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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, December 5, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 05 December 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Art in Action Campaign, Portfolio Question Time, Disability Sport and Participation, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time

Programme for International Student Assessment (Results)

Scotland’s programme for international student assessment—PISA—results for science and maths have never been lower than those released this week, have they, First Minister?

Compared with the previous PISA study, the performance in science and maths, according to independent statisticians, is stable. However, that is not good enough, in my view. We want to continue with efforts to see significant improvement in maths and science, as we have seen significant improvement in reading performance, as recorded in the most recent PISA study.

After the previous study, of course, we had the Scottish attainment challenge, and the pupil equity fund initiatives such as the First Minister’s reading challenge, which focused on literacy and reading. That initiative is bearing fruit, and we are working to continue to bring the same focus to maths and science as well.

I welcome the figures on reading, but it is a little like people celebrating the fact that they have just had their kitchen redecorated when the front two rooms in the house are on fire.

The simple answer was, “No.” They have never been lower. In fact, in science, the drop in performance is the biggest that has been seen since 2003.

In the period since the Scottish National Party first came to office, how many of the 40 countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the United Kingdom have experienced a bigger fall in standards in science, than we have in Scotland? How many?

I am not standing here saying that the performance in maths or in science is acceptable to me or the Scottish Government—I am not saying that in any way, shape, or form. However, after we saw a significant decline, the current study shows a performance that has stabilised. We now intend to bring to bear the initiatives and interventions that will see an improvement in maths and science that is similar to the improvement that we have seen in reading and literacy in this survey. That is the focus that a Government should bring.

Of course, as we have discussed in this chamber on many occasions, when we look at the broader indicators in Scottish education, whether on higher passes or national 5 passes, we see a picture of improving standards and, crucially, a closing of the attainment gap, which is also reflected in the most recent PISA study.

The Government will continue to be focused on delivering improvements in science and maths that are similar to the ones that we have already delivered in reading, and we will get on with that job.

Only in the First Minister’s world can it conceivably be the case that the biggest fall in standards since 2003 represents stability.

The answer to the question that I asked is that just one country out of 40 has experienced a bigger fall in standards in science since 2006. In maths, Scotland has experienced the fifth-biggest fall. However, the Scottish National Party’s response, which we have just heard, has been almost as alarming as the results themselves. Three years ago, Nicola Sturgeon said:

“The PISA ... results are not good enough and I want to see them improve.”—[Official Report, 8 December 2016; c 11.]

This time, we have just had denial.

Professor Lindsay Paterson of the University of Edinburgh said that the PISA results

“would make any parent wince with shame. Even worse is the disgraceful political spin which the Scottish Government has struggled to impose”

on them.

As SNP members behind the First Minister laugh at that record, how is her Government going to get on top of the situation when it simply refuses to accept the facts?

First, in describing maths and science as “stable” I am quoting independent statisticians: that is just a fact. If I were standing here saying that I thought that that was acceptable—job done—or good enough, Jackson Carlaw might have a point. I am not doing that. We have brought a focus to bear on reading and literacy since the last PISA survey, and we have seen a significant and sharp increase in performance there, to the point where, again according to the independent statisticians, there are only five countries that are now performing better than Scotland. We are bringing that same focus to bear on maths and science.

We have a range of initiatives, including changes to the curriculum and the STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—bursary, which is encouraging people to make career changes and teach STEM subjects, because we are determined to see the same improvement in science and maths that we have recorded in reading. Those initiatives are going on along with the wider activity that is leading to improvement in higher performance—more young people leaving school with a higher and more young people leaving school with the gold standard of five highers—and more young people going into positive destinations. We will continue to keep that focus, whatever the Scottish Conservatives might want to throw at us—and the pupils and teachers across Scotland—in the process.

That is an even more lamentable response than I expected from a First Minister who wanted to be judged on education. Today, it is all across our newspapers what the people of Scotland think of her handling of public services. In schools, hospitals and justice—where, only this morning, the chair of the Scottish Police Authority has resigned—confidence is plummeting. After the previous set of PISA results, John Swinney told us that the SNP Government’s “unwavering focus” would be on improving our schools, but Nicola Sturgeon’s unwavering focus has been not on improving our schools but on forcing another independence referendum on Scotland. How much more Government failure does Scotland have to endure before she drops that obsession and gets on with her job?

When we took office, fewer than half of the pupils in Scotland left school with a higher qualification; now, almost two-thirds do. When we took office, just over 20 per cent left school with the gold standard of five highers; that is now more than 30 per cent. The Scottish household survey shows that 86 per cent of those with direct experience of schools say they are satisfied with the quality of education. I do not think that that is job done, but it is an indication of the focus and the progress that we are making and will continue to deliver.

Lastly, I think that it is a bit rich for Jackson Carlaw, as the representative of the party that has imposed a decade of austerity on Scotland, to stand up here and talk about the quality of public services. What we need to do over the next few days is take the opportunity to get rid of the Conservative Government. That is the best thing that we could do for public services the length and breadth of our country.

Scottish Police Authority

What is the First Minister’s response to comments by Susan Deacon, who this morning resigned her post as chair of the Scottish Police Authority, saying:

“The governance and accountability arrangements for policing in Scotland are fundamentally flawed in structure, culture and practice”?

First, I confirm that Susan Deacon has tendered her resignation. I am very grateful for the work that she has done over the past two years as chair of the SPA. Parliament will be interested to know that the justice secretary has spoken with the SPA vice-chair, David Crichton, who has agreed to take on the leadership of the SPA until a new chair is appointed through the full public appointments process.

Though I thank Susan Deacon and pay tribute to the work that she has done, I do not agree with her comments. I point to her letter of resignation, in which she says:

“I leave this role with our police service in a much stronger place than it was ... two years ago”.

I also point to the recent report of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary in Scotland that says that there is now a consensus among key postholders in the SPA, Police Scotland and other stakeholders that the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012 establishes the right model of governance of police and that the functions of the SPA are sound.

Her Majesty’s chief inspector of constabulary also stated recently that the SPA has

“the strongest ... board that it has ever had”,

given its

“mixture and depth of experience in a number of different walks of life and professions.”

We and the SPA will continue to take forward the changes and reforms that this Parliament’s Justice Sub-Committee on Policing has recommended, so that the SPA continues to strengthen its performance.

The First Minister is right in saying that, in September, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary in Scotland published a report on the Scottish Police Authority, but that is about where her being right stops. The report found that the SPA is failing to hold the chief constable to account, failing to facilitate local scrutiny and failing on transparency. The report concluded that there is a fundamental conflict of interest between the SPA being a service provider to Police Scotland and being its scrutiny body.

The report made it absolutely clear that police scrutiny was in need of radical overhaul. What action did the First Minister take, between the publication of the inspectorate’s report and Susan Deacon’s resignation today, to ensure that Police Scotland is subject to adequate scrutiny?

As I am sure that Richard Leonard is aware, the SPA is making changes to address the issues that have been raised by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary in Scotland and the Justice Sub-Committee on Policing on leadership, governance and accountability—and progress is being made in all that. However, that does not take away from the conclusion that the functions of the SPA are sound and that the model of governance of the police service by an independent police authority is the right one.

On Richard Leonard’s question about progress, I again point to what Her Majesty’s chief inspector of constabulary said when giving evidence to the Justice Committee on Tuesday 3 December. She stated that the SPA now has

“the strongest ... board that it has ever had”,

given its

“real mixture and depth of experience in a number of different walks of life and professions.”

Yes, issues have been raised in the lifetime of the SPA. Those issues are being addressed and will continue to be addressed. I would hope that Richard Leonard would welcome that.

For the past two weeks, the First Minister has toured the television studios up and down the United Kingdom, boasting about her record in Government. However, this week, we have had confirmation that our general practices are in crisis and that her education secretary is failing teachers and failing to provide the quality education that our young people deserve. Now, Police Scotland has been plunged into crisis. That comes on top of recent warnings from senior police officers that further cuts will be made in police numbers to meet current budgetary limits at a time when violent crime is rising in Scotland.

The Scottish National Party has been in office for 12 years. When will the First Minister finally take responsibility, apologise to the people and accept that none of Scotland’s public services can be trusted in her Government’s hands?

Of course, the level of crime is lower than it was when the SNP took office, and it is at one of its lowest levels in decades. We have invested to ensure that 1,000 more police officers are on the streets of Scotland. I know that Richard Leonard is quite happy for Scotland to be governed by a Tory Government, but during the time that we have been investing in 1,000 more police officers, the Tory Government has been slashing police numbers by 20,000.

This Government will continue to invest in our public services and we will continue to take forward essential reforms in our public services, which is why the people of Scotland will continue, I believe, to put their trust in the SNP and in this Scottish Government to get on with the job that we are doing.

Borderline Helpline

Does the First Minister share my concern that Borderline Helpline, which supports my constituents who are experiencing mental health problems and has received 90,000 calls since began 20 years ago, has been given six months’ notice that it will lose all its funding, which comes from NHS Borders and the Tory-led Scottish Borders Council, despite independent valuations, including by SBC, considering it to be of exceptional value for money? The situation has been compounded by the fact that there has been no consultation. Does she agree that there should be a full consultation and that, at the very least, any decision on funding should be suspended until the impact of closure is assessed?

Services such as Borderline Helpline perform an important function and I encourage councils to undertake full consultations and ensure that they consider all the implications of such decisions. I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport to consider the issue from the perspective of the health service, to see whether there is more that the Government can offer by way of assistance. I hope that the council will take seriously the issues that Christine Grahame raised.

Inverness Elective Treatment Centre

In 2015, I welcomed the Scottish Government’s announcement of a much-needed £16 million healthcare facility in Inverness. Work was due to start this summer, but was delayed until the end of 2019, and the price tag has more than doubled. I wrote to the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport seven weeks ago asking about the facility and, despite two chasing emails, I have yet to receive a response.

Given that orthopaedic waiting times in the Highlands now exceed 78 weeks, my constituents and I would like to know when work will start on the elective care centre for the north of Scotland and when it will be operational.

I understand that the health secretary has written to Edward Mountain, but if he has not received the letter, I am happy to look into that and ensure that it arrives with him.

We are delivering a number of elective treatment centres around the country as part of our waiting times improvement plan, to ensure that we build capacity so that the rising demand on the national health service is met.

I will ensure that Edward Mountain gets the response from the health secretary as quickly as possible.

Northern Isles Ferry Contract

Yesterday, people in Shetland and Orkney were appalled to learn that there has been a second legal challenge to the awarding of the northern isles ferry service contract, which comes on top of an 18-month delay. Some people in the community are now questioning the competence of Transport Scotland. What reassurance can the First Minister give that the Government is doing all that it can to resolve the dispute quickly, to limit the uncertainty over the future of a lifeline ferry service on which people and businesses in the northern isles depend?

I share Beatrice Wishart’s concerns about the issue. As she says, it is now a legal matter, so it would not be appropriate for me to go into details. Suffice to say, the Scottish Government is confident in the processes that we have undertaken, and we continue to defend that position rigorously.

Falkirk Gas Outage

The First Minister will be aware of the major gas outage that affected parts of Falkirk district from Sunday through the first half of the week. Currently, fewer than 250 of the 8,000-plus households that were affected remain unconnected. Will the First Minister join me in congratulating everyone who was involved in the Herculean effort to get people reconnected? I include in that not only the 300 gas engineers and support staff from SGN and beyond who descended on Falkirk district over the past few days, but the multi-agency response from the police, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, NHS Forth Valley, the Scottish Ambulance Service and Falkirk Council social services and housing departments—not forgetting the community. They all deserve praise for the way in which the multi-agency approach has been handled.

I thank everybody who responded so promptly to ensure that the fault was repaired quickly and that the process to safely reconnect customers, which required engineers to visit all affected properties, was able to happen in the timescale in which it did. That process is now close to completion. The reason for a few homes not being back on the mains gas supply is due to engineers not being able to access properties. I am advised that, as of 7 pm on 4 December, that number was reported to be 80 properties.

Everybody involved made a Herculean effort, to use Angus MacDonald’s term, and is to be congratulated. The fault was obviously inconvenient for everybody who was affected, but it could have been much worse in terms of the time taken to fix it. My thanks go to everybody who ensured that the work was done so quickly.

Mossmorran Natural Gas Liquids Plant (Unplanned Flaring)

The First Minister knows of the misery that is being inflicted on the people who live in the shadow of the Mossmorran ethylene plant, which is operated by ExxonMobil Chemicals Ltd—one of the world’s most notorious corporate promoters of climate denial. ExxonMobil has failed to maintain the plant and, as a result, local residents endure regular unplanned flaring. The plant’s operating permits have been breached, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency has issued final warning notices and, in view of health impacts, NHS Fife has called the flaring “unacceptable”.

The plant is currently shut down, but a restart is imminent, and the Scottish Greens have called for the community to be given a break at least over the holidays. So far, ExxonMobil has committed only not to restarting from Christmas eve to boxing day. Will the First Minister join me in calling on the operators to commit to no flaring over the entire Christmas and new year period?

On Patrick Harvie’s specific question, I will undertake to ensure that the suggestion is discussed with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, and that it is, in turn, discussed with ExxonMobil. I do not think that that is an unreasonable request from the local community. I appreciate their very understandable concerns and anxieties about flaring at the Mossmorran complex.

The frequency of unplanned flaring recently has been completely unacceptable, and SEPA and the Health and Safety Executive are monitoring developments closely as the plant restarts. That has to be done with minimum impact and in a way that reduces the anxiety of the local community. I am happy to take that request forward, and to feed back to Patrick Harvie once I have had a chance to do so.

The community will think that the request is more than reasonable; they will think that it is absolutely necessary that we get that commitment from the plant operator before the Christmas holidays.

On Channel 4’s climate debate last week, the First Minister stated:

“We are in the transition”.

Mossmorran is the second biggest polluter in Scotland, and many local people in Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath know that that is not the future that their community deserves. They demand climate action, to see the just transition taking place now, and to have a green new deal for Fife.

Can the First Minister tell the communities that surround Mossmorran, and the plant’s workforce, when a just transition for Cowdenbeath will actually be under way? What investment will be provided for an alternative future and for lasting green jobs, rather than corporations profiting from wrecking people’s lives and our climate?

The just transition is under way. It was exactly in order to look at the justness of the transition that we established the just transition commission. Currently, 170 or so jobs are provided at Mossmorran. Of course we all want to move to a greener energy system, but it is important that we do so in a way that provides new jobs, which is why we are investing so much in support for renewable energy. We need to accelerate that. I am absolutely in agreement with Patrick Harvie about that.

However, in terms of the transition, we have seen from past economic transformations what happens when we do not take people with us and instead leave them behind. We must not repeat those mistakes, which is why accelerating the transition, but doing so fairly and justly, is so important.

Police Scotland

Police Scotland is in crisis once again. With the resignation today of Susan Deacon, that is now three chief constables, three chairs and four chief executives in just a few short years.

Today we have learned that the Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland thinks that the Scottish Police Authority neither supports nor scrutinises the police, and yet the Cabinet Secretary for Justice thinks that the organisation is in a good place. Is not that just a toxic mix of chaos and complacency?

No. I have to say to Willie Rennie that the police are not “in crisis”, and that to say so does a disservice to the police officers all around our country who work so hard to keep us safe.

The chair of the SPA has tendered her resignation. She has her own reasons for doing so, but as I said a few moments ago, the vice-chair will take over the leadership of the Scottish Police Authority until a replacement is appointed, through the public appointments process.

In the meantime, the SPA will get on with the job of responding to the recommendations that have been made by the Parliament’s Justice Committee and by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland, and will continue the improvements that are being made to governance and accountability.

We will continue to support the police officers of our country in doing the fantastic job that they do, day in and day out, in keeping crime levels low and ensuring that the public of Scotland are kept safe. We should all thank them for doing so.

Tell that to the one third of police officers who are turning up to work mentally unwell. The Government is not supporting the police; that is the last thing it is doing. The First Minister is in cloud-cuckoo-land if she is satisfied with the situation.

Last week, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice said that he was “very satisfied” with police mental health, but only 3 per cent of police officers agreed with him. This week, the First Minister said that violent crime is down, when it is on the rise. Now, the First Minister tells us that the centralised functions of the Scottish Police Authority are sound. The Government is way out of touch and way out of its depth. Ministers appointed all those people—every single one of them—and have left us with a mess of name calling and crisis.

For how many more years will we have to put up with the chaos? Centralisation has undermined our police: why will the First Minister not just admit that she is wrong, and scrap the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012?

Let me deal with the issues that I think Willie Rennie raised in that question. Firstly, I outlined to him last week the number of initiatives that are being taken forward to support the health and wellbeing of our police officers. The SNP Government has invested in, and supported, 1,000 extra police officers on the streets in Scotland, while police officer numbers elsewhere in the UK were being slashed. We have delivered the best pay rise for police in any police service in the UK. We will continue to support our police officers to do the fantastic work that they do to get crime levels down, and to keep the public of Scotland safe.

I have to say that I had thought that Willie Rennie might—on the morning after the leader of the Liberal Democrats was forced to apologise for the Liberal Democrats’ support of Tory austerity, which has had such a damaging impact on our public services—have had a bit more humility when talking about public services.

CS Wind UK (Job Losses)

CS Wind in Campbeltown is set to pay off 80 per cent of its workforce, with a quarter of them having been made redundant earlier this week. That has a terrible impact on the workers, their families and the whole community in Kintyre. What will the Scottish Government do to ensure that developers include local content and contracts that are let in Scotland, in order to ensure that we all benefit from our natural resources?

Obviously, the situation with CS Wind is extremely concerning and regrettable. My thoughts are with the workforce of that company. Partnership action for continuing employment—PACE—support has been provided for the workforce, which I understand has been received positively.

More broadly, the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy, Fergus Ewing, has already convened a summit in Campbeltown to consider the implications of that and other recent economic developments. A working group has been established to focus on the actions that we need to take to generate economic activity in Campbeltown, because we understand the blow that such a closure and redundancies on that scale strikes in a community of that size. Fergus Ewing will lead the work in the months to come, and will be happy to keep Parliament updated.

Children and Young People (Mental Health Treatment)

How many children and young people in Scotland have to wait more than a year for mental health treatment?

Too many children wait more than a year for mental health treatment. That is why we are investing £250 million in improvements to child and adolescent mental health services to reduce waiting times in the specialist services and—crucially—to build up community services. That includes getting counsellors into schools—that work is on-going—and establishing the new community wellbeing service, so that more services and resources are available for young people in the community, which will ensure that specialist services are there for those who need them. That work is extremely important, it is backed by investment and the Government will continue to take it forward.


What is the First Minister’s response to the recently published Office for National Statistics report, which has cut life expectancy for children who are born in the United Kingdom? The report of the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, which was published earlier this year, accused the Tory Government of the “systematic immiseration” of a significant part of the British population. The findings of the ONS report coincide with the introduction of the Tory party’s austerity and welfare reform obsession.

How many more authoritative reports does the First Minister believe that it will take to shame Tory politicians into admitting that their Government policies have forced many people in my constituency, and across Scotland and the UK, into poverty?

The findings of the ONS report are deeply concerning and alarming. They illustrate the fact that austerity, welfare cuts and policies such as universal credit and the bedroom tax have all helped to push people in general, and children in particular, into poverty. The Resolution Foundation has also said that the Conservative manifesto plans at this election risk taking child poverty in Scotland to a 60-year high. That, in my view, is why we need to get rid of a Conservative Government at this election, because I do not think that we will ever shame the Conservatives into doing the right thing on poverty. We need to get rid of them completely, and Scotland has an opportunity to do that next week.

Munitions Manufacture (Funding)

After a long-running freedom of information saga, I confirmed that in 2009 Chemring Energetics UK successfully applied for Scottish Enterprise funding to invest in site expansion to, in its own words,

“take advantage of market moves that have resulted in gaps in the manufacture of explosives”.

The Chemring site in question specialises in components for, again in its own words,

“rocket propulsion systems, release of airborne weapons systems, missile guidance systems, arming units, and military demolition”.

The First Minister has repeatedly claimed that the Scottish Government does not fund the manufacture of munitions. Is it seriously her position that funding the expansion of a bomb-making factory is different from funding the direct manufacture of bombs?

I am happy to respond to Ross Greer in more detail about the specific company, but it is absolutely the Scottish Government’s position that it does not provide funding for the manufacture of munitions—either directly or via Scottish Enterprise support. Support that is provided is focused on helping firms to diversify and develop non-military applications for their technology. That is the position of Scottish Enterprise for all companies that apply to it for funding. On the specific company that Ross Greer has raised, I am happy to respond to him in more detail in writing.

National Health Service Staffing (Freedom of Movement)

Is the First Minister aware of the comments that were made this week by the independent think tank the Nuffield Trust, which warned that ending freedom of movement of European Union citizens poses a “very real risk” to NHS staffing numbers? Does the First Minister agree that Scotland needs to escape Brexit and protect our public services?

We should take the warning from the Nuffield Trust very seriously. We know that ending freedom of movement will have an impact on our ability to grow our working-age population, and that that will perhaps have a disproportionate impact on the ability of the NHS and other public services to attract and recruit the staff that they need. Beyond that, ending freedom of movement sends the wrong signal about the kind of country that we are. We want to be a country that is open, outward looking and welcoming. We should do that in line with our values as a country, but we need to be able to do that to attract the people whom we need to have a growing and thriving economy.

I hope that all parties in this chamber will reject policies such as ending freedom of movement and creating a hostile environment, and that they will be determined to keep ensuring that Scotland is the kind of country that attracts people from all over the world to make the amazing contribution that immigrants make to our economy and to our society.

Drug Deaths

Last weekend, three people lost their lives in the community of Lochee in Dundee due to drugs. Drugs workers predict that Scotland’s drug deaths rate—the worst in the world—will rise again this year. In August, Dundee’s drugs commission laid out 10 immediate, emergency recommendations, but not one of those recommendations—including the life-saving recommendation on same-day prescribing—has been implemented. I do not understand why.

For the sake of families across Dundee, will the First Minister urge NHS Tayside and Dundee City Council to implement those live-saving recommendations as soon as possible?

The Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing has already engaged with the Dundee drugs commission and it is right that he has done so. The commission made several important recommendations. It is important that we make progress on those recommendations as quickly as that is feasible.

I am more than happy to ask Joe FitzPatrick to write to the member with an update on that work as well as on the progress of the work of our wider drug deaths task force. It is undoubtedly one of the most important issues that we face. We are determined to introduce changes in how we deal with drug misuse and how we support the users of drugs to ensure that we make a difference to those figures.

Scottish Police Authority

In answer to Willie Rennie’s question on the Scottish Police Authority, the First Minister said that there was no crisis. In her resignation letter, the SPA chair said:

“the governance and accountability arrangements for policing in Scotland are fundamentally flawed, in structure, culture and practice”.

Given those comments, will the First Minister and her Cabinet Secretary for Justice carry out an immediate review to learn what has gone wrong with the Scottish National Party’s centralisation project, why another senior figure in public life has quit and what can be done to fix her Government’s mess?

Susan Deacon is entitled to her opinion on that and I would be very happy to hear the basis on which she has reached that conclusion. However, I do not agree with that conclusion.

There has been no shortage of reviews of and inquiries into the Scottish Police Authority. Recommendations have been made and implemented. We see the improvements that have been made, which are recognised by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary. We will continue to take forward those improvements, listening to the views of Susan Deacon and others.

We do a better service to our police officers, who are working so hard across the country, if we support them in that work and support the Scottish Police Authority to get on with its central job of scrutiny and accountability.

Disability Employment Gap

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government is doing to reduce the disability employment gap. (S5F-03763)

In December 2018, we published “A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People: Employment Action Plan”, which sets out the steps that we will take to reduce the disability employment gap in Scotland by at least half. That includes setting a target for the employment of disabled people in the Scottish Government’s workforce, as published in “A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People: Scottish Government Recruitment and Retention Plan for Disabled People 2019”. Although there has been a small reduction in the disability employment gap in recent years, we recognise that there is still a significant amount of work to do. We will publish the first annual progress report on the action plan early next year.

The First Minister will be aware that Sunday 1 December marked international day of persons with disabilities. I welcome the Scottish Parliament’s new powers over disability benefits, which mean that Scotland can put dignity and respect at the heart of our welfare system. Does the First Minister agree that providing more modern apprenticeships for people with additional support needs, possibly tied in with environmental projects, could be one way of increasing the employment level of people with disabilities?

Yes, I agree. Through the modern apprenticeship equality action plan, we offer enhanced contribution rates for modern apprentices who self-identify as disabled. In 2018-19, 3,700 modern apprenticeship starts identified as having an impairment, health condition or learning difficulty. That figure is up from 990 in 2015-16, when the plan was introduced. More than 60 per cent of modern apprentice frameworks now include outcomes or units that reference low carbon, sustainability or energy efficiency. There is still a lot of work to be done, and we will continue to work with employers to further reduce the disability employment gap.

Does the First Minister admit that she is failing Scottish disabled people, given that Scotland, with a disability employment gap of 35.8 per cent, is woefully dragging behind the United Kingdom, where the figure is 28.9 per cent?

As I said, the disability employment gap in Scotland has reduced. The reduction is too small, but the gap has reduced from more than 37 per cent in 2016 to 35.5 per cent now. We want to drive that figure further down, which is why we are taking the range of actions that are set out in the action plan, some of which I have touched on today.

Given some of the pressures that have been put on people with disabilities as a result of welfare cuts, all of us must recognise our responsibility to treat disabled people with dignity and to support them into employment, wherever possible. We certainly take that lesson seriously, and I think that it could well be learned by the current Conservative Government at Westminster.

Cancer Diagnoses

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to Macmillan Cancer Support’s study, which suggests that there has been a 15 per cent increase in cancer diagnoses since 2015. (S5F-03770)

I thank Macmillan Cancer Support for its important report. Increasing numbers of people are being diagnosed with cancer, partly due to the ageing population, but also due to improved detection. The detect cancer early and screening programmes are increasing the proportion of cases of breast, bowel and lung cancers that are detected at early stages. We are working to ensure that we have the right staff in place to respond to that. NHS Scotland’s staffing levels are higher than ever, and we are working in partnership with Macmillan to ensure that every cancer patient has access to a dedicated support worker, which will free up clinical staff time for healthcare.

It is our ambition—it should be everyone’s ambition—to beat cancer and to support every person who is fighting it. I am very encouraged that we see a continued downward trend in cancer mortality rates.

I thank the First Minister for those words. Macmillan’s figures show that 250,000 people are now living with cancer in Scotland, and that number is expected to rise to 300,000 by 2025. I know that the issue has affected many of us in the chamber. We commend the hard work and care that our staff in the national health service and in the third sector provide to those who are living with cancer.

However, the numbers speak for themselves. In a recent cancer patient survey, 40 per cent of patients said that they felt that they were not receiving enough care or support. Sixty per cent of nurses say that they felt under too much pressure, and there has been a 26 per cent increase in the number of nurse vacancies, which, undeniably, is adding to the pressure on staff.

Janice Preston, who heads Macmillan in Scotland, said that staff are

“struggling under the weight of the ever-increasing numbers of people who need their help ... It’s heart-breaking to hear from staff who feel they’re failing cancer patients because they just don’t have enough time.”

How does the First Minister respond to those comments? Why does she think that so many cancer patients feel that they are not getting the care and support that they need?

Every cancer patient should get the quality of care, but also the quality of support—I think that is an important distinction—that they need. Staff numbers in our NHS are generally at a record high: we saw that in the figures that were published this week. In terms of cancer specifically, since 2006, there has been an 80 per cent increase in the number of consultant oncologists working in our NHS, and an almost 50 per cent—48.7 per cent—increase in the number of consultant radiologists. We need to continue to increase the number of staff in our health service.

In my original answer, I mentioned the Scottish Government’s partnership with Macmillan. That is a pioneering partnership and we are the first in the United Kingdom to do that and to make sure that we are jointly investing so that every cancer patient has access to a dedicated support worker. That was widely and warmly welcomed when the health secretary and I announced it with Macmillan recently.

The partnership is important for two reasons: it gives cancer patients access to the emotional support that they need—as the member rightly says, there is not one of us in this chamber who does not know, through family and friends, the emotional impact that cancer has. Crucially, that kind of service also helps to free up clinicians’ time so that they can focus on the clinical and healthcare aspects of treatment.

These are important issues and I thank Jamie Greene for raising them today. The increase in the number of clinical workers in our health services and the pioneering project and partnership with Macmillan will make a real, tangible and meaningful difference to cancer patients in the coming years.

The First Minister will be well aware that positron emission tomography scanners are a vital tool in cancer treatment, but those scanners are all concentrated south of the Highland line. Will the First Minister support my campaign to have a PET scanner located within the Highlands and Islands to help cancer diagnoses, and to send a message about sharing health services throughout the whole of Scotland and avoiding centralisation?

I absolutely understand the importance of PET scanning. We want to make sure that people have access to that kind of scanning and, of course, access to treatment as close to home as possible. We will consider all of those issues in our capital investment programme. I am not aware of the specifics of the member’s campaign, but I am happy to have a look at that and for the health secretary to discuss those issues with the local health board.

There have been a range of initiatives in recent years to look at the provision of cancer services. Those initiatives are about making sure that people get access to services as close to home as possible, and at the same time, recognising that people need the highest quality specialist care, wherever that is best provided. I am happy to ask the health secretary to liaise with the member about the specific provision of a scanner in his region.

ScotRail (Fares)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to reports that ScotRail fares will increase by 2.4 per cent in January. (S5F-03764)

No increase in rail fares is welcome for the travelling public but this Government has taken action to keep fares down. Regulated ScotRail peak fares are capped at the level of the retail price index, and regulated off-peak fares at 1 per cent below RPI. That makes fares, on average, 1 per cent cheaper than they are in the rest of Great Britain.

Under the First Minister’s Government, regulated rail fares have rocketed by 54 per cent. That is a massive £1,500 hike for a season ticket for a worker who travels between Glasgow and Edinburgh. Under the current Abellio franchise alone, it has gone up by 13 per cent. Given the fact that, since the first year of the franchise, it has never hit a punctuality target, why are Scotland’s long-suffering rail passengers being hit by yet another fare hike? Why does the First Minister think that passengers, and not the private rail firms, should have to pay the price of Abellio’s and this Government’s failure in running our railways?

Of course, two thirds of the cost of running the railway is already met through the Scottish Government’s subsidy to our rail services. Because of the capping arrangements on rail fares, on average, fares are 20 per cent cheaper in Scotland than they are elsewhere in Great Britain. No increase in rail fares is welcome. That is why we take that action to keep them as low as possible. We will continue to do that, just as we will continue to ensure that the franchise holder delivers on its commitments to improve the quality of service. We will continue to take forward longer term plans to look at the possibility of a public sector bidder for the franchise in future. We will continue to take those hard actions. They are right and they balance the need to have proper funding in our rail service with keeping fares for the travelling public as low as possible.

12:45 Meeting suspended.  

12:51 On resuming—