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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 5, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 05 March 2020

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Whitburn Academy Be Herd Group, Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Budget (Scotland) (No 4) Bill: Stage 3, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


Contents


First Minister’s Question Time


Coronavirus

This week, the coronavirus spread to Scotland. The First Minister, and the Scottish Government, can be assured that the Scottish Government will have the full and engaged support of myself and all Scottish Conservatives as it deals with the virus. In turn, I thank the First Minister for the constructive way in which she has worked with the United Kingdom Government, just as she did with previous health pandemics some years ago. Both of Scotland’s Governments need to work together constructively and effectively.

In recent weeks, two testing facilities have been set up in Glasgow and Edinburgh, with any positive results being sent to Public Health England for confirmation. Does the First Minister envisage that those two laboratories can meet all the anticipated demand for initial testing, or will she indicate whether there are contingency plans to further expand testing capacity in Scotland, as required?

I thank Jackson Carlaw for his comments and for his statement about support from the Scottish Conservatives. We face a potentially very serious situation, and we all have a responsibility to work together to make sure that our response is what the people of Scotland would expect.

Before I turn to the specifics of Jackson Carlaw’s question, I confirm to the Parliament that, as of this morning, we have six confirmed cases. I would expect that number to rise, possibly very rapidly, in the days to come.

I want to stress that we are still very much in what is called the contain phase of the virus in Scotland. If people follow the advice, if we ensure that confirmed cases are isolated and that contacts are traced and given appropriate advice, and if the public follow the advice about hand and other personal hygiene, we can continue to have a degree of success in stopping the spread from individual to individual. It is important that we do that for as long as possible.

That said, we all recognise and accept that it looks increasingly unlikely that we will be able to contain the outbreak indefinitely, so it is likely that we will move into what is called the delay phase of the virus. That may be reasonably soon, but that will be guided by the best scientific advice. When we are in that phase, the focus will be very much on seeking to slow down the spread and reduce the peak—the number of people who are infected at any one time. As we take decisions about that, it is important that we are informed by good-quality scientific advice.

Difficult decisions will potentially be involved—ministers will not take those decisions lightly but, equally, we will not hesitate in doing exactly what is required to protect the public for as long, and as best, as we possibly can.

We took early action to ensure that testing facilities were available in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and there are plans in both Tayside and Grampian to potentially have testing facilities there as well. I am satisfied at this stage that we have the capacity to deal with testing.

Although I am not saying that we are close to this at the moment, here, as with any outbreak, we may reach a point at which the spread is such that not every individual is tested, because the presumption will become that, if they are ill with certain symptoms, they have the virus. However, we are not at that stage right now, and we will continue to take the actions that we require to take.

I thank the First Minister for that response. If a rapidly rising number of cases transpires, one emerging issue in consequence is likely to be the availability of beds. In the past few years, healthcare has shifted from hospitals into the community, with specialist services concentrated into one place in larger hospitals. In consequence, we have fewer beds and fewer smaller community hospitals, which has happened in response to changes in demographics, technology and medicine.

Given that the chief medical officer has suggested that a full outbreak will require more intensive hospitalisation, will the First Minister indicate how many extra beds may be required and what contingency plans are being prepared to commission them?

Numbers are among the issues that we are currently assessing, and which we will assess on an on-going basis. Although it would be premature to give numbers on that right now, it is likely that we will need increased facilities for hospital care—including intensive hospital care—and also to be prepared to treat in the community more people who can be treated there in order to ensure that our hospital capacity is there for those who need it most.

The national health service has in place well-established escalation plans, which are in the process of being implemented. Through the Scottish Government resilience committee, and indeed day-to-day planning, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport and I are overseeing that and making sure that the plans are being refined and developed as we go.

We are still in a phase of learning more about the operation of the virus—that point would be made right now not just in every country across the UK, but in every country across the world. Our knowledge is incomplete, which makes it all the more important that we have in place plans that are well established and developed, but also flexible enough to respond to the reality as we face it. The Scottish Government will continue to ensure that that work is done.

Again, I thank the First Minister for that response. We know from previous outbreaks of pandemics that protecting our dedicated health workforce will be essential. However, staffing in the NHS is already under significant pressure; it is—after all—the end of winter, with staff already sprinting to stand still.

The UK Government has announced that it intends to recruit retired doctors and nurses to augment and support the health service in England and Wales. Will a similar initiative progress in Scotland, and how will it be achieved if required?

First, I pay tribute to our front-line NHS staff, which I am sure will be echoed across the chamber. We do that each and every day; however, at times such as this, the pressure and demand on them increases and we are all appreciative of the work that they do. Yesterday, I visited NHS 24 in Clydebank, whose healthcare workers are among those who are at the sharp end of that increased demand.

We have record numbers of people working in our NHS in Scotland, who work incredibly hard and under incredible pressure; nevertheless, the numbers have been increasing. We also have more staff per head of population than other parts of the UK. That is not to diminish the pressure that our staff are under now or will be under, but that is an important foundation.

Of course, we are also looking at contingency plans to encourage and ask those who are recently retired from the national health service to come back, if that is required. We are obtaining lists of retired healthcare professionals from—for example—the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of Midwives, and we are looking to get such a list from the General Medical Council as well. Those plans are under way.

It is very important to be frank and honest with the public and to give them as much information as possible—that was a very important approach during the swine flu pandemic just over a decade ago—and to seek to reassure the public that, although this is a serious situation that is being taken seriously, there are well-established plans in place that are in the process of being implemented.

It is also very important that we continue to reassure the public that, although very big numbers are being cited right now, we are planning on the basis of worst-case scenarios; and that, whatever the numbers turn out to be, the vast majority of people will have mild symptoms. Part of our focus in seeking to reduce the number of people who are infected at any one time is to minimise as much as possible the impact on society and, in particular, on our national health service. That is the basis on which we will continue to take forward our planning work.

Finally, on that point about reassurance, as we have seen from the development of the virus in other parts of the world, those in the most vulnerable groups could be the most susceptible. I in no way wish to be alarmist, but many people watching who are going through treatments for cancer or other conditions and who have compromised immune systems will clearly be concerned. Has the First Minister considered how we offer specific reassurance and target resources at that most vulnerable group, who inevitably will be particularly affected and concerned?

The public generally will have a degree of anxiety, given what they are reading in the newspapers and watching on the television, but that will be heightened for those who already suffer vulnerabilities, whether those are health vulnerabilities or the vulnerabilities that come with age. To go back to a point that I made earlier, it is important for us all as politicians—as First Minister, I take this responsibility very seriously—to be frank and honest with people but not to seek to sensationalise, and to base our decisions on good-quality scientific advice and not on reasons of political expediency.

To reassure people in such groups, I again point to the importance of the containment phase. We may not be able to contain the virus indefinitely, but every day and week in which we manage that and thereby take a potential future peak out of the winter period and into spring and summer, we help to reduce the impact. The messages to all of us to wash our hands properly and to follow the advice on what to do when we cough and sneeze are important. I am very aware that politicians telling people how to wash their hands sounds patronising, but it is really important. If all of us who are healthy do that, it helps to protect those who are more vulnerable. In all of our planning for potential escalation, it is absolutely the top of our priority list to make sure that we target resources to the most vulnerable.

I appreciate the support from across the chamber as we take forward those plans. I again say that the situation is potentially very serious, but we are not powerless in the face of it. There are many things that we can and will do to reduce the impact as much as possible, and that is what I am focused on as First Minister, as is the health secretary and indeed the entire Government.


Coronavirus

I remind members of my entry in the register of members’ interests, and in particular my membership of the GMB trade union.

The first thoughts of us all are with those patients who have been diagnosed with coronavirus Covid-19. As infection outbreaks know no boundaries, the importance of a single-island United Kingdom-wide approach is paramount. We welcome the unified and cohesive response to date. We also welcome the cross-party approach that the First Minister and her Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport have taken. It is clear that we must all follow the advice of the experts, such as World Health Organization scientists, front-line health professionals and the chief medical officer.

How quickly can people expect to be tested? What steps are being taken to train and equip staff who will be involved in community testing?

People can expect to be tested very quickly if they contact the national health service and if they fit the case definition, which has changed and undoubtedly will continue to change, in terms of travel history, contact with those who have travelled to certain countries and the symptoms that people are experiencing. Such people will be tested quickly and given all the appropriate advice. That is the process that has led to the confirmation of the six cases that we have now. In Scotland, the tests have been carried out in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Plans are afoot to have another testing facility in Tayside—I may have said earlier to Jackson Carlaw that it was Grampian; if I did so, I apologise. Those plans will continue to be progressed.

We will continue to ensure that staff have the right support and training for anything that they are asked to carry out. The testing capacity is adequate at present but, as with all aspects of our planning, that is kept under on-going review.

The coronavirus action plan that has been agreed to by the four Governments in the United Kingdom includes the commitment

“to support early discharge from hospital”

if transmission becomes established among the population. We know from the Government’s figures that were released two days ago that the delayed discharge of patients from Scotland’s hospitals has reached record levels. In the past 24 hours, I have spoken to council leaders who are concerned that our social care system may not have the necessary resources to enable patients to be discharged on time. Can the First Minister outline how the Government plans to alleviate those concerns and ensure that, if required, the action plan can be implemented in full?

Reducing delayed discharge is a focus for the Government regardless of coronavirus, but particularly so given the challenge that we face with coronavirus. Reflecting that, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport, Jeane Freeman, met the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities yesterday to discuss the issue and will meet the chief officers of integration authorities later today.

Obviously, we have the budget this afternoon. I do not want to get into political territory here, but the budget includes increased resources for local authorities and social care. That is important. It may be that, through discussions with the UK Government, we will require to further increase national health service and social care resources as a result of the challenge that we face. There is an intensive focus on ensuring that we can discharge people appropriately. That is important at any time, but at a time when we face the need for greater hospital capacity for those who need it most, it is a particular focus. The health secretary, as with all aspects of our planning, will keep Parliament fully updated.

We heard again this week that a business case is being made to the Scottish ministers to close half of our NHS laundries. Only four would be left to serve the whole of mainland Scotland. Trade unions have raised concerns about that and the GMB wrote to the First Minister this week asking for a moratorium on cleaning cuts across councils. It also called for any additional demands—and so additional costs—on local councils to be met by the Scottish Government. Will the First Minister give an undertaking that the necessary funding and resources will be available to councils and the NHS? Will she place a moratorium on plans to close down four of Scotland’s mainland NHS laundries, so that we can reduce risks, manage this emergency, keep staff safe and protect the health of the people of Scotland?

I will take those issues in turn. Richard Leonard referred to a letter that I received from the GMB. I can confirm that it did indeed write to me about council cleaning services. Again, I point to the increased resources for local government in the budget that I hope Parliament will pass this afternoon. We have provided advice on cleaning educational settings through the Covid-19 guidance that has been produced by Health Protection Scotland. That remains extremely important. We will of course include COSLA in our on-going resilience planning to make sure that it is engaged with the actions that we take.

The laundry programme board has sought to develop a new action plan to ensure that its services are safe and sustainable. No proposals relating to that have come to ministers to consider. We have been waiting for NHS chief executives to review the business case. Of course, the final decision will be taken by the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport. I think that she has already said—if not, I will say it—that the current and emerging situation with coronavirus will very much be a factor in deciding the best way forward. The Scottish Government will not approve any plans that we think will in any way put at risk the steps that we have to take to deal with the situation.

I have made points about the budget that we will pass for the next financial year but, on the question of resources, when that draft budget was put together, we did not have all the information about coronavirus that we have now. It is almost inescapably the case that we will be required to provide additional resources to health and social care and perhaps to other parts of our public services and indeed businesses and individuals who are dealing with this challenge. Clearly, the Scottish Government budget is fully committed and we will require to have discussions with the UK Government ahead of, and no doubt after, the UK budget next week to make sure that those decisions are taken in an appropriate way. As with all aspects of the situation, we will keep Parliament duly updated.

We have some supplementary constituency questions.


Fife Ethylene Plant (Mossmorran)

Given the further unplanned elevated flaring by Exxon at Mossmorran this week, just a few short weeks after the last major incident, the First Minister will understand how weary my constituents have become with the whole thing. Does she agree that we have gone beyond the final warning that was issued by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency last year and that all necessary steps must be taken as a matter of urgency by the regulator and the operator failing which, the licence to continue to operate must surely be brought into question?

I absolutely understand what Annabelle Ewing describes as the weariness of her constituents and I understand and share the concerns of local people. To put it mildly, it was extremely disappointing that there was a further flaring incident on Tuesday, so soon after the restart of the plant. I know that it will have added greatly to the frustration of the local community. SEPA shares that disappointment and is urgently seeking detailed information on the latest incident.

The Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform spoke to SEPA and the Health and Safety Executive after the previous episode to understand the action that they are taking. I understand that SEPA’s focus is to follow through on the requirements that it has placed on the operator to reduce the frequency and impact of flaring. That involves major works at the plant and it will take time to see the full benefit. However, I am absolutely clear—and I agree with Annabelle Ewing on this—that the operator must take all necessary steps to reduce the impact on residents and fully address their concerns.


Flybe (Administration)

The First Minister will be aware that Flybe has gone into administration, which has unfortunately left passengers having to make alternative arrangements, with no certainty that they will be reimbursed. Beyond that are the staff of Flybe, who this morning found themselves without a job, through no fault of their own. What engagement has the Scottish Government had with the airline about the kind of support that will be made available to those staff?

I share Gail Ross’s sentiments about the collapse of Flybe. In particular, I echo her comments about the staff; my thoughts are very much with all the employees. We understand that Flybe has around 300 direct employees at its bases in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen. However, my thoughts are with everybody who was employed by Flybe.

The Scottish Government will do everything that we can to support employees. If employees are facing redundancy, we will provide support through our partnership for continuing employment initiative. We hope that other airlines will seek to employ former Flybe staff.

I want to say a word or two about the broader impact, which Paul Wheelhouse touched on before First Minister’s questions. We are hoping that connectivity will be maintained by other airlines. For example, Loganair will move to operate several former Flybe routes, including connections to Manchester, Belfast and Southampton. I know that it plans to start operating those routes as soon as possible. Later this month, easyJet will begin new routes between Edinburgh and Birmingham and between Glasgow and Birmingham.

It is important to stress that no Scottish island routes are affected, as those routes are operated by Loganair and not by Flybe. The Aberdeen to Wick route has been mentioned. It is operated by Eastern Airways, although it was under a franchise agreement with Flybe. Eastern Airways has confirmed that it intends to continue to operate the route.

It is a serious situation, particularly for the staff. The Scottish Government will continue to do everything that we can to support them.


Coronavirus (Universal Credit Claimants)

Universal credit claimants who are unwell or self-isolating as a result of coronavirus must update their online portal and provide medical evidence by day 8 if they miss an appointment or cannot fulfil their claimant commitment. It is unclear how medical evidence can be secured when self-isolating and there is concern about how claimants who have caring responsibilities as a consequence of the virus will be supported. That will not be easy for Department for Work and Pensions staff, either.

Will the Scottish Government make constructive representations to the United Kingdom Government to ensure that universal credit claimants will not be sanctioned or otherwise in detriment, due to coronavirus?

Yes. We will continue to make those representations to the UK Government. In my view, the DWP must review its guidance now and provide clear information that people will not be sanctioned if they cannot meet their claimant commitment, if they are following health advice to self-isolate for a fortnight or are caring for someone with coronavirus. I am aware that the UK Government has advised workers without statutory sick pay to claim universal credit if their work is disrupted. However, waiting five weeks for a payment or accruing debt through an advance is not really acceptable, so I hope that the UK Government will initiate immediate hardship grants for people in those situations.

The Scottish Government is also looking at what we can do to have contingency funding for people in that position. We cannot have people feeling that they must work against medical advice because the welfare system is not meeting their needs. The social security system should be a safety net for people when they need it. In this instance, the actions of individuals have an impact on wider health, so it is important that those changes are made, and made quickly.


Fife Ethylene Plant (Mossmorran)

The Scottish Greens are wholly committed to working with the Scottish Government and with other parties as we face the challenge of the coronavirus. I appreciate the on-going briefings provided by the cabinet secretary and the Chief Medical Officer at this busy time.

This week, the skies over Fife were ablaze from flaring at ExxonMobil’s plant at Mossmorran. That light pollution affects communities up and down the east of Scotland and the people living in the shadow of that fossil fuel relic have had their lives made a misery. NHS Fife has said that the plant has a direct impact on the health and wellbeing of people there.

My colleague Mark Ruskell has repeatedly asked for ministers to visit the communities who are suffering. The Scottish Government has refused. The Greens have also called for an independent inquiry into the future of Mossmorran. Will the First Minister finally agree to those simple requests, or is she too close to the fossil fuel industry to hold it to account?

This is a serious situation, and the tone of the question does not do justice to that seriousness.

I remind Alison Johnstone that, as I understand it, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, which is an independent regulatory body, is now focused on concluding an on-going criminal investigation to an evidential standard. It continues to scrutinise different actions. There are on-going, regulatory investigations. The combination of those factors makes it incumbent on ministers to be very careful not to act in a way that could undermine or prejudice that investigation in any way. Ministers are not uninterested, but we want SEPA to be able to do its job and to do it properly.

As I said to Annabelle Ewing, who has been assiduous in raising the issue on behalf of her constituents, I am extremely concerned about the situation. I understand the concerns of local residents. It is important that SEPA continues to take the action that it thinks necessary, and it is important that the operator takes all necessary steps to reduce the impact on residents and to address those concerns. I hope that all members will accept the importance of allowing all those processes to take place properly.

With the greatest of respect, the First Minister’s expression of disappointment does not help people in the area sleep at night—it does not do justice to the seriousness of the situation.

The First Minister mentions the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. Let me read SEPA’s response:

“Having been clear that flaring must become the exception rather than routine, we’re disappointed that flaring by ExxonMobil has occurred again.”

Our environmental regulator should be protecting our communities, not tweeting its disappointment from the sidelines. SEPA has issued warning after warning. It issued a final warning as long ago as April 2018, but the situation on the ground has not changed. The First Minister could go and visit the community. Paul Wheelhouse has met ExxonMobil to discuss the situation and the community is well aware of that.

Either SEPA is not up to the job of protecting our communities, or it does not have the powers to do so. Which is it, and what will the First Minister do to end the misery that the plant is still causing?

SEPA is neither of those things. It is taking action. It is right to do so and it has a responsibility to ensure that local residents are properly protected.

It would not do residents any good if we acted in a manner that was prejudicial to the on-going investigations, regulatory and/or criminal, that are under way. My interest is in making sure that the issue is addressed properly, safely and for the long term. That is what I, as First Minister, will ensure that the Government focuses on.


Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (Pay and Conditions)

I have been approached by a number of members of the Fire Brigades Union who are concerned about the breakdown of talks between the FBU and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service on the latest pay and conditions proposal. Due to pressures on the health and social care budget, firefighters have been asked to take on additional duties to deal with trips, slips and falls and medical emergencies. Understandably, they have rejected the latest offer, as it is inadequate to meet their enhanced responsibilities. Firefighters operate in very difficult circumstances and deserve to be treated fairly and properly.

Does the First Minister accept that firefighters are due a fair settlement? Will the Government take action now to ensure that the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service returns to the negotiating table immediately to resolve the dispute?

The transformation plan is not about cuts to services, but about reflecting the modern role of firefighters, who do such an excellent job across our country. Following extensive negotiations between the fire service and the FBU over the past two years, an offer was made in November, which has now been rejected by the FBU.

The pay and conditions of firefighters is a matter between the employer and the FBU. We had hoped that a deal could be reached in Scotland that would have given firefighters a fair pay award—for which the Scottish Government was going to provide the funding—for broadening their role to enable the service to respond to changing risks and do more to keep communities safe. I should say that Scotland is the only part of the United Kingdom that has offered additional funding for expanding the role of firefighters.

I hope that negotiations continue. It is for the fire service to decide how they should continue, but respecting and valuing the role of our firefighters is the absolute priority in all this.


Veterans (Mental Health)

Deaths from suicide have been dubbed the “epidemic of our time” by military officials. Over the past two months, 14 former and serving British military personnel are thought to have taken their own lives. It is likely that many of those individuals suffered from the delayed onset of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Considering those tragic events, the United Kingdom Government has brought forward its plans for a high-intensity mental health programme. Can the First Minister confirm whether there are any plans to provide a similar mental health programme in Scotland to help our veterans with serious service-related illnesses such as PTSD?

I am glad that the UK Government is taking seriously what is, of course, principally its responsibility, given the reserved nature of the issue. The Scottish Government also takes it very seriously. The health—mental and physical—of our veterans is of paramount importance. I have appointed a veterans minister—Graeme Dey has that responsibility—and we have a veterans commissioner. We do a range of work to support our veterans, and that is absolutely right and proper. The work that we do to support veterans in Scotland has been widely commended and praised.

I am very happy to ask Graeme Dey, as the veterans minister, to correspond with or indeed meet the member to discuss what more we can do in Scotland to support our veterans, who absolutely deserve not just our appreciation but our on-going support, and, of course, our encouragement to continue to make a contribution to society after they leave our armed forces.


Sex for Rent

Last year, it was reported in the press that adverts explicitly seeking sex for rent were appearing online. As a result of those reports, websites such as Craigslist enhanced the filters that they apply to stop the practice. However, landlords are still seeking sex for rent through online ads by using euphemistic terms such as “rent for fun”. Living Rent has claimed that 2,000 women are offered rent in exchange for sex every year. I have seen for myself that those adverts deliberately target vulnerable people by claiming—this is the key point—that the arrangement is perfectly suited to students or people who are struggling for money.

Does the First Minister agree that the practice is immoral and that it should be against the law to prey on vulnerable men and women who are struggling for money? If a gap in the law exists, I urge the First Minister to speak to the Lord Advocate to legislate against advertising sex for rent.

I believe that adverts of that nature are immoral and I absolutely agree with Pauline McNeill’s sentiments on the issue. Forcing someone, in any way—I stress “in any way”—to participate in sexual activity is a crime already. It is behaviour that is completely unacceptable, deplorable and immoral, and it is also illegal.

Where evidence exists, it is for the police to investigate, and it is for the Crown Office to decide whether to prosecute. I am sure that the Lord Advocate will pay attention to the specific request that Pauline McNeill has made, although whether there needs to be and should be further legislation would be a matter for this Parliament, not the law officers.

We have already taken action that seeks to challenge the practice directly. In 2017, Kevin Stewart wrote to online platforms, including Craigslist and Gumtree, to draw their attention to the unacceptability of the practice. Gumtree responded, but, disappointingly, Craigslist did not, although I understand that it has discontinued its personals section. Either way, it is unacceptable behaviour that needs to be dealt with criminally where appropriate.

All of us should join together to make any company that engages in the practice absolutely aware of how unacceptable the Parliament finds it.


Endometriosis (Diagnosis and Treatment)

As the First Minister will know, this is endometriosis awareness week in Scotland.

One in 10 women of child-bearing age suffer from endometriosis, a gynaecological condition that is often painful and debilitating. Astonishingly, 74 per cent of men and 33 per cent of women are unaware of it. On average, it takes 7.5 years for a condition that is often idiosyncratic and distressing to be diagnosed.

There are now three specialist endometriosis centres, in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow. What further action can the Scottish Government take to improve the diagnosis and treatment of endometriosis?

Endometriosis is a debilitating condition, and many women have suffered in silence with it for far too long.

The Scottish Government is committed to making improvements for people who have the condition. We are contributing funding to a number of research programmes to investigate both causation and treatments. Work is also under way to raise awareness, enable quicker diagnosis and improve access to care and support. That includes the work of the three specialist endometriosis centres, which offer multidisciplinary treatment for people with complex endometriosis, as well as the development of expertise in primary care cluster groups and more support for self-management of the condition.

In addition, this year we are developing a women’s health plan as part of the programme for government. The plan will set out further actions to address all the health equalities that are faced by women, including those who are living with endometriosis.


Agricultural Sector

To ask the First Minister how important the Scottish Government considers the agricultural sector is to the country’s economy, society and international reputation. (S5F-04025)

Scotland’s agricultural sector is hugely important to Scotland—[Interruption].

12:37 Meeting suspended.  

12:38 On resuming—  

First Minister, had you finished that answer?

I had not even started it. [Laughter.]

Please continue, First Minister.

Scotland’s agricultural sector is hugely important to the country as a whole and to our rural economy in particular. Farmed produce makes a significant contribution to our food and drink success story, which reached record turnover levels in 2018. Farming also helps to shape our landscape, which helps to make Scotland a destination of choice for many international visitors.

The First Minister will have heard the very worrying comments from a United Kingdom Treasury adviser that the agriculture and fishing sectors are of “low value”. The 6,000-plus people who work in those sectors in my area do not consider their work to be of “low value”, and those of us who trust the quality of their produce on our supermarket shelves also do not consider our food producers to be of “low value”. International markets prize the value of Scotland’s food and drink.

Many people in my constituency and the wider Scottish agricultural sector are deeply worried about the messages that are coming from Westminster about their sector. I am sure that the First Minister is concerned about where the UK Government’s priorities lie when it negotiates post-Brexit trade deals. Is the First Minister, like me, coming to the conclusion that the UK Government will do nothing to support our food producers and that its Brexit project will yield no benefits for the many farmers and fishermen who have put their trust in the UK Government? What does the First Minister suggest that we do to protect them?

This is a really important issue. The comments that were reported in the press were utterly deplorable and are not endorsed by this Government. We highly value our agriculture and fishing sectors. If the comments tell us anything, it is that the promises that were made to farmers and fishermen during the European Union referendum by Tory Brexiteers were empty promises.

By contrast, the Scottish National Party is getting on with delivering benefits for our farmers and crofters. We said that we would get the UK Government to return the convergence funding to Scotland’s farmers, which we did, and we said that we would pay the first instalment before the end of March, which we will. This week alone, convergence payments worth £86.2 million were made to more than 17,400 farmers and crofters, which rights a historical wrong.

Unlike the Tories, this Government will deliver on its promises, and we will continue to use our powers to protect the interests of rural Scotland.


Council Tax Debt

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to Citizens Advice Scotland’s statement that council tax is the “number one debt issue” it deals with. (S5F-04011)

Our council tax reduction scheme helps people on lower incomes with the costs of council tax, and we have provided more than £1.7 billion in funding for the scheme since it began in 2013. During that time, the number of claims has reduced due to the unemployment rate having halved.

It is worth noting that the average band D council tax rate in Scotland is £499 less than in England, and that working-age households in England have seen council tax support cut by a massive 24 per cent.

I urge anyone who is struggling with debts or meeting their council tax bill to get advice from their local advice agency or use the Citizens Advice Scotland online tool, and to contact their council to see whether they are entitled to a reduction.

Councils are being forced to increase council tax because of years of underfunding by this Government. [Interruption.] They do not like it, Presiding Officer.

Let us hear the question, please.

The Scottish Parliament information centre estimates that the increase in council tax revenue around Scotland will be roughly 21 per cent between 2016-17 and 2020-21, which is a lot.

It is little wonder that we now have people in council tax poverty, yet the number of people using the council tax reduction scheme—[Interruption.] I will repeat that, because Scottish National Party members do not want to listen to it. The number of people using the council tax reduction scheme that the First Minister mentioned has fallen since the scheme was introduced in 2013.

Sadly, the First Minister will not agree to stop the council cuts. Will she agree to work with organisations such as Citizens Advice Scotland to promote the council tax reduction scheme and help to lift people out of a sea of debt?

Well, well, well. If council budgets are under pressure, it is because of a decade of Tory austerity. I note that local government budgets are under considerably less pressure in Scotland than in England, where the Tories are in government, because of the relative protection that we have been able to provide. This afternoon, we will seek the approval of this Parliament for a budget that delivers a real-terms increase in the funding that is available to our local councils.

Council tax in Scotland was of course frozen under the SNP Government for a decade. Today, as I said, the average band D council tax rate is, literally, £500 lower in Scotland than in England. We continue to provide support to people on low incomes, which is unlike what happens in England. In January 2019, the Institute for Fiscal Studies commented on localised council tax support schemes in England, where—I remind members—the Conservatives are in government. The IFS said:

“This is the first time since the poll tax that many of the lowest-income households have been required to pay local tax.”

That is shameful, but that is the reality of Tory Government.

By contrast, the SNP Scottish Government keeps council tax bills lower than in England and we provide support to low-income households, which is why most people continue to prefer the SNP over the Conservative Party.

Does the First Minister agree that one of the reasons for the levels of council tax debt is that council tax remains the most regressive tax in the United Kingdom, which contributes to the fact that the poorest 20 per cent of the population pay more as a percentage of their income than the top 20 per cent? Does she agree that the council tax should be scrapped as soon as possible?

We have endorsed the commission on local tax reform’s conclusion that the present system should end. We want to see a consensus in Parliament on what could replace the council tax. In order to make progress, we have sought to convene cross-party talks on identifying a replacement that could be supported by Parliament, and that process is on-going. If there is agreement on a replacement for the present council tax—I hope that there will be—we would be prepared to publish legislation by the end of this session of Parliament, with that legislation being taken forward in the next session. I know that the Greens are on board with that and I would encourage other parties to get on board with it as well.


Scottish Enterprise Grant Funding

To ask the First Minister for what reason Scottish Enterprise has suspended new grant funding for business. (S5F-04009)

Due to Scottish Enterprise’s success in stimulating a high level of demand for strategic investment, its budget for the current financial year is now fully committed. That actually indicates that Scottish Enterprise has managed its budget well, ensuring that it is maximising spending to support the economy. With anticipated in-year transfers and income, Scottish Enterprise anticipates that its total budget for 2020-21 will be £340 million, which will be used to support key strategic projects, such as advanced manufacturing and the Michelin Scotland Innovation Parc, to continue to boost vital investment by companies in research and development and to support company growth. Scottish Enterprise will also provide a range of online advice and support to many more companies than at present.

I fear that the First Minister has been misinformed, because the 2020-21 budget for Scottish Enterprise has been cut by £42 million, which is a cut of almost 17 per cent in comparison with this year’s budget. The consequence is that the budget for grants to businesses next year is already legally committed. There is no new money—nothing at all—for anything new. Given the likely economic impact of Brexit, never mind that of coronavirus, does the First Minister consider that that is a very short-sighted approach? What will she do to provide adequate resources for Scottish Enterprise to support the economy?

We are supporting sustainable, inclusive economic growth and we are doing that with a 13.8 per cent increase in overall economic development budgets, which include those for Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, south of Scotland enterprise and, of course, the new Scottish national investment bank. The resource budget for Scottish Enterprise for the year ahead takes account of, among other things, the significant transfer of resources and functions from Scottish Enterprise to the new south of Scotland enterprise and the establishment of the Scottish national investment bank. Capital spend has been maintained to reflect planned activities within its allocation. Scottish Enterprise has a fantastic track record of supporting companies and economic growth, and it will continue to have that good track record well into next year and well beyond.

Thank you. That concludes First Minister’s question time. We will move shortly to a members’ business debate. First, we will have a short suspension to allow members, ministers and those in the public gallery to change seats.

12:48 Meeting suspended.  

12:54 On resuming—