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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Wednesday, May 22, 2024


Priorities for Scotland

The Presiding Officer (Alison Johnstone)

The next item of business is a statement by John Swinney on priorities for Scotland. The First Minister will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.


The First Minister (John Swinney)

I welcome this opportunity to set out the approach that I intend to take in leading the Scottish Government. I want to take forward measures that will help people and their families to get on in life and to enable the people of Scotland to live happier, healthier lives.

One of the benefits of long service in the Parliament is that I have witnessed it when it is functioning at its very best. That happens when we work constructively together. At the beginning of my period as First Minister, let me make it clear to Parliament that I will work with any party that comes forward with ideas about how we can make our country a better place to live in. A good idea is a good idea. I make it clear to all parties and to all members that the Government will engage positively in considering ideas from all sources.

I may have been out of ministerial office for the past year, but I am no stranger to government. I therefore want to build on the record of the Scottish National Party Government over the past 17 years, which has changed Scotland for the better. Our task today is to look to the future. That future should be built on the foundations of working day in, day out for the people whom we serve.

Since the Government took office, economic growth per head and productivity have been stronger in Scotland than they have been in the rest of the United Kingdom. Scotland has had the best-performing accident and emergency core units in the UK for nine years. National health service funding has more than doubled, and we have the highest number of general practitioners per head in the United Kingdom.

On housing, since we were elected, Scotland has seen more than 40 per cent more affordable homes delivered per head of population than England has, and more than 70 per cent more than Wales has.

When we took office, renewable technologies generated the equivalent of 20.2 per cent of Scotland’s gross electricity consumption. Since then, that has soared to an astonishing 113 per cent.

The number of schools in “good” or “satisfactory” condition has increased from just over 60 per cent to more than 90 per cent, and we are seeing record levels of literacy and numeracy at primary school level.

Since we took office, the amount of free childcare that is available to parents has increased from 412.5 hours to 1,140 hours, and we have extended that to eligible two-year-olds.

Recorded crime has fallen by around 40 per cent to one of its lowest levels in half a century.

This year, using our limited social security powers, measures such as the Scottish child payment are helping to keep an estimated 100,000 children in Scotland out of relative poverty.

I would be the first to accept that there are challenges to overcome for the Government, but a substantial discussion about how we take forward the agenda to improve the lives of people in Scotland must start with an acknowledgement of the improvements that have already been made.

In setting out my approach to government, I am acutely aware of the economic and fiscal realities that we face. If we are to make progress, I hope and believe that we can find consensus on that.

In that spirit of consensus, let me put on record my strong agreement with recent statements made by members of the Labour Party. Earlier this year, the Welsh Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Constitution and Cabinet Office, Rebecca Evans, described the decisions taken in this year’s budget in Wales as the “starkest and most painful” since devolution. I absolutely sympathise with that situation.

There is a developing consensus on where responsibility for those funding decisions ultimately lies. In a broadcast interview on Sunday, the shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, was asked to explain the performance of the NHS in Wales. He replied:

“All roads do lead to Westminster, because, even though this is devolved, decisions taken in Westminster have an impact on the NHS across the whole country.”

That comment from Wes Streeting demonstrates the source of the significant financial challenges that we face. The prolonged era of austerity that has been delivered by the UK Government over the past 14 years is having a profound effect on the fiscal context in which we operate.

An additional factor that shapes the economic and fiscal context that we have to navigate is Brexit. The National Institute of Economic and Social Research suggests that the UK economy was 2.5 per cent smaller in 2023 than it would have been if the United Kingdom had retained European Union membership. On that basis, £69 billion could have been wiped from national income in 2023. That equates to £28 billion of tax revenue across the United Kingdom. With the same level of borrowing and taxation, that means that, without Brexit, devolved spending power for vital public services such as the NHS could have been £1.6 billion higher than it is today.

I recognise that it is the Scottish Government’s responsibility to deliver public services in Scotland, and I recognise the importance of Parliament in scrutinising our record and our plans. However, as we wrestle with those challenges, I hope that we will also see some recognition from across the chamber that the context in which we work is significantly affected by Westminster austerity and the damage of Brexit.

In my view, there is a very simple answer to that challenge, and that is Scotland being able to chart her own course economically and to make the best decisions on our own terms. For me, that would involve rejoining the European Union as an independent country and making our own economic decisions. Making that argument will be at the heart of my Government’s agenda. [Interruption.]

Let us hear the First Minister.

The First Minister

However, those opportunities and powers are not at our disposal today, so we must take forward our priorities in the current economic and fiscal context.

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Local Government will update Parliament on our expectations of the financial position, but I can say to Parliament that the cumulative effect of the high inflation that we have experienced, austerity and Brexit is placing enormous financial pressure on the resources that are available to the Government, and that will have an effect on the priorities that we can deliver.

With that important context, I will outline the four priorities that will guide my Government’s decisions on policy and budget—the four priorities around which I will work to secure cross-party support for the good of the people of Scotland.

My first priority is to eradicate child poverty—not tackle or reduce child poverty, but eradicate it. That will be the single most important objective of my Government and my Cabinet, because child poverty stunts the progress of any nation, and it stands in the way of social justice and economic growth. My Cabinet will do everything in our power—including listening to and working with members across the chamber—to achieve our aim.

The Scottish child payment is a significant step forward. It is one of the most impactful measures in the effort to eradicate child poverty. However, I recognise that we need to do more. Last week, I confirmed the opening of a £1.5 million fund to support councils in removing school meal debt from families across the country. That will help to ensure that no child is penalised because their family struggled to pay for school meals during a cost of living crisis.

The Government recognises that one of the most effective ways of tackling child poverty is by enabling parents and carers to enter sustainable employment. We will look to deliver further measures that will support families to enter the labour market through training and educational opportunities, employability support, access to childcare, and access to other public services that can assist in that effort.

The second of my priorities is to grow Scotland’s economy. From tourism to finance and technology to food and drink exports, we will work to create growth and jobs and to maximise the huge economic opportunities that lie ahead.

Scotland’s creative industries are another vital contributor to the economic growth of the country. That is why we are growing investment in culture and screen by £100 million over the coming years. That will ensure that there are more opportunities not only to participate in the arts but for Scotland to reap the economic rewards of the creativity of our nation.

We will work with partners to remove obstacles to the delivery of economic opportunities in Scotland, and we will go all out to encourage investment in Scotland and in the huge potential that we have here—including in renewable energy, on which we can lead the world.

We will strengthen the support for innovation that has been anchored by the investment in the Techscaler programme and in the package of entrepreneurship measures that were set out by the Deputy First Minister on Monday.

Partnership working will be key to helping our businesses boost profitability and create jobs, which will, in turn, help our people to live happier and healthier lives, with higher living standards. The Government will also encourage close alignment between the work of our universities and business to maximise the economic possibilities from the outstanding research base in Scotland.

In modern Scotland, it should not be a struggle to find fair work or to raise a family. For me and for my Government, eradicating child poverty and boosting economic growth go hand in hand. I am therefore pleased to announce the next steps that we are taking in our drive to eradicate child poverty.

Over the next two years, we will invest £16 million to tackle poverty and help families by expanding access to childcare services within six early adopter community projects. That investment will support low-income families to enter and sustain employment, with funding targeted at those who are most at risk of living in poverty. The investment will enable us to work with local authorities and communities to better understand what it takes to design and deliver local childcare systems that support families with children, from nine months to the end of primary school.

We are already delivering innovative school-age childcare services through our early adopter projects in Glasgow, Inverclyde, Clackmannanshire and Dundee, and families are already seeing the benefits of those services. Today, I am announcing that that new funding will be available to expand that work and to learn more about what childcare should look like for younger children, including in new early adopter communities in Fife and Shetland. That will ensure that children, parents and providers play an important role in designing childcare services that work for them. It will contribute to the eradication of child poverty, and it will support economic growth by helping parents and carers to move into or stay in work through access to affordable childcare.

Growing the economy will also be achieved through the third of my key priorities: tackling the climate emergency by investing in green energy and infrastructure. The threat posed by the climate emergency—and the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss—is real and present, but so is the opportunity to successfully reach net zero and beyond.

The recent significant investments made by Sumitomo and Haventus are illustrations of the type of investments that the Government is determined to attract to Scotland. We will align the capacity generated by our vibrant entrepreneurial nation with our world-leading academic and research institutions, our valuable natural resources and our businesses and communities in a shared agenda to deliver net zero.

According to Office for National Statistics estimates, in 2022, Scotland’s renewable energy sector generated £13 billion in turnover and supported more than 25,000 full-time equivalent jobs across Scotland. Analysis shows that, with the right support, the number of low-carbon energy production jobs is estimated to rise to 77,000 by 2050, and supply chain development statements forecast that £25 billion of investment is possible across the supply chain from ScotWind projects alone.

In a modern, prosperous Scotland, we must invest in tackling the climate emergency in a way that creates jobs and brings local businesses and communities with us on that journey.

Eradicating child poverty, growing the economy and tackling the climate emergency all link together to support my fourth key priority: to improve Scotland’s public services—not as a cost, but as a vital investment in our future health, equality and prosperity.

The Government will focus on supporting the national health service to recover from the significant disruption due to Covid. We will work with our local authority partners through the Verity house agreement across a range of policy areas, including to continue to improve educational performance and to deliver sustainable social care by reducing delayed discharge.

We will work with partners to improve the efficiency of the criminal justice system to deliver better for victims, and we will engage constructively to expand housing supply to meet the needs of the population and tackle homelessness.

I will set out how my Government and my Cabinet will take practical steps to deliver in those four priority areas when I present my programme for government before the summer recess. Cross-Government work on my four priorities has been under way since I took office, and the actions that my Cabinet will take to deliver on those priorities will be submitted to Parliament for debate before the summer recess.

The programme for government will be central to a wider range of decision making that will happen before the summer on key issues relating to energy, oil and gas, reform of the health service and taxation. Action will be set out on each, to tackle the challenges facing Scotland today.

As set out to the Finance and Public Administration Committee, in June, we will also publish the medium-term financial strategy—alongside a revised tax strategy and infrastructure investment plan pipeline, setting out the position on the public finances—which will contain critical information on the challenges that we face in public finances and the actions that the Government is taking to address them.

That timing ensures that our programme for government and our fiscal strategy are developed in lockstep, with strategies and approaches aligned. It also ensures that we respect and give time to the vital role of the Scottish Fiscal Commission in developing its fiscal forecasts. Quite simply, that is good governance.

There are many strengths in our country today. We have a talented population, abundant natural resources and dedicated public servants working hard to support our communities. However, we are also operating in a very challenging financial and economic context. It is in that reality that my Government will offer leadership to the country and a willingness to work collaboratively in Parliament to chart a way forward.

My Government does not command a majority in the Parliament. We will be able to tackle the challenges that we face only if we can win the support of others. On this first occasion when I am setting out the priorities of my Government, I set out my willingness to co-operate beyond the Government with other parties to deliver for our people.

I want my country to do well. I know that others in the chamber across all parties want Scotland to do well, too. I offer to bring Parliament together on a shared agenda to make our country better. I invite Parliament to work with me on that journey.

The Presiding Officer

The First Minister will now take questions on the issues raised in his statement. I intend to allow around 30 minutes for questions, after which we will move on to the next item of business. I would be grateful if members who wish to put a question were to press their request-to-speak button now.

Douglas Ross (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

John Swinney’s statement today on the approach that his Government will take confirms that he is the ultimate continuity candidate. Looking at his back benchers, I have to say that they seem bored listening to more of the same. I have never seen such little—[Interruption.] Well, they are interested in my speech. I bet that the First Minister wishes that they were interested in his.

Instead of accepting the issues that Scots are facing after 17 years of the SNP being in Government, John Swinney is defending the records of Salmond, Sturgeon and Yousaf. Let us hear the truth about the SNP’s record. We have the highest taxes in the UK and an economy that is lagging behind the rest of the country. One in seven Scots are on an NHS waiting list. Accident and emergency performance is at record lows. We have a housing emergency. We have the highest number of drug deaths in Europe. Climate targets have been abandoned. Schools are performing at record lows in international comparisons. Violent crime is at its highest level in a decade. That is the truth of the SNP’s time in Government.

The only person who seems to think that the SNP has done a good job is John Swinney, the man who has been at the heart of the SNP’s time in Government for a decade and a half. This is not a fresh start; it is more of the same promises, which the SNP will break again.

The First Minister has spoken about working across the chamber. In that spirit, I want to work with him, if we can. [Interruption.]

Do continue, Mr Ross.

I will. I really hope that some of the members will stop laughing when I speak about the bill—

Mr Ross, please continue.

Douglas Ross

I know that the First Minister has spoken about that, but, if he wants to work with other parties, that reaction from the SNP does not help. The First Minister said,

“A good idea is a good idea”,

and I knew that it was a good idea when front-line experts and people with lived experience of addiction came to me with the idea for a bill to enshrine in law the right to recovery. It has been published for more than a week and it is just six pages long. Will John Swinney tell us today whether he will personally get behind that bill?

Although it is commendable to set a goal of eradicating child poverty, that comes from the man who, as the education secretary, was tasked with closing the attainment gap and failed completely.

We have also seen, yet again, that independence is a top priority for the First Minister. His words were that he will put independence “at the heart of” his Government. The public’s priorities are ignored again in favour of the SNP’s obsession with separating Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom. When Scotland desperately needs a new approach to fix our public services and create more jobs, John Swinney is offering more of the same.

Finally, just a few days ago, John Swinney said:

“I will demand from my government more concrete actions and fewer strategy documents.”

What a damning indictment of the SNP Government that is from the man who was at the very heart of it for so long. Given that John Swinney held senior positions in successive SNP Governments, can John Swinney tell us what he thinks John Swinney got so badly wrong?

The First Minister

Despite the determined efforts by Douglas Ross to get me off the agenda that I want to pursue, which is about building alignment and building co-operation in Parliament, I will resist the temptation to go on to the ground that he wants me to go on.

It is your record. It is your record!

We will hear from the First Minister without interruption.

I am very happy to defend the record of the SNP Government. I set out—[Interruption.]—in formidable detail—

The Presiding Officer

First Minister, just a moment.

We have a great many members who would really appreciate an opportunity to put a question to the First Minister from across the chamber. I would like us to be able to hear from as many members as possible. In order that we can do so, I would be grateful if members could resist any temptation to intervene when they have not been called to speak.

The First Minister

I set out in formidable detail the record of the Government, and Mr Ross—[Interruption.]—posed a question to me. He suggested that I was the only person who thought that the SNP Government had done a good job. I am afraid that Mr Ross is wrong on that, because in 2011, the people of Scotland thought that this Government had done a good job. They thought it again in 2016. In 2021—[Interruption.]—the people of Scotland—

First Minister—I am sorry. I am going to insist that members resist any temptation to contribute from our seats.

The First Minister

In 2021, the Scottish National Party achieved the highest number of constituency votes ever recorded for any party in the history of devolution. The people like the SNP Government.

I accept that my party has faced a tough time; I could not have been more open about that. However, I am going to use the next two years to make sure that we are fit and well to win the 2026 election for the people of Scotland and return this Government.

Douglas Ross asked me about the Right to Addiction Recovery (Scotland) Bill. I have looked at Mr Ross’s bill and I am in the process of taking advice about it. I am taking it deadly seriously. Along with the Minister for Drugs and Alcohol Policy, Christina McKelvie, I will look at the content of the bill to ensure that we consider all the issues that it raises.

I have to be open with Parliament that there are mixed opinions about Mr Ross’s bill. It does not command universal support within the community of stakeholders who are interested in what I know that Mr Ross is interested in, which is tackling the issue of drugs deaths. If we are prepared to have an open discussion among stakeholders, I am all for that discussion. I will meet Mr Ross to do exactly that—to explore the issues.

On the attainment gap, in primary schools it is at its lowest level on record. The work that we have done and the investment that we have made in closing the attainment gap are having an effect.

I am determined to ensure that the Government delivers on the commitments that it has made to the people of Scotland. That is what I am in office to do, and that is exactly what I am going to turn my mind to.

Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

Three years into this parliamentary session, we are on to our third First Minister and our third statement of priorities. After 17 years, John Swinney should not pretend that this is day 1 of a new SNP Government. He says that we should acknowledge where progress has been made, but there is no acknowledgement of the mistakes that have been made or the failures that have got us to this point.

The single biggest crisis that this Government faces is in our NHS, with more than 820,000 of our fellow Scots on an NHS waiting list. However, all that we got today was a passing reference to the need for a recovery. When will we get the actual detail? We need a Government that is serious about renewing and reforming our NHS. That is, of course, about money, but it is also about structure, workforce planning and innovation, on which there is no vision and no plan from this Government.

John Swinney expects us to think that believing in economic growth is somehow a revelation. That used to be the basics of politics in Scotland and the UK, but we have had three years in which a hostile environment has been created for business in Scotland, and we have had ministers in Government who did not even believe in economic growth. Therefore, we need more than just words, because a failure to grow Scotland’s economy has meant that income tax has been used as a substitute for economic growth, meaning that people pay more and get less as a result.

Of course, we share the First Minister’s objective to end child poverty. Ending poverty is in Labour’s DNA, but the Government needs to look at the decisions that it is making to challenge poverty on education, housing, skills and employability. Let us not forget that it was John Swinney who downgraded the results of working-class kids in the pandemic and whose decisions have led to cuts to teacher numbers and resources in their very classrooms. Where is the change of direction?

I accept that there are challenges in the public finances. That makes ending incompetence, waste and financial mismanagement even more important, and that must mean that we make sure that we get value for money for every £1 of taxpayers’ money that is spent. Does the First Minister accept that that requires him to change the approach that he has taken in the past 17 years, which has left every Scottish institution weaker than he found it?

Finally, will the new approach also mean the end to Government by gimmick and press release? This is a Government that declared a drug deaths emergency, and drug deaths have gone up. This is a Government that declared a climate emergency and that now wants to scrap the climate change targets. This is a Government that declared, rightly, a housing emergency but also cut the affordable housing budget. More of the same ain’t going to cut it. People can see through 17 years of SNP failure, and they want change. Is the First Minister up to delivering it?

I can see that I am going to have to work quite hard to cheer up Mr Sarwar in this Parliament, but I am going to—

It is your back benchers that you need to cheer up.

The First Minister

My back benchers are really quite happy with where we are nowadays, believe you me. I am very clear that my back benchers are happy about where we are these days.

Mr Sarwar raises the issues in the national health service of money, structure and workforce planning, so let us take each of those. On money, as I rehearsed with Mr Sarwar last week, the Government has allocated to the NHS the strongest settlement of any aspect of our public services, to such an extent that the NHS now occupies a greater proportion of the Scottish budget than when the Government came to office. Those are undeniable statistics.

We can allocate only the money that is at our disposal. We would have less money to allocate if we now followed the attitude of Mr Sarwar, who has changed his mind on tax. [Interruption.] I think that Mr Sarwar is saying to me that that is not true. I am sorry, but I have been listening carefully to Mr Sarwar and Mr Marra, and both of them have changed their stance on tax. They voted for the measures that the Government put in place in the first place to ask higher earners to pay slightly more in taxation than they would if they lived in the rest of the United Kingdom, but they have now reversed their position on that. That means that they cannot ask me for more money for the health service, because they would cut public expenditure and make less money available for the NHS.

On the question of the challenges in the public finances, I thought that Mr Sarwar would come here with a different script, because I thought that he would have listened carefully to what Wes Streeting said on the television on Sunday. Mr Streeting told it the way it is. He said:

“All roads do lead to Westminster because, even though this is devolved, decisions taken in Westminster have an effect on the NHS across the whole country.”

He was talking about Wales, and the same issues apply in Scotland—it is Westminster that is the problem in all of this.

Mr Sarwar said that every Scottish institution is weaker than it was when we came to office. I ask him to take a look at Scotland today—look at the strength in our universities and the strength in the public institutions of Scotland that are serving our country well. What he has said is insulting to public services in Scotland, and I will not entertain it.

Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

The First Minister is right that addressing the climate emergency can be good for the economy. If we get it right, it will protect people from high energy bills, too. However, he knows that the members of his party who have spent years lobbying against climate action and for the oil and gas industry are still doing so, and, after the events of recent weeks, they are emboldened. Does he have the courage that has been so clearly lacking in the past to face them down, refuse their demands and commit to the radical acceleration of climate action that is so clearly needed, such as action to cut road traffic, action to decarbonise heat and other actions that are necessary if Scotland is to make up for so much lost ground over so many years?

The First Minister

I hope that I have made it clear to the Parliament that climate action represents one of the four key priorities that will drive this Government. I want to ensure that we take steps that will take people and businesses with us on that journey, because we must do that with people—we have to take people with us.

Before I came to the Parliament this afternoon, I met the First Minister’s environmental council—a group of experts who are providing advice and inputting into the Government’s thinking on net zero—and we discussed the very issues that Mr Harvie raised with me, such as the importance of effective and urgent action to tackle the climate crisis. Those discussions will be reflected in the plans that the Government will bring to the Parliament in due course, which will be in accordance with our targets and aspirations to achieve net zero in the timescale that we have set out.

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

I am in politics to get things done, to do right by my constituents and to try to change our country for the better. That is why I want the First Minister to tackle the issues that matter to the people who sent us here. Does he recognise that those people want change and need a Government that will get the basics right on education standards and tackling violence in our classrooms; on getting access to a general practitioner at the first time of asking and having a dental practice nearby that still offers NHS care; on missed climate targets; on sewage dumping in our rivers; on the ferries fiasco; and on the 175,000 Scots suffering from long Covid, whom the Government seems to have forgotten all about? Does he recognise that Scotland has had enough of the worn-out divisions of the past?

The First Minister

I have made it clear to the Parliament, in all that I have done over the past few weeks, that collaboration across the parliamentary chamber is essential for what lies ahead. In fact, it is not only essential but a necessity for a Government that does not have a majority. Let us be crystal clear: the Government has to change the way in which it interacts with the Parliament. That is a fact of life now.

As I have made clear, I will be very happy to engage with all parties to address the issues that our country faces. I am in politics to get things done. I want to ensure that Scotland is a better country as a consequence of the activities of the Government, and I am sure that Mr Cole-Hamilton shares that aspiration.

There are answers that I could give to the points that Mr Cole-Hamilton raised. On education standards, as I have said, the attainment gap is at its lowest level for primary school pupils, and attainment at primary level is higher than it has ever been. Progress is being made; we can all acknowledge that. However, I am certain that the Parliament will have more of an effect on the public if we are able to work together in common cause, and I commit to doing that.

Thank you. Many members wish to put a question to the First Minister, so I would be grateful for concise questions and responses.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

I welcome the First Minister’s commitment to the eradication of child poverty, a task that has been made difficult by the 15 years of austerity that began under the last UK Labour Government, which imposed cuts that were deeper and tougher than those made by Margaret Thatcher. Does he agree that the best way to reduce child poverty is for parents to be in well-paid employment? As growing the economy to provide high-quality employment amidst Brexit, UK economic incompetence and Scotland’s budget being repeatedly cut will not be easy, can the First Minister remind the chamber what additional measures the Government will introduce to promote new start-ups, innovation and growth?

The First Minister

The economic context that Mr Gibson sets out is part of the reality that we must face up to. Austerity is undermining the resources that are available to us, including those for public services—hence the importance that I attach to growing the economy to improve and expand the tax base. Therefore, the convener of the Finance and Public Administration Committee makes substantial points in that respect.

On Monday, the Deputy First Minister announced a £5 million package of support for start-up companies. That takes forward the recommendations that were made by Mark Logan and Ana Stewart and builds on the investments that have been made in the Techscaler programme, which the Deputy First Minister and I saw in Barclays in Glasgow last Friday. Therefore, the support to ensure that we have a strong ecosystem that supports innovation is essential to encourage economic growth in our country.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

The legacy of the time when education was this Government’s priority and the now First Minister was education secretary is one of plummeting programme for international student assessment scores, an attainment gap that remains stubbornly high, violence in schools, falling teacher numbers and promise after promise on laptops, school meals, contact time and recruitment broken and sometimes even abandoned. How can the people of Scotland have any faith in this First Minister delivering the priorities that he has set out today, given that his delivery while he was education secretary was such an abject failure?

The First Minister

If we look at the performance of Scottish education today, we will see record levels of literacy and numeracy attainment at primary school level and improvements at secondary school level. There is a record-low attainment gap in literacy between the proportion of primary school pupils from the most and the least deprived areas who are achieving curriculum for excellence levels, and there are reductions in that gap at secondary level.

Last summer, we had the highest ever number of passes at national 5 and a record number of vocational and technical qualifications were achieved. In 2022-23, 95.9 per cent of school leavers were in a positive destination three months after the end of the school year—the highest level on record. If that is the consequence of my stewardship of education, I am pleased that we are making the progress that we are making.

Michelle Thomson (Falkirk East) (SNP)

I welcome the First Minister’s offer to work cross-party, and I hope that he will be able to update the chamber on the costed proposals that the other parties bring forward.

The First Minister has clearly set out the challenging financial climate and the fact that all roads lead to Westminster, but will he agree to look again at using all the ScotWind moneys for day-to-day revenue, as I think that he understands and appreciates the critical need for financial resilience and financial sustainability—something that seems to have been completely forgotten by Westminster?

The First Minister

I understand exactly the point that Michelle Thomson puts to me. The Government has got to make a careful set of decisions about the use of the resources that we have available to us. We have earmarked the ScotWind resources for long-term investment in the economy, although, given the pressure on the public finances—I have been absolutely candid with Parliament today about the intensity of those pressures—we face difficult choices in ensuring that we can deliver the services and the policies that we wish to deliver within the financial resources that we have available to us, because of the persistence of austerity.

Some of that could change if there was a change of UK Government. Later today, a general election might be announced—who knows what on earth is coming?—and some degree of change might come about in that respect. Who knows? However, what I can say to Michelle Thomson is that the Government will give consideration to all those issues as we take forward the development of the medium-term fiscal strategy and then the annual budget, which will be presented to Parliament later this year.

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

I have one thing to say to the First Minister: bring it on.

I am disappointed that there was nothing specific to rescue the NHS from crisis. Health is devolved and, although I know that it is not just about the money—it is about what we do with it—I will give the First Minister some undeniable statistics. Until the SNP came to power, Scotland spent 22 per cent more on health per head than was spent in England. Today, that gap is only 3 per cent, as a result of decisions taken on the SNP’s watch.

Of course, this is not year zero. John Swinney was the finance minister who failed to pass on money from the UK Labour Government that would have seen the NHS £1 billion a year better off today. Does the First Minister believe that he should apologise to NHS staff and patients for the past 17 years of this SNP Government, which has left the NHS weaker, not stronger?

I really do not know what Jackie Baillie is talking about in relation to the issue with the UK Labour Government. It is so long ago that I might have become forgetful, but I gave a commitment—

I have a very good memory, as does the First Minister.

Jackie Baillie can write to me about it if she wishes, and I will consider it.

I do not wish to.

Jackie Baillie tells me that she does not wish to. That is possibly because—

I have just told you.

Let us hear the First Minister.

The First Minister

Perhaps the accusation does not have substance to it, and it might not make it into a letter in black and white.

We have passed on the consequentials that have been available from UK Governments to the health service in Scotland. If there is any apologising to be done, I think that Jackie Baillie should apologise for two things. First, when the Labour Executive was in power in this Parliament, it failed to spend £1.6 billion of public money. It left it in the Treasury and it incurred massive private finance initiative costs, which we are still having to pay in Scotland today.

Secondly, Jackie Baillie should apologise for the crippling burden that that PFI legacy is posing to the Scottish Government and to local authorities the length and breadth of our country.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

As the First Minister said in his statement, Scotland’s finances are still very dependent on Westminster; I think that Labour agrees with that as well. He mentioned supporting the NHS and expanding the housing supply, but will he explain how we can make progress on those matters if Westminster keeps squeezing our budgets—particularly our capital budgets?

The First Minister

The capital budget is a particular challenge because of the degree of erosion of it by two factors. The first is the direct cuts that have been made by the UK Government, which are of the order of 10 per cent over anticipated years. The second factor is the corrosive effect of inflation, which is even worse in capital projects, because construction inflation is invariably significantly higher than routine inflation in the economy. As I have rehearsed with Mr Mason before, some capital project costs in the private sector are now coming in inflated by perhaps 30 to 50 per cent on the original expected costs.

There is a challenge there, which is why we are having to wrestle with the contents of the infrastructure investment plan to ensure that we have a sustainable programme that will meet the expectations of the public in Scotland. We have to try to activate additional sources of finance. The Minister for Housing, Paul McLennan, is trying to identify and work with a range of interested parties to expand the resources that are available specifically for investment in housing.

Douglas Lumsden (North East Scotland) (Con)

In the past week, Unite the union and Offshore Energies UK have warned that the Scottish Government’s presumption against oil and gas development is threatening thousands of jobs, which will have a severe impact on our economy and block the economic growth that most people agree we need. The First Minister’s two predecessors refused to remove the presumption against new oil and gas. Will the First Minister take the opportunity to remove that presumption against oil and gas, or will it be more of the same?

The First Minister

As I said in my statement, the Government will set out its proposals, including the issues that Mr Lumsden raises with me, in the finalised energy strategy, which will be shared with Parliament in due course.

I want to engage constructively with the oil and gas sector. I was in Aberdeen on Friday and had healthy and constructive discussions with a range of stakeholders, many of whom are involved in oil and gas, and I welcome the contributions that were made. I will be discussing those issues in due course with Unite the union. I am keen to have that conversation and will do so at the earliest opportunity.

Emma Roddick (Highlands and Islands) (SNP)

It is important that our rural and island communities can see that this SNP Government is the Government that will work for them. Projects such as the new Stornoway deepwater terminal, backed by £33.7 million in Scottish Government funding, represent the latest chapter of the SNP Government’s commitment to the prosperity of rural Scotland. Will the First Minister set out how the Highlands and Islands feature in his priorities for his Government?

The First Minister

I am glad that Emma Roddick referred to the development of the deepwater terminal in Stornoway. It is already fulfilling its original purpose of providing a safe berth for cruise vessels, which are bringing thousands of visitors into the Western Isles who would not previously have been able to access the area.

The terminal provides a welcome economic boost. I was discussing the project with Stornoway Port Authority on Friday when I was speaking about the economy. I was pleased to hear about the progress that is being made and to hear that the investment that was facilitated by the Scottish Government, and which the Scottish Government has made, is having such a strong and positive effect.

In addition, the Government has commitments to the regional growth deals, many of which affect the Highlands and Islands. We will take forward the islands programme, which has already distributed resources to a range of island communities. I hope that I will soon have the opportunity to travel to Scotland’s islands in order to make clear the importance that I attach to addressing the needs of every part of our country. I will do that as soon as the opportunity arises.

Pam Duncan-Glancy (Glasgow) (Lab)

The First Minister cannot tackle child poverty if education is not made a priority. I am disappointed that education does not appear in the First Minister’s list of priorities because, right now in Scotland, education is in a perilous state. Despite the statistics that the First Minister chooses to quote, performance in PISA scores has dropped, teaching is a precarious career, more pupils are absent from school and the situation that faces pupils with additional support needs has been described as intolerable. Pupils, teachers, schools, staff and parents have been let down.

When the First Minister was education secretary, he said that closing the attainment gap was his priority, but the gap in secondary school is no better now than it was in 2016. He said that fairness in assessment during the Covid pandemic was a priority, but the exams fiasco downgraded the poorest pupils. He once said that maintaining teacher numbers would be a priority, but 450 teachers are to be cut in Glasgow alone. Should we be worried about the priorities that the First Minister set out today?

The First Minister

I am not sure whether Pam Duncan-Glancy picked up all that I said in my statement, but I made clear the importance that the Government attaches to education as part of my priority on public services. I spent five years as education secretary, when I was immersed in discussions with educationists the length and breadth of the country. One of the points that were strongly made to me was that the corrosive nature of poverty among children was the most significant factor that eroded educational performance and engagement.

I am not quite sure how Pam Duncan-Glancy does not accept that the steps that the Government is taking through, for example, the Scottish child payment—one of the factors that are contributing to keeping 100,000 children in Scotland out of poverty—are not beneficial to our education system. That is an essential investment that the Government is making. It does not happen in any other part of the United Kingdom, and it is a measure that has been described as one that has had the biggest impact on reducing child poverty in Europe in 40 years. Why can we not accept that we are on the right course to tackle child poverty and improve educational attainment?

Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

I welcome the First Minister’s commitment to tackling child poverty. Last week, the renowned right-wing Conservative, Suella Braverman, called for an end to the cruel two-child benefit cap, which Keir Starmer has ruled out. Can the First Minister advise what difference could be made to child poverty levels in Scotland if the cap were removed? Can he confirm that it will be a priority of the Scottish Government to press the UK Government to take action in that regard?

The First Minister

The issue that Rona Mackay raises is very important, because it affects the amount of money that is going into low-income households that are living in poverty. It is a deadly serious issue with significant human consequences. The child payment is so effective because it puts money directly into the hands of families who are struggling.

The analysis that has been undertaken suggests that, should the two-child limit be lifted, around 10,000 children would be lifted out of poverty overnight—10,000 children. The two-child limit was a deliberate policy decision of the United Kingdom Government, and maintaining it appears to be a deliberate policy decision of the aspiring Labour Government. It is absolutely indefensible, because it is subjecting children in our country to poverty and it should be removed right away.

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

John Swinney was finance secretary and sat at the Cabinet table when the SNP wasted hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money during the common agricultural policy farm payment scandal. He was the Deputy First Minister who negotiated the green deal, which was a disaster for rural Scotland on so many fronts. Today, as First Minister, he talks about growing Scotland’s economy, but he has failed to acknowledge the vital role of farmers and producers in his statement. When will he recognise the importance of farmers, crofters and land managers? Will he commit to publishing a draft rural support plan before stage 3 of the Agriculture and Rural Communities (Scotland) Bill?

The First Minister

I represent a diverse parliamentary constituency, which includes part of the great city of Perth, but the overwhelming majority of it is country area in rural Perthshire. I understand and am closely connected with the farming community that I have represented for more than a quarter of a century. What that community says to me is that it has been hung out to dry by the Tories over Brexit, and I will never let them forget that.

Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

Although Scotland leads the UK in affordable and social housing provision, support for housing costs and grant funding for home efficiency improvements, there are challenges to overcome. Indeed, our Parliament has declared a housing emergency. Can the First Minister outline how his Government’s approach to housing policy will help to achieve the mission of eradicating child poverty?

The First Minister

The points that Ruth Maguire raises are very important. We have to ensure that we have a sustainable investment programme for affordable housing. I set out in my statement the progress that we have made; what we have delivered means that we are in a stronger position than any other part of the United Kingdom. However, we face acute challenges in the housing budget because of the reduction in the capital budget and the significant erosion of the financial transactions resources that would habitually have been used to fund housing expenditure. That is why the Minister for Housing and the housing investment task force are exploring expanding the sources of capital that are available to support our affordable housing programme. The progress on that will be reported to Parliament as the minister holds those discussions.

Ash Regan (Edinburgh Eastern) (Alba)

I note that the First Minister has stated that his number 1 priority is eradicating child poverty. I welcomed the announcement that the Government made in February on school meal debt, which the First Minister spoke about again today, but it is just a temporary reprieve. We know that the attainment, behaviour and attention of children in schools is much improved when they are not going hungry. When will the Government fulfil its promise on free school meals?

The First Minister

Ash Regan makes an important point, and I recognise the significance of free school meals. We have an extensive amount of free school meal provision in the education system and the Government is looking at the resources that are available to us to determine at what stage we will be able to pursue any expansion of that programme.

However, I have to say to Parliament—and I have been completely open about this point—that we face significant financial challenges because of the combination of austerity, Brexit and the effect of inflation on the financial resources that are available to us. We will consider all those issues as we formulate our budget proposals this year.

Karen Adam (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

I was very moved to hear the First Minister speak of his wife’s tirelessness in trying to make sure that multiple sclerosis does not get in the way of her living her life to the full. As someone who grew up as a child of a deaf father, I was well aware of the struggles that come with living with additional support needs. With that in mind, how will the Scottish Government ensure that people in Scotland who are living with additional support needs are supported in living their lives to the full?

The First Minister

I am very grateful to my colleague Karen Adam for her kind remarks. In her comments, she referred to her support for her father. I cannot miss the opportunity to commend the support that my wonderful son gives to his mother when his father is not on the scene, and even when his father is on the scene. Let me put that on the record today.

The Government has a number of commitments to strengthen the support that is available to individuals with additional support needs. Those commitments are delivered at an individual level. We are mindful of the report that the Education, Children and Young People Committee has recently published on additional support needs. We will be considering the contents of the committee’s report, because I recognise that the evidence base that has been supplied is of significance. The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills will have more to say to Parliament about that in due course.

That concludes the First Minister’s statement.