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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, December 22, 2022


First Minister’s Question Time

Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill

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

This week, the Government rejected amendments to the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill that would have stopped people who are awaiting trial for a sexual offence from changing gender. An amendment in the name of Michelle Thomson, which was supported by Russell Findlay, would have prevented the situation in which a survivor of rape would have to refer to their rapist as “she”.

The amendment was not directed at trans people. It would not limit trans rights. It was intended solely to stop male criminals inflicting more trauma on their victims. Michelle Thomson said in the chamber on Tuesday that leaving that possibility risks handing power to abusers, and she said that the Government is choosing to put the rights of alleged criminals over the rights of victims.

The Government stopped agreement to that amendment by a single vote. The First Minister’s own vote means that a man who is standing trial for rape can claim that they are a woman and can force a victim to call them “she”. Why did the First Minister vote for that?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

When amendments have been rejected over the course of the past two days, it has been because a majority in Parliament, having listened carefully and respectfully to the arguments, decided for a variety of reasons that those amendments were not appropriate. Parliament has gone through that process over the past two days, as is right and proper.

Over the course of the past two days, we have heard set out in the chamber many of the different ways in which predatory men can abuse women. My argument is not, never has been and never will be that those are not very real ways in which predatory men abuse women. My argument is that none of those ways is created by the bill, and nor would it be the case that any of those ways would be addressed by denying rights to trans people.

The fact of the matter is that a man who wants to abuse a woman, even a man who wants to masquerade as a woman in order to do so, does not need a gender recognition certificate to do that, and nor does having a gender recognition certificate make that man more able or give them more right to do that than is currently the case. We must focus on the men who abuse women—the predatory and abusive men who do that. This Government always will do that, in a range of different ways.

Amendments were rejected over the past two days often because alternative amendments were agreed to that would strengthen safeguards in the bill. They were amendments that were, in the view of the Government, compliant with the European convention on human rights and with competence issues, which some of the amendments that were rejected were not. For example, in relation to sex offenders, amendments in the names of Shona Robison and Gillian Martin were agreed by Parliament.

Briefly please, First Minister.

Those are serious issues, that have been seriously considered by Parliament, as is right and proper.

Douglas Ross

We supported those amendments, but they were weaker than the amendment in the name of Michelle Thomson. Roddy Dunlop, who is the dean of the Faculty of Advocates in Scotland, said of Gillian Martin’s amendment that it

“will not *prevent* harm: it will reduce the risk of harm.”

With regard to the ECHR, Roddy Dunlop said of the vote on Michelle Thomson’s amendment that he

“can conceive of no sensible basis upon which this amendment might be rejected.”

That comment is from the head of the Faculty of Advocates in Scotland.

The First Minister’s point seems to be that it will not happen—that there is no chance that a violent, predatory male will ever try to exploit loopholes in order to attack or further traumatise women.

What if that does happen? Why would any of us leave open the possibility that that could happen? One event like that would be one too many. Stopping an accused sex offender from changing gender is common sense. What is it that the First Minister and half this Parliament think is right about leaving open the chance that that could happen?

The First Minister

First, that is not my position. I did not say, and have never said, that predatory men will not seek to abuse women. My argument is that it is not the bill that creates the opportunities for them to do so. Those opportunities unfortunately exist already and it is those opportunities that we have to tackle. Not passing the bill would not remove the opportunity for predatory men to seek to do that.

The reasons for rejection of those amendments and alternative amendments that were lodged have been set out to Parliament over the course of the debate in the past two days. A majority in Parliament took the decisions on them. That is how our parliamentary democracy operates.

Let me set out again exactly what the position is as a result of the amendments that were accepted. I first remind the chamber that we already have in place robust provisions for management of sex offenders. We also had already, before stage 3, given a commitment to expand the reporting requirement for sex offenders to include notification about an application for gender recognition. The amendments in the names of Shona Robison and Gillian Martin that were agreed to at stage 3 by a majority in Parliament strengthen that provision. They mean that no further action can be taken on a gender recognition certificate application when the police have applied for a sexual offences prevention order, a sexual harm prevention order or a sexual risk order that would prevent a GRC application.

This will be my final point, Presiding Officer. Those safeguards in the bill do not exist in the current gender recognition legislation. An important point is often lost in the debate. When one listens to the debate, it sometimes sounds as though the bill is either inventing trans people or creating for the first time a process by which somebody can legally change their gender. It is not—that process exists. The safeguards that I have just set out do not exist in the current law, but will exist in the new legislation.

Douglas Ross

The First Minister speaks about majority votes, but we know that on Michelle Thomson’s amendment, it came down to just one vote. At First Minister’s question time, I am asking the First Minister about her one vote. The amendment simply asked to pause the period in which people can apply to have their gender changed if they are on trial for such serious offences. What was the problem with just pausing that opportunity for people who are on trial for such serious offences?

It seems to me that the First Minister has not taken the people of Scotland with her on the issues; polling shows that a majority of Scots are firmly against key parts of the bill. A majority oppose reducing from two years to six months the time that applicants must have lived in their acquired gender. A majority oppose removing the requirement for a doctor’s diagnosis of gender dysphoria. That includes a majority of Conservative voters but, crucially, it also includes a majority of Liberal Democrat voters, Labour voters and Scottish National Party voters.

Lowering the age threshold for a gender recognition certificate was the most opposed aspect of the bill—two thirds of those polled were against it. That included 63 per cent of SNP voters, 67 per cent of Labour voters and 75 per cent of Liberal Democrat voters. Despite that, all three parties are backing the bill today. Why do the First Minister and her allies in the chamber believe that they know better than the public.

The First Minister

We could all point to various polls on the issue. I could point to polls showing very strong support for what the bill will do, including very strong support among women across this country.

However, fundamentally—this is perhaps a point of agreement with Douglas Ross—all of us are elected to this Parliament and we all have a serious responsibility to make decisions and to be accountable for those decisions. We will have the stage 3 vote on the bill later this afternoon; at stage 1, the bill was supported by members of every party in the chamber, including members of Douglas Ross’s party. All of us will be accountable for the decisions that we take on the bill, as we are accountable for all the decisions that we take here. That is democracy. I stand by the decisions that I take, and I will be accountable and will set out the reasons for my decisions to people across Scotland on this and every other issue.

Removing the need for medical diagnosis for a trans person who wants to legally change their gender is one of the purposes of the bill, because the need for that is one of the most intrusive, traumatic and dehumanising parts of the current system. As a woman, I know very well what it is like to live, at times, with the fear of potential violence from men. I am a feminist: I will argue for women’s rights and I will do everything that I can to protect women’s rights for as long as I live, but I also think that it is an important part of my responsibility to make life a little bit easier for stigmatised minorities in our country, to make their lives a bit better and to remove some of the trauma that they live with every day. It is important to do that for the tiny minority of trans people in our society, and I will never apologise for trying to spread equality—not reduce it—in our country.

Finally, Presiding Officer—

Briefly, First Minister.

The First Minister

I come back to the first point in Douglas Ross’s latest question. The reasons for our not accepting Michelle Thomson’s and Russell Findlay’s amendments yesterday were set out at length by Shona Robison. Having carefully considered the amendments, we found that they would not have been compatible with the European convention on human rights, which all our legislation has to be. Accepting them would potentially have compromised the bill, so we sought an alternative way of achieving the same objectives. I have already set that out.

Douglas Ross

Let us be very clear: we supported Gillian Martin’s amendment, but it is weaker than Michelle Thomson’s amendment. We had an opportunity in Parliament; the First Minister’s vote could have made a difference that would have strengthened that element of the bill.

Let us also be clear that the public are not against improvements to support trans people; they are against the bill. The problem is not reform; the problem is the First Minister’s reforms. Although there might be a majority in the chamber who will support the bill later today, a majority of the public oppose the bill, including most SNP, Labour and Liberal Democrat voters. The bill reduces women’s rights and, potentially, risks women’s safety—but it does not need to be that way. I ask the First Minister and all the Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP members who will support the bill: should they not take the time to get it right, instead of charging ahead with a bill that the people of Scotland do not support?

The First Minister

The bill has been six years in the making. There have been two full consultations. Today will be the culmination of a full and robust legislative process. In the past two days alone, we have had about 20 hours of debate on amendments. It is possibly the most scrutinised piece of legislation in the history of the Parliament.

I will say this entirely respectfully. The issue here is not the lack of scrutiny; it is that the majority in this Parliament—made up of members from all parties, including Douglas Ross’s party—have respectfully disagreed with the arguments that the Tories have put forward, many of which have been completely unrelated to the purpose and effect of the bill. That is the reality.

Douglas Ross says that he is not opposed to reform but is opposed only to the bill. I have listened very carefully, not just in the past two days but throughout the debate, and I do not think that I have heard from Douglas Ross at any time any explanation or any sense of what form of bill he would have been prepared to support. I suspect that Douglas Ross would have voted against the bill, regardless of what amendments to it had been proposed. That is his right.

I will be corrected if I am wrong about this, but I think that I have heard Douglas Ross say that, in the past, had he been in the Parliament when we considered equal marriage, he would have voted against it, but that he has since changed his mind. All of us have to consider such matters carefully. I have thought very deeply about all these issues for a long time, and I will be accountable for the decisions that I make on the bill in this Parliament. I will always stand up for women’s rights, but I am proud of the fact that, this afternoon, Parliament will, I hope, vote for a piece of legislation that will make the lives of trans people in this country that little bit better and easier, and I think that that is something to be proud of.

NHS Staff (Pay and Conditions)

2. Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

Presiding Officer, on this last day of business, I start by wishing you and members across the chamber a very merry Christmas. In particular, we wish the Parliament staff and all of our staff all the best for the new year. [Applause.]

Over Christmas, thousands of national health service staff will be working when most of us will be spending time with our family and friends. They all deserve our thanks for the work that they do to keep the NHS going over the winter and, indeed, all year round.

However, our health service heroes do not deserve only our thanks; they deserve better pay and conditions, too. Will the First Minister commit to getting back round the table with the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Midwives and the GMB to listen to their concerns, act on them and avoid strikes next year?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I will come directly to that issue in a second, because it is one that I take very seriously and on which the Government will continue to work very hard, but, first, I, too, take the opportunity to wish you, Presiding Officer, members across the chamber and all our staff a very happy Christmas. Particularly as we break for Christmas this year, I thank the staff of the Parliament for the way in which they have gone above and beyond to support us in our responsibilities over the course of this week. We are deeply grateful to each and every one of them. [Applause.]

I also take the opportunity to thank every single man and woman who works across our health and care services. We do that every year, but it is more important and more appropriate this year than it has ever been before.

In direct answer to Anas Sarwar’s question, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care will meet trade unions tomorrow. I think that he was originally supposed to do that this afternoon, but parliamentary business has intervened. As has been the case up until now, we will do everything that we can to avoid industrial action in our national health service. Unlike England, Wales and Northern Ireland, we have, so far, avoided industrial action in our health service.

We will do that because we want to—obviously—avoid the disruption that that would bring to patients across the country, but also because we value the people who work in our national health service. I want to make sure that they get the best possible pay rise that we can give them. We have maximised what we can do within this financial year. Whereas in England, where there is a Conservative Government, and Wales, where there is a Labour Government, the health service agenda for change staff have been offered an average of 4.5 per cent, in Scotland the offer is 7.5 per cent, on average. That is a sign of how deeply we value our healthcare workers. We will continue to have meaningful discussions to do everything possible to reward them appropriately and to avoid any disruption in our health service.

Anas Sarwar

I welcome the fact that the health secretary will meet the unions tomorrow, and I sincerely hope that an agreement can be found to get us through the current crisis.

The trade unions are not striking only about pay; they are warning about patient safety and conditions in our hospitals. More than a year ago, the health secretary announced a catch-up plan for our NHS, but things are getting worse for patients. In August 2021, when the catch-up plan was announced, 76 per cent of people who went to accident and emergency were seen within four hours; that figure has now fallen to 62 per cent. From July to September 2021, 83 per cent of people were seen within the 62-day waiting standard for cancer treatment; that has now fallen to 74.7 per cent. When the catch-up plan was launched, 64 per cent of patients were being seen within the legally binding 12-week treatment time guarantee; that number has now fallen to 56 per cent.

Patients and staff are crying out for the Government to get a grip. The catch-up plan has failed. Why is the Government persisting with its failing plan, and when will it bring forward a new one?

Nicola Sturgeon

First, just to complete my answer on pay, I reiterate that the Government will continue to make every effort to avoid industrial action—we are, so far, the only part of the United Kingdom that has avoided it. What I am about to say is not a criticism of the Government in Wales, which is working within the same constraints as we are—constraints that the UK Government has imposed on us—so I know how difficult it is. We have seen industrial action in Wales, where Labour is in government, because the negotiations that led to a higher pay offer have not taken place there as they have elsewhere in the UK. I say that because people should take that as a very clear signal that we will do everything within our power and resources—which have been expanded this year—to avoid industrial action. Part of the offer to NHS workers includes offers around non-pay elements, and we will continue to explore how far we can go with those.

Since the catch-up plan was published, we have had further waves of Covid and the pressures on our NHS have increased, and we have seen waiting times deteriorate as a result in many respects. That said, we are seeing progress, in that the number of people who are waiting longest is reducing—if we look at in-patient day case treatments, we can see that the longest waits have been reduced by almost a quarter. We are seeing progress in waiting times for child and adolescent mental health services, too—we covered that point in some detail last week.

These are the toughest of times for our health service. As we go into this festive period, not just Covid but flu, other respiratory illnesses and cold weather all pose significant challenges—

Briefly, First Minister.

Our job is to continue to support the health service, and that is exactly what we will do.

Anas Sarwar

The fact that the First Minister cannot escape from is that performance is getting worse, not better, since the catch-up plan, and failures have consequences. Patients are being asked to accept the unacceptable, staff are being asked to do the impossible and lives are being lost. Things are worse on nearly every measure than when the health secretary launched the catch-up plan.

Let us look at the Government’s report card against its own performance standards. On accident and emergency waiting times, it has failed. On delayed discharge, it has failed. On CAMHS waiting times, it has failed. On the 12-week first out-patient appointment, it has failed. On the eight-week referral to treatment, it has failed. On cancer treatment times, it has failed. On detect cancer early, it has failed. On general practitioner waits, it has failed. On the treatment time guarantee, it has failed. When will the First Minister wake up and realise that, when it comes to the national health service, she and the health secretary have failed?

Nicola Sturgeon

Soundbites and faux anger will not address the challenges in the health service. Patients and the public have a right to be angry and frustrated right now, but they also have a right to expect a Government that is addressing those issues. I have not stood here and suggested that there are not significant—and, over recent months, increasing—challenges for the NHS and, therefore, for the performance measures that we have in the national health service. We are seeing that situation across England, Wales and Northern Ireland and in health services across the world with the continuing impact of the pandemic, and other pressures on our NHS are mounting.

That is why we are increasing investment beyond any consequential funding for the NHS next year—£1 billion extra—and asking those people who earn the most in this country to pay a bit more in tax so that we can give more resources to it. We are continuing to support record recruitment and numbers of staff in the NHS, and we are starting to see progress on the longest waits.

What is happening here is that demand is going up. In relation to many of those performance indicators, the NHS is treating more patients—more patients are coming forward for treatment. Nobody knows better than the health secretary, the Government and I the challenges that we face, which is why we remain focused on supporting our NHS through them in the various ways that I have set out.

Biological Diversity

To ask the First Minister what actions the Scottish Government will take forward as a result of COP15, the 15th conference of the parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. (S6F-01670)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I welcome the outcome reached at COP15, which, of course, must now be followed up by all parties and at all levels with immediate and urgent plans for implementation. Our draft biodiversity strategy, which was published last week, sets out how the Scottish Government will do that. It establishes our long-term ambition and vision for a nature-positive future and sets out some of the immediate actions that we will take to halt nature loss by 2030.

I am proud that the Edinburgh process, which was led by the Scottish Government on behalf of the Convention on Biological Diversity, culminated at COP15 with more than 300 subnational, local and regional governments joining our call for action. The resulting plan of action on subnational governments was adopted as part of the framework that was agreed this week in Montreal.

Ariane Burgess

It is great to see Scotland playing an influential role on the world stage and supporting global progress to tackle the nature emergency. The Montreal agreement could be a turning point in our fight to protect and restore our natural environment, to stop declines and extinctions and to protect the life-support systems that we all depend on.

Any agreement is only worth the actions that it results in. Scotland can help to make the new global diversity framework a success by moving quickly to implement it. That means making big changes in how our land and seas are managed and looked after for current and future generations.

Please ask a question, Ms Burgess.

Ariane Burgess

One of the key actions in the new framework is to protect 30 per cent of our land and seas by 2030. However, recent reports have shown that many seas around Scotland that are already protected are in a poor condition. Can the First Minister confirm that, as part of delivering 30 by 30 in Scotland, the level of protection will be improved and nature recovery in those important places will be supported?

The First Minister

That was a really important question, not only for here and now but for the future of our nature and, indeed, of the planet. It was really good to see the headline target to protect at least 30 per cent of the world’s land and sea by 2030 in the new global framework. We are committed to implementing that in Scotland. I reiterate that we are committed to the expansion and improvement of areas managed for nature and that our 30 by 30 programme will promote ecological restoration and safeguarding at a scale never before seen in Scotland.

Although almost 80 per cent of protected areas are in a favourable or recovering condition and the long-term trend is one of improvement, I agree that we can and must do more. We are committed to working at landscape scale and to taking a collaborative approach to tackling the negative pressures on protected areas. We are currently working with NatureScot to take forward a co-design process with stakeholders to develop a framework by which our 30 by 30 commitment will be delivered.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

Peatland restoration is crucial to biodiversity. The Climate Change Committee recommends restoring 45,000 hectares of peatland per year by 2022. The Government’s target was a mere 20,000 hectares. However, in 2020-21, the Government restored 8,000 hectares, and it is reported that 80 per cent of Scotland’s peatlands are degraded. The First Minister said earlier that the biodiversity strategy sets out actions that the Government will take. What action is the Government taking, right now, to restore those peatlands, and in which year will she meet the restoration target?

The First Minister

The Government is investing record amounts, and we are committed to record investment in peatland restoration. I am happy to write to the member with more detail about the timescales and our expectations. We are recognised as setting the pace on some of this, and peatland restoration is one of the key levers or tools that we have at our disposal.

The final thing that I will say is something for all of us, particularly those who are in Government, to reflect on very seriously. Across all those areas, no Government anywhere is yet doing as much as we need to do. It is really important that we continue to challenge ourselves all the time and that we continue to be challenged. I welcome this line of questioning and want to see the maximum possible challenge to the Government to ensure that we are not only setting targets but making the investments and taking the actions to meet them, because there are few more important areas of work for any Government anywhere on the planet right now.

Energy Strategy (Solar Power)

4. Fergus Ewing (Inverness and Nairn) (SNP)

Presiding Officer, I apologise for not being in my space from the outset of First Minister’s question time.

To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government will set a clear ambition in its planned energy strategy for delivery of 4 to 6GW of solar power by 2030. (S6F-01660)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Energy that is generated from solar can, without a shadow of a doubt, make a very significant contribution to both the decarbonisation of our energy supply and the just transition that we need to make to a net zero emissions society by 2045.

I can tell the Parliament that our draft energy strategy and just transition plan will be published very early in January, when we return from the recess, and it will contain a clear vision for the future development of solar energy. That will include the action that the Scottish Government is taking to remove barriers to solar deployment. Through the consultation, we will seek views and evidence on whether, or at what level, a deployment ambition should be set.

It is vital that we ensure that any deployment ambition is appropriate and stretching but also achievable. I encourage all stakeholders to engage with the draft vision and the consultation process.

Fergus Ewing

The First Minister’s answer will be received very warmly by members across all parties in the Parliament who support the development of Scotland’s solar potential. I am very grateful for it. May I pursue one aspect, however? In the planning system and the national planning framework, precedence is given to those forms of renewable energy where there is a clear, identified ambition and target. If there is no target, it means little development, and the opportunity may slip through our fingers like mercury.

In order to achieve the enormous potential that solar energy can contribute to our transition to a clean system of electricity generation, will the First Minister bear that point in mind so that precedence is given to solar power by having a very clear, practical, deliverable and achievable target?

The First Minister

I know that Fergus Ewing will have listened very carefully to what I said. Without going further before we publish the consultation, I clearly indicated, in talking about consulting on whether, or at what level, we set a deployment ambition, that I recognise that there is an importance attached to targets, both for the reason that he set out and for other reasons, not least to do with activating the supply chain and benefiting the economy. That is why we already have targets for offshore and onshore wind and hydrogen, for example. I hope that Fergus Ewing will take that comment positively.

The final thing that I will say, which he has already alluded to, concerns the reason for consulting. It is important—I go back to the previous question here—not just that we set a target but that we make sure that it is both stretching and achievable. The consultation is an important part of the process, which is why I encourage all those with an interest to take part in it.

Deposit Return Scheme

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to reported warnings that the implementation of the deposit return scheme will be “ruinous for consumers and businesses”. (S6F-01661)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I do not agree with that. The deposit return scheme will be a major part of our efforts to reduce litter, cut emissions and build a more circular economy. Good progress is being made by industry ahead of the scheme’s introduction in August 2023. Indeed, that is reflected in the most recent gateway review, which notes that good progress has been made and that successful delivery of the scheme is now achievable.

I am very aware of business concerns on some outstanding issues. We take those seriously, which is why we have committed to a pragmatic approach to implementation and are taking action to help to make the scheme more efficient and reduce costs. Last week, for example, fees for drinks producers were substantially reduced by the scheme administrator, and we have committed to lay regulations so that only the largest grocery retailers will be obliged initially to provide a take-back service for online and distance sales.

Maurice Golden

I thank the First Minister for that answer. The deposit return scheme has been scaled back. We all want it to succeed but, understandably, businesses are worried about the potential for it to go wrong. That worry is fuelled by the confusion, secrecy and lack of information that surrounds the scheme. None of us wants that, so we must make sure that the scheme is more transparent in order to increase confidence in it. The Scottish Government has the power to make the scheme administrator subject to freedom of information requests. Will the First Minister do that?

The First Minister

I will give consideration to any request or suggestion that is made in the chamber, so I will take that away, give consideration to it and discuss it with colleagues. I believe, though, that there is transparency around the work that has been done on the scheme. We had a review carried out in October, which concluded that the programme has gained increased momentum and is in an improved position, and that the go-live date in August is feasible. That is testament to the efforts that are being made by industry and by Circularity Scotland in working together to ensure that the scheme is implemented.

Last week, the minister wrote to the committee, setting out the further steps that we are taking, after listening to the concerns of industry, to make the scheme more efficient and to reduce costs. Day 1 payments are being reduced; last week, Circularity Scotland published new producer fees, which are lower than was previously indicated; and other changes have been made to take account of the concerns of industry. That is positive, and we will continue that collaborative approach in the months leading up to implementation.

Mercedes Villalba (North East Scotland) (Lab)

Has the Scottish Government asked those who are conducting the gateway reviews into the deposit return scheme to interview representatives of organisations that are running successful deposit return systems, especially those that have most recently set up systems that are much cheaper for producers and have come online more quickly?

The First Minister

I am certainly happy to check the detail of that question. I am not sure exactly which individuals or organisations the member is alluding to—whether they are here in Scotland or in other countries that already have schemes in place. I would expect any gateway review to take broadly based evidence, but I will come back to the member in due course with fuller detail about what particular organisations have been spoken to and what detail has been extracted from that.

Temporary Accommodation (Use of Hotels)

To ask the First Minister what progress the Scottish Government has made in ending the use of hotels as temporary accommodation for children and families. (S6F-01658)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Local authorities have used hotels to discharge their duties as part of the emergency response to Covid. The data on that is held by local authorities rather than by the Scottish Government. However, our statistics on homelessness in Scotland show that, although there was an increase in the number of children in temporary accommodation in 2021-22, the social sector was the most common type of temporary accommodation that was used. In comparison with 2021, 20 local authorities have reduced the number of households that are living in temporary accommodation, and 10 of those have reduced the number of children in temporary accommodation.

The housing secretary has asked an expert group for an action plan to reduce the numbers of people in temporary accommodation and the length of time that is spent there, with a strong focus on households with children.

Paul Sweeney

In response to a recent written question, the First Minister’s cabinet secretary acknowledged that hotels are unsuitable accommodation for people who seek asylum, and condemned the Home Office’s use of bed and breakfasts. However, I understand that lone children who may be seeking asylum and who are in the care of Scottish local authorities, not the Home Office, are also being placed in unregulated hotel accommodation—among adult members of the wider homeless population and without cooking or laundry facilities.

The Scottish Government’s condemnation of Home Office use of hotel accommodation means nothing if devolved care services are acting in the same manner. Will the First Minister advise what steps that working group is taking to urgently relocate those lone children to supported accommodation, and will she make a commitment that no further children who are alone will be placed at risk in such unregulated hotels?

The First Minister

I agree absolutely with the sentiment of that question. If Paul Sweeney has any more information to pass to us about the instances that he was talking about, I would be very keen to look at that. None of us wants any children to be in temporary hotel or bed and breakfast accommodation if we can possibly avoid that—and certainly not lone children in the circumstances that have been narrated. We will look further into that specific point.

More generally, none of us wants hotel accommodation to be used as temporary accommodation unless that is absolutely necessary. I have situations in my constituency where that is an issue, both for homeless people and for communities, but there have been demands on local authorities, particularly during Covid. It should be stressed, though, that most temporary accommodation is in the social sector and, as I said, many local authorities are now seeing a reduction in that.

However, there is much work to do here, which is why we are investing in more affordable housing, investing more in homelessness services and prioritising the housing first model. Those are really important issues, and I know that the housing secretary would be happy to engage further about some of the particulars behind the question.

We will now take general and constituency supplementary questions.

Cost of Living Crisis (Scottish Government Powers)

Paul McLennan (East Lothian) (SNP)

According to a new survey from Which?, nearly 2 million United Kingdom households are behind on bill payments as Christmas approaches. As the Tory cost of living crisis runs out of control, can I ask the First Minister what support the Scottish Government is providing to people to help them to stay afloat this winter? What more could the Scottish Government be doing if it had full powers over tax, welfare and energy pricing?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

As we go into this festive season, many people are finding life more difficult than at any time that most of us can remember. We have to be very aware of that. The cost of living crisis is hurting many individuals, families and businesses right across the country.

The Scottish Government is doing, and will continue to do, everything that we can to help people to deal with that. As has been set out many times in the chamber, we are investing around £3 billion this year on initiatives and measures that will help people with the cost of living. We have taken new initiatives, such as the Scottish child payment, for example. I have personally convened summits with the energy companies and advice agencies to ensure that we are doing as much as possible.

It is true to say that many of the root causes of what we are dealing with right now lie outwith the powers of this Government. If we had full control over the tax and benefits system and the regulation of the energy sector, it is undoubtedly the case that we would be able to do much more, in a more coherent and joined-up way, to help people not just to deal with the consequences of the crisis but to deal much better with the root causes, too.

Professor Eljamel (Full Independent Inquiry)

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

May I ask again whether the First Minister will finally grant a full independent inquiry for the former patients of Professor Eljamel? There are now 50 former patients who have come forward, each with their own very harrowing stories. The First Minister will be aware that several other MSPs, including Michael Marra and Willie Rennie, now believe that a full independent inquiry is the only way to get to the truth and deliver justice for those former patients.

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

We will continue to give consideration to that call. I absolutely understand the views of those who have been affected and the ordeal that they have suffered. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care has met the health board leadership. The review that has already been commissioned by the Scottish Government included detailed reviews of care. We understand the desire of patients that any process will lead them to the assurance that they have all of the answers that they can possibly get. Although we are not, at this stage, convinced that a public inquiry would lead any more to that, we will continue to give consideration to these issues.

YAG Laser Capsulotomy Treatment (Waiting Times)

Foysol Choudhury (Lothian) (Lab)

I would like to raise with the First Minister the case of a constituent who has contacted me after being told that the waiting list for a YAG laser capsulotomy treatment can be as long as 70 weeks. That constituent is going blind, struggling to care for disabled children and having difficulty sleeping because he needs the procedure.

I have already raised the matter with the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care, who blamed the pandemic for the waiting times. Contrary to the cabinet secretary’s response, though, NHS Lothian has told me that the waiting times are not in fact down to Covid but instead down to lack of lasers available to perform the treatment.

I therefore ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government is doing to ensure that the NHS has the equipment that it needs to tackle the waiting list. Is it acceptable for people with failing eyesight to be told that they are on a 16-month waiting list for a treatment that typically takes only a few minutes?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I will make two points—one particular and the other more general. On the particular point, I appreciate that the member says that he has already written to the cabinet secretary. I will look at the detail of that case myself, particularly if the health board is saying that there is an issue with lack of equipment. If we can take action there, we will certainly give consideration to doing so.

The more general point is one that I made earlier, in response to Anas Sarwar. In these times of significant pressure, we are focusing on reducing the waiting times of those who have been waiting the longest for treatment. That is where we are seeing progress. I appreciate that it is of no comfort to someone who is still waiting, but we have already seen a 24 per cent reduction in the longest waits for in-patient treatment. We will continue to focus on the longest waits, because we know the distress that they can cause.

I will look at the circumstances of the particular case that has been raised and if I can offer more information I will write to the member.

Rail Dispute

Bill Kidd (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)

Travellers throughout the United Kingdom will experience disruption over the festive period as a result of what Scottish Trades Union Congress general secretary Roz Foyer has described as

“the combative approach to negotiations taken by the UK Government”.

What representations has the First Minister made to the UK Government to get round the table and engage constructively with trade unions to secure a railway that benefits users, staff and the wider public?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I appreciate Bill Kidd’s raising that issue. It is important to underline that this is not a Scottish dispute. The Scottish Government has maintained constructive discussions with trade unions and we have settled pay negotiations here by embracing the concept of fair work. Despite that, passengers in Scotland are still facing severe disruption as a result of the on-going UK-wide rail dispute between Network Rail, the UK Government and trade unions.

Network Rail employees in Scotland face entering the new year with still no pay rise, and the travelling public face further disruption. Although this is not a matter in which the Scottish Government has any direct locus—unfortunately—yesterday, I joined the STUC in calling for the Secretary of State for Transport to intervene immediately, to avoid further disruption for users, staff and taxpayers and to deliver a fair pay deal for those who work on our railways. I hope that the entire Parliament will get behind that.

Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill

Sue Webber (Lothian) (Con)

For the past two days in a row, members have been sitting in the chamber until after midnight. On Tuesday, as the debate on the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill at stage 3 was under way, one woman was thrown out of the public gallery and another law-abiding woman was threatened with arrest. Legislation has been rushed, criticism ignored and women silenced. Does the First Minister agree that the events of this week have reflected badly on the bill’s passage through the Parliament?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Some of the elements of our proceedings this week have reflected badly on the Conservative Party. I recognise that people have different and sincerely held views on the bill. Notwithstanding that, what we saw from the Conservative Party were deliberate attempts to filibuster, delay and frustrate the decision-making process. Neither yesterday nor the day before were we timetabled to go beyond midnight, or anything like it. The reasons why proceedings took so long were the filibustering and other actions of the Conservative Party.

Beyond that, Presiding Officer, as you well know, I am not responsible for policing the public gallery. I support those who do that difficult and important job, but that is not a matter for me. I believe that, no matter what our different views on that legislation or any matter might be, all of us should always treat the Parliament with respect and allow it to do its work properly. Perhaps the Conservative Party might want to reflect on that over the recess.