plans that we are looking at involve very quickly ensuring additional training for that workforce and making sure they have the equipment and kit that they need to deal with the very different challenges they will face.

We are going to face a significant challenge in the weeks and months to come—there is no getting away from that. A significant number of us will get the infection; we cannot make a virus like this simply go away. The challenge, and our responsibility, is to manage the situation as best we can by doing what I have already spoken about: giving the public the right advice and supporting those on the front line to the best of our ability. I assure the Parliament that that is what I, the health secretary, and the Government as a whole are absolutely focused on.

Richard Leonard

I thank the First Minister for that commitment.

Donald Macaskill of Scottish Care reminded us this week that how we treat our older people and how we respond to Covid-19 will say a lot about what kind of society we are. He reflected that social care has been consistently underfunded and that the work of social carers is all too often portrayed as unskilled and of little economic value. He said:

“We need to reset those attitudes if we are not only going to beat the disease, but also beat the attitudes which we are facing.”

He is right, is he not? Before coronavirus Covid-19, we have not given sufficient priority to our social care workforce and so to the people they care for. With Covid-19, we now need to reset our priorities as a society. That will also mean a reset of the Government’s priorities. Will the First Minister agree today to that reset, to give us the best chance of dealing with this immediate crisis in the right way?

The First Minister

I am going to genuinely try to find consensus rather than division in my answers to these questions, because they are important and, to a very large extent, valid.

I do not agree that we have not been prioritising social care, although there is more to be done. The work that we have been doing on integrating health and social care, increasing the resources that are going to social care and shifting the balance from health to social care is not completed but is on-going. It is really important that we continue and accelerate that work, in which sense I agree with Richard Leonard about its importance.

On the characterisation that—I absolutely accept—social care workers often feel is made of them, it is not one that I agree with. They are not low-skilled workers; they are essential workers who, in the best of times, do a really important, valued and valuable job. In the weeks and months ahead, that will be even more the case, and we need to make sure that they are properly supported. Again, I give an assurance and an undertaking that we will do everything that we can to make sure that that is the case.

In due course—sooner rather than later, although I do not want to pre-empt the discussions that we will have this afternoon—general advice will be given to older people about how they should change their behaviour to protect themselves against the virus. The earliest advice that we will see coming in the next few days will be to the general population about the importance, if people have symptoms of coronavirus, of self-isolating to help reduce and delay the spread of the virus.

As we take these decisions and steps, it is really important that we set out very clearly for the public the advice and what we are asking them to do. We all have a part to play in that.

Of course, I should remember to say, as I do on all such occasions, that, even though we move from the contain to the delay phase, the general advice to the public about hand washing and personal hygiene remains as valid as ever. In all these things, we can all play a part in making sure that the public have the answers, guidance and support that they are going to need in the weeks to come.

I suspect that we will return to that subject, but we will take some constituency questions first.

Arran Ferry Service

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

Arran, in my constituency, has, like much of Scotland, been buffeted by storms in recent weeks, which has led to numerous unavoidable cancellations of the island’s lifeline ferry service. However, what has caused upset, anger and frustration to boil up among islanders are technical problems that have hugely worsened an already difficult situation.

In the past week alone, the 27-year-old MV Caledonian Isles has had problems with its bow doors, mezzanine decks and a mooring winch gearbox. So many cancellations mean that islanders cannot get to hospital for chemotherapy and elective operations, and hotels and tourist businesses are losing custom—some may go out of business. Six weeks of further disruption is expected, including over Easter.

Given the on-going crisis, what assurances can the First Minister give that additional ferry cover will be provided to Arran throughout that period and beyond? When will a long-term, often-promised, comprehensive ferry replacement programme to renew a rapidly ageing fleet be put in place?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

It is clearly a matter of great regret that passengers using the key Ardrossan to Brodick service are facing disruption, and I absolutely understand the frustration.

Although the vessel on the route—MV Caledonian Isles—continues in service, it does so with operating restrictions. The master who assessed the situation introduced a wind speed limit restriction. Caledonian MacBrayne has sourced a supplier with the replacement parts in stock, which will minimise the timeframe for repairs to approximately seven days. In response to the disruption, CalMac is providing additional sailings on another route.

Transport Scotland is currently working with Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd and CalMac to develop investment programmes for small and major vessels, with the aim of increased fleet standardisation, taking account of the many varied routes that CalMac serves.

Sheriffhall Roundabout

Michelle Ballantyne (South Scotland) (Con)

As the First Minister will know, by 2022, 88,000 cars will use the Edinburgh city bypass, many of them passing through Sheriffhall roundabout. Sheriffhall provides the main route for many Borders and Midlothian residents to access the capital, and it forms a key axis for public transport and the Edinburgh and south-east Scotland city region deal.

In 2017, a much-needed flyover was announced, which was welcomed by many in the south of Scotland. Now we learn that it might be delayed, following budget discussions. Can the First Minister confirm that the flyover will go ahead and clarify how long any delay will last?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I understand the point that the member is making. Indeed, the point was made by members on my party’s benches—naming nobody in particular—given the congestion that is suffered at Sheriffhall.

As we announced in the budget, we are mindful of the points that have been made, but we are also mindful of our responsibility to ensure that everything that we do now is also consistent with our climate change responsibilities. That is why, as part of the budget, we confirmed that we would engage with local partners to seek their agreement to undertake a review of the scheme and its compatibility with our environmental obligations. We would proceed with changes only if they could be agreed with local city deal partners. We will keep the Parliament updated on that, particularly those members who have a constituency interest.

Transport Scotland Statistics

Lewis Macdonald (North East Scotland) (Lab)

Sir David Norgrove, the chair of the UK Statistics Authority has today expressed “concern” about Transport Scotland’s

“selective use of unpublished data”

in a news release on the Aberdeen western peripheral route last month. Does the first minister agree with Sir David that Transport Scotland must act in line with the code of practice for statistics, which applies to all producers of official statistics, and will she urge Transport Scotland to publish all the data in question without further delay?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I hope that Lewis Macdonald will forgive me and understand that I have spent the morning engaging in discussions about tackling coronavirus, so I have not had the opportunity to catch up with the statement that he refers to. I will undertake to do that this afternoon and will come back to him about it in detail.

Coronavirus (Older and Vulnerable People)

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

Balhousie Care Group has asked non-essential visitors not to visit its homes. That begs the question about our approach to people who are cared for in their own homes. If the symptoms of the coronavirus do not show until some time after a person is infected, what is the advice? How has the Government evaluated the risks of visiting elderly and vulnerable neighbours, and how will isolated people who have no family support get help when the peak of the virus hits home?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I thank Willie Rennie for raising those important issues. As a general matter, I am sure that members understand that there are a number of issues like those, which are all important, and we are seeking to work through them on the basis of the best advice. Right now, the advice to people about when they should seek advice and testing is clear, but that advice is likely to change.

The issues around care homes have been raised with me directly, and I know that they have also been raised with the health secretary. Scottish Government officials and Health Protection Scotland are looking right now at the advice that will be provided to the care home sector on all those issues. We will ensure that members of the Scottish Parliament are provided with information about that as soon as possible.

Willie Rennie

That is a very helpful answer. The issues are very difficult. Everybody in the chamber will try to help to get clarity on exactly what is required and advised.

As intensive treatment unit capacity is limited, how will the Government create enough isolation spaces for the predicted numbers of patients who will need respiratory support, and where will those spaces be? It has been suggested that options could include clearing wards with lots of single rooms, stopping elective operations and using theatres for isolation support.

The new neuroscience building at the children’s hospital in Edinburgh has capacity for 70 beds. What obstacles are there to using that building, and can they be overcome in the next few weeks, before the peak of the outbreak hits?

The First Minister

The new neurosurgery facilities at the hospital in Edinburgh are being looked at right now. Obviously, we have to ensure that any facilities would be safe to use, but we want to ensure that we are able to utilise all the capacity that can be used within the national health service.

The health secretary mentioned ITU capacity in the statement that she gave earlier this week. She will give further details in the statement that she will give to the Parliament next Tuesday. We are seeking to double the provision of intensive care capacity. That will involve using different facilities within hospitals—theatre facilities, for example. All of that is being progressed right now as part of the implementation plan to scale up NHS resources.

Although we will provide more detail as we go along, I want to be very clear that there will, inevitably, be an impact, and I anticipate that it will be a significant impact, on non-urgent, elective procedures within the national health service. However, it is important that we set that out properly once the planning has been done. That planning is under way, very intensively. We are doing everything that we can to increase intensive care capacity, and also to expand general hospital capacity and the number of beds that are available. The health secretary will be able to give more information about that when she further updates Parliament at the start of next week.

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

Constituents with cystic fibrosis have significantly reduced lung function and so will experience severe consequences as a result of coronavirus. Some are self-isolating already, but others remain at work. I have become more concerned since a local general practitioner contacted me this morning, urging the Scottish Government to act now to institute isolation measures across the population. He strongly believes that the true extent of the virus’s spread is much wider than the amount among those who have been tested. He said:

“Every extra 24 hours that we leave it now will mean more deaths in two weeks’ time.”

I therefore urge the First Minister not to wait until next week, and ask her to accelerate action in order to protect the population.

The First Minister

I am grateful to Jackie Baillie for raising the issue. I am acutely aware of the importance and urgency of the issue. She will understand that because I am not a clinician it is important that I, and all those who are in positions such as mine, listen to, and are guided and informed by, the advice and expertise of the people who are best placed to give it.

On many occasions—most recently, this morning—I have discussed with the chief medical officer the issue of people who have underlying health conditions. The four chief medical officers of the United Kingdom are considering how to give specific advice quickly to people who have particular conditions, of which there is potentially a large number. As I said earlier, there is existing guidance for people who have severely compromised immune systems, and that guidance should be followed.

I make it clear to Jackie Baillie and other members that the issues are being treated urgently. That is true not just of the Government but of our medical advisers. It is important that we give people the right advice. The behaviour changes that we will ask people to make will be in place for, potentially, a significant period and not just for a couple of weeks. It is important that that advice is right, that people can rely on it and that it is informed by people who know what is the right thing to do. I will continue to have discussions regularly, as will the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport.

Andy Wightman (Lothian) (Green)

The First Minister made important points earlier about the resilience of front-line workers. I have a constituent who runs a day nursery whose insurers are not adding Covid-19 to the list of notifiable diseases, which will potentially leave the nursery uninsured and having to lay off staff and close. Is the Scottish Government aware of such issues? Can ministers provide any advice or support, given the important role of nursery provision for the wider workforce?

The First Minister

Yes, we are aware of insurance issues for daycare nurseries and more generally. The Scottish and UK Governments intend to get more clarity on those issues and to encourage insurance companies—and businesses—to be as flexible as possible. We will endeavour to keep members updated on that.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

The precedent of school closures in response to Covid-19 in other countries—Ireland, most recently—will naturally concern school pupils who are planning to take exams after the Easter holidays. What communication has the Scottish Government had with the Scottish Qualifications Authority? What contingencies are in place, should this year’s exam diet be impacted by potential restrictions and disruptions as a result of the pandemic?

The First Minister

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills has already had extensive discussions with the SQA, and those discussions will continue. Work is under way, as it is across the whole range of our areas of responsibility, to put in place sensible contingency plans. That work will develop in the days to come.

The advice right now is not that schools, colleges and universities should be closed, but—as I said earlier—we must keep that under review. In the interest of time, I will summarise and generalise advice in relation to schools. If schools are closed, children will inevitably gather together in less formal settings, which might be a greater risk in terms of spread of infection than their being in school, where they are encouraged to use proper hand-hygiene practices. That is the advice right now, but we will continue to keep it under review—informed, of course, by the experts from whom we are seeking advice.

Abdelbaset al-Megrahi (Conviction Referral)

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

I declare an interest as a member of the Justice for Megrahi campaign.

Does the First Minister agree that the referral by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission of the conviction of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi back for appeal to the High Court on the grounds of unreasonable verdict and non-disclosure of evidence by the Crown will at long last, after decades, allow the court process in Scotland to be exhausted, whatever the outcome of that appeal?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

First, my thoughts are very much with the people who lost loved ones on that dreadful evening more than 30 years ago. The strength and compassion that they have shown has created a legacy of friendship that will ensure that the memory of those who died will live on.

The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission plays a critical role as part of the checks and balances in our justice system. It has completed a comprehensive investigation and decided that it is appropriate to refer the conviction of al-Megrahi back to court. The member will, of course, appreciate that the Scottish Government will not comment on the specifics of the case. It will now be up to Mr al-Megrahi’s family to decide how to take forward the appeal. However, I have every confidence in Scotland’s justice system in dealing with the case. We have always been clear that al-Megrahi was convicted in a court of law and that a court of law is now, and always has been, the only appropriate forum for determining his guilt or innocence. In that respect, I agree with Christine Grahame.

United Kingdom Budget

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the United Kingdom budget. (S5F-04049)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

We were pleased to see the UK budget respond to the economic impact of coronavirus, which is one of the most important challenges facing both the Scottish Government and the UK Government, although—as I have said—we do not yet have clarity on what that means for Scotland.

The Barnett consequentials that were otherwise announced in the UK budget are in line with the assumptions that underpin the Scottish budget and the Budget (Scotland) (No 4) Bill, which was passed by the Scottish Parliament last week. Although that money is welcome, our resource budget is still lower in real terms than it was at the start of the decade, in 2010-11.

Bruce Crawford

Does the First Minister agree that the coronavirus emergency will be the most challenging situation for people in Scotland since the establishment of the Parliament? In his budget statement yesterday, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a number of measures in response to the emergency. What consultation has the UK Government had with the devolved Governments with regard to the £5 billion emergency response fund for the national health service and public services, which is very welcome? What discussions have taken place about how the fund will be allocated? How soon will the money from the fund find its way into the NHS? Does the First Minister agree that the money needs to get into the NHS as early as possible to help to protect and care for people in Scotland, who are very deeply concerned about the impact of the coronavirus?

The First Minister

I agree very much with Bruce Crawford that it is important that we get the money to where it is most needed as quickly as possible.

In answer to the specific questions, I say that I am not aware of any prior engagement with the devolved Administrations on the £5 billion emergency fund. As I said earlier, we have not yet received confirmation of the associated funding for Scotland. I repeat that that is not a criticism. The Governments across the UK are incredibly busy working to address the situation. We have been liaising with HM Treasury to secure assurances on the funding applications for Scotland. Clearly, the position needs to be resolved urgently. I am very clear that all exceptional consequentials related to coronavirus will be spent to protect individuals, our public services and wider society.

Donald Cameron (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

My question is in a similar vein. Yesterday’s UK budget, as others have noted, included an announcement of a significant package in relation to coronavirus and business. Scottish Chambers of Commerce has spoken about the urgent need to invest extra funds in business support in order to boost the economy. Does the First Minister acknowledge the need for rapid assistance to business? Even if there is uncertainty about the precise figures, can she give details of what types of support will be given to business and workers?

The First Minister

I have already given a commitment today, which I hope is welcome, that every penny of the consequentials that are intended for business will go to business. We will look at the specific needs of business and we will discuss with the business community what is best.

Broadly speaking, we would want to replicate here in Scotland the types of support that were announced yesterday in the budget. We might have some differences, depending on the views of businesses and the circumstances that we face here.

I want to be able to give greater clarity on the matter as quickly as possible, but I cannot give clarity that I have not had from the Treasury. I hope that that clarity comes soon; I have no reason to expect that it will not. When it does, we will pass it on. We need more action from the UK Government and the Scottish Government to help individuals as well as businesses. As, I think, I said earlier, we are also looking within our own resources at what additional steps we can take to provide help, particularly for vulnerable people. Those will be among the many matters on which we will keep Parliament updated in the weeks to come.

Abellio ScotRail and Serco (Franchise Payments)

To ask the First Minister for what reason Abellio ScotRail and Serco are to be given a reported £103 million in additional public funding despite not meeting their targets. (S5F-04045)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The Abellio ScotRail and Serco Caledonian sleeper forecasted payments for next year are in line with both current franchise agreements. Those are contracted amounts between the Scottish Government and the franchisees.

The increase in franchise payments takes account of many factors, not least that we are funding 9 per cent more ScotRail services compared with the start of the franchise, and that the payments include changes to the track access charges through the nationalised Network Rail, which are determined by the independent Office of Rail and Road.

The Scottish Government is still required to use the flawed franchise system because previous United Kingdom Governments have failed to reform the structure of the railway industry. The conclusions of the Williams review of the railway industry, which were promised in autumn 2019, are still awaited.

Peter Chapman

I thank the First Minister for her answer, but I note that the £103 million additional funding equates to a 25 per cent increase in subsidies compared with last year. That increases subsidies to a substantial £520 million. Fare prices are up, delays are up and cancellations are up. It seems mind-boggling that a company can be rewarded so lucratively for failing to deliver its core service.

We have the ferries fiasco and the Edinburgh sick kids hospital debacle, which are costing the taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds. It seems as though, every time that the Scottish National Party Government signs a contract, the taxpayer has to foot the bill. Is the rail contract not just an additional example of another incompetent contract that the Scottish Government seems to be so adept at signing?

The First Minister

No, is the short answer. The member’s characterisation of the issue is downright wrong. It fails to take account of some of the factors that I set out in my initial answer, which lie behind the increase in the payment. I will repeat some of them: we are funding 9 per cent more ScotRail services compared with the start of the franchise; and, of course, there have been changes to track access charges, which are determined not by us but by the independent ORR. Hard facts lie behind the increase in the payment, rather than the reasons mentioned by the member.

I say again that I do not think that the current franchise system is ideal—far from it. It is deeply flawed. For a long time, we have argued for the system to be changed. Previously, Labour UK Governments and, more recently, Tory UK Governments have dragged their feet on that. Perhaps it would be better to hear the Tories argue for some of the fundamental reform that we need, to get to the source of the problem, rather than for them to stand up and mischaracterise the situation in this Parliament.

Domestic Violence Services (Waiting Lists)

6. Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to comments by Scottish Women’s Aid that victims of domestic violence face being put on waiting lists of up to six months before they can access services. (S5F-04037)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Far too many people still experience domestic abuse, and they should not have to wait to receive support. As a Government, we are looking at the issue. On Tuesday, the Minister for Older People and Equalities visited Dundee Women’s Aid, where she heard about the impact of domestic abuse and the role of front-line services in aiding women and children’s recovery.

Last month, we opened our new £13 million delivering equally safe fund for applications. The fund specifically supports organisations that are involved in that work. In addition, alongside the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, we are reviewing how the services will be funded in future, because we all want those who are experiencing the pernicious harm of domestic abuse to have access to the support that they need, when they need it.

Pauline McNeill

The First Minister will be aware that there were 60,000 incidents of domestic abuse last year, which is an increase of 2 per cent.

Scottish Women’s Aid supports more than 1,000 women and children across the country on any given day. The vast majority of Women’s Aid groups operate waiting list of up to six months, and half of those services are forced to operate a waiting list for refuge spaces. I know that the First Minister is only too aware that we are talking about women and children who are fleeing from their homes in order to be safe.

I am pleased that the First Minister has said that there will be a review of the funding. In this Parliament, Labour and the Scottish National Party have a good record on dealing with domestic violence issues. In view of that, are the First Minister and, of course, Christina McKelvie, the Minister for Older People and Equalities, willing to consider setting up an emergency fund as part of the review, to help eliminate waiting times and focus on refuge services in order to help women fleeing violence?

The First Minister

I am always happy to consider suggestions that are made, although we have, of course, just finalised the budget for next year. As I said, we recently opened the delivering equally safe fund for applications. That £13 million will be available to organisations that tackle violence against women and girls. However, we will continue to consider such suggestions on an on-going basis.

I pay heartfelt tribute to the work of Women’s Aid and other organisations in this field. I want to make sure that their services are available to women who need them when they need them. Since 2015, we have invested more than £80 million in work to tackle violence against women and girls. In the financial year that is about to end, our equally safe fund has already allocated around £4.7 million to local Women’s Aid organisations across Scotland. That is evidence of our strong commitment. In fairness, Pauline McNeill recognised that.

I absolutely recognise that there is more work to be done here. I am personally very committed to making sure that further progress is made on the issue, and I am more than happy to take Pauline McNeill’s suggestion away for consideration.

I apologise to the members who did not get to ask supplementary questions, but I am afraid that we have no more time.

Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I want to make it very clear that this point of order is not a criticism of the First Minister, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport, the business managers or, indeed, the Presiding Officer.

We all accept the seriousness of the coronavirus and the implications that it has for our constituents. I am sure that all members will have received communications from people who have concerns about the coronavirus. I think that there are a number of questions that it would be legitimate for members to raise with the First Minister or the health secretary, and I know that they would want to answer those questions as best they could in the chamber. Will an opportunity be provided for those questions to be asked in the chamber?

I will give a practical example. A group of 150 general practitioners from the west of Scotland who cover Glasgow, Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire have communicated to me that, despite promises being made that protective equipment and materials would be sent to their practices to help to protect those who deliver our primary care, no such equipment, apart from paper masks, has yet been received. I know that that will be of concern to the First Minister and the health secretary.

There are legitimate concerns that members would wish to raise concerning the significance of the coronavirus, and I seek the Presiding Officer’s guidance on what opportunity might be provided for them to raise those concerns.

The Presiding Officer

Thank you for that important point of order, Mr Sarwar. We changed the business. A statement on the issue was scheduled for this afternoon but, unfortunately, we had to change the business at the very last minute when we came into the chamber at 11.40. As I understand it, the main reason for that is that this afternoon’s COBRA meeting has been delayed.

I recognise that there is a huge amount of interest in the subject—I made that point at the start of business. I tried to take as many questions on the issue as possible, and the First Minister and the party leaders addressed it, too.

When we started business, I suggested that the business managers and the chamber team should get together over lunch time to discuss whether it would be possible to add, for example, an emergency statement at the end of the day today. I noticed that Jeane Freeman was nodding in agreement at that point. However, I am aware that the Government is not in charge of the timetable and that the COBRA meeting might go on indefinitely.

Do you wish to add something, First Minister?

The First Minister

I am at the service of the Parliament, as is the health secretary. We do not know how long the COBRA meeting will last, but we would be happy to come back to the chamber later on.

More generally, we are aware of and are already following up on the specific issue that Anas Sarwar raised. Members should feel free to come to us immediately with any issues that are raised with them and we will follow up on those as best we can. As far as our presence in the chamber is concerned, that is for the business bureau to decide, but the health secretary and I will make ourselves available as flexibly as possible to answer as many questions as possible. Indeed, the health secretary is happy to speak to any member outwith meetings of the Parliament.

The Presiding Officer

I thank the First Minister for that response.

I am conscious that we do not want to keep the health secretary away from the COBRA meeting if at all possible. However, we will consider the matter over lunch time and will come back to the chamber with information.

Before we move on to members’ business, as a number of members, ministers and members of the public need to change seats, we will have a short suspension.

12:49 Meeting suspended.  

12:52 On resuming—