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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 1, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 01 March 2018

Agenda: Business Motion, General Question Time, Weather Update, First Minister’s Question Time, UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill, Business Motions


First Minister’s Question Time

Transport (Weather Conditions)

I will use one of my questions to ask about the weather that we are facing today.

Once again, bus drivers, Red Cross workers and the emergency services have risen to the challenge, and everyone across Scotland thanks them for their fortitude and, in many cases, bravery. The advice remains not to travel, and I join the First Minister in urging everybody to heed that advice, including, I am sad to say, Scottish Conservative activists who are preparing for our party conference—it is now off.

I ask the First Minister to reassure the country that every possible resource that is available to agencies will be put to effective use in an effort to return our transport system to normal as soon as possible over the coming few days.

I thank Ruth Davidson for that question and put on record my thanks to the Conservative Party for the responsibility that it has shown around the arrangements for its party conference.

I can give an assurance that every possible resource will be brought to bear to ensure that we keep the country moving as far as we can, given the travel warnings that are in place, and that there will be recovery as quickly as possible once those warnings are lifted.

I will give some context by saying that, around the country, right now, more than 200 trunk road winter vehicles are available for spreading salt and ploughing snow. That is typically one spreader for every 16km of trunk road. Currently, more than 360,000 tonnes of salt are available to treat trunk roads. Last night and into this morning, all possible resources on the M8 were made available. Those consisted of five spreaders and a multipurpose vehicle. Therefore all available resources are being brought to bear and we continue to co-ordinate the response through the Scottish Government’s resilience unit.

As I indicated in my remarks a few moments ago, today, we are paying particular attention to the difficulties that are being experienced by health boards, including, for example, those experienced at Edinburgh royal infirmary in this city. It is understandable that some members of our healthcare staff will struggle to get to work, which is why particular focus is being given to that today. Weather such as this has a whole range of impacts, and it is not just Government and agencies working with Government that respond: members of the public have been responding extremely well and, again, I put on the record my thanks to everybody who has done so.

Yesterday, the First Minister unveiled her plan to boost the Scottish economy with a new Scottish national investment bank. Of course, that is a different thing from the existing Scottish Investment Bank, which is also different from the proposed business development bank and, of course, should not be confused with the small and medium-sized enterprise holding fund or the capital acceleration programme—or, indeed, the £0.5 billion Scottish growth scheme, which has barely released a penny. I ask the First Minister whether that sounds like joined-up investment to her.

I agree with Ruth Davidson on the fact that the investment bank—the implementation plan for which was published yesterday—is very different from any of the schemes that she has spoken about. That is because we believe that we need to provide something—and an ability to intervene—on a scale and of a nature that is different from what has gone before. Of course, if Ruth Davidson has read Benny Higgins’s implementation report closely—as I assume that she will have done—she will have seen that, once it is up and running, the intention will be for things such as the SME holding fund and the current Scottish Investment Bank, which is under the aegis of Scottish Enterprise, to come under the umbrella of the investment bank.

Once we have had the opportunity of considering Benny Higgins’s report in detail and responding—as I indicated yesterday, we will respond formally in May, although we have given early indications of our support for some of the recommendations—Keith Brown will, of course, come to the chamber, and I hope that there will be a full debate on the detail of the recommendations.

I hope that everybody across the chamber will welcome the initiative. We frequently have debates in the chamber about the economy—and rightly so. As I frequently say, the fundamentals of the Scottish economy are strong, but we know the challenges that we face. People from right across the spectrum—from those who work in the financial services sector to those who come from a whole range of different interests, such as Friends of the Earth—have recognised the potential for an investment bank of this nature to be truly transformational. I hope that that will excite, enthuse and get the support of everybody in the chamber.

The First Minister says that this is a model of clarity, but nobody seems to have told her office because, when we made a freedom of information request, asking for details of the new investment bank, it wrote back, asking which one we were talking about. We replied that it was the one that the Scottish Government announced in 2009, the one that it reannounced in 2013, the one that it announced again in 2015 and the one that John Swinney said should not go ahead after all in 2016. Even the First Minister’s office did not seem to know the difference between the Scottish Investment Bank and the Scottish national investment bank, so how can the public do so?

I would have thought that even Ruth Davidson would have risen to the challenge of seeing the opportunity that is now being presented. Let me make two points. Of course, as I said in my earlier answer, there is an organisation that sits within Scottish Enterprise, which is called the Scottish Investment Bank. We now want to do something on a different scale and of a different nature. Yes, we have considered that in the past, and, for various reasons, have decided that it was not the appropriate time to move forward. We have decided that now is the time. We have done—or, rather more accurately, Benny Higgins has done—an amazing amount of work in a very short period to get to the point that we reached yesterday, with the publication of the implementation plan.

I commend that implementation plan to everybody across the chamber and urge those who have not read it yet, who might or might not include Ruth Davidson, to do so, as they will see the detail of the work that has been done. What I thought was impressive about Benny Higgins’s work that was published yesterday was that it set out the vision for what an investment bank can achieve and a lot of the detailed work that is now required to make that a reality. I set out the Government’s intention to move at pace on that. Formally establishing a national investment bank will require legislation in the Scottish Parliament. However, pending that legislation, we want to get the bank operating in shadow form during 2019. There will be a lot of debate around the detail of the bank, but in terms of the aim, the objective and the principle, I hope that even Ruth Davidson will get to a point where she can be excited and enthused by the potential that the bank offers.

Despite the farcical response from the First Minister’s office, there is a serious point here. After 10 years in power and nine years after the Scottish Government first proposed an investment bank, all those reannouncements have led us nowhere. Although I do not want to bury the First Minister under an avalanche of statistics, here goes: the Scottish National Party told us in 2010 that it would increase exports by 50 per cent, but it failed to do so; its own figures show that it is running short by the small matter of £27 billion. That is the price of an SNP that is keen to get the headlines for launches and relaunches but forgets to even start to build the actual bank until nine years later. After such a litany of failure, why should we believe that yesterday’s announcement should be any different?

I am sorry, too, to bury Ruth Davidson in an avalanche of statistics, but here goes: Scotland’s international exports, excluding oil and gas, increased by £460 million to just short of £30 billion in 2016; overall, Scotland’s international exports are up between 2007 and 2016 by 45 per cent; and Scottish whisky exports were valued at £4.36 billion, which is up 9 per cent compared to the figure for 2016. That paints rather a different picture to the one that Ruth Davidson was trying to paint.

However, as I think that Ruth Davidson has shown in her questioning, we have had a range of interventions to provide financing for businesses to help them innovate and export more. They have had some successes, but we are looking at the challenges facing our economy now, the need to catch up with the productivity levels of other European countries, the way in which we have closed the gap with the rest of the United Kingdom, the need to grow the economy faster and, of course, the need to prepare for the impact on the Scottish economy of Brexit, which is being imposed by Ruth Davidson’s party. We think that the time is right now to do that partly through the establishment of a Scottish national investment bank. We have got to the stage of publishing an implementation plan, which we did yesterday, and now we are going to get on with the work of turning that into a reality. As I said, I hope that everybody across the chamber will make a contribution to ensuring that that happens.

Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group

I thank the First Minister for her statement and associate those on the Labour benches with her message of support to those people working both night and day to get the country moving again.

The extreme weather has brought about a grinding halt to Scotland’s transport system. However, it is not just our road and rail networks that are affected by bad weather. Just last Thursday, 1 mile away from here, a man who had been sleeping rough died in the freezing cold. He died sleeping on a discarded mattress. It is therefore clear that urgent action is needed to end rough sleeping. I welcome the setting up by the Government of the homelessness and rough sleeping action group, which has been set the task of reducing rough sleeping this winter. Can the First Minister update us on the group’s work and tell Parliament how the Government will be measuring its impact?

Yes, I can. First, I take the opportunity to say that for as long as one single person is homeless or rough sleeping in our country, we still have work to do. I hope that that unites all of us across the chamber.

The homelessness and rough sleeping action group moved very quickly, as Richard Leonard is aware, to make recommendations on action to tackle rough sleeping during this winter. All those recommendations were accepted by the Scottish Government and are already being implemented. The action group is now examining longer-term actions to end rough sleeping, but also to transform the use of temporary accommodation, and the next set of recommendations from the action group is due in the spring.

As Richard Leonard is also aware, we have created an ending homelessness fund of £50 million over the next five years to help to support prevention and drive sustainable change.

As we all know, Scotland has some of the strongest rights for homeless people in the world, but we must make sure that those rights can be exercised and that everybody who is found to be homeless and entitled to housing gets that housing. That is of huge importance.

The importance of that, while we know about it and feel it at every time, is underlined during the extreme weather conditions that we are facing right now. As I indicated in my remarks earlier, details of a range of organisations such as Streetwork and the Bethany Christian Trust have been circulated so that anybody who is aware of anybody who is homeless or sleeping rough can contact those organisations to get help and shelter for the individuals concerned.

I welcome that answer from the First Minister, because anybody who walks the streets of any city across Scotland knows that it feels as if there has been a marked increase in rough sleeping.

We know that, last year, rough sleeping increased in Wales by 10 per cent and in England by 15 per cent, but we simply do not know precisely how much it is increasing in Scotland, because the Scottish Government does not comprehensively measure that. Not only does London comprehensively count the number of rough sleepers, but the information is systematically shared across all relevant public agencies and homelessness organisations in the city. Will the First Minister follow the lead of the Greater London Authority and consider establishing a combined homelessness and information network approach here in Scotland?

I think the short answer to that question is yes. We want to be in a position to learn from best practice wherever we find it, but, as I have already indicated, we have established the action group, which is looking at exactly such issues. The action group will make a suite of recommendations about how we can better tackle homelessness and rough sleeping, but also how we can better gather, report and share the statistics on that, because it is extremely important, as I think we all recognise, that we have an accurate picture of that.

I recognise the anecdotal evidence and some of the statistical evidence that we have suggesting an increase in rough sleeping. We all know, I think, that the welfare cuts that are being introduced by the United Kingdom Government are one of the driving factors for that, but we all have a responsibility to work together to address it.

Whatever other issues may divide us in this chamber, I hope that this is an issue on which those of us on the SNP benches and those on the Labour benches will be able to find common ground and work together. We are certainly open to suggestions such as the one that Richard Leonard has just made.

I thank the First Minister again for the tone of her response.

I ask members to imagine facing a night on the streets in this weather, or being evicted last night or tonight and facing the extreme cold. The campaign group Living Rent has proposed a change in the law to ban winter evictions. In France, a version of that law runs from 1 November to 31 March each year and covers all tenants. It stops people being thrown on to the streets when temperatures drop. Such a measure would simply save lives in Scotland. My party will consider banning winter evictions as part of our housing reform policy. Will the First Minister commit her Government today to doing the same?

I will commit my Government to doing exactly as Richard Leonard said and considering that as a step that we can take to help us tackle what we all accept is a very serious issue.

However, I say again, because it is important, that we established—I think with the support of Richard Leonard and his colleagues—the homelessness action group, which is composed of a range of experts, and asked it specifically to look at recommendations that it wants to make. Those will be the kinds of things that the action group is looking at and they may well form part of the recommendations that it puts forward. I give a commitment today that we will take forward the action group’s recommendations when they come forward in the spring, as we did with its interim recommendations towards the end of last year.

Richard Leonard rightly talks about the experiences of anybody who is living rough or without a home in weather conditions like this. I note that the Scottish Government social media channels have circulated details of a range of organisations that are there to help now, and I encourage all members to use their own methods to get that information out there as widely as possible.

There are a couple of constituency supplementary questions.

Skye (Infrastructure)

The First Minister will be aware of last summer’s challenges at various sites on Skye when tourists came to see why the constituency that I represent is the most beautiful in Scotland. What is the Scottish Government doing to invest in improved infrastructure at key sites such as the Fairy Pools, the Quiraing and Neist Point?

We should be very proud that so many people choose to come to Scotland to enjoy our beautiful scenery and attractions, if not always our weather. Tourism is a vital industry for Scotland and we should continue to support its growth. However, we recognise that an increase in visitor numbers can lead to pressure on local infrastructure, which is why last year we announced the rural tourism infrastructure funding. I am delighted that Fiona Hyslop, the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, has today announced three pilot projects for the fund, including two on Skye: the Fairy Pools will receive up to £300,000 to develop visitor facilities and Neist Point lighthouse will receive £100,000 for work to improve road access and parking. Those grants are in addition to £300,000 that was announced by Highland Council on Monday for road and parking improvements at the Fairy Pools and the Quiraing hiking destination.

Aviation Industry (Support)

The First Minister will be aware that Ryanair announced this week that it will close its fixed-base operations at Glasgow airport. Some estimates have put the figure for job losses in the hundreds. That will come as a huge blow to Glasgow and the west of Scotland and will have a negative effect on Scotland’s connectivity with regard to trade and tourism. What action is the Scottish Government taking to assist the people who are directly or indirectly affected by the decision? Although Ryanair’s decision is a commercial one, what levers does the SNP Government have at its disposal to better support the aviation industry in Scotland, including commitments that were made in its manifesto?

I regret Ryanair’s announcement earlier this week. As it would in any circumstance, the Scottish Government will work with any employee who is affected by the announcement, although many of the services will transfer from Glasgow to Edinburgh and there will be employment opportunities through that, as members are aware. The Government works hard with a range of airlines to improve connectivity from all our airports, and we will continue to do so.

We want to move forward with our manifesto commitment on airport departure tax; the reasons why it has been delayed, and the issues around the Highlands and Islands exemption, have been well rehearsed in the Parliament. It is slightly rich to be asked that question by a member of the party that does not support our proposal on ADT. The Conservatives have said that they would support reduction of ADT on long-haul flights, which is not the proposal that Ryanair would want. I hope that we can see progress on ADT, but if parties want to see progress they will have to support it in the chamber.

Worker Safety (Weather Conditions)

On behalf of the Scottish Green Party, I add our thanks to those people who are keeping Scotland safe and working to make sure that our transport infrastructure, emergency services and services throughout our communities respond to the current weather situation.

The First Minister said that employers have serious responsibilities not to put pressure on people to travel unsafely. Does she agree that such pressure comes not only from employers asking people to go to work? No employee should have to choose whether to travel unsafely or lose pay by staying at home and staying safe. Given the prevalence of casualised work, zero-hours contracts and the gig economy, does the Fist Minister agree that no employer should put an employee in the position of losing pay in order to stay safe?

I strongly agree with that point. I take this opportunity, as I did earlier, to urge and call on employers to be flexible and, above all else, to make sure that they put the safety of their workers first, above anything else.

It is really important to point out, for the benefit of not just employers but the wider general public, that red or amber weather warnings such as those that have been issued in recent days are issued not for the sake of convenience but for the safety of the public—particularly the travelling public. We all have a responsibility to do what we can to ensure that the warnings are heeded—and that very definitely includes employers.

Of course there are parts of the workforce—I mention the health workforce in particular—whom we want to support to get to work, and those workers experience the same challenges that anyone else experiences. There are lots of health board staff and volunteers across the country right now who are deploying 4x4 vehicles, for example, to get nurses, doctors and other healthcare workers into hospitals and health centres.

Employers must make sure that they act in a way that prioritises the safety of their staff at all times. I hope that that is a message that goes out loudly and clearly today.

I am grateful for the First Minister’s comments. As with previous similar situations, I hope very much that public sector employers will be exemplary in their treatment not only of directly employed staff but agency and contractor staff.

My second question is on the issues that we will discuss today in relation to the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill. We believe that the introduction of the bill—the alternative Brexit bill, which the Scottish Government has introduced in this Parliament—is a necessary response to the Brexit crisis.

One of the criticisms that the Scottish National Party has rightly levelled at the United Kingdom Government is about the UK Government’s inflexibility and unwillingness to amend the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. Will the First Minister give the Parliament an assurance that when Opposition members propose changes to the Scottish bill, to improve it and to strengthen scrutiny and accountability, the Government will work with members who propose amendments, rather than against them?

I am happy to give that assurance. As Patrick Harvie knows, following First Minister’s question time, the Parliament will debate the timetable for the continuity bill. I do not want to pre-empt the debate that we will have, but, clearly, we are not in control of the overall timetable for Brexit and we have to act in a way that protects the interests of the Parliament—hence the proposed emergency timetable for the bill.

Even within the emergency timetable, we want to work with other members across Parliament and to listen to concerns and suggestions for how the bill can be improved, if it needs to be improved. I am happy to give that open assurance.

I repeat that we introduced the continuity bill this week because that was something that we required to do to protect the interests of the Parliament; it does not mean that we have given up on seeking an agreement with the UK Government. We will continue to do that.

However, at the heart of the discussions with the UK Government is an important principle: do we allow a situation in which a UK Government can impose situations on this Parliament in devolved matters, or do we insist that, in devolved matters, that cannot be done without the consent of this Parliament? That is a really important issue of principle, and this Government will not recommend that the Parliament consent to any legislation that undermines the fundamental basis of devolution in that way.

University Pensions

I thank the workers who are operating in these extreme weather conditions. I am sure that all members present are grateful for their efforts.

University lecturers are on strike. Lecturers are not well paid and it is surely not fair that their pensions should be cut by £10,000 a year under the proposed changes. It has been suggested that the United Kingdom and Scottish Governments should step in to underwrite the pension scheme and protect the pensions. Scottish universities are the responsibility of the Scottish Government, so will the First Minister agree to the proposal to underwrite the scheme, to stop the strike and protect the pensions of university staff?

As I am sure that Willie Rennie is aware, universities are autonomous institutions. It is not possible for the Scottish Government to dictate to them on issues such as this one, although we can—and very often do—encourage them to act in particular ways. Also, the pension scheme to which Willie Rennie refers is not a Scottish Government-funded pension scheme. It is important to put those two points on the record.

Having said all that, I absolutely understand and sympathise with the position that university lecturers and staff are taking. I understand that Shirley-Anne Somerville has written to university principals. We will continue to encourage dialogue about and settlement of the issues, so that the people who do such a good job in our universities are treated fairly, as they have a right to expect.

I understand the points that the First Minister makes, but I point out that the Scottish Government already backs the pensions of post-1992 universities, so it would not be an unusual step.

We have world-class universities in Scotland. They are worth £7 billion to our economy and drive innovation and research, but they are already under pressure from Brexit, which threatens our ability to attract world-class staff from overseas. By underwriting their pensions, the Scottish Government, working together with the UK Government, can retain and attract the best Scottish and overseas staff. That is why we need to take action on pensions now. I encourage the First Minister to start work on the issue. There are 14 days of strike action over a hit of £10,000 to pensions each year. I think that the issue is important and I am sure that the First Minister does, too. Will she take up the idea and start the negotiations?

In the interests of consensus, I say that I will of course consider the points that Willie Rennie has made. We will discuss, where relevant and appropriate, any such issue with the United Kingdom Government.

However, I want to make this really important point: it is the responsibility of universities to resolve the matter, and I would expect to see universities resolve it. We have just passed a budget that gives universities a real-terms increase in their budgets. As Willie Rennie said, universities are responsible for setting the salaries of their principals, for example, so we should expect our universities to resolve the issue in the interests of the staff who work for them.

The Scottish Government will continue to take a close interest in the issue and it will encourage dialogue that will lead to resolution. I will of course consider any points are raised with me in the chamber, including the ones that Willie Rennie has just made. However, none of us should miss the central point that we should be looking to universities to resolve the issue.

We have some further supplementaries.

Adverse Weather Conditions

The First Minister has already given a helpful statement on the adverse weather, and she spoke further on the matter in response to Patrick Harvie’s question.

Yesterday, on the M80 in my region, there were tailbacks of up to 8 miles—at one point, there were around 1,000 vehicles in below-freezing conditions. On television last night, Humza Yousaf, the Minister for Transport and the Islands, highlighted the particular responsibility of hauliers, because hundreds of lorries were causing a lot of the problems. Today, we have heard about the responsibility that employers have. However, apart from sending out a message to be flexible, what particular conversations is the transport minister having with the industry to ensure that people are being kept safe and that they are not taking unnecessary risks?

Monica Lennon raises an important issue. I will be quite blunt here. As members would expect, over the course of yesterday afternoon and into the evening, I was paying close attention to the live cameras on the M80. To be absolutely frank, there were far more heavy goods vehicles on that road than there should have been when a red warning was in place. I think that we have to be extremely clear in the message that we are sending to companies that deliver goods using HGVs. This is not a criticism of drivers, because driver safety is one of the important issues, but during a red weather warning, an HGV should not be on a trunk road unless it is absolutely unavoidable. Given the branding on some of the HGVs that I saw pictures of yesterday, I would struggle to say that their journeys were unavoidable. That message should go out strongly from the chamber to companies that use HGVs during weather conditions such as those that we are currently experiencing.

Time for Inclusive Education

This week marks the first anniversary of the majority of MSPs from across all parties pledging their support for the time for inclusive education campaign. The longer that we wait to address the issue, the longer that lesbian, gay, bi, trans and intersex young people who do not attend trailblazing schools such as Dumbarton academy and the Vale of Leven academy in my region will have to experience education and school environments that are not inclusive, do not recognise their identity and give way to bullying, harassment and worse.

Will the Government commit to implementing the recommendations that are being worked up by the LGBTI inclusive education working group at the earliest possible opportunity?

Previously in the chamber, I have expressed my support for the TIE campaign and its objectives, and I do so again today. In a sense, the answer was included in the latter part of Ross Greer’s question. There is a working group that includes representatives of the TIE campaign and, in due course, it will come forward with conclusions and recommendations. The Scottish Government certainly looks forward to receiving those and taking them forward.

European Union (Withdrawal) Bill Negotiations

What are the next steps for negotiations on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill? At this stage, is the First Minister hopeful for a resolution that respects devolution around the United Kingdom?

As I indicated to Patrick Harvie, we continue to seek agreement with the UK Government. There will be further discussions next week and a meeting of the joint ministerial committee in plenary session in mid-March—on 14 March, to be precise—and I hope that we can reach agreement.

It is very important that people understand the issue that is at stake. The distance between the two Governments has been described as being very short and, from one way of looking at it, that might be true. However, there is an important issue of principle, and it is not a situation in which we each have our positions and can meet in the middle in some vague way. It is a fundamental issue of principle. The latest proposals from the UK Government would involve consultation with the Scottish Parliament and the other devolved Administrations on issues that are part of our responsibility. Consultation is not enough; the consent of the Scottish Parliament should be required.

I hope that the UK Government will finally agree to abide by that principle. If it does, we will have agreement, the continuity bill can be withdrawn and we can, hopefully, get to a position in which we recommend consent to the withdrawal bill. I hope that members across all parties in the chamber recognise that no Government or First Minister worth their salt could recommend to a Scottish Parliament that it approve legislation that undermines the basic principles on which our Parliament is founded.

Scottish National Investment Bank

To ask the First Minister what progress has been made on the creation of a Scottish national investment bank. (S5F-02097)

I was delighted to attend the launch yesterday of the Scottish national investment bank implementation plan, a copy of which is winging its way to Ruth Davidson as we speak. Developed by the chief executive officer of Tesco Bank, Benny Higgins, with the support of an advisory group, the plan contains recommendations for the Scottish ministers that cover the remit, the governance, the operating model and the financing of the new bank. That significant milestone takes us one step closer to establishing a publicly owned Scottish national investment bank, and I very much look forward to doing so.

It is clear to those of us who understand the investment landscape and the need for patient finance that the scope and scale of the Scottish national investment bank means that it will fulfil a very different need from that which is met by Scottish Enterprise’s current investment support activities. What types of businesses will be supported by the national investment bank? In particular, how might small innovative businesses, such as those in my Glasgow Provan constituency, benefit?

As the implementation plan recommends, the bank will be mission driven. It will not be sector specific but will be designed to be transformational in the Scottish economy to help us address some of the big societal challenges that we face, such as, for example, the transition to a low-carbon economy. I know that there are many small and medium-sized companies—including, no doubt, in Ivan McKee’s constituency—that will benefit from that.

The recommendations are that the bank will be publicly owned, although it will operate independently in a strategic framework that is set by Government, and mission driven; that it will operate ethically; and that it will have a capitalisation over the first 10 years of at least £2 billion. Yesterday, I gave our acceptance to some of the key recommendations; there are other points of detail that require closer scrutiny, which we will now do. We will formally respond to Benny Higgins’s report in May, at which point I hope that the Parliament will have a full debate on the issue.

Nurses (Training and Recruitment)

6. Rachael Hamilton (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to train and recruit more nurses. (S5F-02086)

We have committed to training an additional 2,600 nurses by the end of this parliamentary session. On 31 January, we announced a 10.8 per cent increase in intakes to pre-registration nursing and midwifery programmes for 2018-19, which is an extra 364 places. That is the sixth successive rise in the number of places and equates to 3,724 entry places in total for the year. In contrast to the Westminster Government, we have retained bursaries and free tuition for nursing and midwifery students. Both were scrapped in England and, as a result, the number of English applicants to nursing courses has plummeted by 23 per cent.

We are also extending and increasing successful initiatives that bring former nurses and midwives back into practice. To date, almost 450 former registrants have taken up the opportunity to retrain, which exceeds our initial target.

First, I pay tribute to the front-line workers battling through the adverse weather conditions today to keep our services open across Scotland.

National health service recruitment issues began long before Brexit, despite what the First Minister would like to believe. Between 2009 and 2012, the number of training places for nurses and midwives was slashed by more than 20 per cent. The knock-on effect is that vacancies have increased by 600 in 2011 to nearly 3,000 at the end of last year. When will the Scottish National Party Government accept that it is responsible for the crisis and implement adequate workforce planning?

Of course staffing challenges existed before Brexit, but there is no doubt that they have been hugely exacerbated by Brexit. It is because we have been aware of the need to support staffing in our NHS that we have taken action to get us to the stage where NHS staffing is at a record high. There has been a 9.8 per cent increase from September 2006, and qualified nurses and midwives staffing levels are up by more than 5 per cent.

As I said in my initial answer, we are training more nurses and we have set a target to reach by the end of this session of Parliament. We have just announced an almost 11 per cent increase in intakes and we are doing a range of other things to make sure that we get nurses and midwives into our health service.

It beggars belief for a member of the Tory party to stand up in this chamber and lecture anybody else when, in England, that same party has abolished bursaries and is presiding over a reduction of 23 per cent in applicants to nursing courses.

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests. What steps can the Scottish Government take to ensure that, after Brexit, we retain the European Union national nurses who staff our hospitals and community services and to assure them that they are very welcome in Scotland’s national health service?

We greatly value the contribution that EU migrants make to our NHS and to our economy and society more generally. Last year, we announced that the Scottish Government will pay a settled status fee for any EU citizen working in the public sector in Scotland, which will help us to keep vital workers in the NHS and public services. I hope that that sends a clear to EU nationals that we welcome them, that we value them and that we want them to stay here. In the longer term, the case for this Parliament to have flexibility over migration policy is overwhelming and compelling. I hope that we will see that case made right across the chamber and broader society, too.

I, too, thank all our NHS, social care and emergency service personnel for their service to our citizens at this challenging time.

When Nicola Sturgeon was health secretary, she took the decision to cut the number of training places for nurses. At the time, the Royal College of Nursing said that that would put at risk the ability to meet the demand in our national health service. This week, we have learned that nursing vacancies are at record levels, with almost 3,000 nursing vacancies now compared with only 600 in 2011.

Our NHS workforce is overworked, undervalued and underresourced. That is now impacting on patient care, with one in five patients not getting their diagnosis in time and one in five patients not getting their treatment in time. That includes cancer patients. Will the First Minister take this opportunity to apologise to Scotland for her decision to cut nurse training positions and the impact that that has had on our NHS and its patients?

Again, I point out that, under this Government, from the time we took office, we have seen an increase in the NHS workforce of almost 10 per cent. The NHS workforce is now at a record high. As I have said, we will always take decisions that are right for that workforce. For six successive years, we have increased nurses going into training, and will continue to support the nursing workforce and the wider health workforce in that way. I think that that is something that everybody in the chamber should seek to support.

Substance Misuse (Ayrshire)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s position is on the dangers of teenagers in Ayrshire ingesting substances purporting to be the drug MDMA. (S5F-02098)

The Scottish Government strongly advises against the use of any illegal or unknown substances. I urge anyone who feels unwell after taking any substance to seek immediate medical attention. I understand that the children who Kenny Gibson referred to were released from hospital the next day and I am sure that we all wish them a speedy recovery. Police Scotland is awaiting the results of toxicology tests to determine the exact nature of the substance that was ingested. Although the incident is clearly a cause for concern, it is also important to point out that the 2015 Scottish schools adolescent lifestyle and substance use survey—SALSUS—of drug-taking behaviour among young people shows that the vast majority of young people have never used drugs.

The First Minister will recall that, in October 2016, nine people died in Saltcoats due to the ingestion of fake Valium pills. The MDMA pills that affected the six Ayrshire teenagers last weekend are believed to be red, green or brown and bear an owl logo. I know that the First Minister will join me in urging parents and everyone else to be vigilant and report any sightings of such pills to Police Scotland, which is working hard to seize such drugs, prevent their use and save lives. Can the First Minister provide details of what further steps are being taken to combat the specific MDMA threat?

Police Scotland is providing a public safety message via local and social media advising parents and guardians to talk to their children about the dangers of taking drugs. Educating young people about those threats is vital. For example, the Ayrshire police division works with local young people in recovery to produce a film for use in schools that highlights the dangers of drugs, alcohol and weapon carrying. Nationally, the know the score website and helpline ensure that all young people in Scotland have credible and accessible information and advice on drugs.

It is important that we continue to take those kinds of steps to ensure that young people have the education and information that they need. As I said earlier, although incidents such as the one that Kenny Gibson raised are hugely concerning, we must also point to the fact that the vast majority of young people do not ever take drugs. The focus of all the work that we do should be to ensure that that continues to be the case.