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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, May 23, 2024


First Minister’s Question Time

Michael Matheson (Complaint)

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

Michael Matheson misused taxpayers’ money. He made a false claim for £11,000. He misled the public, the press and this Parliament. However, when the scandal came to light, the Scottish National Party circled the wagons and backed him to the hilt. The SNP said that he was

“a person of integrity and character”

and that the matter was closed, but it must surely accept the full scale of the deceit and abuse of trust. It is proposed that he be banned from this Parliament for 27 days. He is still sitting on the SNP benches today. Will John Swinney do the right thing and kick Michael Matheson out of the SNP? Does the First Minister accept that the SNP was wrong to fully support Michael Matheson?

The Presiding Officer (Alison Johnstone)

We are clear that the purpose of this session is to put questions to the First Minister in his capacity as First Minister and to address matters for which the Scottish Government has responsibility. I will allow the First Minister to respond in relation to those responsibilities.

The First Minister (John Swinney)

At the outset, I have to make it clear to the Parliament that Michael Matheson is a friend and colleague of mine. He has made mistakes, he has resigned from the Cabinet, and he has paid the roaming costs in question—there has been no cost to the public purse.

However, as I consider the findings from the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee, I have a significant concern. I believe that the process has been prejudiced. Let me explain why.

Both Stephen Kerr and Annie Wells made comments about the case, long before it came to the committee, which prejudged it. Stephen Kerr had the good grace to admit that he

“couldn’t meet the committee requirement to be unbiased”,

so he removed himself from the committee. He was replaced by Oliver Mundell, who has made no public comment on the case. I have no issue with Mr Mundell’s participation in the inquiry.

However, Annie Wells has made public comments. On 27 November, Annie Wells said that Michael Matheson’s

“desperate efforts to justify his outrageous expenses claim have been riddled with lies, cover-ups and the need for us all to suspend our disbelief.”

If a constituent came to me and said that they were about to face a disciplinary panel at work, and one of the panel members had made prejudicial comments about them, I would come down on that employer like a ton of bricks. That is the situation that Michael Matheson faces here, and that is why I will not support the sanction.

That is incredible. Michael Matheson claimed £11,000 from the taxpayer. He expected the taxpayer to pick up his—[Interruption.]

I would be grateful if we could conduct ourselves in a courteous and respectful manner, as is required of us by standing orders.

Douglas Ross

Michael Matheson misled the public, misled the press and misled the Parliament. He expected the taxpayers of Scotland to pay £11,000 for a bill that he had racked up. It was not Annie Wells, Oliver Mundell, Martin Whitfield, Jackie Dunbar or Alasdair Allan who found Michael Matheson guilty—it was the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, which is comprised of members from across the chamber.

Shockingly, John Swinney is standing here today, defending the indefensible. MSPs must be honest—Michael Matheson was not. MSPs must act with integrity—Michael Matheson did not. MSPs must be trusted by the public—Michael Matheson is not. He is to be banned from this Parliament for a few weeks but, in the real world, he would have lost his job for what he did and what he claimed.

John Swinney has said that he and Michael Matheson are good friends and colleagues. They served in Cabinet together for almost a decade. Does John Swinney believe that Michael Matheson’s actions—not the sanctions—were acceptable? Would they be acceptable for any member of Parliament? At any stage, since the scandal first came to light, has the First Minister made any personal representations to support Michael Matheson?

The First Minister

In answer to Mr Ross’s last specific question, before I became First Minister, I drew the issues about the comments from Stephen Kerr and Annie Wells to the attention of the convener of the Standards, Public Appointments and Procedures Committee, which I thought was important for me to do as a senior, long-serving member of Parliament, because I am interested in the integrity of this Parliament.

Unfortunately, the integrity of the Parliament has been brought into question—[Interruption.]

Please continue, First Minister.

The First Minister

The integrity of the Parliament has been brought into question because a member of the committee has not done what Mr Kerr did, which was accept that they should recuse themselves from the committee.

I have no issue with the participation of the Conservative member on the corporate body, because Jackson Carlaw has made no public comments about the case. However, I have an issue with people prejudging the case, because that brings the Parliament into disrepute.

I come back to the point that I made in my earlier remarks, which is that, if a constituent came to me to say that they were about to face a disciplinary panel at work and one of the panel members had made prejudicial comments about them, I would come down on that employer like a ton of bricks.

In my earlier answer, I said that Michael Matheson had made mistakes. He resigned and lost his job as a member of the Cabinet and he paid the roaming costs in question. There was no cost to the public purse. As a consequence of the issues that have been raised here about the conduct of the process, I do not believe that the sanction can be applied.

Douglas Ross

That is incredible and indefensible from the First Minister. When he asked for our support to make him First Minister, he told us that he would be First Minister for all of Scotland. However, what Scotland is seeing is that he is the First Minister who backs his pals. He is supporting Michael Matheson as a friend and colleague, and is not doing the right thing for Scotland or this Parliament.

My colleagues Annie Wells and Oliver Mundell, and every member on that committee, went in to do their job, as they were asked to do by this Parliament. If anyone has brought the Scottish Parliament into disrepute, it is a member who tried to claim £11,000 from the Scottish taxpayer and get away with it.

The seriousness of this incident and the deep damage that the conduct of Michael Matheson has done to public trust in the Parliament demand that he must resign, but we know from his conduct so far that he is unlikely to do that. What will shock and appal people across Scotland is that he is now being endorsed by the First Minister of this country. I can announce today that if the SNP is not going to do the right thing for Scotland, the Scottish Conservatives will seek to bring forward a vote in the chamber next week. Our motion will state that Michael Matheson should resign for misusing taxpayers’ money and for making false statements to the public, the press and Parliament.

Will John Swinney do what he promised he would and lead this Government on behalf of the whole of Scotland and support our calls for Michael Matheson to resign, or will he simply support his nationalist friend?

The First Minister

I do not think that anybody could look at me and think that I am not an individual who cares deeply about the reputation and integrity of this Parliament. I have been in this Parliament—[Interruption.] I have been in this Parliament for 25 years, since its foundation, and it has been the privilege of my life to serve here. I am the only member of this Parliament who voted for its establishment when the Scotland Act 1998 was put to the House of Commons. I care deeply about the reputation, integrity and identity of this Parliament, which is why I think that there is the risk that deep damage will be done to its reputation if the issue—[Interruption.]

Do continue, First Minister.

The First Minister

—that I have raised is not addressed properly, as I invited the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee to do. I will not support calls for Michael Matheson to resign. Michael Matheson has suffered significant reputational damage and impact on his family as a consequence of losing office and the difficulties that have been created here. He has paid all the roaming costs in question; there is no cost to the public purse.

This Parliament needs to consider seriously the reputational issues that will arise from presiding over an unfair process.

Douglas Ross

The First Minister has to consider carefully his reputation and the reputation of this Parliament if he continues down the route that he seems to be going down. Let me be clear that if our motion is successful next week, and if Michael Matheson does the right thing—finally—and resigns as a member of this Parliament, the people of Falkirk West could have the chance on 4 July, when there is a general election anyway, to choose an MSP who is honest and has integrity.

Michael Matheson made a false claim for £11,000. That is beyond doubt—

What about your £30,000?

He was untruthful to the press, to the public and to Parliament.

Excuse me, Mr Ross. Mr FitzPatrick, I would be grateful if you would desist from commenting from your seat.

Douglas Ross

Michael Matheson made a false claim for £11,000 of taxpayers’ money. He was untruthful, without any doubt, to the public of Scotland, to the press that covers our proceedings and to this Parliament, including our Presiding Officer. However, the SNP claimed that there was nothing to see here. It defended Michael Matheson every step of the way, and the First Minister continues with that today. Anyone in the real world would have lost their job for doing what Michael Matheson did, yet John Swinney is saying today that it is acceptable for an MSP to take public money and then not be honest about it, because he disagrees with a sanction of this Parliament.

I have to say that the public disagree, and they will soon have the chance to have their say on this scandal. They have an opportunity to remove SNP politicians who let them down. In seats up and down Scotland, it will be a straight fight between the SNP and the Scottish Conservatives. Does John Swinney believe that the SNP will be punished for its handling of this scandal, and for his actions, on 4 July?

The Presiding Officer

Before the First Minister responds, I remind members that the chamber is not the place to campaign for a United Kingdom general election. I do not want campaigning to distract members from their focus on issues that are the responsibility of this Parliament and the Scottish Government.

The First Minister

I think that Douglas Ross’s last question to me reveals what this is all about. I have set out that Michael Matheson made mistakes, that he has resigned from the Cabinet and that he paid in full the costs of the roaming charges, so that there has been no cost to the public purse.

My job as First Minister, as I promised Parliament, is to improve the lives of people in Scotland. My challenge in doing that is that I am having to lead a Government that is having to face up to 14 years of punishing austerity from the United Kingdom Government. I am having to lead a Government that is having to face up to the consequences in Scotland of Brexit. I am having to lead a Government that is facing the hard realities of the cost of living crisis that has been inflicted on our country by the mismanagement of the economy by the Conservative Government.

I look forward to setting out to the people of Scotland in this election the difficulties that have been created by the folly of Douglas Ross and his colleagues—[Interruption.]—and I know that the people of Scotland will support the SNP in that process.

Before I call Mr Sarwar, I say that I would be grateful if members conducted themselves in a courteous and respectful way. We have many members who wish to put questions today.

Michael Matheson (Complaint)

2. Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

What we have heard today from the First Minister is utterly unbelievable and embarrassing. He has demeaned himself and the office of First Minister. Two weeks in, and the pretence of a new kind of government is gone—party first, country second. He talked about the actions that should be judged here. It is not the actions of a committee that should be judged, but the actions of a member who attempted to wrongly claim £11,000 of public money. In the real world, that employee would lose their job, not have their bosses running around trying to protect them, which is what we got from the First Minister.

On all the complaints that are now being made, why were those on the Government benches not making those complaints before the process started, rather than after it had concluded? I am talking about the wider Government, not just one individual.

Let us look at what is happening here. Every single day, the two Governments are getting more and more alike. Let us not forget how Boris Johnson was judged when he thought that he could stand against the processes of the United Kingdom Parliament when it came to individual members of the Conservative Party. Let us not forget how Liz Truss was judged when she did the same, and let us see how Rishi Sunak will be judged when he puts party before country. Is it not the case that John Swinney and the Scottish National Party Government will be judged, too?

I say to the First Minister: do the right thing for once. Put the integrity of our Parliament and our democracy before your political party and demand that Michael Matheson resign so that the people of his constituency can vote for someone who is on their side and not fighting for themselves.

The First Minister (John Swinney)

I am interested in putting Parliament first. That is why, before any of this kicked off, I wrote on two occasions to the convener of the Standards, Public Appointments and Procedures Committee, because I was concerned about the danger to the reputation of Parliament because of the fact that a process was going to be undertaken where members had prejudged it. That is an issue, and Mr Sarwar will share my perspective on the issue of employees’ rights. We have to have fair processes in our Parliament. I set out why I thought that those processes were at risk of being unfair.

Mr Sarwar asked about the raising of those concerns and the appropriate course of action to be taken. I remind Mr Sarwar that, in the Boris Johnson case to which he referred, Chris Bryant, one of Mr Sarwar’s colleagues in the House of Commons, recused himself from the parliamentary standards process because he had expressed public remarks about the case. Mr Bryant took the appropriate action to protect the process. The process has not been protected here.

I come at this issue using the fundamental Christian maxim of doing unto others what you would have done unto yourself. It worries me that what is being proposed is something that none of us would like to have done to us, because of its unfairness. That is the issue that Parliament has to confront.

Anas Sarwar

Again, no one will believe that from John Swinney. Let us not pretend that John Swinney somehow holds every member across this Parliament or across the Westminster Parliament as equal. This is an SNP Government that is famous for holding itself to a lower standard than it holds the rest of the country to. That is why it is one rule for the SNP and another standard for everybody else.

If Michael Matheson were a Labour MSP, I guarantee that that would not be John Swinney’s response. If Michael Matheson were a Conservative MSP, I guarantee that that would not be John Swinney’s response. That is because, for John Swinney, it is party first, country second. That was the case in how he handled the Salmond inquiry, and it is exactly the same case in how he is dealing with this.

In case it be forgotten, Mr Wanting-to-pretend-that-he-is-the-integrity-symbol-of-the-Parliament—

Mr Sarwar.

We came to this Parliament—

Mr Sarwar!

We do not use names other than proper names, so please remember that as you conclude your remarks.

Anas Sarwar

I apologise, Presiding Officer.

Let us remember that, in the previous session of Parliament, we had to come to this chamber to force John Swinney to provide evidence to a committee. Let him not pretend that he respects the integrity of individual committees of the Parliament. People can see right through what is happening here.

Michael Matheson should do the right thing: he should stand down and allow a by-election. If John Swinney were going to do the right thing, he would demand that of him, too. However, it should not be up to Michael Matheson and it should not be up to John Swinney. We supported—as did the SNP—the right to recall MPs who were suspended for more than 10 days. Again, Scotland lags behind Westminster on that issue. Does the First Minister support the right of recall of MSPs? If so, does he think that those who are suspended for more than 10 days should face a recall petition so that the public can decide whether they believe that the politician who they sent to Parliament to represent them has integrity?

The First Minister

That is a proposition that Parliament can consider. The Government is perfectly open to considering that proposal. I believe that recall arrangements are appropriate and that Parliament needs to scrutinise the basis on which it puts them forward.

I honestly say to Parliament that it has to be very careful about what it is doing here. The example that Chris Bryant set, whereby an individual who had prejudged a case judged that they could not take part in the process, is one of which we should all be mindful. Natural justice is at stake here. I would be concerned about that wherever that person sat in the chamber, because I want Parliament to exercise its responsibilities fairly and openly in relation to all members.

Mr Sarwar said that there are other issues that I have not raised concerns about. I said earlier that, when Oliver Mundell replaced Stephen Kerr on the committee and Mr Kerr withdrew from it because he had prejudiced his position, I raised no issues about Oliver Mundell, because he had not made any comments about the case.

I am simply saying that, with the way in which it is handling this matter, Parliament is setting a very dangerous precedent.

Anas Sarwar

What about the example that Michael Matheson set? What about the example that Humza Yousaf set when he stood by him? What about the example that John Swinney is now setting by trying to demean this Parliament in order to protect one of his friends?

The SNP is quick to demand action at Westminster, but it always seems to hold itself to a lower standard in Scotland. For too long now, people have felt that those who are in power are in it for themselves or want to put their party before the country. This is what they have had to put up with: weak and incompetent leadership; financial mismanagement; those in power having no idea how to govern, pitting community against community, mired in scandal, believing that they are above the law and breaking public services—a track record of failure. That is not just the Tories; it is also the perfect description of this SNP Government, led by John Swinney.

As people across the country finally get to make their judgment on two Governments that have treated the public with contempt, is it not the case that they have an opportunity to clean up our politics, restore integrity and decency, and have Governments that are focused on changing our country, rather than protecting themselves?

The First Minister

I have made it pretty clear over the past couple of weeks that I will positively and enthusiastically set out the record of this SNP Government, because it has enhanced the lives of people in Scotland.

When Anas Sarwar’s party left office, people in this country got 412 hours of funded early learning and childcare provision. That was what Labour thought was enough for families who are on a low income. Now, it is more than double that, because of the choices that have been made by this Government to look after the interests of children in our country. The Labour Party wants to keep the two-child limit, which is keeping 10,000 children in Scotland in poverty, when this Government has put a child payment in place that is protecting 100,000 children from going into poverty.

When Anas Sarwar comes to the Parliament and wants to challenge me about the record of the SNP Government, I will defend it, because it is delivering a higher quality of life than the Labour Government did in Scotland in 2007, and I am proud of what we have achieved.

New Oil and Gas Exploration

3. Lorna Slater (Lothian) (Green)

The Scottish Greens welcomed the First Minister’s commitment yesterday to prioritise the climate emergency. All the evidence is clear: preventing climate breakdown means leaving new oil and gas in the ground. As part of the Scottish Government, the Scottish Greens worked hard to ensure that the draft energy strategy contained a landmark presumption against new oil and gas exploration, which is consistent with the science. That position has been thrown into doubt this week by the Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero and Energy, who branded the proposals for no new oil and gas exploration during a climate emergency as “too extreme”. When will the Scottish Government publish the now long-overdue final energy strategy? Will the First Minister commit to ensuring that the Parliament will have time to scrutinise it before summer recess? Will it still contain the presumption against new oil and gas that was consulted on?

The First Minister (John Swinney)

The issues that Lorna Slater has raised have been the subject of consultation. As I set out yesterday, the Government will bring forward the energy strategy. Obviously, because of the election rules, we are now in a slightly different position as to what the Government can bring to the Parliament; we have to be mindful of the propriety advice that we get from the permanent secretary about the issues that we can bring to the Parliament in an election period.

However, I can say that the Government’s focus is on meeting the country’s energy security needs, on reducing emissions in line with climate commitments, and on delivering affordable energy supplies. In doing so, it will focus on ensuring that a just transition for the oil and gas workforce is secured to a net zero future as the resources in the North Sea decline.

Lorna Slater

New oil and gas exploration will not guarantee us energy security. There is no security for home owners when the cost of heating their home is still tied to volatile gas markets. There is no security for oil and gas workers who are trapped in a declining industry, and there is no security for communities that need a just transition instead of arguments about how many drops of oil we can still squeeze out. Is it not clear that, with Labour dumping its green investment plans and pledging to keep every Tory oil and gas licence in place, and the Scottish National Party back to its old habit of trying to face both ways to the fossil fuel industry, it is only the Scottish Greens that have a clear and urgent response to the climate emergency?

The First Minister

In the short period in which I have been the First Minister, the Government has announced two very significant investments—one at Ardersier and the other at Nigg—which are essential to the renewable energy industry in Scotland and the development of the offshore wind sector. Those are enormous investments that signal the Government’s commitment.

Yesterday, in my statement of priorities to the Parliament, I made the point that, during the lifetime of this Government, Scotland has developed a position of significant advance on electricity generation from renewable energy. When we came to office, around 20 per cent of Scotland’s electricity consumption came from renewable sources, but that has now reached 113 per cent. That is a sizeable transformation in decarbonisation of electricity, which should be welcomed. The Government will build on that through the support that we are putting in place for the renewable energy sector in Scotland.

Graduate Immigration Policy

To ask the First Minister what the potential implications are for Scotland’s economy of the United Kingdom Government’s immigration policy changes for graduates. (S6F-03158)

The First Minister (John Swinney)

I am deeply concerned at reports that the United Kingdom Government is considering introducing further measures to restrict the graduate visa route. I have written to the Prime Minister to emphasise that there is no economic or educational argument for such a proposal. Any restrictions to international students’ ability to stay and work in Scotland after graduation would damage the higher education sector and our wider economy.

Sixty per cent of the Scottish public support a graduate visa, while the UK Government’s own Migration Advisory Committee has recommended retaining the graduate route “in its current form”. Scotland’s distinct demographic challenge means that it is crucial that we have the tools to attract people to, and retain them in, Scotland. That should be our focus, not turning people away.

Gordon MacDonald

Universities Scotland has written to the UK Government, stating:

“Further restrictions to the graduate route would benefit literally no one”

and pointing out that

“international students make a net positive contribution of at least £4.75 bn to the Scottish economy.”

Does the First Minister agree that even the threat of changes to the graduate route could damage our international reputation and that that shows us why decisions about immigration should be made in Scotland, to allow us to put Scotland first and make decisions in our economic interest?

The First Minister

I agree with Mr MacDonald. It is clear that the graduate visa route has resulted in significant economic benefit to our communities, because it has, in essence, anchored the educational achievements of some of the brightest people in the world, contributing to the Scottish economy through our universities and the further activity that flows from that.

It is a very short-sighted proposal. I am uncertain as to whether the Prime Minister will take a decision in the context of an imminent election to change the graduate visa route. However, I assure our university community of the Scottish Government’s steadfast support and assistance in doing all that we can to avoid the graduate visa route being in any way altered, because it benefits Scotland and our institutions.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

The Migration Advisory Committee, which was mentioned earlier, stated:

“it is the failure to properly fund the sector that has led to an increasing overreliance on immigration.”

It went on to say that it has

“had no indication in ... discussion with Ministers ... that there is any plan in place to address this structural under-funding.”

Does the First Minister have any plan in place to address the structural underfunding of Scottish universities by the Scottish National Party Government?

The First Minister

The Scottish Government gives significant financial support to the university sector, but, of course, the Scottish Government has to live within the resources that are made available to us through the Barnett formula and the funding of the public purse.

People such as Liam Kerr have to wake up and realise that there is a consequence of 14 years of austerity. That has put insufferable pressure on our public finances, and the people who are responsible for those 14 years of austerity are Liam Kerr and his Conservative colleagues. As a Government, we will do all that we can to support the university sector, but people such as Liam Kerr need to face up to the implications of the damaging decisions of the United Kingdom Conservative Government.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

For the first time, the income from international students has surpassed that from domestic students. That is because of the excellent reputation of Scottish universities. However, that also poses a risk, because it involves being heavily dependent on funding that is subject to global volatility.

The First Minister will know about the financial difficulties that have been reported at the University of Aberdeen, where there is “significant doubt” about its ability to continue. The situation is very stark. There have been similar reports about other universities and four colleges. What are the First Minister’s thoughts on how to address that situation, which is not going away and will only get worse?

The First Minister

I take seriously the point that Mr Rennie raises, but it relates directly to the public finances, on which the Government has taken a stance. We have been prepared to increase tax to increase the resources that we have available to invest in key sectors such as the university sector and the college sector.

The Scottish Funding Council engages directly with institutions to support them with the challenges that they face, but I make the point that the continuation of austerity, which is now having such a punishing effect on our public finances, is a material factor that we have to address. The opportunity to do that is in front of the country in the forthcoming election.

Pre-eclampsia Testing

5. Tess White (North East Scotland) (Con)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to reports that no national health service board has implemented placental growth factor-based testing for pre-eclampsia, in light of it having been recommended in March 2023 by the Scottish Health Technologies Group. (S6F-03166)

The First Minister (John Swinney)

The Scottish Government is committed to continuous improvement in maternity safety across Scotland to deliver the best and safest care for mothers and babies. We expect all NHS boards to ensure that the Scottish Health Technologies Group’s recommendations on placental growth factor-based testing are implemented effectively and consistently. NHS boards are currently in the initial phases of implementing PLGF testing, and we have written again to NHS boards to secure an update on their current position and to determine whether further support is necessary to progress implementation plans.

Tess White

Women in Scotland are being denied a test, so I welcome what the First Minister has just said, because the provision of such testing could save their lives and the lives of their babies.

The test is already being used widely in NHS England, and it is clear that Scotland has been on the back foot with implementation, with health boards having indicated that funding is a major obstacle. What price can we put on mothers’ and babies’ lives? If the Scottish National Party Government is serious about women’s health, can the First Minister tell us when the necessary resources will be made available to all health boards for those life-saving tests?

The First Minister

This is a very important issue, and I want to reassure Tess White that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care is actively pursuing it with health boards around the country.

On financial support, the Government has provided a real-terms increase in resources for the health service around the country, but there is clearly significant demand and pressure on those resources. I cannot give Tess White an immediate answer on timescales, but I will make sure that the health secretary writes to her, once we have had feedback from health boards about their state of preparation, to ensure that her legitimate concerns are properly addressed in correspondence at a later date.

Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

Yesterday was world pre-eclampsia day. Women and babies in Scotland have died, so the First Minister’s words will not reassure anyone. Today, I have had written answers from the Minister for Public Health and Women’s Health, telling us about scoping inquiries and writing again to health boards because of the capacity and infrastructure challenges that they have raised.

That is not good enough—it is reactive. The Government is responding because people with lived experience are campaigning and demanding urgent action, including those who are aligned with Action on Pre-eclampsia, and because of the campaign by the Sunday Post, which was launched on Sunday. Again, the Government is on the back foot. The lives of women and babies are at risk and, sadly, some have died. Therefore, will the First Minister and other relevant ministers meet, as a matter of priority, people who have been directly impacted and learn from what has already been rolled out in Wales and England? Women in Scotland deserve the same.

The First Minister

I take seriously the point that Monica Lennon has made. I will be happy to meet the health secretary and the relevant campaigners to address the issue. Perhaps it might be appropriate if we had a meeting with Tess White and Monica Lennon on the issue.

We recognise the significance and the benefits of the testing arrangements. We must ensure that health boards are actively responding to that call. We will put in place measures to ensure that members of this Parliament are updated about that, and we will arrange that discussion.

Ferguson Marine

To ask the First Minister whether he will provide an update on what action the Scottish Government is taking to support the Ferguson Marine shipyard. (S6F-03150)

The First Minister (John Swinney)

When the Ferguson Marine shipyard was threatened with closure in 2019, this Government stepped forward and saved it. Taking the yard into public ownership preserved commercial shipbuilding on the Clyde, rescued more than 300 jobs and ensured that the Glen Sannox and Glen Rosa vessels, which are vital for our island communities, will be delivered.

We want to see the yard prosper, be competitive and continue the proud shipbuilding traditions of the Clyde. The Deputy First Minister recently met unions and workers at the shipyard, as well as parliamentary colleagues. As she said on that occasion, the Government will leave no stone unturned in pursuing a successful, sustainable future for the yard and for the workers who are employed there.

Katy Clark

Investment is essential to reconfigure the yard and undo changes that were made when it was in private ownership, but many are warning that time is running out.

State-aid rules are, obviously, complex, but countries such as Italy rely on exemptions in order to invest in shipbuilding. Does the First Minister recognise the urgency of the situation and will he find a pathway to ensure that support is provided, given the strategic importance of the yard?

The First Minister

I recognise the urgency and ministers are very much aware of that. The discussions that the Deputy First Minister has had with the relevant unions and with representatives of the workforce have made that point powerfully to us.

We are considering proposals in relation to investment and due diligence work is under way. We are trying to conclude that as soon as possible to ensure that we can support the yard, as we have done in the past, to continue the important tradition, and the effectiveness, of shipbuilding on the Clyde.

Colin Beattie (Midlothian North and Musselburgh) (SNP)

The shipyard is hugely significant to the local and national economies and it is vital that we do all that we can to secure a sustainable future for the site. Will the First Minister provide an update on the Scottish Government’s conversations with Ferguson Marine executives and trade unions, following the Deputy First Minister’s attendance at the summit organised by the GMB union last week?

The First Minister

I say to Mr Beattie that there were constructive discussions with the management and workforce at the yard. Many of the issues that Katy Clark raised with me were raised directly with the Deputy First Minister and are being considered within Government. We will come to a conclusion on those important issues as soon as possible.

We move to general and constituency questions.

Aberdeen Royal Infirmary (Ambulance Queues)

Douglas Lumsden (North East Scotland) (Con)

Last week, there was a tragic accident at Balmedie, when one-year-old Ivy Mae Ross sadly lost her life. Her parents are devastated and my thoughts and prayers are with them.

No ambulances were available to attend the incident because they were all stacked up outside Aberdeen Royal infirmary, so the special operations response team, which usually deals with hazardous incidents, was deployed to the scene. I believe that that team did a fantastic job, and I am in no way trying to say that the outcome would have been different if a regular ambulance crew had been available, but that tragic incident should be a wake-up call to the Scottish Government.

Will the First Minister intervene to do all that he can to stop ambulances queueing for hours on end to drop off patients at Aberdeen Royal infirmary?

The First Minister (John Swinney)

I begin by expressing my deepest sympathy to the family of Ivy Mae Ross. I am terribly sorry about the heartbreak that they are having to endure after that tragic accident.

Mr Lumsden has fairly characterised what took place. The SORT arrived swiftly at the site but, obviously, it would be preferable and desirable for ambulance crews to be available to attend such incidents. The SORT is an ambulance crew, but I understand the point that Mr Lumsden makes about the importance of ambulances being free.

It was not the case that all the ambulances were stacked at Aberdeen Royal infirmary—a number were out on other calls—but a number were stacked at Aberdeen Royal infirmary. That is an important reminder of the importance of ensuring a very swift transfer of patients at hospitals to ensure that the ambulance capacity that we have is available to be deployed where it is required. I will ensure that the issues that Mr Lumsden has raised with me are conveyed to the health board.

Economy (Support for Start-up Businesses)

Kevin Stewart (Aberdeen Central) (SNP)

I welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to build an economy that is strong, successful and dynamic. The £5 million funding package announced by the Scottish Government this week to support start-up businesses is testament to that commitment. However, many of the powers that we need to grow our economy remain reserved. Does the First Minister share my concern that Westminster economic mismanagement continues to hold Scotland’s economy back, and does he share my view that, with a strong Scottish National Party voice at Westminster, we can continue to make it clear that that is just not good enough for Scotland?

The Presiding Officer

Before the First Minister responds, I again remind members that the chamber is not the place to be electioneering and I do not want campaigning to distract members from focusing on matters for which the Government has general responsibility. First Minister, please respond on those matters.

The First Minister (John Swinney)

Mr Stewart is correct about the Government in Scotland’s intention to do all that we can to support entrepreneurship and innovation in Scotland. The £5 million funding package that was announced to support innovation, taking forward the recommendations of the work of Mark Logan and Ana Stewart, is an important contribution to supporting that innovation ecosystem in Scotland. We operate in an economic and fiscal context that is set by the United Kingdom Government, and I made clear yesterday the damage that has been done to us on a cumulative basis from decisions on austerity, Brexit and the cost of living, which are making it much more difficult to stimulate economic activity in Scotland as a consequence of Westminster decision making.

Funeral Businesses (Regulation)

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

The First Minister will be aware of the unfolding scandal with the funeral business run by Steven and Ashleigh Milne. Ashes of the deceased have knowingly been given to the wrong relatives, and funeral plans have been mis-sold, defrauding people of thousands of pounds. Just this week, Mrs Barnes, my constituent, was told that the ashes of her mother, who died in 2021, have been found at the funeral parlour. Whose ashes was she given? Whose ashes did she scatter with her father’s?

This Parliament passed legislation in 2016; regulations on a code of practice for funeral directors were passed in January but will not be implemented until March 2025; and we are still waiting for regulations on licensing and inspection, eight years on. Will the First Minister act urgently and accelerate the regulations, so that people can be protected from rogue funeral directors?

The First Minister (John Swinney)

I will certainly look in detail at the point that Jackie Baillie puts to me about the timescale on the regulations, because what she has recounted to me is completely and utterly unacceptable. It is heartbreaking for families who have already suffered bereavement, so the conduct is reprehensible in that respect. I will explore whether there is an opportunity to accelerate the timescale for the implementation of the regulations.

I would make the point, which is relevant, that the overwhelming majority of funeral directors will operate with integrity and appropriateness at all times, but we have to ensure that there is protection in place for the public. I will look at whether we can address the issue that Jackie Baillie has put to me.

ScotRail (Peak Fares Removal Pilot)

Audrey Nicoll (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

The Scottish National Party Government’s extension of the ScotRail peak fares removal pilot will be welcomed by travellers and commuters across Scotland, cutting transport costs until the end of September. Can the First Minister say any more about how that extension is expected to benefit passengers across Scotland’s rail network, particularly in the context of the on-going Westminster-made cost of living crisis?

The First Minister (John Swinney)

I am delighted that the peak rail fares proposals have been able to be extended for a longer period—a three-month period over the summer. That will allow us to gather even more evidence about the effectiveness of the approach, which is designed to do two things: first, to assist people with the cost of living crisis; and, secondly, to encourage more people to use our rail network. We will look carefully at the evidence. As we consider the long-term future of the peak fares pilot, we are keen to see measures of that type in place to ensure that we can maximise the utilisation of the rail network and that people are supported to reduce their on-going living costs.

That concludes First Minister’s question time.

Douglas Ross (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. In my questions to the First Minister, I asked whether he had made any personal representations in support of Michael Matheson. In response, he said that he had written to the convener of the Standards, Public Appointments and Procedures Committee about the make-up of the committee. However, later on in the session, he confirmed that he had written to the committee on two occasions.

Presiding Officer, will you provide an opportunity for the First Minister to confirm that he will release into the public domain today all correspondence that he made about the situation with Michael Matheson? If the First Minister refuses to do so, what opportunities are there for the Parliament as a whole to instruct him to provide copies of correspondence made whether or not he was a back bencher?

The Presiding Officer

Thank you, Mr Ross. Points of order may, of course, be raised in any proceedings to question whether proper procedures have been or are being followed. That is not a matter for the chair to rule on.

The First Minister rose

The Presiding Officer

First Minister, I suggest that we conclude First Minister’s question time at this point. We will have a short suspension to allow the chamber and the public gallery to clear.

12:51 Meeting suspended.  

12:53 On resuming—