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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, March 21, 2024


First Minister’s Question Time

Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act 2021

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

Just a few weeks ago, members in the chamber congratulated Henry Wuga on reaching his 100th birthday. It was therefore with great sadness that we learned of his passing, peacefully at home, with his daughters Hilary and Gillian, last Friday. We send them our thoughts and condolences.

We also give thanks for the life of a remarkable man, who came from Nuremberg in 1939 to Glasgow via the Kindertransport, to a life of professional and family success here in Scotland that was capped by decades of service to Holocaust education.

Scotland will miss Henry’s charm, his integrity and his resolution, but we will never forget his testimony. I believe that we can all commit to ensuring that his legacy will endure. He is now reunited with his beloved Ingrid. May his memory be a blessing. [Applause.]

Presiding Officer, I remind members that my wife is a serving officer with Police Scotland.

The Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act 2021 will come into effect from 1 April. Scottish Conservatives voted against that law and still oppose it as presenting a serious risk to free speech. However, in just 11 days’ time, the police will have to enforce it. David Kennedy, the general secretary of the Scottish Police Federation, has said that officers

“were only receiving a two-hour online training package”.

Is that really enough training on such a complex and controversial piece of legislation?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

First and foremost, I join Douglas Ross in paying tribute to Henry Wuga, the greatly respected Holocaust survivor who passed away at the age of 100 last week. It is hard to think that, only a few weeks ago, we stood up to wish him well on his 100th birthday but are now standing up once again to mourn his passing.

Henry was a truly remarkable man who made an enormous contribution to Scottish society. However, his impact, influence and legacy go far beyond Scotland, as he campaigned against antisemitism and reminded us never to forget the horrors of the Holocaust.

My thoughts are very much with Henry’s family, his friends and all those who had the privilege of knowing him. I am sure that, in his memory, we will all continue to campaign against hatred in whatever form it rears its ugly head.

Presiding Officer, with your indulgence, I will take a moment to congratulate Vaughan Gething on his appointment as First Minister of Wales. His appointment as the first black leader of a Government in the United Kingdom is a truly monumental moment, and I look forward to working with him. Vaughan Gething’s predecessor, Mark Drakeford, was a principled First Minister and a model public servant. It is important that he was also a fierce defender of devolution. I think that the whole Parliament will want to join me in wishing him well. [Applause.]

I turn to the matter at hand. A lot of disinformation about the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act 2021 has been spread on social media, in inaccurate media reporting and by our political opponents. I hope that this exchange will shed more light than heat on what is in the act, as opposed to what is being said about it.

Because decisions on training for the police are an operational matter, I leave it to the chief constable to determine what training is appropriate. Just this week, Police Scotland put out a statement to challenge—in its words—“inaccurate media reporting” about the act. I have absolute confidence that Police Scotland will ensure that appropriate training is in place.

Let me remind Douglas Ross that stirring-up offences are not new in Scotland. As a person of colour, I have been protected from people stirring up hatred against me because of my race virtually all my life, since 1986. In fact, all of us are protected by the provision against stirring up hatred. The question is this: if I have protection against people stirring up hatred because of my race, as has been the case since 1986, why on earth should such protection not exist for people based on their sexuality, disability or religion?

The fact is, as we know, that there is a very high threshold for a new stirring-up offence to be committed—it is even higher than the threshold for a racial stirring-up offence. I say to Douglas Ross that it is incredibly important that we all, in memory of people like Henry Wuga, on whom he started his question, unite in standing up to and opposing hatred in all its forms. A strong legislative framework to protect people is incredibly important. I urge the Conservatives and Douglas Ross to realise that it would be far better for him to put more effort into tackling hatred than into opposing the hate crime act.

Douglas Ross

I echo the First Minister’s comments in wishing Vaughan Gething well as the new First Minister of Wales.

We opposed the legislation at the time that it was passed, and we still oppose it, because of the impact that it has on free speech for people across this country. I am merely reiterating points that have been made by the Scottish Police Federation, which is the representative body of our police officers across Scotland. The SPF said that its officers can barely deal with existing crimes, let alone this new law, and they have described the hate crime act as “a recipe for disaster”.

Humza Yousaf has reduced officer numbers to the lowest level since Police Scotland was formed. Now, officers are being told not to investigate actual crimes but will instead have to look for the hate monster or to police free speech. Criminals will be let off while innocent people are prosecuted. Is Humza Yousaf not setting the police up for failure and undermining public trust in policing?

The First Minister

With that contribution, it is Douglas Ross who is undermining the fight against hatred in Scotland. He is undermining it completely, utterly and entirely through giving so much disinformation. I do not even know where to begin. Let us take, point by point, what Douglas Ross has said.

First and foremost, Douglas Ross made an incorrect claim about police officer numbers under the Scottish National Party Government. Under the SNP Government, numbers of police officers have increased and will continue to increase, given what we have heard recently from the chief constable, backed by a record budget from the Scottish Government. There are more police officers per head of population in Scotland than there are in England—where, of course, Douglas Ross’s party is in charge.

Let us take the points that Douglas Ross raised about the act and freedom of expression. I remember, because I was the Cabinet Secretary for Justice who took the bill through Parliament, making sure that I engaged with Opposition members on the issue of freedom of expression. There is a triple lock on freedom of expression in the act; protection of freedom of expression is explicitly embedded in it.

There is also a defence available of a person’s behaviour being “reasonable”, which safeguards people’s rights.

Thirdly, the act is compatible with the European convention on human rights, including article 10, which includes and protects everybody’s right to freedom.

When it comes to stirring up hatred, stirring-up offences are so pervasive, so damaging and so dangerous in our society. Let me take Douglas Ross back to what Lord Bracadale said. Lord Bracadale reported on his independent review of hate crime, which led to development of the legislation. He said:

“the stirring up of hatred can contribute to a social atmosphere in which prejudice and discrimination are accepted as normal.”

In any society, the freedom to criticise, to insult and to offend exists and should be treasured, but there cannot be freedom to engage in behaviour that is threatening or abusive, or which is intended to stir up hatred. Everybody in the chamber engages with and talks often about our commitment to tackling hatred. People who experience hatred tell me that they want from their politicians not just warm words, but action. That is exactly what the act intends to provide.

Douglas Ross

People want action that is enforceable, and the Scottish Police Federation says that it has serious concerns. Its officers are receiving a two-hour online training module on the legislation. The First Minister keeps trying to say that those are my comments. They are not. I originally quoted the Scottish Police Federation.

Let me now quote legal experts. Roddy Dunlop, the dean of the—[Interruption.]

Please continue, Mr Ross.

I think that it is only right that we say that ministers in the Scottish Government do not think that we should be hearing from the Faculty of Advocates—[Interruption.]

Please continue, Mr Ross. Let us hear Mr Ross.

It was the Minister for Social Care, Mental Wellbeing and Sport, Maree Todd, who said that. [Interruption.]

Mr Ross, continue with your question. Members, can we please ensure that we can hear Mr Ross?

Douglas Ross

Legal experts, including the dean of the Faculty of Advocates, Roddy Dunlop, have said that there is a danger of the police being swamped by completely malicious complaints. That is not my view; it is the view of the dean of the Faculty of Advocates.

Days before the law comes into force, it is unclear how complaints will be dealt with by the police. People such as J K Rowling could have the police at their door every day for making perfectly reasonable statements. That could lead to huge numbers of members of the public being monitored or even criminalised by the police when they have done nothing wrong. Is Humza Yousaf not putting front-line officers in an impossible position by forcing them to police free speech?

The First Minister

No. We know that police officers themselves are, unfortunately, often the victims of hatred; they often face hatred in the course of their duties.

Douglas Ross said that he has no idea how a stirring-up offence could possibly be enforceable. I am making the point that a stirring-up offence in relation to racial hatred has existed since 1986, with virtually zero controversy. I have absolute faith in Police Scotland’s ability to police and enforce the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act 2021 in an appropriate way.

On the points that Roddy Dunlop—whom, of course, I respect greatly—made, the police are very well attuned and adept, and they have the ability to deal with vexatious complaints right across the legal framework within which they operate.

I cannot say whether there will be vexatious complaints—that will, of course, depend on people’s actions. However, I can say that the threshold of criminal liability is incredibly high. If Douglas Ross does not want to take my word for that, let us look at what another legal expert said. Professor Adam Tomkins is known to Douglas Ross. He is a former Conservative MSP whom I worked with on the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill, and he is a professor of public law. In The Herald today he writes:

“Offensive speech is not criminalised by this legislation: the only speech relating to sexual orientation, transgender identity, age or disability outlawed here is speech which (1) a reasonable person (2) would consider to be threatening or abusive and which (3) was intended to stir up hatred and (4) was not reasonable in the circumstances.”

He also said:

“Just because you feel offended by what someone has said does not make it a hate crime”

and went on to say that

“Under the Hate Crime Act the threshold of criminal liability is not that a victim feels offended (a subjective test), but that a reasonable person would consider the perpetrator’s action or speech to be threatening or abusive”.

Let us stick to the facts. The fact is this: we all purport to be concerned about the increases in hate crime that we have seen in our society over the years, but only some parties in the chamber are willing to take the necessary action to tackle hate crime. The bill was, of course, debated thoroughly in the chamber. It is unfortunate that the only party that opposed it was—of course—the Conservative Party.

Douglas Ross

In a democracy, we have scrutiny. We have Opposition parties to look at legislation that is brought forward. There have been, and there continue to be, serious reservations about the act that was passed and how it will be implemented. Let us remember that Humza Yousaf introduced the unworkable and dangerous law when he was Cabinet Secretary for Justice. He is now bringing it into force as First Minister, with there being little training and not enough support for the officers who will have to enforce it.

The First Minister has just quoted. Let us hear a quote from a professor of law at the University of Glasgow. Alistair Bonnington has said:

“Like many of the SNP’s attempts at lawmaking, this act will be set aside when it is properly examined in a serious court.”

The Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act 2021 looks like another SNP law that will have to be discarded, just like the proposed named person legislation and the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012.

We have said from the outset that the Government’s hate crime law was a disaster in the making. It criminalises free speech and it puts at risk a fundamental right. It is overreach by the SNP into people’s homes. It could result in the public being criminalised for no good reason. [Interruption.]

Let us hear Mr Ross.

The act is set to be a shambles from day 1, which is in just 11 days’ time. Will Humza Yousaf finally accept that he has created another bad SNP law that will quickly descend into chaos?

The First Minister

What is dangerous is not the law; what is dangerous is hate crime in our society.

We debated the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill extensively when it went through Parliament many years ago. We had robust debate, which I thought was sometimes—indeed, often—in the best traditions of this Parliament. Compromises were made and amendments were accepted by the Government. We came out of that process with a good piece of legislation that fundamentally protects people’s freedom of expression and freedom of speech, but which also safeguards people’s right not to have hatred stirred up against them.

Of course, only one party opposed the bill—Douglas Ross’s Conservative Party. Maybe that is hardly a surprise, given that the Conservative Party, far from working hard to tackle hatred, has actively created the conditions for hatred and division to thrive in our society. [Interruption.]

Thank you. Let us hear the First Minister.

The Conservative Party is the party of go-home vans, the party of the hostile environment, the party of Windrush and the party whose leader, Boris Johnson, called Muslim women “bank robbers”.

Briefly, First Minister.

The Conservative Party is a party that, from Suella Braverman to Lee Anderson, indulges in Islamophobic smears. Instead of fighting against the 2021 act—

Briefly, First Minister.

—would not it be better if the Conservatives got their own house in order?

Paediatric Waiting Times (Delays)

2. Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

I join others in paying tribute to Henry Wuga, a Holocaust survivor who very powerfully shared his own story and the stories of others, and who always campaigned against antisemitism. We send our best wishes to his friends, his family and the wider Jewish community. We owe it to Henry and his entire generation to share their stories and always to strive for peace and a world that is free of prejudice and hate.

I join the First Minister in congratulating Vaughan Gething on his election as the First Minister of Wales, which is another historic first—he is the first-ever black leader of a nation in Europe—and I send our best wishes to his predecessor, Mark Drakeford.

This morning, a damning report by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has warned of the catastrophic consequences of the Government’s failure. In paediatrics alone, more than 10,000 children are waiting for the medical care that they need, and 50 per cent of them have been waiting for more than the legal 12 weeks. How does the First Minister respond to the comments of one of the leading paediatric consultants in the country, Dr Mairi Stark, who said that

“if you miss the right window to treat a child or wait too long the consequences can be irreversible”

and that there has been

“a clear failure to prioritise the health and wellbeing of our children”?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

First and foremost, I take the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health’s report extremely seriously. We are examining that report in detail.

As ever, it is important to provide some context for why such high numbers of children are waiting. The undeniable reason for the significant increase in the number who are waiting is undoubtedly the global pandemic. That is why we have seen significant increases in paediatric waits across the United Kingdom—in England, in Wales and, of course, here in Scotland.

Anas Sarwar and the royal college are right to raise concerns about the issue, so I will give some examples to provide assurance that we are focusing on tackling the far-too-long waits in paediatrics.

There are two main paediatric specialties: paediatrics and paediatric surgery. From April 2023 to the end of the calendar year, December 2023, the new paediatric out-patient list reduced by 21 per cent. Waits of more than 52 weeks reduced by 12 per cent and waits of more than 78 weeks reduced by 31 per cent, while those of more than two years were completely eradicated. Over the two years from December 2021 to December 2023, the new out-patient list for paediatric surgery reduced by 35 per cent. Waits of more than 52 weeks reduced by 84 per cent and those of more than 78 weeks reduced by 95 per cent. I reiterate those statistics—and we know that behind them is a young child who has been waiting too long for surgery—to show that there have been improvements and that we are moving in the right direction.

What makes the recovery of the national health service far more difficult is the fact that we are receiving budget cuts from the Conservatives of £500 million over two years and of £1.3 billion in capital funding. Of course, we are investing in our NHS despite those cuts. It would be helpful to know from Anas Sarwar whether, if there is an incoming Labour Government, it would immediately reverse those Conservative cuts, because they impede our ability to invest in NHS recovery which, of course, is much needed for our children, young people and adults.

Anas Sarwar

The First Minister knows that the problem predates the pandemic and that the report makes clear that there has been 11 years of decline—every day of which there has been a Scottish National Party Government. He also knows that Labour will invest more in the national health service and that we want to bring down waiting lists, but he has to take responsibility for his Government’s actions, not look to blame someone else all the time.

The crisis in children’s health goes even further than the report warns. Across our NHS, whether in child and adolescent mental health services or other specialties, children face unacceptable waits that have left them distressed and in pain. One mum, Amy, has told me about the struggles that her three-year-old son, Cody, has faced. Cody has been repeatedly diagnosed with tonsillitis and his enlarged tonsils obstruct more than 75 per cent of his airway, which makes it difficult for him to eat, drink and even breathe. She has told me that she has to lie awake next to him during the night, because his breathing stops and she has to nudge him in order to restart his breathing again. She has had to fight to get Cody referred to a specialist but has been told that an urgent referral for treatment will take three years. Amy has had to make the difficult decision to go private, borrowing almost £5,000 from her family. Why are the First Minister and his Government failing Amy, Cody and so many families like theirs?

The First Minister

I am more than happy to look at Cody’s case and, indeed, any other case that Anas Sarwar raises. We are happy to explore what more can be done with the health board. It sounds as though it is a horrifically long wait and we do not want any parent to have to endure that. The point that I make to Anas Sarwar is that progress is being made and I have given him a range of details about progress in paediatric surgery, which is relevant to his question. We are also ensuring that we are investing in the workforce. We have increased the number of paediatric specialty consultants by 15 per cent in the past five years and by 64 per cent in the past 10 years. The number of qualified paediatric nurses has increased by 11 per cent in the past five years and, since 2014, we have invested in the recruitment of an additional 500 health visitors and 200 extra school nurses, which will undoubtedly help with the health and wellbeing of children and young people.

I do not take lightly the issues that Anas Sarwar has raised about the long waits that parents and children are having to suffer. However, in his initial response, he did not answer the question that I asked, which was whether a potential incoming Labour Government would immediately reverse the £1.3 billion cut that is impacting our healthcare provision.

Briefly, First Minister.

The First Minister

If Mr Sarwar could give that confirmation, we might be able to plan further ahead for the investment that we would be able to make. It is only through record investment in the NHS that we will be able to recover the services that our NHS provides for children and young people.

Anas Sarwar

Honestly, Presiding Officer—after 17 years of this Scottish National Party Government, asking questions of a party that is in opposition, rather than talking about his own record of failing children across the country, just shows how out of depth the First Minister is. All those lists and all those excuses mean nothing to Amy or Cody and they mean nothing to the thousands of families that his Government is failing everyday.

The First Minister simply does not get it. In every area of responsibility for this SNP Government, children are being failed, with catastrophic consequences. After 17 years of this SNP Government, 240,000 children are living in poverty; more than 10,000 children are waiting for paediatric medical care; and more than 9,500 children were turned away from mental health services last year—[Interruption.] I suggest that the Deputy First Minister listen to the consequences for her constituents, rather than heckling what is happening to children across this country.

For those children who were referred, more than 5,500 are waiting to get mental health support. Nearly a third of pupils in Scotland are now persistently absent from school; in some areas, the rate is as high as 50 per cent. Almost 40 per cent of pupils now need additional support—at the same time, this SNP Government has cut 400 additional support needs posts in the past decade.

Is it not clear that Humza Yousaf and every single member of this SNP Government are failing Scotland’s children?

The First Minister

No, I do not agree with that.

I thought that I asked a pretty reasonable question, which Anas Sarwar is obviously unable to answer. He may want to be honest with people about the answer. He was unable to answer a very simple question: if there is an incoming Labour Government, will it immediately reverse the Tory cut to Scotland’s budget? The fact that he was unable to answer the question demonstrates either that he does not know the answer or that he is not being honest with the people of Scotland.

I say to Anas Sarwar that it is fundamentally important, in all the areas of public service, that we invest. That is why the Government took the decision to prioritise our public services. That is why we gave an increase to the national health service and made sure that there was an increase to education services and an increase to social security.

All those issues are incredibly important for our children and young people. That is why estimates show that 100,000 children in Scotland will be lifted out of poverty because of our actions. That is why more young people in this country are going to university from areas of higher deprivation because of our investment. That is why we have a record number of young people who are going on to positive destinations because of our investment in education, early learning and childcare—

Briefly, First Minister.

That is why it is imperative, throughout all these challenges, that Governments and political parties make a decision: do they invest in public services or do they cut public services—

Thank you, First Minister. We must move on to the next question.

That is—

First Minister, I have asked that you conclude your response. We now move on to the next question.

Cabinet (Meetings)

3. Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

I associate the Scottish Liberal Democrats with the remarks that have been made about the passing of Henry Wuga and the election of Vaughan Gething.

To ask the First Minister when the Cabinet will next meet. (S6F-02952)


Alex Cole-Hamilton

Yesterday, the Climate Change Committee delivered a devastating verdict on the record of the Scottish Government. The key 2030 emissions target just will not be met, and the Government is off course by a country mile on heat pumps, electric vehicles, recycling and more. Yesterday, the committee’s chair, Chris Stark, said that the strategy is just not there.

Take tree planting, for example. The committee says that Scotland needs to do twice as much on that area, but the Government has just reduced spending on it by nearly half. It is going to put people out of work, and tree nurseries have already signalled that they will have to torch hundreds of thousands of saplings because of the cuts. To think that the environment secretary once boasted that global leaders were looking to her Government for advice—well, her phone is silent now.

I ask the First Minister: where is the Green party in all this? There are fewer bus and train services, we are going nowhere on renewable heating, and we have a botched deposit return scheme. Does the First Minister not recognise that bringing the Greens into Government has done precious little to help us to combat the climate emergency?

The First Minister

First, we take the report from the Climate Change Committee extremely seriously. Chris Stark is well respected, and his opinions have been given the due weight and consideration that they deserve. He raises a serious point around the 2030 target. Of course, at the time when that target was being debated, the Climate Change Committee made it clear that meeting it would be extremely difficult—if not, to be frank, impossible—and that the target was stretching credibility at that time. Nonetheless, as a Parliament—all political parties—we came together to embed that target in legislation.

With regard to tree planting, I remind Alex Cole-Hamilton that around 75 per cent of all new woodland in the UK is in Scotland. In addition, we launched the world’s largest floating offshore wind leasing round through ScotWind; we ensured that Scotland has the biggest concessionary travel scheme in the UK, with more than a third of the population benefiting from free bus travel; we invested £65 million in the installation of more than 2,700 public electric vehicle chargers; and we continue to offer the most generous package of grants and loans in the UK to support the move to clean heating.

However, I will say to Alex Cole-Hamilton that what makes more difficult our job of reaching our targets, including the overall 2045 target, to which we are committed, is the fact that, every time that we bring measures to the chamber to tackle the climate crisis, be it the deposit return scheme, low-emission zones, the workplace parking levy—

Briefly, First Minister.

—proposals for carbon capture or our standards around heating and reducing emissions, the Opposition opposes those measures.

Peak Rail Fares Removal Pilot

To ask the First Minister what analysis of passenger behaviour and numbers has been carried out since the inception of the removal of peak rail fares pilot. (S6F-02965)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

The trial is an exciting and unique opportunity to encourage more people to leave their cars at home and choose a safe, reliable and green form of public transport. I confirm that an interim analysis is due to be published shortly, which examines the impact on rail travel patterns and other modes. The Scottish Government will carefully consider the impact and, of course, the long-term sustainability of any further measures before we confirm our next steps.

Kevin Stewart

The removal of peak fares has been greatly welcomed by my constituents and by tens of thousands of other people across Scotland. In my opinion, it has been beneficial to many during these tough times that have been caused by the cost of living crisis.

Can the First Minister give an indication of whether the removal of peak fares will become permanent?

The First Minister

I am pleased to hear about the positive impact that the policy is having on Mr Stewart’s constituents. I have heard similar stories from my constituents and those of other MSPs across the country, particularly during the cost of living crisis.

The purpose of the ScotRail peak fares removal pilot is twofold: the first purpose is to find out whether such measures help to move people from car to rail use, and the second is to find out whether they help passengers who are facing the cost of living crisis. We know that price and simplicity are crucial for people when it comes to choosing how to travel.

As has been said, the pilot operates until the end of June, so it would, of course, be inappropriate to confirm whether the abolition of peak fares will become permanent ahead of a final evaluation. It will be important to review the data—that is the entire purpose of the pilot—to see whether we are seeing that modal shift, and to examine the data on how much the pilot helps people during a cost of living crisis. When that evaluation has been appropriately analysed, we will inform Parliament of the next stages and steps in relation to the policy.

Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

There is no doubt that, if we are to get any place near reaching our net zero targets, we have to do much better when it comes to reducing transport emissions. Will the First Minister commit to come back to the chamber soon so that we can, I hope, make the pilot permanent? In effect, people are being priced off public transport. If we want to tackle that and get more people to use public transport, it is exactly that type of step, which I welcome, that we now need to make permanent.

The First Minister

We will evaluate the data and, of course, we will bring forward analysis of it, but it is important that we do not pre-empt that data. We need to see whether the data has demonstrated the modal shift that Alex Rowley rightly talks about. Let us not pre-empt the data. Let us examine the data, analyse the evidence and let other MSPs do the same with the analysis of that data.

I agree with the thrust of Alex Rowley’s question that it is important to invest in our public transport. That is why I am pleased that the Government invested in the Levenmouth railway—which, I am sure, Alex Rowley welcomes—and why we have the extremely generous concessionary travel scheme.

I say gently to Alex Rowley that that is why I make the point that, when we introduce various policies to encourage modal shift to reduce our carbon emissions, it is extremely frustrating for the Government that the policies are often opposed by the Opposition. For example, when we introduced the workplace parking levy, Alex Rowley’s colleague Colin Smyth, who is sitting just a couple of rows behind him, called it “highway robbery” and a “car park tax”. It is really unfortunate that, when we bring forward such measures, Opposition parties oppose them simply for the sake of opposing them.

Puberty-suppressing Hormones

5. Meghan Gallacher (Central Scotland) (Con)

To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government will engage with NHS Scotland on ending the prescription of puberty-suppressing hormones to children, following the recent announcement by NHS England. (S6F-02948)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

We are aware of the new clinical policy that was issued by NHS England last week on the routine prescription of puberty-suppressing hormones for children and young people as a treatment option for gender dysphoria. The details of that are being closely considered by NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde and its relevant clinical team as the provider of young people’s gender services at Sandyford. Any decision on how such healthcare is delivered in Scotland will, rightly, be made by health boards and, most important, by the clinicians involved.

It should be noted that NHS England’s announcement follows its interim policy position last year, recommending that puberty blockers are accessed only via a research programme that it is establishing. The Scottish Government and NHS Scotland remain observers to that particular study, and we are considering what further engagement might be appropriate.

Meghan Gallacher

In May last year, I asked the First Minister about the prescription of puberty blockers to children. He said:

“I support such decisions being made by clinicians—by the people who have clinical knowledge ... We should trust those who have clinical expertise, as opposed to standing here in the chamber ... making judgments about what is best for young people who need gender identity services.”—[Official Report, 18 May 2023; c 25.]

The truth of the matter is that we do not know whether puberty blockers have long-term life-changing consequences for young people who take them. That is why NHS England is conducting a review.

Will the First Minister publish all the evidence that his Government has that puberty blockers are safe for children? If his Government does not have any evidence, why is he allowing national health service boards to prescribe them?

The First Minister

Meghan Gallacher read out my response to her the last time round. My position has not changed one iota. I still believe that clinical experts in Scotland should be the ones who determine whether puberty blockers are prescribed. That is the sensible position, as opposed to politicians demanding what clinical treatment should be. It should be for the clinical experts.

On the study that is taking place, I referenced in my response to Meghan Gallacher’s first question that we are engaging with the study that is taking place. The Scottish Government and NHS Scotland are well engaged with NHS England on its planned study into the use of puberty blockers in young people’s gender identity healthcare. We are observers to that study, and that remains a work in progress. We are considering what future engagement in that research might be possible.

I go back to the point that I have already made to Meghan Gallacher that it is for clinicians to make those judgments. It is right that we trust our clinicians in their expert decision making. Regarding the studies that are taking place in England, I am more than happy to confirm that we are observers. We are keeping close to NHS England, and we will continue to do so as the study develops.

Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act 2021

6. Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

To ask the First Minister what resources the Scottish Government will be providing to Police Scotland for the investigation of complaints made under the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act 2021. (S6F-02959)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

We have worked with justice partners, including Police Scotland, to ensure that the legislation is effectively implemented when it commences, next month. The Scottish Police Authority’s budget for 2024-25 delivers record police funding of £1.55 billion, which is an increase of £92.7 million when compared with the current financial year.

It is for the SPA and the chief constable to allocate that budget according to their priorities and needs, and that should absolutely include the investigation of complaints that are made under the act. As I have said previously, I am aware that some commentary on the act is not accurate or reflective of the measures in the act, which was passed by a majority of this Parliament.

The act does not stop freedom of expression, but it makes unlawful the intention of stirring up hatred against a person or community for particular characteristics, as the law already does for race.

Pauline McNeill

The First Minister has reiterated several times that the act, which comes into force on 1 April, must deliver what Parliament intended and that people must not be criminalised for expressing their opinions. I agree. Some organisations are still concerned that the legislation will be used maliciously to silence legitimate opinion. It would be helpful for the Scottish Government to engage with those groups.

Does the First Minister agree that how the act is interpreted by the police and how the police are trained on it are key and that resources for that are crucial? Does the First Minister understand my concerns that the police are not properly resourced and, crucially, not properly and adequately trained to implement the act as it was intended? We agree that the act could risk criminalising innocent people and further stretching police resources. I ask the First Minister to make the act work and to make sure that there are full resources to ensure that what Parliament intended is delivered.

The First Minister

I know that Pauline McNeill takes the issue of tackling hatred very seriously. Over the years, she and I have worked on that issue in its many different guises. I will try to give some assurance to Pauline McNeill and to those on whose behalf she is raising concerns.

I make the point that I made to Douglas Ross—there are multiple freedom of expression safeguards in the law. There is an explicit freedom of expression safeguard in the legislation and there is a reasonable person defence. The legislation also has to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights, with article 10 being particularly important in this context. Therefore, there is already a triple lock of safeguards.

On how the police enforce the act, I will try to give Pauline McNeill some assurances. Since 1986—for virtually my whole life—police officers have been effectively policing and enforcing the law on crime in relation to the stirring up of hatred based on race. The threshold for the new offences is higher than the threshold for the racial stirring-up offence. The police have been doing that since 1986 with virtually zero controversy, so I have every confidence that they will be able to do so for the new offences that are being brought into law in a matter of weeks.

On resourcing, I reiterate the points that I have already made. We are providing record funding for Police Scotland in relation to next year’s budget. On training, I refer to the points that have already been made by Police Scotland in the public domain. I have every confidence in its ability to train officers for the act when it comes into force.

I am very pleased that the act will be coming into force because I believe that it will give people the necessary protections at a time when hate crime is far too pervasive and prominent in our society and when hate being peddled by some with impunity—

Thank you, First Minister.

—in our society.

Ivan McKee (Glasgow Provan) (SNP)

The First Minister will be aware that the Police Scotland hate crime website explicitly stereotypes young working-class men from constituencies like mine and his as being the most likely to commit a hate crime. Does he agree that publicly demonising that disadvantaged group, which is already heavily impacted by negative interactions with the criminal justice system—[Interruption.]—and disproportionately damaged by addiction and other challenges, will neither assist those individuals—[Interruption.]—nor aid efforts by many community groups and others—

Let us hear Mr McKee.

—in my constituency who work to create opportunities for them?

The First Minister

I am not sure why the Conservatives were shouting down Mr McKee when he was asking his question. It is a legitimate point that, when any marketing or awareness campaigns are done, it is exceptionally important that there is no stigmatisation of any communities whatsoever. Let us stick to the evidence and the facts about who are the victims and, indeed, the perpetrators of hate crime, but let us do that in a way that does not stigmatise a community and certainly in a way that does not pit communities against each other.

The entire point of the 2021 act—and, indeed, the point of most or all of our endeavours in Parliament to tackle hate crime—is to ensure a more cohesive society, as opposed to one that pits one community against another. I agree with Ivan McKee that we should focus on tackling stigma wherever it exists in our society.

He is also right to highlight the many organisations and agencies that are providing opportunities to our young people—

Thank you, First Minister.

—such as the work of Skills Development Scotland, national training and apprenticeship programmes and the many others that are supporting our young people during these challenging times.

In the time that we have available for constituency and general supplementary questions, I call Liam Kerr first.

Audiology Assessment (NHS Grampian)

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

Devastating figures that came out this week reveal that people can be waiting up to two years for audiology assessments at NHS Grampian. The chief executive, Adam Coldwells, has laid the blame for that squarely at the door of the Government, which underfunds the service and fails to properly workforce plan. Precisely how does the Government intend to drive those waiting times down, and when will the people of the north-east see results?

The First Minister

When it comes to long waits, I reiterate what I have already said, which is that it is not acceptable for anybody to wait for far too long.

We are working hard to recover our NHS services. In 2024-25, NHS front-line boards will receive an increased investment of almost £558 million, which is a real-terms increase of almost 3 per cent, and NHS Grampian will have a £46.6 million increase in investment. That is a decision that this Government has been proud to take. In stark contrast to the Conservatives in England, we are investing in our NHS at a time when they are choosing tax cuts for the wealthy over investment in public services.

Spinal Muscular Atrophy (Screening Pilot)

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

Babies across the UK face delays in treatment for the debilitating genetic condition spinal muscular atrophy because no newborn screening programme exists. I recently met two families impacted by that who want to know why the majority of European countries screen for SMA, yet we do not. I have been campaigning for that screening for some time. It makes a real difference to the lives of newborn babies.

Given that it now appears likely that there will be a UK pilot for SMA screening, does the First Minister agree that Scotland should be included? Will he meet me to discuss what work is being undertaken in Scotland to prepare for such a pilot, including, as I think he would welcome, identifying potential partnership funds to deliver it?

The First Minister

I recognise the urgency that families in Scotland that are affected by spinal muscular atrophy feel about the issue. It can be absolutely devastating, and I share the desire for any action that could prevent it.

The UK National Screening Committee is very much in the best position to evaluate all the evidence, and I welcome the in-service evaluation that NHS England is carrying out. I hope that that will bring us closer to a decision. Discussions are on-going about the potential for a Scotland-specific study or for Scotland to participate in the in-service evaluation. However, a number of factors must be worked through before a final decision can be reached. I am always happy, as is the Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care, to meet Bob Doris to discuss this very important issue.

The Presiding Officer

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

12:47 Meeting suspended.  

12:48 On resuming—