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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, November 1, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 01 November 2018

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Outdoor Classroom Day, Greenhouse Gas Emissions (Annual Target Report), Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route, Asylum Seekers, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Presiding Officer’s Ruling, Decision Time


Contents


First Minister’s Question Time


Public Spending

Which plan delivers higher public spending in real terms over the coming years—the United Kingdom Government’s budget plan or the Scottish National Party’s growth commission?

Let me be very clear: as a result of the UK Government’s budget on Monday, the Scottish Government’s budget will have been cut in real terms by almost £2 billion between the Tories coming to office in 2010 and the end of this decade. That highlights that austerity under the Tories is far from over; they continue to deliver tax cuts for the richest and just cuts for everybody else. By contrast, the growth commission recommends real-terms increases in spending in order to protect our vital public services.

If that is austerity, the First Minister will need to think of a new word to describe life under her miserable plans, because it will be quite something. Whatever else the First Minister said, it was not an answer to the simple question that I asked.

On Sunday, Derek Mackay swaggered around the television studios saying, “Show me the money.” On Monday, the chancellor did. The First Minister will not admit that the UK budget has now set a course for UK public spending to increase at 1.4 per cent in real terms up to 2023-24, whereas the SNP’s growth commission—its evangelical bible of economic misery—forecasts public spending in an independent Scotland to increase by just 0.5 per cent.

Those are the facts, so I ask the First Minister again: which plan proposes to increase spending in Scotland by more—the UK Government’s bold proposals or the SNP’s miserable growth commission?

Through independence and having control over our own resources, we can ensure a real-terms increase in public spending. That is the prize of independence.

I go back to the Tory UK Government’s budget that was announced on Monday. It will result in cuts to the Scottish Government’s budget of £2 billion over the decade that the Tories have been in power. Most of next year’s consequentials are earmarked for the national health service, and we will pass them on to the national health service. I should say, as an aside, that the Tories have even managed to short-change us on that. We were meant to get £600 million in consequentials next year, but only £550 million will be delivered. If that shortfall continues over the planning period, the Tories will short-change the Scottish people to the tune of more than £0.25 billion. That is absolutely shameful.

If Jackson Carlaw does not want to take my word for it, perhaps he will listen to the think tanks and experts, who have all had their say on the budget over the past few days. The Resolution Foundation said:

“it is not ... the end of austerity ... Existing promises of extra spending in some areas ... mean the Chancellor’s numbers imply ongoing cuts in other day-to-day public services”.

We know what the Tories stand for. The mask has well and truly slipped—it slipped before we even got to Halloween this year. The reality of Tory Government is tax cuts for the wealthiest and cuts for everybody else. This Government stands for something very different indeed.

That was miserably predictable. Here is the reality: the Scottish Government will receive £0.5 billion more in real terms next year—that is what the independent researcher, the Scottish Parliament information centre, has declared. However, the SNP is so focused on finding the cloud in every silver lining that it cannot even bring itself to welcome a single penny of that money, let alone all £0.5 billion of it. Worse still, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work has indicated that he will refuse to pass on tax cuts that will benefit middle-income families elsewhere in the UK.

Will the First Minister offer any hope of tax relief to people such as senior teachers, nurses and police officers, who, without such relief, face paying a bill of £1,000 extra in income tax compared with those doing exactly the same job elsewhere in the UK?

However Jackson Carlaw tries to spin it, the reality is that there are cuts to the Scottish Government’s budget as a result of decisions taken by the Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer. I have the figures here—£2 billion over the decade is the real-terms cut in the Scottish Government’s budget. That amounts to almost 7 per cent in real terms. The Tories should be utterly ashamed of that.

I turn to tax, on which we are seeing the true colours of the Tories highlighted today. When we set our budget on 12 December, the decisions that we take will be driven by our determination to protect our national health service and our other public services, to tackle poverty and low pay, and to ensure that those who earn the most in our society make a fair and reasonable contribution to our public services. It will be a balanced, progressive and fair budget, and it will stand in stark contrast to the one that we had on Monday.

I want to look at tax in more detail. I am really surprised that Jackson Carlaw is prepared to defend the reality of the situation. I will again cite the Resolution Foundation. These are not Scottish Government figures: 84 per cent of the benefit from the Tory tax cut for the richest goes to the top half of the income spectrum, and 37 per cent of that goes to the top 10 per cent of income earners.

Looking ahead, the Resolution Foundation has stated:

“the overall impact of tax and benefit policies put in place”

by the Tory Government

“since 2015 will, on average, have made richer households better off by £390 a year—and left the poorest fifth of households £400 a year worse off.”

That is absolutely damning and shameful, and I would be interested to hear whether Jackson Carlaw is prepared to defend that.

I will tell the First Minister something: Audit Scotland is not very impressed with her efforts to protect the NHS; it thinks that the current forecast is completely unsustainable. What we have had from the First Minister is the usual basket of clichés.

The chancellor’s budget is one that froze fuel duty and delivered a tax cut of £132 to the record number of Scots in work. It delivered a freeze on the duty on whisky, which has been welcomed by the industry, and help for the oil and gas sector, which has been welcomed by those in it. It delivered more than £0.5 billion for Scotland’s NHS, as well as help for our high streets and investment in our roads.

What has the SNP’s response been? An all-too-predictable whinge. How tired, lacklustre and miserable. The SNP wanted a freeze on whisky duty—it got it. It wanted support for oil and gas—it got it. It wanted to see the money—it got £950 million-worth of it. If ever Scotland wanted evidence that the SNP Government is a grudge-and-grievance Government led by a grudge-and-grievance First Minister, this was it. Why cannot the First Minister for once—just once—welcome it?

It is interesting and extremely illuminating that, when I quoted what the Resolution Foundation said about how the Tories are cutting tax for the richest in our society while continuing to punish the poor and asked Jackson Carlaw to have a go at defending that, he just changed the subject. Lots of people will have listened to Jackson Carlaw and realised that he is completely unable to defend the policies of his own party at Westminster.

I turn back to the NHS and tax. Let us not forget that, as a result of our budget decisions last year, 55 per cent of taxpayers in Scotland pay less tax than their counterparts across the UK because of our new starter rate. We are helping those at the bottom of the income scale, not those at the top. That is a progressive change.

When it comes to the NHS, for weeks now, the Tories have been challenging the Scottish Government to say what it is going to do with the £600 million of Barnett consequentials that we were going to get in the budget for the health service. We will pass on every penny of consequentials for the health service to the health service. Interestingly, however, it is not £600 million that is being delivered—it is only £550 million, and that shortfall will cost the Scottish people more than a quarter of a billion pounds over the period.

My final point—the Tories might want to listen to it—is that the figure of £550 million has another significance, does it not? It is also the figure that would have been taken out of the Scottish budget if we had followed Tory calls to cut tax for the richest in this financial year. That would have been the equivalent of taking 13,000 nurses out of our health service.

This Government stands for public services. It stands for helping the poorest in our society. It stands for fairness and progressive principles. What we have seen today is that the Tories stand for tax cuts for the rich and just cuts for everybody else, and Jackson Carlaw cannot even try to defend that. That is utterly shameful.


Student Debt

The First Minister once pledged that, in government, the Scottish National Party would

“not force students into deeper and deeper debt”

and would further

“meet the debt repayments of Scottish graduates living in Scotland.”—[Official Report, 29 March 2007; c 33698-9.]

When the First Minister made that promise, the average debt for a Scottish graduate was £6,070. What is the average debt today?

Debt for students in Scotland is the lowest of any such debt in any country in the United Kingdom. It is significantly lower than in England, significantly lower than in Northern Ireland and significantly lower than in Labour-run Wales. That is because we do not have tuition fees—we protect students from having to pay tuition fees—and we have one of the best student support systems anywhere in the UK. In recent months, we have also announced increases to the support that we give students.

We will continue to give Scottish students the best deal anywhere in the UK and will continue to be proud to do so.

I will give the chamber what the First Minister did not. Figures published this week show that the average debt for a Scottish graduate now stands at £13,200—that is more than double; yet Nicola Sturgeon promised Scottish students not only that they would not be forced into deeper debt but that their debts would be written off—they would be cancelled.

An SNP election leaflet from the time said:

“We will write off the accumulated debt still owed to the Student Loans Company by Scottish domiciled students”.

However, we now know that Nicola Sturgeon did not dump the debt; she dumped the promise. We know that because, this week, the Student Awards Agency for Scotland also confirmed that the SNP has cut student grants and bursaries by a third since 2012 and has increased student loans by a staggering 182 per cent over the past decade.

The First Minister was not prepared to tell us what the average student debt is, but can she tell us what the total value of student debt in Scotland is?

Student debt in Scotland is lower than student debt in any other part of the UK, because of the policies of this Government.

Richard Leonard cites the figure in Scotland of £13,230. In England, average student debt is £34,800; in Northern Ireland, it is £22,440; and in Wales, where Labour is in government, student debt is not the £13,000 that it is in Scotland, it is £21,500. This is yet another example of Labour telling us to do as they say not as they do.

Richard Leonard cited figures that were published this week, so let me share with him others that the Student Awards Agency for Scotland published this week. Last year, total student support went up by 4.5 per cent to £882.7 million. Average higher education student support in Scotland has gone up by 1.4 per cent since 2016-17. More full-time higher education students than ever before are receiving support: the figure has gone up by 3.1 per cent since 2016-17. Last year, we paid out 8.9 per cent more in grants and bursaries. The number of students who receive grants or bursaries increased by 2.8 per cent from the year before, to 53,620. As I have already said, Student Loan Company statistics show that students in Scotland continue to have the lowest debt in the UK. My final point is that not only is that the case, but the gap is growing, year on year.

That is our record on student support. It is one to be proud of, and we will continue to support students as best we possibly can.

If the First Minister had read further into that report, she would have found the answer to the question that I asked, which is that the total student debt in Scotland is now almost £5 billion. Therefore, while the SNP has been in office, it has presided over a 169 per cent increase in such debt. Let us be clear: it is the poorest students who end up racking up the highest debts, by taking out the biggest loans. That is not just my view but that of the National Union of Students Scotland, which said this week that

“students in the lowest household income bracket still finish their course with the most debt”.

Even by the standards of this Government, promising to scrap student debt and then increasing it by 169 per cent is nothing short of shameful. A generation of students have started high school and gone on to university since the SNP made—and then surreptitiously dropped—its promise on student debt. That is a generation of students who are burdened with debt repayments that the SNP promised that it would write off. As a result, although current and former students may still owe a debt to the Government, the Government owes them an unreserved apology. Will the First Minister do the right thing today and apologise for her £5 billion broken promise?

There must be students in Scotland who have started and finished degrees in the time that it took Richard Leonard to ask that question.

When I was pointing out the fact that students in Labour-run Wales have significantly higher debt than those in SNP-governed Scotland, some members on the Labour benches were saying that that was not relevant. Let me tell them what certainly is relevant. Richard Leonard represents a party that, when it was in power, supported charging students tuition fees, yet he stands here now and has the gall to moan about student debt.

Not only do we have the lowest debt for students in the UK and—according to all the statistics that were published this week—are we actually increasing the amount that we pay to support students, but we have set out further plans. By the end of this session of Parliament, more than £21 million will be invested every year to improve the support that is available to students at universities and colleges. Next year, we will invest £16 million to increase and expand access to further and higher education. For bursaries for students from the lowest-income families, we will increase the higher education bursary income threshold, and we will increase bursary support for the poorest young and independent students in higher education. Of course, we will also be paying a bursary that is equivalent to the real living wage to all care-experienced students in further and higher education.

Not only do we have a proud record, we have the best plans of any party in this chamber for supporting students in the future. Therefore we will continue to get on with the job and leave the Labour Party to the various contortions that it has managed to get itself into.

There are a number of constituency supplementaries—three in fact. The first is from Tavish Scott.


Sumburgh Airport (Car Parking Charges)

Last week, Highlands and Islands Airport Ltd confirmed that it will impose car parking charges on islanders travelling from Sumburgh airport in Shetland. There has been no consultation, no island impact assessment and no new public transport links between Sumburgh and Lerwick, which is 25 miles away. Will the First Minister explain what happened to island proofing?

Highlands and Islands Airport Ltd has to take decisions that it thinks are balanced and allow it to support and invest in the airport facilities that are there. Of course, it should do proper island proofing—Tavish Scott is absolutely right about that—and it should consult. I will ensure that the transport secretary discusses the issue with HIAL and corresponds with the member once he has done so.


Education (Access to Subjects)

Cameron Barclay, who is a sixth-year pupil from Renfrewshire, is trying to study for his advanced highers. I say “trying”, because he must attend three separate schools and, because Renfrewshire Council refuses to help him with taxi costs, he must make 45-minute cycle journeys between them, which sees him miss class time and lunches every week. Does the First Minister think that that is acceptable?

I do not know the individual circumstances of young Cameron Barclay, but I am more than happy to look into that. Of course, one of the things that we are trying to do—I have had exchanges on this issue with Ruth Davidson at previous First Minister’s questions sessions—is to ensure that young people can access as broad a range of qualifications as possible. Some schools, in different clusters, will provide different qualifications, and young people will go to different schools to access them. That is part of how we deliver qualifications.

I am more than happy to ask the Deputy First Minister to look into the specific case that the member raises, but the principle here is that we want to ensure that young people get access to as broad a range of qualifications as it is possible to do.


Sauchiehall Street Fires (Impact on Business)

The First Minister is only too aware of the impact of two fires in Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow. Businesses there have been closed for months on end. Some are still struggling; sadly, some will probably not make it. Does the First Minister agree that Glasgow deserves the same treatment as Belfast? In the United Kingdom budget, Belfast was awarded £2 million to deal with the fallout of the equally tragic circumstances of the Primark fire. Does she agree that it is appalling that Glasgow’s needs were ignored?

I know that the First Minister has been helpful to businesses in Sauchiehall Street, for which I am very grateful, but will she meet the Sauchiehall Street business people to discuss what further help can be given to the city of Glasgow?

The finance secretary has met businesses affected by the two fires, and he intends to continue to do that and to engage with them in the run-up to our own budget in December and, indeed, beyond.

The Scottish Government has provided financial support through business rates relief and the £5 million fund that we set up to allow businesses to access financial support. A number of businesses have taken advantage of that fund.

I certainly do not regret the fact that Belfast got support—that is right and proper—but I regret the fact that the UK Government did not give the same consideration to the situation in Glasgow. The responsibility of the Scottish Government, through our own financial decisions, is to make sure that we are taking all appropriate steps to help businesses affected, and I assure the member that we will continue to do exactly that.


Asylum Seekers (Emergency Accommodation)

Later today, Parliament will debate the treatment of asylum seekers in our society in view of the continued threat of an imminent wave of mass evictions and mass destitution in Glasgow. I hope that the vast majority of us will unite in revulsion at the United Kingdom Government’s brutal policies and in determination to take action to support asylum seekers and other vulnerable migrants.

I am talking about people like Abdul. He was refused asylum and has been destitute in Glasgow for two years. He has serious epilepsy and mental health issues, which stem from his persecution in Afghanistan and from his homelessness here. This summer, he was discharged from an emergency hospital appointment to a shelter that did not have space for him.

As I speak, Abdul faces destitution again tonight. He will spend yet another unsafe night on the streets with literally nowhere to go. Only once he has safe short-term emergency accommodation, staffed by professionals who can meet his health needs, will he be able to start making choices in his life again, rather than being forced to make the grimmest survival decisions night after night. That provision does not yet exist. With winter coming, it is needed now.

Will the First Minister tell us—five months after the Scottish Government accepted the recommendation that there must be funding for emergency accommodation for those at immediate risk—what progress is being made and when that provision will be made available?

The initial recommendations that were made in the run-up to last winter by the homelessness and rough sleeping task force were accepted in full and funding was made available. That funding was used to very good effect—it helped many of those who were facing rough sleeping. The people who I have spoken to, who are working on the front line and who helped to shape those recommendations, are very positive about the impact that they have had. As Patrick Harvie knows, further streams of recommendations have been made by that task force. It has now published its final recommendations, and we are working through the implementation of all of those. It is an on-going process.

I do not know the particular circumstances of the individual who Patrick Harvie mentioned, but often with asylum seekers there are issues around their having no recourse to public funds, which complicates some of the provision that the Scottish Government wants to see. I abhor the way in which the United Kingdom system often exacerbates the trauma that asylum seekers experience and the trauma that has brought them to this country. I want to make sure not only that we do everything we can to help them in the situations that they face, but that our actions to tackle rough sleeping and homelessness help not just asylum seekers but everybody who faces that circumstance.

A large number of recommendations were made by the homelessness task force. On the detail of where all the recommendations are in progress of being implemented, I am more than happy to get the housing minister, Kevin Stewart, to write to Patrick Harvie, setting out the progress against each and every one of them.

I appreciate the tone of the First Minister’s answer. I believe that the Scottish Government wants to get this right. We in Scotland should reject the UK Government’s wider hostile environment policy on migration in general, but we should also reject the idea that asylum seekers are a burden. To be asked for asylum, and to be able to offer asylum to those who need it, is to be in a privileged position. To have to ask for asylum is to bear a burden.

We need more than just firm sentiment and the commitment to act; we need action to be immediate, especially as the nights grow colder. We need an urgent timetable for the implementation of the recommendation on the provision of emergency accommodation and an integrated service that includes support services. We know that there is no legal barrier to funding those services, even for those people whom the UK Government has abandoned with the label of no recourse to public funds.

If the First Minister agrees that no one should be made destitute in 21st century Scotland, will she give a clear commitment that the Scottish Government will take the action that is necessary to prevent this humanitarian crisis on our doorstep?

Yes, I give that commitment. As I said in my previous answer, we are in the process of implementing all the recommendations of the homelessness and rough sleeping task force. We learned a lot from last year’s winter initiatives and those lessons will be applied this year. We are committing significant funding to that. We have allocated more than £23 million of the ending homelessness fund to get on with implementing the recommendations. We have also recently announced additional funding for the housing first approach.

I absolutely agree with the member, and the sentiment that I now express in terms of the detail of what we are doing to tackle rough sleeping and homelessness is backed up by the practical action that we are taking.

More generally, I think that we should never see those who seek asylum as a burden. We are undertaking our moral responsibility in offering asylum to people here. Given the nature of the constituency that I represent, I regularly make representations on the part of a large number of asylum seekers. We often find that people who come here seeking asylum are highly skilled and highly educated. I strongly believe that they should be allowed to work and make a contribution while they are here, as so many of them want to do.

I hope that the Parliament can unite on all those issues and call on the UK Government to change the rules that are causing and exacerbating so much of the misery that asylum seekers face, and also get behind the work that we are doing to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping, not just for asylum seekers but for everybody who faces that situation.

There are a couple of further supplementary questions.


Universal Credit

Does the First Minister share my concern that this week’s United Kingdom budget was a missed opportunity to end the roll-out of universal credit? The chancellor’s proclamation that universal credit “is here to stay” risks driving more children into poverty and forcing families to depend on food banks, such as the five food banks in Glasgow Anniesland.

Yes, I agree. The extra money that was announced for universal credit and the changes to the work allowances within it were of course welcome, but they do not go nearly far enough. Universal credit will still adversely affect many people and lead many people into rent arrears and debt that would otherwise be completely avoidable. I still take the view that universal credit should not be tinkered with; it should be halted. I hope that the Parliament continues to call on the UK Government to do exactly that.

I have quoted the Resolution Foundation a couple of times today. Interestingly, it has pointed out that the income tax threshold increases and the increases to universal work allowances

“do not offset the impact of the ... benefits freeze”

for lower-income households. The issue is not just about universal credit; it is about the overall impact of the welfare cuts, which as I said earlier are leading to a situation in which the richest in society will end up better off and the poorest in society will end up worse off. As we saw from Jackson Carlaw earlier, that is literally indefensible, and I hope that the Parliament continues to stand up against it.


Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002 (Consultation)

The Scottish Government’s consultation on the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002 closed in January. Analysis of the responses was published in July, and the vast majority of the 20,000 respondents want a real ban on hunting with dogs. The fox hunting season begins again on Saturday, yet the Government still has not published a response. Does the First Minister believe that the Scottish Government has done enough to ensure that foxes are not hunted with hounds when the season begins this weekend?

The Scottish Government’s response is due to be published imminently. I do not have the date in front of me, but I know that the Cabinet is due to discuss it very soon. I will ask Roseanna Cunningham to write to the member to give her more detail on the timing of that.

Do I think that we have done enough? I think that we have done the right thing. We asked Lord Bonomy to review the provisions, and he has published a report. It is right that we carefully consider the way forward, and that is exactly what we are doing, taking full account of the consultation responses that we have received. As I say, we will set out our response in due course, and as soon as possible.


Antisemitism

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking in response to the reported rise in antisemitism. (S5F-02717)

There is absolutely no place in Scotland or anywhere else for any form of antisemitism or religious hatred. Last week, we learned of the tragic attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, and my thoughts—and I am sure the thoughts of all members—are with all those who have been affected. We stand in solidarity with the Jewish community across the world.

I was reminded of the importance of tolerance, compassion and respect during my visit to Auschwitz earlier this week with schoolchildren from across Scotland. I certainly will never forget what I saw there and none of us should ever forget the horrors of genocides around the world. They are a stark reminder of the inhumanity and violence that bigotry and intolerance can cause.

We are committed to tackling hate crime and prejudice. We recently launched the letters from Scotland campaign, which aims to encourage witnesses and victims to report hate crime and help to create a society where hate crime and prejudice of any form are not tolerated.

I certainly share the First Minister’s sympathies with those who have been affected by the attack in Pittsburgh. I, too, found my visit to Auschwitz incredibly moving, especially when I saw the railway there.

Does the First Minister agree that the words and tone that politicians use are extremely important and can have a big impact on the people who hear them? Does she agree that we all need to be wary and careful of the tone that we use, and that that includes President Trump when he talks about Mexico, and other people when they talk about Israel and the Jewish communities?

Yes, I absolutely agree with that. It is incumbent on us all to consider carefully the words, language and tone that we use. Words matter, and all of us are aware of the damaging impact that can be inflicted on individuals and communities through the irresponsible use of language. Everybody in public life has a duty to be aware of that and to understand the importance of the messages, tone and language that we use. It is important that we acknowledge and take time to consider the impact that our words can have on people and their families, and of course that includes personalised attacks and violent language. Those debase all of us, and each and every one of us has a part to play in confronting and challenging them.

The First Minister referred to her visit to Auschwitz this week. In reflecting on her visit—as I have reflected on my visits to Holocaust memorials, such as Yad Vashem in Jerusalem—does she agree that, above all else, the principal lesson of the Holocaust is that none of us can ever afford to look the other way in the face of antisemitism? Even in a country as otherwise welcoming and civilised as Scotland, as Ephraim Borowski of the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities recently said,

“Jewish people remain 30 times more likely than others to be targeted for their religion”.

Is that a call not merely for words but for action?

Yes. All of us have to look carefully at not just what we say but how we apply those words in the actions that we take. As the First Minister and the leader of my party, I take that responsibility very seriously, and I hope that that goes for members across the chamber.

I thoroughly recommend to any member who has not yet visited Auschwitz that they take the opportunity to do so if they get it. It is a profoundly unsettling experience, but an incredibly important one. As I said when I was there on Tuesday, it is important to remember all those who suffered and were murdered there and to pay tribute to that suffering, but it is also really important that we do not see what happened there just in a historical context. It is not just a history lesson. The Holocaust did not start in Auschwitz, Birkenau or any of the concentration camps; it started in everyday antisemitism and discrimination and the othering and dehumanising of Jews. That is the lesson that we must learn and apply in our modern lives.

That is why I was so pleased to be at Auschwitz with 200 Scottish school students and why I am so pleased that the Scottish Government supports—as I know many members do—the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust to ensure that as many young people as possible get that experience. It had a profound impact on me, but I know from watching the reactions of the young people whom I was with that it had a profound impact on them as well. That can only be to the good as we do everything that we can to ensure that those horrors cannot be allowed to happen again.

I fully support the First Minister’s words. However, this week, the acting leader of West Lothian Council’s Scottish National Party councillors and one of his colleagues shared and then defended sharing an article that attacked a young female Jewish trade union leader for her work in representing low-paid workers. The article cited Adolf Hitler and “Mein Kampf”. The author of the article was rightly suspended by the First Minister’s party. Will the First Minister take further action and suspend both elected councillors and others who spread such offensive and hateful material and attack and abuse people for simply doing their job?

I will respond seriously and in a heartfelt way to that legitimate question. To follow up on Adam Tomkins’s question, it is important that all of us reflect on not just what we say but what we do. The author of that blog was suspended from SNP membership earlier this week. Obviously, due process will now have to be gone through, so I will not say any more about that at this stage, but I will say that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definitions of antisemitism will be used in the consideration of that disciplinary complaint.

The SNP councillor in question has written to the young woman who has been mentioned today with an unreserved apology, fully recognising that he made a significant error of judgment and that that error of judgment arose out of a lack of understanding and knowledge.

There are two things that I want to say about that. First, I discussed those matters in general terms with members of the Jewish community whom I was with on Tuesday. When people get things wrong because of a lack of understanding or knowledge, it is sometimes important that we give them a chance to learn, because education and learning are an important part of combating antisemitism, intolerance and racism of all forms. The SNP is responsible for the decisions that we take on those matters and is answerable for those decisions, but in all such matters, we have consulted the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities, and we have done so this week in relation to the appropriate response to the situation.

The final point that I want to make on this is equally important. I could stand here right now and run through a whole list of alleged failures by Labour or other parties to take these things seriously and, indeed, to act as seriously as we have done this week. However, I am not going to do that because, although in a democracy it is really important that we hold each other to account, check each other’s behaviour and call out unacceptable behaviour—that is a vital part of our democratic process—it is equally important that we do not rush to weaponise these things against each other for petty party-political reasons. We are all guilty of that sometimes. Fundamentally, it is really important that we stand united in saying that antisemitism, racism, bigotry and intolerance in any form are completely unacceptable.

The SNP will continue to treat the matter in that way and we will continue to be answerable for the decisions that we make. However, ultimately, on these issues there is a lot more that unites all of us than divides us. We would probably do a greater service to the memory of those whom we have been discussing and to future generations if we took the time to stand in solidarity on these issues as much as we choose to divide.


Students (Mental Health Support)

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to ensure that there is mental health support for college and university students. (S5F-02737)

Every student should have access to emotional, mental health and wellbeing support. That is why our programme for government includes a commitment to provide more than 80 additional counsellors in colleges and universities over the next four years, with an investment of about £20 million.

We are also supporting the National Union of Students Scotland’s think positive project, which aims to find ways to support students’ experience in mental ill health, to tackle stigma and discrimination and to promote wellbeing. We will continue to work closely with the university and college sectors, NUS Scotland and other partners on implementation of the additional counsellors, and to ensure an integrated wraparound approach to student wellbeing in higher and further education.

As the First Minister will be aware, the number of university students in Scotland who are seeking support for mental ill health has increased by two thirds in five years. Information from universities across Scotland for the numbers of students seeking some form of support shows that 11,700 students asked for help in 2016-17, compared with 7,000 in 2012-13, with cases ranging from anxiety to depression to gender-based violence to body dysmorphia. How does the First Minister plan to ensure that mental health funding is split fairly across colleges and universities? I note that she has indicated that some implementation is going on, but when can the students expect to see more counsellors on the campuses?

The short answer to that important question is that the announcement that we made in the programme for government—obviously, there will be more details when we present our budget in a few weeks—is that we will invest significantly in additional counsellors for schools, colleges and universities. That will have an impact on campuses across the country.

Rachael Hamilton was absolutely right to mention the increase in students who are coming forward for support. Of course, that reflects the increase across society in the number of people who are coming forward for support for mental health issues. As I have said many times, we should in some ways welcome that, because it is a sign that the stigma that is associated with mental health is reducing.

However, that also puts the responsibility on the Government’s shoulders to ensure that the services are there. As well as investing more, we need to reconfigure delivery of mental health services, with much more preventative support and much more support not only in schools, colleges and universities, but in, for example, police stations and general practice surgeries, so that is exactly what we are trying to do.

Perhaps one of the most important things that we will do in implementing the plans is to develop the community mental wellbeing service, which will cater for everybody in the five to 24-year-old age group. There is a wide range of things that it is important that we take forward, and we are committed to continuing to do so.


Air Departure Tax (Highlands and Islands Exemption)

To ask the First Minister what recent discussions the Scottish Government has had with the European Commission regarding the Highlands and Islands exemption from the air departure tax. (S5F-02725)

We want to protect the existing Highlands and Islands exemption from the air departure tax. We have written to the United Kingdom Government, asking it to notify the exemption for approval to the European Commission, and we have on-going discussions with it on the matter. Only the UK Government, as the European Union member state, can engage with the Commission to pursue that notification.

However, as has been previously set out, notification is only one avenue. We are continuing to explore a range of options in order to try to find the best possible solution to the Highlands and Islands exemption issue, which, of course, needs to be resolved before ADT can be introduced in Scotland.

The First Minister will be well aware of the calls from some quarters of the aviation industry south of the Highland line to kill off the exemption, which would have potentially damaging consequences for businesses and communities across my region. Can the First Minister give Parliament an absolute assurance today that she will resist those misguided demands and protect the interests of the Highlands and Islands by preserving the vital exemption?

It is not just the case that I can give that assurance; the actions that we have taken to date demonstrate that we are absolutely determined to protect the Highlands and Islands exemption. We have taken the decision that ADT cannot be introduced and that some policy changes that we want to make therefore cannot happen until we have resolved the issue of the exemption. We continue to take steps to try to get the UK Government, with us, to come up with solutions.

I do not know whom, exactly, David Stewart was citing, but I would certainly not support anybody who wants to kill off the exemption. We understand that the exemption is important for the economy and connectivity of the Highlands and Islands, which is why we are taking action to try to protect it.


ScotRail (Performance)

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking in light of ScotRail’s performance falling to its lowest level since the current franchise began. (S5F-02732)

I am fully aware of the performance issues that ScotRail requires to address. However, the most recent punctuality statistics were impacted significantly by the severe weather during storm Ali, which caused damage to overhead power lines and trees to fall on to tracks.

Notwithstanding those issues, we continue to impress upon the senior management of Network Rail the need for a renewed focus on maintaining the network infrastructure in Scotland. That will help ScotRail to meet its challenging but achievable targets.

Michael Matheson is due to meet Sir Peter Hendy, the chair of Network Rail, and the ScotRail Alliance separately over the next week. He will be making it clear that it is absolutely imperative that performance improves swiftly and effectively to the standards that are expected by passengers. Of course, that process would be helped by full devolution of Network Rail—a move that would allow the appropriate parliamentary oversight of the whole rail infrastructure in Scotland, rather than just part of it.

More services are running late, carriages are jam-packed because the new fleets are well behind schedule, and ScotRail’s performance, to be quite frank, stinks. Now, that is being taken to an all-too-literal level. This week, we learned that ScotRail will be dumping human waste on tracks, thanks to the roll-out of trains that first entered service in the 1970s. ScotRail calls those trains “classic”; is that the description that the First Minister would use, and does she think that the practice is acceptable on a 21st century rail system?

That is not a practice that we support, and ScotRail has said that it is not one that it wants to continue. It is an interim measure. It is regrettable, and ScotRail is working to mitigate the issue as soon as possible. The Scottish Government, of course, has directly funded previous installation programmes to eradicate that practice across ScotRail fleets. It will be necessary to introduce some unrefurbished high-speed trains to the service for an interim period, but it is important that ScotRail works to resolve that situation as quickly as possible.

In terms of wider performance issues, it is important—notwithstanding what I said in my initial answer—to stress that nearly 90 out of 100 trains arrive within the recognised punctuality measure. The latest figures showed ScotRail’s public performance measure at 87.7 per cent, which is above the Great Britain average of 85.8 per cent. The figures in that period were, as I said, affected by storm Ali and the severe weather that came with it.

My final point is one that I have made before—that more than half the delays to ScotRail trains are to do with Network Rail infrastructure. We continue to work hard with Network Rail to try to resolve that. We fund Network Rail’s operations in Scotland, but it would help if we could get the whole Parliament behind the calls for Network Rail to be properly devolved so that we could ensure scrutiny and oversight of the whole rail infrastructure. I hope that Mike Rumbles will support that.

That concludes First Minister’s questions. I note that a large number of members who wanted to ask supplementaries did not get in today, so again I call on members and ministers for short questions and short answers. Before we move to members’ business, we will have a short suspension to allow the gallery to clear, new guests to arrive and the ministers to change seats.

12:49 Meeting suspended.  

12:51 On resuming—