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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 4, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 04 March 2021

Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Pre-release Access to Official Statistics (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Scottish Parliamentary Standards (Sexual Harassment and Complaints Process) Bill: Stage 3, International Women’s Day 2021, Motion Without Notice, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time

Good afternoon, colleagues. The first item of business today is First Minister’s question time. Before we turn to questions, I invite the First Minister to update the Parliament on the situation with Covid.

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I will give a very quick update on today’s statistics.

Yesterday, 500 new cases were reported, which was 2.5 per cent of all the tests that were carried out. The total number of confirmed cases is now 204,055. Some 726 people are in hospital, which is 24 fewer than yesterday, and 69 people are in intensive care, which is one fewer than yesterday.

I regret to report that, in the past 24 hours, a further 24 deaths were registered. In addition, three other deaths that were registered recently but were not yet included in the published total have been added. Those three deaths together with the 24 that were registered yesterday mean that the total number of people who have, sadly, died is now 7,398 under that daily measurement. Once again, I send my deepest condolences to all those who have lost a loved one.

We will publish the latest estimate of the R number later today. We expect it to show again that the R number is below 1. That reflects the positive trends that we can all see in the daily figures right now.

I will give a quick update on the vaccination programme. As of 8.30 this morning, 1,688,808 people had received their first dose of the vaccine, which is an increase of 26,729 since yesterday. In addition, 100,058 people have also now received their second dose, which is an increase of 7,508 since yesterday. That means that 34,237 people in total received vaccinations yesterday. Ninety-five per cent of 65 to 69-year-olds have now had a first dose, as have 37 per cent of 60 to 64-year-olds, 31 per cent of 55 to 59-year-olds, and 26 per cent of 50 to 54-year-olds. That age group is of particular interest to me. We still expect to be able to offer first doses to everyone over 50, all unpaid carers and all adults with an underlying health condition by mid-April.

Taking into account all of what I have just reported, I think that there is little doubt that things are firmly heading in the right direction at the moment. The number of cases is falling, the numbers in hospital are falling and the vaccination programme is progressing extremely well. That is why we have been able to set out the timetable for children’s return to school. Next week, I will outline any further changes that we feel we can make at this stage to the level 4 restrictions. In the following week, I will provide more information about the timetable for easing restrictions after 26 April.

There is much to feel optimistic about right now, but I stress that that should not see us throw caution to the wind. Case numbers remain high and, of course, the new variant remains highly infectious. If we want to continue the progress, my advice to everyone is to continue to abide by the stay-at-home rule for the moment. Stay at home except for essential purposes, follow FACTS when you are out, and make sure that, collectively, we continue to keep everything going in the right direction. I thank everybody who is doing that and sticking with it during these difficult times.

Judicial Review (Legal Advice)

I want to ask the First Minister about the legal advice in the Salmond inquiry. Despite the Parliament voting for that to be released four months ago, it was only partially revealed this week.

Section 2.30 of the ministerial code makes it clear that ministers must act lawfully, informed of the legal considerations, and that

“the legal implications of any course of action are considered at the earliest opportunity.”

That part—acting early on the legal implications—is important.

Let us go through the timeline. Nine weeks before conceding the judicial review, legal advice stated that the case was more likely to fail than succeed. The First Minister chose to go forward. A month before the Government conceded, legal advice said that the least-worst option was to stop, or

“expenses will be far higher”.

The First Minister chose the worst option. Nineteen days before the Government conceded, the Lord Advocate and Government and external lawyers all said that the case was not even statable, which was the minimum requirement. The First Minister dug her heels in. Will she tell us why the Government tried for so long to defend what her own legal counsel called “the indefensible”?

As anybody who paid any attention to the lengthy proceedings yesterday, which clearly does not include Ruth Davidson, will have seen, that is simply not true.

On 11 December, the law officers were very clear. The information on that has been published, and the quote from the law officers that was summarised in the note that was published in advance of yesterday was that there was “no question” that the case should be dropped; on the contrary, there were

“credible arguments to make across the petition”,

including on the issue of the appointment of the investigating officer. That was the position of the law officers.

Things started to go seriously wrong in the case in the days that followed. Due process was followed and that led to a decision by the Government to concede the case.

That is there for anyone with an open mind to look at. I think that the Deputy First Minister has undertaken to provide some further information to the committee, which will happen, and Parliament can look at that.

I answered questions on this for eight hours yesterday. I answered every question that was put to me. I intend to rest on that now and to allow both the committee and the inquiry on the ministerial code to conclude their work. In the meantime, I will get on with the job that I suspect most people watching now at home want me to get on with, which is leading the country through and out of a pandemic. I will leave Ruth Davidson and the Conservatives to play the political games that they seem to prioritise over everything else.

The First Minister characterises this as “political games”, but I have never forgotten the women at the heart of the inquiry, who were failed. The First Minister cannot get away from the fact that it was her Government that failed them and that questions still require to be answered.

Whether the Government ignored legal advice and cost taxpayers money is not up for question. What is being argued is how long they ignored advice for and how much money was wasted. That is what is truly incredible. The view of legal counsel was

“based on the facts as then known”.

The Government did not even give its own lawyers the facts. Advocates Roddy Dunlop and Christine O’Neill stated:

“We have each experienced extreme professional embarrassment.”

On instruction, they made plainly and demonstrably untrue statements before a judge. Documents that were highly relevant, yet undisclosed, were withheld from those queen’s counsel. They called that “unexplained and frankly inexplicable”. They refused to

“rehearse the regrettable way in which the document disclosure has unfolded”,

so I will ask the First Minister to rehearse it for us now. Will she confirm that the withheld documents were precisely the ones that made the case unstatable?

First, I will agree with something that Ruth Davidson said. I agree that she has not forgotten the women at the heart of this, because I do not think that Ruth Davidson ever remembered the women at the heart of this.

The legal advice is there for everyone to see. People with open minds, which does not include Ruth Davidson, can look at that. Ruth Davidson says that she is not playing political games. I beg to differ. I think that we saw the true colours of the Conservatives yesterday.

I do not know whether Ruth Davidson approved the comment or not, but on Tuesday night the Conservatives more or less said that it did not matter what I said before the parliamentary committee yesterday because they had already made up their minds. It is not about due process: it is political desperation on the part of the Conservatives.

We also had a glimpse yesterday of some of the values at play within the Conservatives. During that committee session, one of the Tory members seemed to be suggesting that I should have intervened in the process to effectively sweep the allegations against Mr Salmond under the carpet. Then the other Conservative member asked me to apologise for the inappropriate behaviour of a man. There we have the Tories demonstrating, without any help from me, that they are playing political games. While they do that, I say again that I gave eight hours of evidence at the committee and it is time to allow the committee and the independent inquiry into the ministerial code to do their jobs. In the meantime, I am going to get on with my job of leading the country through Covid and out of lockdown.

The First Minister cannot get away from the fact that the chamber is an organ of the Parliament and the chamber saw the legal advice that the chamber voted for four months ago only this week. We have every right to question a First Minister, who is the head of a Government and who failed those two women. I want everyone to understand how incompetent and secretive the Government is.

Legal counsel were provided with one email in a chain. It was a crucial element of their defence. However, they were not given the next email, which was sent less than half an hour later, in the same chain; it was withheld. When it was finally handed over, it was one of the final straws and the First Minister’s lawyers had to threaten to resign to force the Government’s hand. That information was available the whole time. The Government could have passed it to its lawyers in September or October or November, but it withheld it and kept it secret. That cost the legal team months and all of us £0.5 million of taxpayers money. Why was the crucial evidence withheld for months from the Government’s own legal team?

The case ultimately collapsed because information came to light. I set that out in the committee yesterday, and people can judge by looking at the advice that was published themselves. Of course, the committee will come to its conclusions, as will the independent inquiry on the ministerial code. I await the findings of both.

Again, I want to strike a note of consensus, because I believe in the importance of this democratic institution. By the time I sit down after this session of First Minister’s questions today, I will have been subjected—rightly and properly—to 10 hours of parliamentary scrutiny this week. That is me doing my job and discharging my responsibilities. However, I gently point out to Ruth Davidson that this democratic institution that she extols the virtues of is the same democratic institution that she is about to leave to take up a seat in the unelected House of Lords. People across this country are becoming heartily sick of the soon-to-be Baroness Davidson lecturing anybody else on democracy.

Because of the legal advice that had to be dragged from the Government under the threat of a vote of no confidence, we know that, for weeks, the Government was definitively and beyond any doubt ignoring legal advice. The case only became unstatable so late because the Government withheld crucial documents for so long. It withheld documents from its own lawyers. It withheld documents from the courts. It continues to withhold documents from Parliament.

What we have already seen shows that there is no argument that the Government ignored legal advice; it did. The argument is about whether it did so for three weeks or more than three months. There is no argument that the First Minister was at fault for losing more than £0.5 million of taxpayers’ money; the argument is only about how much she is to blame for it. There is no argument that Nicola Sturgeon broke the ministerial code; the argument is only about how badly she broke it.

We believe that the sanction is for her to go—why doesn’t she?

Ruth Davidson and the Conservatives have just shown their true colours all over again. She stands up here and says that scrutiny, democracy and due process are really important but, just as on Tuesday night, when the Conservatives prejudged my evidence to the parliamentary inquiry, she has just prejudged the outcome of the independent inquiry into the ministerial code.

This is just about desperate political games for the Conservatives. I suspect that their private polling is even more desperate than the public polling right now. We should remember that the people of Scotland have been voting no confidence in the Conservatives since the 1950s and I think that we are about to see why.

I will get on with my job. I will let the inquiries do their jobs. I have not prejudged them; Ruth Davidson clearly has.

In a few weeks, I will also subject myself to the ultimate scrutiny: the scrutiny and the verdict of the people of Scotland, which is the verdict that matters most. As I do so, Ruth Davidson will be slinking off to the House of Lords.

Legal Advice (Publication)

I offer my condolences to all the families impacted by Covid-19, particularly those that have lost a loved one.

The exchanges that we have just heard represent the worst of our politics. Each day, every one of us comes into the chamber and sits in front of that mace, which is inscribed with the ideals of the Parliament: wisdom, compassion, justice and integrity—principles that have been undermined when the Government failed the women who submitted claims of harassment; undermined by the Government’s refusal to hand over all documentation to the committee that is investigating those failures; and undermined by the Government ignoring two votes by this Parliament calling for all the legal advice to be published.

The Government keeps telling us that it has nothing to hide, but when the Parliament twice demanded that the legal advice be published, it refused. When the advice was finally released, it was partial and came just hours before the First Minister’s committee appearance. Wisdom, compassion, justice and integrity. First Minister, why did it take the threat of a no-confidence vote in the Deputy First Minister for your Government to act?

The importance for all Governments of being able to take proper legal advice should be understood by everybody across the chamber. The Government has now—rightly, given the allegations that have been levelled at it—published that legal advice and people can look at it and draw their own conclusions. I say again that I sat in front of a parliamentary committee for eight hours, as is my duty and obligation. I am not sure whether any other member of this chamber has done likewise. I answered questions that were put to me and put the case of the Government. I also apologised, as I will again, to the women who were let down by the mistake that the Government made.

It is now right and proper—in line with the principles on that mace, which I, like all of us, hold dear—that we allow the inquiry to do its work, allow the independent inquiry into the ministerial code to do its work and allow me to get on with the job that I believe the majority of the country wants me to focus on now, which is to continue to steer the country through a global pandemic so that we can get through Covid, come out of lockdown and get back to normality. That is what I intend to focus on, while those inquiries conclude their work.

That answer would have more credibility if all the legal advice had been published before the First Minister gave evidence, not after she gave evidence. The First Minister rightly had the opportunity to address the committee yesterday. I agree with her that it is important that all parties are given due process and that we do not prejudice the outcome of the inquiry.

With that in mind, in the coming weeks, James Hamilton QC will present his report on potential breaches of the ministerial code to the Government. The outcome of that report will be crucial in establishing the facts about what happened. The wholly unacceptable and disgraceful situation that we have had with the legal advice must not be repeated with the Hamilton report. Will the First Minister give the people of Scotland a cast-iron guarantee that the Government will release the report, without delay or obstruction, on the day that it is handed over by James Hamilton QC?


I welcome that commitment from the First Minister, but remember this: we will hold her to that promise. The First Minister is right that it is about transparency, so there can be no delay in publishing that report.

The ministerial code exists to uphold standards in public life. It is there to protect the integrity of the office of the First Minister, of all Scottish ministers and the whole of the Scottish Government. In her foreword to the ministerial code, the First Minister says:

“I will lead by example in following the letter and spirit of this Code, and I expect that Ministers and civil servants will do likewise.”

Wisdom, compassion, justice and integrity. In that light, does the First Minister agree, removing party and personality, that any minister who is found in breach of the ministerial code should resign?

I will uphold my words in the foreword to the ministerial code. I will uphold the principles on the mace. However, I will also demand the right to due process, which at least one party in the chamber is not prepared to give me.

Let us wait and see what the outcome is of the inquiries. They will be published, and then we can debate the outcome. I sat before the committee and I answered every question; I will now give the committee and the inquiry the opportunity to do their work.

Coronavirus (New Variants)

I put on record my congratulations to Anas Sarwar on his election as leader of the Scottish Labour Party. I welcome him to his role at First Minister’s question time.

The Greens want to see both inquiries completed. However, in the meantime, we are still focused on the public health crisis, which I think is what most members of the public want of us. This week, we mark a year since the first Covid-19 case was recorded in Scotland. Since then, more than 9,500 deaths have been documented by the National Records of Scotland. Every single one of us shares the expression of condolence to all the people who have been affected by that tragic loss.

A year on from the first case, we are faced with a new threat in the form of the so-called Brazilian variant, which has already been identified in Scotland and England. The strain has also been identified in 15 non-red-list countries, showing that the United Kingdom Government’s approach to quarantine is dangerously inadequate. It has been reported that the effort to trace contacts who might have been exposed to the new variant has been hampered by the provision of incomplete data. It is clear that the current approach to international travel, including via connections in the UK, is not yet enough to keep us safe as the virus continues to change. What further action is the Scottish Government planning to ensure that we protect the public from the importation of new forms of the virus?

We continue to think that international travel restrictions are essential. The travel restrictions that we have in place are more stringent than in other parts of the UK. We have a concern, which I have articulated on numerous occasions, that that difference leaves weaknesses in our defence against importation of the virus. We will continue to work with the UK Government to try to fill the gaps and encourage a more uniform position.

We will also continue to do everything that we can to ensure that protections at our borders are as strict as they need to be, because it is absolutely the case that, as we suppress the virus here at home and vaccinate more people, the key risk that we face is new variants coming into the country that could potentially undermine the efficacy of the vaccine. That is one of our most serious challenges and will be one of our top priorities in the weeks to come.

In addition to the reports of incomplete contact tracing data in Scotland, there are reports of a lost case in England. It is likely that the variant is present in other countries, but has not been identified yet. Therefore, the on-going importance of our test, trace and isolate systems cannot be overstated. They will continue to be vital even as the vaccine programme is delivered at pace.

In the face of new variants, it is more important than ever that anyone who develops symptoms—not just new arrivals—is able to access a test and is supported to immediately self-isolate. Following pressure from the Greens, the self-isolation grant is being expanded, but we have repeatedly asked the Scottish Government and the First Minister about the provision of accommodation for people who need to self-isolate.

Freedom of information responses show that, in the 10 months up to mid-January, only seven people from three local authority areas were provided with hotel accommodation to self-isolate. Will the First Minister confirm whether there has been any progress on that or whether that form of support is still close to non-existent? It would be tragic if we allowed new variants to spread simply because people faced barriers to doing the right thing.

That support is there if people need it. Local authorities have that ability, and work is done to identify the needs of people who are asked to self-isolate, which can include accommodation, if necessary. I will certainly take steps to see whether there is more that we can do to promote awareness of that, so that people know that support is available. Patrick Harvie is right that we should take care to ensure that we are not risking the spread of the virus through the lack of availability of the support that people need to self-isolate. We take that seriously.

As we go into the next phase and, hopefully, cases fall, we can start to come out of lockdown and vaccination will continue to do its job. Importation and the risk of outbreaks will remain the key threats that we face. Test and protect and self-isolation will come back to the fore as the key weapons in our arsenal to keep Covid at bay. Patrick Harvie is right to raise those issues, and the Government will continue to do everything that we can to ensure that all of that is available.

Open Government

I warmly welcome Anas Sarwar to his place in the chamber.

There may have been eight hours of questioning yesterday, but there are still areas of outstanding concern: forgetting about a meeting, having a different recollection of another meeting, keeping meetings from the permanent secretary and not acting swiftly on a claimed leak of a complainer’s name. However, the First Minister is right that it is for the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints and for the independent investigator to untangle these matters.

There is, however, one lesson that we should all be able to learn today. It should not take a threat to the job of the Deputy First Minister before the Government complies with the will of the Parliament to release the legal advice that it voted to have released months ago. Those who worked for decades to establish the Scottish Parliament did not do so for that to be flouted by a belligerent and secretive 14-year-old Government that is more interested in defending itself than in aiding the process of democracy. Why can the First Minister not see that that needs to change?

I am afraid that I will have to agree to disagree with Willie Rennie in some ways. After the parliamentary votes, the Deputy First Minister had a process of discussion with the committee, which led to the committee having access to summaries of the legal advice that the Government had had. Earlier this week, that advice was published.

There is a really important principle underpinning the need for Governments to be able to take proper legal advice and for maintaining the confidentiality of that advice. Governments throughout the United Kingdom and indeed much of the world rely on that principle, too. There are many lessons to be learned here—I do not dispute that—but we must learn the lessons in the round, and the Parliament has a role to play in ensuring that some of the principles that are in place for the good governance that any Administration in the future will need are properly respected and given their place.

I am disappointed at the First Minister’s digging in on this matter. It has been two weeks since the Parliament voted for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s education report to be published. The First Minister said that we should judge her on her record on education, but that cannot be done if such an important report is hidden from the voters at the election. The Government has the report, but the Deputy First Minister has still not released it. Do we have to threaten another motion of no confidence in John Swinney to force him to respect the will of the Parliament?

It seems that the Opposition wants to pick and choose the principles that it wants us to abide by. There is a really important reason why Governments must have the ability to take confidential legal advice, but Willie Rennie is now also asking us to dictate to an independent organisation, the OECD no less, what the timetable for the publication of a report that it has been asked to produce should be. I am pretty certain that, if we were to do that, Willie Rennie would be one of the first members to get to his feet in the chamber to say how outrageous it was that we were intervening in an independent process that we had asked the OECD to undertake.

There are a range of principles here that Governments must abide by, and we will continue to do that in the overall interests of the good governance of the country. Thankfully, perhaps, the people of Scotland will get the opportunity in a few weeks’ time to cast their verdict on all this. Then, all of us who are participating in this session—with one exception, of course—will put ourselves before the Scottish people, and the Scottish people can have their say and make their verdict. That, of course, is the verdict that we should all respect and abide by.

United Kingdom Budget

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the United Kingdom budget. (S5F-04877)

Yesterday’s delayed budget confirmed additional net funding of £1.175 billion to the Scottish budget, which is welcome. The majority of that has already been factored into our budget proposals, which are currently under consideration by the Parliament.

We welcome some of the individual announcements—the extension of the furlough scheme and self-employed support—but the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s business support measures are significantly less generous than those that the Government proposes. Notably, there is little further funding to support health recovery or any significant new help for families in need. The confirmation that the levelling-up fund will indeed undermine the devolution settlement is particularly unwelcome. Nevertheless, we will work with those implications to build—I hope—consensus in the chamber for our budget bill in the coming days.

The Trades Union Congress has said that the chancellor

“is gambling with the recovery.”

More specifically, our capital budget has been cut and was not restored yesterday. Can the First Minister say anything about that? It seems to me that capital investment—housing and other things—both creates jobs and gives us assets.

John Mason is right on that point. Capital spending is, of course, key to economic recovery. As a result of yesterday’s budget, our capital grant for 2021-22 remains lower than it was in 2020-21, which is disappointing because it is one of the key levers that we have to support recovery through investment in infrastructure.

As we set out in our budget, the Scottish Government is doing what it can to mitigate that cut. We have maximised capital borrowing and drawn down £200 million of financial transaction capital from the Scottish reserve, which reduces the impact of the 66 per cent cut in financial transaction budget that was received from the UK Government spending review. We are doing what we can to mitigate it, but the cut in capital funding is deeply regrettable and will have consequences for the pace of economic recovery.

Strengthening Social Connection

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to protect and strengthen social connection in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. (S5F-04870)

The pandemic has hit everyone extremely hard but social connections have possibly suffered more than much else. Our focus is on achieving a balance between suppression and recognition of the social harm of loneliness and isolation. We have invested to tackle loneliness and social isolation from the start of the pandemic through a range of support streams.

In addition, the Connecting Scotland programme will invest a further £43 million in addressing digital exclusion, with a focus on low-income households and older and disabled people. In recent days, pictures of residents in care homes who were reunited with loved ones have moved us all and I hope that, as we ease out of the current restrictions, all of us will enjoy seeing more of those people who we love most.

The First Minister might be aware of the talk/together report, which highlights that extended isolation across all of society is having a profound effect on both the physical and mental health of our population. That lack of social interaction points to a significant escalation of a health crisis that was already a source of strain prior to the pandemic.

One of the crucial elements of the solution is the third sector, with regard to organisations that offer mental health support as well as those that deliver organised sport, art, music and so on. How does the Scottish Government plan not only to ensure that those essential services are still there and fully functioning after Covid, but to encourage re-engagement with a society that, for the past year, has been out of the habit of participating?

Financially, our budget facilitates support for many of the organisations and activities that Brian Whittle has spoken about. He raises an important point—one that is in our minds, but which we need to think more about, and which goes beyond the funding for social connections—about how we help people get back to ways of living that have perhaps become less normal for them. That will perhaps take time, but the Government will continue to pay a lot of attention to it. There will be many ideas across the chamber, on which we will also want to reflect.

European Union Structural Funds (Penalty)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to reports that Scotland faces a penalty of up to £190 million because of irregularities in its European Union structural fund spending. (S5F-04866)

Since 2014, the Scottish Government has allocated more than £700 million of European structural funds to support thousands of people and communities—investing in low-carbon projects, helping people with training and skills development and supporting vital local charities. That funding has been pivotal in supporting smart, sustainable and inclusive growth over a number of years.

The Scottish Government does not face a penalty of up to £190 million in relation to its European structural fund spending. The figure is based on a worst-case scenario of both the European social fund and the European regional development fund remaining in suspension. As the Minister for Trade, Innovation and Public Finance, Ivan McKee, has advised Parliament, the European regional development fund suspension was lifted by the Commission in December 2020, and we continue to work closely with the Commission to progress the lifting of the European social fund suspension.

I am grateful for the First Minister’s detailed response. The First Minister will be well aware that my Highlands and Islands region has been one of the United Kingdom’s top three beneficiaries of structural funds—from the Kessock bridge to the University of the Highlands and Islands. That funding has sustained and developed the local economy. However, the European Commission has expressed concern for years about two points: weaknesses in the verification checks by the Scottish Government, and failure to meet annual spending targets. Will the First Minister explain why that situation was not resolved? It is now resulting in millions of pounds being lost to the Highlands and Islands and to the rest of Scotland.

The Scottish Government works closely with the European Commission on such issues. They are often highly technical matters, but, as I said in my original answer, we were pleased that the ERDF suspension was lifted in December. I will ask Ivan McKee to write to David Stewart in more detail about the steps that we are taking to address some of the criticisms that have been made, and to give reassurance on those matters.

Covid-19 Vaccination Venues (People with Learning Disabilities)

Will there be a reconsideration of mass vaccination venues being used as the main premises for vaccinating people with learning disabilities and autism? Will consideration be given to assigning them to general practitioners, which would be a more familiar environment for people who might otherwise experience sensory overload?

We will certainly keep the approach under review, and offer those with learning and intellectual disabilities vaccination at their GP or another suitable location. We have also put in place plans to ensure that learning disability nurses will be available to support vaccination for that group. A walk-through video of vaccination centres is being prepared to assist those with learning disabilities and autism who plan to attend a larger vaccination centre. As ever, if anyone is invited for vaccination at a location that might not be suitable for them, for whatever reason, they can make alternative arrangements by contacting the helpline.

Covid-19 (Financial Support Schemes)

Can the First Minister offer any reassurance to my constituents who are struggling to get information regarding their applications to the mobile and home-based close contact services fund and the newly self-employed hardship fund? Many have had no acknowledgement, others have been rejected without any explanation and more still are waiting for a follow-up in the next seven to 10 days.

Given the known issues with the schemes, will the First Minister guarantee that the funds will remain open until all applications have been processed correctly? What advice does she have for those who are worried that while they are waiting for the applications to be processed, they might miss out on the opportunity to apply for local authority discretionary funding?

In general terms, I give the assurance that nobody will miss out on funding to which they are entitled due to administrative issues. I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Finance to write to Oliver Mundell with more information on the specific funds that he has raised and any issues that are being experienced. We will continue to support business for as long as required as we—in the next couple of months, I hope—come out of lockdown and see businesses start to trade normally again.

After-school Care Facilities (Reopening)

Now that more children are back at school, and the indication is that all children should return after Easter, when will all the after-school care facilities be permitted to start operating, given that they provide a vital service for working parents?

Forgive me if I am getting this wrong, but I think that I said on Tuesday that, for school-age children, that will happen when primary school children go back. We will continue to set out further stages of school return over the next couple of weeks.

Covid-19 Vaccine Uptake

I will ask about vaccine hesitancy in society and which groups might be less likely, for whatever reason, to go for their Covid-19 vaccine. It would helpful to know to what extent that is being monitored, and to what extent uptake is being encouraged among groups in, for instance, some of our black and minority ethnic communities.

Does the First Minister believe that uptake campaigns that bust vaccine myths that are led from within such communities—such as the work of Mr Shakha Sattar and the Kurdish development association, which is currently running the get a jab, save a life campaign—have an important role to play?

It is a really important issue and vaccine hesitancy has been in our minds since before the start of the vaccination programme. The good news is that, so far, uptake has been higher than anticipated. However, we know that encouraging uptake among particular groups in the country might be more difficult. We must address that, because we must ensure that all adults are included.

The commitment of faith, third sector and community groups, working alongside Government and health boards, means that we are already reaching all parts of the population, including minority ethnic communities. We have provided funding to a variety of organisations working with minority ethnic communities to reach those most unlikely to take up their vaccine offer. Similar to test and protect, the work of organisations supporting minority ethnic groups, such as BEMIS, is essential to ensuring that vaccine information is accessible, culturally appropriate and delivered by trusted voices, such as community leaders. I join Bob Doris in commending the Kurdish development association on its work to ensure that Kurdish communities get reliable information from a source that they trust.

Before I finish, I will say hello to Cameron, who briefly appeared on the screen behind Bob Doris.

Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Cyberattack)

A Helensburgh-based constituent of mine who is seeking to develop their electrical business has been unable to make any progress on their planning application with the council because the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, having been subject to a cyberattack in late December 2020, has been unable to receive and respond to planning consultations or to assist with supplementary information. Will the First Minister elaborate on the discussions that the Scottish Government has had regarding the disruption experienced by SEPA, given its detrimental effect on and the delay that it causes for numerous projects?

In general, undoubtedly the cyberattack has had a significant impact on SEPA’s systems and therefore on its work. SEPA is working hard to rebuild the systems and to reduce any backlog caused by the attack.

I will ask SEPA to write directly to Mr Corry with more detail of the work that is under way and the stage that it is at. It is not appropriate for me to comment directly on planning applications or issues, but I will ask SEPA to address the particular issue that the member has raised.

Edinburgh Festivals (Support)

What discussions is the Scottish Government having with the Edinburgh festivals about what will be possible this summer, given public health considerations, for live and digital performance options? In the light of yesterday’s arts and culture consequentials from the additional £408 million allocated in the United Kingdom budget, what support can the Scottish Government offer to keep the festivals and performers going?

A range of discussions are under way between the Government and different sectors and organisations on how we can best support them through the on-going impact of restrictions as we—hopefully—come out of lockdown. I will ask the culture secretary to write to Sarah Boyack with specific details of discussions with the Edinburgh festivals.

We all want to see the Edinburgh festivals not just come through Covid, but go from strength to strength. We gave them some support last year and we will continue to ensure that we do what we can to support them and arts and culture organisations and festivals across the country.

I go back to my earlier answer about encouraging people to re-engage as we come out of lockdown. There is no doubt about the importance of culture and the arts in that process and in supporting people’s wellbeing as we come out of this challenging time for the whole country.

Women’s Aid Services (North Lanarkshire)

The First Minister will be aware that North Lanarkshire Council recently took a decision that, in effect, defunds three women’s aid services across the council area, including Monklands Women’s Aid, which covers my constituency. Due to Scottish Government funding, some services, including the refuge provision, will continue, but there are concerns that many women and children will be left without a vital service and that local jobs will be on the line. The decision has been broadly condemned by national organisations and by MSPs and MPs from across the area and across the political parties.

I understand it is a decision for councillors, but could the First Minister take the opportunity to outline the support that the Scottish Government has made available for domestic abuse services, including women’s aid services, and will she commit to looking into the current situation affecting women’s aid services in Lanarkshire and consider whether any further support is available to mitigate the implications of the council’s decision?

I am aware of the situation in North Lanarkshire. Although the decision is a matter for the local authority, it is deeply disappointing.

Fulton MacGregor is right that we provide funding to Monklands Women’s Aid of around £174,000 annually and funding to Motherwell & District Women’s Aid of around £111,000 annually. Other funds are open to application, such as the new £13 million delivering equally safe fund to support violence against women and girls services and projects across the country.

Women’s access to front-line services that deal with violence and domestic abuse is vital, which is why we have committed to review how national and local specialist services for women and children experiencing gender-based violence are commissioned and funded and how we can ensure quality and sustainability, and that work will commence shortly with an initial twin focus on domestic abuse and sexual violence services.

A9 and A96 (Dualling)

On 10 February, the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity told me in committee that the Scottish Government remained committed to the A9 and A96 projects and the timeframe that had been set out for them. At First Minister’s question time on the same day, the First Minister was more cautious, suggesting that progress would be made “as quickly as possible”. The transport secretary has written to me and confirmed that a meaningful update on what he now describes as

“a very challenging target completion date”

will not be available until after the Scottish elections and after the summer.

Will the First Minister be honest with my constituents and admit that the Scottish Government does not expect work to dual the A9 in its entirety between Inverness and Perth to be completed by the 2025 target date?

We will do everything that we can to do that work as quickly as possible, taking full account of the Covid implications, which have been inescapable for everybody. If possible, we will do that within the original target dates, and if that is not possible we will do it as close to the original target dates as possible. Everybody understands the delays occasioned by Covid and we will make sure that we work to reduce the impact of those as much as we possibly can.

Social Housing (Covid Restrictions)

There is a major backlog in social housing allocations, transfers and registrations, with much of social housing operating on a restricted service. What is the Government doing to support local authorities and local housing providers to open up those services as quickly as possible when the restrictions are lifted, given the damage that they are causing communities up and down Scotland?

While restrictions are in place, we have been supporting local authorities financially to a considerable extent and I know that local authorities are working closely with a range of local organisations to support them. Some of the services that have been impacted, including those that Alex Rowley mentioned, are vital for people. I know, as we all will, the impact of that in my constituency.

We will provide that support for as long as necessary, but the Government is really focused on how quickly and safely we can start to lift the restrictions so that services and people’s lives more generally can get back to normal. I know that it is frustrating for everybody, but we need to keep encouraging people to abide by all the restrictions so that we can continue to suppress cases of Covid, which will accelerate our progress back to normality and to having services, such as the ones that Alex Rowley talks about, operating normally again.

Human Rights Act 1998 (Independent Review)

I understand that the Scottish Government has submitted detailed evidence to the United Kingdom independent human rights act review and will strongly oppose any attempt to weaken the Human Rights Act 1998. Rather than ripping up the 1998 act, a move that has been criticised by Amnesty International UK and that academics have warned could undermine Northern Ireland’s historic peace agreement, what actions does the First Minister think that the UK Government should take instead, in relation to human rights?

The Human Rights Act 1998, in combination with the Scotland Act 1998, is hugely important in protecting fundamental civil and political rights. The Scottish Government will robustly oppose any attempt to weaken those long-standing safeguards and I fear that the review has been established by the UK Government to do exactly that. Our submission to the review also makes it clear that there should be no changes to the 1998 act without the express consent of the Scottish Parliament. My strong preference would be for the UK Government to follow Scotland’s example but, as a minimum, it should give a firm commitment to maintaining the existing protections provided by the 1998 act and to ensuring full compliance with the European convention on human rights.

Publicly Owned Energy Company

Four years ago, the First Minister announced that the Scottish Government would set up a publicly owned energy company before the end of the parliamentary session, but four years later and after spending £500,000 of taxpayers’ money, there is no sight of that energy company. Can the First Minister tell us when we will see that publicly owned energy company, or is that something else that she has forgotten about?

No, I have not forgotten about it but, like much of the rest of the world, for the past year I have been focused on a global pandemic and trying to lead the country through it. Forgive me if some things have been impacted.

Paul Wheelhouse is continuing that work and I will ask him to write to Dean Lockhart with an update on it. That is one of the many things that we want to get back on track as soon as we get out of the Covid pandemic so that, with the consent of the Scottish people, in a few weeks’ time, we can continue to deliver for the people of Scotland.

Care Home Visits (Safety Measures)

I am pleased about the resumption of care home visits this month, not least because my mother resides in one. Safety is obviously important, but so is human contact between loved ones. What risk assessment has been made to ensure that safety measures do not overwhelm vulnerable residents to the extent that they are unable to recognise their visitors?

There is guidance in place and we have taken care around that for the reasons that Kenny Gibson sets out, among others. Obviously, care home providers are in the position of ensuring that visiting is as safe as possible and that all the factors that Kenny Gibson outlines are taken into account. There is no doubt that, next to getting young people back to school, giving families the ability to visit older relatives in care homes is our top priority. After that, of course, we desperately want us all to have the ability to visit and spend time with our loved ones.

Loneliness Awareness Campaign

Yesterday, the Evening Express reported on an elderly Aberdeen man, who was experiencing extreme loneliness, following his devoted wife’s passing several years ago. Age Scotland estimates that, before the pandemic, every street in Scotland housed a chronically lonely older person, and that has only got worse. Since 2018, we have been pushing for a national loneliness awareness campaign. When can we expect that vital campaign to be brought in? Will the First Minister join me in encouraging any older person to call the Age Scotland free helpline for advice, information or just a chat—on 0800 12 44 222—so that we can try to ensure that what we heard about in Aberdeen might never be repeated?

Yes, I very much agree, and this relates to the answer that I gave to Brian Whittle earlier. We need to think about how we support people to reconnect as we come out of what I hope is a unique situation. Loneliness, which was already an issue before the pandemic, has undoubtedly been exacerbated and, as we reconnect, a tackling loneliness awareness campaign will be part of what we do. We all have a part to play in that, however, and now, more than ever, is a time to think of elderly people or people in our networks who are alone, whether they are neighbours, friends or family members, and how we can reach out and help.

Finally, I absolutely endorse the promotion of the Age Scotland helpline—0800 12 44 222. At this time last year, I visited Age Scotland to announce the funding to expand that helpline, to enable it to deal with more people through the pandemic. The helpline has been doing a great job, it is a fantastic resource and people who need it should not hesitate to use it.

United Kingdom Budget

Does the First Minister share my concerns that the UK budget has failed to deliver the level of investment and provide the long-term support that businesses and households in my constituency and across Scotland need to ensure a sustainable recovery from the pandemic?

Yes. The support that was announced in the budget was very welcome, but it had omissions. In certain respects, it felt partial and incomplete and I think that support for businesses and households was significantly less generous than what we have committed to in Scotland. The refusal to make the £20 uplift to universal credit permanent was particularly disappointing. The Resolution Foundation notes that, due to the removal of that payment uplift, the poorest households will face a 7 per cent fall in income in the second half of this financial year. That will take the basic level of benefits back to levels that have not been seen since the early 1990s, at the same time as unemployment is due to peak.

We have provided certainty and stability to businesses by extending 100 per cent non-domestic rates relief for retail, hospitality, leisure and aviation businesses for 12 months. The UK budget fell short of that.

We have taken a number of steps that were not matched yesterday, including, of course, financial support to enable the freezing of council tax. The support was welcome, but there is much more that the UK Government needs to do to help businesses and, more importantly, to help the individuals who are most in need.

Business Grants (Covid-19)

I, too, have been contacted by several constituents who have applied over the past few weeks for newly self-employed hardship grants and mobile and home-based close contact services grants, only to have their applications rejected because of so-called glitches in the system. With the closing date for applications fast approaching, and having heard nothing back from the Scottish Government, my constituents are left wondering whether they will get the grants to which they are entitled. Will the First Minster guarantee that no one who has applied before the closing date will be denied a grant for which they should be eligible as a result of being wrongly rejected due to a glitch or a malfunction in the system?

Yes, I am happy to give the assurance that if someone is eligible for funding they will not lose out on that because of any technical or administrative issue.

Forgive me, as I cannot remember which member raised the topic earlier, but I think that I undertook to get the Cabinet Secretary for Finance to write to that member—I think that it was Oliver Mundell; my apologies, Mr Mundell. I will ask the finance secretary to copy John Scott in as well.

Dundee City Council (Equal Pay Claims)

Scores of Dundee women are lodging equal pay claims against Dundee City Council, after that Scottish National Party council’s failure to properly implement a single status agreement. Those women have been at the forefront of the Covid fight; they are social care workers, cooks and cleaners. We all know that councils are strapped for cash after years of local government cuts by the SNP Government, so will the First Minister commit to paying those equal pay claims from her central budget so that the women workers of Dundee get what they have long been owed?

The matter is of course for Dundee City Council, but I am confident that it will do the right thing. Of course, it has a good example to follow, which is that of SNP-run Glasgow City Council, which resolved the equal pay scandal that was presided over for many years by its Labour predecessors.

Energy Transition Funding

The United Kingdom Tory Government has once again failed to deliver on its election promises in the north-east by pledging just £27 million to an energy transition fund, despite the Scottish National Party Government’s having committed to more than double that amount through its £62 million transition fund. Does the First Minister think, as I do, that the Tories are letting down the people of the north-east and are not taking seriously the climate emergency and the protection of the future livelihoods of my constituents?

Yes, although I would go further; I think that the Tories are letting down the people of Scotland more generally. Thankfully, the people of Scotland will get the chance to have their say before too long.

Any new investment that can help the Scottish Government to realise its ambition to create high-quality jobs and move to a net zero economy is welcome. However, the fact that less than half of the level of the Scottish Government’s £62 million investment in the energy transition fund has been committed by the UK Government is a matter that I expect will not escape the attention of Scotland’s oil and gas sector and those who work in it.

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. The First Minister said earlier that the Parliament would debate the findings of the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints and James Hamilton’s report. However, the Parliament closes in three weeks. Will the Parliamentary Bureau ensure that time is allocated before then to having that debate if the reports are produced?

Thank you, Ms Smith. The business managers will have heard your comment and I am sure that they will be able to raise it at the next meeting of the bureau and to discuss finding time for that to happen.

That concludes First Minister’s questions. We will resume at 2.30 with portfolio questions.

13:29 Meeting suspended.  

14:30 On resuming—