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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, October 5, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 05 October 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Air Departure Tax (Update), City Region Deals, Wild Animals in Travelling Circuses (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time

Carrying of Weapons (Children)

Figures from the Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration this week reveal that 254 children under the age of 16 were referred to it for carrying knives or other weapons last year. That is up by 11 per cent, so we know that the problem is growing. Do we know how many of those 254 incidents involved knives or other weapons being carried within school grounds?

I do not have those statistics available to me today. If that breakdown is available, I will certainly make it available to Ruth Davidson and to the wider Parliament.

We know from some extremely tragic cases recently that there is an issue, as I am sure there is in many countries, of some young people—a minority—carrying knives and other weapons in schools. That is why it is important that, through the processes and procedures that we have in place in our schools and through our wider justice system, we take action that combats that and makes sure that our schools are safe places to be, as they already are for the vast majority of young people across our country.

In the aftermath of the tragic death of Aberdeen pupil Bailey Gwynne two years ago, the Scottish Government rightly issued new guidance on the handling of weapons that are suspected of being carried or are found in schools. It says that education authorities, in consultation with key partners, should develop their own policy on weapons. What discussions have taken place between the Scottish Government and Scottish councils since that guidance was issued? Can the First Minister confirm that all councils have now developed and put in place such a policy?

A range of discussions take place between the Scottish Government and councils. I am happy to give Ruth Davidson a full update in writing about the current circumstances in respect of guidance.

Ruth Davidson is right to talk about the report, and the action that was taken after it, following the tragic death of Bailey Gwynne. Since the independent review into that tragic death, we have been focused on implementing the two specific recommendations that were directed to the Scottish Government. Members will recall that one recommendation centred on improving the resilience of schools to the threat that is posed by weapons and giving consideration to amending the law on searching pupils, and the second recommendation was about further legislative controls that can be brought to bear on the purchase of weapons online.

Ministers have considered the issue of violence and knife crime in schools very carefully and have taken advice from a wide range of stakeholders. Those stakeholders do not support the introduction of a new search power for teachers—indeed, that was rejected and opposed by the teaching profession.

Of course, those recommendations were directed to the Scottish Government. Ruth Davidson also rightly asked about the recommendations for councils. It is important that councils have the right processes in place and that all schools have the right policies in place. Through our officials in the education department of the Scottish Government, we will continue to act to make sure that that is the case.

Schools are also supposed to monitor and record every time a child is searched. The guidance specifically requires that any incident where a decision is made to search a child or young person, or where a weapon is suspected of being carried or is found, must be recorded. Can the First Minister confirm that every Scottish council operates such a policy and that all instances of pupils being searched on suspicion of carrying a weapon or of weapons being found are recorded locally, are collated and are publicly accessible?

It is for councils to ensure that they take the action that adheres to the guidance in all respects. I say quite clearly that the education secretary and I expect councils to do exactly that, which includes adhering to the aspects of the guidance that relate to the monitoring and reporting of young people who are searched or who are found to be carrying knives or other weapons.

As I am sure that Ruth Davidson understands, it is fundamentally for councils to ensure that they take action to adhere to the guidance. Of course there is a responsibility on the Government’s part, and we will always seek to discharge that responsibility to take whatever action is necessary to ensure that all the correct policies are in place and that guidance is being followed.

I recognise what the First Minister says about it being incumbent on councils to follow the Scottish Government’s recommendations. However, in many cases, the information is not being collated and is not in any way publicly accessible. In response to recent freedom of information requests, nearly half of Scottish councils were unable to confirm the number of weapons that have been confiscated from pupils in their areas, because the information was not held centrally. Parents and the wider public have a right to know that information. The fact that it is not fully accessible means that we have no meaningful picture of the extent of the problem in any area.

In the wake of Bailey Gwynne’s death, Aberdeen City Council has introduced measures to ensure that there is a clear picture of knife possession in schools, and it has introduced an anti-knife crime policy. Does the First Minister agree that it is time that all councils met the same standard? Will the Government examine the matter again to ensure that all schools are the safe environment that parents have the right to expect?

Ruth Davidson is right to raise such an issue of concern and I give a commitment to look further into the specific points that she has raised today. I agree that we want all councils to operate best practice. For tragic reasons, Aberdeen City Council has had cause to look carefully and critically at its policies on the issue.

I genuinely do not mean to say this in any hard political sense, but the Scottish Government is frequently criticised in Parliament for seeking to overly direct councils, and members from all sides sometimes accuse us of having a centralising instinct, although I do not accept that characterisation. There is always a balance to strike between allowing local authorities to discharge their responsibilities—ensuring that the guidance is being adhered to is local authorities’ responsibility—and discharging our responsibility as a Government to ensure that that happens.

On such issues, I am acutely aware that parents who are listening to the debate will not be particularly concerned about who has the responsibility but will want to know that schools are as safe as possible for their young people. The Scottish Government takes that responsibility very seriously. The Deputy First Minister and I will look further into the points that have been raised today to consider carefully whether the Scottish Government requires to take further action.

In addition to the actions that are the responsibility of councils, the Scottish Government takes a range of steps to try to reduce knife crime, not just in our schools but more generally. That includes the no knives, better lives youth engagement programme, which has received £3 million of funding since 2009. It is perhaps relevant that, as we speak, 25 local authorities are involved in delivering that programme. We also invest heavily in the national violence reduction unit. We take a range of actions to reduce the number of knife crimes. We know that the length of sentences for adults who are convicted of knife crime has increased in recent years.

To return to schools, every parent wants to know, when they send their child to school of a morning, that the school will be as safe as possible for young people. That is the case for the vast majority of young people on the vast majority of days in the year, across our country. If we need to take action to ensure that that is the case for every single young person, it is the responsibility of councils and the Government to do so.

Universal Credit (Roll-out)

Earlier this week, this Parliament voted in favour of calling for a halt to the roll-out of universal credit across the United Kingdom. So far, the roll-out has been badly flawed, and the six-week delay will cause untold misery to tens of thousands of families up and down the country. This Parliament now stands with most of civic Scotland in calling for a halt to the roll-out until the structural issues built into the system have been resolved. Will the First Minister and her Government now make the strongest possible representations on behalf of Parliament and the people of Scotland to stop the roll-out of universal credit?

Yes, we will. Indeed, we have already done so; we have been making an argument to the UK Government that universal credit should not be rolled out further until it has confidence—and can demonstrate to the public its confidence—that the system works properly.

During the recent election campaign, I visited Inverness and talked not only to people who were operating a food bank but to recipients of universal credit, who told me about delays and the impacts and consequences of those delays: people getting into debt; people running up significant rent arrears; and huge misery, stress and anxiety being caused to some people in our country who are already in a very vulnerable situation. That is completely unacceptable, and I do not think that any Government should in good conscience continue with the roll-out of universal credit while those concerns continue. We will continue to make that case strongly to the UK Government.

Of course, we have seen this week not only the vote in the chamber but the coming into force of some of the flexibilities around universal credit that this Government has insisted on using. There are new powers to allow, for example, for more frequent payments to be made and for the housing components to go direct to landlords. That is perhaps a small but significant way in which we can help ensure that the most vulnerable are being properly cared for. However, I have significant and very serious concerns about universal credit and the misery that it will cause, and I hope that we can join together to call on the UK Government to do the right thing.

Where this Parliament can work together, it should do so in the interests of the people of Scotland.

This morning, we have learned from Macmillan Cancer Support that cuts to employment and support allowance are affecting nearly 300 people in Scotland who are living with cancer. Let me be clear: these are cruel Tory cuts that make a mockery of the claim made by Theresa May and, indeed, Ruth Davidson that the Tories want to build a country that works for everyone. Labour will fight these cuts at Westminster, but can we protect people now? Reversing cuts for those who are living with cancer will cost £400,000, while reversing them for everyone affected will cost £14 million next year. Will the First Minister use the powers of this Parliament to reverse those cuts and support those people in their time of need?

As I think we have demonstrated by our actions, this Government will act where it can to mitigate the worst impacts of UK welfare cuts. Since 2013, we have invested more than £350 million in supporting low-income families who have been affected by the changes that we have already seen. Of course, we know that the benefit cuts that have been imposed by the UK Government since 2010 are expected to reduce welfare spending in Scotland by almost £4 billion a year by the end of the decade.

We will look carefully at the case that Macmillan Cancer Support has made today; indeed, as we heard just before First Minister’s questions started, the draft budget of the Scottish Government will be published in December, and we will consider the matter in line with the other decisions that we have to consider. However, it is important to point out that, as I am sure Alex Rowley is aware, employment and support allowance is not one of the benefits that are being devolved to this Parliament. It will remain reserved and, of course, it is one of the benefits that will be rolled into universal credit.

Let me say finally that we will mitigate where we can, but everyone across this Parliament must appreciate what I have said previously: when the UK Government makes wrongheaded and in many respects deeply immoral cuts—this one included—it saves money from doing so, but it does not pass on a portion of those savings to the Scottish Government, so any mitigation that we put in place involves us taking money from other parts of the Scottish budget. We will do that where we can, but I think that everyone who looks at the scale of the cuts that I have just spoken about—£4 billion a year by the end of this decade—will see that the Scottish Government cannot mitigate every welfare cut that the UK Government makes.

Of course, if we had power over all benefits and all the money that supports them, we could take very different decisions. I hope that one day Labour will join us in calling for the complete devolution of all welfare powers, responsibilities and budgets to this Parliament.

In her programme for government, the First Minister announced that she would bring forward a number of papers to set out the case for this Parliament having more powers. The Labour Party looks forward to those papers. Where we can work together and where it makes sense to have powers in this place, that is where the powers should be.

I understand the First Minister’s point about continually mitigating the Tories’ welfare cuts. Labour’s answer is that we want a general election as soon as possible. The Government in Westminster is bankrupt of ideas and has no place to go. We will work for that general election and work to put Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street.

Some £400,000 from a Government budget of £30 billion would not be a lot to stop the Tory attack on cancer patients, but it would certainly mean a lot for those people and their families. I hope that the First Minister will look at that. If she will not take action, Labour will lodge amendments to the Social Security (Scotland) Bill to deliver that. Saying, “We want a different type of social security system—one based on dignity and respect,” is all well and good, but people want action. Will the First Minister move beyond those warm words and work with Labour to reverse these cuts and address the appalling welfare reforms that are affecting so many people so badly up and down Scotland?

There were a few points in Alex Rowley’s question—I think that there was a question in there somewhere.

I absolutely agree with Alex Rowley’s characterisation of the shambolic Tory Government at Westminster. Watching the letters literally fall off the stage set yesterday was like watching an episode of “Fawlty Towers”—it was awful. But there is a serious point here: the shambolic and chaotic Tory Westminster Government is doing real damage day in, day out to people right across Scotland and the UK. That is why I am so disappointed when I hear both the candidates for the Labour leadership say that they would not work with the Scottish National Party in any circumstances, ever. In other words, Labour seems still to be in a position where it would actually prefer to see the continuation of a Tory Government than ever to work with the SNP. That beggars belief and leaves people across this country utterly astonished.

On the specific issue of mitigating cuts, yes, we will look at all the ways in which we can mitigate Tory welfare cuts. Alex Rowley said that Labour would lodge amendments to the Social Security (Scotland) Bill. May I make another suggestion? I suggest that Labour brings forward proposals in the budget process, because that process sets out how we will pay for all these policies. Labour should agree to do that today.

Finally, Alex Rowley seemed to suggest at the outset of his question that Labour’s position on the devolution of welfare is changing. If that is the case, I warmly welcome that. As he said, we will publish a paper setting out again the case for 100 per cent devolution of welfare to this Parliament. I hope that, when that happens, Labour will take a position unlike the one that it took on the Smith commission and stand with the SNP Scottish Government in favour of welfare powers lying with this Parliament rather than in the hands of a Tory Government at Westminster.

We have a number of constituency questions. The first is from Oliver Mundell.

EME Furniture

This week, after 50 years of operation in Sanquhar in my constituency, EME Furniture has closed its doors, resulting in significant local job losses. Only last year, it was talking about millions of pounds of investment and doubling its workforce. The company blamed procurement issues with Scotland Excel for the decision. Therefore, can the First Minister tell me what the Scottish Government is doing to ensure that Scotland’s small and medium-sized enterprises can compete for public sector contracts, and will she offer her assurances to the workforce that all possible support will be given at what is a difficult time?

Over the past few years, the Scottish Government has made a number of amendments and reforms to our system of procurement, specifically designed to make it more streamlined and transparent and better able to help more small and medium-sized enterprises across our country. We will continue to look for opportunities to do that even further.

I was, of course, disappointed to hear of the closure of EME Furniture in Sanquhar. I know that this will be an exceptionally difficult time for the affected staff, their families and, indeed, the wider local area. Scottish Enterprise has already engaged with the company to explore all possible options for supporting the business to try to avoid this outcome, but, unfortunately, the company has taken the decision to close the site.

Scottish Enterprise will continue to engage with the company and is now working to identify any and all possible future opportunities for the site and its workforce. The partnership action for continuing employment team has also made contact with the company to offer assistance to the workers who are affected.

Services for Older People (Scottish Borders)

Is the First Minister aware of a recent Care Inspectorate report on services for older people in the Scottish Borders, which, among its many criticisms, identifies delays in assessments, compounded by delays in providing services? For example, one of my constituents was admitted to the Borders general hospital in February, was not assessed until June and is still waiting for his care package even as I speak—by my calculation, that is eight months. Does the First Minister share my concern that, admirable though the integration of health and social care services is, it is not working in practice?

I am aware of that inspection report. I am disappointed that it says that services have fallen short of the high standards that patients have a right to expect. I am also concerned about the leadership and governance issues that were identified and the impact that they have had on patient care. I know that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport has already spoken to the health board and the leader of the council about those issues, and Government officials are ensuring that Healthcare Improvement Scotland is working with the board to take all necessary improvement actions. I know that NHS Borders has already taken steps to improve leadership and governance, including learning from other NHS boards.

In the course of her question, Christine Grahame raised a specific constituency case. As I frequently say in response to issues around constituency cases, I do not have all the details about the case, but if the member wishes to make them available to the health secretary, we will ensure that it is properly looked into.

Port of Cairnryan

Has the Scottish Government done any research into the socioeconomic impact on the south-west of Scotland region if the ferry companies that operate out of the port of Cairnryan transfer their routes to Holyhead, as the ferry operators have suggested could happen if the chronic lack of investment in local infrastructure by the Scottish Government continues, particularly in relation to the need to dual the A75 and A77 artery routes north and south from the port?

It was this Government, of course, that supported the development of the Cairnryan port, so we recognise its importance to the economy of the area and the social impact that it has. We are also investing in infrastructure, including the upgrading of the A77. We will continue to take whatever actions are necessary to ensure that those important services stay in Cairnryan, to the benefit of people who live in that area.

Mental Health Services

The First Minister will have seen the shocking report of the way in which Gordon Edwards from West Lothian has been let down. Despite three referrals from his general practitioner, Mr Edwards, who is only 17 years old, has been denied access to mental health services. Instead, he was sent to an employment service to get a job. How ill does he need to get before he gets the treatment that he needs?

We expect our mental health services to provide appropriate treatment to the individuals who present to them, including the individual whose case Willie Rennie has raised today. As Willie Rennie knows, we accept the challenge that Scotland has—in common with other countries—to meet the rising demand for mental health services. We are investing additional resources in mental health services and are seeing more people employed in them, and we will continue to take action to ensure that that carries on. This year is the first time that national health service investment in mental health will exceed £1 billion; in a whole range of ways, we are taking action with health boards to improve services.

I take the view—and I took this view when I was health secretary—that as long as one person in mental health services or any other health service feels as if they have been let down by the system, the Government, working with health boards and, increasingly, in the delivery of health care, local councils, has a responsibility to continue to make improvements. That is what we will continue to do in response to the kind of case that Willie Rennie has highlighted.

The trouble is that Mr Edwards is not alone. In Lothian, two in five young people who need support are not getting it on time. In Grampian, 65 per cent are being failed. Those figures mask people who are being bumped off lists to meet waiting-time targets. The Kindred Advocacy group says that young people have to “be extremely ill” before they are treated. Falkland House school says that young people need early treatment, instead of being sent somewhere else first.

The First Minister agreed to commission an audit of rejected referrals for mental health, but that was more than six months ago. What was the outcome of that review? How much longer will young people like Mr Edwards have to wait?

As Willie Rennie said, we did confirm a review of rejected referrals and that the review would get under way this year. Of course, there has to be preparation to carry out that work, but we will take it forward in the way that we have committed to, and then we will share its findings with Parliament.

As I have said, not just today but on many previous occasions in the chamber, we are seeing growing demand for mental health services. We should welcome that because what lies behind it is a reducing stigma around mental health.

Willie Rennie and other members are absolutely right to bring to the chamber any case of services not meeting the level of quality that patients have a right to expect. Equally, I will continue to talk, rightly, about the investment that we are committing to make sure that the improvements, which everybody wants to see, happen. I said earlier that investment this year will exceed £1 billion for the first time. If we look at the trend of spend over the past decade, we see that in 2007, £651 million was spent on mental health; the figure now exceeds £1 billion. We are investing more than £50 million specifically to support reductions in waiting times; £10 million to support new ways of improving mental health in primary care; and £15 million to support better access to child and adolescent mental health services and innovation around the delivery of those services.

Across a whole range of issues, we are taking the action that people expect us to take to ensure that we see the improvement to services that people deserve and have the right to expect.

Can I be clear on what the First Minister has just said? She seems to be unaware whether the audit has been concluded. Has the audit actually started?

The work on the audit is under way and, when we have concluded it, we will ensure that its findings are shared with the Parliament. We made a range of commitments in our mental health strategy and work is under way to deliver all of them, and we will continue to ensure that action is taken so that we meet those commitments and improve services in the way that people expect.

Fracking Ban

The fracking ban has rightly been met with celebration across Scotland, but there are concerns from communities and many Scottish National Party members that the ban is not yet legally watertight, as it merely extends a temporary brake on planning decisions. Will the First Minister get the ban properly over the line by putting it on the same footing as the ban on new nuclear power stations, and will she commit to using the licensing powers when they arrive?

The ban on new nuclear energy in Scotland is done through planning powers and that is exactly what we are proposing for the ban on fracking. Let me be clear, because to some ears, it will sound as if some members are dancing on the head of a pin: fracking is being banned in Scotland—end of story. There will be no fracking in Scotland, and that position could not be clearer.

Members will appreciate that, because powers over licensing have not yet been transferred to this Parliament, we do not have the power to do what some—Claudia Beamish in particular—are asking us to do in legislation. What Paul Wheelhouse outlined to the chamber earlier this week is an effective way of banning fracking and—as the precedent on nuclear energy demonstrates—is also the quickest way of banning fracking. Instead of continuing to have this abstract argument, those who, like me, do not believe that fracking should go ahead in Scotland should welcome the fact that fracking in Scotland is banned.


Is the First Minister aware that the just-published annual Scottish health survey shows that as a nation we are substantially overweight and that adults are consuming less fruit and vegetables? That report comes just before obesity and cancer awareness week, which starts on Monday.

Given that this Parliament has successfully tackled smoking and is now tackling alcohol misuse, does the First Minister agree that we must focus more on tackling Scotland’s food culture, which although improving still sees Scots living in a nation that is blessed with an abundance of nutritious, healthy food, but has a very challenging health record. Does she agree that the forthcoming food bill has a big role to play, and that we also need to tackle issues such as multibuy deals in supermarkets, something that I was reminded of a few days ago when I saw a young pupil buying four doughnuts for his lunch?

I should probably be careful not to single out the person that Richard Lochhead referred to.

There is a serious issue here. We are actually seeing rates of childhood obesity decline. They have declined from 17 per cent in 2014 to the rate that we saw in 1998, which is 14 per cent. However, that is still too high.

When I set out the programme for government last month, I said that it is time to show the same ambition on the growing public health challenge of obesity as the ambition that we have shown on alcohol misuse and smoking. That is why we have indicated that we will bring forward a range of new measures to tackle obesity, including limiting the marketing of foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar.

We need to continue to put across the messages around healthy eating, and of course we also have to continue to encourage young people to be more active. That is why things such as the daily mile and the increase in physical education provision in schools are so important.

Richard Lochhead is right to identify obesity as a major public health challenge and he is right to talk about the potential of the food bill to help us increase healthy eating across our country.

Environmental Court

Last week, the Scottish Government announced that it will not establish a specialist environmental court or tribunal. When the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, we will lose the oversight of the European Court of Justice, which has played a key role in overseeing and enforcing environmental obligations. The UK legal system does not allow us to fully replace the ECJ.

Will the First Minister outline what actions the Scottish Government is taking to replace the environmental protections that will be lost as a result of Brexit and will she reconsider her decision not to establish an environmental court?

This Government is determined that the—in our view, wrongheaded—decision to leave the European Union will not lead to any dilution or weakening of environmental protections, employment protections, consumer protections or any of the other protections that people feel are so important. We will do that where we can through our devolved responsibilities. One of the reasons why we are so concerned about the terms of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is that some of the powers that currently rest in Brussels would end up being centralised at Westminster, rather than coming here to allow us to take that action. We will act in whatever way we can, and where we do not have the power to act we will make the case for the UK Government to do so. There is no doubt that the weakening of regulation and protection is one thing that people have the right to be concerned about in the Brexit process.

I recognise that John Finnie and I have a difference of opinion on a specialist court. However, it is important—whether we are talking about environmental crime or regulation or any other matter—that we do not somehow suggest that just because we do not have a specialist court these issues are not taken seriously in our wider justice and court system. They very much are taken seriously, and they absolutely will continue to be.

Domestic Abuse (Disclosure Scheme)

To ask the First Minister how the disclosure scheme for domestic abuse, Clare’s law, has worked during its two years in practice. (S5F-01618)

Safeguarding those who suffer from, or are at risk of, domestic abuse is an absolute priority for the Scottish Government, and we were pleased to support Police Scotland’s decision to roll out a national disclosure scheme for domestic abuse. Two years on, Clare’s law has assisted with more than 2,000 requests and has warned more than 900 people of their partner’s history of abusive behaviour. The scheme helps to highlight the day-to-day work of Police Scotland officers in helping to keep people safe. We will continue to work closely with criminal justice and third sector partners to reduce and, ultimately, to eliminate domestic abuse.

Does the First Minister agree with me that the disclosure scheme for domestic abuse in Scotland has successfully acted as a safeguard for individuals who may be victims or at risk of domestic violence, and that raising more awareness of the scheme would go even further towards protecting people in Scotland from abusive partners?

Yes—that is an important point. When the scheme was launched, the Scottish Government funded an awareness-raising campaign. Given the benefits that have arisen from the scheme already, we will certainly continue to work with Police Scotland in ensuring that anyone who feels that they are at risk can take advantage of the scheme.

Last week, the chamber unanimously supported the creation of a new offence of domestic abuse. We know that, although reporting of domestic abuse has increased, there are still many people who suffer in silence. That is why there will be a comprehensive publicity campaign for the new offence, to ensure that people know that it will make it easier to hold domestic abusers to account—especially for acts of coercive or controlling behaviour.

School Inspections

To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government will review the school inspection process. (S5F-01606)

As I am sure Liz Smith is aware, earlier this week, Education Scotland announced a significant increase in school inspections—of more than 30 per cent in the school year beginning in April 2018. As a result, the number of school inspections will rise from 180 to 250 schools per year initially. That will strengthen the role of inspection as a crucial tool to support improvement. It is one of a range of improvement approaches announced by Education Scotland to enable it to reach every school, every year, through a variety of different channels.

In November 2016, Education Scotland could not confirm to members of the Scottish Parliament who sit on the Education and Skills Committee whether school inspection numbers had gone up or down. At the same meeting, it could not confirm how many full-time inspectors there were for 2017. Last week, it was revealed that key elements of historical school inspection data had been deleted.

Will the First Minister accept that those are not the hallmarks that are required in order to inspire full trust in the administration of the inspection process? To that end, will she now agree with the Conservatives—and all the other Opposition parties—that Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education’s inspection process should be fully independent of Education Scotland?

We will introduce legislation on governance changes in education, and I am sure that such issues will continue to be debated. The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills has set out his view on that.

I know that the issues are not identical, but I remember that when I was Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing I faced a similar decision around the role of health inspectors. It is absolutely right that those who inspect our hospitals—like those who inspect our schools—are independent. However, it is important that we also have a link between inspection and improvement, which is what we risk being lost if we go down the route that Liz Smith proposes. Inspection is not there for its own sake; it is there to identify failings, or areas in which there needs to be improvement, and then to make sure that that improvement is made. That is why the statement around regional improvement collaboratives that the Deputy First Minister gave earlier this week is such an important part of our reform agenda.

Of course, we will continue to debate such issues in the chamber, but I hope that, whatever the eventual outcome of that particular debate, everyone will welcome this week’s announcement of the increase in inspections that I have just set out.

The extra inspections that were announced by Education Scotland will be helpful in supporting schools to work towards closing the attainment gap. However, the Scottish Government is only this week consulting on how it will measure that gap in progress. It has been two years since the First Minister told us that closing the gap was her top priority. Does she not think that two years to get round to thinking about what she means by the attainment gap is a little lethargic—to put it kindly?

No. We have been getting on with putting in place the national improvement framework and introducing standardised assessments across the country that will inform the teacher judgment, which we will then publish as the percentage of young people meeting the required levels of curriculum for excellence. That will be, for the first time, a comprehensive and transparent indication not just of how our education system is performing nationally, but of how individual schools and local authorities are performing.

We have taken that action, but we have always said that there is no single measure that should be necessarily used to measure attainment. The consultation launched yesterday looks at a range of different measures to make sure that, as we continue to work to close the attainment gap, we do so in a way that respects and enhances the overall development of young people. That is what curriculum for excellence is all about.

Iain Gray’s characterisation is, not for the first time, not strictly accurate. We have been taking a series of steps not only to make sure that the money that we are putting through, for example, the pupil equity fund helps to close the attainment gap, but to make sure that measures are in place to record that and that there is a transparency that means that ministers and the wider system are completely accountable to Parliament and the public.

Rough Sleeping (Audit)

To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government will undertake a national audit of the number of people who are rough sleeping. (S5F-01613)

The programme for government sets out our national objective to eradicate rough sleeping. We are backing that commitment with a £50 million ending homelessness together fund. We have also established a short-term homelessness and rough sleeping action group, which is chaired by the chief executive of the homelessness charity Crisis. The group, which meets today, will make recommendations on what further actions need to be taken on rough sleeping, including, of course, the additional information or data that we need to gather.

I welcome the establishment of the homelessness and rough sleeping action group. Does the First Minister recognise that rough sleeping is, sadly, on the rise, that it is likely that we face a further increase in rough sleeping through a bleak winter, and that it is urgent that we act? I am sure that she agrees that it is not acceptable that anyone is sleeping on the streets anywhere in Scotland.

Shelter Scotland has confirmed that the number of homelessness applications in which the applicant had slept rough the night before making the application increased by 10 per cent last year. In view of that increase, does the First Minister agree that it would be helpful to have a fresh assessment of the scale of the issue, through the action group? According to Homeless Action Scotland, there has not been an audit since 2003.

I ask the First Minister—in a constructive manner—to consider taking a housing-led approach and not a hostel-led approach. While recognising that the work of the charity sector and local government partners is key, does she agree that there is a case for national roll-out of the housing first model—I know that she has acknowledged that model in the past—which recognises the multiple disadvantages that homeless people face when trying to establish stability in their life? I hope that she will agree—

Okay, Ms McNeill. That is enough.

I hope that she will agree that it cannot simply be left to the charity sector. The Government must lead from the front.

The Government is leading from the front, which is why we have established the £50 million fund that I mentioned and have set up the expert group that meets for the first time today.

As I think that Pauline McNeill knows, I am very sympathetic to some of those issues, but we have set up an expert group to give us ordered recommendations on the actions that it thinks are most important for us to take forward. That may well include an audit. If that is the case, we will, of course, carry it out.

There is a debate about what the member characterised as the housing versus hostel approach. The expert group may well make recommendations about that, too.

One of the things that I see as being among the most important is that we do not see the matter as just an accommodation issue—whether the accommodation is houses or hostels. The way to tackle rough sleeping is to provide the package of support that is needed around people, so the housing first model that Pauline McNeill mentioned is important. I have already said that it offers opportunities for individuals with more complex needs in helping to stabilise their lives and to prevent repeat homelessness. Again, the reason why we have set up the expert group is to look at the issue to make sure that we are doing the right things.

We know that rough sleeping is increasing—I said that when I set out the programme for government. We also know—this takes us back to Alex Rowley’s question—that the increase in rough sleeping and homelessness generally is very much driven by the welfare cuts that we have already spoken about. Unfortunately, we cannot deal with the whole problem at source—I wish that we could—but we can make sure that we are doing as much as we can to deal with the consequences, and we will continue to do exactly that.

Nursing (Staffing)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the concerns of front-line nursing staff in Scotland, which have been highlighted in the Royal College of Nursing report, “Safe and Effective Staffing: Nursing Against the Odds”. (S5F-01601)

The link between nurse staffing levels and high-quality care for patients is well established. Staff welfare is a top priority, and we take staff views on the issues very seriously. The RCN has called for safe-staffing legislation, and we intend, as we set out in the programme for government, to take that forward. Of course, the United Kingdom Government has given no commitment to similar legislation in England. In addition, we are committing an additional £40 million to create an estimated 2,600 extra training places over the next four years, and will continue to work with the RCN and other organisations to help to shape future action.

In the past two weeks, we have heard warnings from the Royal College of General Practitioners that Scotland is now 856 GPs short. This week, RCN Scotland has predicted that Scotland is 2,800 nurses short. Obviously, the 2,600 training places will not cover that shortage. The situation is now directly impacting on staff and patient care. Having been in control of our national health service for 10 and a half years, does the First Minister now accept that the Scottish Government’s NHS workforce planning has been totally mismanaged?

No, I do not. There are almost 12,000 more people working in our health service today than there were when the Government took office. As I said, we are also taking a range of actions in relation to nursing students, including the safe-staffing legislation that I spoke about and an increase in intakes for pre-registration nursing and midwifery programmes.

Under the Scottish National Party Government, there has been an average of 1,000 more nurses in training every year than there were under the previous Administration. As I said, we are spending £40 million on increasing training places.

We have also kept the nursing bursary, which the Tories south of the border have abolished. That is leading to a rapid reduction in the numbers coming into nurse training in England.

We will continue to take a range of actions on nursing and across other elements of the NHS workforce. However, I will end where I often do on questions about the NHS: as we take all those actions to try to increase the number of people who are coming into the NHS and the different professional groups within it, we face the looming threat of Brexit, which is making it harder for those who are already here to stay here and contribute to our NHS and will, of course, make it harder for us to recruit people who want to come here.

Yet again I say, whether it is on the NHS, welfare or any such issues, shame on the Tories for coming here to lecture others while their own Government does so much damage to the things that we hold dear.

That concludes First Minister’s questions. I suspend the meeting until 2 pm.

12:48 Meeting suspended.  

14:00 On resuming—