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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, January 25, 2024


First Minister’s Question Time

Covid-19 Inquiry (WhatsApp Messages)

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

During the pandemic, Nicola Sturgeon made Government decisions over WhatsApp. She was ordered by the United Kingdom Covid inquiry to retain those messages. The former First Minister promised to provide them. She said:

“I have nothing to hide.”

However, we now know that she deleted them all. She broke promises to grieving families. She may have broken the law. Does the First Minister accept that it was completely wrong and utterly scandalous for Nicola Sturgeon to delete those messages? (S6F-02733)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

Before I answer Douglas Ross’s question of substance, I say at the outset, given that this is the First Minister’s question time before Holocaust memorial day, that it has never been more important to remember the victims of the Holocaust and, indeed, the genocides that followed. Together, we remember the millions of lives that have been cut short with the utmost cruelty and brutality. The freedom and dignity of every citizen relies on our willingness to defend each other’s human rights and to stand up against cruelty and violence everywhere in the world. It is a responsibility that we share equally. It is the responsibility of all of us to remember the Holocaust and, of course, to pay tribute to the survivors of those atrocities. Ahead of Holocaust memorial day on Saturday, my thoughts today—and, I hope, my thoughts every day—are with those who were affected then and those who are affected still. [Applause.]

I come to the issue of substance. I will start this exchange, as I have started exchanges on the issue in recent weeks and months, by giving first and foremost an unreserved apology to those families who were bereaved by Covid for our handling of informal communications, such as WhatsApps. As an organisation, we did not handle the request for the WhatsApp messages in a way that gave families who have been bereaved by Covid confidence—in fact, it was quite the opposite. They have asked for nothing unreasonable. They have asked for answers and for the truth. I will certainly give that when I appear in front of the inquiry later today.

Douglas Ross is asking me about Nicola Sturgeon. I believe that it has now been confirmed that Nicola Sturgeon will appear in front of the Covid inquiry next week. She will answer for herself.

As per our records management policy, when it comes to any decisions that are made, whether they are made using WhatsApp or discussed over email or telephone call or any other method of communication, it is so important that salient points are uploaded to the corporate record.

I will end on this point by saying to Douglas Ross that we have handed over 28,000 WhatsApp messages, including mine. That is in stark contrast to the Prime Minister, of course.

Douglas Ross

I fully associate myself with the First Minister’s remarks ahead of Holocaust memorial day on Saturday.

I asked a very simple question about what the First Minister feels about Nicola Sturgeon deleting those messages, and we heard nothing.

Although Nicola Sturgeon led the cover-up and the secrecy, she was not alone. The then Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, also deleted his messages. Is it not telling that neither of them can be in the chamber today?

Although they deleted messages, let us look at some of the messages that we have seen. The chief medical officer, Professor Gregor Smith, reminded colleagues in a WhatsApp chat to

“Delete at the end of every day.”

Ken Thomson, the former Scottish Government director general, wrote:

“I feel moved at this point to tell you that this chat is FOI-recoverable .”

He went on to say:

“Plausible deniability is my middle name.”

A message from the national clinical director, Jason Leitch, said:

“WhatsApp deletion is a pre-bed ritual.”

He also said:

“Just my usual reminder to delete your chat ... particularly after we reach a conclusion.”

From politicians to civil servants, they sought to destroy evidence. Does that not show a culture of secrecy running through this entire Scottish National Party Government?

Douglas Ross talks about a culture of secrecy, but we handed over 28,000 messages and 19,000 documents. [Interruption.]

Let us hear the First Minister.

The First Minister

The former First Minister did 250 media briefings, taking questions from journalists day after day. The accusations from Douglas Ross, of a Government that was hiding from scrutiny, hardly ring true. Far from that, the former First Minister stood up every day and took questions. [Interruption.]

Excuse me, First Minister. Many members wish to put questions in this session. It will make it far more likely that those will be taken if we can hear one another.

The First Minister

I assume that all the accusations that Douglas Ross is throwing at the former First Minister and the former Deputy First Minister—of course, they will give evidence to the inquiry, and I do not intend to prejudge that or put words in their mouths—ring true for his colleague the Prime Minister, who has not handed over a single WhatsApp message. If the accusations that Douglas Ross is making against Nicola Sturgeon and throwing at the former Deputy First Minister do not hold true for the Prime Minister, who has not handed over a single message, that is not just political opportunism but breathtaking hypocrisy.

Douglas Ross

That is risible and embarrassing from the First Minister. Let us look at the facts. Nicola Sturgeon destroyed all her messages, and she did that deliberately. However, some messages have been recovered from other people. This morning’s Covid inquiry session with Liz Lloyd, Nicola Sturgeon’s former chief of staff, has revealed that, unquestionably, Covid decisions were made on WhatsApp. There are many examples in her evidence, but let us take just one. With just two hours to go before a statement in the Parliament, Nicola Sturgeon said on WhatsApp that she was “not sure” what to do about the number of people at weddings and funerals. Her chief of staff said:

“I think as we only just put them up just leave it … I think we stay at 20.”

Therefore, a Government decision to stay at 20 was taken over WhatsApp.

Humza Yousaf has previously said:

“The Scottish Government did not routinely make decisions through WhatsApp.”—[Official Report, 26 October 2023; c 11.]

Did the First Minister mislead the Parliament when he said that, or did he not realise that Government policy—[Interruption.]

Members, we must hear one another.

Douglas Ross

I am happy to repeat this to SNP members, who seem to want to drown it out. Did the First Minister mislead Parliament when he said that, or did he not realise that Scottish Government policy was being made on the hoof over WhatsApp?

The First Minister

Presiding Officer,

“Whatsapp is a communications application rather than a decision-making tool. Instead, each Minister is supported by a Private Office and this team comprises private secretaries and administrative staff. A Private Office records the specific decisions of Ministers for the official record.”

Members are laughing, but that is from the Scotland Office. When we asked it for Douglas Ross’s WhatsApp messages, it refused to release them.

The point is that WhatsApp is not routinely used—[Interruption.]


The First Minister

Douglas Ross literally read out my quote. It is not routinely used to make decisions. If it was—[Interruption.]. Opposition members are getting up in arms over what Douglas Ross has said.

The Presiding Officer

First Minister, I am sorry, but I cannot hear a word that you are saying, and that will be the case for those who are visiting the Parliament today. I ask all members to remember the requirement to conduct our business in an orderly manner.

The First Minister

The truth is inconvenient for the Conservatives, because it is very simple. If decisions were made over WhatsApp, they would have to be recorded. Otherwise, how on earth would they be actioned? All salient points and key decisions are recorded on the corporate record and taken forward.

To go back to the point that I made in response to the first question that Douglas Ross asked, I believe that there are challenges in relation to our use of WhatsApp. Frankly, in relation to the handling of those requests, it has not been the Government’s finest hour. I put my hands up to that—unlike other Governments.

That is why I have commissioned officials to deliver an externally led review—not a Government review—into the use of mobile messaging apps and the use of non-corporate technology in the Scottish Government. That should take particular account of our interaction with statutory public inquires.

When it comes to being transparent, I go back to the point that I have made, which is that the Government handed over 28,000 messages and 19,000 documents. I, as First Minister of the Government, have handed over my WhatsApp messages. That is in stark contrast to the UK Government and the Prime Minister, who has refused to hand over a single message and who, of course, took the inquiry to court, only to lose.

Douglas Ross

There was so much in that.

First, I am not sure what the First Minister was speaking about in relation to my own WhatsApp messages, but, to be absolutely clear, I provided my WhatsApps from my time as a Government minister to the Covid inquiry. They are there on the record. Unlike senior nationalists, I did not delete mine.

The evidence that we have heard today is, quite frankly, shocking. It confirms that pandemic decisions by the SNP were made for political purposes. [Interruption.]


Douglas Ross

They are saying, “What?” [Interruption.] The education secretary is saying, “What on earth?” Let me say that Nicola Sturgeon’s chief of staff talked of making “purely political” moves on public health to start a

“good old-fashioned rammy”

with the UK Government.

In another handwritten note, she says that she is going to look at

“political tactics—calling for things we can’t do.”

Hiding revelations such as those must have been the reason that the SNP Government destroyed so much evidence. The First Minister, the Deputy First Minister, the national clinical director and the chief medical officer all deleted their messages. Discussions and crucial decisions have vanished. A top-down culture of secrecy was rife throughout this entire Government. It looks as though the most senior figures have engaged in a deliberate cover-up.

Can I have your question, Mr Ross?

Douglas Ross

Now that it has been confirmed that the SNP made some crucial Covid decisions for “purely political” reasons, is Humza Yousaf ashamed that the SNP Government made purely political decisions during the pandemic, and is that not the ultimate betrayal of the public, who sacrificed so much?

The First Minister

I reject the charge in its entirety. We published regularly regarding the four harms approach that we took to decisions that were made in relation to the pandemic.

I can say with confidence that, every single day, our overarching priority was always to keep the people of this country safe.

Political tactics. Calling for things you could not do!

Mr Ross.

The First Minister

That was the overarching priority.

Did we get every decision right? Absolutely not, and we will be rightly questioned about that in both the UK and Scottish inquiries. However, I know that our motivation, every step of the way, was to ensure that we kept the people of this country safe.

Was that not in stark contrast, of course, to a UK Government holding parties in number 10 and holding parties in the Treasury, and the obscene spectacle of the then Prime Minister—[Interruption.]


—flagrantly breaching the rules while loved ones, individuals and families could not go to their loved ones’ funerals? Throughout all that, Douglas Ross has not had the decency to apologise once.

Covid-19 Inquiry (WhatsApp Messages)

2. Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

Saturday marks Holocaust memorial day on the theme of “Fragility of Freedom”. It is a day on which we pause, reflect and remember all those who have been victims of genocide, but it is also a moment to pause and reflect on those who still strive to live with peace and dignity, away from conflict, and without prejudice.

What has been revealed at the Covid inquiry this week has rightly shocked people across Scotland. The attempts to subvert the inquiry and to breach freedom of information laws are, frankly, a betrayal of the trust that people put in the Government.

WhatsApp messages were deleted on an industrial scale. The former First Minister used a private Scottish National Party email address for Government business. Officials openly joked about breaking the law while the Covid pandemic tore through our country.

The culture of cover-up started with the First Minister and extended down to the senior civil service. In June, when I asked Humza Yousaf whether

“all requested emails, texts and WhatsApp messages will be handed over in full”—[Official Report, 29 June 2023; c 15.]

he responded in this Parliament, without equivocation, “Yes”.

Now that we know that that was not true, was the First Minister knowingly misleading Parliament, or was he so out of his depth that he did not know what was going on?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

We did hand over what we had—28,000 messages have been handed over. Officials and former ministers of the Government who do not have WhatsApp messages will have to account for that before the Covid inquiry. Anas Sarwar cannot say that there was deletion “on an industrial scale” when 28,000 messages have been handed over to the inquiry. He cannot say that I have been leading that approach from the top when I have handed over all the WhatsApp messages that I have. No doubt, in a couple of hours’ time, I will be questioned about them.

Anas Sarwar is absolutely right, as is Douglas Ross, to ask questions about our informal communications. There is nothing wrong in that. Frankly, though, I do not believe that the public agree with Anas Sarwar or Douglas Ross when they suggest that there was somehow a cover-up. Why? It is because the public looked at this Government, questioned it and saw that it had a First Minister—Nicola Sturgeon—who stood in front of the cameras every single day—[Interruption.]

Where is she now?

Let us hear the First Minister.

—and took questions from journalists and members of the Scottish Parliament more than 250 times. That is hardly the measure or the mark of a Government that was trying to avoid scrutiny.

Anas Sarwar

The First Minister must live in a parallel universe. The then First Minister deleted every WhatsApp message; the then Deputy First Minister deleted every WhatsApp message; the then chief medical officer deleted every WhatsApp message; and the then national clinical director deleted every WhatsApp message. If that is not deletion on an industrial scale, I do not know what planet Humza Yousaf lives on.

The First Minister gave an unequivocal commitment to Parliament but, on his watch, ministers and officials failed to comply with “Do not destroy” notices. Key evidence has been deleted, and deliberately misleading statements have been given to the press and the public, on his watch.

One issue that I raised with Humza Yousaf was the use of private SNP email accounts to conduct Scottish Government business, which the Government has repeatedly denied. However, evidence to the inquiry this week has blown that claim out of the water. In November, when I asked Humza Yousaf whether all emails, whether they were from the Government or his party, would be handed to the inquiry, he said this:

“As for any other form of communication, including any other email address ... it is my full expectation that that is handed over.”—[Official Report, 9 November 2023; c 17.]

Humza Yousaf is First Minister and leader of the SNP. Have any emails from SNP accounts been handed to the Covid inquiry? If so, how many?

The First Minister

The fundamental point is that the use of a non-Government email address, such as an SNP email address, does not exempt official correspondence from freedom of information requests. [Interruption.] For example, a freedom of information request about a particular issue or for a particular document is not subverted because it is sent to an SNP email address. [Interruption.]



The First Minister

Therefore, the information should be handed over. I give an absolute guarantee that no Government business was conducted through my SNP email address. Messages from my private communication applications have been handed over. I have handed over not only WhatsApp messages but private direct messages from my private Twitter account.

As for Government messages, I have made it very clear to every minister, cabinet secretary, permanent secretary and civil servant that, regardless of the method of communication that was used, we must comply with the Public Records (Scotland) Act 2011, the freedom of information legislation and our mobile messaging policy.

I go back to the point that I made to Douglas Ross. Regardless of the communication method that is used—whether it be an SNP email address or otherwise—any decisions that are made must be recorded in the corporate record, as must the salient points. We will continue to comply fully with the UK Covid inquiry, as I intend to do in a couple of hours.

Anas Sarwar

Humza Yousaf is meant to be in charge of the Government and his party, but he cannot answer for anybody else in either of those, and he goes back only to his own messages and emails. The issue is not just about the Covid inquiry; it is about how the Government operates. Over the past 17 years in government, the SNP has created a culture of secrecy and cover-up—a culture that goes from the First Minister down.

People in the SNP believe that there is one standard for them and another standard for everyone else—because somehow the rules do not apply to the SNP. They have abused the trust that the people of Scotland put in them. If they will not take my word for it, they should perhaps listen to Caroleanne Stewart of Scottish Covid Bereaved. She said:

“I trusted them, I felt him and Nicola Sturgeon were honest and trying to be open with us, and to find out that was all just a facade, I don’t understand how they can hold their head up high.”

First Minister, how can you expect the people of Scotland to trust you or your party ever again?

Always speak through the chair, please.

The First Minister

I will always leave the verdict of trust to the Scottish people. We will comply with the UK inquiry and the Scottish Covid inquiry—which, of course, we instructed. When it comes to transparency, we have handed over 28,000 WhatsApp messages. That is transparency. We have handed over 19,000 documents. That is transparency. When it comes to what the Government has done across a range of portfolios, whether it is about the duty of candour or the patient safety commissioner, that is transparency. When it is about public inquiries and instructing them, that is transparency. When the former First Minister was standing up at more than 250 media conferences, that was transparency. Taking questions in this chamber on multiple occasions—[Interruption.]

Let us hear the First Minister.

The First Minister

Doing that on dozens of occasions—that is transparency.

I will end where I started—with my response to Douglas Ross. When it comes to families who have been bereaved by Covid, our responsibility, first and foremost, is to them. I can promise them this. I know that, when I appear in front of the inquiry, it will not just want warm words; it will want to see and hear truthful answers to straight questions. That is what I intend to give when I appear in front of the inquiry in a couple of hours’ time.

Many members wish to put questions today, as you would expect. I would be grateful if we could therefore keep our questions and responses concise.

Private Rented Sector (Rent Cap)

3. Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

I associate the Scottish Greens with the remarks of the First Minister and Anas Sarwar ahead of Holocaust memorial day.

To ask the First Minister whether he will provide an update on how the Scottish Government will continue to protect tenants in the private rented sector after the expiry of the rent cap under the Cost of Living (Tenant Protection) (Scotland) Act 2022. (S6F-02735)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

The Scottish Government has led the way—we are far ahead of any other part of the United Kingdom—in protecting private tenants against rent rises and eviction during the cost of living crisis. We are absolutely committed to supporting tenants when the protections end on 31 March 2024. Yesterday, we laid regulations that will, subject, of course, to the approval of the Parliament, temporarily amend the existing rent adjudication process for a period of 12 months. That will help to protect tenants from excessively large rent increases that could be experienced if there is a move back to open-market rent in a single step, while enabling landlords to continue to reinvest in the private rented sector. The Minister for Zero Carbon Buildings, Active Travel and Tenants’ Rights has written to the lead committee on the matter with further details.

Ross Greer

I thank the First Minister for that answer and for highlighting that the emergency rent protections in Scotland have been far ahead of any other measure in the UK. Scotland will continue to play that leading role when long-term rent controls are introduced very soon under the forthcoming housing bill.

Some tenants who are watching today may, however, be receiving rent increase notices right now that are well above the 3 per cent cap. Can the First Minister reassure tenants that the rent cap remains fully in place until 31 March and that any tenant receiving a cap-busting rent increase notice before then should challenge that rise? Further to that, what is the Scottish Government doing to ensure that tenants know about, and are able to use, their rights?

The First Minister

Yes, I can confirm that the emergency rent cap remains in place until the end of March, so any rent increase notice that is issued before 1 April is very much subject to that cap, even if the increase will not apply until after that date. If a tenant receives a rent increase notice above that, they should refer it to rent service Scotland and rent will be set in line with the cap.

I fully agree that tenants need to know what their rights are and how to act on them. A national renters rights marketing campaign will launch very soon, highlighting existing rights and the changes when the emergency measures end. That will include online guidance and tools to help people to understand how the changes affect them specifically.

The Government has taken clear, bold action to support people through the cost crisis. We are determined to build on that, and our forthcoming housing bill will set out proposals for longer-term reform of the rental sector. We are committed to working not just with tenants—which is crucial—but with responsible landlords and other key stakeholders to ensure that the legislation delivers reform that works in reality.

Pam Gosal (West Scotland) (Con)

The Scottish National Party-Green rent cap has not only failed to tackle the housing emergency; it has exacerbated it. Rents in Scotland have increased by more than 14 per cent despite the SNP-Green rent cap and, as a result of the cap, Scotland is the only part of the UK in which the number of properties sold by landlords has gone up. That ill-thought-out policy has hindered mobility, caused enormous price hikes when people move and reduced the availability of housing by driving landlords out of the market. Does the First Minister agree that his Government’s interferences in the market have been nothing short of a disaster? Will he scrap the cap?

The First Minister

My goodness—I think that that is the most Conservative contribution that I have ever heard in the chamber. How dare the Scottish Government interfere in the middle of a UK Government cost of living crisis to help tenants because of the economic damage that the UK Government has caused? How dare we have the temerity to protect renters because of the economic vandalism of Pam Gosal’s party?

Of course Pam Gosal’s contribution does not bear out the reality or the facts. If we look at—

The Presiding Officer

I will stop you there, First Minister. I am aware of members clearly having conversations with other members across the aisles. That is totally unacceptable during First Minister’s question time.

Please continue, First Minister.

The First Minister

If we look at the facts, we see that the latest Scottish landlord register data shows that the number of registered properties for rent in Scotland between August 2022 and November 2023 increased.

We will, of course, work with responsible landlords, tenants and other stakeholder groups. However, I say to Pam Gosal that I will never make an apology for making sure that we are on the right side of this argument.

Kaukab Stewart (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

The new rent adjudication rules, which empower private tenants to challenge unreasonable rent hikes, are welcome. However, for the proposed transition to work as intended, tenants need to be fully informed of those rights. Will the First Minister expand on how the Scottish Government intends to ensure that renters and private landlords throughout Scotland understand the system that will be in place from April?

The First Minister

I absolutely agree with that. It is vital that tenants and landlords are made aware of the changes that will come into place from 1 April. Tenants’ understanding their rights and how to act on them is a crucial part of the changes that we are making to the rent adjudication process working effectively in practice. As I mentioned in response to Ross Greer’s question, we are working on a range of awareness-raising activities and the provision of clear guidance to support people through the transitionary period.

A national renters’ rights marketing campaign will be launched very soon, and we are working on an online rent increase calculator to assist landlords and tenants in establishing what rent could be charged from 1 April, should it be subject to adjudication.

Grangemouth Refinery (Engagement with UK Government)

To ask the First Minister whether he will provide an update on the Scottish Government’s latest engagement with the United Kingdom Government regarding the status of the Grangemouth refinery. (S6F-02760)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

Last week, the Cabinet Secretary for Wellbeing Economy, Fair Work and Energy chaired the first meeting of the Grangemouth future industry board, which includes representatives of the refinery, its workforce and the UK Government. I am encouraged that the UK Minister of State for Energy Security and Net Zero responded positively to Neil Gray’s request to consider any proposal that supports a long-term and sustainable future for the Grangemouth industrial cluster, recognising its strategic national importance to the economy of the whole of the UK. My Government is committed to exploring all options to extend the life of the refinery and to bring forward new transition projects at pace.

I also welcome the UK Government’s support of the Tata Steel plant in Wales, and I look forward to a constructive dialogue on a similar package being made available for Grangemouth. The cabinet secretary has written to the UK Government to seek a further discussion.

Michelle Thomson

It is indeed heartening to hear that the UK Government is now open to giving support to the vitally important chemical cluster at Grangemouth, which is in my constituency. There is the potential for the refinery to transition quickly to a biorefinery to be utilised for sustainable aviation fuel—in other words, there could be a just transition for workers right now. That would require support from the UK Government in respect of its policy barriers surrounding the hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids—HEFA—cap. What indications, if any, are there that the UK Government realises that potential, and that it is willing to take the necessary steps and act in the best interests of Scotland for that vitally important national asset?

The First Minister

Michelle Thomson is absolutely right—there is a huge opportunity for Grangemouth in the transition to net zero. However, it is clear that there are serious regulatory barriers—to which Michelle Thomson spoke—for the owners of Grangemouth in developing opportunities such as sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF.

The company has made it clear that a major barrier to immediate investment—I stress the word “immediate”—in a biorefinery at the site concerns the United Kingdom Government’s proposed SAF mandate and the HEFA cap that Michelle Thomson mentioned. That requires action from the UK Government, and I believe that action should be immediate and urgent. Grangemouth’s hard workers and the wider community cannot be left at the mercy of UK Government inaction.

The Scottish Government wants to secure the best possible future for Grangemouth. The key powers in that area lie, regrettably, at Westminster, so we will continue to push the UK Government to make the necessary changes to ensure that Grangemouth plays a key role in powering Scotland’s drive to net zero—

Thank you, First Minister.

—and I hope that all members in the chamber can get behind the request that we have made—

Briefly, please.

—to the UK Government to help that transition for Grangemouth and its workers.

Drugs Policy

5. Annie Wells (Glasgow) (Con)

To ask the First Minister, in light of the Scottish Government’s plans to open the first safe drug consumption room in Glasgow later this year, what assurances he can provide that other areas of drugs policy, including spaces for residential rehabilitation, will not be deprioritised. (S6F-02748)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

Those areas absolutely will not be deprioritised. Drug deaths are a public health emergency, and we remain absolutely committed to investing an additional £250 million in our national mission to reduce harm and deaths caused by drugs. We will continue to take a person-centred approach to address the wider needs of some of our most vulnerable people.

We have been clear in our commitment to support the establishment of a safer drug consumption facility in Scotland. To give Annie Wells a sense of reassurance—I hope—I note that funding was earmarked in the national mission budget in the knowledge that Glasgow might need to proceed quickly, following the Lord Advocate’s position, so no existing drug and alcohol services will be affected in order to fund the pilot.

We remain committed to expanding residential rehabilitation capacity by 50 per cent by the end of the current session of Parliament. That includes the expansion of Beechwood house in Inverness, which, I am pleased to say, broke ground this week. That will add much-needed capacity in the Highlands when it opens in October.

Annie Wells

Residential rehabilitation is a vital way to help drug users not just to beat addiction but to get their lives back, yet the most recent figures show that the numbers of people starting at places in those facilities fell to their lowest in more than two years. We know that there are not fewer people addicted to drugs, so why have the numbers of those receiving that type of help reduced? Can the First Minister assure those vulnerable people that his Government will not oversee a further reduction in places?

The First Minister

First, we have maintained the drugs budget for 2024-25, in the face of significant cuts to our resource budget over the past couple of years.

With regard to the expansion of residential rehab, investment in 77 capacity projects combined will provide an increase of 172 beds by 2025-26, boosting the current rehab capacity in Scotland from 425 to 597. Far from being a cut, therefore, there is an increase of more than 40 per cent.

As I said, we have progressed work on safer drug consumption facilities. We are continuing to widen access to life-saving naloxone, and we continue to drive the implementation of the medication assisted treatment standards.

With regard to the safer drug consumption facility that Annie Wells mentioned in her first question, I am pleased that we have got to the current position. However, it would have been far easier, and far quicker, if the United Kingdom Government had approved the facility in the first place.

Paul Sweeney (Glasgow) (Lab)

The safe consumption pilot in Glasgow is a critical part of our effort to tackle the drug deaths crisis in our country, but we need many complementary tools in the toolkit in order to address the crisis effectively. The Turning Point Scotland 218 centre in Glasgow, which supports women in the justice system with a number of critical issues such as problematic drug use, is set to close next month as a result of funding cuts. How can the First Minister say that other drug policy interventions are not being compromised when his Government is allowing a well-established and effective lifeline service in Glasgow to close?

The First Minister

As I said in response to a question from Pauline McNeill, either last week or a couple of weeks ago, I know that Turning Point 218 is an excellent service. Decisions about funding it are, of course, made locally. In our discussions with Glasgow City Council, the council has made it clear that, if the service has to close, it is already ensuring that there is appropriate service provision available for the women who would be impacted

Prisons (Weapons and Attacks on Guards)

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government plans to take in response to the reported rise in attacks on prison guards and weapons found in prisons. (S6F-02753)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

The Government and the Scottish Prison Service recognise the importance of providing a safe and secure environment to live and work in our prisons by adopting a zero-tolerance approach to all violence. Although the SPS reports an increase in the recovery of weapons in prisons, that is likely to be a result of the positive impact of the mitigations that have been put in place to detect, deter and reduce the availability of contraband across the prison estate. The rise also highlights the professionalism of our prison officers in their ability to identify and manage both risks and threats. Although every act of violence towards staff is absolutely to be condemned—I am sure that we will be united on that—those acts of violence towards staff have reduced by 28 per cent over the past four years.

Pauline McNeill

Prison guard attacks have more than doubled in seven years, with nearly 4,000 weapons being discovered in the past 10 years. Those include homemade weapons such as knives that have been made from razor blades melted into toothbrushes. This week, Phil Fairlie from the Prison Officers Association Scotland said:

“The trend is growing at an alarming rate and coincides with an increase in assaults on staff and prisoners. We are heading towards record high population numbers and have more members of organised crime gangs inside our prisons than ever. ”

I agree with the First Minister that we have a high regard for our prison guards and the work that they do, but does he agree that they should not have to fear going to work? Indeed, prisoners should not fear being in prison. What discussions is the Scottish Government having to ascertain why those homemade weapons are circulating? Is the First Minister concerned that the increase might be symptomatic of severe overcrowding in Scottish prisons?

The First Minister

Those are all excellent questions from Pauline McNeill, which I will try to address. If there is further information that the justice secretary can send to her I will ensure that that happens. On overcrowding in our prisons, I do not disagree a jot with what Pauline McNeill said. Our prison population is far too high, so a number of efforts are being made try to reduce it. Our numbers in remand are far too high, as are our numbers in the female prison population. The justice secretary and I have spoken about a range of actions over a number of months to try to reduce the pressures. Those are not a silver bullet, as Pauline McNeill would understand, but we can take a range of actions. I agree with her that reducing the prison population is necessary. On the actions that we are taking in relation to weapons and contraband in prisons, the justice secretary will furnish the member with further details, but we are investing in technology such as rapid scan machines, body scanners and so on to try to detect the contraband that is coming into our prisons.

The last point that I make to Pauline McNeill is that she is absolutely right to say that we must place value on those who work in our prisons. That is why I was pleased that the latest pay proposal was overwhelmingly accepted by the SPS partner trade unions. It is a two-year deal that delivers a salary increase of 10 per cent for the majority of staff, with those on the lowest salaries benefiting from a rise of more than 12 per cent over the period of the pay award. I believe that we should all continue to praise the efforts of our prison staff up and down the country for the fantastic work that they do.

We move to general and constituency supplementaries.

XL Bully Dogs

Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)

From a written answer to me this week and following Westminster scrutiny of the XL bully dog regulations, it appears that there are an estimated 50,000 to 150,000 XL bully-type dogs in England and Wales. Extrapolating those numbers to Scotland would mean that there are between 5,000 and 15,000 dogs. Given those numbers, what help is available for existing owners, who are mainly responsible owners, to identify whether their dog fits that breed type? What concerns does the First Minister have of there being an influx of dogs to welfare charities, and that vets in Scotland might find themselves euthanising perfectly healthy dogs?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

Christine Grahame has raised very legitimate concerns. I know that she has put on record her concern and opposition to the actions that we are having to take. I understand and am willing to continue to have conversations with her about the approach, because I still believe that the Scottish Government’s “deed, not breed” approach is the right one.

We have, unfortunately, had to respond to an unannounced decision that was made by the United Kingdom Government without any consultation whatsoever with the Scottish Government.

The Minister for Victims and Community Safety, Siobhian Brown, will happily write to Christine Grahame in relation to all the issues that she raises. We have to think about the impact on owners, of course, and about the potential impact on animal rehoming centres and the veterinary profession. All those issues are being considered as we progress these matters at pace.

Belford Hospital (Replacement)

Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

Following the announcement of the Scottish National Party-Green Government’s latest budget, NHS Highland has been forced to put on hold development of the much needed and already delayed replacement for the Belford hospital in Fort William. The current building will be 60 years old next year, and patients, staff and pretty much everyone—except, clearly, the Scottish Government—recognises the urgent need for a new hospital.

Can the First Minister tell me when the people of Lochaber, who have been campaigning for decades for a new Belford, will get the new hospital that they have been promised?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

We will provide the chamber with an update on our capital projects, including health capital projects.

I say to Jamie Halcro Johnston that, in the face of not just a real-terms cut to our resource budget but a real-terms cut to our capital budget of 10 per cent over the coming five years, we are continuing to ensure that our national health service gets a pay uplift. That is in stark contrast to a Conservative United Kingdom Government that has prioritised tax cuts for the wealthy over prioritising spend in its NHS.

Maternity Services (Caithness)

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

The First Minister will be aware that the northern part of the A9 has been closed several times recently, cutting off Caithness from the remainder of the mainland and from specialist maternity services. The First Minister also knows that Raigmore hospital’s maternity unit cannot cope, which has led to women being asked to leave the unit, with nowhere to go and 100 miles from home as their labour progresses. Despite that, the Scottish Government has paused the Caithness healthcare redesign and the Raigmore maternity unit redevelopment. Will the First Minister revisit the downgrade and continue the redesign so that women who require specialist maternity care are never again abandoned?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

The member raises very important points. I was involved in the issue when I was Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care, and I know it well. The member is absolutely correct that refurbishments to and construction at Raigmore are much needed.

The Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care has outlined the very challenging position that we face in relation to capital projects, due to the cut in the capital budget that we will receive from the United Kingdom Government over the next five years.

I confirm to the Parliament that no final decisions have been taken on individual projects in NHS Highland. We absolutely remain committed to the reinstatement of consultant-led maternity services at Dr Gray’s hospital. Any decisions made in relation to Raigmore’s redevelopment will have no impact on the overall plan to return consultant-led services to Dr Gray’s by 2026.

Notwithstanding all that, the member’s points are crucial, which is why we are keen to update Parliament as soon as we can on our capital infrastructure projects.

Empire, Slavery and Scotland’s Museums Steering Group (Recommendations)

Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

Will the First Minister provide an assurance that, although budgetary pressures mean that the Scottish Government is not currently able to commit to the empire, slavery and Scotland’s museums steering group’s suggestion that it receive £5 million for its work—which includes bringing forward plans for a dedicated space to address Scotland’s role in empire, colonialism and historical slavery—that work has not been ruled out for the future, and that consideration will be given to locating such a facility in my Greenock and Inverclyde constituency, given its links with the transatlantic slave trade?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

The Scottish Government has allocated £200,000 in this year’s budget to support the on-going work related to the empire, slavery and Scotland’s museums group’s recommendations. We will all work towards the recommendations that are published by the steering group. We will support the building of an effective and resilient organisation that contains the necessary skills to identify and acquire additional funding streams to allow that crucial work to progress and develop in the coming years.

The location of any facility remains to be determined, but I hope that Stuart McMillan will take some comfort from our reassurances about the importance that we place on the empire museum.

Edinburgh Eye Pavilion (Replacement)

Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

It is more than three years since Scottish National Party ministers cancelled the new replacement hospital for the eye pavilion in Edinburgh, a decision that the former First Minister agreed to U-turn on during the 2020-21 Holyrood election, pledging to build a new hospital during this parliamentary session. Will the First Minister keep that pledge to patients in Edinburgh and the south-east of Scotland?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

There is no doubt that the replacement for the eye pavilion needs to be built. We need to replace the existing infrastructure, and there is no doubt across any political party about that.

However, I go back to the points that I made to the member’s colleagues. We are having to take forward capital spending projects in the face of high inflation in construction costs but also a 10 per cent cut to our capital budget over the next five years, which is being imposed on Scotland by the Conservatives. Therefore, although Miles Briggs has every right to ask us about the progress that we are making, I hope that he will also use any influence that he has with the UK Government to tell it to reverse that capital cut, which is having such significant impacts on our budget and on health infrastructure up and down the country.

The Presiding Officer

That concludes questions to the First Minister. The next item of business is a members’ business debate in the name of Paul O’Kane. There will be a short suspension to allow members and people in the public gallery to leave before the debate begins, if they wish to do so.

12:45 Meeting suspended.  

12:47 On resuming—