Meeting date: Thursday, October 6, 2016
Meeting of the Parliament 06 October 2016
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Island Health Boards, Underground Coal Gasification Review, BBC Royal Charter and Framework Agreement, Investigatory Powers Bill, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Island Health Boards
- Underground Coal Gasification Review
- BBC Royal Charter and Framework Agreement
- Investigatory Powers Bill
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
To ask the First Minister what engagements she has planned for the rest of the day. (S5F-00317)
First, I welcome Ruth Davidson back from Birmingham. I hope that she is thoroughly ashamed of the xenophobic rhetoric by which she has been surrounded over the past few days.
Later today, I have engagements to take forward the Government’s programme for Scotland.
I assume that even the First Minister would acknowledge that I made my positions perfectly clear at the party conference.
Today’s report from the Fraser of Allander institute spells out plainly the challenge that Scotland, along with the rest of the United Kingdom, will face over the coming years as we leave the European Union. Like most members, I did not vote to leave the EU, but the question now is how we maximise the opportunities ahead and, of course, mitigate risks. The report says that the focus must now be on areas such as food and drink as well as manufacturing. What work is the Scottish Government doing to ensure that those two sectors get protection from risks and take advantage of opportunities?
It is a bit rich to be asked what the Government is doing to protect Scotland from the risks when they were created by the Conservative Party of which Ruth Davidson is a member and the leader in Scotland.
As I have said repeatedly in the chamber and outside it, the Government will do everything in its power to protect Scotland’s interests and mitigate the serious risks that Scotland faces—risks that are set out clearly in today’s Fraser of Allander report. We are working intensively with all sectors across our economy. That work is being led by our Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work and by Mike Russell, whom I appointed to deal specifically with the Brexit negotiations. However, it is not just about manufacturing and food and drink: earlier this week, I sat down with the financial services sector to discuss its concerns about Brexit and about the growing indications that, under the Conservatives, we are heading for the hardest of hard Brexits.
Unlike Ruth Davidson’s position, my position has not changed. I continue to think that Brexit is a bad idea and I therefore continue to think that it is my responsibility to do everything that I can to protect Scotland from it.
Let us talk more specifically about things that the Government could do to drive Scotland forward as we go through this period. The First Minister’s Government is expected to make an announcement today on underground coal gasification. Graeme Blackett, who is the head of Biggar Economics and a member of the First Minister’s growth commission, said:
“Subject to the robust planning and regulatory processes that we rightly have, there are major advantages in being the first movers in this technology, and becoming a world leader.”
I know that the First Minister is restricted in what she can say, but her adviser thinks that we could use that type of new technology to boost thousands of jobs and add billions of pounds to the Scottish economy. Does she agree?
I am sure that Ruth Davidson is aware that the United Kingdom Government is also looking carefully at the issues around UCG and that she is aware—perhaps more aware than I am—of the direction of travel in which it might be going.
As she did last week, Ruth Davidson seems to suggest that we should ride roughshod over evidence and the reports that we have commissioned. When Paul Wheelhouse makes a statement to the chamber this afternoon, he will report on the work that we asked Professor Campbell Gemmell to undertake on our behalf. All members of the Parliament—indeed, everybody in the country—will be able to look in detail at that work. Paul Wheelhouse will confirm the conclusions that the Government has reached as a result of the work that it asked to be undertaken.
That is the responsible way to proceed, because it puts the concerns that people have and the interests of our environment and our economy front and centre, and balanced judgments will be reached as a result of the work. That is the way in which we will continue to proceed on this important matter.
In the same way, people can still look on the Scottish Government’s website at the last report that the First Minister commissioned on fracking, whose advice she did not take.
Let us move on to another sector that was emphasised by today’s Fraser of Allander institute report: food and drink. Whisky producers tell us that Latin America—a market of 600 million people—has the potential for massive growth in the coming year yet, south of Texas, Scottish Development International has only one tiny office.
Like me and the First Minister, the Scotch Whisky Association did not want us to leave the European Union, but it now wants us to focus on developing opportunities. What action is the First Minister taking to expand our trade footprint around the world?
Let us walk ourselves through that question step by step. First, those who know what they are talking about on UCG and fracking will note that Ruth Davidson managed to switch between the different technologies; I do not know whether she did that in full knowledge or whether she needs to do a bit more homework. What we are talking about today is underground coal gasification, which is a very different technology from fracking. Before she came to the chamber to ask questions about the issue, I would have thought that she might know and understand that.
Secondly, on whisky, I met the Scotch Whisky Association last week or the week before. It wanted to raise with me the success of the Scottish whisky industry and its concerns about Brexit and the likely impact of that decision on the industry.
As far as our international presence is concerned, I am sure that, if anyone here were to do a quick Google search, they would find plenty of examples of the Scottish Conservatives criticising the Scottish Government’s international presence and saying things such as, “It’s nothing to do with us—we should leave these matters to the UK Government.” Thankfully, we do not listen. In addition to the excellent work that SDI is doing—of course we are considering carefully how we make sure that SDI is properly equipped in the climate that we have been put in as a result of the Tory Government’s recklessness—we have recently announced the opening of new investment hubs in London, Dublin and Brussels. We are making sure that we are not reliant on the likes of Boris Johnson to represent us overseas and that we have the ability to represent ourselves.
The First Minister seems to be more interested in discussing my position than in discussing her own Government’s. I do not believe that I have ever hidden my position. My position is that people from the EU and elsewhere are welcome here and that this is their home, and that we should retain the closest possible trading relationship with our European friends and neighbours while expanding trade abroad, but that we should also face up to the realities ahead of us, mitigate risks and take advantage of opportunities.
This Parliament faces a choice about whether to put the lion’s share of its efforts into examining practical solutions or simply to complain about the result. Which is it to be, First Minister?
Ruth Davidson is perhaps protesting a bit too much. She says that I am more interested in her position. If anybody can work out what her position is on these matters any more, they are doing better than I am, because she has flipped and flopped over and over again since the referendum result.
Yesterday, Ruth Davidson said—I commend her for doing so—what I said the morning after the EU referendum: that people who have chosen to make their homes here are welcome here, that they make a contribution and that we want them to stay and continue to make that contribution. Unfortunately, the difference between her and me is that she wants control over immigration to stay in the hands of the xenophobes, whereas I want it to come into the hands of this Parliament, so that we can put those sentiments into practice.
Scotland finds itself in a situation that we did not ask to be in. We are facing all the risks that we face because of the recklessness of the Conservative Government at Westminster. My job, and the job of the Scottish Government, is to protect Scotland’s interests, and that is exactly what we will continue to do.
To ask the First Minister when she will next meet HIV Scotland. (S5F-00341)
As an organisation that is almost fully funded by the Scottish Government, HIV Scotland is one that officials of the Scottish Government have regular contact with. Indeed, the Minister for Public Health and Sport last met the chief executive of HIV Scotland on 23 August.
Across Scotland this morning, tens of thousands of people stood on station platforms as they started their daily commute. In October 2014, as Minister for Transport and Veterans, Keith Brown said that the new franchise agreement that had been awarded to Abellio was not only
“a world leading contract to deliver for rail staff and passengers”
but one that would
“benefit the whole of Scotland.”
Does the First Minister believe that those promises to passengers have been kept?
The contract was awarded because it was considered to be the contract in the best interests of passengers across Scotland. However, it is absolutely incumbent on Abellio as the holder of that contract to continue to ensure that it delivers services that meet the expectations of the travelling public. The Scottish Government will continue to liaise with ScotRail on an on-going basis to ensure that that is the case.
I am delighted that the recent dispute around driver-operated doors has been settled and that the public do not have the expectation of further industrial action episodes as a result of that.
I doubt that commuters on the morning train from Dundee to Edinburgh or North Berwick to Edinburgh, or on the nightly commute from Cumbernauld to Dalmuir, would agree that Scotland has a world-leading contract or, indeed, that the expectations of the public are being met.
In the past few months, Scotland’s rail passengers have faced cancellations, delays and overcrowding, and new figures this week show that a third of all routes in Scotland have services that are late more often than they are on time. At the same time, Abellio is raking it in: it is getting £1 million a month in profits from that franchise. Does the First Minister agree that, although Scotland’s rail network might be working for the transport bosses, it is certainly not working for Scotland’s commuters?
Kezia Dugdale is right to raise the concerns of the travelling public, as they have a right to expect services that run on time and which they can rely on. It is because the Scottish Government is so firm in that commitment that, under the contract terms, it requested from ScotRail on 26 August an improvement plan. I assume that Kezia Dugdale is aware of that. That was received on 16 September.
We are absolutely committed to working with ScotRail to deliver a quality service to passengers. That is our responsibility, and we are serious in ensuring that we discharge that responsibility.
That is interesting, as I have that improvement plan in front of me. In fact, there is a boast of a press release from Humza Yousaf this week about £3 million-worth of extra investment to improve passenger comfort and accessibility on our railways. It says that the Government will spend money on passenger counting equipment so that we can see how overcrowded the trains are. The First Minister should just get on a train to appreciate how overcrowded the trains are.
The First Minister needs to be honest about the experience that passengers face. Here is the thing: since 2011, the average weekly earnings of commuters rose by only 6 per cent, but the Scottish Government’s cap on rush-hour rail fares increased by over 23 per cent. Let me make that absolutely clear: that is a rise four times faster than the rise in earnings. Those who travel by train to their work every day are paying more for a shocking service and Scottish commuters are fed up of the First Minister’s excuses. This is her responsibility. What will she do to get things back on track?
I do not think that anybody who is listening to this exchange will have heard me make any excuses. I have said that it is our responsibility, working with ScotRail, to ensure that a quality service is delivered. That is exactly why the Minister for Transport and the Islands has taken the action that he has taken, and we continue to invest significant sums of money in the rail network to ensure that that responsibility is discharged.
I do not quibble at all about Kezia Dugdale’s right to come to the chamber to raise those concerns. I understand the concerns of the travelling public, but my job and the transport minister’s job is to get on with fixing the problems, not to just carp from the sidelines.
There are a couple of supplementaries, the first of which is from Bruce Crawford.
Will the First Minister confirm that she is aware that HSBC is intent on relocating around 200 high-quality jobs from Stirling? [Interruption.] The lot on the Labour benches should listen to what I am saying. Does the First Minister agree that that intention will have an obvious impact on individuals and the local economy? Given that disappointing news, does she agree that that strengthens the case for Stirling to successfully secure a city deal that is based on its excellent business case?
I am, of course, aware of the situation at HSBC, and I fully appreciate how anxious a time this is for the company’s employees and their families. The Scottish Government will do all that it can to support those who are affected at this time. Scottish Enterprise is already engaging with HSBC to explore all possible avenues for supporting the business and its workforce. In the unfortunate event that any redundancies proceed, our partnership action for continuing employment organisation will, of course, be fully engaged.
I had a brief conversation about the Stirling city deal at another event with the leader of Stirling Council yesterday. I understand that the discussions are progressing well and, while no conclusions have been reached, I hope that Bruce Crawford will see from the experience in other cities such as Glasgow, Inverness and Aberdeen that the Government is very committed to taking forward city deals where we can.
The First Minister will be aware that on 23 October First Glasgow will make substantial changes to bus routes. That will affect many of my constituents, as well as bus passengers in her constituency and the transport minister’s, too.
Under this Government the number of bus passenger journeys is down by 74 million since 2007, and routes have been cut by 66 million kilometres over the same period. How many bus services have to be withdrawn before this Government backs any form of regulation? At the very least, does the First Minister not think that it should not be so easy for bus companies to walk away at short notice, without any formal consultation, from the communities that we represent?
First Glasgow, and indeed all other bus companies, should consult very closely with local communities before making any changes to local services. That is what I would expect of First Glasgow. As a local constituency MSP representing the south side of Glasgow, I regularly have discussions with First Glasgow about services that run in and through my constituency, and I know that other MSPs do likewise. These are important issues—people in our constituencies depend on bus services and I expect their views to be taken into account when decisions are taken.
Will the First Minister join me in welcoming to the gallery a delegation of campaigners from the Dunoon to Gourock ferry action group from my region? Can she confirm that it is the Scottish Government’s policy to provide a vehicle and passenger ferry service between Gourock and Dunoon town centres, and whether David MacBrayne Limited, which is wholly owned by the Scottish ministers, was instructed to tender under the Gourock to Dunoon exercise?
First, I welcome to the chamber the campaigners from the Dunoon to Gourock ferry service. I know many of them well, because in one of my previous Government jobs I had the responsibility for taking forward this work. I absolutely appreciate the strength of feeling about the town centre to town centre vehicle service issue. As David Stewart will appreciate, we are now in a live procurement exercise and there are strict limitations on ministerial involvement in that tendering exercise and what I am able to say at this stage. I hope that he, and indeed the campaigners, will appreciate from my previous involvement how serious we are in seeking to make sure that there is a service running on that route that meets the expectations of those who rely on it.
To ask the First Minister what issues will be discussed at the next meeting of the Cabinet. (S5F-00346)
Matters of importance to the people of Scotland.
We have heard the Conservative Secretary of State for International Trade branding European citizens working here as “cards” in the European Union negotiations. We have heard the Conservative Home Secretary advocating listing of foreign workers. Those “cards”—those foreign workers—are our neighbours and our friends. They are our families. People who voted for Brexit across the United Kingdom did not vote to send their friends home. What can the First Minister do to ensure that EU citizens are treated with respect and dignity in the negotiations?
The first thing that I can do, which is what I did on the morning after the EU referendum, is say unequivocally that people who have come from other European countries—or from any country—and have chosen to make Scotland their home and to make a contribution here are welcome here. This is their home: this is where they belong and it is where we want them to stay. All of us have a responsibility to say that as often as we possibly can.
Since the EU referendum, we have taken steps to liaise with the community of EU nationals living in Scotland. The Cabinet held a question-and-answer session a number of weeks ago in order to hear their concerns directly. We have also taken practical steps—for example, on university tuition fees—to give reassurance to EU nationals where we can, and we will continue to look for other areas where we can do that.
Unfortunately—it is a matter of real regret to me—I do not have the power to guarantee the right of EU nationals to stay here in Scotland. I will continue—I hope that I have the backing of every single member in this chamber when I say this—to call on the UK Government to stop using human beings as bargaining chips and to give them the guaranteed right to stay where they belong, which is here in Scotland.
Many EU citizens work for organisations such as Amazon. They deserve decent treatment. This week, Amazon celebrated its recruitment of more people at a rate below the proper living wage. The recruitment was described as a “bonanza”. I have raised the issue before and the First Minister promised action, but nothing has changed. This week the Scottish Government did not utter a peep—not one word of criticism. Amazon has had millions of pounds in Scottish Government grants but pays poverty wages. Does the First Minister still intend to do anything, or has she lost interest?
That is an unfair criticism from Willie Rennie, because he knows how seriously we treat the living wage. I know that he agrees with us, in that regard. We encourage—I will go further: we expect all companies that can do so to pay the living wage, and we have taken a lead on that.
I wish that I had the power here in Scotland not just to guarantee the right of EU nationals to stay but to legislate on minimum wage levels, so that we could raise the statutory minimum wage to the level of the living wage. Let us argue not just for companies to do the right thing but for having those powers in the hands of this Parliament, so that we do not have to call on the UK Government to do the right thing for us.
The First Minister will share my concern at today’s news that a hard Brexit could cost Scotland 80,000 jobs. A report from the Fraser of Allander institute shows that the weaker our economic integration with the European Union, the greater the negative impact. Does the First Minister think that it is high time that the Tories dropped their bluster over leaving the single market and revealed—at long last—a plan?
The Tories should have had a plan to deal with Brexit before the referendum. It is absolutely shocking that they did not. It is equally shocking that, three months on, we still have only the sketchiest of details about what happens now. It is unfortunate that the details that we have suggest that we are heading down the road of a hard Brexit, which—as today’s Fraser of Allander institute report said—will cost people in Scotland in lost wages and lost jobs. That is completely and utterly unacceptable.
What has been clear from the Conservative conference this week is that decisions by the Prime Minister are being driven more by her desire to appease the Tory right than they are by the genuine interests of the country. I think that that is wrong, regrettable and deeply irresponsible.
When Andrew Flanagan, the chair of the Scottish Police Authority, was asked yesterday about public concern about sex offenders and violent criminals being tagged, he said that he thought that worry would be “understandable”. Can the First Minister assure the public that her Government will not use an extension of electronic monitoring for such criminals, given the real concerns that have been voiced by the public and victims of crime?
Public safety is at the heart of all such decisions. As I said in an exchange just a couple of weeks ago, it is not for politicians but for courts to decide appropriate sentences. When a court is deciding on the appropriate sentence—whether it is prison or an alternative to prison, including electronic monitoring—risk assessment and issues of public safety will be integral to the decision. That is right and proper and the public would expect no less.
As the First Minister is no doubt aware, two weeks ago today a major rupture in a water main that supplies Edinburgh occurred in Liberton, in my constituency. The destruction that was caused was substantial and many families had to vacate their homes. The only reason why there was no loss of life where the greatest destruction took place was that an elderly couple are currently in a care home.
I had a constructive meeting with Scottish Water on Tuesday this week, but it was revealed that the main regulating valves for the supply of water to Edinburgh are causing Scottish Water serious problems, to the point at which the company is operating 24-hour supervision. The same type of valves are used to regulate the supply of water to Glasgow and Milngavie. Will the First Minister assure me that her ministers are looking into the matter and give Parliament detail on the steps that are being taken to ensure that the issue is remedied?
I am aware of the disruption and concern that was caused to Daniel Johnson’s constituents as a result of the incident that he talked about. I know that Scottish Water will deeply regret that inconvenience. I am more than happy to ask the minister who has responsibility for such matters to raise with Scottish Water the particular issue that the member has brought to the chamber today and to correspond with him when he has Scottish Water’s feedback.
Is the First Minister aware of the turmoil in the Crofting Commission that has been caused by the intolerable behaviour of the current convener? Does she know that the other commissioners have asked for his resignation and that the previous chief executive, Catriona Maclean, left because of the convener’s behaviour and the pressure that is being placed on commission staff? In those circumstances, will the First Minister and her Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity now take action to make the Crofting Commission work for crofters across the crofting counties without the disruptive presence of the convener?
Tavish Scott has raised an important issue. The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity has already welcomed the apology from the board of the Crofting Commission, but it is disappointing that the convener was not a party to that apology. It is important that we get to the stage of being able to draw a line under recent events. The resources that have been spent in dealing with these issues by the commission would, in my view, have been far better used by it being an effective regulator and contributing to a sustainable future for crofting.
I note that crofting commissioners have unanimously called for the convener to resign. The Scottish Government has requested from the convener further information about last week’s events. Although the Government would not ordinarily intervene in the internal operations of an independent statutory body, legislation gives Scottish ministers the power to act if required. I assure Tavish Scott that the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity continues to monitor the situation closely and will be happy to discuss it further with him.
Scottish Social Attitudes Survey
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the recent Scottish social attitudes survey, which shows that levels of prejudice in Scotland are falling. (S5F-00336)
I welcome the findings from the survey. It is encouraging to see that Scotland is becoming a more inclusive society with more people embracing and valuing diversity.
However, we should not be complacent. It is completely unacceptable that some groups in society still face prejudice. We need to continue to work together to eradicate discriminatory attitudes in Scotland and I assure the member that the Government is absolutely committed to doing so.
I thank the First Minister for her answer and commitment.
This week, the Tory party conference saw the most disgraceful display of reactionary, right-wing politics in living memory, with the Tories hinting that they will target foreign workers and name and shame businesses for not hiring British employees. Perhaps we saw an early glimpse of that from the Scottish Tories in recent weeks when they questioned Christian Allard’s right to take part in public life. How will the First Minister work to ensure that we build a tolerant, inclusive Scotland where people are judged on the contribution that they make to our society and not on the place where they were born?
We do that by standing strong and, I hope, united in defence of that inclusive and tolerant society. We should value people by the contribution that they make here not where they were born or, indeed, the colour of their passport.
That work is undermined by some of the rhetoric that we have heard from the Tory conference this week. Theresa May’s speech yesterday was endorsed by Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French far right. Nigel Farage said yesterday that “virtually everything” that Theresa May said in her speech were things that he had said over the past few years. All of us have an obligation to stand up against intolerance, prejudice, discrimination and xenophobia in all its forms. I hope that everybody in this Parliament will do so.
The First Minister has already called out the hateful and disgusting rhetoric that came out of the Tory party conference this week. Perhaps the most sinister of their proposals was that of Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, that companies will be forced to disclose the proportion of their workers who were born outside the United Kingdom. Will the First Minister and the Scottish Government support businesses in Scotland who refuse to comply with such a disgusting proposal?
I would absolutely stand four-square beside any company that refused to comply with any request to publish details of foreign workers. What I find particularly offensive is the idea that companies will be named and shamed for the foreign workers that they employ, as if there was something shameful about employing workers from other countries. It is absolutely disgraceful.
I know that Amber Rudd went on the radio yesterday morning and tried to row back from the proposal by saying that it was not something that the Tories were definitely going to do. I think that it is about time that the Tories stood up and said that it is something that they definitely will not ever do because it would be downright disgraceful and disgusting, and this Government would have absolutely nothing to do with it.
First, I associate myself with the First Minister’s comments about the Tory party conference. All of us on this side of the chamber would fully agree with her on that point.
We welcome the broad findings of the Scottish social attitudes survey, as well as figures out last week that show that hate crimes in Scotland have fallen over the past year. However, we cannot be complacent. Bad things are, too often, still happening in Scotland. For example, in the past year, Islamophobic hate crimes have increased by 89 per cent. Prejudice and hatred have no place in any of our communities and certainly not in any part of our society. What specific action will we take to highlight the issue of Islamophobia and to reduce hate crimes?
First, I agree absolutely with Anas Sarwar’s comments; indeed, I said in my first answer to the question that we must not be complacent. There is no disagreement whatsoever from me on that. The Government continues to work with faith communities and through all of our equality work to combat discrimination and, in particular, the rising trend of Islamophobia.
Last Friday, I spoke at an interfaith event organised by the Ahl Al-bait Society, where I made specific mention of the need to ensure that, while we continue to welcome the fact that hate crimes have fallen, we do not in any way become complacent about that.
I know that Anas Sarwar is very familiar with the range of work that we do to seek to bring people together in communities and to make diversity something that we celebrate as a key strength of our country and not something that we fear and exploit. That will always be the way that this Government conducts itself. I hope that, in doing so, we will continue to have the unanimous support of everybody in this chamber.
Drug-related Hospital Stays
To ask the First Minister what steps the Scottish Government is taking to tackle the rise in the number of drug-related acute hospital stays. (S5F-00318)
While drug taking among the general population is falling, and the number of young people taking drugs is at the lowest level in a decade, we remain determined to tackle problem drug use. With our partners, and supported by an investment of more than £600 million since 2008, we are working to reduce the harm caused by drug and alcohol use.
The rise in the number of hospital stays is the result of an ageing cohort of drug users. The reality is that, as drug users get older, they become more vulnerable, which means that they have a greater need for the support and care of the national health service. We will continue to work with sub-sector groups to identify and understand the current and particular needs of those individuals.
The First Minister will be aware from the recently published “Drug-Related Hospital Statistics Scotland” report that general acute admissions increased by almost 500 in the last financial year. The same report showed that around half of those patients lived in the 20 per cent most deprived areas of Scotland. Will the First Minister accept that the Scottish Government needs to do much more to reduce serious drug misuse in our most deprived areas?
Of course I will. While we still have a problem of drug use, there will always be more that the Government needs to do. However, I would genuinely point the member to some of the trends that I highlighted in my opening answer. The number of young people taking drugs is at the lowest level in a decade. That would suggest that the initiatives that we are taking are having some success.
Coupled with that, it is right to say that we are seeing an increasing trend of hospital admissions, but that is related to the ageing cohort of drug users. As people become older, having spent their life, or a substantial part of it, taking drugs, they increasingly need hospital treatment. That is the explanation behind that trend.
We should not be complacent about drug use in any community, but particularly not in our most deprived communities. We must continue to do everything possible to combat it.
Does the First Minister agree that drug-related acute hospital stays are often related to illegal drug use? Can she confirm that drug-related crime has fallen dramatically since the Scottish National Party came to office, with a fall of 45.7 per cent in North Ayrshire alone, from 1,235 cases a decade ago to 671 last year?
I certainly welcome and point to the recently published recorded crime figures, which highlight the reduction in drug offences in North Ayrshire and reflect other positive trends in that area. North Ayrshire routinely exceeds the national performance standard that expects 90 per cent of people who are in need of drug or alcohol treatment to access it within three weeks. However, as I have just said in response to earlier questions, there is no room for complacency. We know about the vulnerability of the ageing cohort of people who have been using drugs for many years and we must deal with that. Kenny Gibson is right to point out that there is also cause for optimism. Nationally, drug taking among the general population is falling and, as I said, for young people, it is now at the lowest level for a decade. So there is cause for optimism, but we must continue to tackle the problem, because it affects too many lives and often in a very dramatic way.
European Union Spending Rules (Infrastructure Projects)
To ask the First Minister what impact the breaching of European Union spending rules has had on the funding of infrastructure projects. (S5F-00343)
In 2015, the European Commission suspended three European structural and investment fund programmes. The suspensions prevented the Scottish Government from being reimbursed for money that it had already spent, for the duration of the suspensions, but there was no impact on the projects themselves. All suspensions have now been lifted, with the final one lifted in September this year.
I think that the First Minister has been badly advised on her response, because I am talking about European statistics authority regulations in relation to infrastructure projects. She has perhaps answered a different question.
The First Minister will, I hope, now be aware that at least four major capital projects breach EU rules on funding—the Aberdeen western peripheral route, the Edinburgh sick kids hospital, Dumfries and Galloway royal infirmary and the national blood centre. The total capital required for all four projects will be at least £900 million. According to Audit Scotland, capital was transferred from housing and Scottish Water, and £300 million was borrowed last year to fill part of the gap. What further borrowing will be necessary to finance those and other planned projects? What is the opportunity cost if we still have to find the balance of the £900 million and what projects will be delayed?
I now understand that Jackie Baillie was talking about the Office for National Statistics reclassification. I am not sure how anybody could have taken that from the wording of the question, but nevertheless I am glad that we now have a meeting of minds on the question that I am answering.
As Jackie Baillie knows, there are a number of issues with the ONS reclassification. We have seen one in recent weeks about housing associations, where the ONS reclassified from private to public. The United Kingdom Government has similar issues to contend with. On the capital projects that she talked about, the Scottish Government has made full provision for those and there will be no interruption in those projects. We continue to ensure that our capital programme is taken forward to deliver the infrastructure that the country needs and deserves.
A report by the Auditor General for Scotland last week tells us that a sum of £14 million has been lost from the Scottish Government’s accounts due to its financial incompetence and inability to comply with EU accounting rules. Which projects have been cut or delayed because of that incompetence?
I see that Murdo Fraser had the same interpretation of Jackie Baillie’s question as I did, so I should say that my initial answer to Jackie Baillie stands in respect of Murdo Fraser’s question.
The effect of the suspensions, which have all now been lifted, was to temporarily prevent the Scottish Government from being reimbursed for money that we had already paid out to projects. There was no impact whatsoever on the projects concerned. The European Commission regularly and routinely audits projects under those funds, and that also applies to other Governments. We learn lessons and we have applied those lessons in the current rounds of structural funding. Of course, it is the actions of Murdo Fraser’s party that are putting the future of structural funding under so much threat.
Article 50 Deadline
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the proposed deadline of March 2017 for the triggering of article 50. (S5F-00337)
It seems clear that the decision on article 50 timing is being driven more by the Prime Minister’s desire to appease the Tory Eurosceptics than by a rational consideration of what is in the best interests of the country. That is deeply irresponsible. As we have already heard in this First Minister’s question time session, the Fraser of Allander institute report that was published this morning shows the damage that Brexit, especially the hard Brexit that the Prime Minister now seems to favour, will do to our economy. That is why the Scottish Government will continue to do absolutely everything in our power to protect Scotland’s interests.
Given the time that it has taken for the Prime Minister to set a timescale, what is the First Minister’s best bet on how long it will take the United Kingdom Government to come up with a plan or any substantial notion of what Brexit really means?
I have no idea how long it is going to take the UK Government to come up with a plan. It should have had one by now.
What I get more concerned about with every day that passes is the direction in which the UK Government seems to be going. This is not just exit from the European Union, but exit from the single market. Let us be quite clear about what that will mean: it will mean tariffs and non-tariff trade barriers to our companies that export to the European Union; it could mean our financial services companies losing their passporting rights; and it could mean all of us having to pay for the privilege of travelling across Europe. Those are real implications for each and every single one of us. That would be bad enough, but it is even worse, because Scotland did not vote to be in this position.
I hope that everybody in the chamber will unite behind a call from the Scottish Government to stay in the single market, because notwithstanding the result of the referendum, I do not believe that Theresa May has any mandate to take the UK out of the single market. How many times did we hear the leave campaign say that leaving the EU did not mean leaving the single market? I hope that Ruth Davidson will go back to one of her previous positions and again get right behind the Scottish Government when it says to Theresa May, “Keep the UK as a whole in the single market and stop putting the interests of the Tory Eurosceptics and UKIP ahead of the interests of the country.”
Head Injuries (Contact Sports)
To ask the First Minister what discussions the Scottish Government is having with the governing bodies of contact sports regarding head injuries. (S5F-00321)
First, I want on behalf of Parliament to take this opportunity to convey sincere condolences to the family and friends of Mike Towell, who sadly lost his life following a boxing match in Glasgow last Thursday. As the British Boxing Board of Control is investigating the circumstances of the incident, it would obviously be inappropriate for any of us to comment on the details at this time.
On the broader issue of concussion in sport, Liz Smith will be aware that we were the first country in the world to introduce standard guidelines on dealing with concussion in sports with the publication of the Scottish sports concussion guidelines in May last year. Those guidelines were developed with a range of experts, including the chief medical officer at the Scottish Government, Scottish Rugby and the Scottish Football Association, and they have been made available to all sports clubs and coaches for both contact and non-contact sports.
I thank the First Minister for that response and for the very helpful letter that she sent me this time last year following another First Minister’s question time at which I raised the same issue. In that letter, she said that she fully recognised the seriousness of the issue and intimated that guidance would be updated regularly. Have those updates taken place, and has consideration been given to the fact that different sports have different guidance for serious concussion injuries? For example, in boxing, suspension from the ring is for a minimum of 28 days, whereas the minimum in rugby is seven days away from the sport. Does the First Minister agree that the medical expert panel to which she referred in her letter might like to look at whether there should be a standard approach?
As I said in my original answer, we have introduced standard guidelines on dealing with concussion in sport. I think that when Liz Smith last raised the issue with me, she raised the prospect of legislation, and the consensus among medical experts at this stage appears to be that that would not necessarily be helpful. However, I will say today what I said then: we need to ensure that we keep the matter under review, and that as we do so, we are informed by the best medical opinion. I am very happy to take the comments that Liz Smith has made today and ensure that they are discussed by the panel of medical experts who inform these decisions, and I will be happy to enter into further correspondence with her when that happens.