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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Thursday, December 15, 2022

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Points of Order, Year of Disabled Workers 2022, Portfolio Question Time, Budget 2023-24, Asset Transfers and Community Empowerment, Business Motion, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time

Closing the Attainment Gap

Will the First Minister remind us of the promise that she made seven years ago, about the attainment gap in Scotland’s schools?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The promise was to close the attainment gap over the then forthcoming session of the Parliament. I made that commitment, which was referenced as being “within a decade”. I remain committed to doing that, and during the course of this line of questioning I will be happy to talk about the progress that we are making.

Douglas Ross

The promise was to close the attainment gap—not to keep it where it was, narrow it a little or make some modest progress. No—Nicola Sturgeon wanted

“to close the attainment gap completely”.

However, figures that have been published this week confirm that in primary schools the attainment gap is even wider than it was three years ago. That is the case for reading, writing, literacy and numeracy. The attainment gap is not closing. Since the First Minister made that pledge, there has been no progress. Has not she failed to keep her promise to young people across Scotland?

No. Just to be precise—I always like to be precise—I note that the specific commitment that was made was to “substantially eliminate” the attainment gap. For the avoidance of doubt—[Interruption.]

Thank you, members.

The First Minister

—that was the wording in our manifesto, and I stand by it completely.

Pre-pandemic, the poverty-related attainment gap was closing. The negative impact of the pandemic cannot be ignored—in Scotland or elsewhere. In fact, the Department for Education south of the border said of the attainment gap that

“disruption to learning during the ... pandemic has had a greater impact on disadvantaged pupils”,

so the situation is not unique to Scotland.

However, what we actually see in the statistics that have been published this week is that recovery is now under way and we are starting to see improvements again. The percentage of pupils achieving the expected levels in 2021-22, which is the period that the latest statistics cover, is higher than that for the previous year for all primary school ages. In fact, we see the largest single-year increase in primary school literacy and numeracy since data collection began. There are also signs that the attainment gap is again narrowing, with the biggest single-year decrease in the gap in primary school literacy levels—again, since records began.

That is the progress that we are making. Was it interrupted by Covid? Of course it was—and that was the case in countries across the world. However, we continue to make progress and, of course, we remain committed to driving it further.

We also see progress in exam results, which show the gap between attainment levels in the least deprived and most deprived areas narrowing from the level in 2019, which was the pre-pandemic year, of course. In the past few days, we have also had the university applications end-of-cycle data, which shows that a record number of 18-year-old Scots have secured university places this year. The number of 18-year-olds from the most deprived areas securing places has also increased—by 31 per cent—since 2019. Again, that is a record high, which demonstrates the progress that we are making on closing the attainment gap and widening access.

Douglas Ross

It is telling that when I ask a short question the First Minister tells the truth. She told us that she promised to close the attainment gap. However, when she has time to ruffle through her big folder, she does not accept that and says that the promise has been kept. It has not; she has failed people across Scotland. Yet again, what we get from the First Minister is the Covid shield coming out to protect her.

Let us look at the pre-pandemic position. Even in the few areas where there was limited progress before the pandemic, the improvement was less than 1 per cent per year. It would have taken more than four decades to close the gap at primary school level, had we carried on at that rate. At secondary school level, the curriculum for excellence attainment gap was not closing at all.

The First Minister is still trying to say that this year’s results are positive. However, the fact is that the gap has only just returned to 2016 levels, which was the point at which the First Minister made her pledge. Basically, she wants us to believe that we are winning the race when, in fact, we have only just got back to the starting line.

This year’s figures show that at least one in five pupils is still not meeting the expected level for each of the essential core subjects. That is what the First Minister defines as progress: one in five children not reaching the standard that we expect. What makes that even more ridiculous is that, in 2015, the First Minister said:

“If you are not, as First Minister, prepared to put your neck on the line on the education of our young people then what are you prepared to.”

Does the First Minister stand by those words?

The First Minister

Absolutely—I stand by them 100 per cent. Few things—if anything is—are more important than the opportunities that we give our children and young people. Of course, to be accurate, when we talk about the attainment gap, we should say the “poverty-related attainment gap”, because poverty drives it. One of the measures of our commitment to tackling that is that we are putting money into the pockets of the poorest families in the country, which we are doing at the same time as Douglas Ross’s party takes money out of their pockets.

I will go back to the specifics. First, I do, and did, accept the premise of Douglas Ross’s first question. I then went on to give the precise language that we used, so that there was no dubiety.

Secondly, if Douglas Ross likes accuracy, he should perhaps start to practice it. I did not say that the target for 2026 had been met. I said—and backed it up with lots of evidence—that progress is being made.

Thirdly, I did not use Covid as a shield; rather, I cited evidence of the impact of Covid, in the same way that the Department for Education south of the border did, when it said:

“disruption to learning during the ... pandemic has had a greater impact on disadvantaged pupils.”

If Douglas Ross does not want to take the word of a Government that is run by his own party, perhaps he will take that of the chief executive officer of the Education Endowment Foundation, who said:

“The findings add to a heavy body of evidence telling us that socio-economic inequality in education—already entrenched before the pandemic—has grown.”

Again, I say that we see progress in narrowing of the attainment gap: we see it in the figures that were published this week, in exam results and in access to university. It is not yet “Job done”, which is why I stand by everything that I said. It is one of the most important things that the Government is doing, which is why we will continue to take the action that we are taking to achieve it.

Douglas Ross

“Progress”, First Minister. Let us look at the percentage of secondary 3 pupils who are achieving third level or better in literacy. The attainment gap for that in 2016-17 was 13.6 per cent; in 2021-22, it is 16.3 per cent. That is not progress. Here is a First Minister who told everyone to judge her on her record on education. It was to be her number 1 priority and the big test of her time in office, but she has failed on the attainment gap, on class sizes, on standards, on violence in schools and on teacher numbers.

Nicola Sturgeon wanted us to judge her on education; she said that her neck was on the line. If that is the case—if the First Minister wants to be judged on education, if her job is on the line and if, as she said, there are fewer things that are more important than education—why does she not ditch the de facto referendum and make the next election all about her record on Scotland’s schools?

The First Minister

The judge of how long I stay in this job is not Douglas Ross; it is the people of Scotland. On all evidence, the people of Scotland think, when it comes to the choice between me and any of the other party leaders in this chamber, that they want me to be First Minister. I take that responsibility very seriously and I will continue to do the job to the very best of my ability.

We will continue to take the actions that we have been taking. Douglas Ross talks about teacher numbers, but there are more teachers per head of pupil population in Scotland than there are anywhere else in the United Kingdom, including where the Conservatives are in power. Spending on education in Scotland is higher than it is where the Conservatives are in power.

As I have already demonstrated, although there is considerable work to do, we are making progress in narrowing the attainment gap. We see that in figures this week, in exam results and in the fact that a record number of 18-year-olds from deprived areas are now going to university, which is something that I am proud of, and which everybody across Scotland should be proud of, too.

Cancer Treatment Waiting Standards

2. Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

Everybody in our country has been touched by cancer, either directly or through a family member or friend. Cancer remains Scotland’s biggest killer. We have treatment waiting standards for a reason—we know that the faster someone is diagnosed and the faster they start treatment, the more likely they are to survive.

The Government has not met the 62-day standard for 10 years, and it is now not even meeting the 31-day standard. The situation is the worst that it has ever been. When will our cancer treatment standards be met?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

On the 31-day standard, performance this quarter has dipped very marginally below 95 per cent. Of course, we will work with health boards to get that back up. The 62-day standard for urgent referral for suspicion of cancer to first treatment is not being met, but we are taking a range of actions to secure improvement there.

It is important to note that the targets are percentage targets. We set those targets, and I am not suggesting for a minute that they are not important, but when we look at the number of people treated on both those pathways, we can see a significant increase—more patients were treated on the 62-day and 31-day pathways in the latest quarter compared with the previous quarter, and in the latest quarter compared with the same time last year, and with the last full quarter before the Covid pandemic. In fact, we are now treating 35 per cent more people on the 62-day pathway than we were 10 years ago, and just under 16 per cent more on the 31-day pathway than we were 10 years ago.

That is evidence of the fact that more patients are going through and being treated on those pathways. That is important, because the premise of Anas Sarwar’s question is absolutely correct: people need to receive urgent treatment for cancer. If we look at the 31-day performance target, we can see that the median wait for treatment there is four days. On the 62-day standard, the median wait for treatment is 48 days, and we will continue to take action to improve that even further.

Anas Sarwar

The First Minister is right—the numbers are important, because the situation is stark. Figures that have come out this week show that, in the past three months alone, more than 1,000 people did not start their treatment on time. That has devastating consequences. Cancer was already Scotland’s biggest killer but, in the past year, there have been 198 more cancer deaths above the five-year average. That is 198 more families who have lost a loved one.

The national health service crisis is costing lives. We were told to expect a catch-up plan but, instead, things continue to get worse. We have patients who are worried about their diagnosis, families who are anxious for treatment to start and people who have lost a loved one. They are watching, so I ask again: when will our cancer treatment standards be met?

The First Minister

I will come on to the range of actions that we are taking to meet the percentage targets, which are important, but the numbers that I am talking about here are important for the very reasons that Anas Sarwar has mentioned. The numbers signify individual patients with cancer.

The figure that I gave a moment ago was a percentage figure. On the 62-day pathway, 10 years ago, in the quarter that we are talking about just now, 3,110 people were seen; in the most recent quarter, 4,161 people were seen. On the other pathway, 10 years ago, the figure was 5,500 people; today, it is almost 6,500. What does that say? It says that our cancer services are seeing more patients, and they are seeing more patients on those urgent pathways. That is important, and it is important for individuals.

However, there is more work to do here. For example, over the next few years, we will invest £40 million to support cancer services and, specifically, to improve waiting times. That investment is focused particularly on urology and colorectal and breast cancer, because those are the pathways that are under the greatest challenge. We are investing in the endoscopy and urology diagnostic plan. We have six one-stop urology diagnostic hubs. We are committed to earlier diagnosis through the rapid cancer diagnostic services that are coming on stream.

All of that work is important to further improve performance, but it is really important to recognise the volume of work that our cancer services are doing each and every day.

Anas Sarwar

The First Minister cannot escape from the fact that treatment standards not being met means people not being diagnosed in time, treatment not starting in time and people losing their lives. The standard response from the First Minister will not comfort people who cannot get treatment or are losing a loved one. There has not been a single day during Nicola Sturgeon’s time as First Minister on which she has met the 62-day cancer treatment standard—not a single day.

The First Minister might not want to listen to me, but this is what Macmillan Cancer Support said this week:

“Cancer waiting times have been getting worse for years and today’s figures show the worrying trend continues right across the country, even before the added pressure of winter is factored in.”

Macmillan is again raising the alarm about cancer care in Scotland. If a doctor suspects that someone has cancer, the patient rightly expects to be diagnosed and treated in time. This is costing lives. After 15 years in Government and 10 years as First Minister, during which the 62-day standard has never been met, it is important that we get a straight answer. So, I ask again: when will both cancer treatment standards be met? Will it be in one year, five years, 10 years or never?

The First Minister

We will continue to work each and every day to meet not only those targets but all targets across our health service. That is happening right now and in the most challenging of circumstances, as I think everyone knows. The fact of the matter is that, because of the investments that are being made and the actions that are being taken, the capacity of cancer services is increasing. That is demonstrated by the increase in the number of patients being treated on those pathways, which is important.

Of course we need to see even more patients being treated, but I repeat the point that I made earlier: for the 31-day standard, the median waiting time is not 31 days but four days from the decision being made to treat a cancer patient to the treatment actually starting. For the 62-day standard, which is from urgent referral to treatment, the median waiting time is 48 days. We will continue taking action to improve that further.

I do listen—I listen very carefully to what is said in the chamber. I also listen very carefully to and work closely with organisations such as Macmillan Cancer Support, which does such a good job across cancer services.

It is because we take all of that so seriously that we have put, and will continue to put, so much effort into ensuring that we reward those working in our national health service as well as we possibly can. Today, this is the only part of the United Kingdom in which there are no strikes in our national health service. The commitment that we give to our national health service, which will be demonstrated in the budget this afternoon, is to continue to build capacity so that we continue to improve treatment for patients with cancer and for patients who present to the NHS for any reason.

I will take constituency and general supplementary questions after question 6. Members who have pressed their request-to-speak buttons do not need to do so again.

Strep A (Antibiotics)

To ask the First Minister how the Scottish Government plans to address reported shortages of antibiotics, in light of the growing number of Strep A cases. (S6F-01647)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Medicines supply is a reserved matter, but the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care has discussed the issue with the United Kingdom Government to seek assurances about supply of antibiotics to treat group A Strep, in response to the sharp increase in demand. We have been advised that manufacturers in the UK currently have adequate supplies of antibiotics and that wholesalers and manufacturers are working at speed to continually replenish stock.

Scottish Government officials have issued a medicine supply alert notice providing advice to healthcare professionals on prescribing options, including alternative antibiotics if the first-line option is unavailable. In addition to that, work is under way to further strengthen the resilience of the supply chain, including by releasing antibiotics from medicines stockpiles, increasing manufacture of antibiotic liquid preparation and, where necessary, importing additional supplies.

Rachael Hamilton

Just today, the health secretary claimed that there are no shortages of antibiotics here. At the same time, NHS Scotland said that a medicine supply alert was imminent. Doctors in my constituency in the Borders have described the situation as “horrendous”. Hospital staff and pharmacists have echoed those concerns and chemists cannot get hold even of liquid penicillin to treat kids who have sore throats.

Does the First Minister accept that the health secretary should be more aware of the seriousness of the situation with antibiotics supply in Scotland, instead of burying his head in the sand?

The First Minister

This is a really serious issue that involves the health of children. I believe that we all take that seriously, and I think that we should treat the issue in that context. Nobody is burying their head in the sand over this. Notwithstanding the fact that, as I said earlier, medicines supply is actually a reserved matter—it is not within the responsibilities of this Parliament or this Government—we take our responsibilities seriously. This week, the Cabinet had a very lengthy discussion on Strep A in general, and on antibiotics supply, in particular. The chief pharmaceutical officer took part in that discussion.

We are, of course, aware of some localised supply problems with penicillin and amoxicillin liquid preparations due to the increase in demand across the whole UK, but such demand-led shortages are not uncommon. The national health service has robust systems in place to deal with them, and the assessment right now is that there is sufficient supply in the UK to meet needs.

That said, where there are shortages of liquid penicillin, for example, notices are put out about alternatives that can be used—the solid form of the same antibiotics or, sometimes, alternative antibiotics. With alternative antibiotics, we have the option of drawing down from medicines stockpiles.

Such issues are of the utmost seriousness and I ask all members to treat them in that way. Everybody takes the matter very seriously and we are all working hard and working together to make sure that there is a good response now, in the face of rising demand.

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

Many parents from my constituency were in touch last week about the lack of antibiotics for their children who were suspected of having Strep A. One mother with a two-year-old child had to contact more than 20 pharmacies before their prescription was filled.

At the start of last week, Humza Yousaf told the Parliament that there was no problem with supply, but unfortunately that is not the reality. He was clearly confused, because the First Minister’s Government has just issued an antibiotics shortage alert. Can the First Minister tell us whether Humza Yousaf was wrong? Will she outline what steps she will take to address the supply chain issues and reassure parents?

The First Minister

Jackie Baillie stood up then and acted as if she was giving information that was somehow new. I said in my original answer that the Scottish Government had issued a medicine supply alert notice, and we do that for a particular reason. I have already covered that, but I will come back to it.

Humza Yousaf has been, and continues to be, right in what he says. There is no overall shortage of antibiotics, but when there is a surge in demand—not just in the case of Strep A, but in other situations—there will often be localised shortages. However, there are systems in place in the NHS to deal with that. When the particular first-line antibiotic for any condition might be in shortage, there are alternatives. Part of the purpose of the supply notice is to advise healthcare practitioners of the alternatives that can be used if liquid penicillin, for example, which is the first-line antibiotic in this case, is not available. That is the proper way to do things. Everybody is treating the matter with the utmost seriousness.

I come back to the factual point that medicines supply is not within the responsibilities of this Government: unfortunately, it is a reserved matter. We continue to work with the UK Government, but we also to do everything that we can to ensure adequate supply, and that is what we will continue to do.

Self-Isolation Support Grant

To ask the First Minister what impact the self-isolation support grant has had on low-income workers who have contracted Covid-19. (S6F-01649)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Grants of £73 million have been made to low-income workers and their families to help them to isolate from Covid-19. That support has helped over 150,000 low-income households all over Scotland since the scheme began in October 2020.

When the UK Government removed the £20 universal credit top-up, we continued offering the grant to all low-income households that would have been eligible previously. The grant was, of course, a temporary measure while self-isolation was an essential tool to control Covid. The scheme will close from 5 January next year. However, we will be able to reinstate it quickly if circumstances require it.

Stuart McMillan

I thank the First Minister for that reply. The payment was crucial for many people during the pandemic and was the longest-running scheme of its kind in the UK.

Does the First Minister agree that the payment, in addition to the Scottish child payment, shows that this Parliament has the best interests of the people of Scotland, along with tackling poverty, at the heart of decision making? Does she agree that, with the full powers of independence, we could do much more without the need to mitigate decisions that are made at Westminster that are punishing the poorest people in society?

The First Minister

It is always really striking just how uncomfortable the Scottish Conservatives get when poverty is mentioned in the chamber. [Interruption.] I am not sure that it is always visible to the people who are watching at home, but the catcalling, heckling and shuffling in seats always start from the Conservatives, because they know deep down inside—or not even so deep down inside—that their party is pushing more and more people into poverty every week.

It is this Government’s responsibility to do everything that we can to lift people out of poverty. The Scottish child payment is the foremost example of that. During times of extremity at the height of the Covid pandemic, the self-isolation payment was a very important tool, and 150,000 low-income households all over the country were helped through the pandemic. It was an important measure. I hope that it will not be necessary again, but we stand ready to reintroduce it, should circumstances dictate that it is necessary.

Will the Scottish Government extend the eligibility for its new employment injury assistance to key workers who are suffering from long Covid that was caught at work and who are now unable to return?

The First Minister

I am certainly happy to look into that. In general terms, we will do everything we can to help those who continue to be impacted by Covid. I am happy to look into the detail of the particular question and to revert to Mark Griffin as soon as possible.

Women’s Health Champion

To ask the First Minister, further to her commitment in June that a women’s health champion for Scotland would be appointed in the summer, whether such an appointment will be made before Christmas. (S6F-01648)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

A number of high-quality candidates have been interviewed for that important role, and the appointments process is now in its final stages. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care will provide an update to the Parliament early in the new year.

Of course, addressing women’s health inequalities is much bigger than just one person, but there is no doubt that the appointment of a women’s health champion is an important part of our women’s health plan. That is why we have invested the time that is necessary to consider who is the very best candidate for the role. The appointment has taken a bit longer than we had envisaged but, as I said, that process is now in its final stages.

Carol Mochan

That answer is disappointing, but I cannot say that I am surprised by the news that the appointment will not be made before Christmas. In June, the First Minister promised that the appointment would be made during the summer; in September, the Minister for Public Health, Women’s Health and Sport told me that the announcement would be made very soon; and, in October, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care advised that the appointment was imminent.

Given that health inequalities disproportionately impact on women from deprived areas, that women’s health matters are not being considered and treated with respect in the workplace, and that diagnosis rates for cancers that specifically impact on women remain stubbornly high, we need a women’s health champion—we have needed a women’s health champion—timeously. The First Minister knows that the delay is unacceptable. Will she commit to personally ensuring that the appointment is one of her first actions in 2023?

The First Minister

I have already set out that the health secretary will update the Parliament very early in the new year. It would be unacceptable to appoint somebody whom we did not think was the best person for the role, whatever their skills and attributes. It is essential that we get the right person with the right skills and the right expertise, and I am confident that we will do that. As I said, that process is in its final stages.

I agree very much with Carol Mochan that the appointment of a women’s health champion is important, but delivery of the women’s health plan does not rest solely on that; we continue to take forward the strands of the plan. However, there is no doubt that our ability to do that will be augmented by the appointment early in the new year.

Public Transport

6. Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

To ask the First Minister how the Scottish Government is supporting public transport to be better used and more affordable. (S6F-01653)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

We are taking decisive action to widen access to and maintain the affordability of public transport, particularly during the current cost of living crisis. Up to 2.3 million people in Scotland are now able to access free bus travel through the schemes for older and disabled people and for those aged under 22. Since we launched the under-22s scheme in January, more than 35.6 million journeys have been made, which have provided access to jobs, education and leisure activities and enabled younger people to develop sustainable travel habits early in life.

We have frozen rail fares until at least March next year and, likewise, we have intervened to hold fares in the northern isles ferry network at current levels until the end of March next year.

Ross Greer

The First Minister is right to highlight the success of free bus travel for under-22s in particular—an initiative that the Scottish Greens first secured when we were in opposition and which we have been proud to see delivered since we joined the Government.

The Bute house agreement commits the Scottish Government and the Scottish Greens to taking a number of actions that are intended to boost public transport usage and improve affordability, including introducing a community bus fund; making significant infrastructure upgrades through strategic transport projects review 2, such as the Clyde metro; and taking action on fares. Given the comments last week by the Climate Change Committee, does the First Minister agree that making bus and rail usage more reliable and affordable is essential to meeting Scotland’s climate ambitions?

The First Minister

I agree very much with that. I also agree and take the opportunity to recognise that free bus travel for under-22s is a great example of the partnership in government between the Scottish National Party and the Green Party—I know that the Conservatives and Labour love hearing about that.

It is important to incentivise public transport use, but that on its own will not be enough to drive down sector emissions. Cars account for nearly 40 per cent of transport emissions, so I agree with the Climate Change Committee that plans to discourage car use are needed to accompany current plans to encourage active travel and the use of public transport. The need for both those aspects is set out in “A route map to achieve a 20 per cent reduction in car kilometres by 2030”.

As well as the action that I have outlined, the on-going fair fares review will ensure a sustainable and integrated approach to public transport fares in the future. All those actions are important and necessary, and the SNP-Green Government will continue to take them.

When are we going to see the national smart travel card that the SNP promised us more than six years ago?

The First Minister

As I have demonstrated, the actions that the Government is taking on public transport stand comparison with those of any Government across these islands. Unlike Governments elsewhere, we will continue to progress all those actions.

We move to general and constituency supplementaries.

Communication Resilience

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

On Monday, the appalling weather in Shetland caused major power line faults and cut off nearly 4,000 properties. I thank all those who are involved in trying to resolve this major incident, which has had an impact on residents, who have shown great community strength and resilience, although some people face a fourth day without power.

Regular information updates from Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks and Shetland Islands Council have been well reported in local media, but what can the Scottish Government do to address communication issues when the power is down, digital land-lines have run out of back-up power and the mobile signal is patchy? How can households access key information with dead batteries and no internet? Will the Scottish Government provide more resource for communication resilience to deal with episodes such as this and storm Arwen last year, given that adverse weather events are likely to occur more frequently because of the climate crisis?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Beatrice Wishart’s question is pertinent and timely. Parts of Shetland continue to experience an extended loss of power. SSEN is making every effort to restore supplies, but many properties have been off power for days. Local agencies have declared a major incident, and a significant response is being and has been mobilised to support the affected communities.

The numbers as of this morning—they might have moved on since then—were that 2,400 customers across Shetland remained offline and 2,899 customers’ power had been restored since the power cut took place. Resources continue to be deployed to Shetland, and SSEN has a 60-strong team out in the field to work on repairing damage. Another 62 field staff were to arrive by ferry this morning, including mutual aid support workers from Scottish Power Energy Networks and Northern Powergrid, and approximately 20 further field staff will arrive by ferry tomorrow morning, which will take the total number of staff who are working to restore power in Shetland to approximately 140.

A Scottish Government resilience operation was formally activated on Tuesday to provide whatever support and co-ordination we can, and SGoRR—Scottish Government resilience room—will have a further meeting this afternoon. I will take the point about communication resilience to those people in that meeting and ask for consideration of what more the Scottish Government can do to support the communication efforts, because that is important—although I know that everybody is working hard to communicate information as best they can.

A final piece of information is that the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans who, of course, has ministerial responsibility for resilience, is currently en route to Shetland to see for himself the operation that is under way.

Action on Poverty

Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

New research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that 7.2 million people are going without basics and 4.7 million are struggling to pay their bills. At the same time, the Child Poverty Action Group has published a report that shows that the cost of bringing up a child has significantly lowered in Scotland as a result of Scottish Government interventions. Given that most of the key levers are reserved, what action does the First Minister think that the United Kingdom Government urgently needs to take to help people through the winter? [Interruption.]

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Again, we are getting the same response from the Conservatives at the mention of poverty. I say to the Scottish Conservatives that, no matter how uncomfortable it makes them, the Government and my party in Parliament will never stop talking about the scourge of poverty—particularly child poverty—and our determination to tackle and eradicate it.

The actions that we are taking—chief among them the Scottish child payment—are lowering the cost of raising a child in Scotland, which is positive, and we will continue to look for all possible ways to do that.

In response to the question on what the UK Government could most usefully do, it is to emulate the example of the Scottish Government and introduce its own equivalent of the Scottish child payment.

Hospice Care Sector (Funding)

Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

There are growing concerns about the financial resilience of hospices across Scotland. The sector faces significant pressures with regard to staffing and energy costs. I met hospice staff in my region who report that they are already supporting the delivery of core services from their reserves. One of the impacts of the pandemic is that more people need to move to palliative care. Will the First Minister agree to convene urgent talks with the sector and undertake a review of matched funding for the hospice care sector, which has now fallen to one of the lowest levels that we have ever seen?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I will undertake to ensure that discussions take place directly with the sector. The Government will, of course, liaise with the sector regularly on a range of issues. I will ensure that specific conversations take place about the pressures that they are facing, in common with other parts of the voluntary and statutory sectors as well as the national health service, which are all dealing with the impact of increased inflation and energy costs.

Our budget this afternoon will very much have at its heart our determination to help sectors that are delivering those front-line services across the country as much as we possibly can. I will ensure that officials and ministers liaise with the hospice sector to see what more support we might be able to provide.

Student Fuel Bills

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

I was contacted this week by a student who had been forced to go to the library the day before her exam because her flat was dangerously cold. Lucy Penman said that she could not afford to keep the heating on for more than an hour and a half; in her words, her “fingers were losing feeling”. Her friends are in a similar situation. Students across Scotland are struggling with a surge in the cost of fuel bills this winter, and they need urgent intervention from the Scottish Government.

What does the First Minister have to say to Lucy and her friends, who are struggling to keep warm this winter? Will she also commit her Government to support the National Union of Students Scotland’s fighting for students campaign for extra support? Scotland’s students do not need warm words; they want to see real action.

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I appreciate how difficult things are right now for students, as they are for everybody given rising energy costs and other inflationary pressures. We provide universities with funding so that they can provide hardship funds to students who need them. Universities should make their students aware of how to access that funding.

We will continue to work with NUS Scotland as we have done over many years to consider how best to support students generally, but particularly in these difficult times. We already do much to support students to ensure that student debt is much lower in Scotland than it is in other parts of the United Kingdom, not least through free tuition.

The fact of the matter is that the driving factors behind increased energy costs do not lie within the powers of this Government. I hope that, one day soon, they will, so that we can tackle so many of these issues at root cause instead of having to continue to deal with just their symptoms.


Displaced Ukrainians (Funding)

Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

To ask the First Minister for her response to the update from the United Kingdom Government’s Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities on the funding for displaced Ukrainians and the funding implications for Scotland’s public sector support.

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The announcement represents a significant cut in the funding available to deliver public services to those in need. I think that it is counterproductive and short-sighted for the UK Government to make those cuts to the tariff for local councils, and we will be joining with the Welsh Government to make clear our opposition to them.

Right now, Ukrainians displaced by the war need more, not less, support, and we have continually called on the UK Government to extend funding in line with the three-year visa. Of course, Scotland has the highest number of arrivals by population share in the UK as we continue to seek to provide a place of safety; we use our own budget to do that—and we will continue to do so—but the UK Government needs to continue to step up and fulfil its responsibilities, and we will continue to encourage it to do exactly that.

Avian Flu

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

It has been reported that 230,000 birds have been killed in Aberdeenshire following six distinct outbreaks of avian flu, and the chief veterinary officer has said that those outbreaks have occurred after flocks have been housed with

“no concerns over ... management practices.”

The impact on the bird populations is tragic, but there will also be an impact on farmers, so what is the Scottish Government doing to help farmers who fear that their livelihoods are being threatened by this terrible tragedy?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Bird flu is a significant concern right now, and both the chief vet and the cabinet secretary, Mairi Gougeon, are monitoring the situation carefully. The measures that are in place in Scotland are given serious consideration on an on-going basis, and I know that the chief vet has spoken at length on the basis of the decisions that we have taken so far.

It is absolutely right to say that this is having a big impact on farmers, and we will continue to liaise with the farming community on how we best support them through what is an extremely challenging period.

Acorn Project (Update)

Karen Adam (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

The threat that Tory ideology poses to Scottish society continues to loom large, and the Tories’ actions pose a direct threat to our drive towards net zero and our combating the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss. Efforts arising from the latest support from the nature restoration fund are being threatened by the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, potentially undermining our ability to protect Scotland’s environment, while a report this week from PwC has revealed that Scotland’s just transition to net zero is at risk from the Tories’ post-Brexit immigration policy.

Can the First Minister update Parliament on any recent discussions that the Scottish Government has had regarding the United Kingdom Government’s investment in the Scottish cluster and the Acorn carbon capture and storage and hydrogen project?

The First Minister

First, the retained EU law bill, which sounds technical and abstract, puts at very real risk the high standards that people in Scotland have come to expect as a result of European Union membership. It threatens to eliminate 47 years of environmental protections, food standards, workers’ rights and much else in the rush to facilitate a deregulated race-to-the-bottom economy. Angus Robertson has written twice to the secretary of state in charge of the bill, including with proposed amendments to limit its damage, but to date there has been no reply. Of course, the approach to immigration is, as the member has rightly said, also a threat to Scotland’s prosperity and our progress to net zero.

On the issue of carbon capture, utilisation and storage and the Acorn project, we continue to press the UK Government to include the project in its support for carbon capture, and I hope that we will see some positive movement from the UK Government in that respect in the not-too-distant future.

Gender Reform Recognition (Scotland) Bill (Safeguards)

A poll this morning revealed that the vast majority of Scots are opposed to your Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill—

Speak through the chair, please.

Pam Gosal

—including the removal of key safeguards such as lowering to 16 the age when one can legally change their gender. First Minister, how many more warnings do you need before you listen to the concerns of women and keep the safeguards that currently exist?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

First, it is for this Parliament to decide whether it passes that legislation, as is the case with any piece of legislation. There is full scrutiny under way right now and, of course, Parliament will next look at the proposals in plenary session next week.

The bill does not create a single new right for trans people; all it does is simplify existing processes. I encourage anyone who has not already done so to read this morning’s comments by the United Nations official who has already given evidence to the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, setting out in detail why, in his view, the bill brings Scotland into line with its international obligations.

There are significant safeguards in the bill. Of course, there are concerns that men may abuse provisions relating to trans people to harm women. However, one of the comments of the UN official is that there is no evidence that that is the case in any of the countries that already have such legislation in place. However, the point is that, if any man was to seek to do so, the bill does not increase their ability to do that. The bill is about making a process that already exists for trans people much more humane and less invasive. Of course, it is for Parliament to consider the many amendments that have been lodged and to reach a final view on the bill next week.

Royal Mail (Industrial Action)

Katy Clark (West Scotland) (Lab)

The general secretary of the Communication Workers Union has written to the First Minister to seek urgent talks about the future of postal services, as part of a bid to end the on-going dispute with Royal Mail. Will the First Minister meet the Communication Workers Union and give consideration to what steps she can take to defend postal services?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

First, I am happy to consider meeting the trade union. I am not sure whether I have yet received the letter that Katy Clark refers to—I have seen it talked about in the media. Although the matter is not within my responsibility—it is a reserved matter—I would be happy to consider anything that I can do to encourage Royal Mail to resolve the dispute in the interests of postal workers across the country.

My approach to industrial disputes is simple: it is always to get round the table to try to find resolution. That is why, although I acknowledge the many concerns that I know that national health service workers continue to have about the pay deal that is on offer in Scotland, the approach that I and this Government take to these kinds of disputes is what has resulted in Scotland being the only part of the United Kingdom today that does not have strikes in its NHS. So, yes, I will always look to see what I can do to bring resolution to such disputes.