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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, June 20, 2024


First Minister’s Question Time

Rosebank Oil and Gas Field

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

The oil and gas sector is vital for the north-east and for the whole of Scotland. The Rosebank energy development will create 1,600 jobs and will bring £6 billion of investment to the country. Why does John Swinney oppose that? (S6F-03240)

The First Minister (John Swinney)

The issues in connection with the Rosebank oilfield have been the subject of a very active case, which is influenced by a decision in the Supreme Court today, so I will need to be careful about what I say in relation to the Rosebank development.

As Mr Ross will acknowledge, the Scottish Government believes that any new application for oil and gas developments has to have associated with it a very detailed and specific climate compatibility assessment, which should be undertaken to determine whether any such development can proceed in a fashion that is compatible with our journey to net zero. That is the approach that the Government believes should be taken.

Douglas Ross

We are talking about 1,600 jobs, £6 billion of investment and a Scottish National Party First Minister who cannot welcome that and cannot support it, because the SNP opposes every single new oil and gas development in the North Sea.


Douglas Ross

Oh! We are hearing “No” from Kevin Stewart. I wonder whether John Swinney will be able to tell us which developments the Scottish Government supports.

Here is what some of John Swinney’s predecessors have said. Nicola Sturgeon, who John Swinney stood side by side with for decades, said that Rosebank was the

“greatest act of environmental vandalism”

in her lifetime. When the development was given the green light, Humza Yousaf said that it was “the wrong decision”. Just last week, John Swinney, speaking about new oil and gas licences, said that the granting of them was “utterly irresponsible”.

Why has SNP leader after SNP leader been against granting new oil and gas licences for the North Sea?

I think that one of the reasons why Douglas Ross is leaving the leadership of the Conservative Party—

You don’t answer the questions—that’s why.

Mr Ross!

Oh, so Mr Ross—

First Minister!

Mr Ross, we will not continue in such a manner. We must conduct our business in a courteous and respectful manner.

I suspect that one of the reasons why Douglas Ross is leaving the leadership of the Conservative Party is that he is not presenting an accurate picture of the remarks that I have made. [Interruption.]

Members, let us hear one another.

The First Minister

The specific remark that I made was that a commitment by the Prime Minister to undertake 100 new oil and gas licences without any scrutiny was climate change denial of the first order, and utterly and totally reckless. Those were my words, and I will not have them misrepresented by Douglas Ross.

We have a rational and considered process, which we have argued for, which is that every individual application should be subject to a climate compatibility assessment, because there is a journey that we as a country have to make to reach net zero. That is inescapable.

What is clear from the position that has been taken by the Prime Minister, which has been supported by Douglas Ross and the Conservatives, is that they do not care about the journey on climate; they are not interested in the crisis that we face with the climate emergency. The Scottish Government will take the responsible approach to managing the transition and the challenges of the climate emergency.

Douglas Ross

What we have just heard from John Swinney—and his MSPs are applauding—is that he and the SNP do not care about tens of thousands of jobs in the north-east of Scotland. They do not care about the oil and gas sector, which is needed for our energy security now and going forward. When Rosebank and Cambo were approved—just as when any new development is approved—the SNP opposed it. The SNP opposes new oil and gas developments.

John Swinney did not seem to want to hear what the previous First Minister said, nor did he want to hear his own comments that new licences were “utterly irresponsible”. Let us hear from some of his current cabinet ministers. Màiri McAllan, the Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero and Energy, said:

“we do not agree with the UK Government issuing new oil and gas licences.”—[Official Report, 22 November 2022; c 12.]

That is from the SNP Government’s energy secretary.

I have with me a letter that her predecessor, Neil Gray, the former energy secretary, wrote to climate activists. He said:

“We have long expressed our concern about Rosebank being given the go-ahead.”

Before that, Michael Matheson lodged a consultation on a presumption against new oil and gas licences. Why does SNP energy secretary after SNP energy secretary oppose new oil and gas licences, which are crucial to the Scottish energy sector?

The First Minister

I think that if Mr Ross were to look at the material that the Government has published and the process that we believe should be taken forward in a rational and considered way, he would find that the Government’s position is anchored around a number of principles. First, we have to assess the compatibility of any oil and gas licence application with the journey towards net zero, and a rigorous and thorough process must be undertaken around that. Secondly, in coming to that assessment, we must consider issues in relation to our energy security. Thirdly, we must take a responsible approach to managing the transition to net zero.

I am not going to stand here and be lectured by a leader of the Conservatives, whose party presided over the industrial devastation of central Scotland, the consequences of which we as a Government are still having to address. The Government will take a responsible approach to the management of the oil and gas sector and its transition to net zero, and we will take absolutely no lessons from the Conservatives.

Douglas Ross

I say to John Swinney that there is nothing rational or considered about turning your back on the Scottish oil and gas sector by claiming that you are against every oil and gas licence but being unable to say so, being unable to be truthful with the people of Scotland. The First Minister should just be honest: the SNP opposes every single new oil and gas licence being issued by the United Kingdom Government—that is the case. Whenever a new development is proposed in the North Sea, the SNP opposes it. It opposes every round of new licences that are granted for the oil and gas sector. In recent years, it has not supported any new fields—not one.

Whatever John Swinney is claiming today is only a temporary position for the SNP. Its position is very clear: it does not, and will not, stand up for Scotland’s oil and gas industry. It is willing to put tens of thousands of jobs and the north-east’s economy at risk. The Scottish Conservatives support Scotland’s oil and gas industry. Why does the SNP oppose it?

I am not sure that Douglas Ross is on his strongest ground—

About oil and gas?

—in taking me to task about honesty.

Here is Honest John.

Mr Ross, I ask you to apologise for that comment.

I apologise for calling the First Minister Honest John.

Mr Ross, we are not going to continue like this. I ask you to reflect on your conduct.

The First Minister

I do not think that Douglas Ross is in a particularly strong position today to raise issues of honesty with me, when the Gambling Commission is investigating the alleged conduct of senior figures in the Conservative and Unionist Party. I think that Douglas Ross is on thin ground.

I also do not think that—

The Presiding Officer

Sorry, First Minister.

Mr Ross, this is actually First Minister’s question time, when many members across the chamber wish to have an opportunity to put a question to the First Minister. I would like to make sure that that is possible for as many members as possible. In order to do that, we must conduct ourselves in a courteous and respectful manner.

The First Minister

I also do not think that Douglas Ross is on strong ground in attacking me about the rational and considered position that the Scottish Government is taking, when the Prime Minister is ignoring the climate emergency by sanctioning 100 oil and gas licences without any questions being asked. That is irresponsible. That is action that will accelerate the climate emergency.

This Government will take a rational and considered approach to oil and gas developments. We will also support the oil and gas sector to transition to the essential work that we need to undertake on renewables, because Scotland’s future lies as a green energy renewables powerhouse, and the Scottish Government is putting in place the measures to make that happen.

National Health Service Treatment

2. Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

Our national health service faces a national crisis in what is known as corridor care, where patients are treated on trolleys in corridors because there are simply not enough beds in wards for them. This week, the Royal College of Emergency Medicine published a new analysis that found that, on average, 45 per cent of patients who were treated in our emergency departments did not have access to a private cubicle. In the RCEM’s words,

“when no cubicle is available, patients are treated in other areas: trolleys in corridors, cars, the waiting room, relative rooms, plaster rooms.”

I ask members to imagine themselves, or one of their loved ones, lying on a trolley for hours with no privacy and no dignity, just pain and distress. After 17 years of this Scottish National Party Government, why has corridor care become such a commonplace?

The First Minister (John Swinney)

As Mr Sarwar will know, the issues and challenges in the national health service today are driven by a number of factors. One of them is the increase in demand in the aftermath of Covid, which the national health service is doing its level best to try to address.

We are wrestling also with the challenges of our hospitals being significantly congested because of the challenges around delayed discharge. Those challenges come largely from the fact that we do not have enough social care packages available in the community, because we do not have enough people in the workforce to deliver the volume of social care that is required. That is a consequence of the loss of population because of the loss of free movement under Brexit. The issues that we are wrestling with are significant and acute, and the Government and our health boards are focused on addressing that.

Finally, I say to Mr Sarwar that, if anybody is treated in the fashion that he has recounted and if anybody has that experience—I have seen media reports this morning of a particular case at the Queen Elizabeth university hospital—I apologise unreservedly to them, and I assure members of the public and their families that the Government is doing all that it can to address that circumstance.

Anas Sarwar

I have been coming to the chamber week after week for the past three years, and week after week we have been hearing apologies from SNP First Ministers. We then get apologies the week after and the week after that, and nothing changes in people’s lived experience.

Let us be clear: long waits cost lives. The Royal College of Emergency Medicine has warned that, for every 72 patients who wait over eight hours in accident and emergency departments, there will be one excess death. That is a death that could have been avoided if the patient had been treated on time. That means that, so far this year, more than 1,000 Scots have died who could have been saved had they been treated on time. That is 1,000 avoidable deaths of people so far this year alone, and it is only June. Those are fathers and mothers, and sons and daughters, who died because they could not get their care on time. Why have those families been so badly let down by the SNP Government?

The First Minister

In my earlier answer, I set out some of the issues that are driving that particular situation and I will repeat them: the increase in demand after Covid; the congestion in our hospitals, which now have in excess of 95 per cent occupancy, which is far too high and should be about 10 per cent lower for ordinary activity; and the absence of adequate social care capacity in the community, because we do not have enough social care workers to deliver social care packages. That is the explanation of the problem.

Mr Sarwar says that he comes here week after week to raise these issues. I know that he does, and he gets these answers, but what is required is that we take action. This Government has taken the action of increasing tax on higher earners in order to boost investment in the national health service. The national health service would have had less money available to it if this Government had not taken the hard decisions on tax.

The general election gives us an opportunity to do something about this. We could encourage more people into the labour force, which would require us to reintroduce freedom of movement, so that people can come to work in this country, or encourage more investment and take more investment decisions, such as ending austerity. However, Mr Sarwar’s party is proposing no answer to these issues. In fact, it is proposing the reverse by saying that it will maintain Brexit and austerity. That is not good enough—it is time for the Labour Party to act.

Anas Sarwar

If that is the best answer that a politician who has been in power for 17 years can give, he has to take a serious look in the mirror. In fact, it was John Swinney, as finance secretary, who cut local government and social care budgets across the country, so perhaps he should reflect on his own record, because the reality is that patients and staff have been failed and let down by this SNP Government.

A few weeks ago, the Royal College of Nursing reported on this issue, and it quoted a Scottish nurse, who said:

“We don’t complain for ourselves but for the patient. There are no screens to go round the patient. So, if they are being bed bathed or need a bed pan, you have to take a patient out of their bed space and move them into a corridor, then move the extra patient into the bed space to use the bed pan. It’s time consuming, there is not enough space in the rooms. It’s undignified for the patient.”

That unbearable situation is unfair to patients and staff.

First Minister, can you explain directly to that heartbroken nurse why you and your Government continue to let them down so badly?

Members should always speak through the chair.

The First Minister

I have explained the challenge and the difficulty. The Government has taken the action of increasing taxation for higher earners in order to invest more in the national health service than would have been the case had we just passed on the consequentials from United Kingdom funding. We have taken the hard decisions, and there was, of course, a time when Mr Sarwar would have supported us, but he has now U-turned on that position. As a consequence of what he said on Tuesday, he wants to cut the money that is available to the public finances.

Mr Sarwar is shaking his head at me. [Interruption.]


The First Minister

Mr Sarwar obviously does not understand what he was saying at his press conference on Tuesday. The consequences of his stance will be to reduce public expenditure in Scotland. It is, quite simply, beyond credibility to come here and ask me to invest more money in the national health service, in order to tackle the issues that Mr Sarwar is concerned about, when he wants to cut public expenditure and any prospective incoming United Kingdom Government will also cut public expenditure.

What about the nurse?

My answer to that nurse is that we must have an end to austerity, and she will not get that from the Labour Government.


3. Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

In precisely that vein, the First Minister tried this week to present the Scottish National Party as the only party that is committed to ending the cuts and reversing austerity. Apart from changes to income tax, which have already been done in Scotland, thanks to pressure from the Greens, the only actual change that he proposed was to devolve taxes and not increase them. Scotland should have control over oil and gas windfall taxes, other corporate taxes, national insurance, fuel duty and VAT, but only if we use those powers to raise revenue. The only change that the First Minister proposed was a VAT cut. Does he agree with the Greens that reversing the cuts and providing the investment that the country so clearly needs can be done only by raising significant revenue from the super-rich, who are hoarding the country’s wealth?

The First Minister (John Swinney)

There are two aspects to answering that question. The first is the actions of the Scottish Government, and Mr Harvie will be familiar with these points. We have taken a range of decisions to vary the tax position in Scotland and, in some circumstances, to ask higher earners to pay more in taxation where that is appropriate. The Government has set out its position and its fiscal approach to enable that to be the case.

There is then the debate about the forthcoming United Kingdom election. I set out my party’s position yesterday, and if the Presiding Officer will forgive me, I refer Mr Harvie to the contents of our manifesto, which sets out a number of tax and spending changes that we would make to enable the priorities that we set out to be afforded within the financial envelope that is available to us.

Before I call Mr Harvie, I remind members that the chamber is not the place to campaign for a UK general election.

Patrick Harvie

Indeed, Presiding Officer.

The First Minister is right about the additional revenue from income tax as a result of the work that the Greens did to show how that could be done, but he presented no plans at all for a wealth tax. As I said, the Greens worked out the detail on progressive income tax for Scotland, so maybe the First Minister is relying on us once again to do the work for him. He supports our proposals for a wealth tax on the richest 1 per cent, which would raise at least £70 billion. The real problem for the First Minister is that, whichever party forms the next UK Government, it will still be committed to Tory fiscal rules and will still refuse to rejoin the European Union, which will cut off both sources of extra revenue that the First Minister is relying on.

When a new Labour chancellor inevitably imposes more austerity to keep Labour’s new billionaire backers happy, what will the First Minister do with the taxes that he does control? Will he go further to raise the funds that we need to stop more cuts in Scotland, and will he finally scrap the broken council tax system to let our councils raise the revenue that they need to protect their services?

The First Minister

There are obviously a lot of fiscal choices involved in Mr Harvie’s question. He knows me well enough to know that the budget does not get written from here randomly during question time on a Thursday afternoon. There will be a process of engagement across the parliamentary spectrum to enable that to be undertaken.

However, I agree with Mr Harvie that the conspiracy of silence that exists between the Conservative Party and the Labour Party to hide the £18 billion of cuts from the public is reprehensible. The one thing that must happen after the election that we face is an end to austerity. Our public services cannot cope with any more austerity and, unfortunately, the outcome of the United Kingdom general election—the election of either a Conservative or a Labour Government—will deliver more austerity. We need to use our votes effectively in the election to prevent that from happening.

Remote Visa

4. Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s position is on the call from the Federation of Small Businesses Scotland for the next United Kingdom Administration to pilot a remote visa to benefit remote areas such as the Highlands, in line with the Migration Advisory Committee recommendation, and any implications that this could have for Scotland’s economy. (S6F-03255)

The First Minister (John Swinney)

The UK Government’s own Migration Advisory Committee described our rural visa pilot proposal as

“sensible and clear in both scale and deliverability”,

and it highlighted that it is in the UK Government’s interest to trial it. Despite that, and despite the harm that has been caused to our rural and island communities by a hard Brexit, the current United Kingdom Government refused to engage.

The business sector recognises those harms. It is therefore welcome that FSB Scotland is calling for a rural visa pilot, which recognises that businesses need to attract people to Scotland to contribute to our economy and communities. Our offer to the next United Kingdom Government is simple—work with us and with stakeholders across Scotland, which are calling in the strongest terms possible for that pilot to be delivered.

Clare Adamson

Scotland’s rural communities often face economic challenges for a range of reasons, and that has been exacerbated by a hard Tory Brexit. What is the First Minister’s latest assessment of the impact of Brexit on the population of rural Scotland and on the ability of businesses across Scotland that face acute workforce shortages to attract new employees? What is his response to the rejection of the European Commission’s offer of youth mobility for under-30s?

The First Minister

The issues that Clare Adamson puts to me are very real. Over the weekend and at the start of this week, I spent several days in the north-east, the Highlands, the north-west and our islands on the west coast. Everywhere that I went, I heard about the challenges of availability of population, which is at the heart of Clare Adamson’s questions.

The initiative that the European Commission took in proposing a youth mobility scheme is welcome. Such a scheme would be compatible with the Scottish Government’s openness to freedom of movement for individuals. It is a matter of record that the current United Kingdom Government has resisted addressing those issues. I hope that, after the election, there will be some opportunity to advance those issues, and I will constructively take them forward with an incoming United Kingdom Government. I intend to engage constructively on those questions so that we can find practical solutions to the issues that have been put to me by businesses.

In reference to the point that Mr Sarwar raised about the health service, one of the areas that face the greatest challenge in relation to delayed discharge is the Highlands. That challenge is about the availability of population in communities to deliver social care.

The issues that Clare Adamson puts to me are very important, and the Government will engage constructively to try to resolve them with an incoming United Kingdom Government.

Nuclear Power

To ask the First Minister what his response is to the reported comment from the Nuclear Industry Association that his stance on nuclear power is “hopelessly ideological and anti-science”. (S6F-03246)

The First Minister (John Swinney)

The Scottish Government does not support the building of new nuclear power stations in Scotland. We have abundant natural resources and a highly skilled workforce that enables us to take advantage of the many renewable energy opportunities.

Evidence shows that new nuclear is more expensive than renewable alternatives. Nuclear energy also creates radioactive waste, which must be safely managed over many decades to protect the environment, and that requires complex and expensive handling. The Scottish Government is supporting continued growth in renewables, storage, hydrogen and carbon capture technologies to drive economic growth, support green jobs and provide secure, affordable and clean energy for Scotland.

Graham Simpson

So it is “hopelessly ideological and anti-science”.

Wind energy is available only 45 per cent of the time and it requires back-up from gas. In comparison, nuclear is available 90 per cent of the time and is therefore far more reliable. The First Minister’s anti-nuclear energy stance has seen gas consumption double since 2015, so we have to assume that he wants to follow the example of Germany, Austria and Belgium, whose carbon emissions have risen after the decommissioning of nuclear plants.

Last week, the GMB congress called for the Scottish Government to lift the ban. It has now invited Kate Forbes to meet nuclear workers at Hunterston. Will she go?

The First Minister

I gave Graham Simpson a considered answer. I do not think that it could in any way be described as ideological, because I made the point that evidence shows that new nuclear is more expensive than renewable alternatives. We are facing a cost of living and public finance crisis, so any responsible First Minister will look to make sure that we take the most fiscally efficient approach to energy generation.

This Government, as a result of its clear policy leadership, has successfully decarbonised electricity generation in Scotland. We have developed renewable energy with policy certainty. I want to give the same policy certainty to storage, to hydrogen and to carbon capture technologies, in order to drive economic growth and support green jobs.

What troubles me is that we have fabulous projects in Scotland—in, for example, carbon capture and technology, such as the Acorn project—and we have been led up the garden path by the Treasury and by United Kingdom ministers. I have lost count of the number of times, when I was a senior minister, that UK ministers promised me, face to face, an acceleration of the Acorn project. It has not happened.

I am afraid to say that Graham Simpson does not have a leg to stand on with that question. We have a clear strategy on renewables, and we will pursue it sustainably to deliver for the people of Scotland.

Jackie Dunbar (Aberdeen Donside) (SNP)

I fully support the First Minister’s stance regarding nuclear power. Has any MSP ever written to the Scottish Government to propose or support the building of nuclear power stations in their communities in areas that they represent?

The First Minister

I am not personally aware of any such correspondence. However, it is important that we have a very clear strategy for the generation of electricity in our country. The Government is giving that policy certainty and I want to ensure that it is widely understood in Scotland.

Sponsorship of Cultural Events

6. Neil Bibby (West Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the First Minister what assurances the Scottish Government can provide to the arts and culture sector to ensure confidence, in light of the reported issues with the sponsorship of cultural events. (S6F-03260)

The First Minister (John Swinney)

The Scottish Government recognises the valuable role that corporate and philanthropic giving plays in supporting the culture sector, and we are committed to working with all interested parties to help to restore the confidence that has been damaged in light of recent events. The Scottish Government has publicly called for dialogue and, crucially, has highlighted the damage that disinvestment campaigns are doing, which fundamentally undermines the sector and our world-class festivals, a number of which continue to receive significant amounts of public funding. Indeed, Scottish Government funding to the culture sector is increasing by £15.8 million in this financial year to £196.6 million, and we have also recently reaffirmed our commitment to investing at least £100 million more, annually, in culture and arts by the financial year 2028-29.

Neil Bibby

Many figures in Scotland’s culture sector are warning that the scale of their funding crisis cannot be overstated. There is a real need to shore up confidence in supporting cultural organisations so that they are targets for investment, not disinvestment. I backed calls from the sector for the Government to hold a festivals funding summit back in April, but the Government rejected that proposal. That position is surely now unsustainable. Will the First Minister convene an urgent meeting of private and philanthropic supporters to ensure on-going sponsorship of the arts and culture sector?

The First Minister

I am very happy to engage on the point that Mr Bibby has raised. I welcome his question, because it provides me with the opportunity to say a bit more about the issue. I have been deeply concerned by the events that have taken place. I have spoken with the leadership of Baillie Gifford; I am concerned about the targeting of that company, because I welcome the philanthropic support that it provides to many organisations. I have reassured the company of the importance that I attach to its contribution to the economy. The disinvestment campaigns are misplaced; I do not think that they achieve their objectives; and they are now jeopardising really important cultural festivals that I know Mr Bibby and I value equally.

I will take away Mr Bibby’s proposal. I said in my original answer that the Government has publicly called for dialogue. Angus Robertson, who is the Cabinet Secretary for Constitution, External Affairs and Culture, has been engaging heavily on the question with a number of interested parties. However, if a further, more formal dialogue is required, I will consider that proposal and reply to Mr Bibby.

We move to general supplementaries and constituency questions.

GP Practices (Penicuik)

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

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care is aware of the concerns about cuts to the services of general practitioner practices in Penicuik, which the practices state are due in part to NHS Lothian’s increasing rental costs. As the First Minister will imagine, I have had many emails on the matter from concerned constituents. Has NHS Lothian taken into account the substantial increase in house building, and therefore in population, in Penicuik and the surrounding area?

The First Minister (John Swinney)

I will have to explore that particular point to determine whether that analysis has been undertaken. I understand the challenge that Christine Grahame has raised about the sharp rise in population in the Penicuik area, which is part of the particularly acute rise in population in general in the south-east of Scotland—particularly in West Lothian, Midlothian, East Lothian and the city of Edinburgh. That rise will place a strain on public infrastructure such as GP surgeries.

The issues relating to charges for premises and utilisation costs are a matter for negotiation between GP practices and health boards, but I will take away the specific point that Christine Grahame put to me in order to determine what analysis has been put in place to address the issue.

River Garden Auchincruive

Sharon Dowey (South Scotland) (Con)

The Scottish National Party awarded funding to River Garden, a rehabilitation centre in Auchincruive, to help 56 people recover from drug addiction, but that funding has been paused. Those financial constraints mean that the centre can currently accommodate only six people and that the future of the facility is now at risk, with fears that it may close within weeks.

Scotland has the worst rate of drug deaths in Europe, but beds are lying empty because funding has been frozen. Will the First Minister look at that immediately and sort it out?

The First Minister (John Swinney)

That is a very specific issue, so I cannot give Sharon Dowey a direct response today, but I will take that away and explore it.

My answer to a question from Mr Greene a few weeks ago indicated that we are on target to increase the number of beds available for rehabilitation services, according to the expectations of the national mission on drug deaths, so I am surprised to hear the information that Sharon Dowey has put to Parliament today, given that it is my expectation that we will achieve our published targets.

I will take that particular question away and explore the issue of River Garden.

Social Services (Cuts)

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

Across Scotland, national health service and social care partnerships are facing a combined budget gap of almost £1.4 billion, which means that there will be severe cuts to social care services. In Glasgow, that will lead to cuts to community health services, cuts to the discharge and resettlement teams, cuts to care home nursing teams and the loss of 72 staff, including health visitors, nurses, allied health professionals and complex needs workers. Will the First Minister tell me why, if we all agree that we must increase support for primary care, his Government is doing the exact opposite in Glasgow and is cutting social services and staff?

The First Minister (John Swinney)

That is courageous questioning from Jackie Baillie. For some considerable time, I have been trying to set out to Parliament the enormous pressure on public finances. [Interruption.] If Jackie Baillie would stop interrupting me, we might make a little more progress.

Scotland faces a public spending crisis, but the Labour Party is proposing to continue that austerity. That is what is being proposed. [Interruption.]


The First Minister

This Government has taken hard decisions to increase the resources that are available for investment in public services. We have asked people with higher earnings to contribute more in taxation to enable us to invest more in the health service and in social care. That is what we have done. Jackie Baillie opposed that—she opposed every single bit of it.

There is now an opportunity, on 4 July, to elect a Government that could end austerity, but the Labour Party is not seizing the opportunity to end austerity—the Labour Party is going to prolong austerity. I gently suggest to Jackie Baillie that it would help the situation if the Labour Party committed itself to ending austerity and supported this Government’s agenda so that we could address the issues that she raises with me.

National Health Service (Spending)

Evelyn Tweed (Stirling) (SNP)

Analysis by the Nuffield Trust has indicated that both Labour’s and the Tories’ plans for the national health service would leave the health service with lower spending increases than those during the years of Tory austerity. [Interruption.] Does the First Minister agree that we should be prioritising additional investment in our NHS, not cutting it?

The First Minister (John Swinney)

While Evelyn Tweed was asking her question, the source of her information—the Nuffield Trust—was being criticised by members in this Parliament. It is important that we all recognise that the Nuffield Trust, which is the source of the information that Evelyn Tweed put on the record, is a much-respected health commentary organisation. The trust has indicated that the proposals in the Labour and Conservative manifestos would result in lower increases in health spending than those during the worst years of Conservative austerity.

That means that there has been a missed opportunity to address the very issues that Jackie Baillie and Anas Sarwar have put to me today. We have to ensure that we have a realistic debate about investment in the health service. This Government has taken the hard decisions to increase tax on higher earners so that we can invest more in the national health service. I wish that other people would follow the example that we have shown about investment in the health service.

Parole System

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

Last week, The Courier reported:

“A new parole hearing date has been confirmed for Angus killer Tasmin Glass as she seeks release from prison after serving only half her ten-year sentence ... Her case will now be considered by the Parole Board ... for a third time on July 26 ... the day before a memorial motorbike ride in honour of her victim Steven Donaldson ... A family spokesperson said: ‘The Parole Board ... has kept us waiting since February ... It has been a long and difficult wait for us ... with the Scottish parole board deferring the decision twice already ... The timing of the parole hearing is difficult for us.’”

The Courier’s voice for victims campaign considers that the parole system retraumatises victims and needs greater transparency and communication between those who are involved. Does the First Minister agree? If so, what will he do about it?

The First Minister (John Swinney)

First, I express my sympathy to the family that is involved in this case—the Donaldson family. I am familiar with the case, given my representation of areas adjacent to those affected.

As Mr Kerr will know, the decisions that are taken by the Parole Board for Scotland are for the Parole Board and are independent of Government. He would not expect me to comment on the substance of them.

I accept Mr Kerr’s point that all aspects of our justice system must be trauma informed. Before my election as First Minister, I sat with colleagues on the Criminal Justice Committee hearing evidence about the Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill, which legislates in favour of trauma-informed practice in the justice system. I am very sympathetic to the importance of that point in every respect, and all aspects of the justice system must be trauma informed.

A range of measures are in place already. The bill prompts us to reconsider and review whether they are sufficient to address these challenges and questions. I give Mr Kerr the commitment that the Government will do that as we explore the bill’s provisions during its passage and determine whether any additional provisions are required to address the legitimate point that he puts to me.

Prostate Cancer (Diagnostic Hubs)

Foysol Choudhury (Lothian) (Lab)

A constituent in Lothian has been diagnosed with prostate cancer and has been told that his tumour is growing. He is on an eight-month waiting list for surgery and has no idea when treatment will start. Public Health Scotland found that only 36.4 per cent of patients with prostate cancer received treatment within the Government’s target of 62 days, which is the lowest percentage for any major cancer type. Will the First Minister advise members what the Scottish Government is doing to bring down those unacceptable waiting times?

The First Minister (John Swinney)

First, I am sorry that Mr Choudhury’s constituent is facing the anxiety that they are facing. If he wishes to share details of that particular case with me, I will have it examined to see whether there is anything that can be done to address it.

The Government has invested £70 million in the endoscopy and urology diagnostic plan, which includes a commitment to develop urology diagnostic hubs that are designed to speed up the treatment of cases of the type that Mr Choudhury puts to me. They will enable us to detect cancer earlier and faster and intervene at the earliest possible stage, which is crucial in cancer care.

I assure Mr Choudhury of the importance that the Government attaches to this important area of health service policy. If he cares to advise me about the individual case, I will see what can be done to address the issues that he puts to me.

Economic Growth

Gordon MacDonald (Edinburgh Pentlands) (SNP)

The latest purchasing managers index report from the Royal Bank of Scotland has shown that Scotland was a stand-out performer among the United Kingdom nations and regions last month, with private sector economic growth accelerating to the fastest pace in two years. What assessment has the First Minister and the Scottish Government made of the findings, and what steps is the Scottish Government taking to continue to help our economy to thrive?

The First Minister (John Swinney)

I very much welcome the findings from the report, which signals a strengthening of private sector activity in Scotland. It confirms that that activity has expanded for the fifth month running and at the strongest pace in two years.

As Parliament will know, one of the four priorities of the Government is to strengthen the economy, and the Deputy First Minister is leading work, with my support, to advance that within Government. We are taking measures to build on the good work that has been done to encourage the start-up community and further investment is being provided in the scale-up community. We are seeing some of the fruits of that in the success of business, which underpins the very positive information in the purchasing managers index report.

I assure Mr MacDonald of the Government’s continued focus on ensuring that we strengthen economic growth and economic activity, because that is the foundation of good and strong public services in our country.

MCR Pathways (Funding)

Paul Sweeney (Glasgow) (Lab)

The First Minister has said that his biggest priority in government is to eradicate child poverty, yet, this morning, Scottish National Party and Green councillors in Glasgow voted to cut the celebrated MCR Pathways scheme by 50 per cent. Celebrated High Court judge Rita Rae has said that that will be a disaster and that it will bring people into the criminal justice system, while former director of education in Glasgow Maureen McKenna has said that it is inexplicable.

Members of my family take part in the MCR Pathways scheme. It is genuinely one of the best measures that we have ever developed to improve the lives of young people, get them out of harm’s way and give them life-changing opportunities. Surely the First Minister agrees that the proposed cut is a regressive, retrograde step. Will he do something to ensure that the MCR Pathways scheme is not cut but expanded, given that it is one of the most successful public policies that we have?

The First Minister (John Swinney)

I am very familiar with the work of MCR Pathways. I supported its introduction into public policy when I was the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, and I recognise the transformative effect that it can have on young people.

Decisions about the allocation of funding are matters for individual local authorities. The Government has given local government a record funding settlement of more than £14 billion for this financial year, which will have been allocated proportionately to Glasgow City Council.

I encourage members to look carefully and seriously at the work of MCR Pathways, recognising the benefits that it can deliver for young people around the country.

The Presiding Officer

That concludes First Minister’s question time. The next item of business is a members’ business debate in the name of Jamie Greene. There will be a short suspension to allow people who wish to leave the chamber and the gallery to do so.

12:47 Meeting suspended.  

12:48 On resuming—