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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 2, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 02 March 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Scottish Apprenticeship Week 2017, Child Protection Improvement Programme, Scottish Patient Safety Programme, Criminal Finances Bill, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time


1. Ruth Davidson (Edinburgh Central) (Con)

To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the day. (S5F-00949)

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

Thank you. This week, the education secretary announced that he would be delaying his education reform plans because he had received more than 1,000 submissions and needed more time to—in his words—chew them over.

If I personally promise to write 1,000 submissions opposing the First Minister’s unwanted plan for a second referendum, will she chew them over and dump that as well?

Education reform is a serious matter that I would have hoped all members in the chamber would want to discuss in a serious way. We have had the consultation on governance reform and we have received more than 1,000 responses to that consultation. It is right and proper that the education secretary considers all those responses and then comes to Parliament with our proposals on the way forward.

Of course, the governance review is only part of our education reform programme. We have our attainment challenge, which is now up and running. Our pupil equity funding is making sure that, from the start of the coming financial year, £120 million will go directly to headteachers to help them with the work of closing the attainment gap. We have our national improvement framework in place. We are now publishing more data about the performance of our schools than ever before and, of course, from August this year, that data will be informed by new standardised assessment.

I have made very clear on many occasions the priority that I attach to making sure that we continue to raise standards in our schools and—crucially—that we close that stubborn attainment gap. I would hope that Ruth Davidson and all members in the chamber will get behind us as we do that.

There we go—education reform is on the slow train. [Interruption.] Let us dig a little into the education secretary’s claim that he is still making up his mind about some of the education reform issues, because I do not think that it stacks up.

Two years ago, a charity called the Hometown Foundation submitted proposals to the Scottish National Party Government to set up a series of community-run pilot schools across Scotland. It was told that it would get an answer soon, but it is still waiting. Finally, in November last year, Hometown wrote to Mr Swinney. I have the letter here. Hometown says that

“we have ... lost our patience”

with the whole process, which

“has been a series of false dawns.”

The education secretary says that he needs more time but is it not the truth—as we see from Hometown’s experience—that the Government has made up its mind; it just will not say so?

No, that is not the case. What we have said to Hometown and indeed what we have said to other interests is that these decisions require—rightly and properly, I would have thought—to be taken in the context of the governance review.

The governance review is one part of our wider programme of education reform and when there is a consultation with the potential for some far-reaching reforms in education, it is absolutely right that we take time to consider the responses and to consider the way forward. That is what I think that people expect us to do.

As we do that, the other strands of our reform programme are well under way. There is the attainment challenge, as I said. There is pupil equity funding, and no member of this Parliament should underestimate—I know that no headteacher in this country underestimates—the importance of giving £120 million directly to headteachers so that they can decide on and fund for themselves measures to improve attainment in schools. Standardised assessment will start in schools across the country from August this year, further informing the data that we publish, so that we know in detail how our schools are performing and where schools are doing well and where they need to do further work to improve.

That is an ambitious and serious programme of reform. I think that Ruth Davidson has said in the past that she supports reforms to education. Instead of coming to this chamber and sounding as if she opposes what we are doing, is it not about time that she got behind the reforms that we are taking forward?

The First Minister talks about her delayed governance review and says that we all have to wait for it, but in its letter Hometown told her Government that it was more than able to crack on with its pilot projects without disrupting the review at all. What was the reply that it received from our Government? I have that here, too. It says that John Swinney is “not prepared” to do it.

The deal is that the Government sits on fresh ideas for two years, then says that we have to wait on a review, and then announces that the review has been delayed, because council elections are on their way. The First Minister said that education reform would be her “defining mission”. Given that one example, who does she think she is kidding?

I spent Tuesday afternoon in a meeting with John Swinney and our international council of education advisers, and I noticed that as I was doing that Ruth Davidson was publishing a report on the constitution. I am not sure that I will take any lectures from her on priorities in government.

The truth of the matter is that it would make no sense at all, even for a Conservative—I know that common sense does not always characterise the decision making of Conservatives—to have a review of governance and then pre-empt the outcome by deciding what track we will go down. We will consider carefully the responses to the consultation and then, rightly and properly, John Swinney will come to this Parliament and set out the way forward.

As I said, as we are doing that, we will get on with the other strands of reform, which are already starting to see difference across our education system, empowering headteachers and directly giving them the funding that they need to make a difference, and ensuring that we are able to tell exactly how our schools are performing. That is the kind of action that I said was a priority, and that is the action that we are taking.

Just this week, a report showed that—despite the moans of the Opposition—in the last financial year for which we have this information, real-terms spending on education in local authorities went up. That is yet more evidence of the priority that is given to education. I know how important education is to me; if it is so important to Opposition members it is about time they got behind this Government’s reforms instead of continuing to come to this chamber and simply moan.

If this is so important to the First Minister, why does she keep kicking the can down the road? The Hometown Foundation said in its letter to Mr Swinney:

“This is really not a great demonstration of meaningful engagement with stakeholders or a good start in trying to empower teachers, parents and communities to achieve excellence and equity in education.”

Hometown is not wrong. A year and a half ago—a year and a half ago—the First Minister staked her reputation on reforming Scotland’s schools. What have we seen since then? We have seen literacy standards slipping, numeracy standards sliding and curriculum for excellence failing, and now we have seen her education secretary stalling.

The First Minister keeps putting her referendum on the front foot, but she is putting everyone else’s child’s education on the back burner. Has her Government got its priorities all wrong?

I do not know about the whole issue of putting something on the front foot; how it appears to me is that every time Ruth Davidson stands up in this chamber all she manages to do is shoot herself in the foot. I want to talk about education, but she continually tries to shoehorn in mentions of independence and a referendum—when, of course, the only reason there is any talk of that at all is the reckless behaviour of the Tories in taking us out of the European Union against our will.

Let me get back to my priority, which is education. It seems to me that Ruth Davidson is saying that we should not consult, or that, if we consult, we should not then bother to listen to what people say. Perhaps that is the approach that the Conservatives at Westminster have taken, which is why they have a massive back-bench rebellion on their hands right now over school funding—because the Conservatives are reducing the funding that many schools will have. We will continue to take this forward by listening to people and then making decisions about the best way forward.

Ruth Davidson asks what we are doing to back up the priority. I have already told her what is happening in our schools. Perhaps she should get into more of our schools and find out what is happening in them, instead of publishing papers about the constitution. What is happening in our schools is our attainment challenge; our pupil equity funding, which is going directly to headteachers; the introduction of standardised assessments to inform teacher judgments; and the publication of more data than ever before so that we can determine how well our schools are doing and what more we need to do to support those who work at the front line in our education system. I will leave Ruth Davidson moaning on the sidelines and I will get on with my priority of raising attainment in our schools and closing the attainment gap. I have said that that is my priority, and it will continue to be so.


To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the week. (S5F-00944)

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

It has been 10 months since the election, yet parents and teachers still remain in the dark about the Scottish National Party’s plans for our schools. As we have just heard, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills has kicked the consultation on how schools are run into the long grass. The First Minister says that that is just one part of her education reforms, and she is right, because there is also the education bill, which is the very symbol of the Government’s apparent number 1 priority, and it has been kicked into the long grass, too. The SNP’s power grab to centralise every school budget in the country has been kicked into the long grass as well, and the roll-out of national testing, which the First Minister also mentioned, has also been delayed. Education was the First Minister’s “defining mission”. Is it not the case that education is defining the Government as indecisive and distracted?

That question demonstrates that, when a member of Kezia Dugdale’s party, after spending the weekend at the Labour conference, described Kezia Dugdale as simply a “pound shop Ruth Davidson”, he was absolutely right, although maybe it is more like buy one, get one free.

Kezia Dugdale asked where the education bill is. The education bill is what will deliver the proposals from the governance review. When we have considered the more than 1,000 responses to that and brought forward our proposals to Parliament, we will also introduce a bill, as we said we would do. Kezia Dugdale also said—I think I got this right—that we are centralising education budgets. Really? We are giving £120 million direct to headteachers in almost every single school across the country. We are giving resources and the power to use them direct to headteachers. Only in the world of Scottish Labour could that be described as centralising education budgets—it is the exact opposite of that. Giving it to headteachers is decentralising it.

Through that extra resource in our schools, we are empowering headteachers to deliver what they think is required to improve attainment. That is building on the work of our attainment challenge and, as I have already said to the other half of the act, the national improvement framework is making sure that we have the data to track improvements in our schools. That is the kind of work that we are getting on with, day in and day out. I say to Kezia Dugdale, as I said to Ruth Davidson, that maybe she should get out a bit more into our schools, as I was yesterday, and see a bit more of what is happening in reality.

The SNP Government has failed for 10 years on education, so it is no wonder that the First Minister has to resort to personal attacks. That is beneath her—it is what we expected of Alex Salmond, not what we expect of the First Minister who is committed to closing the gap. The problem is not just the lack of progress; it is the fact that things are actually going backwards.

John Swinney spent years cutting education budgets as finance secretary. He cut more than 4,000 teachers and 1,000 support staff, he cut 150,000 student places in our colleges, he cut university budgets and he slashed grants for students, too. John Swinney now faces the consequences of his own decisions. He was supposed to be a safe pair of hands, but he is fast getting a reputation for dropping the ball on education. If teachers and parents can see that the education secretary is letting down Scotland’s children, why can the First Minister not see that?

Kezia Dugdale has come to the chamber week after week and alleged that spending on our schools is going down. Figures that were published this week—for the most recent year for which we have statistics—show that there was a real-terms increase in education spending across our local authority areas, so Kezia Dugdale’s scaremongering has been exposed.

Take universities—we have record numbers of young people going into our universities now. We are not just meeting, but exceeding our manifesto commitment in terms of whole-time equivalent places in our college sector. The attainment gap is starting to narrow and more people from deprived communities are going to university than was the case when we took office.

We are seeing progress because of the decisions that this Government has taken and the investments that this Government has made. However, there is so much more work still to do, which is why we will get on with the reforms in our education system that will make sure that we deliver the commitments that we have made to young people and parents around the country.

The First Minister gave the game away there, because she said that, in the past year, the money for education went up. Is that supposed to make up for it going down over the nine years that preceded it? The reality is that she has cut £1.5 billion from local services since 2011—she cannot escape from that truth.

I would not want the First Minister to think that John Swinney has not been busy. He has launched an improvement framework, a governance review and an advertising campaign. However, he has not done anything to improve our schools.

It is not just John Swinney. Since May, the Government has launched more than 120 consultations and reviews, which is three a week. The enterprise review alone has three reviews within it and the health and social care delivery plan has another four reviews within it. There is even a review into the review of fracking. That might make sense if this were a new Government, but this SNP Government has been in place for 10 years. I know that the First Minister has only one thing on her mind, but when is she going to stop talking about governing and actually start doing some governing?

I advise Kezia Dugdale to listen to this: this Government will never stop talking to, engaging with and consulting the people of Scotland. The Labour Party stopped doing that and it went from first place to second place in Scottish politics, then it went from second place to third place. Who knows where it will end up?

Let us get back to education. Kezia Dugdale comes here and talks about education funding. I have a very basic question for her: if she thinks that not enough money is being spent on schools in council areas around our country, why are Labour councils proposing to freeze the council tax next year after spending 10 years moaning about it? Why are they not using the power that they have spent 10 years asking for and why are they refusing to raise extra money for education? That is a question that Kezia Dugdale cannot answer.

The other things that Kezia Dugdale does not want to talk about are the £120 million that is going direct to headteachers, the extra resources that are available through the attainment challenge, or the many things that teachers are doing in our schools to improve education and to close the attainment gap, because that does not suit her narrative. Just as with Ruth Davidson, I will leave Kezia Dugdale whining on the sidelines, and this Government and I will continue to get on with the hard work of improving our schools.

The First Minister posed a direct question and it deserves an answer. For 10 years, the SNP has said that the council tax is unfair, so the question is not why Labour councils are freezing it, but why the SNP has not scrapped it.

For 10 years, we have had Labour councils, and Labour MSPs in the chamber, saying, “End the council tax freeze.” As soon as we end the council tax freeze, what do we have? We have Labour leaders in councils such as Inverclyde saying that they are going to become the longest-serving leaders ever to freeze the council tax.

Labour does not know what it is doing from one day of the week to the next, and that is why it is in the mess that it is in. I will continue to make sure that we do our job of delivering improvements in our education system, and delivering for parents and children across the country.

There is a constituency supplementary from Alexander Burnett.

I have been contacted by the owner of a local nursery in my constituency that looks after 133 children. Is the First Minister as disappointed as I was to hear that the nursery will be hit with a business rates hike of 65 per cent? That will mean inevitable cost increases for parents, which will prevent mothers from returning to work.

We have introduced a business rates relief scheme, as the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution announced in the chamber a couple of weeks ago, to ensure that seven out of 10 businesses across our country will pay either the same or lower business rates in the coming year. Five out of 10 business premises across the country pay no business rates whatsoever. The finance secretary announced additional relief for the hospitality sector and for office premises in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire. We did that to free up local councils to use resources that they might have to provide any additional support that they think is required. That is why it has been so disappointing that Tory councillors in some councils have voted against local rates relief schemes. Instead of coming to the chamber and asking me that question, perhaps Alexander Burnett should direct it to Tory councillors in his area.

Cabinet (Meetings)

To ask the First Minister when the Cabinet will next meet. (S5F-00952)


I think that every member in the chamber, and everybody outside the chamber, wants Scotland to be successful in closing the attainment gap in our schools. However, that gap is not the result of merely one simple phenomenon; it has many complex causes. One of the most significant causes is the additional support needs that many young people have. Because we recognise far more of those needs now, which is welcome, one in four of our young people in Scotland is now recognised as having additional support needs.

However, shocking evidence was given to the Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee this week about the lack of provision to meet those needs. There has been a one-in-seven reduction in additional support needs teachers since 2010, and a one-in-10 reduction in ASN assistants. The shocking suggestion was made to the committee that a teacher in a Scottish school had been told that, in lieu of the training that they genuinely need to develop their skills to support young people with additional support needs, they should go away and watch “The Big Bang Theory”. Was the First Minister as shocked as I was to hear that?

Patrick Harvie is right to raise the issue of additional support needs. He is also right to say that we have extended the definition of additional support needs so that we capture more people to ensure that they get the support that they need. I referred earlier to statistics that were published this week that show increased spending on schools. Within that, we also saw increased spending on additional learning support.

There is a fundamental point here, and perhaps a point of difference between Patrick Harvie and me. I ask him to consider that something like 95 per cent of all children who have additional support needs are taught in mainstream schools, so we must not see the support that they need as coming just from additional support needs teachers. Every teacher who is working in our schools has a responsibility to provide the support that those young people need. It is not simply a case of looking at dedicated additional support needs teachers.

That is why two things are so important—first, that spending has increased in the statistics that I spoke about, and secondly, that we see from the most recent figures that the number of teachers is being maintained and is slightly increasing as well.

The last part of Patrick Harvie’s question was on evidence that was given to a committee this week. The example that he narrated represents, in my view, completely unacceptable practice. That is why the Scottish Government has supported the development of resources for autism, for example, so that teachers have access to such resources. The autism toolbox helps teachers and education support staff to meet the needs of pupils with autism. It is important that we ensure that teachers are aware of that, because the resources are there for the training of teachers and it is important that they all have access to that.

It seems fairly clear to anyone who has looked at the evidence that was given to Parliament this week that the specialists working in this field do not feel that teachers have access to the resources that they need. The Scottish Government is absolutely right to want to recruit more teachers, but concerns have been expressed by, for example, the Educational Institute of Scotland that teachers will not have the time to develop the skills that they need to do the job that our modern education system quite rightly requires of them. It is vital that all teachers have access to a level of training in additional support needs, but the committee heard this week that in many people’s view there is less training provision in place than there was 25 years ago.

We need to invest in the specialists who can give the additional support where it is needed. That specialism also needs to be an attractive and well-supported career path for teachers. Has the First Minister read the evidence that was given to the committee this week? If she has not had time yet, will she commit to do so very soon? Will she ensure that the next time that we discuss this issue we are not talking about the level of provision going down as the level of demand goes up and teachers being told to go and watch sitcoms?

Yes; I have looked at the evidence. I will make sure that I study very carefully all the evidence that is given to the committee on this issue. If the Government needs to take further action, I will work with the education secretary to make sure that we do that. However, it is important that we recognise the trend in investment that I referred to earlier and that we recognise that this is not simply about specialist teachers, important and vital though they are, but about making sure that all teachers in schools have the training and are equipped to support children with additional needs in the way that they need to be supported.

On the comment about teachers being asked to watch “The Big Bang Theory”, that situation is totally unacceptable. However, more than that, there is absolutely no need for it to happen. I referred to the resources that are available. The autism toolbox is very well used already, but we will now re-engage with local authorities to ensure that they are aware of it and are promoting it within all their settings. I think that we do the right thing in having a wide definition for young people with additional support needs. We also do the right thing in supporting as many of those young people as possible to learn in mainstream education. Although Patrick Harvie and I might have some disagreements around the right way to do that, he is right to raise the issue because it is of huge importance and the Scottish Government will continue to pay close attention to it.

Cabinet (Meetings)

To ask the First Minister what issues will be discussed at the next meeting of the Cabinet. (S5F-00954)

Matters of importance to the people of Scotland.

Now that the First Minister is thinking again about her plans for education, will she think again about national testing? She told me before in the chamber that she would avoid league tables. Has she kept that promise?

We do not publish league tables and we will not publish them. Willie Rennie asked me whether I will change my mind on national testing. No, I will not change my mind on it. I do not support national testing and we will not introduce it. What we are introducing is standardised assessment that will be used to help—[Interruption.] Well, the teachers and the professionals understand very well the distinction between the two. I suggest that Willie Rennie might want to talk to one of them to educate himself a bit more on that distinction.

Standardised assessments will inform the judgments that teachers make about whether a young person is meeting the required level of curriculum for excellence. I think that it is really important—perhaps Willie Rennie and I just fundamentally disagree about this—for a teacher to have an objective source of information to inform all the judgments that they bring to bear. We will therefore continue to introduce standardised assessment and we will continue to publish the data, which I think all parents and, indeed, all members have a right to see.

How are our schools doing in terms of the performance of young people against the required levels of curriculum for excellence? If we do not know that, how do we know whether we are doing well or whether we need to do better? The worst thing that any First Minister or Government could allow to continue is some kind of flying-blind situation where we just hope that we are doing the right things. I want us to have the information to make sure that we are doing the right things.

The First Minister is wrong. We already have national school league tables. We have the information on every local authority, every school and every test result. It is published by her own Government on the basis of experimental information. We have national school league tables. She promised that that would never happen, but it is exactly what is happening.

The Educational Institute for Scotland has said that standardised testing

“crushes creativity both for learners and for teachers, does not take full account of pupil progress and causes unnecessary stress for the children and young people who are subjected to it.”

Is it not time that the First Minister abandoned the implementation of national testing, which was last brought in by Michael Forsyth under Margaret Thatcher’s regime? Is it not about time that the First Minister recognised that she has got this wrong?

No. Willie Rennie is 100 per cent wrong on that. He is 100 per cent wrong on lots of things, but he is certainly 100 per cent wrong on that. I would go further than that, as I think that he—perhaps inadvertently, but I suspect not—is trying to mislead people about what is happening through standardised assessments.

I know exactly what the Scottish Government is publishing. We are not publishing and will not publish league tables that rank schools by their performance. What we are publishing and will continue to publish—I make absolutely no apology for this—is information that tells us school by school how young people are performing, because parents, teachers and those of us who are accountable for the education system have a right to know that.

If we do not know, for example, what percentages of our young people in primary 4 are meeting and not meeting the required level of curriculum for excellence, how are we supposed to take the action to put things right if the percentages are not as good as they should be? How are we supposed to take the action before the young person gets further into school, when it becomes too late to rectify the situation? I make no apology for that. Parents have a right to know how their young people are doing, and those of us who have the responsibility for making education policy need to know that as well.

That is not national testing; it is standardised assessment to inform teacher judgment. I said once before to Willie Rennie when he raised the matter that, at a previous meeting of the council of education advisers, Larry Flanagan of the EIS gave what I thought was the best articulation that I had heard of the difference between testing and assessment, so perhaps Willie Rennie should talk to him. We are talking about standardised assessment to inform teacher judgment and, to be frank, we should be publishing that information to allow us to know whether we are doing what we should be doing by the young people of this country. I will never make any apology for that.

On a point of order, Presiding Officer.

I will take the point of order at the end of First Minister’s questions.

In December, the First Minister agreed with concerns about the openness and transparency of the Scottish Police Authority. Now, a member of that authority has resigned, reportedly because of the reaction to her having dared to raise a dissenting voice about how it conducts its business. At the Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee this morning, a Scottish Government official said that the matter requires further discussion.

Does the First Minister agree that what is needed is not further discussion but for the Scottish Government to tell Andrew Flanagan that his damaging governance review is failing the SPA, failing Police Scotland and failing the public? What will the Scottish Government do to ensure that this vital scrutiny body can become “proportionate, accountable and transparent”, as is required by the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012?

The governance review is about improving governance, accountability and transparency. I am clear that the Scottish Police Authority should take decisions in public session and that papers and agendas for those sessions should be available to the public and to the media.

The member will be aware, or certainly should be aware, that in January it was reported that Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary for Scotland will inspect the Scottish Police Authority during 2017-18. That will be the first such inspection since the SPA was established, and it will look not just at the state, the efficiency and the effectiveness of the body but, as specific areas of focus, at the transparency and effectiveness of how it does its business. I hope that all members welcome that. Transparency and accountability are vital, and I say again what I have said in the chamber before: the Scottish Police Authority must make sure that it operates in line with those principles.

Today’s Times reports not just a Westminster power grab on devolved matters such as farming and fisheries, but a cash grab. What is the First Minister’s reaction to those latest Tory attempts to undermine and weaken this Parliament?

We had two important revelations from Ruth Davidson in this morning’s Times. First, she seems to suggest that in areas where Westminster currently has no power over Scotland, such as agriculture, it intends to use Brexit to seize such power, which would be a clear undermining of the devolution settlement if ever there was such a thing.

On money, Ruth Davidson seems to suggest that, instead of Scotland getting its fair share of any savings that Westminster makes by no longer having to pay European Union contributions, the Treasury should keep all that money and the Scottish Government should be left to raise taxes to fund farm payments. That is absolutely outrageous and completely unacceptable, and I hope that, before the day is out, the Tories will clarify the issue and make sure that there will be no power grab and no cash grab by the Westminster Government on the Scottish Government.

I do not know whether this morning’s interview was just inept or whether it was a window into the thinking of Westminster—it was probably both. It is clear that Westminster has no intention of giving new powers to this Parliament. All that it wants to do is muscle in on the powers that we already have.

Last weekend, the First Minister was quick to respond to comments about nationalism that Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, made at the Scottish Labour conference in Perth. She described them as “spectacularly ill-judged” and “an insult”.

According to last Friday’s Perthshire Advertiser, the deputy leader of the SNP administration on Perth and Kinross Council, Councillor Dave Doogan, who until recently was employed by the Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, told councillors:

“Let us not reflect on concerns that we have been under the heel of foreign influence and power for 300 years. The island of Britain is no longer subject to the actions of quislings who may seek to see smaller cultures extinguished on an island of coffins by redcoats”.

Given the First Minister’s comments about Sadiq Khan’s language, does she believe that Councillor Doogan’s comments were appropriate, or does she apply one standard to members of other parties and a different standard to members of her own?

I apply the same standards to everybody. Let me be clear: no matter who they come from, I condemn any comments or language that are in any way, shape or form racist or anti-English or that in any way seek to divide people on the basis of their ethnicity. That is not what my party or the movement that I am part of is for or represents.

I will also say—I ask people to reflect on this carefully—that right now the Scottish National Party, the Scottish Government and the wider independence movement are among the loudest voices in the United Kingdom to be calling for diversity, tolerance and freedom of movement, and among the loudest voices to be standing up for the benefits of migration. We have a Tory Government that still will not even guarantee the rights of EU nationals to live here, and that is disgraceful.

I will practise the values that I hold dear, and I expect everybody to do likewise.

Social Housing (Older People)

5. Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)

To ask the First Minister what measures the Scottish Government will take to ensure that there is appropriate social housing to meet the requirements of disabled, vulnerable and frail older people. (S5F-00950)

We are committed to expanding social housing in communities across Scotland, which is why 35,000 of our 50,000 affordable homes target will be for social rent. Good social housing is important for disabled, vulnerable and frail older people, and the homes that are delivered through the programme will match councils’ local housing strategies.

We will shortly publish our refreshed “Age, Home and Community” strategy. As well as improving access to suitable housing, it will take account of changing needs and demographics and help to address issues of isolation that older people can face.

Although the integration of healthcare and social care to help people to stay at home instead of in hospital, is welcome, it hits the buffers if appropriate housing is in short supply. Notwithstanding what the First Minister has just said, is she aware of a recent report that highlights the dearth of sheltered and very sheltered housing, especially for frail elderly people, and calls for a commission to consider and report on long-term funding and provision of supported accommodation? Will the First Minister commit to such a commission?

Yes, indeed. I think it important not only that we have that strategic approach in place, but that we commit to sustainable funding. We share the housing sector’s concerns about the United Kingdom Government’s changes to funding for supported accommodation, which are part of a broader approach to welfare cuts that is having a considerable impact on people across the country. We will carefully consider the recently published report on effective supply of supported housing and look at its recommendations, which include the setting up of a commission to ensure that older people can access the housing and support that they need. We are also absolutely committed to working with the sector to protect the most vulnerable people and ensure that supported accommodation is put on a sustainable and secure financial footing.

Sports Funding

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government's response is to reports that sports funding is set for a 20 per cent reduction over the next three years, which has been described by sportscotland as “heartbreaking”. (S5F-00955)

The sport and active living budget has not been set beyond 2017-18, but I am happy to confirm that we have no plans to reduce it by 20 per cent by 2019-20. We are providing sportscotland with as much flexibility as possible within what I think we all accept is a tight settlement, and we want to do that not least in the light of projected reductions in lottery funding over the coming years. The Minister for Public Health and Sport has written to the United Kingdom Government seeking to address that issue, and I hope that Mr Whittle will give her his support in that.

Beyond the core sport budget, we are also working to increase support for active living. For example, since 2010, we have increased the budget for active travel, which seeks to encourage more walking and cycling, by 116 per cent, from £18.1 million to £39.2 million in 2016-17, and we will ensure that we continue to deliver the policies and funding that support people to live as healthily and as actively as possible.

The decimation of the sports budget along with the major cut in council funding means that more people who are in challenging circumstances will find sport and activity out of their reach. People are not just entries on Derek Mackay’s balance sheet, and attempting to save money in this way delivers outcomes that require interventions that are far costlier than the amount of savings that the Government is attempting to make. The of policy will not tackle, but will drive, health inequality, so I respectfully ask the First Minister, please, to take another look at the issue, because the potential damage to sport, activity, the third sector and, therefore, communities will take years to repair.

We will continue to work with sportscotland, the governing bodies and everyone with an interest in sport and active living to ensure that we are making the right investments. We have invested heavily in sport in recent years, and we will continue to invest heavily in it, not just at the elite end but at community and grass-roots levels, too. That is why the legacy of the Commonwealth games, with the community hubs that have been established in many parts of Scotland, has been so vital.

As I said in my initial answer, we will also invest in the wider landscape to ensure that we are promoting active travel, encouraging people to walk more and so on. One of the most fantastic things that we are doing in our schools just now is supporting them in having the daily mile. We will continue to ensure that we work closely with all of those with an interest in order to support the aspirations.

Being equally respectful in turn, I say to Brian Whittle that we are seeing real-terms cuts to our budgets because of decisions that are being taken at Westminster. I note that when we in this Parliament took a different decision on the higher rate of tax in order to try to protect public services, the Conservatives opposed that and instead wanted us to give a hefty tax cut to the top 10 per cent of income earners. It is not good enough for Tories to come to the chamber week after week to request more spending on this, that and the other thing, when they are also asking us to deliver tax cuts for the wealthiest people in our society. It is about time they decided what their position actually is. When they do so, they will have a bit more credibility when they raise such issues in the chamber.

Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill

7. Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the First Minister how many children the measures in the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill will lift out of poverty by May 2021. (S5F-00948)

The Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill will require ministers to meet four targets by 2030: fewer than 10 per cent of children living in relative poverty; fewer than 5 per cent of children in absolute poverty; fewer than 5 per cent of children in combined low-income and material deprivation; and fewer than 5 per cent of children in persistent poverty.

The bill will make Scotland the only part of the UK with statutory targets to reduce and, ultimately, to eradicate child poverty. However—this is an important point—it is not targets themselves that will reduce child poverty but the policy and the action that we take. That is why the bill also requires the Government to have a child poverty delivery plan with specific measures to lift children out of poverty. The first plan will be published next year and will then be updated every five years.

I agree with the First Minister that we need action, and not just targets. In government, Labour lifted 120,000 children in Scotland out of poverty by lifting incomes and not just setting targets. We are ready to make the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill a success, which is why we back the calls from the Child Poverty Action Group and civic Scotland to top up child benefit for families in Scotland, which would take thousands of kids out of poverty. If the Scottish Government has any hope of making the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill a success, it must give the bill some teeth and start using the powers of this Parliament. Will the Government support the calls from the Child Poverty Action Group and civic Scotland to top up child benefit, and will it do that by ensuring that the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill can deliver that increase now?

We will always seek to have close dialogue with the Child Poverty Action Group. The Child Poverty Action Group, with other organisations, asked us to extend provision of free school meals. That is something that this Government did and which Labour—I seem to remember—voted against in Parliament.

We have also produced plans to use the additional powers that will come to this Parliament to introduce a best start grant, through which we will target resources at low-income families. We will give an enhanced grant to parents when a child is born—every child, not just the first child—and further payments when the child goes to nursery and, again, when they go to school. We have already set out clear plans for how we are going to increase the incomes of families with children who most need support.

We will continue to talk to the Child Poverty Action Group and other organisations, and to interests across the chamber, about what further action we can take to tackle child poverty. I hope that it is an area on which we can all agree. I agree with Mark Griffin that although targets are important—which is why it is important that there are targets in the bill—it is the policies that we will introduce that will make the biggest difference.

That concludes First Minister’s question time.

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. A few minutes ago, the First Minister accused a member of the Parliament of deliberately misleading Parliament. You know as well as every other member what that phrase actually means. Can you advise us whether the First Minister will be given an opportunity at some point to withdraw her remarks?

Thank you, Mr Rumbles. I heard the remark and considered it at the time. I ask all members to treat each other respectfully and to be careful about their language. In this case, there was no use of unparliamentary language.