Skip to main content

Language: English / Gàidhlig

Loading…
Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Tuesday, April 18, 2023


Contents


Government Priorities for Scotland

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

The next item of business is a statement by Humza Yousaf on “Our Priorities for Scotland”. The First Minister will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions. You have up to 20 minutes, First Minister.

14:21  

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

Just a few weeks ago, I could not have imagined that I would be standing here as First Minister, setting out the policy priorities and the defining missions of the Government that I lead. It is fair to say that being First Minister is not without its challenges but, notwithstanding that, it is the honour of my life. In my very first speech in this chamber after the result was announced, I made it clear that the people of Scotland’s priorities will be my priorities, too.

I have been clear from the outset that I intend to govern in the interests of the whole of Scotland, and I hope that the policy prospectus that has been published today is a demonstration of that. In setting out our course for the next three years, we are acknowledging—as we must—that Scotland faces genuinely difficult challenges. Our economy and public services are still recovering from a global pandemic. We are in the midst of a cost crisis, which of course has been made worse by the United Kingdom Government’s economic mismanagement and is harming people and hurting businesses right across the country. We need to play our part in addressing the global crises of climate change and nature loss.

It is worth stressing that we also face the most difficult public spending environment that this devolved Parliament has ever seen. The inflationary shocks created by a hard Brexit, a global pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the disastrous decisions taken as part of the UK Government’s mini-budget have placed great pressure on the public finances. Our ability to deal with that pressure is being constrained by UK Government spending decisions and, of course, a lack of borrowing powers.

In fact, the cost to Scotland of Westminster control—the cost of not being independent—has never been clearer. UK living standards have stagnated for 15 years. Indeed, the fall in living standards this year and next is expected to be the largest on record. According to the International Monetary Fund, the UK economy is to be among the worst performing of any of the major economies this year. The disastrous impact of Brexit, which of course was supported by the Tories and Labour, is biting hard.

As a result, we have to make really tough decisions about our priorities. I will be unapologetic about making difficult decisions to ensure that we free up money or resource to target it at those who are in the greatest need. Where we can go further, within the constraints of devolution, I absolutely will.

However, for all the significant challenges that we face—and they are significant—we also know that we can build on our important successes. Scotland currently outperforms the UK on the unemployment rate, with unemployment among men over 16 at its lowest rate on record. National health service waiting times and our court backlogs are improving following the pandemic, and despite the public spending climate, we have expanded free childcare provision and introduced the game-changing Scottish child payment. Of course, Scotland continues to have a highly skilled workforce, world-class universities and colleges, and huge potential in some of the key economic sectors of the future.

Today, the Scottish Government publishes its policy prospectus, “Equality, opportunity, community: New leadership—A fresh start”, which sets out how the Government that I lead will address our challenges, build on the successes of the past and capitalise on our strengths. It sets out the key aims and deliverables that we intend to achieve in each cabinet secretary’s portfolio, working constructively with our Green Party colleagues.

Throughout the next three years we will report routinely, regularly and transparently on our performance against those aims and outcomes. The report also emphasises that this Government’s work will be defined by three distinct and interdependent missions. Those missions, centred on the principles of equality, opportunity and community, require us to tackle poverty, build a fair, green and growing economy and improve our public services. Over the next three years they will be central to our efforts to improve the lives of the people of Scotland.

The first mission, which is based on equality, is to continue to tackle poverty in all its forms, and to substantially reduce child poverty in particular. Inevitably, the immediate focus will be on protecting people as far as we possibly can from the harm that is inflicted by UK Government policies and the on-going cost of living crisis. That means that we will often choose to target spending so that it benefits those who need it most.

That is one reason why the very first action that I undertook as First Minister was to increase the fuel insecurity fund to £30 million. Over the next three years we will also invest a further £1.3 billion in the Scottish child payment. We will further develop our social security system and ensure that it continues to treat people with dignity, fairness and respect. We will expand the provision of free school meals. We will reduce the number of children who go into care, and we will keep our promise to those who are care experienced.

We will work to ensure that drug deaths reduce over the next three years. We recognise how crucial housing is to our aspirations for a fairer country. We will continue to work with local government to reduce the number of people living in temporary accommodation. Subject to the will of the Scottish Parliament, we will legislate to secure a new deal for tenants and introduce duties to prevent homelessness.

We will invest in order to make homes and buildings greener, and we will continue to deliver affordable homes—the majority of which will be for social rent—in all parts of our country. We will also publish an action plan for housing in remote, rural and island areas. I confirm today that that plan will include up to £25 million from our affordable homes budget to allow suitable properties, including empty houses, to be purchased or long leased and turned into affordable homes for key workers and others.

We will also engage with the public to explore how best we can use our current taxation powers to deliver the most progressive taxation system in the UK and achieve the Government’s three missions, which I have outlined today.

Scotland is a wealthy country, but that wealth is not distributed evenly. To tackle poverty we need to be even bolder on taxation and the redistribution of wealth. That is why I will convene an anti-poverty summit, to which I will invite experts, academics, anti-poverty campaigners and those with lived experience. I will also invite Opposition colleagues, as I believe that tackling poverty is a shared priority for us all.

We will also continue to support equality, inclusion and human rights, and we will implement more of the recommendations of the National Advisory Council on Women and Girls.

Presiding Officer, I take great pride in being the first First Minister from an ethnic minority background. I know that my rights are interdependent on the rights of others. The Government that I lead will not only protect the rights of minorities, but where possible, will advance them, particularly those of the most marginalised people in our society.

During the parliamentary session, we will introduce a human rights bill to incorporate, within the limits of our devolved competence, international standards on economic, social, cultural and environmental rights. That is in stark contrast to a UK Government that pursues divisive immigration policies and risks denying sanctuary to people in their hour of need. We will continue to support those who come to Scotland fleeing war and persecution. We will also continue to support the many thousands of people who have come from Ukraine during the past year: for as long as Scotland is their home, they will be welcomed here and supported.

Through those actions and many more, during the next three years, we will make significant progress towards making Scotland a fairer country. However, our ambition to make Scotland fairer must go hand in hand with our work to make the country more prosperous. That is why the second national mission is based on the principle of opportunity. That means using all the powers that we have to their maximum effect to support economic growth for a purpose: to help business and trade to thrive and to maximise the opportunity for a fair green economy.

A crucial part of that is about making a just transition to net zero. We will never do to oil and gas workers in the north-east of Scotland what Thatcher did to our mining and steel communities. [Applause.] We will take the workers of the north-east—and, indeed, the whole of Scotland—with us on our just transition journey. We will harness the huge potential of the green economy in Scotland. The ScotWind programme on its own offers the potential for £28 billion of supply-chain work based in Scotland. Our renewable energy resources will also help us to develop a new hydrogen sector, which is why a focus for the next three years is to lay the foundations for a hydrogen supply chain in Scotland.

We will also continue to support innovation and entrepreneurship. Through policies such as our investment in new technology scaler hubs, we hope to make Scotland one of the leading nations in Europe for business start-ups. We will also develop centres of excellence for sectors such as green technologies, health and life sciences, digital industries and advanced manufacturing.

As we do that, we will seek to support economic growth and ensure that wealth is evenly distributed. Therefore, we will continue to invest in skills so that people are able to take advantage of new opportunities. We will encourage growth in every part of Scotland by working with local and regional partners.

In setting out our plans for the economy, I also want to make a broader point about the Government’s relationship with the business community. I am the proud son of a business owner. In fact, just this month, my dad’s business turned 40 years old and, despite our family efforts to the contrary, Mr Yousaf Snr has no plans to retire just yet. Businesses—small businesses in particular—are the backbone of our economy and Government support for business is essential for the delivery of a wellbeing economy.

We need businesses to grow to create the good, well-paying jobs that will enable us to reinvest in initiatives to eradicate poverty. We also rely on businesses and their workers to pay the taxes that our public services rely on. That is why there has never been a conflict, to my mind, between supporting our economy to grow, in line with our net-zero ambitions, and introducing policies, such as progressive taxation, that enable us to reduce poverty. They go hand in hand as part of the wellbeing economy that many of us support.

We also need some Government regulation of business. The business community itself recognises that an unrestricted market is incompatible with the wellbeing of our people, communities and environment. However, the balance needs to be right. A number of business organisations have expressed concerns in recent months about the balance that the Scottish Government has been striking. In fact, they have called for a reset of the relationship between business and Government. I am happy to start that reset today. I will do so by confirming three specific steps.

The first relates to the deposit return scheme. I remain committed to the scheme as a way to increase recycling, reduce litter on our streets and beaches and help achieve our net zero ambitions. However, we recognise the uncertainty that continues to be created as a result of the UK Government delaying the decision to exclude the scheme from the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020.

Of course, we had hoped for a decision on that this week, but it has not come. At the same time, the Minister for Green Skills, Circular Economy and Biodiversity and I have heard the concerns of business, in particular about the readiness for the launch of the scheme this August. As a result, we will delay the launch of the scheme until 1 March 2024. [Interruption.] I am pleased that that has universal support from members around the chamber.

That will provide 10 months for businesses to get ready. We will use the additional time to work with business and Circularity Scotland to address concerns about the scheme’s—

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

Just a few weeks ago, I could not have imagined that I would be standing here as First Minister, setting out the policy priorities and the defining missions of the Government that I lead. It is fair to say that being First Minister is not without its challenges but, notwithstanding that, it is the honour of my life. In my very first speech in this chamber after the result was announced, I made it clear that the people of Scotland’s priorities will be my priorities, too.

I have been clear from the outset that I intend to govern in the interests of the whole of Scotland, and I hope that the policy prospectus that has been published today is a demonstration of that. In setting out our course for the next three years, we are acknowledging—as we must—that Scotland faces genuinely difficult challenges. Our economy and public services are still recovering from a global pandemic. We are in the midst of a cost crisis, which of course has been made worse by the United Kingdom Government’s economic mismanagement and is harming people and hurting businesses right across the country. We need to play our part in addressing the global crises of climate change and nature loss.

It is worth stressing that we also face the most difficult public spending environment that this devolved Parliament has ever seen. The inflationary shocks created by a hard Brexit, a global pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the disastrous decisions taken as part of the UK Government’s mini-budget have placed great pressure on the public finances. Our ability to deal with that pressure is being constrained by UK Government spending decisions and, of course, a lack of borrowing powers.

In fact, the cost to Scotland of Westminster control—the cost of not being independent—has never been clearer. UK living standards have stagnated for 15 years. Indeed, the fall in living standards this year and next is expected to be the largest on record. According to the International Monetary Fund, the UK economy is to be among the worst performing of any of the major economies this year. The disastrous impact of Brexit, which of course was supported by the Tories and Labour, is biting hard.

As a result, we have to make really tough decisions about our priorities. I will be unapologetic about making difficult decisions to ensure that we free up money or resource to target it at those who are in the greatest need. Where we can go further, within the constraints of devolution, I absolutely will.

However, for all the significant challenges that we face—and they are significant—we also know that we can build on our important successes. Scotland currently outperforms the UK on the unemployment rate, with unemployment among men over 16 at its lowest rate on record. National health service waiting times and our court backlogs are improving following the pandemic, and despite the public spending climate, we have expanded free childcare provision and introduced the game-changing Scottish child payment. Of course, Scotland continues to have a highly skilled workforce, world-class universities and colleges, and huge potential in some of the key economic sectors of the future.

Today, the Scottish Government publishes its policy prospectus, “Equality, opportunity, community: New leadership—A fresh start”, which sets out how the Government that I lead will address our challenges, build on the successes of the past and capitalise on our strengths. It sets out the key aims and deliverables that we intend to achieve in each cabinet secretary’s portfolio, working constructively with our Green Party colleagues.

Throughout the next three years we will report routinely, regularly and transparently on our performance against those aims and outcomes. The report also emphasises that this Government’s work will be defined by three distinct and interdependent missions. Those missions, centred on the principles of equality, opportunity and community, require us to tackle poverty, build a fair, green and growing economy and improve our public services. Over the next three years they will be central to our efforts to improve the lives of the people of Scotland.

The first mission, which is based on equality, is to continue to tackle poverty in all its forms, and to substantially reduce child poverty in particular. Inevitably, the immediate focus will be on protecting people as far as we possibly can from the harm that is inflicted by UK Government policies and the on-going cost of living crisis. That means that we will often choose to target spending so that it benefits those who need it most.

That is one reason why the very first action that I undertook as First Minister was to increase the fuel insecurity fund to £30 million. Over the next three years we will also invest a further £1.3 billion in the Scottish child payment. We will further develop our social security system and ensure that it continues to treat people with dignity, fairness and respect. We will expand the provision of free school meals. We will reduce the number of children who go into care, and we will keep our promise to those who are care experienced.

We will work to ensure that drug deaths reduce over the next three years. We recognise how crucial housing is to our aspirations for a fairer country. We will continue to work with local government to reduce the number of people living in temporary accommodation. Subject to the will of the Scottish Parliament, we will legislate to secure a new deal for tenants and introduce duties to prevent homelessness.

We will invest in order to make homes and buildings greener, and we will continue to deliver affordable homes—the majority of which will be for social rent—in all parts of our country. We will also publish an action plan for housing in remote, rural and island areas. I confirm today that that plan will include up to £25 million from our affordable homes budget to allow suitable properties, including empty houses, to be purchased or long leased and turned into affordable homes for key workers and others.

We will also engage with the public to explore how best we can use our current taxation powers to deliver the most progressive taxation system in the UK and achieve the Government’s three missions, which I have outlined today.

Scotland is a wealthy country, but that wealth is not distributed evenly. To tackle poverty we need to be even bolder on taxation and the redistribution of wealth. That is why I will convene an anti-poverty summit, to which I will invite experts, academics, anti-poverty campaigners and those with lived experience. I will also invite Opposition colleagues, as I believe that tackling poverty is a shared priority for us all.

We will also continue to support equality, inclusion and human rights, and we will implement more of the recommendations of the National Advisory Council on Women and Girls.

Presiding Officer, I take great pride in being the first First Minister from an ethnic minority background. I know that my rights are interdependent on the rights of others. The Government that I lead will not only protect the rights of minorities, but where possible, will advance them, particularly those of the most marginalised people in our society.

During the parliamentary session, we will introduce a human rights bill to incorporate, within the limits of our devolved competence, international standards on economic, social, cultural and environmental rights. That is in stark contrast to a UK Government that pursues divisive immigration policies and risks denying sanctuary to people in their hour of need. We will continue to support those who come to Scotland fleeing war and persecution. We will also continue to support the many thousands of people who have come from Ukraine during the past year: for as long as Scotland is their home, they will be welcomed here and supported.

Through those actions and many more, during the next three years, we will make significant progress towards making Scotland a fairer country. However, our ambition to make Scotland fairer must go hand in hand with our work to make the country more prosperous. That is why the second national mission is based on the principle of opportunity. That means using all the powers that we have to their maximum effect to support economic growth for a purpose: to help business and trade to thrive and to maximise the opportunity for a fair green economy.

A crucial part of that is about making a just transition to net zero. We will never do to oil and gas workers in the north-east of Scotland what Thatcher did to our mining and steel communities. [Applause.] We will take the workers of the north-east—and, indeed, the whole of Scotland—with us on our just transition journey. We will harness the huge potential of the green economy in Scotland. The ScotWind programme on its own offers the potential for £28 billion of supply-chain work based in Scotland. Our renewable energy resources will also help us to develop a new hydrogen sector, which is why a focus for the next three years is to lay the foundations for a hydrogen supply chain in Scotland.

We will also continue to support innovation and entrepreneurship. Through policies such as our investment in new technology scaler hubs, we hope to make Scotland one of the leading nations in Europe for business start-ups. We will also develop centres of excellence for sectors such as green technologies, health and life sciences, digital industries and advanced manufacturing.

As we do that, we will seek to support economic growth and ensure that wealth is evenly distributed. Therefore, we will continue to invest in skills so that people are able to take advantage of new opportunities. We will encourage growth in every part of Scotland by working with local and regional partners.

In setting out our plans for the economy, I also want to make a broader point about the Government’s relationship with the business community. I am the proud son of a business owner. In fact, just this month, my dad’s business turned 40 years old and, despite our family efforts to the contrary, Mr Yousaf Snr has no plans to retire just yet. Businesses—small businesses in particular—are the backbone of our economy and Government support for business is essential for the delivery of a wellbeing economy.

We need businesses to grow to create the good, well-paying jobs that will enable us to reinvest in initiatives to eradicate poverty. We also rely on businesses and their workers to pay the taxes that our public services rely on. That is why there has never been a conflict, to my mind, between supporting our economy to grow, in line with our net-zero ambitions, and introducing policies, such as progressive taxation, that enable us to reduce poverty. They go hand in hand as part of the wellbeing economy that many of us support.

We also need some Government regulation of business. The business community itself recognises that an unrestricted market is incompatible with the wellbeing of our people, communities and environment. However, the balance needs to be right. A number of business organisations have expressed concerns in recent months about the balance that the Scottish Government has been striking. In fact, they have called for a reset of the relationship between business and Government. I am happy to start that reset today. I will do so by confirming three specific steps.

The first relates to the deposit return scheme. I remain committed to the scheme as a way to increase recycling, reduce litter on our streets and beaches and help achieve our net zero ambitions. However, we recognise the uncertainty that continues to be created as a result of the UK Government delaying the decision to exclude the scheme from the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020.

Of course, we had hoped for a decision on that this week, but it has not come. At the same time, the Minister for Green Skills, Circular Economy and Biodiversity and I have heard the concerns of business, in particular about the readiness for the launch of the scheme this August. As a result, we will delay the launch of the scheme until 1 March 2024. [Interruption.] I am pleased that that has universal support from members around the chamber.

That will provide 10 months for businesses to get ready. We will use the additional time to work with business and Circularity Scotland to address concerns about the scheme’s—

Excuse me, First Minister. I have given a bit of latitude, but it is getting quite noisy in the chamber.

The First Minister

It is okay, Presiding Officer. Members are really excited about the policy perspective that I have brought to the chamber today. It is not a problem: I have always said that I will reach across the political divide, where necessary.

As I was saying, we will use the additional time to work with businesses and Circularity Scotland to address concerns with the deposit return scheme and ensure a successful launch next year.

We have developed a package of measures to simplify and de-risk the scheme and to support small businesses, in particular in the hospitality sector. The Minister for Green Skills, Circular Economy and Biodiversity will this week provide further details to Parliament on the package, the new timetable and our engagement with the UK Government on the critical decisions that we now need it to make to allow the scheme to proceed, in terms of exemption from the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020.

The second step relates to the Scottish Government’s consultation on restrictions to alcohol advertising. The aim of the consultation, which is to reduce the harm to children that is caused by alcohol, is more than admirable and I support it whole-heartedly. However, it is clear that some of the proposals have caused real concern to an industry that is already facing challenges on multiple fronts. I have therefore instructed my officials to take the ideas back to the drawing board and to work with the industry and, crucially, with public health stakeholders to agree a new set of proposals.

I believe that we all want to reduce the harm that is caused by alcohol, particularly to young people, but to do so without undermining Scotland’s world-class drinks industry or tourism sector. I am hopeful that, by taking a fresh look at the issue, we can find a way forward that achieves both those crucial aims.

Finally, I have written to key business representative groups and asked them to engage in urgent discussions with the Scottish Government to agree a new deal for Scottish businesses. The discussions will be chaired jointly by the Cabinet Secretary for Wellbeing Economy, Fair Work and Energy and a representative of the business sector. Among other things, the discussions will explore how the Government can better support our businesses and communities using the policy levers that it has, including non-domestic rates. I have asked the co-chairs to report back to me this summer with initial thoughts.

Those three steps will all, I trust, be welcomed individually by Scotland’s business community, and I hope that, collectively, they send a broader signal about this Government’s approach to business. The Government knows that Scotland can be successful only if our businesses are successful, so I say to them, as First Minister, that my door will always be open to you. We might not always agree, but I will always give you a fair hearing, and I will seek to address your concerns wherever possible. All three of the missions that I am setting out today depend on a thriving business sector in Scotland, so the Government that I lead will do everything that it can to help you to prosper.

Our third and final mission, which is based on community, is to focus on delivery of key public services—for example, the NHS and social care, schools and childcare, the police and justice, and public transport.

In the past three years, the NHS has faced the greatest challenge in its 74-year existence. Its staff have performed magnificently in the face of the pandemic. We will invest in the NHS to help it to recover from the pandemic so that, over the next three years, waiting lists will fall and outcomes for cancer treatment will improve. We will continue to support primary care, and we will invest more in general practice, especially in the most disadvantaged areas of the country. We will improve mental health and welfare support, and we will secure better access to NHS dentistry.

We are also committed to improving social care services and to reducing delayed discharges. I know well the workforce challenges that the adult social care sector, in particular, faces. That is why I will commit to a timetable that sets out how this Government will get to £10 an hour for adult social care workers. Although we are not able to afford to do that immediately, I want to send a signal to the sector that we are absolutely serious about improving pay and terms and conditions for those who care for our most vulnerable people.

A key way of improving consistency of care is through the national care service, in a way that commands consensus among our key partners, including trade unions and local government. Yesterday, I confirmed that we would seek from Parliament an extension to the scrutiny process for the proposed legislation, to help us to build that consensus. The national care service legislation’s aim of ensuring consistently high standards of care across the country attracts wide support. My hope is that we can, by taking slightly more time to agree a way forward, ensure that we achieve that aim.

We will also continue to ensure that staff in our health and care services are valued and fairly paid. As things stand, Scotland is the only part of the UK in which no NHS worker has gone on strike during the past year. I am proud of and grateful for that. The Scottish Government will soon enter talks with junior doctors in the hope of arriving at a fair settlement for them.

As well as supporting our NHS and care services, we will continue to invest in other key public services. In the justice system, the backlog of court cases that was caused by the pandemic is already decreasing and will continue to fall over the next three years. We will continue to implement important improvements in our justice system, such as better handling of cases involving sexual offences.

We will improve childcare for school-age children, and I will accelerate the expansion of childcare for 1 and 2-year-olds. We will continue to focus on closing the poverty-related attainment gap in schools while raising attainment for all, and we will improve the experiences and outcomes of children, young people and their families who use and need additional support for learning.

As part of our efforts to improve school education, we will increase the availability of internationally comparable data on Scotland’s education performance. Scotland already participates in the widely respected programme for international student assessment, and we will apply to rejoin two other major international statistics systems—the trends in international maths and science study, and the progress in international reading literacy study.

We will also make our public transport system more accessible, available and affordable. As an important part of that, I can confirm today that the six-month pilot to remove peak-time fares from ScotRail services will start in October. The evidence from the pilot and our wider fair fares review will allow us, from next year onwards, to bring forward further targeted measures to ensure that the costs of transport are more fairly shared.

As part of our commitment to active travel, we will also ensure that we increase our investment to deliver more places where people can walk, wheel and cycle safely for day-to-day journeys.

We will double the size of the charge-point network for electric vehicles to at least 6,000, and we will increase the number of zero-emission buses on Scotland’s roads. We will also deliver six new major vessels to serve Scotland’s ferry network.

My final point is that local government is a vital partner in delivering the services that we all rely on. We therefore intend to agree and implement a new deal for local government to help us to work together more effectively. Part of that is about giving local authorities far more discretion on sources of funding. As we have previously confirmed, subject to Parliament’s approval we will legislate to give councils the power to apply a local visitor levy on overnight stays. We also launched a consultation yesterday on measures that will give local authorities additional powers to increase the rate of council tax on second and empty properties. The consultation also seeks views on altering the thresholds for self-catering accommodation to qualify for non-domestic rates. That consultation has come about as a result of effective joint working between the Scottish Government and local government, and I hope that it demonstrates to local authorities that we see them as essential partners in helping us to achieve our ambitions for Scotland in the years ahead.

When I was elected as party leader, I promised that I would never pretend that government is easy—it is not—and that I would not offer empty promises in the face of difficult challenges. The document that we are publishing today sets out our determination to honour that commitment. It is built on the idea of working in partnership with business, trade unions, local government, our third sector and our Green Party colleagues in the Government. It recognises the financial constraints under which we operate, and it is realistic about the social, economic and environmental challenges that we face, but that realism is balanced by optimism about our ability to meet those challenges.

Scotland is a land of opportunity. I am proud of that fact and proud to be a product of that. My grandparents came to the country in the 1960s, barely speaking English and with little money in their pockets. Despite the challenges that they faced, and despite the hostility that they faced at times due to their background, they overcame those barriers and provided a life for their children and grandchildren for which I will forever be grateful. It is my responsibility as First Minister to ensure that every family in Scotland has such equality of opportunity, regardless of their background or where in Scotland they live. I am optimistic that we can achieve that equality of opportunity.

The three missions that I have set out today will determine the priorities of the Government that I lead for the rest of this parliamentary session, and will help us to achieve them. Together, we will focus on delivery and ensure that we have in place affordable and ambitious measures to protect our environment, to protect business prosperity, to improve people’s wellbeing and to reduce poverty. The measures will ensure that the actions that we take in the next three years will stand Scotland in good stead for the next decade, and will use our current significant strengths to deliver a fresh start for Scotland.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The First Minister will now take questions on the issues raised in his statement. I intend to allow around 40 minutes for questions, after which we will move to the next item of business. Members who wish to ask a question should press their request-to-speak buttons.

Meghan Gallacher (Central Scotland) (Con)

The First Minister has made his statement today as scandal continues to engulf his party. The Scottish National Party is in total meltdown. Its former chief executive and current treasurer have been arrested amid a police investigation into the party’s finances and leaked footage has shown Nicola Sturgeon trying to shut down scrutiny mere months before that investigation began, but Humza Yousaf it is so indebted to his former mentors that he will not do the right thing and suspend them while the investigation is on-going. It is past time for Humza Yousaf to tackle that scandal head on and prove to the Scottish public that he is his own man, instead of defending and deflecting from his predecessors’ tarnished legacy.

I turn to the substance of Humza Yousaf’s statement. We welcome the decision to U-turn on 13 years of SNP education policy by rejoining international school league tables. We hope that that will be just the beginning of a wholesale re-evaluation of how this Government has devalued Scottish education during its time in office.

However, as a whole, Humza Yousaf’s proposals do nothing to dispel the notion that he is a continuity First Minister leading a continuity Government. He is tinkering with Nicola Sturgeon’s failing policy agenda and continues to be led by the extremist Greens, instead of delivering the fresh leadership that Scotland needs right now. It will dismay the majority of the Scottish public to know that campaigning for independence is the top priority for Humza Yousaf. At a time when Scotland needs national leadership that focuses on tackling the big challenges we all face—a global cost of living crisis, an NHS that is on its knees thanks to this First Minister and a sluggish economy—we have a nationalist leader appealing to his hopelessly divided party.

I ask the First Minister, based on the commitments that he makes in his threadbare document, whether anyone seriously believes that this Government will close the attainment gap by the end of this session of Parliament?

Secondly, we welcome the delay to the deposit return scheme that is a humiliation to the Green minister Lorna Slater. Can the First Minister promise that this Scottish Government will engage with businesses regarding the deposit return scheme, which it has failed to do so far?

Finally, given the scandal engulfing his party, can the First Minister tell me whether the SNP remains in debt to Peter Murrell and when it intends to repay that loan?

First Minister, I ask you to respond to the questions that fall within your first ministerial responsibilities.

The First Minister

I will talk about the issues that I think are important to the people of Scotland. I say to Meghan Gallacher that it is awfully brave of her to talk about a global cost of living crisis. We are dealing with a Tory Westminster cost of living crisis. That is why the most recent IMF projections show that the UK Government is an outlier, with the lowest growth of any G7 economy. That is a Tory cost of living crisis and is a union dividend that Scotland definitely does not need. Ms Gallacher should own that, rather than trying to deflect us away from that.

We have listened to Scottish business, and Lorna Slater will give further updates on the package of measures and the deposit return scheme that we are bringing forward. Let us be honest about this. All of us talk about the need to tackle the climate emergency, but we are the ones—[Interruption.]

Excuse me a second, First Minister.

We need to hear the First Minister respond to the questions that Ms Gallacher raised.

The First Minister

We are the ones who not only talk the talk; we are prepared to walk the walk. Every time we bring forward a measure on the climate emergency, the Conservatives are the first to oppose it, time and again. They are not serious at all about tackling the climate emergency. We will continue to talk and engage, not just with business but with the Scottish public, about their priorities. It is brave of Meghan Gallacher—some may use another word for it—to talk of propriety. Her Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and former Prime Minister are all under investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Although we absolutely face challenges, I would rather be standing here, with the opportunity to deliver for the people of Scotland, than languishing in opposition like Meghan Gallacher and the Scottish Tories.

If members continue to make such noise, we will not be able to hear any of the answers, and that would be unfortunate.

Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

Some of the announcements in the First Minister’s statement are welcome, and some of them are undoubtedly well intentioned, but many of them are rehashed promises from the past that have never been delivered. Humza Yousaf cannot escape from the fact that he is not now running a functioning Government. The SNP is mired in scandal and division, and its members are talking to themselves about themselves. The crisis that now engulfs SNP members is an indication not just of how they govern their party but of how they govern our country. It is a 16-year culture of command and control, of financial mismanagement and of a lack of transparency, which has meant secrecy and cover-ups, often with devastating consequences. No amount of spin or the pretence of a reset or fresh start will hide what is becoming clearer to the public every single day. Our country is now crying out for leadership, for hope, for new ideas and for a new vision to confront the twin crises that our nation faces: a cost of living crisis, with families struggling to pay the bills, and an NHS crisis, with patients struggling to access life-saving treatment.

Continuity will not cut it. Incompetence has consequences. Frankly, Scotland deserves better. It does not need to be like this, however. This is not as good as it gets. Change is possible. We can have a Government that tackles the cost of living crisis and brings down bills; we can have a Government that grows the economy and invests in the opportunities of the future; we can have a Government that can restore and renew our NHS; and we can have a Government that puts the people’s priorities first. After just three weeks in office, is it not already clear that it cannot be this First Minister or this SNP Government?

The First Minister

Goodness—not a single idea, not a single proposal and not a single bit of understanding of the policy perspectives. That was completely vacuous from the master of the soundbite, with no substance at all. It is all style and no substance whatever from Anas Sarwar. He is vacuous and completely devoid of any policy proposals of his own.

Anas Sarwar says that, in the past 16 years, the Scottish Government has not achieved anything. What we have achieved includes the game-changing Scottish child payment, which has helped 385,000 children under the age of 16, who are now eligible. We have established new public services, including Social Security Scotland, which is based on fairness, dignity and respect and is delivering 13 benefits, seven of which are available only here in Scotland.

We have delivered the baby box. We have abolished tuition fees—of course, the back-door tuition fees were brought in by the Scottish Labour Party. We have abolished prescription charges. We have made sure that personal and nursing care are free for all. We now have free bus travel for more than 2 million people: those who are under 22, people with disabilities and those over the age of 60. We have built 118,000 affordable homes. We have funded childcare: we have here in Scotland the most generous offer of childcare of anywhere in the UK.

The difference between Anas Sarwar and I is that, when it comes to the Tory cost of living crisis, he wants to keep the powers in the hands of the Conservatives; I want to ensure that this Parliament has all the financial and economic levers to tackle that crisis.

In addition, Anas Sarwar says that the people of Scotland are crying out for change. We do not need the replacement of one Tory Government with a pale imitation of a Tory Government with Keir Starmer. Even Anas Sarwar must be embarrassed—as, I know certainly, Richard Leonard will be—by Keir Starmer’s appealing to the right with his anti-refugee and anti-immigration rhetoric, and inability to stand up for the most marginalised people. Only with the powers of independence will we get rid of Tory Governments in Scotland for good.

Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

During Scottish apprenticeship week, colleagues from across the chamber will have heard directly from apprentices about the high-quality learning and work experience that they receive. The First Minister will appreciate that apprenticeships also support economic renewal locally and nationally. When will Skills Development Scotland issue contracts for 2023-24 new starts, to enable local training providers to clear the backlog of folk who are waiting and to allow new-start learners to begin their journeys to quality jobs on those excellent workplace learning programmes?

The First Minister

I pay credit to Ruth Maguire, who has raised this issue on a number of occasions. Modern apprentices are a vital resource for employers to invest in their workforce. All of us have seen that in our home constituencies.

Investing in skills across people’s lifetimes is critical to our future productivity in delivering a fair, green and growing economy. My priority is for high-quality apprenticeships that provide sustainable jobs and careers, supporting our transition to net zero. SDS has already issued contracts for the 39,000 modern apprentices who are currently in training, and I expect it to finalise contracts for new modern apprenticeship starts in the next few days.

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

What detailed analysis has been undertaken by the new Government on the question of progressively increasing tax rates for middle and higher earners—a policy that has been proved in the past to reduce economic activity and weaken the tax take? What analysis has the First Minister undertaken in order to ensure that that is not going to happen under his Scottish Government? That will have important implications for how we address the deficit that is projected by the Scottish Fiscal Commission.

The First Minister

Detailed analysis is undertaken whenever we make tax changes.

I completely understand the point that Liz Smith has raised on tax divergence, for example, which is an important factor in such an analysis. However, I am unapologetic in saying that I believe that those who earn the most—such as Liz Smith, other members of the Parliament and I—should pay more. We earn more, therefore we should pay more. [Interruption.] I hear Sue Webber disagreeing with that. Of course, she was the MSP who, privately, said that NHS workers should take a 20 per cent pay cut, in a scheme that she described as “salary sacrifice”, so I am not sure that I will take financial advice from her.

Our policy of progressive taxation, which was announced in the budget by the former Deputy First Minister, has allowed us to invest £1 billion in our NHS.

Detailed analysis is undertaken. Of course, if I had listened to Liz Smith—or indeed to Douglas Ross—and did what she asked us to do, which was to replicate the disastrous tax cuts for the wealthy that Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng put forward, it would have meant that, instead of having £1 billion extra to spend, our budget would have been cut by £500 million. That is why I am not sure that I will take advice on economic literacy from the Conservatives.

Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

Scotland can be proud of its global reputation as an open and outward-looking country, and the recent tartan week in New York was an incredible celebration of our nation on the world stage.

That makes James Cleverly’s latest intervention on our overseas meetings seem all the more insecure and desperate. Scottish ministers have a clear responsibility to promote Scotland internationally. In the face of Westminster’s latest attempts to undermine our devolution, will the First Minister reaffirm his Government’s commitment to championing Scotland on the world stage?

The First Minister

Absolutely. Of course, the Scottish Conservatives never even wanted the creation of this Scottish Parliament, so it is hardly a surprise that they are chipping away to try to undermine devolution with every chance that they get.

I absolutely reaffirm my intention and that of the Government that I lead—our intention—to promote Scotland on the world stage. The UK Government continues to deny the mandate from the people for a referendum on independence, and to encroach on devolution. Since Brexit, we have seen nine breaches of the Sewel convention; the imposition of the UK Internal Market Act 2020; the vetoing of legislation on gender recognition that was passed by a majority in this Parliament; and the threat to give UK ministers powers to amend or scrap vital European Union law in devolved areas.

Our international external engagement, which is often done through very good collaboration with UK embassies around the world, is to the benefit of our Scottish food and drink industry; our tourism sector; our excellent higher and further education sectors; our life science and technology sectors; and our renewables sector. I am also thinking of the excellent transformative life-saving work that is done by our international development teams through our people-to-people relationship with Malawi.

Why on earth would the UK Government want to try to put a stop to that? We know why—it is because it is hell bent on undermining devolution. While I am First Minister, I will do everything that I possibly can to stop it from doing that.

Paul O’Kane (West Scotland) (Lab)

Hundreds of Scots are struggling more than ever, and they need this Government to focus on their priorities. Child poverty has remained at 24 per cent for the entire time that the SNP has been in government, and levels of severe child poverty have been rising.

The First Minister has been a member of the Scottish Government for more than a decade and he has, in various guises, failed to use the powers of this Parliament effectively to address the rising levels of very deep poverty.

The First Minister has defined himself as a continuity candidate—ain’t that the truth. Is this prospectus not just more of the same? Where are the new financial measures? How much of this is new money? How much of his £1.3 billion for the child payment is new money? Is it not clear that Scotland needs more than just a summit on poverty—it needs action? Does he not realise that continuity will not cut it?

The First Minister

I can see that that got a rapturous response from Paul O’Kane’s own back benchers, and quite rightly so. What was the first action that I took when I became First Minister? I made sure that we did not simply double, but tripled, the fuel insecurity fund. I made sure that we invested £25 million of additional funding for our just transition in the north-east, because I am going to take the workers of the north-east with us on the just transition journey.

I made sure that we invested in school-age childcare, for which I announced £15 million, targeted at the lowest-income households in the country. I made sure that there was additional money for deep-end surgeries, which are the general practices that are located in areas of highest deprivation. That is where my focus, and the focus of this Government, is.

I say to Paul O’Kane that he and I do not differ in our views on the need to go further in reducing and tackling child poverty. However, we should not forget that we are doing that with one hand tied behind our back, and unfortunately he wants to keep that hand tied. The financial levers and the levers over employment and the economy—the substantial levers—are still held by a Conservative Government.

Where we have powers, we must go further, and I am absolutely happy to commit to that. When it comes to taxation—for example, how we redistribute wealth more evenly—I am committed to doing that.

That is why I made sure that we invited the Opposition parties to the anti-poverty summit that the member dismisses. I hope that he will not dismiss that invitation. I hope that he—and, indeed, Anas Sarwar—will come to that summit, because where there are genuinely good ideas, I will make sure that we as a Government listen to them, and that we progress them together.

How will Scottish Government policies account for the needs of and challenges faced by rural and island communities?

The First Minister

There is no doubt that the three driving missions of opportunity, equality and community are vital to everyone, no matter where they live. Whether they live in rural, island or urban Scotland, everyone will benefit from the actions that are taken to tackle poverty, cope with the cost of living crisis and support and strengthen our vital public services.

We will ensure that we take a tailored approach, taking full account of regional circumstances and working closely with our partners in rural and island areas. For example, I am focused on housing in rural areas through the announcement that I have already made in relation to the £25 million fund for affordable homes for those who need them, including key workers. We are also consulting on giving councils powers to raise council tax on second and long-term empty properties, which will help many parts of Scotland, but particularly our rural and island communities. We will also publish a rural delivery plan setting out the actions that this Government is taking to support our rural and island communities.

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

Everyone, including those SNP back benchers otherwise engaged today, knows that this First Minister’s relaunch has been utterly torpedoed. While he is focused on the turmoil in his own party, NHS waiting times are still being missed, more ferries are breaking down and record amounts of sewage are being dumped into Scotland’s rivers. This is a Government in total paralysis.

For those reasonable-minded people finally rethinking their support for the SNP, there is an alternative. Scottish Liberal Democrats will be part of the change that is coming. [Interruption.] There is nervous laughter coming from the SNP benches, but they know that it is true—[Interruption.]. They know that their vote is slipping away from them.

I cannot hear Mr Cole-Hamilton’s question. Can we hear Mr Cole-Hamilton, please?

Alex Cole-Hamilton

I am surprised that you can hear me over the sound of CVs being frantically updated from the Government benches.

I would like to ask the First Minister a question if I may, Presiding Officer. When he was health secretary, Humza Yousaf personally promised to clear down the atrocious mental health waiting lists by this March—March 2023. That came and went; it was an utter failure. How many more years will it be before people are treated on time?

The First Minister

Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of visiting Street Soccer at the Change Centre in Dundee. They managed to rope me into a game of six-a-side with the excellent folk who are involved in engaging with Street Soccer. That game of six-a-side made me think that Alex Cole-Hamilton and his Liberal Democrats could not even field a team with the four Liberal Democrat MSPs that he has. [Interruption.] Oh—he is getting defence from his Conservative colleagues. There is a surprise—they are former coalition partners. I would be careful of boasting with too much confidence about the support that Alex Cole-Hamilton and the Liberal Democrats have here in Scotland.

I say to Alex Cole-Hamilton that the Government is absolutely focused on the issue that he raises. One of our significant priorities is to tackle those far-too-long waits with regard to mental health services, and child and adolescent mental health services in particular. We are making progress. Overall, CAMHS waiting lists have decreased by more than 9 per cent since the last quarter, which is a reduction of 777. The number of children waiting more than 18 weeks has decreased by more than 30 per cent since the last quarter. The number of children waiting more than 52 weeks decreased by more than 40 per cent since the last quarter.

Crucially, the number of children who are starting treatment from CAMHS in this quarter is the highest on record. We are seeing more and more young people, but that is not to take away from the very important points that Alex Cole-Hamilton raised. We are committed to increasing the workforce in CAMHS, and we have seen it continue to increase, but I take his points about mental health very seriously and this Government will be focused on that challenge.

Fergus Ewing (Inverness and Nairn) (SNP)

At the SNP leadership hustings hosted by the excellent Inverness Courier and Highland News media group, the First Minister was asked whether he supported the dualling of the A9 from Perth to Inverness in total and the dualling of the A96 from Inverness to Auldearn, including the Nairn bypass. The First Minister gave very welcome commitments—welcome because they were entirely unequivocal. He said that that will happen and—I very much welcome this—that the capital will be found. When will that excellent news be the subject of a detailed ministerial statement? Given that we have been treading water for two years, will that be before the summer recess?

The First Minister

I spotted Fergus Ewing during the leadership hustings hosted by the excellent Inverness Courier. I give him an absolute assurance that we remain committed to the dualling of the A9. That commitment remains absolute and we have invested more than £430 million to date.

Of course, I can understand completely the disappointment around the Tomatin to Moy section and we are targeting a contract award before the end of 2023. I am engaged with Transport Scotland to see whether that can be brought forward in any way, shape or form, but I know that Fergus Ewing understands our obligations regarding public finance and spending.

On the remaining six sections, an updated timescale will be provided in autumn this year, but I heard Fergus Ewing ask whether we can bring that timetable before the summer recess, so I will take that away for consideration.

We remain committed not just to improving the A96 but, importantly, to dualling the Inverness to Nairn section, including the Nairn bypass, and we will complete the statutory process for that as soon as we can.

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

This Government’s reckless plans to ban fishing in large parts of Scotland’s seas have been conveniently omitted from today’s statement. Plans drawn up and explicitly listed in the SNP’s deal with the Greens have provoked an outcry from coastal communities, the fishing industry, islanders and anyone who cares about Scotland’s economy.

Meanwhile, Scotland’s farmers remain in the dark over SNP plans for future funding, despite rolling tractors on the Parliament’s lawn just a few months ago.

With details as thin as gruel, this latest policy prospectus is more of the same from a Government that remains out of touch with the priorities of rural Scotland. There is no mention of farmers, no mention of fishing, no mention of agriculture and one mention of rural. Will the First Minister listen to rural and coastal communities and drop the reckless highly protected marine area proposals, and will he urgently deliver a new agriculture bill that supports rural Scotland?

The First Minister

This Government has an excellent track record when it comes to working with our rural communities, and particularly our farming communities. [Interruption.] Rachael Hamilton can laugh all she wants. What is not a laughing matter is the hard Brexit that her party has imposed, which has harmed rural Scotland up and down the country.

What I would say on the important issue of highly protected marine areas is that I have heard and have listened—and we will listen—to the concerns of our coastal, island and fishing communities. The consultation closed yesterday, and no criteria have been decided or sites selected. We will analyse the consultation results. I spoke this morning to Màiri McAllan, and she and the Government will engage with those coastal and fishing communities to hear from them.

A very basic principle that we have always operated by, which I reaffirm today, is that we will not impose these policies on communities that do not want them, so we will work constructively with those communities.

Let me go back to the point that I was making to Meghan Gallacher. Let us not forget that we are facing the twin crises of the climate emergency and nature and biodiversity loss. Every time we propose something, the Conservatives oppose it. It is important that the difficult decisions that we make get as much consensus in the Parliament as possible. Only by taking really difficult decisions will we tackle those twin crises.

I hear what a number of our fishing and island communities are saying. Of course, it is an area that is important to the Government and our Green colleagues. I know that we are in absolute agreement that we will work with our coastal and fishing communities to see whether we can find a way forward together.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Before I call the next member, I advise that time is marching on a bit. I am keen to take as many members as possible, as obviously there are many important issues to be raised and responded to, so I would appreciate succinct questions and answers to match, First Minister.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

The First Minister is, unlike his opponents, who want most decisions to be taken by our next-door neighbour, rightly ambitious for Scotland. However, to secure a Scotland in which most decisions are not taken by our next-door neighbour, we need a growing, thriving and productive economy. Is that possible when workers who earn £43,663 to £50,270 a year pay 54 per cent of that marginal rate in income tax and national insurance, with VAT, fuel and excise duties eating into the rest? Does the First Minister accept the Scottish Fiscal Commission’s view that high rates of marginal tax impact Scotland’s productivity, inhibit growth and diminish the resources that are available to tackle poverty and deliver prosperity?

The First Minister

Kenny Gibson has raised an exceptionally important point. I know why groaning came from the Conservatives—that is because they are, of course, in charge of the majority of the economic and financial levers, unfortunately. My disappointment is not with the Conservatives—I expect them to moan and groan any time somebody who is wealthy has to pay more. My concern is more about the Labour Party, which wants to keep those financial and fiscal levers in the hands of the Conservatives. I cannot understand that.

Yes, we will continue to work with business where we can, and we will continue to ensure that we not only bring forward progressive taxation but, where possible, distribute and redistribute Scotland’s wealth more evenly.

I go back to a point that I made to Liz Smith. We will, of course, always ensure that there is robust analysis behind any of our spend or tax decisions but, my goodness, there would a much easier task if we had the full powers of independence so that the levers were in our hands rather than those of the UK Government, which is hell-bent on giving tax cuts only to the wealthiest.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

When it comes to business and the economy, the most remarkable thing about the First Minister’s statement was that it scrapped and U-turned on more initiatives than it created or set up. Indeed, the document is merely bland postures and platitudes. Who is going to object to growing jobs, generating higher wages or creating more businesses other than perhaps the Green ministers, who do not believe in growth? There are no measures, there is no quantum and there is no criterion of success. How many businesses will be created by 2026? What new training and support measures will be put in place to help people into higher-wage work? What reform of the cluttered landscape of enterprise support agencies will be undertaken? Overall, if the First Minister is so clear that there needs to be a new deal for business, what was wrong with the old deal?

The First Minister

This is about new leadership and the ability for a fresh start to build on the successes that the Government has had. Just think of the many businesses—the thousands or tens of thousands of businesses; in fact, even more businesses than that—that would not have survived the global pandemic if it were not for the measures that we had put in place before the pandemic such as the small business bonus scheme. We have worked incredibly hard with business over the years, and I listen to business when it wants a reset of the relationship. That is why we will take longer on the launch of the DRS, for example. That is about listening to business. I am certain that, if I had said that we would go live in August, I would have been castigated by the Opposition for that. I am afraid that there is, I suspect, no way in which I will be able to appease Daniel Johnson, despite my very best efforts.

On the points that I agree with Daniel Johnson on, his point on reforming what he calls “the cluttered landscape” of agencies is worthy of attention. The Government is collectively looking at that.

On the prospectus itself, there is a clear set of outcomes on whose delivery the Opposition and the Scottish public can hold us to account. We have promised to report on those outcomes annually. I am sure that Daniel Johnson will take great joy in holding the Government to account in that regard.

Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

For years now, the UK Government has failed to reach a decision on excluding Scotland’s bottle deposit return scheme from the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, and it now very much looks like it has deliberately generated uncertainty to undermine the scheme, up to and including Alister Jack misleading the House of Commons. That is Westminster’s delay, but can the First Minister say what he and the Minister for Green Skills, Circular Economy and Biodiversity will do to secure—[Interruption.]

Excuse me, Mr Greer. We need to hear Mr Greer’s question. A brief question would be appreciated. Thank you.

Can the First Minister say what he and the Minister for Green Skills, Circular Economy and Biodiversity will do to secure the exclusion and ensure that Scotland’s scheme goes ahead next March?

The First Minister

It is no surprise that the Scottish Tories do not understand devolution. There is no doubt whatsoever that not providing the exemption under the internal market act is an existential matter for the deposit return scheme. We cannot progress the scheme without an exemption under the act, which far overreaches issues of devolution.

I am absolutely committed to the deposit return scheme, which will reduce littering substantially—by a third. It will increase the recycling rate of single-use drinks containers towards 90 per cent and cut emissions by 4 million tonnes over 25 years, which is the equivalent of taking 83,000 cars off the road. The scheme has already delivered hundreds of millions of pounds of investment across Scotland and it will create more than 500 new green jobs.

We need the UK Government exclusion from the internal market act, and we will do everything in our power to achieve that. Some UK Government departments, such as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, support an exemption, but we know that Alister Jack will do everything that he possibly can to undermine the Scottish Parliament and devolution. We will continue to do what we can, but it would help if those who say that they support the deposit return scheme got behind the Scottish Government and persuaded the UK Government to do the right thing and allow the scheme to go ahead next year.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

I very much welcome what the First Minister said about being bolder on taxation and redistribution of wealth. Will he say more about the second and empty homes council tax initiative and about whether we can replace council tax in the longer term?

The First Minister

I have announced a joint consultation with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on changes to council tax, because we can possibly go further. I am really up for that discussion. The Scottish Trades Union Congress published an excellent report in December or towards the tail end of last year that made a number of policy suggestions that are worthy of consideration by the Government. Many involved reforming council tax, but alternatives to council tax were also discussed.

Scotland has led the way in delivering affordable housing across the country—for example, between 2018 and 2022, 59 per cent more affordable homes were delivered per head of population in Scotland than in England. I am keen to look at what we can do within current council tax structures, but I certainly would not rule out further reform of council tax. We could also look at the alternatives to council tax, because we know that we can do better.

Sandesh Gulhane (Glasgow) (Con)

A priority for the Scottish people is the recovery of our NHS and its sustainability for the future, rather than the continuity with the Sturgeon era that is being offered. The previous First Minister has left a woeful record in health. Primary care is where almost all healthcare is delivered, and the Maryhill group practice in Elgin sent me a copy of its letter to the new Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care, which highlights the growing threat of financial instability for general practices. Practices are already short staffed and under pressure. The SNP’s £65 million cut from the primary care budget affects everyone and is undermining general practice. Will the First Minister commit to reinstating the £65 million to protect general practice and the NHS’s future?

The First Minister

When I spoke about social care issues, I said that there can be no NHS recovery without a social care recovery. Forgive me if I said that we would commit to a timetable to get to wages of £10 an hour; I meant £12 an hour. I believe that that figure will help with the workforce challenges that are being faced in adult social care in particular. I give Sandesh Gulhane the absolute commitment that we believe that a social care recovery is vital to our NHS recovery.

What is also vital to an NHS recovery is not having NHS staff feeling that they have no choice but to go on strike, as they have done time and again in Conservative-led England. Staff have done that because the Conservatives do not value our NHS staff in the way that the Scottish Government does. That is why our NHS staff remain the best paid, in comparison with those anywhere else in the UK. We will engage meaningfully—the Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care will do that with junior doctors later this week—and I hope that we will get to a point where we can prevent industrial action.

We will continue to invest in primary care. It is fair to say that we have a record number of general practitioners in Scotland. There are more GPs per head of population here than there are in the rest of the UK: our 95 GPs for every 100,000 people in Scotland compares with 79 GPs for every 100,000 people in England. We are committed to further increasing the number of GPs in Scotland by 800 by the end of 2027.

To answer the member’s question directly, we are committed to investing an additional £1 billion in our NHS. That is possible only because we did not listen to the Conservatives’ advice that we should give tax cuts to the wealthiest, which would have meant £500 million less to spend in the Scottish Government’s budget.

We must have succinct questions and, First Minister, succinct answers, otherwise I will have to cut the number of people who ask a question. I would like to get in as many members as I possibly can.

Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

The First Minister will be aware of the many challenges that we have across Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders, including the need for investment in roads and rail infrastructure so that we can keep young folk and attract businesses to those regions. Will the First Minister give a commitment that this Government will pay attention to the needs of Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders? Will he advance the strategic transport projects review 2? Will he show that those regions are not forgotten, because we in the south are crucial to Scotland’s future, and to our economy, culture and—

Thank you, Ms Harper. That is not brief.

Sorry.

The First Minister

In the interests of brevity, I say that I will commit to that. Of course, important improvements to the A77 and A75 are part of STPR2. We will ensure that we make progress on those.

The South of Scotland Enterprise’s £34.5 million budget will also improve business and community resilience. It will help to protect and, crucially, create jobs. That sits alongside the £85 million that we are investing in the Borderlands inclusive growth deal. I will do everything that I can to ensure that this Government meets the needs of the people of the south of Scotland.

Pam Duncan-Glancy (Glasgow) (Lab)

This Government has had 16 years to get childcare right, but parents still struggle. They find childcare to be inflexible and does not wrap around their lives. What is available is there only for some kids of certain ages. That drives inequality, holds back opportunity and fails communities.

I welcomed Humza Yousaf’s commitment during the leadership campaign to deliver free childcare for one and two-year-olds. Today’s plan talks only of developing that childcare, not of delivering it. This new Government has promised ambition, but we are yet to see it. There is a difference between being developed—

I need a question, please.

—and being delivered. Will the First Minister promise people who become parents over the next year that their child will have access to free childcare by the time that they turn one?

The First Minister

I made it very clear during the election contest to which Pam Duncan-Glancy referred that we would accelerate the expansion of childcare to one and two-year-olds. That continues to be this Government’s priority.

I will demonstrate just how important a priority childcare is to me and the Government that I lead: one of my first announcements was an investment of £15 million to increase school-age childcare for those in the lowest-income households. I am absolutely committed to that.

The point that I take from Pam Duncan-Glancy’s question is that we must work with the sector, because we know that there are challenges around what it perceives to be equitable funding—or the need for more equitable funding—in relation to childcare costs. I am happy to engage—I will be engaging—with the sector directly.

I remain committed to the promises that I made during the election contest to accelerate the expansion of childcare for one and two-year-olds.

Clare Haughey (Rutherglen) (SNP)

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests. Supporting mental health and the wellbeing of children and young people is crucial to achieving the Government’s ambition to make Scotland the best place in the world to grow up in. What will the Government do to ensure that children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing are supported?

The First Minister

We will focus on ensuring that young people in particular get timely access to the mental health treatment that they most definitely need. I gave some examples of where we are making progress, earlier—I think that was in response to Alex Cole-Hamilton’s question. In addition, we will continue to invest in child and adolescent mental health services support staff.

Furthermore, the Government and I am committed to investing in pre-crisis interventions. We know that CAMHS does an excellent job, and that those who work in the service do an excellent job. However, we also know how useful and beneficial it can be to young people if we can invest in earlier—pre-crisis—intervention.

Clare Haughey knows this area very well. She should be in no doubt whatsoever of this Government’s firm commitment to mental health, to bringing down waiting lists and to reducing backlogs, particularly for our young people

On 28 February, Lorna Slater said that

“no one with any credibility would delay”

the deposit return scheme. Given that the First Minister has just done that, was she right?

The First Minister

Of course, we know that the UK Government’s failure to grant an exemption from the provisions of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 is existential for the deposit return scheme.

In answer to the member’s question, no, the UK Government is not credible and never will be credible, which is why the Conservatives have been thrashed in every election in Scotland for more than half a century.

I can squeeze in Mr Fairlie if he asks a brief question and the First Minister gives a succinct answer.

Jim Fairlie (Perthshire South and Kinross-shire) (SNP)

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

Yesterday, I was at Letham Climate Challenge’s swap shop in Letham, where I was born, in my constituency. It helps people who are in desperate need of the most basic things, such as furniture, bed linen, clothes, crockery, cups and cutlery. The demand for the shop’s services is now so great that the manager has asked me to help her to find more volunteers. The increase in demand is a direct result of the policies of the Conservative Party on that side of the chamber, which is now being ably helped by the Labour Party on the other side.

Rather than independence being a distraction, as claimed by the unionist parties, does the First Minister agree that, now more than ever, it is an absolute imperative to ensure that this country can be governed in a way that makes Tory food banks and climate change swap shops things of the past?

The First Minister

I absolutely agree with what my colleague Jim Fairlie has said. As I have set out today, independence is essential. We cannot afford to be in this unequal union a day longer. What has it resulted in? It has resulted in a cost crisis, in a hard Brexit—which is now supported by the Labour Party, too—in a policy under which we turn back refugees who are in need, and in policies that have led to the UK’s economic growth lagging behind that of every other major G7 economy.

I absolutely agree with Jim Fairlie that, with the powers of independence, we will build a wealthier, fairer, greener and more equal country, and I will be doing everything that I can to ensure that this country achieves independence sooner rather than later.

That concludes the First Minister’s statement.

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Following my question, I declare an interest as a working GP in the NHS.

Thank you, Dr Gulhane. That will be noted on the record.