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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, March 16, 2023


First Minister’s Question Time

Ferguson Marine (Bonuses)

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

The Scottish National Party ferries scandal has damaged our nation’s reputation for shipbuilding excellence and has left islanders without the vital transport links that they need for their everyday lives.

This week, Audit Scotland said:

“the costs to complete these ferries have continued to escalate”.

The total cost to taxpayers because of SNP incompetence is now £338 million, which is three and a half times more than the original contract of £97 million, and there is still no completion date for the ferries. However, Ferguson Marine, which is fully owned by the SNP Government, has paid out bonuses of £87,000 to highly paid chiefs. Very simply, First Minister, what were the bonuses for?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Before I answer the question, I remind members that, this afternoon, the Deputy First Minister will make a statement to the Parliament on these issues and provide updates in respect of some of them.

There are two issues to address in response to Douglas Ross’s question. First, we welcome the Audit Scotland section 22 report, which was published on Tuesday, and we certainly acknowledge the legitimate issues that were raised in it. As I said, this afternoon, the Deputy First Minister will provide the update that was requested by the Auditor General for Scotland. The report is critical of the payment of bonuses to senior staff at the yard in financial year 2021-22 and of the process by which the payments were arrived at. We accept the criticism and can assure the Parliament that, at the Deputy First Minister’s request, new arrangements have been put in place to ensure that the situation does not arise again in the future.

My second point is in relation to the construction of the ferries. I have said many times, and I say again, that we deeply regret the delays to the completion of the ferries and the cost overruns. The management at the yard has, of course, made assessments of the cost of completing the ferries, and Scottish Government officials are applying robust scrutiny to that. Again, the Deputy First Minister will be able to give a further update to the Parliament this afternoon.

Douglas Ross

I am sorry, but the standing orders of this Parliament are clear: if a minister is aware of information that they can provide to the Parliament, they should do so. It is not acceptable for the First Minister to say, “Tune in in a couple of hours’ time”. This is First Minister’s question time and, as the leader of the Opposition in Holyrood, I am asking about an issue that she must be aware of.

I ask again, what were the bonuses for? It was £87,000 of taxpayers’ money. The Deputy First Minister is whispering in the First Minister’s ear, so I hope that he has the answer for her to give to members at First Minister’s question time.

The Auditor General is clear that the bonuses were “unacceptable”—that was his word. We think that they are downright scandalous. It is indefensible. It is a bonus for failure, and the failure is all on the SNP Government. It is a company that is owned by the Scottish ministers; ultimately, they are in charge of it. Will the SNP Government and the First Minister intervene now and demand that those bogus bonuses are returned to the taxpayer?

I am aware that Douglas Ross is rarely interested in listening to the answers to questions, but I am answering the questions. [Interruption.]

Thank you.

The First Minister

In relation to the bonuses, Audit Scotland issued a section 22 report, which was published on Tuesday. In that report, the Auditor General makes it clear that the governance involved in the process that led to those payments was deficient. In other words, it is not possible to be clear about the basis of the performance payments. That is why—[Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer

Excuse me, First Minister. We will hear one another in this chamber, at all times, with courtesy and respect. Regardless of who is speaking in the chamber, I expect all members to do them the courtesy of listening.

The First Minister

That is why changes have been put in place. New arrangements have been put in place to ensure that such a situation does not arise again. Of course, there have been changes in the management at the shipyard since the financial year in which the bonuses in question were paid. We take seriously, and will respond in full to, the views in the section 22 report that the Auditor General has published.

More generally, as I went on to say, the focus continues to be on ensuring that the ferries are completed and that the Scottish Government applies robust scrutiny to all cost assessments that are issued by the shipyard.

Douglas Ross

Really? Does the Scottish Government really ensure that it looks at all the costs that are paid by the shipyard? If that is the case, why can the First Minister not just tell me, in response to my question, people in the chamber and people across Scotland what was done by the fat cats to deserve £87,000 of bonuses? It is a very simple question.

This week, Audit Scotland said:

“It is not clear how their performance was assessed, nor were appropriate frameworks and governance in place.”

Those bonuses for failure should not have been allowed, and the First Minister should be able to tell the people of Scotland what they were paid for.

The First Minister went on to say that changes have been made to ensure that the situation does not arise again, but today there are reports that the current chief executive of Ferguson Marine can get an £82,000 bonus every year and his contract has no criteria for measuring performance. Once again, Nicola Sturgeon and her Government are putting eye-watering sums of public money, which are to be paid to ferry bosses for failure, in jeopardy.

First Minister, why are fat-cat bosses getting a single penny before a ferry has been finished?

The First Minister

The issue identified by Audit Scotland is that the process involved in the payment of the bonuses was deficient. Therefore, there is not sufficient clarity on the basis on which they were paid. That is the issue that was identified, which we are seeking to address so that such a situation cannot arise in future. That is the position that I have set out. I have set it out clearly and, of course, the Deputy First Minister will make a further statement to Parliament later on, on which others will be able to question him.

We remain focused on supporting the shipyard to complete the ferries as quickly as possible. I have said many times before, and I will undoubtedly say many times again, that the delays and the cost overruns are deeply regrettable. However, I come back to another point that I have made many times: we have always been determined to secure the future of the shipyard in order that it can deliver the ferries and have a future that allows the people who are employed there to continue to be employed there.

Yes, there have been regrettable failings here, which, of course, the Government is accountable for, but we remain focused on addressing those, and we will continue to do that with determination.

Douglas Ross

I think that it is incredible that the First Minister just expects us all to be happy that a mistake has happened and that we do not know why the money has been paid out. However, we are talking about £87,000 of taxpayers’ money going into a project that is already three and a half times over budget. I am not sure what John Swinney is going to pull out of the hat this afternoon, but if he gives the same answers, the people of Scotland will demand more, because it is our taxpayers’ money that is being wasted, with no accountability from Nicola Sturgeon or the Scottish National Party.

On top of £87,000 of bonuses for failure, Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd, the ferry agency, has spent almost £100,000 on a public relations firm. What a waste of money. No one can put positive spin on this disaster.

This week, Audit Scotland said:

“There is still no certainty over how much the ferries will cost, when they will be ready or whether the shipyard has a viable future.”

Those are the words of the Auditor General.

As Nicola Sturgeon prepares to sail off into retirement and considers her legacy, she should reflect on the fact that those ferries, which have been in construction throughout her time in office, remain rusting hulks, and the islanders who rely on them remain without those vital links.

Can the people of Scotland for once get a straight, honest answer from the First Minister? When will the ferries be ready and how much will the total cost be?

The First Minister

First, going back to the very beginning of that question, if I have learned one thing over recent times in this job, it is never to expect Douglas Ross to be happy about anything, so I am not sure that that is going to change.

In terms of the detail of the questions, the estimates for the costs of the ferries and their delivery dates are in the public domain and will be updated as appropriate, and the Deputy First Minister will give a further update to Parliament later this afternoon.

Of course, Ferguson’s has continued to make progress on the building of the ferries. For example, the MV Glen Sannox successfully completed a dry-docking period at the start of this month—[Interruption.]

Thank you, members.

The First Minister

—so those milestones continue to be delivered.

I am of the view that the failures are unacceptable and I deeply regret them. However, that is why it is important that we continue to focus on delivering the ferries and securing a long-term future for the shipyard.

On the Auditor General’s comments about viability, all businesses have to secure long-term viability. The yard is working to secure commercial opportunities and has already been successful in securing some. That is part of our priority: we want the ferries to be completed, but we then want to ensure that Ferguson’s shipyard has a long and secure future and continues to employ those whose jobs depend on it.

National Health Service Dentistry

2. Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

Yesterday’s Tory budget demonstrated which side that party is on. It gave tax breaks to the wealthiest and did nothing to help those most in need. We need a meaningful windfall tax now, we need to scrap the non-dom status and we need to invest in our communities across the country. That is not possible with this United Kingdom Tory Government.

Further, while the Tories do little to address the cost of living crisis across the UK, we have a Scottish Government that is not doing enough to address the national health service crisis in Scotland. One key part of our NHS is dentistry. Can the First Minister tell the chamber what proportion of dental practices are now refusing to take new NHS patients?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I do not have that figure immediately to hand, but I can provide it to the member. What I know is that more than 1.6 million NHS examination appointments were completed between April and October, with an average of more than 300,000 courses of treatment a month, which I think means that we are on course for more than 3.5 million contacts during this financial year.

Clearly, there are pressures on NHS dentistry, as there are pressures on all parts of the NHS, and we continue to support the dentistry profession as we continue to support the NHS as a whole.

Anas Sarwar

I should have declared an interest, as my wife and I are qualified dentists. Nicola Sturgeon might not know this, but I do and my wife does: a citizen of this country is supposed to get a dental check-up every six months, so those figures are not good enough.

Data obtained through freedom of information requests shows that just one in five dental practices are taking on new patients and that, in four health board areas in Scotland, zero practices are taking on new NHS patients.

We know who suffers when dentistry is cut back: children, the most deprived and families who are forced to go private. Almost one in 10 children has severe decay or an abscess, a figure that has gone up significantly since 2020, and dental extractions under general anaesthetic are the most common reason for children being admitted to hospital.

I have worked in our NHS. I was a dentist in Paisley and I saw at first hand the impact of this Government’s failures on the poorest communities in our country. Surely the First Minister knows—as I know and as NHS staff across the country know—that this health secretary is incompetent and out of his depth.

The First Minister

NHS dentistry is, of course, under pressure. All parts of the NHS are under pressure. I will not repeat the statistics that I gave in my first answer, but we have worked to incentivise NHS dentistry. We are in the course of abolishing dental charges, starting with young people. I will come back to the youngest people and dental health in a moment.

If members look at some other statistics and comparisons, they will see that, in Scotland, 57 dentists per 100,000 of our population provide NHS dental services compared with just 43 per 100,000 south of the border and some 50.4 per cent of adult patients in Scotland have been seen by an NHS dentist in the past 24 months compared with just 38.2 per cent in England. The latest figures show that over 95 per cent of the Scottish population are registered with an NHS dentist, whereas just over a third of adults and fewer than half of children in England have access to an NHS dentist. Yes, dentistry is under pressure, but there is a solid foundation there.

In recent years, we have seen significant improvements in child oral health in Scotland. In the first year of the national dental inspection programme, in 2002—Anas Sarwar should be aware of this—45 per cent of primary 1 children had no obvious decay experience. In 2021-22, that figure had increased from 45 per cent to 73 per cent. That is the improvement that we are seeing in child oral health.

Yes, there are challenges, but we continue to support the dental profession to meet those challenges head on.

Anas Sarwar

I welcome free dentistry, but we need dentists in order to get the treatment across Scotland. It is clear that the First Minister is not listening to the profession.

Rather than confronting the NHS crisis, the Scottish National Party is talking to itself about itself. It seems that the only things that are missing from the SNP leadership election are an Ash Regan press conference outside the Four Seasons and maybe a saltire-waving stop-the-steal rally by Kate Forbes outside Holyrood. Meanwhile, the machine candidate—the incompetent Humza Yousaf—is presiding over chaos in Scotland’s NHS.

This morning, we heard a mother say on BBC Radio Scotland that her son, who is about to start school, has never seen a dentist, despite years of trying. He will be one of many.

The British Dental Association has told us that the number of dentists in our communities has fallen, despite what Nicola Sturgeon claims. It has also told us that 59 per cent of Scottish dentists have reduced the amount of NHS work that they do since lockdown and that 83 per cent of dentists plan to reduce their NHS services further in the year ahead. It has said:

“it’s very clear an exodus is in motion.”

The health secretary has lost the confidence of dentists and patients. He has lost the confidence of the SNP finance secretary. Surely even Nicola Sturgeon can see that Scotland has no confidence in him and that he is not up to the top job.

Ultimately, it is the Scottish people who will make those judgments, and the record of past years is one that—[Interruption.]

Thank you.

The First Minister

—I know terrifies Anas Sarwar.

Anas Sarwar rightly talks about the importance of access to NHS dentistry. Let me repeat the figures that show the reality. Elsewhere in the UK, just over a third of adults and fewer than half of children have access to an NHS dentist. That is the position in England. In Scotland, the figure is over 95 per cent. Ninety-five per cent of our population is registered with an NHS dentist. That is access to dentistry. We have more dentists per head of population than other parts of the UK have, and significant progress has been made on improving child oral health.

Yes, there are pressures and challenges, but those statistics show that we are meeting those challenges, and we will continue to do so.

Global Climate Emergency

3. Ariane Burgess (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

To ask the First Minister, ahead of the publication of the next report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, next week, what the Scottish Government is doing to ensure that Scotland plays a leading role in tackling the global climate emergency. (S6F-01913)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I look forward to the publication of the next IPCC report, and I certainly hope that it leads to accelerated action to tackle the climate emergency on a global scale.

The Scottish Government is taking action, and it is important that it continues to take action at home and in working to support the global effort to tackle climate change. Earlier this week, I chaired a Cabinet sub-committee that was focused on our response to the recent Climate Change Committee report as well as looking at progress towards the update of our climate change action plan.

Ariane Burgess

Scotland’s history of heavy industry means that we have a significant responsibility to tackle climate change, which is the greatest challenge that we face this century. We have also shown how we can lead from the front in transforming our energy supply for a clean, green, renewables future. Does the First Minister agree with me that this decade is one of crucial choices—for example, on homes and buildings standards, on transport patterns, and on what we farm and how we use land—and that it is in those areas that our future lies, not in squeezing more fossil fuels out of new oil fields such as Rosebank and Jackdaw?

The First Minister

Yes, I agree that this decade is a critical one if the world is to avert what will otherwise be the catastrophic impacts of climate change. Indeed, the issues that the member highlights, such as how we decarbonise the heating of our homes and further decarbonise transport, are exactly the issues that we were discussing at the Cabinet sub-committee that I referred to. The Scottish Government is focused on making sure that we take the action that is needed.

The member is right to point out that countries such as ours, which have done the most to cause climate change and have benefited from emissions down the generations, now have a particular responsibility to take action to combat climate change. That action undoubtedly includes the transition away from fossil fuels to clean, renewable sources of energy. That is important for Scotland in the context of the climate emergency, but, as the North Sea is a declining basin, it is important for other reasons as well. That transition also needs to be a just one, which is why our work on just transition is so important as well.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

Well, what a litany of utter complacency we have just heard in that question and response. In fact, the Scottish Government’s response to the climate emergency shows seven out of 11 legal emissions targets missed, 11 out of 20 biodiversity targets missed, six out of eight key environmental milestones missed, and annual peatland restoration targets missed. After almost nine years of failing to get a grip on the climate emergency, does the First Minister believe that all, one or none of the candidates to succeed her will do a better job than she has done?

The First Minister

Scotland is recognised across the world as being a leader in tackling climate change, and rightly so. [Interruption.] It is particularly notable that we have achieved that leadership status in the teeth of knee-jerk, opportunistic opposition from the Conservatives to almost every proposal that we have put forward. Their hypocrisy is breathtaking. When we look at the proposals that we have made to encourage people to travel to work in ways other than in their cars or to recycle bottles and cans, for example, what do we get from the Tories? We get nothing but opposition. [Interruption.] However, we will continue—[Interruption.]

Let us hear the First Minister.

We will continue to tackle climate change with or without the help of the Scottish Conservative Party.

Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

We all want Scotland to play a leading role in tackling the global climate and nature emergencies. Does the First Minister agree with me that the global campaign to establish a law of ecocide—a mission started by the late Polly Higgins, who was a respected barrister and environmental campaigner—is an important campaign and is rightly building momentum across Europe and around the world? Will she join me in encouraging people to support that campaign, and will she encourage her Government to continue to engage with me and the campaigners to explore how we can bring this into criminal law in Scotland?

The First Minister

Yes—in principle, I will, and I pay tribute to the campaigners across many issues in the fight against climate change for the work that they do. Given the scale of the challenge that we face, it is important that we continue to increase our efforts. I will encourage the Government that comes after mine to continue to do all those things, to do them bravely, and to do them despite the opposition that will come from the Scottish Conservatives. I hope that other parties across the chamber will work with the Government to make sure that we are meeting those important obligations.

United Kingdom Government Spring Budget

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the United Kingdom Government’s spring budget. (S6F-01912)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Although any limited additional money for the Scottish Government budget is welcome, it does not go nearly far enough. We have repeatedly called on the UK Government to deploy its full range of powers to support people, the public sector and businesses through the cost of living crisis, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s budget yesterday disappointingly missed another opportunity to do so. The decisions that were announced yesterday mean that the Scottish Government will continue to have a constrained ability to support vital services and provide fair pay rises.

The Government will do everything that it can within its limited powers to ensure that people receive the help that is needed, but the UK could have done far more to ease the burden that is affecting so many. That demonstrates, yet again, why Scotland needs the full powers of independence.

Kenneth Gibson

The Office for Budget Responsibility says that UK real household disposable income will fall by 5.7 per cent this year and next in

“the largest two-year fall since records began in 1956-57.”

Does the First Minister agree that this damp squib of a budget goes nowhere near addressing the true scale of the cost of living crisis; is a missed opportunity to support households that are struggling to meet eye-watering energy costs, which are rising again as the chancellor ends the £67 monthly payment on which many households have relied since October; and provides no help to businesses struggling with acute skills and labour shortages? Does she agree that an independent, energy-rich Scotland would invest in carbon capture, which the UK has ignored for a decade, reform broken energy markets and cut costs for households and businesses alike?

The First Minister

I absolutely agree with Kenny Gibson. First, he is right to point to the economic forecast. Experts said yesterday that

“The OBR may be more positive about inflation and the economy, but it is still projecting that 2022 and 2023 will see the biggest-ever fall in living standards.”

The Resolution Foundation states that the economic outlook is better than previously feared but still very bad, and that the UK Parliament is on course to be

“the worst Parliament on record for living standards”

by a country mile. That is the Conservatives’ responsibility and record.

Kenny Gibson has raised the matter of carbon capture. This Government was deeply disappointed that we had no further clarity yesterday on a timeline for the deployment of the Scottish cluster. We were expecting further clarity—I had been given assurances directly by the Prime Minister that further clarity would be forthcoming—so it is doubly disappointing that we did not get it yesterday. The Deputy First Minister will write to the UK Government to set out that disappointment and frustration, and we will of course ensure that that letter is published.

Meghan Gallacher (Central Scotland) (Con)

Yesterday, the chancellor announced the introduction of 30 hours of free childcare from nine months old, which has the potential to truly transform childcare by supporting parents and giving their children the best possible start in life. Mums across Scotland have contacted me to say that they think that that is a wonderful policy. Does the First Minister agree that the Scottish Government should match that major commitment by extending its current childcare policy?

The First Minister

Of course, if the Scottish Government were to match the UK Government on early years education and childcare, we would have to reduce the provision that is currently available in Scotland. [Applause.]

Thank you, members.

The First Minister

We are currently way ahead of anything that the UK Government provides, because of the doubling under this Government of early years education and childcare provision for three and four-year-olds and eligible two-year-olds. We want to go further for younger children—we were clear about that at the last election. However, we want to ensure that the important universal approach principle in our provision is respected, too.

What the chancellor announced yesterday is very limited. To give an indication of how limited the provision is, the consequentials in the forthcoming financial year from that commitment to the Scottish Government amount to just around £20 million. That figure tells its own story about how limited what the UK Government is proposing here is, despite the spin. Our ambition remains very much higher.

Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

Swimming pools across Scotland are currently facing closure, including the leisure pool in Perth, where I live. Yesterday, in the budget statement, the chancellor announced a £63 million fund for swimming pools in England. Will the Scottish Government use the Barnett consequentials that will arise from that extra money to support swimming pools here that are currently facing closure?

The First Minister

I am not sure whether Murdo Fraser has ever been invited to use the Prime Minister’s personal swimming pool, but if he has not, I am sure that the invitation will be forthcoming.

On the issue of swimming pools, local sport and leisure facilities include—[Interruption.] Douglas Ross seems a bit sensitive about the Prime Minister’s private swimming pool. Maybe he has not had an invitation either. [Laughter.]

I am glad that you find it funny.

Thank you, all.

The First Minister

I am perhaps amused by the leader of the Opposition rather than the issue, Presiding Officer.

Local sport and leisure facilities, including swimming pools, are vital in supporting both the physical and mental health of people across the country. Of course, energy costs have been a very significant issue facing many sports facilities, in particular swimming pools, in recent times. We will continue to support local councils with the best possible financial settlements. With regard to the use of consequentials, that will be a matter for the incoming First Minister and his or her Cabinet.

Accident and Emergency Waits (Effect on Patient Mortality)

To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government has made any assessment of the effect that long A and E waits have on patient mortality. (S6F-01919)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I think that everyone accepts that there is a link between long waits and increased risk of harm. That is why we remain committed to delivering improved accident and emergency performance.

In 2018, in NHS England, the Getting It Right First Time programme, in its work on emergency medicine, carried out an analysis of the relationship between time spent in emergency departments and patient harm. That analysis proved association but not causation. We considered that analysis closely, and we will continue to monitor research and analysis into the relationship between time spent in emergency departments and patient harm. Of course, we remain focused on ensuring that we reduce waits in accident and emergency.

Craig Hoy

New figures have revealed that an estimated 765 people died due to dangerously long A and E waiting times last year. That means 64 patients dying needlessly, leaving behind 64 grieving families, each and every month under the Scottish National Party Government. The First Minister has less than two weeks left in the job, so she has no need to deflect, dissemble or distract attention by shifting the blame. Will she now, therefore, take this opportunity to apologise to the families of those patients who died and say sorry for her Government’s appalling legacy on the Scottish national health service?

The First Minister

First, we accept, as everybody should, that long waits lead to poorer outcomes. That is why we focus on reducing A and E waiting times, and it is why we have worked so hard to ensure that we continue to have the best-performing accident and emergency waiting time departments of anywhere in the United Kingdom. I will add some context. The Royal College of Emergency Medicine has made estimates about Scotland, but it has also estimated that in 2022, there were more than 23,000 excess deaths in A and E linked to long waits in England. That is proportionately three times higher than the estimate for Scotland—[Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer

Sorry, excuse me—[Interruption.] Members!

Sorry, First Minister. I ask that members do not continue to contribute while people are asking questions or responding to them. Thank you.

The First Minister

That is why it is vital that we continue to reduce waits, and long waits in particular, in A and E. In recent weeks, we have seen not only an improvement in A and E waiting times but a reduction in the longest waits—those waiting for more than eight hours and more than 12 hours—and we will remain focused on securing those improvements.

Paul O’Kane (West Scotland) (Lab)

We are talking about people who have died. In the final quarter of 2022, excess deaths in Scotland rose by almost 10 per cent above the five-year average, which means that 1,433 more people died than would have been expected on the basis of historical trends. Each death is a tragedy, but those deaths are not a statistical coincidence. They are evidence of widening health inequalities; the normalisation of 12 hours waiting in accident and emergency; and a failure to increase cancer diagnosis rates. That is the heartbreaking reality of Humza Yousaf’s disastrous record as Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care, and it will be the legacy of this First Minister. Why has she allowed the national health service to decline into such a state of perpetual crisis? Does she agree with clinicians, staff and patients—and indeed her Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy, Kate Forbes—that Humza Yousaf should not be anywhere near running our health service?

The First Minister

Every one of those numbers is a human being, and it is important that they are treated in that way. That is why, when the member goes on to politicise the issue in the way that he has done, he undermines his own argument.

The comparisons are important only because the suggestion in such questions is that the situation in our national health service in Scotland is somehow unique and is all down to whoever the health secretary is or the fact that we have an SNP Government. I make those comparisons for context. Health services everywhere are dealing with these challenges. Of course, the biggest challenge in recent years has been a global pandemic that has caused many of these pressures. That is why it is so important that this Government has supported—and continues to support—record investment and record numbers of people working in our national health service.

We are now seeing improvements in waiting times. We want to see those improvements go further and faster, but we have seen a reduction in the numbers of people who are waiting for the longest periods in accident and emergency departments. That is the hard work of Government. This Government, albeit under new leadership in coming weeks, will remain focused on doing the hard work and repaying the trust that the people of Scotland have placed in us.

Allan Marshall

6. Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government will provide police with access to all correspondence, transcripts, meeting notes and other communications with ministers, its officials and the Scottish Prison Service, to assist with the investigation regarding the Allan Marshall case. (S6F-01928)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

First, my thoughts and condolences remain with the family of Allan Marshall. The former Cabinet Secretary for Justice met the family personally following the fatal accident inquiry determination. Of course, a live police investigation is now under way, so it would be inappropriate for me or anyone else in the Scottish Government to comment on that investigation. However, I confirm that the Scottish Government will co-operate fully with any investigation that Police Scotland undertakes.

Pauline McNeill

Since I first read of the death of Allan Marshall, who died in March 2015 as a result of injuries that he had sustained four days earlier, while being held on remand at HMP Edinburgh, I have vowed to do all that I can for Allan’s family.

The First Minister knows that the closed-circuit television footage from the prison showed that Allan, naked and face down, was dragged by the feet along a corridor by 13 prison officers. The officers who were involved were given immunity from prosecution and, in the eight long years since his death, Allan’s family have been waiting for answers.

Press reports indicate that some of the prison officers were branded “consistently dishonest” at the inquiry but were able to retire on full pensions without any stain on their service. The “Independent Review of the Response to Deaths in Prison Custody”, which was discussed recently in the Parliament, recommended that families should have “unfettered access” to information about a death in custody.

Does the First Minister agree that the Allan Marshall case was a shocking episode in Scottish justice? Of course, I fully appreciate that it is a matter for the Lord Advocate, but does the First Minister agree that future Lord Advocates need to look at the outcome and mistakes of that case before granting immunity? I call on the Government—I think that it has said that it will do so—to implement in full the recommendations of the “Independent Review of the Response to Deaths in Prison Custody”.

The First Minister

As I said earlier, a live police investigation is under way, so it is appropriate that I am careful in what I say, in order that nothing that I say could possibly prejudice any on-going investigation. However, I absolutely understand the sentiment that has been expressed. I watched the full CCTV coverage; my heart goes out to the family of Allan Marshall, and I absolutely understand the concern that was raised by that.

Rightly and properly in our democracy, decisions on prosecution or immunity from prosecution are for independent prosecutors, and it would be wrong for me, as a politician, to seek to second-guess that.

In relation to the wider point, which was very well made, the independent review of deaths in custody was important, and it is now vital that that work is taken forward. The Scottish Government is making progress on recommendations, including the proposal for an independent investigation into every death in custody.

In answer to Pauline McNeill’s question about whether lessons should be learned from the Allan Marshall case in order to inform future decisions, I say that of course they should, but that must be done in the proper way and in line with due process. I absolutely understand the concerns that have been raised in association with that case and I hope that the processes that are under way will help to give, if not comfort, then some degree of assurance and, in time, consolation to Allan Marshall’s family.

We move to general and constituency supplementaries.

Pregnancy and Baby Loss (Certificates and Memorial Book)

Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

The First Minister will recall that in October last year, I asked her to consider introducing baby loss certificates for parents who have experienced a pregnancy loss or baby loss prior to 24 weeks. This week, she announced that that will happen this summer, along with the introduction of a memorial book. That has been welcomed by parents and charities, including Baby Loss Retreat, whose shop I opened in Airdrie. I thank the First Minister and ask whether she can be more specific about when it will happen and what the process will be for getting a certificate.

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The initiative will begin this summer. I will ask that further information be provided nearer the time about the specific date, and that that information be shared with MSPs about the particular process.

Some detail was shared earlier this week when we announced the initiative; for example, there will be no need for medical evidence for people who apply for either an entry in the memorial book or a certificate. That is important; it should be as easy a process as possible for bereaved parents.

I think that the initiative is a really important step forward. I will not go into detail again—people are aware of it—but this is absolutely the right thing to do for the country. It is something that is important to me, personally, so I hope that it brings some comfort and consolation to people who, in the future, lose babies before 24 weeks, and to some who have suffered such a loss in the past. From many of the comments that have been made in response to the announcement this week, I know that that is the case, but I will ensure that further information is shared, and that as it develops over the period until the initiative is launched, we continue to share as much as possible.

Early Years Workers (North Lanarkshire Council)

Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

The First Minister might be aware of a recent decision that was taken by North Lanarkshire Council to downgrade early years workers, who are predominantly women, from grade 9 to grade 7, which represents a significant drop in income of up to £10,000 in some cases. I have been contacted by many of those workers, who are terrified of the impact that the changes will have, especially while we are in the grip of a cost of living crisis. They also feel let down and undervalued.

Does the First Minister agree that early years workers are a cornerstone of the education system, and will she outline the Scottish Government’s on-going commitment to the sector? Will she join me and my North Lanarkshire MSP colleagues in calling for Labour-controlled North Lanarkshire Council to reverse the decision and to sit down with workers and unions to find a solution?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I very much agree with Fulton MacGregor that early learning and childcare workers are a cornerstone of our education system. Indeed, we could not have delivered the landmark expansion to 1,140 hours of funded early learning and childcare without them.

The Scottish Government fully funds councils to deliver 1,140 hours of high-quality early learning and childcare to all eligible children, with around £1 billion of investment each year.

Of course, it is for councils to make decisions about funding and workforce in order to meet their statutory duties on provision in their areas. I appreciate that the proposed changes in North Lanarkshire are causing real concerns for early learning and childcare staff. I understand that the council is working with staff and trade unions to find solutions for those who will be affected by the proposed changes, but I certainly encourage the council and all parties to continue to work together to identify a positive way forward.

National Treatment Centre (Cumbernauld)

Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab)

In 2021, the First Minister promised for Cumbernauld a new national treatment centre, which was supposed to treat its first patient in 2026. Freedom of information requests have said that that will now not happen until 2028 at the very earliest, and that even that is “challenging”.

Will the First Minister say when our Government will deliver on the promise that was made back in 2021, and when the treatment centre will start seeing my constituents in Cumbernauld who are currently languishing on national health service waiting lists?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

We continue to keep the whole programme under review in order to make sure that we deliver all the new centres as quickly as possible. The context is very challenging, with high inflation leading to higher construction costs. However, there are four national treatment centres opening in the coming year—I hope that I might get the opportunity to open one before I leave office—which will provide significant additional surgeries and procedures.

The four new centres in NHS Fife, NHS Forth Valley, NHS Highland and the second phase of the Golden Jubilee university national hospital will make a significant contribution to the NHS recovery plan. As I have said, we are keeping the other centres under review to ensure that they are delivered as quickly as possible despite the challenging circumstances that we face.

Illegal Migration Bill

Kaukab Stewart (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees condemns it, international charities are horrified by it, and the European Commission is scathing of it. It might, indeed, be in violation of the continent-wide European Convention on Human Rights. Does the First Minister agree that the United Kingdom Government’s Illegal Migration Bill has no place in the open and international Scotland that we in this Parliament are seeking to build?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Yes, I agree with that whole-heartedly. This Scottish Government has, as many people have, condemned what is a cruel and inhumane bill, and we continue to urge the UK Government to scrap it. How Douglas Ross could have voted for that bill in the House of Commons earlier this week is beyond me.

I think that it is incumbent on all of us to demonstrate respect for international law, human rights and social justice by offering protection through humane, fair and compassionate refugee and asylum policies. I certainly hope and expect that that is exactly what an independent Scotland would be able to do.

During this week, the Scottish Government extended funding for the women in conflict 1325 fellowship programme. At the same time, the UK Government has pressed forward with a bill that would see the rights of women who have been subjected to trafficking and sexual exploitation taken away, and children being subjected to detention. No one with a moral conscience should support legislation that, against international law, removes offering a place of safety to desperate people who are fleeing conflict and persecution.

Sign Language Week (British Sign Language)

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

Presiding Officer, I know from your own contributions that you will be aware that this week is sign language week.

I say, in BSL, thank you, Presiding Officer. What is this week? It is sign language week.

The First Minister will be as relieved as I am that I will finish the rest of my question in English. I thank our wonderful parliamentary interpreters.

Will the First Minister join me in raising awareness of British Sign Language, and in acknowledging its distinctness as a language in its own right, both in Scotland and across the United Kingdom? It shares the same equal status that Welsh and Scots Gaelic have.

This year, the theme of sign language week is “Protecting BSL”. Will the First Minister and the whole Parliament join me in helping to promote, to protect and to educate people about BSL and, in doing so, encourage more people to start learning this beautiful, unique and visual language so that we can truly protect and preserve BSL for many future generations? Will she and Parliament also join me in thanking the many interpreters in Parliament who help us?

I say, in BSL, thank you to the BSL interpreters.

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I agree. Let me take the opportunity to echo those sentiments entirely. BSL is a distinctive language in its own right. It is a beautiful language and it is visually distinctive, as the member has said. I am proud that this Parliament has recognised its status, as is absolutely appropriate.

We could all do more to raise awareness of BSL. Perhaps we could all do more to learn the language; now that I might have a bit more time, that is a commitment that I am prepared to make today.

In agreeing with everything that Jamie Greene has said, I will take the opportunity to thank BSL interpreters, without whom I could not have done my job over the past few years. Everybody will recall that during the Covid briefings, the BSL interpreters were present with me every single day. They were crucial to our ensuring that we were able to communicate properly and fully the public health messages that were so essential to keeping the country safe during that time. That is just one example of the value of BSL. I thank them for that, as I thank all users and interpreters of the language. Let us all make the resolution that we will do more to raise awareness of BSL in the interests of being the inclusive country in which, I think, we are all proud to live.

The Presiding Officer

That concludes First Minister’s question time. The next item of business is a members’ business debate in the name of Gillian Martin.

There will be a short suspension to allow people leaving the chamber and public gallery to do so before the debate begins.

12:49 Meeting suspended.  

12:51 On resuming—