Meeting of the Parliament
Meeting date: Thursday, November 24, 2022
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Renewable Energy Sector (Economic Impact), Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, National Drugs Mission, Decision Time
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Renewable Energy Sector (Economic Impact)
- Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time
- Portfolio Question Time
- National Drugs Mission
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
NHS Leaders (Meeting)
On Monday, minutes obtained by the BBC revealed that national health service leaders in Scotland had held secret talks about privatising parts of the NHS. They discussed a two-tier health service in which patients would have to pay for treatment and prescriptions. Those plans are completely against the founding principles of our NHS. The First Minister likes to scaremonger about NHS privatisation, but it seems like it is already on the table in the Scottish National Party-run health service here in Scotland. Now, the First Minister denies it, but is she denying that those conversations took place? Is she denying that NHS chiefs discussed a two-tiered system in Scotland’s NHS? Apparently, she finds that funny. Is she saying—[Interruption.]
Let us be clear from the outset that we are going to conduct ourselves in a courteous and respectful manner. We will hear one another when we are speaking. One at a time.
I ask the First Minister, on this important issue, whether she is denying that those conversations took place. Is she denying that NHS chiefs discussed a two-tier system in Scotland’s NHS, or is she saying that the minutes of the meeting are wrong?
First, it is—what is the best word to describe it?—bold for a Conservative to come here and talk about privatisation of the national health service. The Conservatives have done more than any other party in these islands—at times, they have had stiff competition from Labour—to privatise the NHS.
I am intrigued by Douglas Ross’s line of questioning. I did an interview on Monday in which I addressed the comments in the minute. The minute is there. I was not denying then that the conversation had taken place, and I am not denying it now. It was a meeting of some leading NHS directors. As a point of fact, it was not a meeting of NHS board chief executives. The meeting involved conversations, not—to use another word that Douglas Ross used—“plans”.
I will let Douglas Ross into what should not be a secret, but it is clear that he does not understand this. NHS leaders, however much respect I have for them—I have considerable respect for them—do not make Government policy. The Government makes Government policy, and the founding principles of the national health service, which this Government has done more than any to protect and to enhance are not and—as long as I am First Minister—never will be up for discussion.
I think that it is very bold for Nicola Sturgeon to compare Scotland with other parts of the United Kingdom on privatisation when we know that, in Scotland, private treatment has gone up by 84 per cent since the start of the pandemic, whereas in the rest of the UK, the figure is half of that. Private treatment has increased by 84 per cent here in Scotland and by less than half of that in the rest of the UK.
As the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care passes the First Minister some notes, which she passes back again—those were clearly no use, Humza—let us look at what the document said.
It said that health boards had the “green light” from the leadership to come up with and present their ideas for reforms. It is reported that the document said:
“areas which were previously not viable options are now possibilities”.
Will the First Minister reveal what areas that she would not consider before are now on the table? Given that she has said that the ultimate decision would lie with Government ministers, who gave NHS chiefs the green light to consider these plans?
Can you imagine what Douglas Ross’s reaction would be if I tried to dictate to NHS leaders what they were or were not allowed to discuss in their meetings? Let us just imagine that for a second.
In direct answer to Mr Ross’s question, none of these plans—actually, they are not plans; they are ideas—that would have any impact on the founding principles of the national health service is being discussed or remotely considered by this Government. That cannot be clearer. Certainly here in Scotland, it is Government that makes Government policy.
Douglas Ross talked about figures around private health funding. Let me give him some facts on that matter. For example, for people who self-fund private care, the figure in Wales is 30 per cent higher per head than it is in Scotland—[Interruption.] I am sorry, but Douglas Ross introduced the comparison between Scotland and the rest of the UK. In England, where, just in case anyone has forgotten—though I am sure that they have not—the Conservatives are in government, that figure is 15 per cent higher per head than it is in Scotland.
Let us look at NHS use of the private sector. In Scotland, total spend on use of the independent sector represents 0.5 per cent of the total front-line health budget. In England, where the Conservatives are in power, that figure is almost 7 per cent, or £12.2 billion.
This Government will take no lessons from the Conservatives when it comes to privatising the national health service. In fact, this Government will take no lessons from the Conservatives on the NHS—full stop.
Sadly, in Sturgeon’s Scotland, no one is getting any lessons today, because the teachers are on strike.
Let us go back to the figures. The First Minister did not dispute that, since the start of the pandemic, private treatments in Scotland have increased by 84 per cent, while in the rest of the United Kingdom, the increase has been 39 per cent.
I go back to the point that I was making: someone gave the green light within the Government. We would usually expect that green light to come from the health secretary or the First Minister, but there has clearly been a complete breakdown of communication between NHS chiefs and the SNP. The First Minister has stood up today and literally rubbished the meeting of NHS chiefs, saying that they are completely wrong. They are apparently acting on their own, without ministerial direction—that is what the First Minister has said—but the reports clearly state that NHS chiefs here in Scotland are worried about the prospect of a two-tier NHS.
If the First Minister is to be believed, NHS chiefs are not listening to the health secretary but are going off to try to fix the NHS on their own, with no Government oversight. Is this not just another confirmation that Humza Yousaf is out of control with Scotland’s NHS?
Before the First Minister responds, I remind members of the requirement to always address one another respectfully.
Respectfully, Presiding Officer, even by Douglas Ross’s own standards, this is a pretty lame and pathetic line of questioning. He talks about a two-tier health service, but perhaps he is talking about the one that already exists where the Conservatives are in government in England. There will not be a two-tier health service while this Government is in office in Scotland, because we are committed to the founding principles of the national health service and always will be. NHS leaders are entitled to discuss what they want, but they do not make Government policy. The Government makes Government policy—I could not be clearer about that.
I was health secretary in the early years of this Government, so I know that this is the Government that reversed the privatisation of our health service where it had taken place. I was the health secretary who brought Stracathro hospital back into the public sector after Labour had privatised it, and we were the Government that ended the contracting out of cleaning and catering services and which moved away from the ruinously expensive Tory-Labour public-private partnership/private finance initiative contracts. Of course, we were also the Government that ended prescription charges in Scotland. We did that, because we support the founding principles of the NHS, and we always will.
Last week, Nicola Sturgeon stood up and said that we should trust her, not a shipbuilding expert who had advised the United Nations. This week, we have to believe Nicola Sturgeon, not NHS chiefs who run our service here in Scotland.
According to the First Minister, Humza Yousaf has not lost control, yet nurses are on strike for the first time ever, we have waiting times at record highs, people cannot see their general practitioners, and health chiefs are warning of a two-tier system in our NHS. It is quite clear that the First Minister is in complete denial about how badly her health secretary is handling the NHS crisis, about the scale of privatisation in the health service that she oversees and about Humza Yousaf’s two-tier system, which is already becoming the norm in Scotland.
Nicola Sturgeon has become so distracted, focusing on her own political priorities, that she no longer realises just how bad the situation has got here in Scotland.
The minutes of the meeting of NHS chiefs claim that there is a “disconnect” between what is happening on the front line and what the health secretary thinks is happening. They accuse Humza Yousaf of being “divorced from reality”. They are right, are they not?
They are not. I will set out some facts about the NHS. There is higher funding for the national health service in Scotland than there is for England’s Tory-run national health service; there is higher staffing per head of population in Scotland than there is in England; and, of course, thanks to the dedication of every worker who works in it, NHS Scotland is better performing than the NHS in other parts of the UK.
Divorced from reality.
This Government will always work to protect the founding principles of the health service, which is more than can be said—[Interruption.]
When the First Minister is responding to a question, I want us to ensure that we can hear only the First Minister’s voice.
As I was saying, that is more than can be said for Douglas Ross. He says that he wants some reality. I will give him some.
Last year, an amendment was passed in the House of Lords that would have protected the NHS by explicitly excluding it from trade deals that could undermine its founding principles. Tory MPs in the House of Commons voted to remove that protection. Guess who one of those Tory MPs was—Douglas Ross. Even when he gets the chance, he does not stand up for the principles of the national health service. This Government always will.
Healthcare (Private Provision)
On Monday, the BBC revealed that the national health service crisis created by this Government had got so bad that health leaders had discussed charging for treatment. In response, the health secretary said that that was “abhorrent”. However, the truth is that there is already a two-tier healthcare system in Scotland. Can the First Minister tell the chamber how many procedures were carried out in private hospitals in Scotland in the past year?
I will provide that precise figure, but, as I have just said to Douglas Ross, the number of people who self-fund for private care in Scotland is significantly lower than it is in England—actually, it is even more significantly lower in Scotland than it is in Wales, where Labour is in power. That is the reality, because we protect our national health service in these difficult times, and we always will.
Anas Sarwar talks about paying for treatment. I repeat: this is the Government that abolished prescription charges—something that Labour had many opportunities over many years to do but failed completely to do. Just as I will take no lessons about the founding principles of the national health service from the Conservatives, I will take none from Labour.
Perhaps the First Minister will take lessons from the people who are having to actually pay for treatment in Scotland. In the past year, more than 39,000 patients were treated privately in Scotland. That does not include the many private treatments that were carried out in individual clinics such as dental surgeries. The number of people now paying for treatment without health insurance has increased by 72 per cent. Often, those are people who are forced to borrow money, turn to family and friends or even remortgage their homes to get healthcare that should be free at the point of need.
I know that the First Minister does not like facts, but let us look at the facts. Almost 2,000 people have gone private for endoscopies and colonoscopies. Those treatments cost an average of £1,195 privately. More than 7,800 people have gone private for cataract surgery, the average cost of which is £2,660. A staggering 3,500 people have had a hip or knee replacement in a private hospital. The average cost of that is £12,500.
Those figures make it clear that, under the Scottish National Party, healthcare in Scotland is already a two-tier system. Does the First Minister accept that that goes against the founding principles of our national health service as a universal healthcare system free at the point of need?
No, I do not accept that, and I do not accept that we have a two-tier health system in Scotland. We will always act to protect the founding principles of the NHS, and we have done more than any other Government to achieve that.
The one thing that was completely missing from Anas Sarwar’s question, of course, was reference to a global pandemic that caused the cancellation and pausing of elective services in our national health service for a considerable period of time. That is why we have seen an increase in those figures in recent years. However, those figures remain significantly below the comparable figures in England and Wales. Let me remind Anas Sarwar that his own party is in government and running the national health service in Wales.
As we continue to progress the NHS recovery plan and get more operations done within waiting times in the national health service, we will continue to see the benefits of NHS care free at the point of need for everyone across Scotland.
The First Minister’s response is to deny the facts. It is not a good enough excuse to say that, because there was a pandemic, that made it okay for people to have to go private and pay for treatment.
The First Minister denies that we have a two-tier system. In 2021, 40 per cent of all hip and knee replacements in Scotland were paid for privately. Some 3,430 people paid to get a hip or knee replacement privately. Our NHS is at risk because of the Government’s choices and the Government’s crisis. After 15 years in government, there is no one else to blame. Take responsibility for your record. Hospital beds have been cut, and nursing and midwifery training places have been cut. There are record long waits in accident and emergency. Some 750,000 Scots are on an NHS waiting list, and people are being forced to go into debt to go private. That undermines the very principles of our national health service, which is the Labour Party’s and our country’s greatest-ever public service achievement. Does it not get clearer every single day that our NHS is not safe in SNP hands?
We have record numbers of people working in our national health service. There are significantly more than there were when this Government took office and there are significantly more proportionately than there are in any other part of the United Kingdom, including in Wales, where Labour is in government.
On how we are responding, Anas Sarwar says that the pandemic should not be used as an excuse. I agree with that, but its impact on our national health service cannot be ignored. In all the figures that he quotes, he takes no account of the impact of a global pandemic on our national health service.
What are we doing? We are building up the capacity of our NHS. In response to Douglas Ross’s questions, I referred to one of the things that I did when I was health secretary. I brought back into public ownership Stracathro hospital, which had been privatised by the last Labour Administration. [Interruption.] Jackie Baillie was, of course, a member of that Administration. Earlier this year, we brought another private sector hospital—Carrick Glen hospital in Ayrshire—into public ownership. That facility will be developed to become one of our new national treatment centres.
We are building up the elective capacity of our NHS to treat more people. That is the practical action that the Government is taking. We will take that action and we always will take that action while we protect the founding principles of our national health service.
I intend to take general and constituency supplementary questions after question 7. I ask members who have already pressed their request-to-speak buttons to not re-press them, please. However, members who want to ask a supplementary to questions 3 to 7 should press their buttons at the appropriate point, please.
Emergency Response to Flooding (North-east Scotland)
To ask the First Minister what assessment the Scottish Government has made of the emergency response to flooding in the north-east of Scotland in recent days. (S6F-01565)
First, my thoughts are with the family and friends of Hazel Nairn, who remains missing after the recent flooding, and I know that there has been some distressing news on that this morning.
The Scottish Government’s resilience room was activated throughout the flooding incident to support the local response. Transport Scotland also activated its multi-agency response team and the Transport Scotland resilience room. We will now work with partners to reflect on the response and to ensure that we take on board any lessons learned and build them into contingency planning and response arrangements for the future.
As the clean-up continues, I take this opportunity to thank our emergency services and all local resilience partners, including the voluntary sector, for their on-going work to ensure that the communities that have been most affected are kept safe and get the support that they urgently need.
I associate myself with those remarks from the First Minister. I pay tribute to Hazel Nairn, who tragically went missing during Friday’s adverse weather. As the search continues, my thoughts are with her family and the responders on the ground.
In Brechin, two of the pumps belonging to the town’s £16 million flood defences failed, flooding homes and causing extensive damage. Villagers raised concerns with me about the safety of an electrical substation in Inchbair, which was half-submerged in water for days. Communities rallied together over the weekend, but improvements need to be made to the organisation of the emergency response to such weather events.
How will the Scottish Government work with local resilience partnerships to expedite that process and reassure people in my region that every possible step has been taken to protect them?
I thank Tess White for raising those issues, which are extremely important to any community that is affected by severe weather incidents. Specifically on the important issue of Brechin, the main flood defence in Brechin, which contains the South Esk river, held. That is despite river levels provisionally reported by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency as being the highest ever on record. It is worth pointing out that, had those defences not been in place, there would have been widespread and potentially dangerous flooding of an estimated 332 properties—beyond anything yet experienced by Brechin.
However, two of the three pump stations that remove surface water from River Street, from run-off and other sources, did not start automatically when water was detected. As soon as that issue was identified, a council officer attended and, at that stage, the pumps were successfully started.
We work closely with local resilience partnerships and it is important that we do so. Any time there is a severe weather incident such as this one, we ensure that any appropriate lessons are learned; that will be the case here and it will be done as quickly as possible. If the member could pass on to the Government any issues raised by locals about concerns that I have not touched on today, we will ensure that those issues are fed into that process of reflection and learning.
We are already seeing the effects of the climate emergency, with further extreme weather events becoming more likely. The National Infrastructure Commission has argued that governments should set resilience standards, which operators would be required to meet. The United Kingdom Government is set to introduce a national resilience strategy, so will the First Minister make the case for the development of resilience standards for vital public infrastructure?
I am happy to look into that and of course it is important that those principles are included in all the work that the Scottish Government does as well.
The member is right to raise the issue of the climate emergency, because these severe weather events are being caused by climate change, and it is really important that everything that we do recognises that. The climate emergency is central to all our infrastructure planning work and it is important that we continue to develop our work in that way. However, I will certainly ask the minister concerned to write to the member with further detail on how we will liaise with the UK Government in relation to that particular proposal.
To ask the First Minister what steps the Scottish Government is taking to ensure that gender-based violence is being tackled in Scotland, in light of the start tomorrow of the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence. (S6F-01563)
Violence against women and girls is abhorrent. That is why our equally safe strategy to address violence against women and girls is so vital.
We have already strengthened legislation, taken action to address the social drivers that perpetuate gender-based violence and invested record levels of funding in front-line services and supporting survivors. The Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 criminalises coercive and controlling behaviour, and we have taken forward work to ensure that people who are working in the public sector can confidently and sensitively work with people who have been affected by violence against women and girls through the equally safe in practice initiative.
The delivering equally safe fund will provide £19 million this year to support more than 120 projects that focus on early intervention, prevention and support services.
Research continues to show an enormous prevalence of gender-based violence in all areas of life. For example, the Trades Union Congress found that more than half of women in the workplace have experienced sexual harassment but that 80 per cent of them did not report it. What is the Government doing to ensure that misogynistic abuse is taken seriously and that survivors feel able to report it?
This is an extremely important issue. Baroness Helena Kennedy’s report on misogyny and the criminal law, which was commissioned by the Government and published earlier this year, made several recommendations on gaps in the law that could be addressed by new criminal offences to tackle misogynistic behaviour. Some of those recommendations are controversial, and we are committed to consulting on proposals that would give effect to them in this parliamentary year.
The TUC’s report underscores the importance of ensuring that victims of misogynistic behaviour feel empowered to report it with confidence that their concerns will be taken seriously by their employers and, where criminal activity is alleged, by the police.
This week, a United Nations expert on violence against women has condemned the Scottish National Party’s gender recognition reforms. The UN expert claimed that the bill could allow violent males to access women-only spaces, posing a risk to the safety of both women and trans women. The expert appealed to the Scottish Government to set aside more time to consider the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill’s possible unintended consequences. Does the First Minister agree with the UN expert that the bill should be postponed so that those legitimate concerns about women’s safety can be addressed?
I believe that people who are responsible for violent attacks against women are those who perpetrate those attacks. Where, as is very often the case, those are violent men, it is violent men who we should be focusing on. They continue to pose the biggest risk to women, and I do not believe that we should further stigmatise the trans community because of the actions of violent men. At the moment, violent men who want to access women-only spaces do not need a gender recognition certificate to do that. Let us focus on the problem. When the problem is violent men, that is what we should focus on.
We will respond in full to the comments that were made by the person from the UN, although I am not sure that they were quite as they were characterised in the question. However, the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government will respond in detail to the issues that were raised. Many of those issues have already been discussed and addressed by the Parliament during stages 1 and 2 of the consideration of the bill. Of course, the Parliament will shortly have the opportunity to discuss the bill again during stage 3 of the legislative process.
Mobile Phones for Prisoners (Cost)
To ask the First Minister how much the Scottish Prison Service has spent on providing free mobile phones to all prisoners. (S6F-01572)
At the start of the pandemic, we took the decision to provide mobile phones to people in custody to allow them to maintain vital family communication, including, and perhaps especially, with children during what was an incredibly challenging period when normal visiting was not possible. Between then and April 2022, the amount that has been spent is £4.12 million.
The First Minister’s Government is slashing budgets for our cops, courts and prisons. We get that money is tight, so how on earth can mobile phones for prisoners at a cost of £4 million and rising be a priority? Taxpayers’ money should be spent on front-line services, not freebies for criminals. The phones have been misused nearly 5,000 times. They have been used to order firebombings, for drug dealing and to threaten crime victims. Prison officers tell me that Scottish National Party-issued phones are putting them in danger by fuelling violence between inmates. When will the First Minister bin this costly and dangerous policy?
Russell Findlay is right about one thing: budgets are extremely tight. They are tight because of Tory economic mismanagement and Tory erosion of our budgets.
On the issue at hand, prison is about punishment, yes, but it should also be about rehabilitation. It is important that we do not lose focus on that. Mobile phone provision, which I think—I will be corrected if I am wrong—is something that the United Kingdom Government did during the pandemic, too, is about ensuring connections between prisoners and families, including children. That is important to rehabilitation, and rehabilitation is important to reducing offending and reoffending.
We will continue to consider all these issues carefully, but we will consider them in the context of a justice system that punishes criminals—that is extremely important—and which also seeks to rehabilitate people who commit crimes and to reduce reoffending, which is in the overall interest of communities across the country.
I call Stephanie Callaghan to ask question 6. [Interruption.] I suspend business for a moment.12:31 Meeting suspended.
12:31 On resuming—
Independence Referendum (Supreme Court Decision)
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the Supreme Court decision regarding legislating on an independence referendum. (S6F-01564)
Although I am of course disappointed by it, I respect and accept the Supreme Court’s judgment on the Lord Advocate’s reference regarding the Scottish Parliament’s powers to legislate for an independence referendum. However, the denial of democracy by Westminster parties demonstrates beyond any doubt that the notion of the United Kingdom as a voluntary partnership of nations is not now a reality, if it ever was.
It of course remains open to the UK Government to respect democracy and reach an agreement with the Scottish Government for a lawful, constitutional and democratic referendum. However, regardless of attempts by Westminster to block democracy, I will always work to ensure that Scotland’s voice is heard and that the future of Scotland is always in Scotland’s hands.
Yesterday’s ruling has profound implications for the UK and Scotland’s democracy, and in particular, as the First Minister says, for the notion of the UK being a voluntary partnership of nations. If the UK Government wants to evidence that it is a voluntary union, all that it has to do is to stop standing in the way of democracy, come to the table and reach an agreement with the Scottish Government on holding a legal referendum. Why does the First Minister think that it is continuing to shy away from doing so?
It is quite simple: unionist Westminster politicians want to silence Scotland’s voice, because they are scared of what Scotland might say. Any politician who was confident of their case and of being able to persuade others of their case would not be trying to block democracy; they would be embracing it. I think that we know everything that we need to know about the views of Westminster unionist parties from their determination to block Scotland’s democracy, but it will not prevail.
Unionist politicians with critical faculties and, perhaps, the power of independent thinking probably understand that yesterday’s judgment raises profoundly uncomfortable questions about the basis and future of the United Kingdom. Any partnership in which one partner needs the consent of another to choose its future is not voluntary or even a partnership.
Within the UK right now, it is the case that England could decide to become independent, but Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland supposedly cannot. That is not a partnership—it is not voluntary and it is not equal. However, Scotland’s voice will not be silenced. Scotland’s future is up to the people of Scotland, and that will always be the case.
Douglas Ross keeps saying that no one on these benches is asked, “How would you stay in the union?” The answer is simple—if a party wins an election with that in its manifesto, it will get to dictate the terms.
With that in mind, this Scottish Parliament has the biggest-ever majority for an independence referendum in the history of devolution, but it has been blocked from enacting that mandate. Can the First Minister inform the Parliament whether she has had any indication from the UK Government as to how the people of Scotland can exercise their democratic right and have a choice in their future?
The mandate for an independence referendum in this Parliament is undeniable. There is a clear majority for that and, on any other measure of democracy in any other country, we would not have politicians seeking to deny that. I stand ready to discuss the issue with the UK Government at any time, but I fully anticipate that its democracy denial will continue, at least in the short term, because it is scared of the outcome of a democratic process.
I watched Douglas Ross and others squirming on that issue yesterday on television. On the one hand, they were trying to say that the United Kingdom is a voluntary union but, on the other hand, they were gleefully trying to defend the fact that Scotland has no way of choosing a different future. [Interruption.]
Thank you, members.
Please answer briefly, First Minister.
It is not democratic and it is not sustainable. Let us have a proper process and let the people of Scotland decide our own future.
When asked by Glenn Campbell, during a BBC debate two days before the Holyrood election, what voters who want Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister but do not want independence should do, the First Minister confidently said:
“They should vote for me”.
Why are her colleagues now claiming that those voters support independence? Is that the same deep-seated duplicity that we can expect in any de facto independence referendum at the next general election? [Interruption.]
Thank you, members.
Briefly, First Minister.
Briefly, if the Tories are now reduced to suggesting that people in Scotland did not know that I supported a referendum, the Tories are even more desperate than I thought that they were.
He was quoting your own words.
Douglas Ross says that Craig Hoy was just quoting my own words. If the Tories do not think that my words were clear enough in the election last year, how about their words? The Tory message could not have been clearer. They said that, if the Scottish National Party won the election, there would be a referendum, and that the only way to stop that was to vote Tory. That seems pretty clear to me. Guess what—the SNP won the election, so it is time to have a referendum.
Ukrainian Refugees (Accommodation)
To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to ensure that refugees from Ukraine have suitable accommodation on arrival in Scotland. (S6F-01560)
With more than 21,500 arrivals from Ukraine with a Scottish sponsor, Scotland continues to provide sanctuary to more displaced people from Ukraine per head than any other part of the United Kingdom, and I thank people across Scotland for their efforts in achieving that.
Of course, our priority is to ensure that the immediate needs of those who arrive are met, but we are clear that we do not want anyone to spend more time than is absolutely necessary in welcome accommodation. Although we are ensuring that we have that temporary welcome accommodation, which is safe and suitable, we are also taking a number of actions that are focused on providing sustainable longer-term accommodation for those who are here and those who are still arriving. That will include a new Scotland-led host recruitment campaign, which will launch at the end of the month.
I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests.
The First Minister will be aware of the acute housing crisis in Edinburgh. The current contract for MS Victoria is due to end in January 2023. Figures that have been published by the Scottish Government show that more than 1,200 people are currently on the ship, so how will the Scottish Government ensure that the capacity that is provided by the ship is retained? Will she urgently look to expand the criteria for the largely unspent £50 million housing fund for local authorities, to include purchasing property from the market and working with agents to retrofit buildings? Will the First Minister confirm continued funding for the city’s welcome hub?
Yes, we will continue to provide support. These are very real issues, and Sarah Boyack is right to raise them. They are issues that all countries that have stepped up to help Ukrainians are facing right now. I was speaking with the Taoiseach at the British-Irish Council a couple of weeks ago, and I know that the Republic of Ireland is dealing with those issues too, as is the Welsh Government and the United Kingdom Government in respect of England.
It is right that we have welcomed as many Ukrainians as possible, and it is right that we now work through those challenges. I know that Neil Gray is keeping members and Parliament as a whole updated. The £50 million longer-term resettlement fund is important, and we will continue to look at the eligibility for that. It is helping us to bring void properties back into use. We are also investing heavily in our wider affordable housing programme and will continue to do so.
In relation to people who have been displaced from Ukraine, we will continue to work with the City of Edinburgh Council and local authorities across Scotland to ensure that that support can continue. I take the opportunity to put on record my thanks to local councils, which have done fantastic work on that.
These are not easy challenges for any Government to navigate, but we have a moral obligation to do so and we will continue to work hard to ensure that we are doing right by those from Ukraine who need our support, help and welcome.
Private Finance Initiative (Contract Costs)
As members know, because it is part of the United Kingdom, Scotland’s budget is tied to the poor decisions that are made by the Tory Government at Westminster. However, there is another strain on public finances in Scotland; namely, repayment of debts from private finance initiatives, which were designed by the Tories and rolled out by an enthusiastic Labour Party.
Will the First Minister set out the current annual bill for Scotland’s heath service from Labour’s decision to build hospitals, including University hospital Hairmyres in my East Kilbride constituency, using that reckless and costly scheme, as well as any impacts of the current cost crisis on those debts?
For clarity, this is general and constituency supplementaries, for those who did not know.
The question highlights one of the ironies of previous lines of questioning at this First Minister’s question time.
Since 2006-07, the cumulative bill to taxpayers for ruinously expensive Tory-Labour PFI and public-private partnership contracts is £3.2 billion, which is £2 billion over and above the initial capital value of the projects, with costs increasing due to inflation.
Every year, we are paying more than £250 million for the contracts that were commenced under previous Administrations, which include Hairmyres hospital. The record of this Government, in line with our record of protecting the national health service, is one of unpicking Tory-Labour PFI and PPP contracts.
Domestic Abuse (Justice System)
Last year, Adrienne McCartney spoke to the Sunday Post and shared her harrowing story about how, time after time, the police and prosecutors let her down in a case of domestic abuse. Last Sunday, the Sunday Post revealed that, sadly, Adrienne has since passed away. Her solicitor said:
“She should be here today and the fact that she is not is an indictment of the system and how it addresses domestic abuse.”
One leading academic believes that the number of people who are dying as a result of domestic abuse could, due to ill health and suicide, be six times higher than official statistics. Given that this week in Parliament we are putting such a focus on the elimination of violence against women, why is the justice system in Scotland currently failing so many vulnerable women, and what legislation is the First Minister and her Government proposing to introduce to address those horrific crimes against women?
I take the opportunity to convey my deep heartfelt sympathies to the family and friends of Adrienne McCartney.
Police and prosecutors operate independently of Government, so I will not go into details that would stray into their independent roles. I will say, and have said many times before, that I do not believe that Scotland—or any country, for that matter—yet does enough when it comes to preventing and responding to domestic abuse. The justice system has a very large part to play in that, but—I reflected on this earlier—we need to do more to tackle the behaviours that cause domestic abuse in order to prevent it in the first place. The Lord Advocate is a big advocate for and champion of doing that. The justice system also has to respond better to support victims of domestic abuse; I know that that is a real priority for her.
More widely, I have already spoken about the Helena Kennedy report on misogyny. We also have proposals from Lady Dorrian in relation to how the justice system deals with cases of sexual violence and sexual offences, which will include domestic abuse. The Government will take forward many of those proposals in legislative form during the remainder of this parliamentary session. Some of them will be controversial, so I expect very rigorous debate and scrutiny in Parliament. However, I hope that, as we consider those proposals, Jamie Greene’s very good question will stay in our minds, and that we find ways to unite to make the necessary improvements to our justice system so that victims of domestic abuse are not let down, as they are too often, here in Scotland and across the world.
Breast Cancer Screening (Resumption)
The breast cancer screening programme was paused for all women during the pandemic, and has been paused even longer for women over 70. It appears that a further restriction has been applied, and that women over 75 are being denied breast cancer screening. A constituent who raised that with me describes the decision as “discriminatory” and “ageist”. Can the First Minister advise whether that restriction is just in NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, or does it apply Scotland-wide? If it does, will she reverse that decision?
I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care to write to Jackie Baillie with the detail on that; it is important that we make sure that the detail is right.
The restoration of breast cancer screening for the age groups for which screening is advised has already happened. For the older age groups, which are screened on a self-referral basis, it has been restored in a phased way. I will come back to Jackie Baillie, via the health secretary, with the details.
I will say one thing finally, as the person who is responsible for all the decisions that were taken during the pandemic. Those decisions were not taken lightly. The decision to pause the screening programme, including the breast cancer screening programme, was one that I know was agonised over by the then chief medical officer and by others who were responsible for those decisions.
It is important that we get this right and that we prioritise those for whom breast screening is recommended, which is what has been done. As part of the overall recovery plan for the national health service, our priority is to get all services back to functioning as they were before the pandemic, as people have a right to expect.
Preplanned Funerals (Company Bankruptcies)
Following United Kingdom regulations for funeral-planning companies being adopted by the Financial Conduct Authority, a number of companies have gone into administration, including Safe Hands Funeral Plans and One Life Funeral Planning. Some of my constituents are worried about whether they will get any of their money back. Research shows that such savings schemes are overwhelmingly used by the most financially vulnerable people.
Can the First Minister offer any advice or point to support that is available for people who are affected? Has the Scottish Government had any engagement with the UK Government on calls for a UK support scheme to be set up?
I thank Clare Adamson for raising an issue that is not just important but is extremely sensitive. We welcomed regulation of the sector, for which we had been pressing the UK Government for some time. The UK Government’s action, however welcome it is, has come rather late—too late for some people.
I understand that Dignity Funerals is currently honouring plans that were made with Safe Hands Funeral Plans, and I welcome that support. Of course, regulation is a reserved matter, so I encourage the UK Government to look at the situation and consider whether it should provide additional support. If Clare Adamson wishes to pass on details of her affected constituents, I will ensure that the relevant minister looks at the issue and raises it with the UK Government. The Scottish Government also provides support for funeral costs through the funeral support payment; I encourage anyone who might be eligible to apply.
Teacher Safety (Aberdeen)
In February, I asked what action the Government was taking after a survey showed that nearly half of our dedicated hardworking teachers in Aberdeen were considering quitting due to high levels of physical and verbal abuse. At best, the First Minister’s answer was vague and non-committal. Yesterday evening, following the escalation of physical and verbal violence at Northfield academy in Aberdeen, teachers there voted in favour of industrial action over concerns about the safety of staff.
Teachers should never be subjected to violence, whether it is verbal or physical. As nothing has apparently changed since February, I ask again: what is the Government doing now to stop that appalling abuse?
No teacher should ever experience abuse in the classroom. I hope that that unites us across the chamber.
The employers of teachers are local authorities. I expect them to have support in place for teachers and to support teachers’ wellbeing. I know that local authorities take that seriously. I will meet the president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities later today, when we will happily discuss what more the Scottish Government can do to support that.
It is vital that we support teachers in a range of ways—and, indeed, that we support other public sector workers and workers generally who interact with the public, to ensure that they are free and safe from abuse or attacks.
Net Zero Energy
Following her correction to the Official Report on net energy consumption, will the First Minister’s new understanding of the facts cause the Scottish Government to reconsider its stance on all forms of net zero energy—for example, nuclear power in the south of Scotland which, as the First Minister can see, plays a vital role in energy security?
My understanding of Scotland’s energy potential is as it has always been. Scotland is blessed with vast renewable energy potential. The Government will focus not just on talking it up instead of talking it down, as so many of the other parties in the chamber do, but on supporting growth of renewable energy, offshore and on-shore wind, and green hydrogen energy.
The fact of the matter is that Scotland is one of the luckiest countries in the world when it comes to energy. It is our job to maximise that potential.
That concludes First Minister’s question time. There will be a brief suspension to enable people to leave the gallery and chamber quietly.12:52 Meeting suspended.
12:53 On resuming—