Meeting date: Thursday, October 1, 2020
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 01 October 2020
Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Forensic Medical Services (Victims of Sexual Offences) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Forensic Medical Services (Victims of Sexual Offences) (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Portfolio Question Time
- Forensic Medical Services (Victims of Sexual Offences) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1
- Forensic Medical Services (Victims of Sexual Offences) (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution
- Business Motion
- Parliamentary Bureau Motion
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
Good afternoon, colleagues. We will begin First Minister’s questions shortly, but before we do, the First Minster will give an update on the Covid-19 situation.
I will give a short update on the daily statistics. The total number of positive cases reported yesterday is 668, which is 10.8 per cent of people who were newly tested yesterday. That takes the total number of confirmed cases to 29,912. Two hundred and forty-four of those new cases are in Greater Glasgow and Clyde, 166 are in Lothian and 123 are in Lanarkshire. The remaining 135 are spread across nine other health board areas.
There are 154 people in hospital as of today, which is an increase of 15 from yesterday; I point out to the chamber that that is also an increase of 70 since I updated the chamber at this time last week. There are 17 people in intensive care, which is an increase of two since yesterday, and I regret to report that, in the past 24 hours, three additional deaths have been registered of patients who first tested positive for Covid in the previous 28 days. The total number of deaths under that daily measurement is now 2,522. Of course, I offer my condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one.
We will shortly publish our latest estimate of the R number, which we do every Thursday. The estimate confirms our view that the R number is currently above 1 and possibly as high as 1.7. That partly reflects the impact of the outbreaks that we have seen in the past two weeks, including in student accommodation, but as a point of perspective it is also worth stressing that, because that estimate, as the R number always does, relies on past data, it does not yet take account of any impact of the new measures that we announced last week.
However, all the figures that I have just reported demonstrate why we announced those measures last week, because it is imperative that we get the virus back under control. Those figures also explain why I will confirm to the chamber today, as I gave an indication of last week, that we are postponing the route map changes for which we had previously given an indicative date of 5 October. I hope members agree that it would not be sensible to ease the restrictions that are still in place while infection rates are rising and we are working to bring them back down. We will review those restrictions again by 15 October. However, if we need to take further action before that to curb the spread of the virus, we will not hesitate to do so, but we would of course report that to Parliament.
For the moment, the key way of bringing the virus back under control is for all of us to stick to the current rules and guidance. I will round off by briefly setting out what we are all being asked to do. With some limited exceptions, nobody should be visiting each other’s homes at the moment. When we are outdoors, or in indoor public places, we must not meet in groups of any more than six people from a maximum of two households. We are also asking everyone to work from home if possible, not to car share unless essential and to download the Protect Scotland app. More than 1.3 million of us have now done that and I can advise the chamber that the app has already notified more than 2,000 people of the need to self-isolate, some of whom would not otherwise have been contact traced at all.
Finally, I urge everybody to remember FACTS: face coverings; avoid crowded places; clean hands and hard surfaces; keep 2m distance; and self-isolate and book a test if you experience any of the symptoms of Covid.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to provide the update, Presiding Officer.
Thank you, First Minster. I remind members that I will continue the approach of taking all the supplementary questions after question 7, but feel free to press your request-to-speak button should you have a constituency or a general open supplementary at any point.
Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints (Request for Material)
In January 2019, the First Minister said that the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints, also referred to as the Salmond inquiry,
“will be able to request whatever material they want, and I undertake today that we will provide whatever material they request.”—[Official Report, 17 January 2019; c 14.]
The inquiry has requested material and the Government has rejected the request. What has made the First Minister break her word?
I take those matters and the inquiry very seriously, as all of us should. That is not an accurate characterisation of the position.
As I understand it—and I will come back in a second to say why I am couching it in that way—the only material that has not been provided by the Scottish Government is material about which there is a legal reason why it cannot be provided. That includes the issue of legal privilege, which all organisations must have regard to.
As I understand it—and this information is publicly available—more than 1,000 pages of material have been made available by the Government, and Government officials have so far given more than 10 hours of oral evidence. The Government has intimated to the committee that it intends to initiate legal proceedings to try to get to a position where it can make more material available that it cannot currently make available due to legal restrictions. All of what I have just said is in the public domain.
I have recused myself from making decisions about the Scottish Government’s submissions—I advised Parliament of that back at the outset. The reason for that is very simple and absolutely right: part of the remit of the committee is to look at my conduct. I think that it would be wrong if I was the minister taking decisions about the content of Scottish Government submissions. I am prepared to bet that, if I was in that position, Ruth Davidson and others would be standing here saying that that was deeply wrong and improper.
I turn to my position. I am interested in putting the facts out here. I am not sure how much of what I am about to say is understood by those who are not on the committee. The committee has been in possession of substantial written evidence from me for two months now. That has not been published, which is entirely the committee’s decision. However, it is a bit galling for me to hear Conservative members of the committee say that somehow I am not answering questions. I also stand ready to give oral evidence to the committee at any point it chooses to call me. I have not yet been invited to give oral evidence to the committee.
Any accusations that I am somehow not co-operating with the committee have no substance at all. I have done everything that the committee has asked of me and I will continue to do so because I respect the committee’s process. I am starting to think that that may be the difference between me and Conservative members.
I know that the Nicola Sturgeon who is First Minister likes to pretend that she is not the Nicola Sturgeon who is also leader of the Scottish National Party, but I struggle to believe that the Nicola Sturgeon who committed to the chamber 18 months ago to give the inquiry whatever material it requested from her Government is the same Nicola Sturgeon who stands here today saying, “I’ve recused myself and it’s nothing to do with me, guv.”
The First Minister did say something that was correct, which was that we saw something utterly unprecedented yesterday. The convener of a committee of this Parliament was forced to write to the courts to get access to documents that it needs because Scottish Government ministers refuse to hand them all over. She has been forced to do so because, in her words:
“We had hoped to be in a position to hear further oral evidence, but with responses still outstanding from the Scottish Government, the chief executive of the SNP and the former First minister, all of this means that we simply cannot proceed at this stage.”
Two of those demands fall directly within the gift of the First Minister, who is head of the Scottish Government and leader of the SNP. She could ensure with a snap of her fingers that the evidence is provided. Why will she not do so?
It is interesting that the letter from the committee’s convener seeks the court’s permission to publish material. The Scottish Government had already intimated to the committee that it was going to initiate legal proceedings in order to put itself in a position where it can provide material that it cannot currently provide because of legal restrictions. The Scottish Government actually wants and intends to do exactly that.
The material that has not been provided is material that cannot be provided for one legal reason or another. Other than that, and as I have said, 1,000 or more pages of material and 10 hours of oral evidence by Scottish Government officials have already been given.
It is important, for a variety of reasons, to take the committee seriously. Regarding my role as party leader, a request for evidence was made to the SNP. That is all in the public domain and can be found on the committee’s website. That request was acceded to and evidence was given by the deadline that the committee set. People can go and read the request and the answers that were given. The committee made further requests and did not put a deadline on those, but that material is currently being prepared. The idea that the Scottish Government or the SNP is trying to obstruct the committee bears no scrutiny whatsoever.
I come back to this point: I was asked to give evidence to the committee in a personal capacity and I did that two months ago when I gave substantial written evidence to it. It is not down to me that that has not been published yet. I stand ready at any time—today, next week, the week after that—to turn up at the committee and give evidence to it orally. I have not had an invitation to do that yet.
When I said earlier that I suspected some of the Conservatives’ motives here, I was met with a cry of “That’s outrageous!” I will say why I fear that what I said is the case. I have given that written evidence and stand ready to give oral evidence when I am invited to do so. However, despite presumably knowing that, a Conservative member of the committee issues almost every week political comment to the effect that I am not answering questions. It starts to sound to me like it does not matter to the Conservatives what evidence any of us gives: they have already made up their minds about the outcome that they want the committee to have.
And yet the funny thing is that the question that I asked her related to a quote from the SNP convener of that committee, so I do not think that it is just a party-political issue.
If the Scottish Government is not going to fully co-operate with the inquiry, and if the First Minister is not going to keep her word that she will “provide whatever material” the committee requests, I am afraid that she leaves us no option but to come here and ask questions directly to her face. I will therefore ask her one.
In recent days, private messages purporting to come from the SNP’s chief executive, Peter Murrell, have been published in the media. The messages say that it is a
“good time to be pressurising”
the police, and
“TBH the more fronts he is having to firefight on the better for all complainers.”
In this case, “he” is Alex Salmond.
We do not know whether those messages actually come from the SNP chief executive, but they were passed to the committee, and it deserves answers. I directly ask the First Minister, who is also the leader of the SNP: are those messages genuine or not?
As I understand it, the obtaining of those messages—and the passing of them to the committee; it appears to me that when they were passed to the committee, they were immediately leaked to the media—is currently a matter of police investigation.
I am happy to answer any questions before that committee that it wants to ask. People are saying answer—the committee has not asked me. I am not standing here—and I do not think that it is reasonable—to be asked questions about things that other people might or might not have done. Call the people who the messages are purported to come from and ask them the questions; call me and I will answer for myself.
The issue here is that the committee can convene this afternoon and I will answer questions about my conduct before that committee. It is outrageous that I am in a position right now of having given written evidence to the committee two months ago that has not been published—that is not down to me. I have not been invited to give evidence to the committee, yet I am somehow being accused of not being prepared to answer questions and, in Parliament, being expected to answer on behalf of other people. If people want to take this seriously, treat the committee process with respect and take it seriously.
My understanding is that the police inquiry is about how the SNP’s former justice minister received the messages. That does not preclude the First Minister from saying whether they are genuine—she knows that.
Throughout this affair, the First Minister’s excuse has been that she can swap hats whenever it suits her: Nicola Sturgeon who leads the SNP is not the same person as Nicola Sturgeon who runs the Scottish Government. That is complete nonsense and hides the truth, which is the shabby abuse of power that this affair has revealed.
We have the head of the civil service having to be recalled to the inquiry because she cannot remember or will not answer key questions; a tranche of Government emails related to the inquiry deleted; committee hearings having to be suspended because they cannot continue due to obstruction; and a committee chairwoman having to write to the courts to get information that the First Minister promised 18 months ago she would undertake to provide.
Two years ago, Nicola Sturgeon told the media with regards to the Salmond case:
“I ... relish the prospect to answer all and every question”.
On today’s performance, the question is, when is she going to start?
Okay. I have not been invited to give evidence to the committee, so here—[Interruption.] Here it is: I will turn up to the committee next week and give evidence, if the committee invites me.
I gave written evidence to the committee, meeting its deadline, two months ago. That has not been published. Let me be very clear: I respect the committee’s right to decide what it publishes and when, but I cannot be held responsible for the fact that the evidence that I have submitted has not yet been published. I cannot be held responsible for the fact that the committee has not yet invited me to give evidence. I am trying to respect the process of the committee. The committee can call me any time that it likes. I will turn up on the date and at the committee room, as the committee asks, and I will give evidence to it. It has not yet asked me to do so.
Covid-19 (Guidance to Universities)
Yesterday, the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science told Parliament that
“we decided that asking”
students to all
“stay at home and begin their courses online would have inflicted significant harm on them”.—[Official Report, 30 September 2020; c 24.]
This morning, I spoke to Adam, who is a first-year drama student in Glasgow. He told me that he has been there for a week and a half, that he has spoken to only two people in his class and that he cannot access the rehearsal space in his accommodation. Last night, on the BBC, a student nurse who worked for five and a half months on a Covid ward described how she is now having to isolate in a 6 foot by 8 foot room. Does the First Minister really think that those students are better off than they would have been if they were studying from home?
That is a really difficult matter to judge, to be honest, because I think that people will suffer detriment whatever decision is taken. That is the nature of all the decisions that we are taking around Covid right now. Every day, I am conscious that when we take a decision to try to reduce harm in one area, there is the potential for us to create harm in another area. We make the best balanced judgements that we can make.
We have sought to ensure—Governments across the United Kingdom and many other parts of the world have reached the same decisions—that we give as many young people as possible the opportunity to have some normality in their university or college education, while taking important steps to mitigate the risk of transmission of the virus.
People can argue—it is not illegitimate to do so—that we should have just kept everyone at home, but harm would have been done to students by doing that. They would have been denied the opportunity to make the links and connections that come with being in a campus environment, because university is about more than lectures and academic learning.
We put in place substantial guidance to make sure that universities take the right steps, and we continue to work with universities to ensure that that is the case. The welfare of students should, at this point, be universities’ paramount interest, so we continue to liaise with them closely to make sure that that is the case.
Let us talk about the decision-making process. The First Minister mentioned “substantial guidance”. It is substantial; in the past seven days, students have been given three different sets of guidance, all from different people and all through multiple channels. While students were being asked and advised to act by the Government, some were being threatened with expulsion and fines by their universities. This past week has been a lesson in how not to communicate during a pandemic.
Yesterday, The Times reported that draft guidance that was prepared by the Scottish Government on 30 August for student accommodation gave an instruction to universities that
“Work and study that can be done remotely must be done so.”
That would have compelled universities to allow most students to work from home. However, when the formal guidance was published on 1 September, that phrase had been removed. That was not, as the First Minster has insisted, simply a “change of wording”; it was a fundamental change in the guidance.
The National Union of Students Scotland says that students should be studying from home, and university staff say that most students should be studying from home. Who were the stakeholders whom the Government consulted and agreed the change with? Why, exactly, was the change made in the space of just 48 hours?
The draft guidance and the final guidance both contemplated a form of blended learning—some work being done remotely online at home and some being done physically face-to-face on campus. As I said the other day, the piece in The Times quoted the first paragraph of the draft guidance but not the next part. It said that where work and study cannot be done from home, physical distancing must be followed. It went on to set out measures that universities need to take in relation to physical distancing, cleanliness, hygiene and other matters. Therefore, it was always envisaged that there would be a form of blended learning.
That point gets to the heart of the matter. I am pretty sure that if the Scottish Government had decided that no student should return to their university campus, some people would have said that that was outrageous and that we were denying students the opportunity to access learning.
We therefore take balanced decisions. In dealing with the pandemic, no decisions can be made categorically one way or the other; we are trying to strike the right balance in a very difficult situation. Of course, in any circumstance in which students—or any other people—are in physical proximity to one another, a wide range of mitigating measures need to be taken. That is what the guidance, in both its draft and final forms, sets out
I will make a final point. Richard Leonard talked about discipline and punishment. The Government and I could not have been clearer that the advice applies to the general population. Of course, in any situation such as this we have to have enforcement measures as a backstop. However, we should all be supporting each other to do the right things. Students should not be blamed or disciplined unless they flagrantly breach the rules. There should be a supportive environment, which is what we have been encouraging universities to provide.
My very final point is on the fact that different bits of guidance have been issued. In a situation such as this, any Government that comes up with a position to which it sticks rigidly, regardless of the need to adapt to changing circumstances is, frankly, not doing its job properly. We need to ensure that we support people in difficult situations, and that we try to build in as much flexibility as possible, which is what we will continue to do.
A trail of confusion has been left behind. In the past week, that confusion has not only been about the rules for students, but about the lack of due process in the Scottish Government’s approach.
The guidance that was agreed between the Scottish Government and the universities blurred the lines between mere advice and harsher—even criminal—sanctions. That is a worrying trend. Since the need for local and targeted restrictions has arisen, new rules have, increasingly, been announced via late-night press releases, Twitter and television interviews. So far, Parliament has not had an opportunity to give its consent to local restrictions unless they have already expired. That is no way to govern. Parliament is supposed to provide checks and balances on Government power. Without those, we risk having a real democratic deficit.
In the past 24 hours, there has been a suggestion that the Government is considering the introduction of a two-week lockdown to act as a circuit breaker. Does the First Minister accept that such a move would require the consent of Parliament? Will she agree to bring future regulations to a parliamentary vote before they are imposed?
Yes. I give an undertaking that, where possible, we will seek to bring matters to Parliament in advance. [Interruption.]
With the greatest of respect to members across the chamber, I point out that we are dealing with an infectious virus. Therefore, we must at times act quickly and flexibly—for example, if sudden spikes or outbreaks put people’s health and lives at risk. It is important that the Government has that flexibility.
The restrictions that have been made under regulations are reviewed every three weeks, at which points I have come to the chamber to report to members. The coronavirus legislation has to be reviewed periodically; that process is under way right now. I agree that we need, as we move into a different phase in our response, to build in more—and earlier—parliamentary scrutiny. I happily undertake to do so, because such scrutiny is important and welcome.
However, I say to members across the chamber that it is also important that Governments are able to act quickly in order to protect the population from the threat of the virus. If Richard Leonard thinks that particular restrictions that we have put in place are wrong, perhaps he should get up now and tell us which ones those are. This is not a criticism, but I point out that, every three weeks, when I have stood here and outlined the decisions that the Scottish Government has been making, he has usually stood up and said that he agreed with them.
I am happy for there to be parliamentary scrutiny, but in the hurly-burly of politics, let us not forget that we are dealing with a virus, or that we have an obligation to protect the public from it as best we can.
Today’s Scotsman revealed that, in the midst of the pandemic, one of NHS Scotland’s Covid testing labs closed because it was not being used. That happened while the First Minister was rejecting Scottish Green calls for weekly testing for national health service staff and carers on the front line—a proposal that was backed by the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, the Royal College of Nursing and Scottish Care.
Not deploying testing to its fullest to help to control the virus is clearly a policy choice. Although the World Health Organization has been clear from the start that we need to test, test, test, the Scottish Government has chosen not to follow the WHO but to take its own approach. Can the First Minister explain why she does not agree with the WHO and why her Government allowed a testing lab to close down?
Both issues are related, but I will address them in turn. We test in line with clinical advice. We have massively increased the numbers and the groups that we are testing, but we take advice on when it is right and effective to test people and when it is less effective to do so. We will continue to do that when making those decisions. Of course we have to have the capacity to implement a testing strategy, but the decisions that we make about testing are driven by the clinical efficacy and the advice on that.
The laboratory was activated during the early stages of the pandemic because we did not, at that point, have the NHS capacity. The laboratory was activated while we were building that NHS capacity; it was never designed to be a permanent provision. The daily capacity in NHS Lothian has more than doubled since the lab was activated—that is, since the beginning of April. That means that labs such as that one can return to the important research work that they had been doing and which they want to return to.
We are also developing regional hubs, which will give us longer-term, sustainable, additional NHS capacity, including in Lothian. We are building the NHS capacity so that some of the provision that was used in the early stages can return to its original purposes.
Obviously, it is not either/or. The fact of the matter is that we could have been doing 1,000 more tests a day and the First Minister will be aware that inadequate testing was available for when the schools returned in August, which we now know was avoidable.
The University of Cambridge has offered all undergraduate and postgraduate students living in university accommodation a weekly Covid test, regardless of whether they show symptoms. That is because the university wants to break the chains of infection before symptoms appear. A similar asymptomatic testing service for students and staff is being delivered by the University of Nottingham.
Instead of relying on the failed privatised United Kingdom testing system, those universities have taken things into their own hands to keep their staff and students safe, but that is not happening in Scotland. The Scottish Government continues to follow an old, outdated testing strategy that is based largely on testing only those with symptoms. Can the First Minister explain why her Government has allowed Scottish universities to fall behind when it comes to testing? What will her Government do to establish regular testing for university staff and students?
The testing strategy that we follow is kept under review all the time and is updated in line with clinical advice when that is appropriate. There are differences of clinical opinion and scientific opinion about the efficacy of asymptomatic testing. In particularly vulnerable settings such as care homes, we now test many more people who are asymptomatic; care home workers are the obvious example of that.
The clinical advice right now is that in universities we should be focusing on testing those with symptoms so that positive cases can be identified and contact tracing can be done to break those chains of transmission. We have established walk-through sites in university settings; in the past week, almost 4,000 tests have been conducted in those walk-through sites alone in order to identify positive cases.
We continue to look at when and how we expand our testing and it is important that, as we make those decisions and as those decisions are rightly and legitimately scrutinised, we do not confuse the capacity and the issue of how we process the tests with the clinical decisions that determine who we test and for what purposes. We will continue to keep that strategy under review and it will be informed by the best possible clinical advice.
Care Homes (Family Visits)
“She cries to us, she’s terrified of being alone, she’s distraught and she’s almost 94. Our hearts are breaking and mum’s spirit is broken.”
No one is saying that the First Minister does not care about residents who are isolated from their families in care homes. Yesterday, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport said that she was having more discussions on the issue tomorrow, but I am sure that the First Minister will understand my frustration, given that that is what she told me two weeks ago. More discussions will take more time, and time is precious for these people. When will families get to see their loved ones?
I do care. We all care deeply about the issue. Among a whole series of tough decisions that Governments everywhere are having to take right now, the decisions on that issue are probably the toughest. On the one hand, I desperately want families of residents in care homes to have normal visiting; on the other hand, I desperately want to do everything that we can to avoid the risk of Covid getting into care homes, because we know from the dreadful experience earlier in the year about the harm and damage that that does and the toll that it can take in terms of deaths. Therefore, we are treating those issues carefully, and we are considering the issues deeply.
We want to get back to a greater degree of normality. The health secretary has met with family representatives, and we are acutely aware of the importance of visiting for health and wellbeing. A process is already under way, which started in late June, if memory serves me correctly. That is a staged approach to the reintroduction of visits in care homes. It started with outdoor visits and now care homes are looking to reintroduce indoor visiting. The restrictions that were announced last week for the population have not affected that. In fact, part of the reason for putting those restrictions in place is to try to get the virus under control so that we do not have a situation in which we cannot proceed to greater flexibility around care home visiting.
These are difficult issues, and they take time, because they need the best clinical consideration and advice. We will continue to take those decisions with the greatest possible care, and we will seek to do so in a way that enables families to have as much normality as possible around their visits to, care of and interaction with their loved ones in care homes.
I understand that the decisions are tough, but they will not get any easier if we keep on delaying them. The families want to see their loved ones. It has been months now, and they are desperate. I know that the First Minister understands that, but I urge her to try to move faster on the issue, because that is what the families need.
The First Minister knows about the horrendous problems with the flu vaccine programme in Fife. Thousands of calls have been missed and there are tens of thousands of anxious and angry people. There have been traffic jams at flu centres in Edinburgh, and NHS Borders has apologised for the problems there. That should be a warning to the Scottish Government for the roll-out of any Covid vaccine. From school exams to university terms, the Scottish Government has not been great at hearing warnings and acting on them effectively. If we get a Covid vaccine, we need to be ready. What is the First Minister doing to ensure that the rush this week for the flu vaccine does not turn into a stampede in a few months with any Covid vaccine?
I will return to the issue of care homes before I move on to the issues of vaccines.
I absolutely take Willie Rennie’s points about care home visiting in the spirit that they are intended, and they are extremely legitimate points. I simply say that, although none of us wants to delay things unduly, on such issues we have to take care that we get the decisions right. Unfortunately, we have a rising tide of Covid and we are starting to see cases again in care homes. We want to ensure that we have all the appropriate protections in place so that we do not see a repeat of the experience in care homes that we had earlier in the year.
These are difficult decisions, and I am not saying that just to excuse the fact that we have not got to the point that Willie Rennie is asking me to get to; I am simply underlining why it is so important to get those decisions right. Unfortunately, that sometimes means taking a bit of time over them, but that is for the best possible reasons.
The flu vaccine programme officially starts today. I encourage everybody who is eligible for the vaccine to take it up. In recent weeks, we have seen scientific opinion about the particular dangers to people of getting Covid and flu together, so we should all encourage people to take up the flu vaccine.
There have been some issues in certain health boards—for example, Willie Rennie mentioned the situation in Fife. NHS Fife has increased the number of call handlers and the number of staff who are working on the issue, and measures have been put in place to ensure that the resources are there to enable everybody who comes forward for an appointment for the flu vaccine to get the vaccine. Some people might not be aware of the fact that we are delivering the vaccine in a different way this year because of the risk of Covid that would be involved in doing it in the way that we normally do it.
On the related issue of a possible Covid vaccine—I would dearly love to be in the position, in a few months, of being able to start rolling out a Covid vaccine; I genuinely do not know whether that will be possible—we already have a programme board that is looking at the practical issues around that. Discussions are taking place with the UK Government on procurement and what volumes are likely to be available. We do not yet know who the priority groups would be, because we do not yet know what vaccine is likely to be approved first or for whom it is mostly likely to be effective. However, we are very plugged into all those discussions, and we have a planning process under way so that, as we get more information, we can take the relevant decisions in an orderly fashion.
A report has been published today that is quite sobering; I read an embargoed copy last night, and I would encourage everybody to read it. Although the report—which has been produced for the Royal Society—is optimistic about the progress that is being made on vaccines, it is sobering when it comes to some of the practical issues that we face in getting from here to a position in which we can actually start to vaccinate large numbers of the population. As I said, the Scottish Government is already thinking about how we can work through all those issues when more information becomes available.
Covid-19 Measures (Police Scotland)
To ask the First Minister what extra support the Scottish Government can provide to Police Scotland to assist with the additional pressures being placed on officers dealing with Covid-19 measures. (S5F-04438)
Police Scotland has been at the front and centre of the response to Covid, and it continues to work closely with partners, including local authorities and the national health service, to support the response. The chief constable has made it clear that maintaining and supporting the health and wellbeing of the workforce is a key priority, and we continue to be very grateful to police officers and staff who put themselves in harm’s way every day to protect the public.
This year, we have increased funding for policing by £60 million to more than £1.2 billion. However, we know that Covid is an unprecedented event that could lead to expenditure above that budget allocation, so we continue to work closely with the Scottish Police Authority and Police Scotland to monitor and manage the financial impacts of Covid on the policing budget.
The First Minister will know the extent of the challenges that Police Scotland has faced throughout the Covid-19 crisis and how the police are genuinely trying to keep every one of us safe. She will also be aware of the spate of firebomb attacks in my constituency in recent weeks and the reported links to a drugs feud. Can she provide an assurance to my community that Police Scotland in Inverclyde is receiving additional resources to help it to track down the perpetrators of those attacks? Can she confirm that having a single police force makes it easier for additional resources to be moved around the country when that is required?
I was appalled to hear of the attacks in Greenock, and I certainly share Stuart McMillan’s concerns. The policing of any such incident is an operational matter for the chief constable, but I can confirm that Police Scotland has increased its presence in the area in an effort to prevent further attacks. I urge the local community to contact Police Scotland if they have any information that may assist with the on-going investigation.
With regard to the issue of a single national police force, a single service brings many benefits to our communities, not least by providing flexibility and equality of support. The additional funding that I mentioned in my original answer is helping to ensure that officer numbers are maintained, which is crucial during these times of unprecedented demand on our policing service.
To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government can guarantee that everyone who has been referred for a winter flu vaccination will be able to get one. (S5F-04429)
We have worked with the United Kingdom Government and other devolved Administrations to secure enough vaccine for all those who are eligible in line with our planning assumption, which is that there will be uptake by 2.4 million people. If that is exceeded, we will then use best clinical evidence to prioritise vaccine supply for the most vulnerable.
Health boards are responsible for delivering the vaccine, but we work closely with them and other partners to ensure safe delivery of the programme. Boards will use the delivery model that is most suitable for their local circumstances while maintaining a Covid-safe environment. As I mentioned earlier, this year’s vaccination programme formally starts today, but delivery is already under way in many board areas. I encourage everyone to make us aware of any issues with the programme so that we can work quickly with boards to resolve them, and I encourage everyone who is eligible for the flu vaccine to take up the opportunity.
The First Minister will be aware that many of my constituents in Lothian and the Borders have been contacting us to say that they were told to go for flu jab appointments only to have to wait in long queues or even be turned away on arrival. We all know that some areas of the health service are under strain at the moment, but that is clearly unacceptable.
Our most vulnerable have already been let down by the Scottish Government’s approach to the coronavirus crisis, and they must not be let down again in a possible winter flu crisis. Does the First Minister know how many people in Scotland are eligible for the vaccine in the October phase? What percentage of those vaccinations is the NHS aiming to administer by the end of November?
I do not have the particular figures for the different phases in front of me, but the health secretary will write to the member with that information this afternoon.
We do this every year, but, this year, eligibility for the flu vaccine has been extended. We make sure that there is prioritisation for the available stocks. Members should remember that we have to procure stocks, and we work with the UK Government to do that, given that there are global supplies of the stocks. We make sure that, in both the amount of stock that we have and the phasing of the administering of those stocks, the most vulnerable are catered for in an appropriate way.
We are delivering the programme differently this year, for essential reasons—because of the risk of Covid—but all health boards are fully engaged in making sure that the flu vaccine system is delivered effectively and efficiently, and we should all be encouraging everybody who is eligible for the vaccine to take it up. That is important every year, but it is particularly important this year. Those who are entitled will have had or will be getting a contact in order to make the appropriate appointment.
NHS Louisa Jordan
To ask the First Minister what plans the Scottish Government has for NHS Louisa Jordan, in light of reports that it has awarded a contract for its decommissioning. (S5F-04433)
The lease for the Louisa Jordan currently runs until the end of April 2021. If it is necessary to do so, we will negotiate an extension to the lease if the facility is still needed to support our pandemic response. In the meantime we are, perfectly sensibly, putting in place arrangements to allow the facility to be decommissioned when it is eventually no longer needed.
Currently, the Louisa Jordan is being used for out-patient clinics, diagnostic tests and educational activities. So far, thankfully, it has not been required for Covid patients, but the reason why we have extended its lease is so that it is there over the winter period should it prove to be necessary.
I thank the First Minister for her response. NHS lockdown is having serious impacts on treatment, waiting times and patient care, and, worryingly, it was reported this week that a higher number of patients are presenting with more advanced forms of cancer. Although it is good that we have the temporary additional capacity at the Louisa Jordan helping to alleviate the non-Covid pressures that the First Minister outlined, it does make me wonder how many Louisa Jordans we would need to clear the waiting times backlog.
In the light of the pressures on the NHS estate in terms of space requirements and physical capacity—we know that there is a maintenance and repairs backlog of almost £1 billion and that 10 per cent of those repairs are classed as high risk—what is the Government doing to support the NHS estate across Scotland and to increase that capacity? How is the First Minister going to do that in the next few months?
There is an on-going maintenance programme in the NHS, which is important in ensuring that the current estate is in the state that it needs to be in. Obviously, one of the issues that we have had to deal with in the past six months is reduced capacity because health boards and hospitals have had to deal with Covid and also make sure that there is capacity to deal with it should cases rise.
The NHS Louisa Jordan was originally put in to make sure that, if we needed extra capacity for Covid, it would be there. It will be available over the winter if we need it, but it is not needed for that right now, and it is helping to do other things. In the period between the beginning of July and the middle of September, around 2,000 people were seen at the Louisa Jordan, and the intention is to increase out-patient clinics there over the next few weeks. That facility is helping to mitigate reduced capacity in other hospitals because of the need to make sure that there is a Covid contingency in them.
Next week, the health secretary will set out plans for the winter and how the national health service intends to cope with the variety of winter pressures that it faces. At that stage, she will also give an update on the on-going progress to remobilise the NHS and restart services that were paused because of Covid.
There are a couple of supplementary questions.
Over the past week, the community in Uist have experienced a significant outbreak of Covid, with 24 cases now confirmed. That represents a very significant scale of outbreak in a small island community, particularly one in which finite health resources are available other than by air ambulance. It is an extremely concerning development, and I am sure that all our thoughts are with the families affected. Is the First Minister able to give an update on the situation and the Government’s response to it?
My last update on the situation was that 22 cases have so far been identified on South Uist. That includes, as I understand it, two cases at the secondary school and four cases at a care home. All schools on Uist were closed on Monday for deep cleaning. Schools have reopened today, with the exception of a couple of schools that will remain closed until after the October break. Full-time online interactive teaching will be available from today for the pupils of those schools.
All staff and residents at the care home have been tested. Routine weekly testing of all staff was undertaken again on Wednesday, and contact tracing has been undertaken for all identified contacts. A further incident management group meeting is scheduled to take place tomorrow.
We are working in partnership with all health boards to support the response to such incidents. In respect of islands, in particular, the islands minister will meet the leader of Western Isles Council today to listen to views on recent lockdown measures.
Mahle Engine Systems
The First Minister may be aware that Mahle Engine Systems in Kilmarnock has just announced a plan to shed up to 45 jobs. That is another blow to Kilmarnock, which has already seen the closure of the Wabtec rail engineering plant earlier this year, with the loss of 100 jobs. What support can the Scottish Government offer the staff of Mahle? Will the First Minister commit to examining further steps that can be taken to avoid further job losses in the sector and secure the future of engineering in East Ayrshire?
Obviously, I regret the situation that the member has outlined. It is an extremely difficult time not only for the company but for workers and their families, in particular. We will always choose to work with companies, wherever possible, to find ways of avoiding redundancies and supporting continued employment. Where that is not possible, our partnership action for continuing employment initiative will step in to work with affected employees to support them into alternative employment as quickly as possible. The PACE initiative will be available in that case, as it will be in all cases.
Obviously, we are in a very challenging situation for employment generally across the country and, indeed, across the United Kingdom. That is why we continue to constructively discuss with the UK Government how the furlough scheme can be more comprehensively replaced than by the initiatives that the chancellor outlined last week.
Alexander Thomson Hotel (Deaths)
I raise with the First Minister the sad case of the eight deaths at the Alexander Thomson hotel in Glasgow. The hotel is used as temporary accommodation for homeless people. It was a tragic case in which people who were feeling isolated and living in difficult circumstances during lockdown lost their lives. What steps are being taken to establish the cause of death in the seven cases in which that remains unexplained? In the light of the incident, what measures are the Government and councils taking to ensure that people living in temporary accommodation for homeless people are properly supported?
James Kelly raises a very serious and sad issue. I am extremely sad to hear of the deaths at the Alexander Thomson hotel in Glasgow, and I send my sympathies to all the friends and family. I hope that James Kelly and others will understand that I am not able to comment further on that at the moment, because investigations into the cause of death are on-going, so it would not be appropriate for me to do so.
We work closely with a range of stakeholders to help people out of homelessness. Obviously, the reasons for homelessness can be varied and complex, which is why our housing first approach is so important. That approach focuses on finding settled permanent accommodation for people and then providing wraparound services to help with other issues that they may be experiencing.
We continue to take forward the recommendations of the homelessness and rough sleeping task force in order that we can, we hope, through a variety of actions, make homelessness and rough sleeping in Scotland a thing of the past.
WJ & W Lang
What help can be offered to WJ & W Lang, which is a company that has operated at the heart of Paisley since 1872? It has decided to mothball its Seedhill site because of the coronavirus pandemic. Given the strain that that will put on the workforce at this time, can the First Minister help in securing discussions with the company about possible alternatives and any further available assistance?
Obviously, I was disappointed to hear of the announcement by the Scottish Leather Group, which is the parent company of WJ & W Lang, that it is to consolidate tannery operations at Bridge of Weir. I know that this will be a difficult time for staff and their families and for the local area, which will be affected by that decision.
I can report that Scottish Enterprise has been engaging directly with the company in recent months to offer support during the on-going consultation period and that it will continue to engage with it. The Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills has also spoken with the company to offer the Scottish Government’s full support during this difficult time. As I said in reply to an earlier question, our partnership action for continuing employment—PACE—initiative stands ready to help any employee who is faced with the prospect of redundancy.
Outdoor Education Centres
Will the First Minister update Parliament on when the Scottish Government will give a formal response to the Parliament’s unanimous calls to safeguard the future of Scotland’s outdoor education centres?
I understand that there is a ministerial meeting with representatives of the outdoor education sector today. We will be happy to give an update after that meeting.
We are fully committed to supporting outdoor education providers. They offer a very important service and experience for young people, and it is vital that we do everything that we can to protect that. There are obvious restrictions and limitations on what outdoor education providers can do right now, which none of us likes but which are, unfortunately, necessary. We have been focusing on trying to maximise the things that the sector can do and to give support for that.
I think that it is Richard Lochhead who is meeting the representatives later on. Perhaps it would be more appropriate for me to ask him to write to Liz Smith after that meeting with an update.
Flu Vaccination (Renfrewshire)
Neil Bibby is joining us remotely.
We all want to maximise the uptake of the flu vaccine this year. However, older people in places such as Johnstone and villages such as Lochwinnoch, Kilbarchan, Bridge of Weir and Houston in Renfrewshire are concerned that the vaccine will be administered centrally from St Mirren’s football ground in the north of Paisley, and not in their own communities. As the First Minister will be aware, the public health advice is to avoid public transport and car sharing. A number of my constituents who are without access to a car would have to take multiple bus journeys to get to the football stadium and back. Some do not want to take that risk, and some will not take the risk. Does she accept that a lack of transport is a barrier for many people who need to get the flu jab? Will she ask Renfrewshire health and social care partnership to consider additional sites for administering the vaccine?
Yes, I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport to engage with the local partnership to ensure that it has arrangements in place that are genuinely accessible for people. I hope that everybody understands why there is a different delivery mechanism for the flu vaccine this year. That is unavoidable because of the Covid risks. However, it remains essential—in fact, I would say that it is more essential than ever this year—that the vaccine is available to people in an accessible way. We will take up the issue with the local partnership, and I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport to write to Neil Bibby when she has the opportunity to do so.
The First Minister will be aware that, yesterday, the TSB announced the closure of 73 branches across Scotland, three of which—in Kilbirnie, Largs and Saltcoats—are in my constituency. That will leave many of my constituents at even greater risk of financial exclusion, and local staff will lose their livelihoods. Far too many communities in North Ayrshire and throughout Scotland now have no access to banking in their towns. Does the First Minister agree that establishing banking hubs is one potential solution? Have the Scottish ministers contacted the TSB and United Kingdom ministers to seek the reversal of that decision, given that powers over banking are reserved to the UK Government?
I certainly urge banks to consider all possible solutions in relation to access to banking facilities. This area is reserved to the UK Government, but we have consistently stressed the importance of financial inclusion to the sector. We have also repeatedly lobbied the UK Government to do more to ensure access to cash and banking facilities for all.
It is a worrying time for all concerned and we will continue to urge banks to listen to and address customers’ concerns about their ability to access services. We will engage with banks through the banking and economy forum and the Financial Services Advisory Board to ensure that everything possible is being done to mitigate the impact of closures on communities that are affected by that and other recent announcements.
Covid-19 Laws (Parliamentary Scrutiny)
I will press the First Minister on parliamentary scrutiny of Covid laws again, because I raised the issue last week and it has been mentioned again by Richard Leonard today. The United Kingdom Government budged on that yesterday.
Parliamentary scrutiny matters because, when regulations were first enacted in Scotland on the mandatory wearing of face coverings in shops, it was legal not to wear a face covering in any shop if it provided currency exchange facilities. The legal position was that anyone could go into a shop with a post office or a supermarket where it was possible to get foreign currency and not wear a face covering. The Government had to correct that, but the Parliament had had no prior scrutiny of that legislation. That is why this stuff matters.
I understand that the Government has to act quickly, but the Parliament can also act quickly. Will the First Minister pledge to correct what the Speaker of the House of Commons described yesterday as a “totally unsatisfactory” approach to secondary legislation?
I agree that that is important and that it matters, so I will happily give an undertaking to further consider those issues. I will ask Michael Russell, the minister who oversees coronavirus legislation, to come back with proposals for discussion with the Parliament on how we enhance and strengthen parliamentary scrutiny, and on how that can take place wherever possible—which is what the UK Government said yesterday—at an earlier stage, recognising that there will be circumstances in which Governments have to move quickly.
As I understand it, and I will be corrected if I am wrong, at the moment parliamentary committees can sit not just on parliamentary sitting days but at any point in order to scrutinise regulations that are being put forward, often at very short notice. There is already the provision for some advanced scrutiny, but I absolutely accept that the situation in which we are working, not just in this instance but in a whole range of different ways, is not ideal, and it is not what we would choose in normal circumstances.
However, as the experience continues and as we go into the winter, it is right and proper and perfectly reasonable for the Parliament to ask the Government to consider whether there are further steps that we can take to enhance the scrutiny that the Parliament is able to bring to bear.
Public Health Challenges (Covid-19)
The First Minister will be well aware of the recent publication of the 2019 Scottish health survey, which identified the scale of poor health in Scotland before the pandemic. Over half of all adults are living with long-term conditions and one fifth of all men have some form of heart disease or diabetes. It is the First Minister concerned that a failure to improve Scotland’s health, especially in disadvantaged areas, has created additional challenges for responding to Covid-19?
There are long-standing and well-known health inequalities in Scotland, as there are in many countries, and we have and have had a number of initiatives to tackle and close those inequalities. There is no doubt that Covid has both underlined, illustrated and exacerbated some of those inequalities.
It certainly says to me that, as we start to come out of the Covid crisis, we must redouble our efforts to deal with the underlying inequalities that exist. Action will need to be taken across a range of fronts, from preventative health measures, which the Parliament has a good record on, through to different ways of providing services in some of our most deprived communities. There is not just an opportunity but a need to do that as we come out of the acute phase of the crisis.
United Kingdom Internal Market Bill
The United Kingdom Internal Market Bill is working its way through Westminster, and the Scottish Parliament’s Finance and Constitution Committee has heard major concerns about it. If the Scottish Parliament refuses legislative consent, does the First Minister have any message for Boris Johnson?
If the Scottish Parliament refuses to grant consent to the bill, any UK Government worth its salt would do the right thing and respect the views of this Parliament. I think that that is a fairly basic statement of democracy. If the UK Government does not do that and insists on legislating over the head of the Scottish Parliament in devolved areas, all that it will succeed in doing is demonstrating that it has no respect for this Parliament and that, if this Parliament is to have the power to make its own decisions, it needs to stop being a devolved Parliament and become an independent Parliament so that the UK Government cannot do that.
Given that appeals to the UK Government to do the right thing for the right reasons often fall on deaf ears, perhaps I should appeal to it to do the right thing for reasons of its own self-interest. As we can see plenty evidence of, the way it is acting right now is each and every day building the support for and the case for Scottish independence. I am happy with that, but I expect that the UK Government is not.
Parent and Baby Groups (Covid-19 Restrictions)
New Government guidance has restricted parent and baby groups to no more than five adults per class. That has already caused several such groups to signal that they will have to fold as, with those numbers, they are not sustainable. The First Minister will recognise that new mums accessing those groups will have spent much of lockdown shielding while they were pregnant, and other restrictions will prevent them from visiting other new parents and family support networks. The impact of all that on perinatal mental health cannot be overstated. Given that those same parents can access bars and gyms in far greater numbers, what scientific basis exists for limiting those classes to five adults at a time?
I understand the sentiment behind the question. I have had a number of contacts from new parents making the same point. I absolutely understand the importance of parent and baby groups, and perinatal mental health is a key priority for the Government, which we have invested significantly in. I also understand the risk that large numbers of adults coming together will increase transmission of the virus. We are trying to balance those things. Just this morning, I asked the chief medical officer and the national clinical director for additional clinical advice to see whether more flexibility can be built in that area. Once I have that advice, I will be able to say what that is.
We always try to build as much flexibility into such things as possible but, fundamentally, we are trying to keep an infectious virus from spreading from person to person and household to household. Therefore, across a range of different areas of our lives, we are having to accept restrictions that normally we would not ever have and which none of us wants to be living under. I appreciate the importance and sensitivity of the issue for parent and baby groups, and that is why this morning I asked for additional advice.
Universal Credit Uplift
Keith Brown joins us remotely.
The First Minister will be aware that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and more than 60 other organisations have written to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to call for the £20-a-week increase to universal credit to be made permanent, and to extend the same support to claimants of legacy benefits.
Does the First Minister agree that maintaining the increase beyond next April is crucial, particularly now that the United Kingdom Government has failed to extend the furlough scheme and the Scottish Tories in this Parliament have failed to support Scottish businesses, trade unions and other political parties in requesting the extension of that scheme? Does she agree, in particular, that the chancellor must act, or risk plunging hundreds of thousands of people into poverty?
Yes, I agree. If we do not see further extension of the furlough scheme, we will have a wave of avoidable redundancies over the next period. If that happens, responsibility for it will lie with the UK Government.
There is also a need to act now to stop more people falling into poverty. We have already urged the UK Government to make permanent the £20 uplift to universal credit and to extend it further. I hope that the UK Government will commit to making those changes now, before more people are pushed into poverty. We know that thousands will face significant financial strain when the furlough scheme phases out at the end of this month.
It is not too late for the UK Government to change its position on those things—to ensure that social security support is adequate to support people and to extend the furlough scheme properly to give businesses the certainty that they so badly need. In the process, it would save an estimated 60,000 jobs across Scotland.
The decision by the preferred bidder not to go ahead with the purchase of Prestwick airport because of the downturn in aviation will be a huge blow to the 300 workers who are directly employed by Prestwick and the many thousands across Ayrshire whose jobs rely on the airport. Will the First Minister now listen to the calls from the Unite and GMB unions for sector-specific support from the Scottish Government, not just the United Kingdom Government? Will she ensure that any business support has conditionality attached that protects jobs, and pay and conditions? Will the Government introduce options for testing at airports, with follow-up tests, to make it possible to at least consider reducing quarantine?
There are a number of questions there. Covid has, as the member said, had an impact on the global aviation sector and that unfortunately affected the planned sale of Prestwick airport. The company that was selected as the preferred bidder does not wish to complete the purchase at this time. That is disappointing, but we understand the reasons for it. We will consider further options for Glasgow Prestwick airport, but we continue to believe that it has a role to play in Scotland’s aviation sector.
On the member’s wider point, when we are making funding available to companies, we always seek to ensure that fair work principles are embedded in that, and we will continue to do so. We will continue to consider within our own resources the support that we can make available to businesses, but—and this is a statement of fact—because the UK Government has recourse to borrowing powers that we do not have, our budget is finite. Once we have allocated it, as we have, it is not possible to always give more money to one priority without taking money away from others. That is why we are discussing with the UK Government further support for business. In fact, we have asked the UK Government to convene an aerospace task force to discuss some of the issues around aviation, an idea that has the support of the other devolved Administrations and the trade unions.
We will do everything that we can, and we will continue to seek to persuade the UK Government to play its full part.
Flu Vaccination (Rural Areas)
My question is further to the exchange with Neil Bibby. I have been contacted by elderly constituents in Melrose and Lauder who, under the new flu vaccine arrangements, which are understandable, are being required to travel many miles, often with limited access to public transport, which they are reluctant to use in any event because of Covid. Will the Scottish Government consider the introduction of a mobile vaccination facility, particularly for elderly people who live in rural areas such as mine?
It is the responsibility of health boards to deliver the vaccine program, but we will continue to discuss with them the ways in which they ensure accessibility to the programme. Mobile facilities might well have a part to play in that. The health secretary will continue to discuss those issues with health boards and I will ask her to contact Christine Grahame about the specific local issues that she has raised when she has had the chance to do so.
Covid-19 (Weekly Testing)
Today, a group of members of Parliament on the House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee said that there should be weekly routine testing of all national health service staff, and that they cannot understand why it has not been introduced. Since the very start of the crisis, I have believed that we should be doing that. The majority of NHS staff in Scotland have never been tested. Why are we not doing routine weekly testing of the people who are on the front line and keeping people safe and alive during the pandemic?
We test certain groups of NHS staff and, like all the groups that we test across the population, the groups that we test are advised by clinical priority. We will continue to look at options for extending that.
The capacity for testing is important. We need to have the capacity to take the samples and process the tests. We have expanded NHS capacity substantially and we plan to do more of that over the remainder of the year. That will make the wherewithal available, but who is tested and how often must be driven by clinical advice and prioritisation. We will continue to take those decisions as carefully as possible.
I have not yet had the opportunity to see the select committee’s report, but I will read it with interest.
Covid-19 (Self-isolation Support Grant)
The new self-isolation support grant is very welcome. It will ensure that people do not experience financial hardship as a result of doing the right thing. Can the First Minister outline how the fund will be delivered and how those who are in need of support can access it?
We confirmed yesterday that the fund will be administered through the Scottish welfare fund, which is already established and is tried and tested in making crisis support available to people who need it. It will be available to people on low incomes and targeted at people on universal credit who will lose income if they are not able to work because of the advice to self-isolate. However, we want to have some flexibility whereby people who are outwith that category but genuinely need crisis support may be able to access it. We will make practical information available to people through the usual channels so that they know exactly how they can access that support.
Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints (Request for Material)
Jackie Baillie joins us remotely.
As a member of the committee that is considering the handling of harassment complaints, I say to the First Minister that the Scottish National Party Government is being disrespectful to the committee and, by extension, to the Parliament. This is not about her evidence or her attendance at the committee. She knows that that is a red herring. I know that she has recused herself, but there is no getting away from the fact that she is the leader of the Scottish Government and of the SNP, so it is in her gift to make sure that they are open and transparent.
Contrary to her briefing, the information provided at this point has been partial, witnesses have come before the committee with surprising memory difficulties and there is a complete refusal to hand over the legal advice for the judicial review, which could be done if the Government wished to do so. Will the First Minister authorise the release of all the material to the committee, as previously promised, and ensure that no documents held by the Scottish Government, the Crown Office or the SNP are destroyed before the committee finishes its inquiry? If she will not honour her previous commitment, will she explain to the chamber what on earth the Scottish Government and the SNP have to hide?
First, I do not consider the evidence that I have already given to the committee and the evidence that I am keen to offer to it in oral session to be a red herring. It is really important and part of my responsibility.
The Government has made available substantial material. The only material that it has not yet made available is because legal reasons prevent it. It has already said in respect of some of that material that it is initiating legal proceedings to try to put itself in a position where it can hand that material over, which is the right and proper thing to do.
The SNP had no involvement in the Scottish Government complaints process, but the SNP will also put forward answers to the questions that the committee asks of it and has already done so, as anybody can go to the committee’s website and see with their own two eyes. It will continue to co-operate fully.
I absolutely intend to co-operate fully, I look forward to the opportunity to share my evidence with the committee and I am respecting the process of the committee. It really begs a lot of questions when members of the committee say after literally every evidence session that I am not answering questions when I have submitted written evidence and I am waiting for the opportunity to give evidence in person.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. In her exchange with Ruth Davidson, the First Minister implied that members of the harassment handling inquiry had leaked to the press the WhatsApp messages discussed in that exchange. That is a serious allegation and it is also untrue. The first that committee members learned of the messages was in an email from the clerks, to which was attached images of the messages. I quote from the email:
“We are now aware that details of the contents of these messages”
“also been given to the media and so we wanted to ensure that members were sighted on this before reading about it in the media.”
Will the Presiding Officer advise me of the appropriate procedure by which the First Minister can either correct the Official Report or present evidence to the Parliament to substantiate her claim?
That is not a procedural point for me to rule on. There are a number of methods by which Mr Cole-Hamilton can ask a question of the First Minister and by which she can reply, including written questions, letters and so on. The member’s point is on the record. That ends First Minister’s questions.13:34 Meeting suspended.
14:30 On resuming—