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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, April 4, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 04 April 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Long-term Decline in Salmon Stocks, Portfolio Question Time, Transport (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Transport (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time

Education (Subject Choice)

Yesterday, the head of Universities Scotland said that there is a growing concern that the students in some schools, particularly in deprived areas, are losing out because of a lack of subject choice. Does the First Minister agree?

I know that there is an Education and Skills Committee inquiry into the issue just now, and we will certainly look at its findings with interest. Broadly speaking, however, the view that Jackson Carlaw described is not my view. As he will be well aware, under curriculum for excellence there are no set notions about the number or type of qualifications taken at each stage of the senior phase. What matters are the qualifications and awards that pupils leave school with, not just what they study in secondary 4, which is what some of the concerns that have been expressed have been about.

When we look at attainment in our schools, we see that the number of pupils leaving with qualifications at level 5 has risen, and the same is true at level 6. The numbers of pupils going into positive destinations are also at record levels. There is now growing evidence that the attainment gap between the richest and the poorest is beginning to close.

We will continue to pay close attention to these matters and will continue to focus on what needs to be done to ensure that every young person in our schools gets the best possible education.

I believe that the breadth of subjects in which students can achieve qualifications matters. Let us examine what is emerging. Whereas previously schools would offer around eight subjects in S4, in a majority of cases that number has now reduced to six. There is a massive reduction in subjects such as modern languages being taken in secondary school, with children in deprived parts of Scotland by far the worst affected.

We raised the matter with the First Minister a year ago, and yet from the evidence that we have heard this week, it seems that her Government remains in complete denial. Why?

As I am sure that Jackson Carlaw is aware, the general phase of education now goes on to third year, so it is longer. A broader range of qualifications and other awards are now available. As I said in my previous answer, the percentage of pupils getting a qualification at level 5 has risen since 2009, and the same is true for qualifications at level 6, which are, broadly speaking, highers. We are seeing the attainment gap narrow.

We have to judge our education system not by the number of qualifications that are taken in one particular year but by what young people are coming out of school with, and we are seeing record numbers going into university, including record numbers from our deprived areas.

Those are all positive developments, but of course we think that there is more work still to be done, which is why the programme of education reform is under way.

In her answer, the First Minister illustrates that she is in denial. When representatives from her own main education agency were asked just yesterday how many teachers we are short in each subject, they declared that they did not know, but they were looking into it.

That brings us to the nub of the problem, because we learned this week that three quarters of schools say that a lack of teachers is constraining subject choice to some extent or by a great deal. No matter what spin the First Minister puts on it, teacher numbers are down by 3,100 under the Scottish National Party. Is it not simply the case that, if she cuts teacher numbers, she restricts the subjects that pupils can take?

The number of teacher vacancies and the subjects that they are in will vary from time to time but, generally, vacancy numbers in our schools are down. Since I became First Minister, the number of teachers in Scotland has increased by 1,242. We have the highest number of teachers in our schools since 2010 and the highest number of primary school teachers since 1980, and the recent pay award for teachers will help us even more in recruiting and retaining teachers. In fact, the contribution that the Scottish Government has made to that award is specifically geared to do just that.

On attainment, let me give a bit more detail to my earlier answers. I should say that we have changed how the figures are counted a little bit, so I give that caveat. However, broadly speaking, where we are able to make a direct comparison—[Interruption.] The Tories may not want to hear this, but I suggest that they listen. In 2006-07, when this Government came into office, the percentage of pupils getting a level 5 qualification or better was just over 71 per cent; the figure is now 85.9 per cent. In 2006, the percentage of pupils getting a level 6 qualification or better was 41.6 per cent; last year, the figure was 62.2 per cent. Those are the facts. We are seeing attainment improve and the attainment gap narrow. That is good progress, but I will be the first to say that there is more work to do and we are getting on with doing it.

Of course the achievement of students is to be celebrated, but my question is about the breadth of subjects that students can take qualifications in. More than 1,000 people have written to the committee as part of the inquiry that the First Minister made reference to, confirming the point that I have just made about a lack of teachers reducing the availability of subjects in schools.

The chief inspector of education, Gayle Gorman, said to the Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee yesterday that the failure to recruit teachers

“can—and in some cases does—limit opportunities to lead extensive curriculum improvements”.

We know that subject choice in Scottish schools has narrowed significantly under the SNP. We also know that schools say that a lack of teachers—there have been fewer of them in every single year that this Government has been in office—is a core reason.

A year ago, when we raised the issue at First Minister’s question time, Nicola Sturgeon said that she would “work hard” to ensure young people had a wide choice of subjects to take in secondary school, yet, a year on, we are back here again. She said that education would be her number 1 priority. Is it not time that she acted as if it was her number 1 priority?

We have been acting on it, which is why we are seeing the improvements that I have just cited. We see more people staying on longer at school and more people taking a broader range of subjects over a number of years. Those are good things and exactly what curriculum for excellence is designed to achieve.

Teacher numbers have risen in each of the past three years, so we now have a higher number of teachers than we have had at any time since 2010, and a higher number of primary school teachers since I was at primary school. We are also seeing attainment increase. Those are the facts.

Jackson Carlaw talks about difficulties around teacher recruitment. The situation is not unique to Scotland. In January, the Secretary of State for Education said that, in England

“it has become increasingly difficult to recruit and retain staff”.

This is a challenge for many countries, but it is a challenge that this Government is addressing by taking action to recruit and retain teachers. We can see from the exam passes and the qualification statistics that I have just cited that our young people are doing better as a result. I hope that everybody across the chamber—even Jackson Carlaw—can find it within themselves to welcome that.

Brexit (Preparations)

Yesterday afternoon, the First Minister announced that she does not believe that the Prime Minister is ready to “give ground” on a Brexit deal. The Labour Party continues to vehemently oppose a no-deal Brexit. Today, we have returned to discussions, in good faith, to make concerted efforts to avoid that. However, there is no escaping the fact that, thanks to Theresa May and the Tories, we are now facing the cliff edge of a no-deal Brexit. Can the First Minister update Parliament and the country on the Scottish Government’s resilience committee’s plans for the event of a no-deal Brexit next week?

The Scottish Government resilience committee will meet again this afternoon. I will chair that meeting, just as I have chaired its meetings on a weekly basis for some time. We are making plans across the whole range of our responsibilities to ensure that, as far as we possibly can, we mitigate the impact of a no-deal Brexit.

I will be candid: no matter how much planning or contingency work we do, it will not be possible to mitigate every impact of a no-deal Brexit, should that happen. That is why it is so important that we all work to avoid that scenario.

Yesterday at Westminster, I had a constructive meeting with Jeremy Corbyn and then I met the Prime Minister. In the meeting with the Prime Minister I set out, once again, the Scottish Government’s single market-customs union compromise. That is not our first preference, but I have said that I am willing to work with the Prime Minister to see where there might be agreement around that. I also said that I was willing and keen to talk to her about how we can allay our concerns about migration, given the demographic needs of Scotland. All I got in return were the reasons why the Prime Minister did not agree with me on those things and why her deal was the best one. She wants to know where the rest of us are prepared to compromise, but I got no sense at all from her, at any stage yesterday, of where she is willing to compromise. From what I read of his meeting with her, I think that Jeremy Corbyn and his colleagues got pretty much the same impression.

If the Prime Minister wants to find a compromise, it is time for her to set out where she is prepared to compromise. It is also time for members from across the House of Commons to unite behind initiatives—such as the motion that Joanna Cherry lodged earlier in the week—to ensure that we take away the risk of a no-deal Brexit once and for all.

I welcome the First Minister’s co-operative tone.

Let us focus on something specific to the Scottish situation. Last week, the chief medical officer and the chief pharmaceutical officer said that steps were being taken to deal with any shortfall in medicines as a result of a no-deal Brexit—[Interruption.] The health secretary previously stated that the Government wanted to have six weeks’ worth of medicine in storage on top of normal stock levels by the end of March. That includes medicines such as insulin, which more than 30,000 people in Scotland rely on every day. Can the First Minister take the opportunity to reassure the public that Scotland now has access to six weeks’ worth of reserves of all the medicines that we need?

That is the broad assurance that we have from pharmaceutical companies. We continue to work to ensure that that information is up to date and that those stockpiles remain, given that the date for a possible no-deal Brexit has changed. That date may change again, which means that those plans require to be kept under constant review. I assure the chamber that they will be.

We hope that we will not be in that situation. The Presiding Officer has indicated that if we are facing a no-deal Brexit at the end of next week, Parliament will be recalled from recess. I welcome that assurance. The Government will have the opportunity at that point to update Parliament with up-to-the-minute details of the preparations being made across a range of issues.

I could not help noticing that while Richard Leonard was asking me that important and serious question, the Conservative members were laughing.

Members: Shame!

It is not a laughing matter. Every Conservative in the Scottish Parliament and every Conservative politician across the country should be hanging their heads in shame at the fact that they have brought the country to the brink of crisis.

Let me turn to something else that is extremely serious. The Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work said that Brexit would represent

“an economic shock on the scale of the 2008 financial crisis.”—[Official Report, 21 February 2019; c 44.]

In the foreword to his budget, he wrote:

“However, if we face a no deal or cliff-edge Brexit I will have to return to Parliament to reassess our spending priorities.”

When will the First Minister bring to this Parliament those revised spending priorities? Will she commit to presenting her proposals for consideration by the Parliament next week, in the event of a recall in light of the no-deal Brexit possibility?

This is a serious issue. Let me say, first, that I hope that the finance secretary does not have to return to the Parliament with revised budget figures, because I hope that we do not find ourselves in a no-deal scenario.

If we find ourselves in that scenario, it will be important that the finance secretary does that as quickly as possible. I do not think that it would be reasonable to expect that to be next Thursday or Friday, but he would intend to do that as soon as possible after that, for full consideration by the Parliament.

If we are in that scenario—and let us all hope that that will not be the case—there will be a substantial shock to the United Kingdom economy and to the Scottish economy. We will do whatever we can to mitigate the impacts of that, but many of the levers lie in the hands of the UK Government—not just the levers that would allow us to avoid a no-deal scenario but the levers that will require to be pulled if we find ourselves in that situation.

When I was in London yesterday, I took part in the UK Cabinet sub-committee on no-deal planning. John Swinney and Mike Russell have attended previous meetings of that sub-committee. One of the issues on the agenda was the UK Government’s planning for the economic response; I made the point that I do not think that the scale of what the UK Government is planning is sufficient to meet the potential scale of the challenge.

We will continue to do everything that we can and to press the UK Government to do likewise. However, I repeat the very important point that if we find ourselves leaving the European Union next week or at any stage with no deal, none of us will be able to properly and fully mitigate the impacts of that, which is why all of us should be focused on doing everything that we possibly can to stop that happening.

There are a number of constituency supplementaries.

NHS Tayside (Cancer Treatment)

A constituent contacted me this week to inform me that she has been told by NHS Tayside that she is one of the 300 breast cancer patients who might have received a lower dose of chemotherapy than they should have done in their treatment.

The issue was raised in the findings of the recent Healthcare Improvement Scotland report, “Clinical Management of Breast Cancer in NHS Tayside”. Just as important, it was raised in the media almost a year ago. Why has it taken such a long time to address the concerns? What steps is the Scottish Government taking to investigate variations in cancer treatment across Scotland?

In May 2018, a whistleblower wrote to the then health secretary, Shona Robison, about the issue. Shona Robison immediately arranged for the whistleblower to meet the chief pharmaceutical officer, and in July 2018, the chief medical officer and chief pharmaceutical officer asked Healthcare Improvement Scotland to examine the practice of lower dosage of chemotherapy in NHS Tayside. That resulted in the publication, earlier this week, of the report that Liz Smith mentioned.

The findings and recommendations of the HIS report were considered by an independent expert group, to understand any potential impact on Tayside patients arising from the different approach. The group has made it clear that any risk to patients of a negative impact is small. A further expert group, led by Professor Aileen Keel, of the Scottish cancer task force, will fully consider all the HIS recommendations and how they can best be delivered. The group expects to report its findings in June.

NHS Tayside has already announced that it will make changes to its breast cancer chemotherapy treatment, to bring it into line with the rest of Scotland.

I hope that that gives some assurance on the particular issue. On the broader issue, variation across different health boards is something that the Scottish Government looks at closely. For example, the atlas of variation often offers a way of looking at the issue. Where there are apparent variations, it is then possible to look into whether they are for good reasons or not and to take action. We take the issue extremely seriously, as I hope that the actions that the then health secretary took demonstrate.


Workers at the Centrica call centre in Glasgow are deeply concerned at the news that 285 jobs are under threat, with the site facing closure. The proposed job cuts in Glasgow are the thin end of the wedge and will be deeply worrying to workers and their families.

Any loss of the jobs would have an adverse effect on not only Glasgow but the wider Scottish economy. The First Minister, as a Glasgow MSP, will share my concern at this development. Will she say what steps the Scottish Government can take to support the workforce in their efforts to ensure that those regressive job cuts do not go ahead?

I am grateful to James Kelly for raising the issue, and I very much share the concerns that he has expressed. I was concerned to learn of the developments at British Gas and my thoughts are with the employees who have been affected.

Jamie Hepburn, the Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills, is trying to arrange a call with Centrica and the GMB for as soon as possible. Scottish Enterprise is establishing contact with the company and will provide whatever support it can. British Gas is the United Kingdom’s largest energy supplier and is a significant employer in Scotland, so we want to do everything that we can to protect jobs in the company. I will ask Jamie Hepburn to keep James Kelly and any other member of Parliament who has a constituency interest in the matter up to date.

ScotRail Improvements (Borders Railway)

It gives me no pleasure to raise, yet again, failures on the Borders railway. However, just today, there were two peak-time cancellations and, as a result of overcrowding on later trains, two people fainted, with one requiring medical assistance. A pregnant woman also became ill. Given that, at a committee last week, Alex Hynes claimed that

“customers are already benefiting from improved service delivery”,—[Official Report, Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, 27 March 2019; c 5.]

does the First Minister agree that Mr Hynes needs to get out and about on Borders trains to hear what my constituents think about his improvements?

I completely agree that that level of discomfort and inconvenience for passengers, as a result of overcrowding, in no way reflects the service level for which the Government and Scottish taxpayers are paying. I have been informed that today’s cancellations were a consequence of a train failing early this morning, but I will reinforce to Mr Hynes and his colleagues the critical nature of providing a service that passengers can rely on and can feel safe and comfortable using.

Improvements across ScotRail’s services have been patchy, with passengers in the east of the country continuing to be let down by ScotRail. On Monday, the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity met senior Abellio officials to reinforce the absolute requirement for improvement. A couple of weeks ago, I said in the chamber that ScotRail is in the last chance saloon, and I repeat that today. It must meet the commitments that are contained in the performance remedial agreement to which it has now signed up.

Teacher Absences (Aberdeen)

The First Minister will be aware that the number of teacher absences in Aberdeen has risen by 60 per cent in the past year alone, reaching a total of 2,486 staff days since September 2018. Why does the First Minister think that our teachers are so stressed that they need so much leave? What does she plan to do about it?

We are working hard to reduce teachers’ unnecessary workload. We have just agreed with the teaching unions a pay deal that will significantly increase teachers’ pay, in recognition of the job that they do. I am happy to ask the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills to speak to the local council if there are particular issues in that part of the country, but we will continue to take the action that I have outlined in the chamber today to ensure that teacher numbers continue to rise and are appropriate for the level of demand that is placed on our teachers.


I want to ask some questions on an area of agreement. I share the First Minister’s anxiety that there might be a hasty Brexit agreement between the leader of the Labour Party and the Prime Minister. Given that such an agreement would not be in the withdrawal agreement, it could be unpicked by Boris Johnson if he takes over from Theresa May later this year. When the First Minister met Jeremy Corbyn yesterday, did she get an indication of how he was going to address that issue? It seems clear to me that, if there is an agreement between the Prime Minister and the leader of the Labour Party, there will be no people’s vote. Is that the First Minister’s understanding?

I am very concerned that a deal might lead to a legally binding withdrawal agreement being passed that would irrevocably take the United Kingdom out of the European Union on the strength of non-legally binding commitments about the future relationship. As Willie Rennie says, such commitments could be ripped up by a future Prime Minister, such as Boris Johnson—perish the thought. I expressed that concern strongly to Jeremy Corbyn and his colleagues yesterday. It is up to him whether he listens to me, but I said that, if I were in his shoes, I would be very wary about doing a deal with the Prime Minister on that basis.

As far as a people’s vote is concerned, it was not clear to me from the discussions that I had with Jeremy Corbyn yesterday which way the Labour Party will go on that issue. There is obviously a division within the Labour Party. That is fair enough but, given the mess that this process has become, it is vital that we do not end up with a cobbled-together, least-worst compromise that has been cooked up behind closed doors between the Prime Minister and the leader of the Opposition. It would be far better, now, to request a long extension from the European Union, which would make it possible for us to fight the European Parliament elections. The House of Commons could, by all means, come up with what a compromise might look like, but people across the UK should then be asked whether they want to accept a second-best compromise or whether, given everything that we have learned over the past three years, they think that the best option for the whole of the UK is to remain in the UK.

I think that that is right. We remainers are concerned that a deal could be done behind closed doors that would give away the real benefits of membership of the EU without the people having a final say.

I seek some clarity on compromise, which the First Minister has talked about today and yesterday. She has referred to her paper in 2016, which talked about membership of the single market and the customs union. That was her main position until I charmed her to support the people’s vote. [Laughter.] She changed her mind after I asked her.

What does the First Minister mean by “compromise”? Will she insist on a people’s vote in all circumstances, or is she considering reverting to her original position?

I encourage Willie Rennie to keep up with the charm, which I think is much more befitting of his status in the Parliament.

I want to see a people’s vote in all circumstances. As I have set out previously, the current situation is not of my choosing or of Willie Rennie’s choosing. My preference is for Scotland to remain in the EU, and I will do everything that I can to bring that option about. I hope that this will not be the case at any stage, but if that choice is no longer open to the UK—it will always be open to Scotland, if we go down a different route, as I continue to hope to charm Willie Rennie into agreeing to do—I will want to protect Scotland from a hard Brexit. That is why we have previously put forward—indeed, we voted for this in the House of Commons on Monday night—a single market/customs union compromise, but that is not my preference.

Right now, those of us who want the Brexit mess to be stopped in its tracks and the UK to be given the option of staying in the EU should continue to be fully behind the efforts to put the issue back to the people. I think that that is the right thing to do now; indeed, I think that it is the most democratic thing to do now.

I will now take some further supplementaries.

Human Papillomavirus Vaccine (Roll-out to Boys)

A study published in The BMJ links the introduction of the human papillomavirus vaccine a decade ago with a 90 per cent reduction in cancer-causing HPV in Scotland, thereby demonstrating the significant and continued benefits of the vaccination programme. Can the First Minister confirm that it is the Scottish Government’s intention to roll out the vaccine to boys? If so, when will that happen?

I welcome that positive report from The BMJ. In Scotland, uptake of the HPV immunisation programme remains high and continues to exceed 80 per cent. As today’s report shows, that is leading to a 90 per cent reduction in cancer-causing HPV in Scotland, which is remarkable and wonderful.

The Scottish Government remains committed to our efforts to ensure that girls benefit from the vaccine which, as the study shows, is saving lives. We want to build on that success, and we will extend the HPV vaccine programme to boys later this year.

In the meantime, it remains important that women continue to take up the invitation for regular cervical screening. Smear tests save lives. It is a unique test, as it can prevent the disease before it even begins. Treatment that is carried out as a result of screening prevents eight out of 10 cervical cancers from developing.

I hope that everybody in the chamber will welcome the news that the HPV vaccine is already an enormous success story. [Applause.]

Burntisland Fabrications

It is now clear that Fife has lost out on £2.8 billion-worth of work on the Moray and Kincardine wind farm projects. It is a fact that, as part of the consent that was given for the Kincardine project, commitments were given that substantial amounts of work would be done in Scottish yards. What is the First Minister going to do about developers reneging on those commitments to Scottish yards? Given that the Fife yards are owned by Scottish Enterprise, what action plan will be put in place to ensure that investment comes into the Fife yards to ensure that they are fit for the future?

I thank Alex Rowley for raising the issue. The finance secretary and I met DF Barnes, the new owner of Burntisland Fabrications, last week. We had the opportunity to discuss its understandable frustrations, which we share, about the recent experience of bidding for some of those contracts. We also discussed issues around investment in infrastructure at the yards and we were able to assure the company that we will continue to do everything that we can to support it. Those discussions are on-going.

We also discussed the concerns that have been raised by Gary Smith and Pat Rafferty, who represent the unions concerned, about whether or not—probably not—BiFab is operating on a level playing field. When Alex Rowley last raised this matter, I said that we will convene a summit to try to get to the heart of these issues, because I strongly believe that BiFab should have—and indeed does have—a bright future if we can resolve them. I am determined to work with the company, the unions and others to resolve these issues and make sure that the company has the future that it deserves.

Free Personal Care (North Ayrshire)

I have raised the issue of free personal care with the First Minister numerous times in the chamber. Just yesterday, I received correspondence confirming that North Ayrshire has a backlog of 100 people waiting for funding. According to the health and social care partnership:

“free personal care ... can only be provided within available financial means ... due to ... budgetary pressures, there is a waiting list for funding”.

Every one of those people is waiting for funding for a solution to meet their needs.

First Minister, if free personal care is so universal, why are so many people waiting?

Free personal care has been there for many years for those aged 65 and over who are assessed as needing it; and, as of Monday this week, free personal care has been extended to those under 65 who need it. I am happy to look at the correspondence—and to have the health secretary look at the correspondence—if the member wishes to pass it to us. It is important that we work with integration authorities to make sure that those who are assessed as needing care get it.

I say, gently, that if we had followed the Tory budget proposals, we would have had to take hundreds of millions of pounds out of the health service and out of integration authority budgets. We are increasing the money that is going into the health service and social care due to our proposals for increased funding, which the Tories voted against when this Parliament considered the budget.

National Health Service

This week, we heard Michelle Ballantyne say about the national health service:

“I would be quite happy if the Government had nothing to do with its running.”—[Official Report, 3 April 2019; c 44.]

This is a lady who received her education as a nurse from the NHS and who worked in the NHS. Is it not absolute Tory hypocrisy that she now seeks to undermine the NHS?

I think that the Scottish Conservatives are probably starting to wish that Michelle Ballantyne would make fewer comments in the chamber. I was in London yesterday, so I was not in the chamber and did not hear the comments; I have seen them as reported. As far as I am concerned, the NHS must always stay in public ownership and in public hands, run by the public. As long as I or my party has anything to do with it, that will continue to be the case.

Michelle Ballantyne’s comments yesterday underline the concern of many people that the NHS would not be safe in the Conservatives’ hands, because they would want to privatise it at the first opportunity.

Violence Against Women

To ask the First Minister how the new Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 will help to reduce violence against women. (S5F-03253)

The Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 came into effect on Monday. It creates a specific offence covering not just physical abuse but forms of psychological abuse that were previously difficult to prosecute under existing law.

We know that the vast majority of victims of domestic abuse are women. Strengthening the law is one part of equally safe, which is our strategy to prevent and eradicate all forms of violence against women and girls.

We have worked closely with justice partners to ensure that the justice system is ready for implementation of the act, including by funding Police Scotland to support the development of training for 14,000 police officers and staff. An extensive public awareness campaign has been launched to raise awareness of the fact that psychological abuse and coercive and controlling behaviour are domestic abuse.

Coercive and controlling behaviour has the most damaging and long-lasting effects on individuals. Does the First Minister agree that the public awareness campaign will send the clear warning to abusers that all forms of domestic abuse are criminal and that perpetrators should expect to face the full consequences of their abusive behaviour?

Yes, I whole-heartedly agree with that. The public awareness campaign is also important in ensuring that the public are aware of the change in the law and that victims understand how they can get help—and, in fact, that behaviour of this nature is a crime. Last week, when I visited Women’s Aid in the east end of Glasgow with the justice secretary, I spoke to two survivors of this type of abuse, who said that, for many who suffer such abuse, the first barrier is often making them understand that such behaviour is unacceptable. We must reinforce the message that coercive and controlling behaviour is domestic abuse and that the new legislation will help to hold perpetrators to account.

The public awareness campaign that I have mentioned is running across multiple platforms—television, radio, online and print—and we are working with a number of third sector groups, including Women’s Aid, the ASSIST service, Shakti Women’s Aid and Abused Men in Scotland, to develop it. Again, I hope that all members will get fully behind it.

I, too, warmly welcome the new domestic abuse legislation coming into force, but I note that the Management of Offenders (Scotland) Bill will make it possible for domestic abuse and sexual offenders who would otherwise be in prison to be released under electronic monitoring. If those people were to breach exclusion zone conditions, there would be a very real danger of something adverse happening very quickly to domestic abuse victims. How will the First Minister ensure that such breaches are responded to in real time and with the immediacy required to protect victims?

We will continue to work very closely with organisations such as Women’s Aid, which represent women who have been victims of abuse, to ensure that as we take forward broader reforms of our justice system, the needs of those who suffer abuse are put at the absolute heart of everything that we do. In fact, that discussion is taking place in train with the changes with regard to the presumption against short sentences.

Of course, sentencing is a matter not for the Government but for the courts. As a result of the new legislation—under an amendment lodged, I think, by Linda Fabiani—courts now have a duty to consider in all domestic abuse cases the imposition of a non-harassment order to protect victims and, for the first time, the ability to use a non-harassment order to protect children as well as adult victims of the offence.

These are important issues to raise, and it is vital that victims of domestic abuse are very much at the heart of everything that we do in all aspects of the justice system.

Drug Deaths (Task Force)

To ask the First Minister whether she will provide details of the scope and remit of the Scottish Government’s new task force to tackle drug deaths. (S5F-03235)

The Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing will convene an expert group to examine the key drivers of drug deaths and to advise on what further changes, either in practice or in the law, could help to save lives and reduce harm. As was outlined in the new drug and alcohol strategy a few months ago, we must recognise that there are limitations on public health outcomes associated with the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. As everyone will appreciate, it is also the case that drugs deaths are a complex issue. As no one approach, group or service can do all that is needed, it is important that we ensure that everyone works together. Moreover, the expert group that is being established will learn from the Dundee and Glasgow work on drug deaths to help to inform our continued efforts to tackle the issue.

Does the First Minister understand the frustration of families across Scotland at the Scottish National Party Government taking so long to wake up to this tragedy in our country? Anas Sarwar, Monica Lennon and I have been calling for action to be taken for the past three years, but SNP ministers have failed to act.

Given the level of concern about drug deaths across the country, how will the First Minister ensure that colleagues across the chamber are part of the task force that she mentioned and that experts and charities—many of whom agree with us that it is time that we urgently see a new focus on helping people not just to manage but to end their addictions—are included in taking that work forward?

We will continue to work across the chamber to do the right things on what is a complex and challenging issue. As the member knows, I represent a Glasgow constituency; I regularly speak to those with experience of drug use and to families who have been affected by it, and often those conversations underline not only the complexity of the issue but some of the things that we need to do. As I said in an exchange a couple of weeks ago with Jackson Carlaw, it is important that we are prepared to look at taking not just traditional actions but new approaches.

The issue of safe consumption facilities is raised regularly in this chamber. The Tories, in a seemingly knee-jerk way, have set their face completely against that approach, but in a letter to the Glasgow health and social care partnership, the Home Office wrote that it

“acknowledges that there is some evidence for the effectiveness of drug consumption rooms in … reducing health risks for drug users.”

If we are to be serious about this issue, all of us must be serious about it, and we must all have the humility to accept that some things in the past have not worked and be prepared to adopt new approaches. That cuts both ways; if, as I hope they do, Opposition parties want to be part of this work, they need to consider that.

I, again, ask the member to rethink on the issue of safe consumption facilities. When he has done so, perhaps he could use any influence that he has on the United Kingdom Government to have it change its position. If the UK Government were to change its position, that would be one way of helping us to progress these matters in a positive way.

The First Minister is aware of the clamour for action about this public health crisis. There is a clamour, too, from people with drug problems for opiate replacement therapy. At the moment, the figure for those in treatment is 35 per cent in Scotland and 60 per cent in England. In one third of the drug-related deaths in 2014, the individuals concerned had no contact with drug treatment services. I welcome the task force and its anticipated work, but some issues cannot wait. Will the First Minister, as a matter of urgency, address the unacceptably low percentage of people with drug problems who are in treatment and ensure optimum prescribing and support to tackle the unacceptable number of deaths?

I am happy to ensure that that issue is looked at—although I am sure that it is being and has been looked at. It might be something that the expert group wants to look at in the early stages of its work.

Obviously, prescribing decisions are for clinicians to make, based on the best interests and the needs of those for whom they prescribe. The disparity between the opiate replacement therapy rates that John Finnie has highlighted is certainly something that I think should be looked at within the full scope of the task force’s work.

Nothing should be off the agenda. This is a serious, complex and challenging issue. We know that some of what is being done is effective; other things are, perhaps, not effective. There are also things that are not currently being done to which we must open our minds. If everybody involved has that spirit, we, in Scotland, can find a way of leading in the right direction, as we have done on so many other public health issues. That is what I hope that we can achieve.

Substandard Temporary Accommodation

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to reports that many pregnant women and homeless children are being housed by local authorities in substandard temporary accommodation. (S5F-03239)

Temporary accommodation provides an important safety net in emergencies. In “Ending Homelessness Together: High Level Action Plan”, we are very clear that such accommodation must be “high quality”, with stays “as short as possible”.

The vast majority of homeless families with children and homeless pregnant women are given temporary accommodation in the social rented sector. For others, the Homeless Persons (Unsuitable Accommodation) (Scotland) Amendment Order 2017 provides extra protection to ensure that families do not stay in unsuitable accommodation, such as bed and breakfast accommodation, for more than seven days. Breaches should not be tolerated, and the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning has already met councils concerned to discuss solutions.

As part of our plans to transform temporary accommodation, later this year, we will consult on extending protection to all homeless households. The consultation will ask for views on suitable sanctions for any council that fails to comply.

The First Minister mentioned high-quality and temporary accommodation. All over the country, people are being put up in smelly and run-down private hotels and bed and breakfasts, mainly due to a lack of social housing stock, and at exorbitant cost to the taxpayer. The Herald on Sunday has reported horror stories of single rooms in grotty hotels with no cooker or fridge, and with residents locked out for being five minutes late in getting to the accommodation. In some cases, there is nothing temporary about that temporary accommodation.

I ask the First minister to focus on what can be done immediately to deal with the scandal. I know that there is a lot of on-going work, but will the First Minister keep in play recommendation 20 of the report that was commissioned by Social Bite to introduce

“legally enforceable standards for temporary accommodation”,

starting with at least the right to have a cooker and a fridge.

Yes—we will consider all recommendations of that nature. As I said in my original answer, one of the things that we will consult on is suitable sanctions for councils that do not comply with the rules. It is important to say that the vast majority of families who are in temporary accommodation are in temporary accommodation in the social rented sector.

We now have the time protection for families, for women with children and for pregnant woman, which we are looking to extend. In part, the increase in the number of breaches is due to the reduction of the time limit, but breaches are not acceptable, which is why the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning has been taking action with the councils involved.

We are determined to implement the recommendations that came from our task force, so that we transform temporary accommodation, but also so that, in a broader sense, we reduce the circumstances in which people have to go into temporary accommodation in the first place.

That concludes First Minister’s questions.

On a point of order, Presiding Officer.

Earlier, during portfolio question time, Tom Mason raised an issue relating to teachers in Aberdeen. I am aware, as others will be, that he is the local councillor for Midstocket and Rosemount in Aberdeen. I am sure that it was utterly inadvertent on his part not to draw our attention to that fact. Will you now give him the opportunity to put on the record that he has an interest in the matter that he raised?

Thank you, Mr Stevenson. That is not a point of order, and, as you know, it is a matter for members’ judgment whether to declare interests.

Before we move to members’ business, we will have a short suspension while members and ministers change their seats.

12:46 Meeting suspended.  

12:48 On resuming—