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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, October 27, 2022


First Minister’s Question Time

Independence (European Union Membership)

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

Today, it has been revealed that senior European Union officials said this about the Scottish National Party’s plan to rejoin the EU: “No euro, no membership”. That is a direct quote. However, that is not what Nicola Sturgeon’s economic paper from last week said. Who is lying to the Scottish people? Is it the European Union or Nicola Surgeon?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Before I come directly to the issue that Douglas Ross raises, I will say that the party that told us in 2014 that independence would take away our European Union membership and then went on to take us out of the European Union will not have any credibility whatsoever on matters European from here on in.

I read with interest the article in The Times this morning—as always, it was good journalism, as would be expected—but it was based on, I think, four unnamed sources. I am not saying that they have no legitimacy, but I will give some named sources and, in the words of Douglas Ross, some direct quotes.

“Not all countries in the European Union will join the euro.”

That was said by former Prime Minister David Cameron.

“They’re not going to force us to join the euro”.

That was said by highly respected former Labour MEP David Martin.

“No country has ever been obliged to join the euro”,

said Graham Avery, former senior adviser at the European Policy Centre. Just yesterday, the deputy director at the Centre for European Reform said, “I’m not a Scottish nationalist, but euro membership doesn’t get forced on member states.”


Thank you, members.

The First Minister

Douglas Ross does not want to listen to any of that. I know that he often flip-flops on whether he agrees with Tory leaders, but clearly he is now disagreeing with David Cameron as well.

Here is another one:

“I have no intention of forcing countries to join the euro if they are not willing or not able to do so.”

That was said by the former President of the European Commission itself. If quotes are not enough, how about hard evidence? Many countries in the European Union still use their own currency. [Interruption.] I am being asked to name them: Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Sweden, which has been a member state since 1995. There we are, Presiding Officer—we have direct quotes and hard evidence.

Finally, if Douglas Ross wants to have this debate, I would welcome it. Here is my challenge to Douglas Ross: let’s have a referendum and have these debates with the Scottish people.

Douglas Ross

That is desperate, desperate stuff from Nicola Sturgeon. What she did not quote—[Interruption.] The SNP members are all applauding my point that it was desperate stuff because they know that Nicola Sturgeon did not say that one of the criteria for countries that are entering into, rather than being currently in, the European Union is to join up to the euro.

Nicola Sturgeon has been pretending that her plan to break up the United Kingdom would mean that Scotland rejoins the EU, but that is not true. The reality, according to those multiple EU officials, is that a Scotland separated from the United Kingdom would be refused entry unless it agreed to join the euro.

The First Minister’s big plan is to break Scotland away from our biggest trading partner by far—the United Kingdom—with nothing to show for it, in the middle of a global inflation and cost of living crisis. She wants to put families and businesses through that in the next 12 months. How can that possibly be the First Minister’s priority right now?

The First Minister

First, what Douglas Ross refers to as “global inflation” just happens to be higher in the UK than around most of the rest of the globe right now because of the economic and financial incompetence of the Conservative Government.

Let us return to the matter at hand. The criteria that he refers to, which are actually the Maastricht criteria, was in place when Sweden joined the European Union 27 years ago. Sweden—[Interruption.]—kind of proving the point that I am making—

The Presiding Officer

First Minister, if you could just give me a moment, please. I would like to be clear that I wish everyone in the chamber and beyond to hear the First Minister and, indeed, whoever should be speaking at any point.

The First Minister

Douglas Ross shouts from a sedentary position, “Well, what about the euro?” It is the euro’s position that I am talking about. Sweden is not in the euro, and the former president of the European Commission, said—let me quote this again—that there is

“no intention of forcing countries to join the euro if they are not willing ... to do so”.

That was in 2017, not 27 years ago. Unfortunately, the “direct quotes” of the named people whom I have quoted today, and the hard evidence from other EU member states, disprove the point that Douglas Ross is seeking to make. It is utterly pathetic and desperate.

If he wants to put it to the test, let us allow the Scottish people to look at all of these things and make a decision in a referendum. That, after all, is the democratic thing to do. Let us not forget that the future that the vast majority of people in Scotland want—one that is inside the European Union—is now only available to Scotland if we become independent.

Douglas Ross

What is utterly pathetic and desperate—the First Minister is fiddling away through her folder, so if she can find this, it would be great—is using a quote from someone saying that a country seeking to enter into the European Union does not have to join the euro, because all her collected quotes have been about countries that are already in the EU.

When we need the focus to be on funding our front line here, in Scotland, the Scottish Government has poured resources and taxpayers’ money into an economic paper that the EU rubbished in less than a fortnight. Let us just run through the facts of that flimsy plan.

The First Minister has no idea how to tackle the deficit. There is not a word on all the taxes that she will have to hike. There is silence on all the public—[Interruption.]

Mr Ross, just give me a moment. Members, I would like to hear Mr Ross, please.

Douglas Ross

They do not want to hear this, so let me start again. Let us run through the facts on Nicola Sturgeon’s flimsy plan. The First Minister has no idea how to tackle the deficit. There is not a word on all the taxes that she will have to raise. There is silence on the public services that will be cut. She wants to separate Scotland from our biggest trading partner, bringing in—in her own words—“a hard border” and risking 500,000 Scottish jobs that depend on UK trade. She would abandon the pound. She has no plan to pay for pensions and no security for people’s mortgages. So, let me ask the First Minister this. Why, oh why—[Interruption.]

Thank you!

—does the First Minister—

The Presiding Officer

I am sorry, Mr Ross. I am not allowing this behaviour to continue. We will hear each and every member as they are entitled to be heard. All voices should be heard in this chamber. I am sure that we would all wish to afford one another that courtesy. Please continue, Mr Ross.

Douglas Ross

On the First Minister’s flimsy plan and the disaster that it would create for Scotland, why, oh why does she insist on dragging our country through this when she should be uniting us to deal with the challenges that our country faces?

The First Minister

Douglas Ross should perhaps reflect on the fact that people across this chamber were not laughing with him. However, this is extremely serious.

Let us just take it point by point. Douglas Ross says that we want to abandon the pound. He is in the party that, over recent times, has wrecked the pound. He has the nerve to stand up in this chamber and talk about security for pensions—that from the party that, over recent weeks, brought pension funds within hours of collapse. He calls for security for mortgage payers—that from the party that, because of its incompetence, has sent mortgage rates soaring through the roof. That is the reality of Scotland within the United Kingdom.

He also has the nerve to talk about deficits. Remember that deficits right now are created as a result of Westminster decisions. We are about to find out, later in November, the price that Scotland will have to pay in the form of another wave of Tory austerity, probably in the form of tax rises, and to see how the Tories are going to deal with the deficit that they have created. Independence is an alternative to the economic mess that the Tories have created.

Finally, on the euro, I note that, when Douglas Ross does not like the quotes and the countries that form the evidence here, he just calls for others. The fact of the matter is—[Interruption.]

Mr Ross!

The First Minister

This is where Douglas Ross also has a nerve, because we are getting close to the point—again because of Tory incompetence—where the euro may well soon be worth more than the pound. That is another example of Tory fiscal and economic mismanagement and incompetence, to which independence gives us the only real alternative.

Douglas Ross

This is a First Minister who has the biggest ever block grant from the United Kingdom Government—£41 billion to spend—and criticises every element of it. However, the First Minister’s plan to escape the temporary issues of the past month is to create permanent chaos with jobs, mortgages, pensions and public services. Rishi Sunak is fixing recent mistakes. The First Minister would wreck our economy for good. Nicola Sturgeon wants permanent austerity. Nicola Sturgeon wants permanent higher taxes. Nicola Sturgeon wants permanent economic chaos. [Interruption.]

Thank you.

If she ever gets her way, we have heard today from European officials—[Interruption.]

Thank you!

Douglas Ross

—that she would leave us permanently isolated. Even if she will not admit it, the truth is that there is no economic case for the referendum that she wants to hold in just 12 months’ time. Scotland rejected the First Minister’s plans for separation in 2014; now her new proposals have been torn up by the EU. Is it not time for her to drop her obsession and to focus on people, businesses and communities right across Scotland?

The First Minister

It is because I am focusing on people, businesses and communities and what is best for them, their wellbeing and their prosperity that I want to see Scotland become independent—in charge of our own affairs and our own destiny, not continuing to be dragged down the wrong path by Westminster Governments. That is the reality. I want to have a referendum to give the people of Scotland that choice.

It is interesting—is it not?—that Douglas Ross is happy to come to this chamber and debate these matters, but he is not prepared to go and debate them with the people of Scotland. If Douglas Ross really believed that the Scottish people were going to reject independence, he would be clamouring for a referendum. The fact that he wants to block one speaks volumes.

However, I am not sure that we should put much store on anything that Douglas Ross has to say. Let me just reflect on the past few weeks in the life of Douglas Ross, the leader—for now—of the Scottish Conservative Party. He called on Boris Johnson to resign, then he U-turned. He called on Boris Johnson to resign again, then he U-turned again. He demanded that I follow the mini-budget, then he applauded Liz Truss for scrapping the mini-budget. He voted for fracking in England; now he welcomes the fact that the fracking ban has been reinstated in England. Just last week, or the week before, he said that Liz Truss would win the next general election, yet days later he welcomed the resignation of Liz Truss. Today, he backs Rishi Sunak; who knows what Douglas Ross’s position will be this time next week.

Waiting Times (Accident and Emergency)

2. Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

Across Scotland, our hospitals should be preparing for winter, but they are having to deal with a crisis right now. We have seen record-breaking waits in our accident and emergency departments, but freedom of information requests reveal the scale of the problem. The number of people who waited more than 24 hours in A and E over the past year is a shocking 4,069, and it gets worse, with 859 people waiting over 36 hours and 243 people waiting over 48 hours—that is two whole days’ waiting in A and E.

I say to the First Minister that I have come here week after week asking her to take this crisis seriously. She should not point to announcements that were made last year, tell us how much she cares or repeat how unacceptable she thinks it is. She should tell us what she is going to do to fix it and by when.

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The situation in accident and emergency is challenging, but it is because of the actions that we are taking to employ more staff and put more money into the national health service—the £50 million urgent and unscheduled care collaborative, for example—that we will see progress on A and E waiting times. In last week’s figures, for example, we saw a 14 per cent reduction in waits over eight hours. We also saw the numbers waiting over 12 hours come down and performance against the four-hour waiting times target increase.

There is much work to be done. We are going into a very challenging winter period, which is why hospitals and health boards across the country are working hard to plan for winter, and this Government will continue to support them. Anas Sarwar is absolutely right to raise these issues, but what is always missing from Labour’s contribution on these matters is any suggestions about what should be done differently.

We are taking the actions that require to be taken and we will continue to do so to support our national health service now, over this winter and beyond.

Anas Sarwar

The First Minister says that she is taking the actions, but the situation is actually getting worse. A year ago, when the health secretary was appointed, 86.6 per cent of people were seen within four hours at A and E. Today, the figure stands at 65.3 per cent. That is simply not good enough.

However, the truth is that A and E waiting times are only one part of the picture. Every week, thousands of people are seen in acute assessment units. Those people are among the most sick and they have been referred straight to hospital by their general practitioners. They wait hours for treatment, but many of their waits are not recorded. At the Queen Elizabeth hospital, in one unit, on one night this week, 48 patients spent the night on trolleys in waiting rooms, side rooms or corridors, and some even had to sleep on chairs. Not one of them will be captured in waiting time statistics.

Will the First Minister start recording all waiting times, including those for acute assessment units, so that waits such as those are no longer hidden by this Government?

The First Minister

We will always look at how we report figures, first, in a way that is as transparent as possible, but also in a way that reflects the changing pattern of care. For example, as part of the urgent and unscheduled care collaborative, we are looking at more scheduled appointments for accident and emergency. Of course, how figures are reported always has to take account of that.

However, we have not changed how accident and emergency waiting time statistics are reported. I will be corrected if I am wrong on this but, from memory, I do not think that they have changed since we took office. Of course, we report them weekly, which is different from what happens in other Administrations across the United Kingdom, where I think that they are only reported on a monthly basis. There is transparency about this and we will always look at how we improve it.

It is a challenging situation. The statistics will fluctuate week on week, but if we look at the statistics that have been published for the most recent week, we see that fewer people waited more than four hours than had been the case at any point over the previous month. We also saw the numbers of waits over eight hours and over 12 hours come down. That is a result of the hard work of those on the front line, but also the actions that we are taking to support their efforts.

As I said earlier, if other parties think that there are actions that could be taken and that we are not taking, we will always listen to that. However, we never hear that from Labour members. They lodged a motion—it was debated in the Parliament yesterday—about the health service that did not even mention the fact that we have been living through a global pandemic. When I listen to Labour members, I am not sure that they are really interested in the health service; rather, they are just interested in making political points.

Anas Sarwar

The First Minister should reflect on the fact that we are talking about people’s lives. Lives are being lost because of the failures in our A and E departments and the failure of this Government.

The First Minister says that she will look at the acute assessment unit stats and how they are reported, but she said that back in 2018, long before Covid impacted on this country. It is time not to always have the single transferable excuse of Covid and, instead, to take some responsibility.

This week, an email that was sent to doctors by management at the Queen Elizabeth hospital said:

“There is currently no space to assess any new patients in the medical receiving areas or in the Emergency Department.”

The email went on to say:

“We are all being asked to perform the impossible in extremely challenging circumstances.”

Staff are being asked to do the impossible and patients are being asked to accept the unacceptable by this Government.

In one year, more than 4,000 people waited more than 24 hours in A and E, 859 people waited more than 36 hours and 243 people waited more than two days: the situation is the worst that it has ever been. How bad does it have to get, how long do people have to wait and how many lives have to be lost before the First Minister admits that the health secretary and her Government have no idea what they are doing?

The First Minister

Although our accident and emergency units are under significant pressure, they are still the best performing, by a significant margin, of any in the UK. That is the first point.

Secondly, I deeply appreciate the efforts of staff, which is one of the reasons why we pay our health service staff more than those in any other part of the UK and, right now, are offering a higher pay deal for this year than in any other part of the UK.

Next, it is because the issue is so serious—whenever we talk about the NHS, we are talking about people’s lives—that it is important to take it seriously and look at all the factors. That is why it is reasonable to suggest that, when Labour members come to the chamber to debate the NHS and pretend that the pandemic did not happen and is not one of the main reasons why we see so many of these pressures, they are not taking the issue as seriously as they should be.

We will continue to take the actions around staffing, funding and redesigning care to support our health service through this. We—the health secretary, the entire Government and I—will focus on that each and every day. That is what people have put their trust in this Government to do and it is what we will get on with and continue to do.

We move to general and constituency supplementary questions.

Cost of Living Crisis (Inflation)

Emma Roddick (Highlands and Islands) (SNP)

Under the Tories, inflation has run out of control, mortgage rates are at their highest since the financial crash and energy bills have more than doubled. New figures from the Office for National Statistics clearly set out the stark pressures that the crisis is placing on households across Scotland, showing that the cost of basic essential goods has skyrocketed, with the price of budget food in supermarkets rising by 17 per cent in the year to September. The pressure is particularly stark in the Highlands and Islands, where many areas already faced higher costs for goods and services. People need help and they need it now.

Does the First Minister agree that it is urgent that the UK Government uses its upcoming fiscal statement to rule out a return to austerity, to confirm an inflationary rise in social security benefits and to provide the Scottish Government with an inflationary uplift to the 2022-23 budget to enable it to take further steps to support people with the cost of living crisis?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I agree, and I would be shocked if everybody in the chamber did not agree with those points. People are really suffering from the impacts of inflation and, earlier this week, the ONS statistics laid bare the detail beneath the headline inflation figure. It is really important that action is taken. The Scottish Government is taking the action that we are able to take within the powers and resources that we have at our disposal. I very much hope that we see more action from the UK Government, and I made that point directly to the new Prime Minister when I spoke to him earlier this week.

I will recap the points that Emma Roddick has made, for which I hope that there is support across the chamber. There should be no further austerity. Our public services are still dealing with the legacy of the most recent period of Tory austerity—they are dealing with the impact of inflation right now—so there should be no further austerity. It is morally right that there should be inflation increases for benefits, so that should happen. There should also be inflationary increases for the budget of the Scottish Parliament, so that we can pass those on to public services.

I certainly hope that that is what we will get from the United Kingdom Government, but I fear that what we will get is another wave of austerity and further tax rises, although I hope to be proved wrong on that.

Emergency Services (Funding)

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

Yesterday, our blue-light services spoke to the Criminal Justice Committee about what the serious and dire consequences of a real-terms cut to their budget might look like—up to 4,500 police staff and officers and up to a quarter of our firefighters being lost, and police and fire stations having to close. The consequences of that would be dire, with the only real winners being criminals and the real losers being the general public.

Before the First Minister talks about this year’s budget constraints, I point out to her that Audit Scotland has made it perfectly clear that there has been a decade-long chronic underfunding of blue-light services. Does the First Minister now seriously regret breaking her manifesto commitment to protect our police force and its budget?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The Government will always—as we have done throughout all the years for which we have been in government—protect our public services to the maximum that is possible within a budget the size of which is largely determined by Westminster. That is the reality.

That commitment can be seen in, for example, the fact that, right now, Scotland has a higher number of police officers than it did at any time during the previous Administration. We have 31 police officers per 10,000 of the population, whereas the figure for England and Wales is just 24. Similarly, when it comes to the fire service, we have more fire officers per head of population than is the case in England and Wales. We have 11.8 per 10,000 of the population; in England, the figure is just 6.2 and, in Wales, it is 10.

The budgetary position that we face as we go forward is really difficult. That is because of decisions that are not in my hands or in the hands of the Scottish Government but in the hands of the United Kingdom Government. If the Conservative Party or any party in the Parliament wants—as we all do—more money to be invested in our public services, it must say where it thinks we should take that money from, or it should join us in asking for much greater financial independence for the Scottish Parliament, so that we are not dependent on decisions that are taken elsewhere.

Fornethy House Residential School (Survivors)

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

Dozens of women representing the hundreds of survivors of Fornethy House residential school are in Parliament today to highlight their plight and to bravely share with MSPs their traumatic, awful experience of physical, mental and, in some cases, sexual abuse at the hands of staff at Fornethy in the 1960s where, as young, vulnerable children, they were sent, supposedly for respite.

Because they were in short-term residential care, they are ignored by the Government’s redress scheme. To date, not one of the perpetrators of that abuse has been brought to justice and no one from the Government has yet publicly acknowledged that the abuse at Fornethy even took place, despite the fact that hundreds of women have now publicly come forward. All that they want is someone to listen to them.

In August, I and Alex Cole-Hamilton wrote to the First Minister to ask whether she would meet representatives of the survivors group. Will she do so, not necessarily today, but soon? More importantly, will she listen to the plight of those brave women?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I am aware that some of the Fornethy survivors are visiting Parliament today. I welcome them here and do not underestimate how difficult it is for them to be here to press the case that they are here to press.

I will, of course, consider any requests for a meeting, but it is important to tell the Parliament that the Deputy First Minister met Fornethy survivors in June of this year and that he continues to engage with the group and to listen to the concerns that it is raising about eligibility for the redress scheme and wider matters relating to justice and support. The Deputy First Minister has responded to a request from the Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee, which is considering a petition from the Fornethy survivors, outlining the rationale for the eligibility criteria.

The circumstances in which individuals came to be at Fornethy will vary, so it is not necessarily possible to determine eligibility for the group as a whole, but we will continue to listen and to respond, and to do everything that we can to address those concerns.

Communications Resilience (Island Communities)

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

The First Minister will be aware of the major telecommunications failure in Shetland last Thursday. As the emergency resilience plan kicked in, supported by the emergency services—to whom I extend my grateful thanks along with my thanks to the engineers who fixed the problem—islanders faced the prospect of being cut off from the world for several days. They had no mobile signal and no internet, digital or landline services. Banks were shut, cash machines were useless and residents were asked to flag down emergency vehicles when those were needed.

All of that points to the fundamental vulnerability of communications infrastructure on our islands, which is something that I and many others highlighted during the consultation on the now-junked proposals for centralised air traffic control. We need guaranteed connectivity and reliability. Will the Scottish Government agree to review what happened, to ensure that the vital communications connections that most people take for granted are resilient?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I thank Beatrice Wishart for raising an issue that I know was of profound concern to islanders last week. The Government was very involved in ensuring that all efforts were made to reconnect the services as quickly as possible. Thanks to the dedication of everyone who worked on that, telecommunications and power supplies were not interrupted for several days—in fact, all supplies and services were reinstated around 4 o’clock on the same day. The Scottish Government’s resilience room monitored the situation and liaised with partner agencies throughout.

The points about wider resilience are legitimate and important, and I give a commitment that we will review all of that in light of the incident and will consider what other steps may be required. I undertake to keep the member updated about that work.

Prime Minister (Comments)

Pam Gosal (West Scotland) (Con)

This week, while most politicians have welcomed Rishi Sunak as the first British Indian Prime Minister, a Scottish National Party MP chose to attack him for his race and suggested that he is the wrong type of Asian. Does the First Minister think that such comments are acceptable? Will she whole-heartedly condemn that hate-filled rhetoric, which seeks to divide communities across Scotland?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I am sorry, Presiding Officer, but that is a mischaracterisation of what the MP in question said. I do not think that it serves the anti-racist cause—to which all of us in this chamber are utterly committed—to try to manufacture divisions between us on those issues.

The fact of the matter is that any decent person welcomes the fact that the United Kingdom has its first Hindu Prime Minister. The point that was being made was that, notwithstanding that, we will continue to have political disagreements, because I disagree with much of what Rishi Sunak stands for as a Conservative. [Interruption.]


The First Minister

Notwithstanding those political disagreements, I was pleased to congratulate Rishi Sunak personally earlier this week on his appointment as Prime Minister. I am sure that we all do that, and I take the opportunity to do so again here today. I hope that everyone across the chamber, without exception, will join me in saying that we should all stand united and in solidarity against racism. That is what is called for and it is what I will always do.

Cabinet (Meetings)

To ask the First Minister when the Cabinet will next meet. (S6F-01442)


Alex Cole-Hamilton

There is a dentistry crisis in Scotland. It has been getting harder and harder to see a national health service dentist, even for people who are registered with a practice. We have found people turning to do-it-yourself dentistry in pain and desperation. I have here the response to a freedom of information request that shows that one in 10 dentists has stopped doing NHS work since the pandemic—that is 400 fewer dentists offering NHS treatment. Dentists have been warning the First Minister that Government funding no longer covers their costs. They say that ministers have their heads in the sand. The dead hand of ministerial disinterest is at large once again.

The centrepiece of the Scottish Government’s response to the crisis was the creation of a dental advisory group six months ago, but that group still has no members and still has not met. It is the group that was not there. When will that group meet and what does the First Minister have to say to those patients who are still waiting in pain?

The First Minister

We will continue to work with, and support, NHS dentistry.

The facts of the matter are as follows. A record number of people—more than 95 per cent of the population—are registered with an NHS dentist. We see continued recovery in the numbers of people accessing NHS dentistry and getting dental examinations—the statistics show an 80 per cent increase in examination appointments per month on average, compared with this year’s January to March period, which reflects the impact of the reduction of infection controls—and we are seeing the reintroduction of payments that are linked to seeing and treating patients.

We will continue to invest in NHS dentistry. In total, we have provided more than £150 million in additional support to maintain the capacity and capability of the sector. Lastly, we remain in a position of relative strength in relation to workforce numbers—a longer-term trend shows an increase of 32 per cent in dentists who provide NHS dental services.

As with all parts of the health service, real challenges exist, but we continue to support dentistry as we continue to support the NHS as a whole.

Emergency Budget Review (Impact of Changes in the United Kingdom Government)

To ask the First Minister what impact recent changes within the United Kingdom Government will have on the Scottish Government’s emergency budget review. (S6F-01445)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The chaotic series of UK Government announcements and U-turns on fiscal measures over recent weeks has led to economic turmoil, the withdrawal of mortgage products from the market, the pound crashing and the Bank of England having to take emergency action to stabilise financial markets.

We now have another change in Prime Minister and another potential change in direction, along with the latest in a long string of U-turns when, just yesterday, the UK Government delayed its fiscal statement and independent forecast from the Office for Budget Responsibility from 31 October to 17 November. In light of that unprecedented uncertainty and instability, it is prudent to review the timing for the Scottish Government’s emergency budget review, which we will do.

Kenneth Gibson

This week’s Economist describes the UK as

“A country of political instability, low growth and subordination to the bond markets ... blighted by ... regional inequality.”

Following the UK Government’s screeching U-turn on policies that Tory MSPs supinely urged her to adopt only a month ago, does the First Minister agree that everyone, particularly the most vulnerable in our society, will pay the price for Tory economic incompetence, which necessitates the emergency budget review, and that with the Westminster system utterly broken, Scotland’s prosperity can best be secured through becoming an independent country?

The First Minister

Yes. Whether it is through the Brexit impact, including on food prices, or the impact of the mini-budget on mortgages, it is people across the country who are paying the price now for Tory economic incompetence. Households and businesses will bear the cost of the former Prime Minister’s mistakes for months—possibly years—and we do not yet know what the current Prime Minister will do in relation to tax rises and spending cuts.

That is the reality for Scotland now—it is getting worse, not better. So, yes, I entirely agree that Scotland’s prosperity can best be secured by Scotland becoming an independent country. It is because the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats also recognise that, and recognise that the people of Scotland will see that, that they remain so intent on blocking the democratic choice of Scotland.

Neil Bibby (West Scotland) (Lab)

Rishi Sunak was secretly recorded boasting how proud he was to have diverted the last Labour Government’s investment in “deprived urban areas” to the wealthiest communities. Does the First Minister agree that money should not be diverted away from the most deprived areas in either the UK or the Scottish budgets? If so, can the First Minister explain why the Scottish Government has taken educational attainment challenge funding away from Scotland’s most deprived council areas?

The First Minister

I agree with the first part of the member’s question. The second part of his question is a mischaracterisation of the position, perhaps evidenced by the fact that his colleagues on the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities supported the change that we made to educational attainment funding distribution, which ensured that the fund supported more young people living in deprivation. The budget to tackle the attainment gap is rising over this session of Parliament, and rightly so.

National Health Service Winter Resilience Plan

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

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the Royal College of Emergency Medicine Scotland’s reported warning that the NHS winter resilience plan “will not be in place in time to prevent further harm to patients and staff this winter”. (S6F-01459)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

As we have just been discussing, accident and emergency departments are working under significant pressure, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Pressures are also driven by delays in discharge elsewhere in hospitals, which is why the £600 million winter plan includes a focus on social care and actions to encourage integration authorities to help to alleviate delays.

Our £50 million unscheduled care programme is working to reduce A and E waits, including by ensuring that people are directed to the most appropriate urgent care settings and by scheduling urgent appointments.

The Royal College of Emergency Medicine is a vital partner in that work, and the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care will meet the RCEM in the coming weeks to discuss how further improvements can be made.

Tess White

I say to the First Minister that the RCEM emphasised the urgent need to bolster the social care workforce, to help with the discharge of patients from hospital this winter. The Scottish National Party Government is wasting precious time, money and resources on plans to centralise social care services in four years’ time. Does the First Minister agree with the SNP MSP Kenneth Gibson that the national care service is like “using a sledgehammer to crack a nut”, or with Michelle Thomson, who said that the proposals are “screaming ... a huge risk”? Will she abandon those plans and focus instead on strengthening social care ahead of the looming winter crisis in the NHS?

The First Minister

The national care service is about improving social care, about better rewarding those who work in social care, and about removing any postcode lottery in the provision of social care. A national care service is the right way to go.

Obviously, the National Care Service (Scotland) Bill is in its early stages of parliamentary scrutiny. A number of different committees in the Parliament are scrutinising that legislation and, as we always do, we will listen very carefully to points made and views expressed in the course of that scrutiny. That is the right and proper way to proceed with any legislation.

In the meantime, while the Parliament is scrutinising the bill, and as we take that forward, we will continue with the steps that we are taking in the here and now to improve social care: employing more people in that sector, investing more money in it, and increasing the wages of the people who work in it.

Of course, one of the biggest constraints that we have right now—one of the biggest barriers to getting people into the social care workforce—is Brexit and the ending of freedom of movement, which I think, from memory, Tess White supports. While I will continue to listen to all the points that are made, perhaps she would listen to the people who say that we should reverse Brexit and restore freedom of movement to help our public services as well as our economy.

Cost of Living Crisis (Assistance for People with Complex Disabilities)

To ask the First Minister what assistance the Scottish Government is providing to those with complex disabilities to cope with the cost of living crisis. (S6F-01451)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The child disability payment and the adult disability payment, as well as the carers allowance supplement, are part of the package of social security benefits that we are providing. We are also funding new forms of advice and advocacy to help disabled people and those with long-term health conditions to access the financial support that they are entitled to.

We have also introduced child winter heating assistance, which is an annual payment to families with severely disabled children, to help them to heat their homes. Like the carers allowance supplement, that financial support is unavailable anywhere else in the United Kingdom.

Another new benefit that is available only in Scotland will begin in February: the winter heating payment will help many low-income households with their energy bills. We are also doubling the fuel insecurity fund to £20 million.

Jackie Baillie

Freya Hunter is 12 years old and has cerebral palsy. She is cared for at home by her mum and specialist carers. Her condition is such that she requires oxygen constantly and relies on nebulisers and suction machines, a tracking hoist and a wheelchair. Her mum says that the level of care that is provided is on a par with what would be happening in an intensive care ward. The family are facing an energy bill of £17,000, from April, to heat their home and to operate the life-support equipment that Freya so badly needs. I am sure that the First Minister will agree that the UK Government needs to do more to provide targeted support to those with complex disabilities for their energy bills—but so, too, does the Scottish Government.

The cost of Freya’s life-saving equipment is more than a third of the bill. She is not recompensed fully by the national health service or by social care. If her mum does not get help, she faces the impossible choice of placing Freya in care or in hospital, because she cannot afford to keep her at home. That is damning.

Will the Scottish Government provide assistance specifically to help Freya and people with complex disabilities to cover the full cost of running their life-saving equipment?

The First Minister

If memory serves me correctly, I made a similar point to that in First Minister’s question time a couple weeks ago, before the October recess.

We will work with the health service to ensure that anybody in a position such as the one just narrated does get help. It would not be acceptable for any child or adult to end up in care because rising energy costs made it impossible for them to use the equipment that supported them to stay in their own homes. We will work to ensure, as far as we can, that that support is available.

However, let us not gloss over the fact—Jackie Baillie was right to mention it—that the UK Government needs to provide targeted help to people for energy costs. That is one of the reasons why we need increased budgets for this session of Parliament—so that we can pass that money on to public services such as the national health service, to help them to deal with the inflationary pressures, of which this is only one. We will do everything in our power to help people in the kind of situation that we have just heard about.

Energy Costs for Businesses

Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

Energy costs are a huge concern for many, including businesses. Yesterday, local newspaper the Greenock Telegraph reported that an award-winning restaurant, My Kitchen, was going to close at the end of the month. Thankfully, someone else is going to step in, but that will not be the case for businesses across the country.

I would encourage any business that is struggling to speak to Business Energy Scotland to see if it can offer any advice on how to lower energy costs. Will the First Minister again press the United Kingdom Government to fix its energy mess, so that no business in my constituency or across Scotland needs to close as a result of spiralling energy costs that they have little control over?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Yes, I will give that commitment. We have repeatedly highlighted to the UK Government the urgent needs of Scottish businesses, including the issue of the rising energy costs faced by many across the country. I impressed that point on the new Prime Minister when I spoke to him earlier this week, when I highlighted the pressure and pain that are being felt right now by people and businesses as a result of inflation and other economic pressures.

I hope that we will see further help from the UK Government in the budget statement that the chancellor will outline in the middle of November. On 19 October, the Deputy First Minister wrote to the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, making many of those points, and we will continue to make those points as strongly as possible.

Reported Undeclared Chinese State Police Bases (Investigation)

Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

Yesterday, the Dutch Government confirmed that it is launching an investigation into the existence of undeclared Chinese state police bases across Europe—bases that are being used to track and harass dissidents and pro-democracy activists. The report that prompted that investigation confirmed that one of those bases is located in Glasgow. This comes just days after the Chinese consul general in Manchester dragged a protester inside the gates of the consulate, where he and his staff then assaulted him, and after reports of students in Edinburgh who come from Hong Kong being targeted and intimidated by those associated with the Beijing regime.

Will the First Minister confirm what action is being taken about that apparent Chinese police base in Glasgow and the wider intimidatory tactics of the Chinese Government?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I agree that those reports are deeply concerning, and I want to be very clear that we take them extremely seriously. Any foreign country that operates in Scotland must abide by Scottish law. The Scottish Government fully supports individuals’ rights to freedom of expression, which is an extremely important principle.

Obviously, those matters require to be fully and properly investigated. It would not be appropriate for me to go into too much detail, but I know, as a result of a conversation that I had yesterday with the chief constable, that the police are aware of those reports. Of course, the police are operationally independent, and it is up to them to determine what investigations would be appropriate. However, they are aware of those reports, and I repeat that those reports require to be treated extremely seriously.

The Presiding Officer

That concludes First Minister’s question time. There will be a short suspension before we move on to the next item of business, which is a members’ business debate in the name of Murdo Fraser.

12:49 Meeting suspended.  

12:51 On resuming—