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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, December 1, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 01 December 2016

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Small Business Saturday, Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility, Ending Violence Against Women and Girls, Business Motion, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time


To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the day. (S5F-00561)

Today is world AIDS day so I say that, as First Minister, I am prepared to play my part in on-going efforts to challenge the stigma and myths that are associated with HIV.

Later today, I will have engagements to take forward the Government’s programme for Scotland.

I associate myself and my party with the statement that the First Minister made about world AIDS day.

Does the First Minister have complete confidence in our education agencies?

As Ruth Davidson is aware, we are undertaking a governance review right now. Our education agencies bring strengths and benefits to Scottish education and the curriculum for excellence, but we are asking fundamental questions about school education and the best way to empower schools to improve. That is why we launched the governance review, which is looking at the roles not only of the main agencies but of local government and, indeed, the Scottish Government. It is part of a wider set of reforms that are needed in light of the legitimate concerns that emerged last year from the findings of the Scottish survey of literacy and numeracy.

We are absolutely determined to raise standards for all and close the attainment gap for our poorest pupils. The reforms that we are undertaking to the roles and functions of the different parts of the school system will be a crucial part of achieving that.

The First Minister says that fundamental questions need to be asked about those agencies. It is hard to disagree with that, but she might want to reflect for a second on who has been in charge for the past 10 years. Over the past few days, the Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee and education experts have begun to shine a light on that record. For example, it emerged yesterday that teachers are swamped by no fewer than 20,000 pages of guidance on curriculum for excellence. Parents groups have pointed out that such documents are “totally inaccessible” to the average mum or dad and, worst of all, expert evidence has revealed that parents and teachers have no way of knowing whether curriculum for excellence is even working.

As Professor Lindsay Paterson put it this week, that failure is “a dereliction of duty”. Someone has to be held responsible for that failure, so I ask the First Minister: who should it be?

I do not accept the characterisation of failure but, for the avoidance of doubt, I am responsible for taking forward the Government’s commitments on education with, of course, the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills.

The guidance to which Ruth Davidson refers has built up over many years, and one of the priorities on which the Deputy First Minister has been working is simplifying the landscape in education and reducing the unnecessary bureaucracy with which teachers work. The efforts that he has been making have been broadly welcomed by the teaching profession.

On the wider thrust of Ruth Davidson’s questions, we were right to put in place curriculum for excellence, the development of which had, broadly speaking, cross-party support. However, I am determined to ensure that, as we go forward, we can measure our education system’s success and highlight where things do not work as well as we would like. That is why we have published a national improvement framework and will start to publish more data about school performance than has ever been published before. That is a sign of how seriously we take the issue and of our determination to improve standards for all in Scottish education.

We keep hearing from the Scottish National Party about jam tomorrow, but that is from a Government that has spent 10 years failing to sort out endemic failures in Scottish education.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority has the important job of running our children’s exams. I will read out just some of the views that MSPs expressed about it at the Education and Skills Committee last week. Johann Lamont said that the SQA exists in a “parallel universe”. Richard Lochhead said that we are

“in danger of sinking in a sea of jargon”.

Liz Smith said that MSPs

“have seldom come across evidence that is so compelling in its concerns”.

Tavish Scott ended up saying:

“Please do not scare me any more.”—[Official Report, Education and Skills Committee, 23 November 2016; c 7, 14, 20.]

That shows criticism and a loss of confidence from across the chamber. I am absolutely sure that SQA staff are attempting to do the very best that they can in pretty trying circumstances. My question to the Government is: how has it allowed that to happen on its watch?

First, I am sorry if this disappoints members, but I do not think that I am prepared to make not scaring Tavish Scott a key priority of Scottish Government policy, in education or any other matter.

Ruth Davidson does a disservice to the work that is going on in education. The governance review is intended to take a critical look at the whole governance of Scottish education—at the role not just of agencies such as Education Scotland and the SQA but of local government and, indeed, the Scottish Government. I hope that all MSPs, including those who expressed the views that Ruth Davidson quoted, and interested members of the public will take the opportunity—there still is an opportunity—to give views to that review. The review closes in the first week of January and the Government will set out its intentions thereafter.

At the heart of the governance review is our commitment to ensuring that as much power and responsibility as possible in education lies with teachers in schools. That is a key part of driving the improvement that we want to see. I would have thought that this was an opportunity for Ruth Davidson and her party to feed into the governance review. I am not sure whether they have done so yet but, if they have not, I encourage them to do so.

I hear again the First Minister talking about all the things that she plans to do in the future but, to be frank, we have heard about reviews, commissions and listening exercises before. The evidence that is before the Parliament points to a broken system.

Let us spell out the consequences of 10 years of inaction from the Government. We have a stubbornly wide attainment gap that is not closing; we have numeracy standards that are falling; we have inspections at a five-year low; and we have some teachers telling us that the exams that they are asking children to sit are the worst that they have ever seen. A generation of pupils has been failed by the SNP, and teachers are trying their best but are swamped by bureaucracy.

The First Minister talks of a governance review, but it is clear that the issues are far more fundamental than just the area that that review tackles. How many more pupils have to be failed before we get a root-and-branch review of everything and get all the changes that we need?

Let me touch on a few of the things that—not surprisingly—Ruth Davidson did not mention. There is the fact that over the past few years we have had record exam passes—a credit to teachers and our young people. I mention the fact that we have a record number of young people going into positive destinations—a credit to teachers and our young people. I also mention the fact that, yes, we have an attainment gap that I have made it very clear that we are determined to close, but we see signs of it already closing. Those are the positive things about education.

It does not surprise me that Ruth Davidson wants to talk education down, but—as I said in my original answer—we are determined to ask the hard and fundamental questions about how we make Scottish education better. That is why John Swinney has already taken steps to reduce the bureaucracy in our exam system, which I would have thought that Ruth Davidson would welcome. It is why we established the governance review. It is why we are getting on and implementing the national improvement framework, so that shortly we will have more information with which to hold the Government and all parts of our education system to account on the performance of schools than we have ever had before.

Those are the steps that parents around the country want us to take, because we are determined that we will have a world-class education system and rising standards for all and that we will close the attainment gap.


To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the week. (S5F-00565)

Engagements to take forward the Government’s programme for Scotland.

The treatment time guarantee will ensure that eligible patients start treatment within 12 weeks of the treatment being agreed—that is what we were told by Nicola Sturgeon when she introduced a legal right to treatment for patients. Can the First Minister tell us how many national health service patients have not been seen within 12 weeks since that legal right was introduced in 2012?

Since the legal right was introduced in 2012, there have been 53,257 who have waited longer than 12 weeks, but there have been 1,267,000 treated within 12 weeks. Waiting times are lower than they were when we took office, but we have work to do because of rising demand in our health service. We are continuing to ensure that our health service has the investment and record numbers of staff so that we can continue to provide the best care and treatment for patients across the country.

That is a legal guarantee to 53,000 people broken. In fact, the past few months have been the worst on record, and these are not just statistics. They are pensioners in need of a knee replacement having to wait for months, or people waiting for eye surgery facing delay after delay. Each time I bring an individual case to the chamber, the First Minister promises to deal with it. It would take me centuries to work through each of those 53,000 cases. How bad do things have to get before she steps in to fix this mess?

Kezia Dugdale talked about records when it comes to waiting times. It is worth pointing out that when this Government took office, only 85 per cent of patients were being treated within 18 weeks. Not only have we reduced waiting times from 18 weeks to 12 weeks, a higher percentage of patients are now being seen within that shorter waiting time. That is the progress that we are making.

We also see record numbers of staff working in our health service and record levels of investment in our health service. I know that Kezia Dugdale does not like me to point out this fact, but there is going to be more investment in our health service under this Government than there would have been in the admittedly unlikely event that Labour had won the election, because Labour promised the lowest increase in health funding of any party represented in the chamber. That is the reality.

We have rising demand for our health service. That is why we continue to invest to build up the capacity of our health service so that we can continue to ensure that more and more patients get seen within those shorter waiting times.

There she goes again, Presiding Officer, bringing up a 10-year-old record of a Labour Government and pointing at England. It just does not cut it with patients.

The First Minister likes to remind the chamber that she is going to spend £500 million more in the current session of Parliament. What she did not tell us is that Audit Scotland told us last month that she has to cut £500 million out of health budgets in this year alone through the health boards. That is a fact that she cannot avoid. In fact, it sums up the priorities of this Government. While Labour Party activists were out campaigning with NHS staff and patients at the weekend to protect the NHS, the Scottish National Party was out talking about independence. It is no surprise that the SNP does not want to campaign on the NHS, because here is its record: local services facing closure, missed targets and a growing workforce crisis. Is it not the case that, under the SNP, the NHS is stuck in the waiting room while the First Minister plots a second referendum?

Kezia Dugdale rightly asked about the performance of this Government and, when I am talking about the performance of this Government, it is perfectly reasonable to look at the situation that we inherited and the progress that has been made since.

Kezia Dugdale wants to quote Audit Scotland. Here is what it said in its recent report:

“Overall staff levels are at the highest level ever”

in NHS Scotland.

When we took office, as I said, 85 per cent of in-patients and day cases in Scotland were being seen within 18 weeks—those figures are from quarter 1 of 2007. Now, almost 90 per cent of patients are being seen within 12 weeks, so the waiting time is shorter and the percentage of patients being seen within it is higher.

That is progress in anybody’s language, but it is not enough progress, which is why we are committed to continuing to increase investment, not by £500 million in the current session of Parliament but by £500 million more than inflation in the current session of Parliament. Labour simply committed to inflationary increases for the national health service.

More investment, more members of staff and reform of our health service so that we get more investment into social care as well—those are the actions that patients across the country want to see and they are the actions that we will continue to take.

We have just one constituency supplementary question this week, which is from Jackie Baillie.

On Monday evening, over 200 people attended a public meeting to express their opposition to the proposed closure of the Vale of Leven maternity unit. One of those attending said:

“If the cabinet secretary is not doing her job then I’m going to tell her and hold her to account. She has said she’s committed to the Vale. The problem is that we’ve got to make sure she sticks to that.”

Those were the words of the SNP group leader on West Dunbartonshire Council. Does the First Minister agree with him? Will she make sure that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport sticks to the vision for the Vale?

The SNP Government is committed to the vision for the Vale. People have longer memories than Labour would like, so it is worth pointing out that, if Labour had won the 2007 election, it is highly unlikely that the Vale of Leven hospital would even be open today. The Government stepped in to save the Vale of Leven hospital, just as we saved the accident and emergency services at Monklands and Ayr. We will continue to stand up for local services, because that is what people expect of our Government—and they know that that is not what they got when that lot were last in government.

Cabinet (Meetings)

To ask the First Minister what issues will be discussed at the next meeting of the Cabinet. (S5F-00558)

Matters of importance to the people of Scotland.

Even though the Tory chancellor is in Scotland today to talk about Brexit with the First Minister, Ruth Davidson is too embarrassed to raise the issue in Parliament. In June, Ruth Davidson said that her priority was the European Union single market, but this week, her five tests on Brexit adopt the language of Nigel Farage about rekindling trade with the British empire instead. It is clear that the Conservatives will sign up to anything on Brexit, no matter how bad the deal is. It is a blank-cheque Brexit.

The Scottish Conservatives have given up, but we have not. When the First Minister meets the chancellor today, will she make the case for a United Kingdom-wide, Brexit-deal referendum, so that the public can have a say on the final Brexit deal?

It is nice to hear Willie Rennie talk about the benefits of referendums for a change. I agree with the broad thrust of his question. It is increasingly difficult to distinguish between the Conservatives and UKIP. Anyone who is in any doubt about that need only look at this morning’s reports about what are said to have been Theresa May’s views on denying education in certain circumstances to children from certain other countries who are living here.

I am absolutely consistent on the question of the single market: the United Kingdom should stay in the single market. There is no mandate or economic, social or cultural justification for taking the UK out of the single market. I will make that point to Philip Hammond this afternoon, as I have made that point to the Prime Minister and others in the UK Government. I hope that everybody in the Scottish Parliament will get behind the position of the Scottish Government on that.

Gently, I say that the First Minister did not answer my question. Momentum for a Brexit-deal referendum is building. I hope that, in time, she will come to support it. I am interested in what else she might say to the chancellor. Look at what we are facing: NHS boards are contending with unprecedented budget cuts and councils are facing a £500 million funding crisis. No doubt the First Minister will complain bitterly to the chancellor about that—and so she should—but what else will she do?

This week the First Minister gained new income tax powers. I have a plan for a transformational investment of £500 million in education, from a modest penny on income tax. Will the First Minister join me, or will she bitterly point the finger at the Conservatives? [Laughter.]

I do not know whether Willie Rennie intended to turn First Minister’s questions into a stand-up comedy routine, but he has perhaps been more successful on that front than he is successful normally.

There are serious issues underlying Willie Rennie’s point and I should not glide over the fact that I agree with much of the thrust of his questions to me today—that is not something that I can say every week. The Government will set out its budget plans in a couple of weeks’ time, when the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution will set out the budget to the Parliament. That is right and proper.

We set out our income tax proposals in our manifesto and I remind Willie Rennie that we won the election on the strength of that manifesto. However, he is right that it is not acceptable that the Scottish Government’s budget will be reduced by £2.9 billion—9 per cent in real terms—by the end of this decade compared with when the Conservatives took office. I will make that point very clearly to Philip Hammond this afternoon. I hope that Willie Rennie, the Labour MSPs and the Greens will back me on that. I am pretty sure that they will. I hope that, with the exception of the Conservatives, everybody in this chamber will get behind me on that message.

During the EU referendum campaign, we were promised, were we not, that a leave vote would deliver £350 million extra a week for the national health service? We heard last week from Philip Hammond that there would be not one single extra penny for the NHS or for social care. It was absolutely disgraceful. All we heard about were more cuts, extra borrowing and a bleak outlook for living standards and the economy. That is the price of a Tory Government at Westminster.

There are a number of supplementaries.

Leaked Cabinet letters suggest that the Home Office under Theresa May wanted children of illegal immigrants to go to the bottom of the list for school places. Is that a chilling insight into where an increasingly right-wing Tory Government wants to drag the UK?

Unfortunately, I think that it is. I take a very simple view of this. There are debates around immigration and some of those debates involve legitimate issues that we have to engage with. However, the simple view that I think all of us should take on this is that children are children and when children are in this country, we should support them and we should ensure that they get access to education. I hope that everybody would agree with that on the basic grounds of morality and human rights.

Over the past six years, Scottish Government funding for councils has fallen by 8.4 per cent in real terms. That is a choice that the Government has made. Can the First Minister assure us that that trend will be reversed when the draft budget is published later this month?

We will set out our budget when the finance secretary stands up in the chamber on 15 December. We will outline our plans then for local government and for our other areas of responsibility.

On the issue of local government funding, we live in tough times and I recognise how tough it is and has been for local government. However, this Government has treated local government fairly. The Accounts Commission report that was published this week shows that the decline in local government funding is broadly in line with the decline in Scottish Government funding overall.

Some interesting figures were published this week that the member, given that he is a Tory member, might want to have a look at. The Institute for Fiscal Studies, which published council-level figures from across the UK, found that reductions in local government funding in Scotland—and in Wales, for that matter—were smaller over the period that the IFS looked at than they were in England. Perhaps the member should have a word with his own colleagues before he stands up in this chamber and talks to this Government about funding when it is the cuts from his party to this Government that are causing so many of the problems.

Ruth Davidson said before the EU referendum that the leave campaign was based on lies. After the EU referendum, she still said that she wanted to remain in the single market. She has since sold out completely, demanding that the Scottish Government signs up for whatever hard-right Tory Brexit Theresa May decides upon. How will the First Minister ensure that Scotland is protected from the dishonest interests of Ruth Davidson’s Tory party?

I think that Ruth Davidson’s shifting position on these matters shows that she is more interested in standing up for the Brexiteers in the Tory party than she is in standing up for Scotland’s interests.

It is only two years ago, remember, that Ruth Davidson said that voting no would protect our place in Europe. A few months ago, she said that she wanted Scotland and the UK to stay in the European Union. After the referendum, she wanted Scotland to stay in the single market. Now she has sold out on that as well. We are learning that Ruth Davidson’s position on these things, as is no doubt the case on many other things, is exactly what her bosses in London tell her it should be.

Franz Ferdinand, the Stone Roses, Calvin Harris, Blur and Beyoncé are just some of the acts that have headlined T in the Park, Scotland’s award-winning music festival, which I am sad to say will not be a feature of next summer’s live music programme.

Will the First Minister join me in recognising the huge contribution that DF Concerts, headed by Geoff Ellis, has made to Scotland’s vibrant live music scene, not to mention the Scottish economy? What can the Scottish Government do to overcome the problems that are faced by the organisers, who say that there were many barriers that led to the event’s cancellation? Indeed, anyone who wants to organise a live music festival faces such barriers. Scotland should maintain its track record of being a world-leading location for live music festivals. I hope that the First Minister agrees.

I welcome Pauline McNeill’s question. She was not a member in the previous parliamentary session; she should maybe have a word with some of her colleagues about the attitude that they took when this Government tried to assist T in the Park to continue to be the success that it was.

I pay tribute to the organisers of T in the Park. If it makes Pauline McNeill feel any better, I can tell her that I got some grief on Sunday from my 16-year-old nephew, who went to T in the Park for the first time this year; he was looking forward to going next year and is bitterly disappointed that he is not going.

The organisers have set out why they have taken the decision that they have taken. It is a break; it is not the termination of T in the Park. I am sure that we all wish the festival every success in future. It has been incredibly good for Scottish culture and the Scottish economy, and I hope that we see it back before too much longer.

Does the First Minister share my concern about this week’s comment from defence secretary Michael Fallon that United Kingdom shipbuilding needs rebalancing, which suggests that there is a risk to jobs in Scotland? What representations will the Scottish Government make to the Ministry of Defence, to ensure that it keeps the promises that have been made to workers on the Clyde?

We will continue to argue the case for Scottish shipbuilding. The Clyde yards are—as I know from my past constituency experience—the best place in the whole of the UK to build ships. They have an expert and dedicated workforce, as well as world-class facilities.

The promises that were made to our shipyards during the independence referendum have been watered down since then, so the member is absolutely right to say that we cannot take for granted that the UK Government will look after the interests of our shipyards. We will have to continue to make the case, and this Government will certainly do that.

I think that most fair-minded people agree with the First Minister in condemning the failed austerity of the Tory Government. Given the devastating impact that austerity is having on public services and communities up and down Scotland, will the First Minister think again about using the powers of this Parliament to protect the most vulnerable in our communities?

We will use the powers of this Parliament to protect public services and the most vulnerable in our communities. That is why, for example, we will take a different position from that of the Tory Government at Westminster over a tax cut for the 10 per cent highest earners in the country. We do not think that that is the right use of resources at this time.

We also have to be mindful of the squeeze on people’s living standards. We learned from a report last week that we are about to see the longest period of wage stagnation in this country since the second world war. That is what the Tory Government is inflicting on people the length and breadth of this country.

We have to take a balanced view, protecting the vulnerable, as we have always done in our mitigation of welfare cuts, making sure that we protect our public services, which we are doing, for example, through record investment in the national health service, and making sure that we take action to protect the living standards of people across our country who are struggling to make ends meet.

Further Devolution

To ask the First Minister, in light of comments by the Secretary of State for Scotland, what commitments the Scottish Government has received from the United Kingdom Government regarding the devolution of further powers. (S5F-00569)

We have received no commitments at all from the UK Government regarding the devolution of further powers. We saw the comments that the Secretary of State for Scotland made at the weekend, as a result of which the finance secretary has written to the secretary of state to ask him to explain exactly to what powers he was referring. We look forward to having a discussion on that.

We await that answer. I note that when he was asked about new powers for Scotland over agriculture and fishing, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs minister told the House of Commons that they would be part of a “UK-wide framework”. That does not sound to me like new powers—and let me say that that would be simply unacceptable. We cannot allow Brexit to become a Westminster power grab, and this Government will not stand back and let that happen.

The First Minister’s answer confirms my concerns. We have had warm words about further devolution from David Mundell before. The First Minister mentioned agriculture and fisheries—does she share my concerns that the UK Government has in the past used fishing as a bargaining chip and that it might well use it again?

That is a reasonable concern. From official papers, we know that the UK Government has previously considered fishing to be—and I quote—“expendable”. It sacrificed the fishing industry in exchange for wider interests and I do not think that that betrayal will be forgotten by those in the fishing industry or in the north-east of Scotland more generally. That is why I take no comfort from the prospect of a UK-wide framework on fishing. This Parliament should have no doubts that the Scottish Government will do everything that it can to protect and secure Scotland’s interests in the discussions that lie ahead, which will include ensuring that any powers coming back to Westminster from Europe do not stay in Westminster and that, as far as possible, they come to Scotland. That is what people would want us to argue for.

The First Minister mentioned agriculture a few moments ago. Given the fiasco of the Scottish National Party’s mismanagement of common agricultural policy payments in Scotland, many of us worry about agriculture falling under the SNP’s responsibility. Why would the First Minister prefer Scottish farming to be run by Brussels and not by this Parliament?

Agriculture is within this Government’s responsibilities. What I heard from Adam Tomkins there was exactly what John Mason was expressing concern about: we are hearing the ground being prepared for the Westminster power grab that I spoke about. If there are powers in areas of devolved competence coming back from Brussels to the UK, they should not stop at Westminster—they should come direct to this Government. I hope that nobody in this Parliament would argue for anything different.

As we know, First Minister, agriculture is already fully devolved to the Scottish Government, although common agricultural policy farm payments worth hundreds of millions of pounds will be paid to Scottish farmers through to 2020. Once that ends, we should be free to design our own system of farm payments. I have been asking this for a long time: will the Scottish Government now set up a specialist group to design options for how our funding should be spent in Scotland post-2020?

We will consider all options and we will talk to stakeholders in the agricultural industry and in other industries that are affected by the Brexit vote. We have given commitments to our farming community about CAP payments over the next few years.

There is a pretty fundamental question here that we have to settle first—I hope that we have the support of Mike Rumbles and the Liberal Democrats on it—as we do not even have a commitment that Scotland’s share of that funding will come to Scotland. Let us do things in good order and, as we fight those battles—I fear that some will be tough battles—I hope that we will have the support of everybody in this chamber, including the Conservatives. It will not be acceptable for powers to be taken away from this Parliament or for funding that should lie with this Parliament not to be given to this Parliament, and everybody in this chamber should resist those possibilities.

Curriculum for Excellence

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s position is on the ability of the education agencies to deliver the curriculum for excellence. (S5F-00563)

As I said earlier, our education agencies bring strength and benefit to education and to the curriculum for excellence. As I said in response to Ruth Davidson, we are asking some hard, fundamental questions about school education and about the best way to empower schools to improve. That is why we launched the governance review, which will look at the roles and responsibilities of those agencies, of local government and of the Scottish Government. That is the right way forward and it is a key part of our efforts to raise attainment for all and to close the attainment gap.

First Minister, at the Education and Skills Committee last week and again this week, the Scottish Qualifications Authority and Education Scotland admitted that significant issues have arisen about subject choice in S4, S5 and S6. Many parents and teachers have expressed concern that there has been a narrowing of subject choice because of the structure of the curriculum for excellence. Those comments were acknowledged by John Swinney in a parliamentary answer that he gave on 9 June. What is the First Minister doing to address that concern, given the serious implications for college, university and job applications?

Subject choices are largely determined at school level. We want to make sure that all young people get access to the qualifications that they want and are able to take to best equip them for the further education, the higher education and the job opportunities that lie ahead. We will talk to and discuss any concerns about that with the SQA, Education Scotland, parents or any other part of the education system. As John Swinney has been doing—around the bureaucracy in and the governance of our schools, by getting extra money into areas of greatest need to help us to raise attainment—we will respond positively to all those issues.

Although the governance review sets out to empower local communities and schools, thereby creating a clear national framework, as the First Minister has outlined, it also sets out proposals to strengthen the middle. What role is envisaged for local authorities in doing that?

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development review that was published about this time last year recommended the strengthening of the middle—the tier of education governance that lies between national Government and schools. That means, among other things, considering the role of local authorities and agencies in leading and supporting improvement—exactly what we have been talking about.

I agree with the OECD that increased collaboration and greater leadership in the middle tier is essential to support our ambition of raising standards and closing the attainment gap. Consequently, the governance review has included the questions of, for example, how school clusters should operate and how councils can collaborate regionally to improve school performance and education.

All those live issues are being looked at under the governance review. I repeat my hope that all members with an interest in this policy area contribute to the review, because the Government looks forward to taking forward its findings early in the new year.

The First Minister has repeatedly prayed in aid the Scottish Government’s school governance review. That review is about centralising control of schools and their budgets away from local authorities. Will she explain how that will address the problem of the dysfunctionality of the SQA, and of Education Scotland, which was laid bare in the Education and Skills Committee this week?

This is one of the really depressing things about these debates. We have a consensus—albeit that we might have disagreements about how to do things—that we need reform in our education system to tackle some of the problems and to drive up standards. We have published a review to have an open, honest and fundamental look at our school governance. At the heart of the review and the basis on which it is being progressed is a presumption—I think that it is on the front page; it might even be in the Deputy First Minister’s foreword—that roles and responsibilities lie at individual school level. It is about the opposite of centralisation; it is about decentralising power down to individual schools.

I recognise the matter as a priority area not just for the Government, but for parties across this chamber, so let us have a grown-up debate about how to take forward our schools and education system and not immediately indulge in default opposition and sloganeering around it.

National Health Service (Workforce)

To ask the First Minister what steps the Scottish Government is taking to address workforce issues in the NHS. (S5F-00580)

We appreciate the achievements of all our NHS Scotland staff in delivering safe, high-quality health and care services day in and day out to the people of Scotland. Staffing has increased to historically high levels, with more than 11,000 additional staff since the Government took office, including more than 2,000 more qualified nurses and midwives and more than 1,500 more consultants. We are also producing a national health and social care workforce plan to discuss with staff how we ensure the right numbers and mix of skills across acute and community health services. The plan builds on the creation of our nursing and midwifery workload and workforce planning tools, which have helped to drive increases in the nursing establishment.

Despite the First Minister’s warm words, after 10 years of this Government, the reality is very different. Under this Government and this Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport, nine out of 10 nurses say that their workload is getting worse and one in three nurses say that there are not enough of them to do their jobs properly. There has been a failure to plan the workforce properly. Nursing vacancies are up; midwifery vacancies are up; general practitioner vacancies are up; consultant vacancies are up; waiting times are up; the number of failed standards are up; and private spend is up, too. When will the First Minister wake up, take responsibility and act for our NHS?

Anas Sarwar may like to ignore the fact, or pretend that it does not exist, that 11,000 more people—including more than 2,000 extra nurses—are working in our NHS now than there were when this Government took office. Record numbers of staff are working in our health service.

Yes, those staff are working hard, and they work under pressure because of the rising demand for health services, which is largely due to the ageing population. That is why we are not saying, “Job done.” We are continuing to invest more and more in our health service, so that we can employ more staff and reform services in order to build up social care, primary care and mental health services in the community and take the pressure off our acute services.

A lot of work has still to be done on that—I would not say otherwise. However, our health service is performing well. It is performing better on many key indicators than health services in any other part of the United Kingdom, so let us get behind those who work in our health services, get behind the Government’s investment plans and get behind the Government’s reform plans. Every time that we bring forward a proposal for reform, Anas Sarwar and his colleagues oppose it. Labour has no ideas. The level of funding that it promised is the lowest of all the parties and it is completely bereft of any positive contribution to the debate. As long as that remains the case, we will get on with doing the hard work for Scotland’s patients.

Dublin Visit

To ask the First Minister whether she will provide an update following her visit to Dublin. (S5F-00581)

The purpose of the visit to Dublin was to build on the already strong economic, cultural and political links that exist between Scotland and Ireland. Following a meeting with the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, at the British-Irish Council last week, I met in Dublin Ireland’s President, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to discuss continued co-operation on a range of issues.

I also engaged with more than 120 Ireland-based business chief executives at an event hosted by Ireland’s national business confederation, to stress that Scotland remains open for business and will continue to be an attractive place in which to invest.

I had the privilege of addressing the Seanad, which is the upper house of the Irish Parliament, to stress again the close links between Scotland and Ireland that I hope we will see flourish in the years to come.

Despite the howls of horror from Murdo Fraser and other Tories that Scotland would dare to engage directly with another country on matters of mutual interest, is it not the case that closer Irish-Scottish co-operation could create significant opportunities for both nations? Is it not clear that other European Union countries increasingly want to engage with an internationalist Scottish Government as the United Kingdom Government’s focus becomes more narrow and isolationist?

Yes. Most people whom I spoke to in Ireland at the start of the week are horrified at the direction that the UK Government is taking. We must remember that the Brexit vote did not just disregard the interests and views of people in Scotland; it also completely disregarded the implications of Brexit for the Irish peace process and the Good Friday agreement, which are issues of real concern to the people of Ireland. They now have to work through them in order to deal with the negligence and recklessness of a Tory Government that was not interested in those issues during the referendum campaign.

Whether to Ireland or any other part of the EU, it is important that we give a message on Scotland’s behalf that Scotland is open, internationalist and outward looking, and that we want to work with other independent countries for the common good. Right now, the Westminster Government is giving the completely opposite message, which is why it is more important than ever that we take Scotland’s message to Europe and the world.

For the avoidance of doubt, will the First Minister tell us whether she had any formal discussions on Brexit with the Irish Government in Dublin this week?

Brexit featured in pretty much every discussion that I had: Government-wise, politician-wise, economy-wise and in every other sense. The Irish Government, like other European Governments, is not formally negotiating with the UK or any part of the UK before the triggering of article 50. That position is, or certainly should be, well known.

In Ireland, as in other countries that we have been speaking to, it was recognised that it is important that Scotland’s position is understood and that there is an awareness that in the United Kingdom we are not all right-wing Brexiteers like the Conservative Government and that there are people who want to continue to build relationships and to work co-operatively with other countries across Europe. I would be proud to continue to send that message across Europe, and I hope that, even if we do not get support from the Tories on that, we get support from the Labour benches.